“Glassy Malignity”: Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty

hollinghurstThe Line of Beauty joins an illustrious line of novels I’ve read that I admire but am unable to like. It makes me feel better about saying this that I’ve recently been reminded of Henry James’s admission, in “The Art of Fiction,” that “nothing … will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it; the more improved criticism will not abolish that primitive, that ultimate, test.” Like him, I accept that ‘liking’ is a primitive form of criticism (hence the need for appreciation, which at least begins to substitute rigor and objectivity for impressions and idiosyncrasy) but believe we can’t and shouldn’t expect to do without it. A lot of the best literary conversations, in my experience at least, begin there — though they never end there.

It is useful that I can lean a little on James here. For one thing, James’s The Golden Bowl is at the top of the list of novels I’ve read with admiration but no pleasure (along with Madame Bovary and Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels — oh, and I mustn’t forget The Good Soldier — I told you it was an illustrious group!). It’s nice to know that James accepts, in principle at least, that some readers will not like his novels. Further, The Line of Beauty is a kind of explicit homage to James — or, perhaps more accurately, an invocation. Its protagonist, Nick Guest, who is repeatedly identified as an “aesthete,” is himself an admirer of the Master, a post-graduate student at work on a thesis about style in the English novel (for which James, of course, is a central case study), and eventually a collaborator in a mostly-pretend project to produce a film adaptation of James’s The Spoils of Poynton.  You can hardly turn a page of the novel, or turn around in the world of the novel, without bumping up against James somewhere.

I understand that for some readers that would be a cause for celebration, not complaint. The annoyed claustrophobia I experienced while reading The Line of Beauty vividly reminded me of the intense months I spent with The Golden Bowl as I worked on my essay critiquing Martha Nussbaum’s fixation on it in Love’s Knowledge. In particular, I recalled an essay by Robert Reilla on “Henry James and the Morality of Fiction” which sums up the adulatory smugness evident in the nickname ‘the Master’:

For the Jamesian, the work of James is really above and beyond most other fiction; it is a high palace of art which he enters with genuine reverence, by virtue of those qualities which James himself required of the ideal critic—perception at the pitch of passion, insight that is only once removed from the original creative act.  In James’s work the Jamesian perceives the quintessence of conscious art; he learns to delight in the process of total artistic consciousness presenting, or projecting, vessels of consciousness nearly as full as its own. . . For the Jamesian, only James is really satisfactory—other fiction seems fumbling and accidental, or easy and obvious, or simply gross.  The Jamesian nearly always speaks from heights; it is impossible for him not to judge by Jamesian standards, because in order to become a Jamesian he has had to ascend to these standards.

For people who like this kind of thingThe Line of Beauty is unquestionably the kind of thing they like: there’s nothing fumbling or accidental here! The Line of Beauty is as elegantly designed and impeccably stylish as a novel about selfish, greedy, superficial people could possibly be. But as Nick thinks about the gorgeous luxury magazine he has edited (named, with perfect self-referentiality, Ogee), “its splendour had a glint to it, a glassy malignity. No,” he goes on, “it was very good. It was lustrous. The lustre was perfected and intense — it was the shine of marble and polish.” It is, in other words, beautiful, but dubiously worthwhile — the magazine, that is. I am not so sure about the novel. Is it possible to lavish such well-crafted sentences on a  morally compromised world without glamorizing it? The novel is a satire on the moral and emotional hollowness brought on by the thoughtless pursuit of wealth, power, and gratification, but does its self-consciousness mean that it offers or embodies any kind of alternative? Does it achieve what the magazine — with its full-page ads from Bulgari and BMW —  does not? Asked about The Spoils of Poynton, Nick explains,

It’s about someone who loves things more than people. And who ends up with nothing, of course. I know it’s bleak, but then I think it’s probably a very bleak book, even though it’s essentially a comedy.

That is also a pretty good description of The Line of Beauty, but does its presence turn the novel into metafiction? I didn’t think that Nick was sufficiently detached from the life he lives with his wealthy friends (for all that they see him as the outsider, the aesthete) to stand as a critique or to add the missing dimension — call it love, or perhaps humanity. Its absence is felt, and sometimes poignantly conveyed, by the characters, but nothing in the novel fills that space. A vacuum remains where another novelist would have put the contrasting elements, the story that looks beyond the way we live now to the way we could, or should, live tomorrow.

A novel in that spirit, however, or with that form, might not be Jamesian enough for Hollinghurst. It might, for instance, be called Our Mutual Friend. I would  like it better — but as James also reminds us, ““the house of fiction has not one window, but a million.”

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6 Responses to “Glassy Malignity”: Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty

  1. Jane Mackay says:

    I’m surprised that you, in common with most reviewers admittedly, think The Line of Beauty stylishly written. Once I noticed how often (many times per page, frequently) the words ‘He said’ appear … never ‘he asked’ or ‘he answered’ or ‘he shouted’ or ‘he whispered’ and always there when most modern novelists find it unnecessary to put in any such phrase every single time someone speaks I decided that Hollinghurst’s style was distinctly clunky. – it’s worse if you listen to one of his books – and the Booker judges can’t have been awarding points for style.
    Anyway, thanks for a great, and informative, blog.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Jane, that kidn of tagging doesn’t usually bother me, and I can’t say I noticed it at all in this particular case. (A random page gives me 3 “saids” but also “whispered” and “muttered.”) I tend to get more irritated by novelists who go to the other extreme and make it confusing to follow who says what! When I describe this novel as “stylish” I’m thinking of longer descriptive passages that I found very precise and evocative without being cliched — but also about a lot of little turns of phrase, a nuance, a description, an adjective that caught a character or a moment. I enjoy that sense of a well-chosen, well-placed word. The phrase ‘glassy malignity,’ for instance; that’s sharp and just a bit unexpected. It’s not a showily poetic style, like Mark Helprin’s but more understated — more like Ian McEwan, maybe. Style is a hard thing to fix on, though, as Nick is aware when describing his thesis project.

  2. I liked this book a lot, approaching him more via his Proust / Nabokov side rather than James, who I do not read well, although the line about the “novel about furniture” has stuck with me. I share a lot of Nick’s taste – e.g., that Strauss is a vulgarian and that Holman Hunt’s “Shadow of Death” is godawful kitsch.

    The vacuum you identify, the lack of critique, is real, and it is present in The Swimming-Pool Library as well. I think Hollingurst would not call it a vacuum, but rather a positive ethical case not for Nick’s aesthetic stance, but for his embrace of hedonism. The aesthetics is part of this, certainly. But this other aspect, I think, is Hollinghurst’s argument for the way we (a specific “we”) should live. It is tied up with what is as much a political as ethical argument, a refusal to apologize or give any ground at all for the way hedonistic gay men did live, before AIDS.

    Maybe no ironic or contrasting stance is possible without assigning blame, which Hollinghurst won’t do. I don’t know.

    I do not understand the “He said” criticism at all. Hollinghurst is avoiding inelegant variation. See p. 260 (also random) for lots of “said”s, plus some stylish descriptive writing.

    By the way, in The Swimming-Pool Library, the “Henry James” position is filled by an even more peculiar aesthete, Ronald Firbank. I have thought about doing a week – or two, or a month – of Firbank, as a kind of ultra-refined test of my readers, like a game show. “Who Has the Most Refined Aesthetic Sensibility?”

  3. Peter Jobson says:

    For me, Hollinghurst peaked with this book.

    I felt he hit the hedonism of Thatcher’s Britain perfectly. I found all the character’s loathsome and vapid & superficial. When reading this, I also felt how close I had become to being sucked into this world (I was offered a position in a prestigious stockbroker, but decided to pursue my vocation as a underpaid botanist) and felt that Nick played that perfect role of falling into a set he normally wouldn’t have wanted to get involved in, had not the entire world decided to go chasing the shiny new money.

    I really have enjoyed your admissions of not loving some of those “must love & read” tomes that are in various canons. Makes me not feel so bad when I have the same reactions to other “great” authors.

    As to Tom- reading Firbank’s most famous novel was enough for me. There is better fiction around & I have done my penance.

  4. Tom W. says:

    Rohan!
    As always, I enjoy your posts! I want to read your essay on Nussbaum and HJ in Love’s Knowledge. Did you ever hear from Ms Nussbaum? Is Mr Reilla a Jamesian ? Reading what you quote of his I think not.
    Anyway,

    Tom

    • Rohan says:

      Hi, Tom – nice to hear from you! I never did get any kind of reply from Nussbaum, and the essay itself seems to have made very little impression: recent work that I’ve looked at on related subjects doesn’t cite it, including an essay a couple of years later in the very same journal. Oh well! It was a useful exercise for me, though the essay itself is far from my most dynamic writing. If you mean it about wanting to read it, I’d be happy to send along a PDF.

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