Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel takes the celebrated writer into unwanted territory
I believe Hollinghurst to be a great hope of English fiction, but I think “The Line of Beauty,” his new novel, is a mistake. It seems to me unwise to strain himself in a genre for which his essentially lyric and keenly introspective gifts—and not in the end so very unlike those of Iris Murdoch—are not ideally suited, the social picaresque, in which writers like Anthony Trollope (who was so literarily inferior to, say, George Meredith and George Gissing), John Galsworthy, Angus Wilson, Kinsgley Amis, Anthony Powell and Anthony Burgess have made hits with the British reading public. And this even if Hollinghurst has manifestly earned the right to say in regard to social commentary, “It may all indeed have been said and done before, but not by me.”
Picaresque is a European literary genre originating in “La Chanson de Roland” and carrying on through the Arthurian romances, named for the lance of chivalry, and revivified in the 17th century in the wake of the monumental success of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” In the 18th century, passing back through French—pique is the card suit of spades and the implement itself—into English, it came to signify the work of digging into, of delving, and not merely of thrusting. Hollinghurst, a writer more akin to Henry Green, is for my money, as a prose stylist, superior to all of these, possibly excepting Powell.
Put in terms of the greatest of them all, Virginia Woolf—who wrote every other writer of fiction, male or female, in 20th century England under the green baize table—why strain, as she famously did to write “The Years,” when you have already written “The Waves” and will live to write “Between the Acts”?
In one form or another, the English picaresque and its Hero of A Hundred Names and Faces has since Fielding held the pitch—with the odd heroine showing up as principal: Moll Flanders, Becky Sharpe, Dorothea Brooke, Zuleika Dobson. Social criticism—tilting at windbags, as it were—came into play in the middle of the 19th century. In social picaresque, the anxiety raised by the question always hovering over the situation—Insider to the Outsider: “If you’ll pardon my asking, darling, just who let you in?”—is visited directly on the reader, seeming to question his right to be turning the very pages before her, and is always offset by quantities of alluring and distracting roadside attractions. Optimally, they should be vibrant, even loopy displays, but I’m afraid that all the ones in “The Line of Beauty” are pretty old and tired loops—significant exceptions being Mrs. Charles, who seems to derive her originality, if I may put it that way, from Madame Yajnavalkya in that great masterpiece of the comedic sublime Ronald Firbank’s “Valmouth,” and also Lady Partridge, a hardy perennial not altogether unlike Mrs. Hurstpierpoint in “Valmouth” as well. A brilliant touch, in fact, managed entirely in the elliptical mode, is Hollinghurst’s passage in which Lady Partridge airily confuses John Berryman and John Betjeman. Lady Partridge, who for some tantalizing reason brought back to me that great woman and sexual pioneer Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, could be played tomorrow by any one of three great comedienne dames of the English theater—Maggie Smith, Judi Dench or Joan Plowright (who gets my vote).
It ought to be easy to sort out these crucial matters, for after all there are and have been for a very long time two kinds of literature—one derived from epic and romance, the other derived from history and journalism, and consequently of crucial value in open societies—particularly ones like Britain with stringent libel laws—and to confuse them merely because representative specimens of each can be checked on the same order form from Amazon.com is not only unnecessary, it is, like all confusions of mind and body, debilitating. A work of literature, like “The Faerie Queene” or “Diana of the Crossways” or “Ulysses” or “A la recherche des temps perdus” is, as one brilliant critic observes, not so much life-like as reading it is like the experience of living—that is, it is an alternate metabolic process that’s good for you, and not some art-for-art’s-sake piety.
In American letters, Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” William Faulkner’s “Absalom! Absalom!” and William Gaddis’ “The Recognitions” are like that; Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street,” James Gould Cozzens’ “By Love Possessed” and Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” are not. The items on the B-list are recreational breaks from life—like disco—organic and metabolic only to the degree that they prove, shall we say, carminative. Why should this be so hard to get a grip on?
And enough, please, with comparing all these accomplished writers, especially English ones, with Marcel Proust. Proust was a social novelist like Shakespeare wrote historical plays. (He also said that the chief activity of a woman of quality was trying on outfits, but cognoscenti believe he was only being a bit allegorical there and not for instance writing ad copy for the House of Worth.)
Nick Guest (nice touch there), this young queer known at Oxford as “the man who likes Bruckner”—I wonder, was the Seventh Symphony his favorite, or did he groove on thornier works?—is both a doll and a brick, although he makes a heedless, dreadful mistake with Leo Charles, Boyfriend One, but then English queers really are lousy at holding a man. I must tell the author that the three-word gloss on the outcome of this relationship in Part Three is a wholly inadequate piece of storytelling. As they say in Iowa, show, don’t tell. This is a moment meriting a full flashback.
And oh, these twenty-something ex-Etonians impersonating adults can be trying. When Nick and Leo go to see De Palma’s “Scarface,” scripted by Oliver Stone and starring Al Pacino, the poor darlings haven’t a blind notion that they are looking at a true cinematic masterpiece with a raging homoerotic subtext you could lick off the screen. The other, lesser characters are many of them dense to the point of nausea—even when the obligatory, and very well managed AIDS pathos rears its head—and no amount of epigraphical quotation from Lewis Carroll (on which in any case an epigraph moratorium must be called; it is long overdue) will sufficiently brace the discerning reader for the supposed irony in the encounter. No man can become an adult in the modern world until after the identity crisis, which usually occurs (and had better) between the ages of 29 and 33. (Women of course can still knock it off at 17—I’ve seen them do it—but in “The Line of Beauty,” the young women are not really in the equation.)
On the other hand, quotations from Walter Pater do not go stale, especially regarding the aspirations of art to the condition of music. So, instead of this 80s retread disco, why not attempt something on the order of—to cite a happy Anglo-French collaboration—Britten’s “Les Illuminations”?
Certain novelists reared in money seem to feel so guilty about their profession that they come to feel, merely because the awful English turned prose fiction into a commodity, that they owe society something, the way old bards owed chieftains fealty for giving them their livings. Dr. Johnson said only fools wrote for anything but money, but those fools, bless their hearts, will keep at it.
All told, I’d much rather spend time with the supposedly cracked (“schizo-ceramic” was the happy phrase I remember) Oxfordians than with these Oxonian dullards, drabs and not-so-darling dodos. It is one of the hopes of my life 20 years on that because of the rebirth of Europe (still under something like languid scrutiny by the British electorate—perhaps by 2066, they’ll have come round) that the Baroness Thatcher—with whom our Nick, drunk, actually gets to dance—will be remembered as the dry old turd she became, rotting away in the House of Lords, while Dame Edna Everage will be installed among the immortals.
As risky as it is to identify authors with their characters, I would caution Alan Hollinghurst, who in the guise of Nick Guest has lain awake at dawn in cozy Kensington and “listened to the birdsong from the gardens, with a more analytical ear than usual for the notes of warning and protest and ruffled submission” thusly: Before you are forced, darling, to put that analytical ear and the bijou plaudits it has gained you where your heart ought to be, get back on the ferry—any ferry. Get away from all those people, like Bette Davis did in—well, here’s the epigraph, from Whitman:
“The untold want, by land or sea ne’er granted
Now, Voyager sail ye forth to seek and find.”