Man Booker at Birkbeck 2013: Alan Hollinghurst

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus Dr Ben Winyard.

On 27 November, in a wide-ranging, vibrant and thought-provoking exchange, novelist Alan Hollinghurst and Birkbeck’s professor of Creative Writing Russell Celyn Jones considered the crafting, reception and afterlives of Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Line of Beauty, alongside Hollinghurst’s biography, literary influences and writing practices. With many Birkbeck creative writing and English literature students in the audience, the conversation naturally turned to the craft and discipline of writing, the origins and development of plot, narrative and character, and the overlaps and dissonances between autobiography and fiction. As the purveyor of what the Guardian termed – in a tone falling short of complimentary – ‘high literary style and low-rent sex’, Hollinghurst was unruffled by searching queries about gay male life, sex between men, drugs, the AIDS crisis and Thatcherite politics.

The Line of Beauty opens in the summer of 1983. That summer, in which AIDS began to impact forcefully on British life, appears, in retrospect, a fulcrum on which subsequent gay history turned. Indeed the novel is ostensibly a historical one – albeit history within living memory for many – and it taps into a gay tradition of using history fictionally to frame and explore the sexual self. Hollinghurst spoke openly about the problem of AIDS for male gay writers; the author felt pressure throughout the early, frightening and politically-charged years of the pandemic to represent the suffering and loss of gay men, particularly in the face of official intransigence and popular homophobia. Hollinghurst himself lost friends to the disease, but it was only with The Line of Beauty that he felt finally able to satisfactorily represent the ‘queasy situation’ of AIDS impinging on new-found gay freedoms. AIDS is, like many communicable diseases, literary in its metaphoric permutations and its usefulness as an authorial tool for imposing moral meaning and order, but the roster of infected, dying and dead at the close of the novel suggests less a moral structure than the virus’s banal randomness.

The novel’s protagonist is Nick Guest, a gay Oxford graduate newly arrived in London, and events are mediated through him alone. Hollinghurst spoke of his wish to emulate Henry James in presenting experience with the intensity of one protagonist’s solitary viewpoint, and he sought to apply James’s fastidious powers of social analysis to the situations he was depicting, exposing a ‘seedy and corrupt world’. Hollinghurst confessed to taking a Jamesian delight in ruthlessly dissecting social intercourse, exposing what lies beneath social niceties – ‘all the things not said or that can’t be said’. For Hollinghurst, there were clear parallels between the callous dog-eat-dog culture of the 1980s and the fin de siècle era of the 1890s so adroitly analysed by James. Hollinghurst spoke amusingly of his concerted efforts to overcome his ‘terror’ of James’s notoriously dense novels, joining a reading group dedicated to just such a task. Celyn Jones observed the parallels between James’s and Hollinghurst’s precise use of ornate language that captures and holds a moment.

Applied to Nick, ‘hero’ is perhaps too grandiose a term for a character drawn with such studied ambivalence and so divisive in his reception by readers. Nick is, as his surname suggests, a visitor, lodging indefinitely and with little settled purpose in the home of Toby Fedden, his straight undergraduate friend. In the exquisitely appointed, aesthetically captivating environs of the Feddens’ Notting Hill mansion, Nick is beguiled by the wealth, manners and exalted social status of the family, becoming the de facto carer-companion of their psychologically troubled daughter, Catherine, while providing general support to Gerald Fedden, a boorish, newly elected Tory MP, and his captivating and refined society wife, Rachel.

Hollinghurst spoke at length about Nick’s uncertain status as both insider and outsider: he is highly educated (‘stuffed with knowledge’ in his creator’s words), self-confident and socially outgoing, eliciting trust from the highest ranking members of the ruling classes. Indeed, in one of the novel’s most brilliantly cheeky and admired vignettes, Nick, high on coke and just returned from a threesome, asks Margaret Thatcher to dance with him at the Feddens’ grimly self-aggrandising silver anniversary party. However, Nick is also secretly gay, sexually and socially inexperienced (initially), anxious about his background, and he exists in an ambivalent space between classes, lacking upper-class breeding and nous but possessing an education, aesthetic sense and sexual orientation that distinguish him from his tediously respectable bourgeois parents. Hollinghurst confessed that the amusing but painful scene in which Nick returns home and is embarrassed by, and condescending towards, his parents was ‘a rather personal experience’. Nick is though, Hollinghurst insisted, ‘a distinct fictional character’ and he expressed wonderment at the ‘fascinating, unknowable variables’ that arise when new readers ‘create [the novel] afresh’. One questioner asked if Hollinghurst imaginatively carried his protagonists with him; Hollinghurst confessed that he is usually ‘pleased to see the back of them’ – ‘I don’t terribly like [them]’.

Hollinghurst referred to Nick as ‘a political blank’ who allows his thirst for the aesthetic to mould his behaviour and shape his experience. Nick thus follows the line of beauty – the ogee – a double ‘s’ curve identified by William Hogarth as an underlying aesthetic principle in his derided 1753 Analysis of Beauty. Hogarth, rather like Nick – and perhaps a little like Hollinghurst – was the son of a middling family who used his artistic prowess to leverage his way into the upper echelons. For Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty offered a means of bringing aesthetic knowledge and pleasure to ordinary people, while Hogarth’s art, rather like Hollinghurst’s, uses an outsider’s eye to dissect upper-class mores, foibles and hypocrisies. Hollinghurst considered how his focus on the upper-classes allowed him to tap into a rich literary heritage and admitted that upper-class ‘people are tremendously fun to write about because they’re rich enough to behave so badly’.

Like the ogee, Nick’s life follows two parallel but separate paths: one his ‘official’ life of wealth, comfort and politely received doctoral research into the novels of Henry James (a wry reference to Hollinghurst’s own Jamesian preoccupations); the other is his hidden life of initially tentative and then increasingly compulsive and brutish sex and drug-taking. Nick exhibits less desire for its own sake than a calculated Wildean eagerness to prioritise beauty and experience over morality; what Hollinghurst sought to explore through Nick is ‘the limitation of being led through life by your sense of beauty’.

The novel seethes with barely concealed secrets, as Nick first embarks upon a tentative, romantic affair with the closeted Leo and then a destructive, loveless affair with the cold, jaded and self-loathing Wani. Increasingly, Nick becomes enamoured with secrecy itself, revelling in his risky sauntering between the two worlds he keeps separate. Nick’s increasingly outré adventures are later served as a tabloid side-dish to Gerald’s adultery, eliciting his stinging eviction from the cosseted world of the Feddens. It is Catherine Fedden, with her manic depression (which her father maintains a wilful stupidity about), unsuitable lower-class boyfriends and visceral distaste for the smothering hypocrisy of her own class, who, Cassandra-like, speaks the truth of the outsider and brings down the artifice of her parents’ – and Nick’s – lives. The double helix of the ogee also suggested, to one questioner, a tension in the novel between the public and the private, between privacy and surveillance, which Hollinghurst admiringly admitted he hadn’t considered before.

In the decade in which Wham! famously encouraged ‘young guns’ to ‘go for it’, Nick’s descent into hard-heartedness and unthinking, repetitious excess suggests one destination for those following the line of beauty. From the range of reactions expressed by readers at the event – from sympathy, identification and admiration, to irritation, dislike and even hatred – it is clear that the mutable character of Nick continues to abundantly evoke the ‘fascinating, unknowable’ responses that Hollinghurst so enjoys.

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