Friday, August 22, 2008

The line that separates pleasure from intimacy (Books - The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst)

I find myself not knowing what to say about The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst as I sit down with my tea, so I'll start with the title. It is based on Hogarth's writings about the ogee, the s-shaped curve - as an ideal of beauty. Nick Guest, the novel's central character describes his lover, Leo's, body as having that shape. Nick is a connoisseur of beauty in all its forms - an admirer of houses, furniture, bodies, faces. He graduates with a first from Oxford and settles into a room in the attic of his friend Toby's parent's house. Toby's father, Gerald, is a conservative MP as the Tories are making their meteoric rise to power under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s - on a cloud of power and money. Nick is supposedly working on a thesis about Henry James's novels and James seems a good subject for him - a lovely but highly intellectual take on the subject of power and beauty, and always at a remove. Everyone in this novel seems motivated only by external appearances, except for Gerald's daughter Catherine, who although she is mentally ill and doesn't know what she wants, seems to at least to want to tell the truth. I found this novel full of memorable characters and writing that is easily elegant without being showy. It creates a devastatingly critical portrait of an age of superficiality, greed, and duplicity that is hard to like. I found most of the characters infuriatingly vapid and false, and yet I had to keep reading because I cared what would happen. One the one hand it is hard not to like Nick - he is a charmer - handsome, agreeable, and when it comes to the physical beauty of things he's not merely a poseur, he is knowledgeable about their history and their craftsmanship. He is professional appreciator, and is quite skilled when fulfilling such a role. On the other hand he is a passive hanger-on with no ambition except to be around comforts and to avoid conflict in the present moment. He will say or do anything to be liked and not lose the comforts he enjoys at the lavish expense of others. I guess one could say he is quite clever, but I found him ultimately despicable, and that formed the conflict of the novel for me. Who in Nick's shoes wouldn't have a hard time saying 'no,' not necessarily to the things Nick enjoys, but to whatever would satisfy our own greed?

**SPOILER ALERT** Of course, the mighty do fall, and with them their hangers-on. So Nick's journey finally does force him to reckon with the consequences dealt to those from whom he has benefited and the novel leaves me wondering how the 90s and 00s. treated him. **ALERT OVER**

But I find myself returning to Alan Hollinghurst's title yet again, as I really had a different take on it by the novel's end. I found myself thinking of a line of beauty as a border line. A line at which the beauty of things or people for their own sake must end and attention to the use of the person or thing in its context, the consequences of associating with it, must be reckoned with. And let me be clear, I am not referring to Nick's homosexuality. I and am revolted by those who imagine AIDS as some sort of scourge for sin. Nick's sexuality (whether homo or hetero) as expressed in his second relationship in the novel with Wani Ouradi has extraordinary benefits in creature comforts, money, and Nick's pleasure in the beauty of his lover, but they come at the price of never living openly and never receiving the overt expression of his love. Nick enjoys the sex and the first class suite in Venice but never experiences intimacy which, it seems to me, is too exorbitant a price to pay.

In the experiment that identified dopamine as the neurotransmitter associated with the experience of pleasure, rats were permitted to administer themselves doses of cocaine which stimulate the production of dopamine, by the press of a lever. They famously pleasured themselves to death and that's what this book reminds me of. As much as I enjoy beauty in people and in art, delicious wine and food, or whatever, there is a line that separates enjoyment from gluttony, admiration from participation, and pleasure from intimacy and that is how I found myself thinking of the line of beauty by the novel's end.

Here's my other post on this book.


Anonymous said...

It's sad, but often true, that most of the relationship like the ones Nick is in, is out of monetary convenience. He never seems to be very happy with Wani despite the good sex and the lavish Venice suite that he is provided for. Sad. It makes me wonder if gay men are in for the beauty of the lover and the sex or they are really after the intimacy that would truly be what holding the relationship together.

Ted said...

Matt- Why should Nick be happy with Wani? He's treated like crap. But gay men have by no means cornered the market on making superficial choices in relationships. I know plenty of heterosexual partnerships that are built on the same basis and in contrast, I know plenty of gay partnerships that have been mutually respectful, long-lasting and solid.

bioephemera said...

Although I largely agree with you, Ted, I thought Hollinghurst was successful in capturing the seductiveness of this social sphere to Nick. For someone with his background, the access to pleasure - both aesthetic and carnal - would have been intoxicating. Of course it's also corrupting, but what I found so powerful about the book is even as Nick expects less and less of himself and becomes more inured to the corruption of his surroundings, you can see that he is still infatuated with the idea of himself as a part of that world - that to give that up will mean giving up his futile search for something beautiful and pleasurable enough to confer some kind of meaning. That's why I persisted in my sympathy to Nick to the end - he's addicted to beauty more than he is to cocaine. It's a sterile addiction, but it's understandable.

Ted said...

Bio - Hollinghurst did capture that allure beautifully, he captured, in fact, the whole hysteria of that age. It creates a really tension in the book that it is so critical of that superficiality of that age in general, in the wealthy and in those in power, and Nick is complicit in it, and yet you want to love him. I wonder whether Hollinghurst had an specific intention as to how we were meant to regard Nick.