Andrew Anthony has been writing for The Observer since 1993. He has also written for The Guardian on and off for 15 years. He is the author of On Penalties, which explores the metaphysics of the penalty shoot-out. Andrew is currently not writing at least three novels. Here he discusses Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty.
Andrew Anthony on The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
It's a well-known fact that men in their forties lose interest in fiction and a much less well-known fact that I am a man in my forties. All too predictably, then, I have been losing interest in fiction. And in keeping with demographic expectations, my reading in recent years has been moving further towards biography, history and politics.
Yet notwithstanding our culture's insatiable appetite for direct representations of 'reality', there is something that the novel offers that not even the finest biography can match.
For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organised power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanisation. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible...These lines come from Saul Bellow's Herzog. They define, with muscular brevity, the power of fiction, the manner in which it is able to bring us the movement not only of an individual through time and space but an absorbing consciousness amid society at large.
And how well we have come to know what it was like to be that man in such a city. However the city is invariably Bellow's Chicago or Philip Roth's Newark or some suburban satellite that features in the work of John Updike or Don DeLillo or Richard Ford or Jonathan Franzen. So seldom has that city been Manchester or London in the last half-century or so that to be a literate Englishman is to walk around with an imaginative sense of self shaped by writers living in a quite different culture thousands of miles away.
Great fiction is universal, of course, but it is also unafraid to be specific and for a long time English fiction has been unable to disentangle the detail of daily life from the knotted and paralyzing topic of class. As such it has grown increasingly apologetic or self-mocking. This is not to say that it is necessarily poorer, or less well-written, only that it is less relevant.
For a long time it seemed to me as though the savage irony and Americanized hyperbole of Martin Amis was the only appropriate voice with which to articulate the ridiculous anachronisms of British society. It was as if life in this country, scrutinized by a rapacious media, was just too well-known to be taken seriously.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that my chosen book, Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, is indeed a rare achievement. Generous, vivid and scrupulously intelligent, it's a novel that tunes into the familiar rhythms of British life, or particular areas of London and provincial life, but also brings into focus those moments and emotions that haunt us all.
Set in the 1980s, the story follows the rite of passage of Nick Guest, a young gay aesthete from the provinces who finds himself adopted, after a fashion, by a grand Notting Hill family led by a thrusting Tory MP. In doing so, it re-examines many of the received opinions on the Thatcher years. Not in the sense of political revisionism - Guest is an apolitical liberal. Hollinghurst's prime objective is rather the novelist's sacred job of creating complex characters, people whose motivations cannot be reduced to a Manichean choice of left and right, good and bad.
That may seem like faint praise - after all, a certain moral complexity should be the least we expect from a novel. Yet one only has to read the clunking satires that British writers have produced on the 1980s to realize the depth and richness of Hollinghurst's imagination. He treats class and sexuality as aspects of his characters' identities rather than emblems of their moral worth. In other words, he treats them - and us - like grown-ups.
It was Amis who in The Information had one of his characters suggest that all novelists 'were Labour'. One of the ironies of the Thatcher revolution is that the corporate restructuring it unleashed made many of her fiercest critics - the Labour novelists - very wealthy and keenly aware of their market worth. It would be a crude misreading to argue that Hollinghurst in any way confronts this apparent hypocrisy. Instead he does something more fundamentally important by describing the excitement of capitalism without holding his nose.
One of the mysteries of so much fiction and non-fiction is that materialism is frequently taken as self-evidently malign and superficial. And therefore its attractions - which appear to be many and far-reaching - are left bizarrely unexplored. By contrast, Hollinghurst shows us the enchanting buzz of money, cocaine, large houses and expensive things as well as the emptiness of a society, in Bellow's words, 'that was no community and devalued the person'.
A celebration and a condemnation of an extraordinary decade of change, the book rescues the period from the trite media shorthand of bright red braces and brash estate agents, liberates the reader from the imprisoning confines of the obvious, and saves English literature from the limiting subject of its own decline. But it does something else too.
Guest is an expert on Henry James, yet it is another American author, Scott Fitzgerald, whose shade hovers over this book. The same atmosphere of doomed beauty and beautiful doom that animates The Great Gatsby also fills these pages. For in addition to being a realistic contemporary novel, full of humour but never subordinate to laughs, The Line of Beauty also takes the form of a genre that is all but extinct in our ironic age: an elegy.
Ultimately, it's an exquisite meditation on the transience of life and the sustaining illusions of permanence, including, most destructively of all, love. For once, therefore, the Booker panel made the right decision in awarding last year's prize to The Line of Beauty. It's a novel that does nothing less than restore your faith in fiction.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]