Wednesday, June 20, 2007


I’m going to another book club meeting this weekend. Did I mention that last time I went, no one but me had read the book? Everyone looked at me pityingly and one person actually said that I clearly hadn’t worked out that the book club was a front for drinking wine and gossiping. Oh.

Well, I have nothing against imbibing alcohol and dishing dirt so I relaxed and joined right in…

To be fair, I had already read the book at the time when it was first proposed—in fact it was my suggestion to read it—and everyone else had experienced some difficulty getting it from the library, so there were circumstances beyond people’s control. Anyway, I had only briefly revisited the book in anticipation of the discussion, so perhaps, on this occasion, I needed a bit more time too.

You see, in this new book club-going endeavour, I had found myself in the all too rare position, in my life, of actually being ahead of the game. I had already completed the task at hand—reading White Earth by Andrew McGahan—and so in an effort to maintain my enjoyment of this unusual state of being I began to read the next proposed book, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst.

I’ve finished that now too, and I’ve started reading another of the upcoming books, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I wonder whether I should stop reading the Niffenegger to re-read the McGahan lest I forget the finer details of that by the time this book club gets around to discussing it? As it is, I feel I will have to take some notes about The Line of Beauty.

I have decided to make a concerted effort to work on my memory for books since I know this is part of the art of reading well that I have never fully mastered, but, meanwhile, I hope you will indulge me by allowing me to jot a few thoughts down here about the Hollinghurst.

During the period that I was reading The Line of Beauty I woke up in the middle of the night with an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. The timing did coincide with the day I set up my new desk in the Forgan Smith Tower, but in the middle of the night, sitting up, consumed with worry, it dawned on me that I was channelling Nick Guest, the central character of Hollinghurst’s novel.

Nick is a lodger in his old Oxford friend, Toby’s family home in Notting Hill. Toby’s father is an MP in Thatcher’s government and so Nick, the son of an antique furniture dealer is afforded an entry into high society. The back cover of the book suggests that Nick relishes this position since it allows him to experience the kinds of beautiful things that power and money can, respectively, attract and buy, everything from lovers, to cars and employment.

I’m not sure I got a sense that Nick was enjoying himself so much—perhaps sporadically, superficially. It all felt unutterably sad to me; while Nick was a reliable source of information for his landlords and their social circle about the objects of beauty to which he had nominal access, he was effectively unable to enter into reciprocal relationships with Toby’s family and their friends. Nick longs for love and it seems no-one in his adopted family, and not even his two lovers, Leo and Wani, can share his feelings.

I’m usually quite hesitant about declaring whether a book is ‘good’ or not; I think my quandary arises from an insecurity about matters of cultural value and judgement, as if I will inadvertently reveal something untoward and common about myself if I don’t like a work of commonly agreed upon genius or, conversely, if I love something that everyone else thinks is trash. But at the same time I don’t want to be disingenuous about the fact that I do, like everyone, make such value judgements.

I wasn’t sure about The Line of Beauty at first, but after waking up in the night because of the thoughts and emotions it stirred in me, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a ‘good’ book—although since it won the Booker in 2004, probably no one really needed my endorsement.

I do want to say that I also really enjoyed Hollinghurst’s seemingly effortless prose. I mention this only because I have not long read one of the worst descriptions ever in The Time Traveler’s Wife: “I now have an erection that is probably tall enough to ride some of the scarier rides at Great America without a parent.”

And, now, having typed that here, to add insult to injury, I’ll probably start attracting a lot of freaky pawn hits.


Clare said...

I agree about that Time Traveller's Wife quote. Truly awful.

I haven't read the book but I have seen the TV series and a review of the series so I am now, of course an expert on both (heh). If you can get hold of the TV one you might find it interesting because the climax of the book (in all senses) is redone in the film to cause the whole thing to be meaningless. Apparently. I find that quite interesting and have heard lots about Hollinghurst's prose being excellent too. Another for the book pile.

Mark Lawrence said...

"as if I will inadvertently reveal something untoward and common about myself if I don’t like a work of commonly agreed upon genius or, conversely, if I love something that everyone else thinks is trash."

Spot on! It hadn't occurred to me that such a sentiment is more common than I though! Thanks so much for expressing it so beautifully.

Kirsty said...

There's a TV series? Of course there is. I saw there was a film of The Line of Beauty too.

When I borrowed The Time Traveler's Wife (I so want to put another L in) I also borrowed an audio book of it, just out of curiosity, in case I needed some prompting. I've had to stop listening to that because whoever does the voice of Henry has, to my mind, got it all wrong. Henry is rendered a smug jerk--maybe he is, I don't know yet. Still it raises a whole heap of other questions about adaptations, audio and otherwise, that I'll have a bit more of a think about.

Oanh said...

I could not stand The Line of Beauty, and I felt very bad about not liking it at all.

I'm happy to be common :-)

Kirsty said...

Do tell, Oanh, why did you feel bad? Did you think you should have liked it?

Oanh said...

I worried that my failure to like it was exposing my own (a) latent homophobia and (b) latent conservatism. Neither are characteristics I believe I have, but I could be wrong, or I could be teetering and about to fall down the right side, rather than the left.

I should have added a disjunctive: *but* now I'm happy to be common.

I found the Swimming Pool Library really dull and tried again with the Line of Beauty *because the reviews were so positive, so intriguing,* but something failed to grab me.

I'd forgotten until your post. I'll try not to beat myself up about it though :-)

Kirsty said...

I know what you mean about the suspicion of latent homophobia in oneself when reading this book. It's tough to know whether the sex scenes were convincing since I wasn't especially caught up in them--it all seemed rather awkward and seedy. Explained by the lack of places for Nick and Leo to go initially, but,...hmmm. My only point of comparison is Antonia Fraser's film adaptation of Priest. I haven't read that book, but I thought the filmed love scenes between Robert Carlyle and the Priest character (forget actor's name) were very sensual.

I suppose it all points to the difficulty of writing sex and love scenes.

Ariel said...

I LOVED 'The Line of Beauty'. I thought it was very 'Brideshead Revisited' circa the early 80s - all those decadent 'beautiful people' socialites, seemingly happy and successful but festering with betrayals and insecurities below the surface. I also remember it being very witty, and yes, excellent prose. The sex was all pretty seedy - poor old Nick never got what the love and affection he wanted, as you said. He was a frightful snob though. I thought what was saddest about the book was the way that his association with the 'high conservatives' made him despise where he came from, but the set he moved in never really stopped despising him (beneath all the surface friendliness) in turn - so he ended up fitting in nowhere.

Kirsty said...

Ariel, what do you think of the comparisons with The Great Gatsby? I've read this on IMDb in comments about the filmed adaptation.

日月神教-向左使 said...