Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty"

I finally got round to reading "The Line of Beauty" after buying it from "Bon Voyage" in Provincetown. I had sensed that I would enjoy reading the novel, and putting it off was a way of enjoying the luxury of anticipation. It is a beautiful novel, saturated by desire--sex, power, class, wealth--intimacies thwarted one way or another except for the intimacy of individual aesthetic appreciation, in reading or appreciating fine furniture or architecture. The protagonist's self-willed illusion is that the appreciation of beauty can bring one closer to lovers, politicians, patricians and millionaires. Here is the protagonist, in bed with his male Arab British lover, explaining the novel's title:

He slept there from time to time, in the fantasy of the canopied bed, with its countless pillows. The ogee curve was repeated in the mirrors and pelmets and in the wardrobes, which looked like Gothic confessionals; but its grandest statement was in the canopy of the bed, made of two transecting ogees crowned by a boss like a huge wooden cabbage. It was as he lay beneath it, in uneasy post-coital vacancy, that the idea of calling Wani's outfit (a magazine publishing company--my words) Ogee had come to him: it had a rightness to it, being both English and exotic, like so many things he loved. The ogee curve was pure expression, decorative not structural; a structure could be made from it, but it supported nothing more than a boss or the cross that topped an onion dome. Wani was distant after sex, as if assessing a slight to his dignity. He turned his head aside in thoughtful grievance. Nick looked for reassurance in remembring social triumphs he had had, clever things he had said. He expounded the ogee to an appreciative friend, who was briefly the Duchess, and then Catherine, and then a different lover from Wani. The double curve was Hogarth's "line of beauty," the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement. He ran his hand down Wani's back. He didn't think Hogarth had illustrated the best example of it, the dip and swell--he had chosen harps and branches, bones rather than flesh. Really it was time for a new Analysis of Beauty.


By the end of the novel, Hollinghurst has transmuted his protagonist's longings, bound by his time, class and sex, into "a love of the world that is shockingly unconditional." The last sentences echo T. S. Eliot's "Preludes" fittingly. After seeing Wani, sick with AIDs, off to the wedding of a duchess' son, Nick leaves Wani's postmodern apartment:

The little car was jammed full of boxes and curled heaps of clothes on hangers. It sat low on its springs, under all these possessions heavy as passengers. Nick stood by it, still thinking, and then drifted unexpectedly down the street. The pavement was dry now in patches, but the sky was threatening and fast-moving. The tall white house-fronts had a muted gleam. It came over him that the test-result would be positive. The words that were said every day to others would be said to him, in that quiet consulting room whose desk and carpet and square modern armchair would share indissolubly in the moment. There was a large tranquil photograph in a frame, and a view of the hospital chimney from the window. He was young, without much training in stoicism. What would he do once he left the room? He dawdled on, rather breathless, seeing visions in the middle of the day. He tried to rationalize the fear, but its pull was too strong and original. It was inside himself, but the world around him, the parked cars, the cruising taxi, the church spire among the trees, had also been changed. They had been revealed. It was like a drug sensation, but without the awareness of play. The motorcyclist who lived over the road clumped out in his leathers and attended to his bike. Nick ganzed at him and then looked away in a regret that held him and glazed him and kept him apart. There was nothing this man could do to help him. None of his friends could save him. The time came, and they learned the news in the room they were in, at a certain moment in their planned and continuing day. They woke the next morning, and after a while it came back to them. Nick searched their faces as they explored their feelings. He seemed to fade pretty quickly. He found himself yearning to know of their affairs, their successes, the novels and the new ideas that the few who remembered him might say he never knew, he never lived to find out. It was the morning's vision of the empty street, but projected far forward, into afternoons like this one decades hence, in the absent hum of their own business. The emotion was startling. It was a sort of terror, made up of emotions from every stage of his short life, weaning, homesickness, envy and self pity; but he felt that the self-pity belonged to a larger pity. It was a love of the world that was shockingly unconditional. He stared back at the house, and then turned and drifted on. He looked in bewilderment at number 24, the final house with its regalia of stucco swags and bows. It wasn't just this street corner but the fact of a street corner at all that seemed, in the light of the moment, so beautiful.

10 comments:

Greg said...

Your description of the novel is interesting Jee Leong, where you write "The protagonist's self-willed illusion is that the appreciation of beauty can bring one closer to lovers, politicians, patricians and millionaires." It makes me think of Kant's statement that we do not desire beauty, which when I first read it seemed to me both surprising and right. I think we can be enchanted by beauty when we experience it, but we don't desire it when it's not present. Maybe beauty is a sign--a sign of having really settled into something (a proper function, a mastery, an appropriateness) and beauty is gratifying in that way, as that kind of sign. If that's so then it's a mistake to seek beauty for itself as if it were timeless and non-specific, instead of doing the proper thing, which is seeking to settle into the right use of the particular talents, possibilities, problems, experiences within us and before us; and making that mistake means losing access to beauty. Art and beauty only matter in relation to living that they touch on, and not as things as in themselves separate from life, and that’s why you can find beauty anywhere, but often you don’t find it in the places where people brag and expect that it will be. On this line of thinking, when we think we are "desiring beauty" we are actually desiring fulfillment without the appropriate work, or experience gone through and personally engaged and integrated. hm I suspect I'm writing too much

Jee Leong Koh said...

Greg,
your idea of beauty as a sign of the mastery of life is interesting. I see how that can apply to man-made aesthetic objects like poems and paintings. The beauty of such artefacts comes, at least partly, from the "fittingness" of the artistic treatment of the content matter, be it the topic of a son's death or a scene from Provence. I am not convinced, however, that mastery is the key or the main explanation of our experience of beauty in these objects. Surprise seems to be another important factor: the poem makes me see the world in a way I have never seen before. Surprise is related to originality, which has always been a criterion, though a vague one, for the greatness of an aesthetic work.

If we turn to natural, non man-made objects, the idea of mastery seems to beg more questions. In what sense can we speak of mastery when we appreciate the beauty of a five-year-old boy who has little time to master anything in life? His parents have not mastered genetics or its technology before producing the beautiful boy.

Or what has the leaf mastered when it twirls beautifully and tragically from branch to sidewalk? If the perception of the beauty of the leaf lies in the observer, rather than in the leaf itself, is that perception not more dependent on the observer's mood rather than mastery of aesthetic appreciation? That is, a plumber who has just been dumped may see the leaf in its pristine tragedy whereas an aesthetics philosopher, with a toothache, may just kick the leaf aside?

Your idea of mastery has certainly made me more thoughtful than I normally am at 8.00 in the morning! Thanks very much for leaving your thoughtful meditation on this blog.

Jee Leong

Eloise said...

I'm sorry, I'm a little too hungover to be philosophical but it is indeed a beautiful novel, and wonderfully written. My only qualm with it was that it seemed to consider itself a satire, but was far too in love with the era and the characters to ever really expose their rottenness.
Have you seen the BBC adaptation? It is rather good and surprisingly true to the novel for primetime TV. Full of beautiful, shallow people being beautiful and shallow, which I love!

Eloise

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Eloise,
you put your finger on the novel's, and the protagonist's, love for the era, an emotion that complicates the satire in the novel. I think the novel has satirical elements--setpieces and characters--but it does not read like a satire. The writer seems to identify too closely with Nick to hold him up consistently as a target for irony. That relationship between writer and protagonist reminds me of another in another novel with satirical elements: Austen and Elizabeth in "Pride and Prejudice." Kensington Park Gardens (the Feddens' house in "Line") is the latest re-development of Pemberley as well as Howard's End.

I'll look for the BBC adaptation. Thanks for the recommendation.

Jee Leong

Greg said...

Jee Leong thanks for your response to my posting. Although I talked about "work" and engaging talents, I believe I was thinking of "mastery" as one possible event on the way to an experience of beauty, but not necessarily the only one; or, if it is the only one, then the mastery I have in mind has a broader-than-usual meaning. On this broader meaning an empathic openness, or receptiveness to things that surprise and reveal anew, would be a kind of "mastery" (although at that point maybe the word "mastery" should be abandoned). I think of my 18-month-old nephew as aesthetically engaged (and maybe as having a kind of mastery?) in his moments of rapt fascination with dandelions and things that are yellow, although he has never completed any apprenticeships or degree programs on dandelions and yellowness.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Greg,
thanks for clarifying the significance of "mastery" in your aesthetics: "one possible event on the way to the experience of beauty" though my curosity is piqued by your description of "mastery" as an "event" given that "mastery" commonly denotes an achievement of skill after a long process of disciplined and systematic training.

Your nephew's fascination with dandelions and yellow is almost certainly praiseworthy though it may be prudent to ask him (if he is capable or explaining his reasons and motivations) the cause and nature of his fascination. He may, perhaps, be fascinated by the structure of a dandelion and wishes to pull it apart in order to analyze it. He may be fascinated by yellow becuase he now understands, and enjoys the pleasure of understanding over and over again, that the same quality, yellowness, may inhere in different objects. He may be fascinated by yellow dandelions because his fascination seems to fascinate the adults around him, winning him the social rewards of attention and praise. In other words, fascination can be the manifestation of an analytical mind, a love of knowledge or a craving for social approbation, besides an appreciation for beauty. What it is, at different moments, only your nephew can tell us, I am afraid.:)

Jee Leong

Harry said...

I thought it was a beautiful (or at the very least beautifully written) novel. What I found truly baffling was that the press had Cloud Atlas as the hot favourite for the Booker over TLOB which actually won. Line of Beauty seemed in a different class to me – vastly more interesting and nuanced and rounded – but there you go.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Harry,
your judgement puts me in this strange dilemma of thinking I should read "Cloud Atlas" for comparison and feeling I won't, since it's worse.

Jee Leong

Greg said...

Jee Leong I love your survey of my nephew's different possible reasons for liking yellow & dandelions. In addition to the ones you mention, another occurs to me: maybe, for Nicholas, yellowness and dandelions evoke a spiritual ideal--a sense, or an envisioning, of universal unity, wholeness, or oneness. Last time I saw him his only words were "quack," "na na na," and "ba ba ba", but maybe next time he'll have more to say for himself. ;-]
& your point about my use, or misuse, of "mastery" is well taken.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Ah yes, I overlooked the Psalmic wisdom from the mouth of babes.

Jee Leong