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.