Continuing in my attempt to catch up with the best part of a life time of not reading Booker prize winners, I recently finished, not without a fair amount of persistence, Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty”. Hollinghurst is a slow writer – he has only written half a dozen novels in total – and the only other work of his I have read is the “Swimming Pool Library” which feels like decades ago.
This novel is a leisurely portrait of the life of a rather pampered young man in mid 1980s London, when Thatcherism was at its most rampant and Aids was beginning to have a dramatic impact on the lives of gay men.
Nick Guest leaves Oxford and lodges with the family of one of his undergraduate friends, Toby. Toby’s father Gerald is a Conservative MP. Nick is a Guest in more ways than one – welcomed as a lodger, his homosexuality is acknowledged by the family but largely on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis. Their’s is a social liberalism that has some clearly defined limits.
Nick begins his sex life with a romance with a black Local Government worker, but his affection for Toby remains undimmed. In parallel the political life of the family father develops, culminating in a visit from Mrs Thatcher which is vividly realised – I wonder if this was all Hollinghurst’s imagination, or whether he was present at something similar. Nick them moves on to a clandestine relationship with another Oxford friend, who keeps up a front of heterosexuality, and introduces Nick to a cocaine dependency.
The third phase of the novel sees things all fall apart. Aids takes Nick’s first boyfriend, then his second, and again in parallel Gerald’s political career falters over a financial and then sexual scandal, something the conservative party seemed to specialise in in the 1980s. Finally Nick is thrown out of the lodgings he has enjoyed for far too long, and takes an Aids test which he expects to be positive.
As a portrait of gay privileged life in the 1980s this is probably the definitive work, for what it is worth. But the novel had other attractions for me. Hollinghurst is particularly good at the detailed nuances of social interaction – words and gestures are accurately dissected for their meaning. This isn’t just the fact with the wealthy – the visit to the black, evangelical family of his first lover, Leo, where his sexuality is quite literally the love that dare no speak its name, is captured perfectly in all its ambivalence.
i didn’t fall in love with this book – the central character is far too unlikeable and unsympathetic, almost narcissistic – and it didn’t make me want to turn to more of Hollinghurst’s works. The Booker short list for 2004 was weak by comparison with some years, although this novel did beat David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which by comparison was far more innovative and readable. But I was left admiring Hollinghurst’s craftsmanship, which is more than I can say for many of the other novels that have won the Booker subsequently.
Read in a 1996 Everyman edition which you can still buy for the astonishing price of £1.
Herrick is best known for his “To the Virgins, to make Much of Time: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…”, which is an excellent representation of his oeuvre – light verse that focuses on themes of love, women, and (albeit indirectly) sex. Herrick comes across in these poems as a lover of life, and especially of women. His output was prodigious – he was clearly not one of those authors who agonised over getting every word exactly right. There is a small amount of Chauceresque smut along the way as well (think of the Miller’s Tale). But by far and away my favourite poem from this collection is the gorgeous “Upon Julia’s Clothes”:
Upon Julia’s Clothes
Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!
I can’t imagine another poet being able to use the word “liquefaction” so stunningly. You could dismiss this as just another piece of dirty-old-man-ery, with a very simple AAABBB structure. And the archaisms – whenas, methinks, – could be off-putting. But push past that and take it for what it is – a glorious hymn to a woman’s beauty and sexual attractiveness. And in that it is astonishing.
The novels of P G Wodehouse are so easy to dislike one really has to struggle to overcome the stench of monied stupidity rising off them. Rich people running around getting into “scrapes” (how easily the slang infects one’s language) in highly contrived “comic” situations, which are all resolved by the intervention of the gentleman’s gentleman. Incidentally there is no subversion here – in portraying the working class servant as brighter than the upper classes he serves, Wodehouse is flattering to deceive – Jeeves is still a poodle even if he can do tricks.
There is a temptation to treat these novels – and having read one you have pretty much read them all – as self parodies, clever because they are so dumb, cool because they are clichéd. But they are production line stuff, knocked-off-in-a-weekend pieces of nonsense. Wodehouse makes little or no attempt to vary the diet (see summary plot below taken from Wikipedia to save you the trouble of reading the book, or any other of Wodehouse’s for that matter.)
I know the story of Wodehouse’s internment in the second World War has been gone over in detail elsewhere, and I don’t intend to go over old ground here. One of my favourite authors from this period, George Orwell, was a strong Wodehouse supporter, and that would normally be good enough for me. But I am sorry, there is no doubt in my mind that it is just not good enough to say Wodehouse was uninterested in politics, or simply naïve and foolish – he had a responsibility as an author to not be such a fool, and there is plenty of evidence in his novels to suggest a man of considerable intelligence and political awareness, if not interest. It can hardly have been surprising to anyone that the author who described the English upper classes at decadent play was able to take the rise of the Nazis so casually. Wodehouse may not have been a Nazi himself, but in his portrait of Spode, the Moselyesque English fascist, he clearly makes the mistake of not taking them seriously enough – not everything can be laughed away.
“Bertie Wooster returns to Totleigh Towers, the site of an earlier ordeal that nearly landed him in prison and, worse still, in bonds of marriage to Madeline Bassett, the syrupy daughter of the house who believes the stars are God’s daisy chain. Only Gussie Fink-Nottle, Bertie’s childhood friend and Madeline’s on-again off-again fiancé, stands between our hero and the dreaded state of matrimony. No surprise, then, that matrimonial disaster looms for our hero when Madeline, inspired by the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, orders Gussie to abandon his beloved steak and kidney pie and take up a vegetarian diet. Add the intrigues of Miss Stiffy Byng to win her fiancé the Reverend Stinker Pinker a vicarage, the rivalry of collectors Sir Watkyn Bassett and Bertie’s Uncle Tom over an objet d’art, and the irresistible culinary attractions of American Emerald Stoker, and you have trouble of the sort only Jeeves can mend.”