A Week in Books: An elegant but pitiless dissection of the English Eighties

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After a pair of attractive but eccentric winners, in Yann Martel and DBC Pierre, the line of beauty - and of tradition - has been restored.

After a pair of attractive but eccentric winners, in Yann Martel and DBC Pierre, the line of beauty - and of tradition - has been restored. The Man Booker victory of Alan Hollinghurst's elegant but pitiless dissection of the English Eighties steers this award back to the dead centre of this country's fictional mainstream. Indeed, you might argue that no Booker winner has so squarely occupied the historical highway of EngLit since Pat Barker closed her Great War trilogy with The Ghost Road in 1995.

Barker pays homage to poets and memoirists of the Western Front; Hollinghurst, in his silken tapestry of social glitter and sexual grit, to the shrewd and subtle art of Henry James. Like Margaret Thatcher in her prime, the figure who presides over The Line of Beauty in spirit and makes one memorable appearance in the flesh, Hollinghurst's fiction combines an immaculate surface gloss with sinews of steel. And, as the victor said on Tuesday night about his ever-watchful hero, Nick Guest, "the situation of an innocent being glamorised by a world he doesn't understand is a very Jamesian theme."

Is this overt reclamation of the literary canon a good or a bad thing? Fans of David Mitchell, whose Cloud Atlas so narrowly missed out on Tuesday, might plump for the latter. (In fact, and against expectations, Colm Toibin's novel about James himself, The Master, stayed in contention until the final minutes of a close-run judging session.) Much as I admire The Line of Beauty, Mitchell probably has a right to feel thwarted. In their mesmerising scope, panache and virtuosity, the half-dozen carefully chained stories of Cloud Atlas transport the English novel into exciting places where it seldom goes.

However, it would be misleading to label Hollinghurst as the candidate of continuity and Mitchell as the champion of change. Both the winning author and Chris Smith, as chair of the judges, have played down the centrality of the gay motifs and (rare) explicit sex in The Line of Beauty. In comparison with 1987, when The Swimming-Pool Library made a shocking splash, "the fact of something being gay has somehow now become less important," Hollinghurst said. Smith affirmed that the subject "did not figure at all in any stage of the discussion". All the same, both must know that it will loom large for some readers. But assuming that a battle has been won might be one way of winning it.

For his part, the spacily inventive Mitchell hasn't simply landed from some dark star of literature. Both author and critics have talked about his reverence for postmodern pioneers such as Italo Calvino and Haruki Murakami. True enough, but it also makes sense to thread Mitchell into an alternative English tradition of playful, rule-bending ingenuity that begins with Sterne's Tristram Shandy and continues on its antic course to Anthony Burgess. And the science-fiction elements that lend stretches of the novel its flavour owe a debt to Huxley, Wells and even John Wyndham, whom Mitchell devoured as a child. Any readers put off by his reputation for extraterrestrial zaniness need not worry too much about meeting an alien.

Mitchell's day will surely come, in this and many other contests. For the moment, we can celebrate a finely crafted book that enshrines the tangled complexity of the national response to Thatcher's glory days. Our guilty relish for flash-trash consumption lingers, along with what Hollinghurst described on Tuesday as his "undiminished sense of unhappiness and indignation" about the period. Now an enduring novel has captured all that ambivalence. As someone once said: "Rejoice! Rejoice!"

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