PICADOR £16.99 £15.99 (free P&P per order) from 08700 798 897

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

Art, and the cruelty that goes with it

Alan Hollinghurst likes to shock with vivid sex scenes. Yet to ghetto-ise him as a "gay novelist" is too limiting. He is much, much bigger than that. And here at last he shows real scope and depth. Nick Guest is a charmingly kind-hearted, 20-year-old, pretty blond. At Oxford he courted straight, dull Toby Fedden for his rower's body and beautiful face. Through Toby's friendship, he wins his family's, and moves into the Feddens's majestic Kensington house and into their lives.

Toby's Tory MP father, Gerald, wants to appear on Spitting Image. His "voice" is uncannily recognisable: superficially urbane and hospitable; vain, ruthless, philistine and limited underneath. He has a rich, civilised Jewish wife - sister to Baron Kessler, a banker - and a self-destructive daughter, Catherine, whom Nick tries to help.

Nick , like one of Henry James's provincial innocents, is infatuated by a worldly and grand style. He gets called "the little aesthete". Indeed he is writing a PhD on James, whose The Spoils of Poynton - which warned against valuing objects more than people - he wants to film. Nick approves James's famous, witty appeal to luxurious decoration: "I can stand a good deal of gilt." Like James (and Proust) Hollinghurst is morally dismayed by the rich, yet fascinated by glitz. Love of great art, together with mistrust of the cruelty and greed that midwife it, mark all three. The Feddens possess a painting by Guardi, and are given a "little" Gauguin: art as fashion-accessory. Hollinghurst conjures up a whole place and time, full of wonderful echoes and allusions.

Here is London in 1983 in triumphalist post-Falklands mood with 101 foppish new Tory MPs, some with a hand in the till, well over three million unemployed, new pound coins in our pockets, Hooray Henrys, an asset-stripper and a super-rich businessman purchasing titles by donating to Party funds.

Many share an idolatrous toadying obsession with the minutest foibles of Mrs Thatcher, who haunts this novel. The scene in which Nick finds the courage to dance with "the Lady" herself at the Feddens is its symbolic centre.

Mrs T's appeal to Victorian values is mirrored in the Feddens' revival of concerts-at-home, evening dress and weekend country-house parties. These happen at the Kessler's huge mansion in Buckinghamshire, a county scrupulously chosen. Weekending at Mentmore in Bucks after its timely injection of Rothschild money a century before, Henry James noted its plutocratic, sometimes vulgar display. And Hollinghurst's two quiet references to Trollope's The Way we Live Now (1876) which quite invidiously implicated Anglo-Jewry in the nation's troubles, are here - considering the make-up of Thatcher's cabinet - provocative.

Hollinghurst's thinking and his plot converge. Idea-play in his first two novels seemed so undigested that it was a relief to enter, in his third, The Spell, a thesis-free zone. Here, at last, ideas belong. Comedy attends them too.

Sexual innocence always guaranteed the objectivity of James's observers. Not so Hollinghurst's. Nick soon loses his virginity to a hungry, black civil servant, and is taken up by a super-rich Lebanese playboy, who pays for sex in threesomes. Money rules throughout. The London gay scene shares the cruel glamour and greed of the wider market-place. Everyone is for sale, and has a price.

So his novel is more a warning about the conscience of the rich than a rake's progress. It presents irresponsible pleasures (cocaine as well as sex) without moralising. Even the title, from Hogarth, stretches to include erotic nostalgia. When Nick's lovers contract HIV, this rewards carelessness, not sin.

Telling social observation abounds. Proust might have envied the little scene in which a dowager too cordially greets - thus snubbing - Nick's black lover. Dialogue throughout is "heard": Catherine puts her Sloaney future sister-in-law down with "Love your clever frock."

The rich - Jesus might have said - "Ye shall always have with you." Hollinghurst has studied them, as they once were, back in the far-away mid-Eighties. His brilliant recreation of that bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch is timely. If Thatcher's London has rarely been better "done" by a British novelist, Hollinghurst loves the city more than most. And on the note of the love of London, and of life, this fabulous novel ends.

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players