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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.

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