12 thoughts on “The Line of Beauty

  1. Phoebe Shang

    I’m fascinated by Penny’s almost vindictive triumph at the end. The family had thought her boring and plain, but through the scandal, she gains a “bleak, unanticipated glamour.” Also, Gerald cares enough about her not to give her up. Nick asks her how she can bear the secrecy and she replies that perhaps their affair won’t be secret. I wonder if this reflects bravery on her and Gerald’s part or whether heterosexual extramarital affairs are so much the fabric of upper class society that no one cares. Gerald declared that his and Nick’s case have nothing in common. I wonder if this is because he, like Rachael, viewed gay sex as an unclean act rather than as acts of love. From an emotional standpoint, Gerald is behaving worse. In the midst of their being bombarded by media, Nick noticed that Rachael glowed after getting off the phone with Gerald, as if Gerald had just told her he loved her. Someone mentioned in class that neither of Nick’s lovers responds when he tells them that he loves them. This is perhaps they want to be honest, at least to the person with whom they’re most intimate, because they realize that love is mutable and fleeting. After the affair is found out, Nick gets a peak into Gerald and Rachael’s “shadowy white bedroom,” which had sealed the couple away in “a grandeur of privacy.” He says that he had always envied that room as their “temple of marital love.” We discussed in class that part of Nick’s guest status is that he doesn’t have a bedroom of his own. With his parents, the antique bed gets sold out from under him. At Pete’s antique shop, Pete intrudes on Nick and Leo’s intimate moment when he walks in and tells them that the bed has been sold. At the end of that chapter, Leo calls their love and perhaps homosexual love in general, “homeless love.”

  2. Catherine Alexandre

    Meaghan- I thought you did a great job of giving an overview of a lot of different contexts for the novel. I especially appreciated your description of how much the AIDS virus had spread in England during the years covered by the book, as well as the difference between scientific knowledge of how AIDS spread and the social misconceptions about it as “the gay plague” and how people shouldn’t go to parties because there would be a bunch of gay people who might pass the virus on to them. I find it quite disturbing that many people agreed that people carrying the disease should be quarantined for life. Your description of how the presence of AIDS in the book mirrored the spread of AIDS during those years, with it being most present in 1987, was also very helpful.

    Sam- I thought your presentation was fascinating and really helped me to gain more insights about the novel and the spaces that Nick occupies in it. One thing that the spaces you described made me think of was the way in which so many of the spaces where Nick has sex, even though they’re part of these very elegant households and spaces, are utilitarian places, such as a bathroom, the pool house, or the gardener’s shed. I find that interesting because even though they are spaces that are part of this upper-class world, they are outsider spaces. Another comment that I think is connected to this theme is when Catherine says, upon seeing Nick’s room in France, “Poor old Nick, you always get the worst room” (341 in my version).

    In terms of the connection between Hollinghurst’s style and that of Henry James, I have read one James novel, Madame de Mauves, and it occurred to me after class that Nick Guest reminds me quite a bit of the narrator from that novel, Longmore. Longmore is an American who goes to France and falls in love with this high society woman named Madame de Mauves, who is married to a Frenchman. Longmore’s perception of their marriage and the events that he recounts reminds me of what we said about Nick, because he so often thinks that he has fully understood a situation when, in fact, he has missed something critical, much in the same way that Nick feels bad for standing up Tristão when actually, as he later discovers, Tristão had stood him up to have sex with Wani.

  3. Georgia Wright-Simmons

    I wanted to come back to the idea of the ogee and attempt to connect it to why Nick can only ever flirt with fitting into high society as the aesthete. I was thinking of the scene on page 196 where Nick and Wani are explaining the company name to Bertrand, and Bertrand says “I don’t get it, what is it…? ‘Oh Gee!, is that it?” and Martine says “I thought he was saying ‘Orgy.’” They make a total mockery of it, and Nick tries to explain because Wani actually cannot explain. Wani does not get it. None of Nick’s lovers get it. They are all philistine, as he says, and in some way he always seems just a little disconnected from them. He wants a different kind of relationship than they do. He wants love; they want sex. He wants something more beautiful and less direct, but he settles for what others want in order to fit in, whereas they just do these things naturally. Everyone always misunderstands Nick, and Nick misunderstands all of them. Nick is dying to be in love—he has a desire to be a part of something he doesn’t actually belong to, but he goes through the motions as if he did. He is the only one openly gay of the lovers, and yet even in that identity that he has fully embraced he is being constantly pushed out. No one else will come out and be with him completely.
    This happens with class, too. As we see with the Ogee discussion, all the wealthy people Nick hangs around do not really care about beauty. They do not care about beautiful lines. I liked what we were talking about with straight lines and ogees. It seems like everyone in the novel is on a pretty straight path. They have a plan, they go one direction, they have a focus, and they all can understand the way everyone else is moving, except Nick, who has his own tragectory. Nick moves more along the line of the ogee, valuing beauty more than direction in his life, and seeking it without concern for where it takes him. He wants to be high class so that he can have beautiful things. He doesn’t understand that being high class is about having money and about conspicuous consumption to show off your money; it’s not about beauty. Nick lives on the outside because he can’t grasp this concept. He thinks they should all celebrate having money so that they can have beautiful things. They want to celebrate having money for the sake of having money. It’s like he’s too book smart, too in tune with Henry James, to actually recognize what is going on around him. He romanticizes it to the point that he misses the reality. He should be able to interpret everything, but he does it through such a literary lens that his own rose colored glasses blind him, and that turns him into a quaint accessory for all the rich people: an aesthete.
    I think this takes us back to how the novel satirizes everyone by giving a really clear view, but just a little off center, so you know something is wrong but cannot place it. Nick is this exact view. He is clear and beautiful and perfect, except he’s always a little off. He’s trying to follow the arc of an ogee when really he needs to find direction to fit in. He goes one way, wanting beauty, then another, wanting to fit in, but an ogee can never intersect at a right angle with anything, as two lines would, and so he can never fully cross paths with, or go parallel to, this world that he observes and admires and disdains all at once. Nick is forever an outsider, a tragically comic character, who understands beauty so deeply that he does not understand the ugliness of his own world.
    I was also thinking of the title, The Line of Beauty, and its double meaning. As in, an ogee is a line of beauty, but the cocaine is also done in straight lines, marked off with credit cards. It perfectly pulls together the distinction of Nick from everyone else, but also their interconnectedness. You could confuse the title for being about either thing.

  4. Siau Rui Goh

    Meaghan – Thank you so much for providing some political background for the book. Especially since I know next to nothing on this period, it was incredibly helpful to learn a little bit about Thatcher, her politics and the public reactions to AIDS. Organizing it according to the book’s three sections also made your presentation very easy to follow. I’m really curious about the movie now – wish you could’ve shown us a clip!

    Sam – I thought your presentation on how Nick inhabits liminal spaces and states of consciousness was super cool and comprehensive. I think you explained some pretty complex points in a way that was easy to understand. The one point that I wasn’t too clear on and that I would be interested to hear you go more into was about Wani –I think you said his self-destruction occurs because he can’t find a liminal space where he belongs?

    I was particularly interested in the notion that Nick is only successful with black/foreign men. I guess this is a really obvious point to make but it really compounds the outsider status of Nick vis-à-vis the Feddens and the other people of that class in the sense that his choice of sexual partners is doubly trangressive. His self-consciousness about this is evident when he and Leo run into Toby and Sophie – he observes her ‘reaching wide to bless the double triumph of boyfriend and black.’ It’s also obvious in his reluctance to have Leo over at the Feddens’ – there’s a concerted attempt to keep these two worlds, the ‘different departments of his own life,’ apart.

    Also, at the same time that it adds to that sense in which he’s an outsider in the Feddens’ household, that racial element highlights the fact that he’s an outsider everywhere; in Leo’s home, things aren’t that different and he experiences, quite acutely, the ‘shock of class difference.’ What’s also interesting is how Nick links Leo’s tones to his race and his class : His irony is described as both ‘cockneyfied and West Indian’ and Nick observes that he uses ‘the cockney for defence.’ This idea is even more striking with Rosemary: Nick hears how ‘the West Indian colour and exactness in her tone claimed [Leo’s death] as a private thing.’ That he would be so attuned to these modulations seems to suggest Nick’s heightened consciousness of being an outsider to Leo’s world as well.

  5. Emily McCabe

    Meaghan-I also really enjoyed your presentation and thought it answered a lot of questions I had about the historical period while I was reading. The distinctions between Thatcherism and Toryism, and some of “the Lady’s” policies you enumerated made the worshipful relationship Gerald had toward the prime minister a little clearer. It also made her friendship with the Ouradis make more sense. If she as a PM appreciated those who pulled themselves up by the bootstrap their grocery store success, and subsequent power would have appealed to her. It was also fascinating to hear about how much luck/happenstance went into keeping her in office for three terms, especially given the mystique and aura of greatness that was built around her in the text. Just another example of the reader being drawn into the Feddens world without thinking about it. I also thought Hollinghursts view of his work and how it has evolved was fascinating. I can imagine it would frustrate him to be constantly asked about the homosexual themes in the novels as if the books did not touch on anything else, and certainly newspaper titles like “Gay book wins booker” don’t dispel such stereotypes.

    Sam- As Siau Rui points out your presentation encompasses and touches on so many elements of the novel and it was great to have an overarching framework laid out like that. Your discussion of the communal garden as a liminal space and an ironic concept struck me as particularly apt. At Oxford, similar to the garden in London, the colleges are structured around beautiful lawns and private grounds closed to the public and protected by porters who keep people out who are not supposed to be there. Even as college students can access these grounds they are not permitted to step on certain lawns and rules are in place regarding the use of the space. Constant barriers make insider outsider distinctions more noticeable. Certainly these facets of Nicks university experience prepared him and opened the doors for his ambiguous status later on among the Feddens. Also, on a different note Im not sure if I entirely followed your description of the white space within a line, and its connection to a normal straight line…

    1. Samuel Davidson

      The thought behind that was not strikingly profound. I had a tough time understanding the concept of liminality when I approached it, and wanted to offer multiple ways of relating to it or conceptualizing it for the class. One way to understand liminality is as a way of seeing space in a place where it seemingly can’t exist. The line is one example – it is supposed to form a “boundary” between two places. However, the (troubling?) reason that we cannot imagine a boundary as “occupying” space is simply color. White seems, well, empty, full of space. Blackness seems like more of an outline. When reversing the colors, and drawing a white line through black space, one can more easily imagine how a line can really occupy a great deal of space. That was the thought, at least.

  6. Ty Carleton

    Meaghan: Wow! I didn’t think for a second while reading the book that it wasn’t the favorite to win the Booker Prize. Obviously I didn’t read the book that was the favorite, but as I think a lot of us in the class felt, the language in The Line of Beauty was so stunning and the themes so haunting that I can’t really imagine a book as good as this not winning.

    I also didn’t fully realize the joke involved in the scene with Nick and Thatcher until I learned a bit more about her very conservative policies. I think there is a lot of truth to Professor Billings’ assessment that in a way the book’s plot boils down to a series of devices by which a coke-snorting, poor, gay man dances with the conservative Prime Minister.

    Sam: The inventiveness of your presentation was very compelling. It was very intuitive of you to approach the book through the lens of a broader theme through which we could examine the myriad topical themes of the book. I found the brilliance of The Line of Beauty, besides its language, to be the effortless way it manages not to be about any of the contemporary issues it evokes. It is a gay book but it’s not about homosexuality; it is a period piece but it’s not about the 80’s; it is a sex, drugs and rock and roll book but it’s not about youth culture; it is a book involving class and racial dynamics but it’s not a book about class or racial struggle. It’s about aesthetic beauty, emptiness of character and the endless dance around the truth.

    Thus I thought it was great how you tied everything back to liminality, an idea you introduced as an aesthetic mode of understanding the book (through the book’s geography). Liminal spaces have both physical and metaphysical manifestations, so the idea nicely bridges the duality of Hollinghurst’s implications for aesthetic beauty. As we discussed in class, all of Nick’s preferences in Beauty (James, the Ogee Curve, clean-shaven brown arses) relate symbolically to his status as the aesthete, the outsider to the world of philistine efficiency in which the wealthy reside. Nick spends the novel in the liminal zone between the beautiful world of the ultra-rich and the world of Leo, Barwick and, well, reality. He spends the novel in the liminal state between elation and sorrow (he never seems quite happy and yet never is truly sad either). This idea of liminality really worked on all levels and fostered a great discussion about (almost ) all the points I really hoped would be touched upon.

    The one thing we didn’t get to touch on that I’d hoped we would was the one character in the book who is characterized as both an aesthete and a businessman: Sam Zeman. He is described as a “curly-headed genius who’d gone straight into Kesslers’ on twenty thousand a year’: ‘Nick loved Sam because he was an economist but he’d read everything and played the viola and took a flattering interest in people less sublimely omniscient than himself.” It seems like a pretty big deal that a character would bridge this almost diametrically opposed relationship between the so-called aesthetes and philistines, and yet he gets relatively little mention throughout the book. Is this simply Hollinghurst’s nod to the possibility of a happy medium? Is he just a device so that Nick has something to do with his 5,000 pounds? Is he a throwaway character? I would love to hear other people’s ideas about Sam.

  7. Jae woo Lee

    Meghan, your presentation helped me get a better sense of Thatcherite Britain and the sentiment toward AIDS. Especially the perception of AIDS as “gay plague” made the novel more powerful for me. Like Ty said above, I found the jokes funnier once I understood the conservative social atmosphere of the time. I thought it was also interesting how the essentialism still persists and how The Line of Beauty was referred to as a “gay book” by many of the British newspapers.
    Sam, I found your point about the guest status of Nick insightful, especially in the light of the power relationship between Gerald and Nick who is constantly bound and expected to please his “masters”— although they are offering him these favors out of “hospitality.” I think Hollinghurst captures this very well through Nick’s self-consciousness and his awareness of this “rule” in talking to Gerald. I think it’s especially clever that Hollinghurst portrays Nick and Feddens as always performing their given roles in this pleasant familial setting, with Cat refusing to play her role in this play.
    Thinking about Nick’s role in Fedden household, I thought Nick’s relationship with his “brown” boyfriends significant. Nick is drawn by darker men (although he doesn’t find them particularly beautiful), and is intrigued by the otherness of their bodies. I think it’s interesting that while being objects of fetish for the “other,” Nick’s boyfriends also serve as substitutes for Toby whom Nick has crush on. It almost seems like all that matters for Nick is the crossing of boundaries.

  8. Rex Ovalle

    I very much enjoyed the presentations. Meghan you did very good job putting some context to Thatcher. Although I realized we didn’t spend nearly enough time talking about the “Central” image of the novel, Nick and Thatcher dancing. But then the image is supposed to be explained by the rest of the novel. I would argue that Hollinghurst started with that scene and worked his way outward from it.

    Sam the lens you read the novel in was impressive and really got me to veiw the novel in spaces. The pool was probably the most interesting space in the book. The ambiguous conduct zone of the pool really got to start seeing a Homonormative world. Which I think it is a really hard thing to accomplish.

    I realize I was marked at “the student who didn’t like the book” this week. But I did apreciate parts of the book especially Catherine. But I wonder if we are over simplifying the strongest female character in the book. I don’t mean strong in the sense that she has a strong will, but that she is the most developed. Everyone’s comments regarding her seemed to have labeled her as the leaking hole of truth among people who keep intensely private habits and secrets. And that function jumps out at us and is incredibly obvious. But I wonder if we’re not considering her in the context of a homonormative reality that Hollinghurst maybe presenting. I consider her the leaking hole in Nick’s fantasy. She becomes the mechanism that pulls his world apart. But Nick doesn’t view it as a betrayal. Instead we have to forgive her because of her “crazy factor” and over medicated state. Although her affection for Nick makes me think that she maybe the leaking hole of heternormativeness in Nick’s fantasy.

  9. Hallie Woods

    Meghan, your presentation gave me much needed context for the novel, since my knowledge about Thatcher amounted to Hugh Grant calling her portrait a saucy minx in Love Actually. Your distinction between her politics and the Tory ideals that also were in the novel helped me grasp the mores subtle differences between Thatcher and Gerald and the rest of his lot. Knowing her views then also throws into sharper focus the scene that many people have already talked about, that of Nick and Thatcher dancing at the party. I agree with Rex’s idea that Hollinghurst began with this scene and worked the novel outwards from there.
    Sam, your presentation on the space within the novel was really interesting. I hadn’t taken much time to think about the places in which all of Nick’s sexual relations occur, but now thinking about it, they are all in spaces within a space. As Francie was saying, he is having sex in these elegant houses, but in another less beautiful place within the house, hence the space within the space. Same with the pool house and the garden hut, places within a grander scope. I think there can be a connection drawn between the idea of liminal space that you presented, and Hollinghurst’s language within the novel as well. We all talked about how beautiful his sentences were, and yet sometimes these words would actually come up with a paragraph describing someone snorting copious amounts of cocaine, or having rough anonymous sex. The beauty of the language is juxtaposed with an “ugly” image, thus creating another example of a space within a space.

  10. Amy Prescott

    I appreciated the historical context for the novel and like how you structured it to give us a sense of what Margaret Thatcher and the AIDS epidemic were up to during each of the sections of the story. Mentioning the proposed idea of quarantining people with AIDS gave a sense of the level of discrimination and ignorance that the gay community was up against.

    I thought your discussion of liminal spaces was a great way to cover so many elements of the novel with one overarching theme before addressing them separately. That liminality could apply to everything from communal gardens to states of consciousness helped bring together some complicated themes, like the interaction of race and class and how that interaction is further complicated by the addition of sexual orientation.

    The amount of cocaine used by Wani and Nick struck me as fascinating (my mother likes to say that doing cocaine is a sure sign that you have too much money, which seems to be true for Wani), particularly because the Feddens seemed to like Wani so much more when he had the exuberance and charm brought on by this altered state of consciousness. That Wani and Nick were so frequently experiencing a different state of mind while engaging in the more physical acts of their relationship made me consider some of the other ways that Nick approached the men in his life that, while not coke fueled, still involved a different sort of reality. Early in the novel, prior to Nick’s first date with Leo, Nick replayed his fantasies about the men he had already been with (but only in his mind) over enough in his mind that they ended up having “the quality of real memories” (p. 24). While at his parents’ house, Nick has a vivid dream about being at Hawkeswood three years before and seeing Toby naked before anticipating what comes next, and he asks himself “did that happen…did what happened next happen” before the scene switches to Nick getting with Wani (p. 231). Nick is able to fall so deeply into a different sort of reality, whether a cocaine high, a false memory, or a dream, that it becomes clear that the “real” reality isn’t the only part of his life that he believes in.

  11. James


    Knowing only a very little about Thatcherite England, I was really interested by your presentation–the context really helped illustrate the backdrop of the novel. Your chronicle of the AIDS epidemic reminded me a lot of the book “And The Band Played On”, which detailed in depth the various responses to the first outbreaks of the crisis. In addition, it gave me a lot to think about Hollinghurst himself–about how he didn’t want to write an “AIDS novel” or a “gay novel”, about how he seems not to want to be pigeonholed by his sexual identity. Quickly jaunting over to his Wikipedia page, it’s nice to see that it seems have in some ways paid off–he’s simply listed as a “British Novelist and Booker Prize winner”. Then again, scrolling to the bottom, he’s also categorized as a “Gay Writer” and an “LGBT person in England”–so perhaps these classifications are inevitable.


    Echoing Hallie and others, I really quite liked your presentation, and found it seriously intriguing. I hadn’t thought about the spaces in the novel before you mentioned them, but they do seem seriously significant–especially when thinking about how the language of homosexuality at the time (and even now) tends to be also language of space. “On the down low”, “in the closet”, and “underground” come to mind.
    And I think you’re right to think that part of this is this idea of the in-between spaces–easily-concealable places of, as you said, “suspended reality”. One thing that came to mind as well are that in some sense, these places may also reflect the state of mind that the people in them inhabit–coke often accompanies trysts in the bathroom and poolhouse, Catherine’s often most significant when she is happening upon the inbetween-spaces, like the fuck-pad, or the parties. I wonder what significance we’re meant to attach to her being absent for the end of the book–perhaps, in some ways, it’s a comment on the idea that she can only truly disturb and uproot the social order of the house from the outside. Or, maybe more exactly–it’s only from the outside that what is true about the goings-on of the Feddens can be given any real significance or weight–one gets the sense that they don’t care about whatever scandals go on beneath their roof, only that those scandals never end up in the front page of the daily news.

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