Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Line of Beauty


When Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Line of Beauty’ was awarded the Booker Prize in 2004, there were discussions in the media how for the first time a ‘gay novel’ has been nominated for the prestigious mainstream award. There are evidences to support the claim. Hollinghurst, the author, is open about his sexual orientation, so is his narrator. There are explicit, almost graphic descriptions of sex between men. The novel also deals with the arrival of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and how it killed a whole generation of gay men in England.

Yet, a close analysis would reveal that ‘The Line of Beauty’ is not a ‘queer text’, or a minority text for that matter. Though narrated by a man who is marginal on several accounts — social, cultural, sexual — the novel in the long run is not about the narrator Nick Guest, but about the Fedden family, and the culture and politics of Thatcher’s London in 1980s.

A gay text demands certain amount of perversion — a sense of subversion. Minority writing can exist only in the context of its binary other, the mainstream, and it must disassociate itself from the mainstream. Else, minority literature is in the danger of losing its sting, as the mainstream itself is opportunistic enough to co-opt dissident views.

If we try to read ‘The Line of Beauty’ in the context of the literary tradition it inherits, it comes closer to F Scott Fitzgerald’s 'The Great Gatsby' (1925) than say James Baldwin’s 'Giovanni’s Room' (1956), which should have been its inspiration as queer text. Both 20th Century American novels deal with outsider experiences. While Baldwin’s focus is narrow and confined, Fitzgerald’s critique on the American Dream is sprawling, to say the least. Fitzgerald is indeed Hollinghurst’s model. Therefore, it’s not surprising that his narrator shares the name with Fitzgerald’s narrator Nick Carraway.

Minority literature needs to create an aesthetics of its own. It cannot express itself comfortably with the aesthetic confines of the mainstream. Unlike for example, Jean Genet, or the Beat writers, Hollinghurst’s aesthetics is classical, mainstream. The title refers to William Hogath’s theory of aesthetics. Nick writes his Ph.D on Henry James. The novel abounds in allusions of writers, artists from Pope to Pound. But there’s no mention of Genet, or any sense of subversion.

Thus, homosexuality that appears in the pages of the novel, does not constitute itself as minority text but becomes a mainstream shock object. (For example, two men having sex in a private estate garden.) Thus, like Fitzgerald’s Nick, Hollinghurst’s Nick too fails to becomes a protagonist. If we really need a protagonist in ‘The Line of Beauty’ it would be Catherine Fedden. For Nick she is the bridge between his worlds, and she is the only person who not only knows but also understand the complexities of both the worlds — Nick’s world of sexual perversion and conservatism of Fedden’s world.

Thus, despite its depiction of homosexuality, ‘The Line of Beauty’ is neither an example of minority literature, nor is it a gay novel.

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