15 September 2011
Part 1 – The Love Chord
I first read this six or seven years ago when it had just won the Booker Prize and I can remember enjoying it then. One of the things I like about it now is Nick Guest, and the way he tries to fit into a social milieu that is, at heart, indifferent to him. It’s about the trying, and the failure. He’s constantly out of his depth: when he appears to be keeping his head above the water, he isn’t really. He’s learnt the tunes of the culture he’s immersed himself within – literally, in the case of the Mozart piece he has a stab at sight-reading, but also the art in the nice houses, the right novelists, the furniture his father buys and sells – but he can never be an insider. He’s Nick, as in Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby who is always observing from the outside, and he’s, well, Guest as in guest.
Did Jane Austen invent the plot device of the poor relation who is welcomed into the house, supposedly on terms of equality, but who is never actually treated as an equal? In Mansfield Park Fanny Price is treated with scorn by the spoilt cousins. The Feddens are much subtler about it. Nick and Toby, the friend he’s had a crush on since day one at Oxford, will be 21 within a few days of each other, and there’s a genuine-sounding family conversation about a joint party. But it’s never referred to again, the party ends up being a high-profile status-fest for the benefit of Gerald Fedden, and… we get the picture. We’ve already got it in Chapter 1: when the family spend the summer in their French holiday home, Nick is delegated to look after ‘the Cat’ – the family’s arch nickname for Catherine, Toby’s troubled younger sister. He might be invited to make up numbers at dinner – and though the rent he pays might be nominal, it still makes him a lodger.
I have to come clean about why I find this idea so engaging: I often feel uncomfortable not with the culture I choose, like Nick, to become immersed in from time to time, but with the company it forces me to keep. It’s as though some time in the 20th Century the middle classes claimed for themselves the culture that they had no particular role in creating. Perhaps it was the indifference of the working classes that allowed this to happen or, as Richard Hoggart suggested in The Uses of Literacy in 1957, the availability of alternatives made older cultural forms seem irrelevant. Whatever, Hollinghurst taps into the way that by the 1980s the annexation was complete: interest, or feigned interest, in the Arts is as important a signifier of status as the big house and travel to the right holiday destinations. The Feddens have a Guardi, Mrs F’s titled brother has a Cezanne and a library of books with uncut pages but fabulous bindings. And so on. I’ll come back to this, because it’s subtler than I’m suggesting – and Nick has bought into it wholesale, seems perfectly sincere – and also seems entirely comfortable in his adopted family. In regarding himself as an equal in debates about, say, the merits or otherwise of Richard Strauss, Nick makes the mistake of believing that this demonstrates his equality in other ways. Naïve boy.
It becomes part of another theme in the novel, which is sometimes blatant and sometimes highly subtle: the existence of hierarchies of value and status. Nick is cleverer than Toby, but this is not important in the milieu he is now in. Nick thinks Lionel Kessler, the rich brother with the library, seems almost disappointed that he is going to waste time on further study when he could be – what? – making money, presumably. This is Thatcher’s Britain, ‘the Lady’ is a constant off-stage presence, and Hollinghurst is reminding us how things were beginning to unfold in 1983. (I won’t make a comment about what it’s like to re-read this 2004 satire in post-global meltdown 2011. Maybe later.)
So, what’s happened? Once the first chapter has established a few things, we follow Nick – we never follow any other character’s point of view – through a handful of set-piece scenes in the late summer. He’s gay, but a virgin. One of the early set pieces is the loss of his virginity, which is described twice: once as it happens in the private garden accessible only to ‘key-holders’ – you bet – and again, in far more detail, in Nick’s memory. He is being tried out by Leo, a slightly older black man looking for a steady relationship, and we later find out he’s come up to scratch. The rest of Part 1 – subtitled The Love-Chord – glows with Nick’s almost gauche pleasure in the idea, after years of longing, that all this is available to him at last. The full-on sex in the novel is one of the things that readers most remember about it, which I think is a shame. I find the other things I’ve being going on about far more interesting – and more familiar.
Set pieces. There’s the moment when we find out just how fragile Catherine’s mental health is. Toby has told Nick about the self-harm she’s supposedly grown out of – but during that summer together in the house she asks him to take the kitchen knives away from her bedroom, where she’s been thinking about using them on herself. Nick does the right thing: he was supposed to be going on his first date with Leo, but stays with her instead. And he doesn’t do the right thing: he means to phone her parents about it, delays the call, realises it’s too late if you add on the extra hour – and never does let them know. That’s definitely one to store in the back of the filing cabinet for later.
The Feddens’ relationship with their daughter is highly problematic. In a later set piece, dinner (Chapter 5), Catherine isn’t intending to be present, is dressed highly provocatively to go out with her unsuitable boyfriend (tell you later), to the extent that Gerald Fedden is embarrassed at the looks his lecherous old Oxford pal gives her. He’s even more embarrassed when she comes in, having been dumped: there’s a scene on the doorstep with the black minicab driver who has brought her home. He’s helped her before – Nick knows this, but the family don’t – and Nick is so embarrassed for the man he tries to smooth things over. No chance. But we recognise the fellow-feeling: Nick and the driver are for a moment part of the same invisible class of people who know what really goes on while the ambitious, self-serving father lets them get on with it and averts his gaze.
That dinner is the second time we’ve seen Gerald Fedden truly in his element, and it isn’t pretty. There’s at least one cabinet minister present – Gerald is a newly elected Tory MP and believes the publicity that marks him out for higher office one day – and Hollinghurst shows us his ambition at work. He also makes sure we know about his privileged background: his mother’s second husband made millions from the building of the motorways, and he was a member of one of the exclusive Oxford clubs only the rich can afford. Toby was also a member, and one guest is briefly staggered when he thinks – wrongly – that Nick met him there. Gerald’s ambition fits seamlessly into the milieu in which everybody knows everybody else and success – in finance, politics or anything else – is taken for granted as a right.
We first see how self-serving he is at Toby’s 21st birthday party. The small-scale celebration at home, with Nick as co-host, has morphed into a black-tie event at the stately home owned by Gerald’s brother-in-law, Lord Kessler. (The ease with which Gerald married into money is just another of the givens in this world.) There are several cabinet ministers present – there had briefly been rumours that the Lady would attend, and Catherine’s self-serving photographer boyfriend is annoyed when this turns out not to be the case – so Gerald is able to show off his finely-honed rhetoric in a speech ostensibly about his son’s coming of age.
Before this we’ve seen Nick taking the tour, escorted by Lord Kessler himself. It’s when we realise that the objets d’art Nick is so enthusiastic about – and likes to feel a kinship with, having spent so much time with such things in his father’s antiques business – are actually irrelevant to the class that owns them. He doesn’t realise it, but his connoisseurship doesn’t provide him with any kind of entrée into this society. But I’m starting to repeat myself.
What haven’t I covered? The other milieu that Nick has suddenly found his way into: the gay scene. Luckily – I suppose Hollinghurst is allowed this licence – Nick is good at the sex he’s only ever fantasised about. He meets Peter, the middle-aged man, also an antiques dealer, who seems to be Leo’s former lover. Peter is camp, uses the lingo and seems to offer a window on a world that is all, as Peter obviously knows, new to Nick. He is also suffering from some ailment, or illness, that he seems to be over now. But we know what these characters don’t, and I’m assuming this is Hollinghurst’s first surreptitious mention of Aids….
Something else is offered by Nick’s developing other life: outsiders’ views of the upper-middle class life he’s bought into. Leo finds him young and is charmed and taken aback in turns by his lack of knowledge of the world. He is sceptical about Nick’s relationship with the Feddens, won’t take at face value either Nick’s assurance that he is almost a family member or that he can take or leave their kind of Toryism. The early scene in the private garden crystallises it in one of the most telling conversations in the novel so far: a resident curtly reminds them that only key-holders are allowed in, but quickly begins to ingratiate himself when Nick tells him he lives with the Feddens. Here’s our man, hanging on to the coat-tails of power and not even realising he’s doing it. If Leo knows that this is dangerous ground, he lets his qualms emerge in a kind of satirical tone. But he’s already allowing Nick to draw him in too, just a little bit. They go back to the house when everybody is away in the final chapter of Part 1 – and it turns out that Leo, he of the lowly beginnings – he’s taken Nick home to the council flat where he lives with his mother and sister – can play Mozart better than Nick. And he likes the nice house too….
Part 2 – ‘To whom do you beautifully belong?’
Hollinghurst is good. Nick Guest, the wide-eyed innocent of Part 1, has been left behind as things have moved on almost three years. There are six chapters to go with the six in Part 1, but this time one of the chapters is longer, and has six sections of its own. This is the one set in the ‘manoir’ in southern France, which Hollinghurst uses to have several themes coalesce. I’ll get back to it later. Otherwise, he continues with his chosen method of having single days, usually containing set-pieces of one sort or another, that stand for a whole life. The chapters span a period from early summer in the men-only pool in Hampstead Heath to a high-profile anniversary celebration on Bonfire Night at the Feddens’. It’s all brilliant, and it’s all horrible.
In fact, there’s not much that’s brilliant about the chapter that starts this section. If Nick was a tabula rasa in Part 1, well, there’s not much that’s particularly rasa about him now. He’s taken his latest partner – and reader, it’s the drop-dead gorgeous Wani he’s fancied since the Oxford days – for the first swim of the summer. The pool on the Heath sounds pre-war basic – but that’s all you need when the subject on the card is picking up anybody who might be fun in a threesome. Wani isn’t quite ok with it, because he has a watch worth ‘a thousand pounds’ – he pronounces monetary value with a sort of reverence – and he’d lose a lot of car if his keys got nicked from the changing-room.
But love conquers all – or the promise of sex does, even Mr Materialism’s qualms. There are all sorts at the pool – straight men don’t go there, apparently – and they choose a working class lad to take home. It’s car, coke, sex, not necessarily in that order. The chapter sets the tone for the rest of Part 2, which, while being more of a primer in gay sex than most readers probably want, is also a satire on the sheer kitsch of Thatcher’s 1980s. We get proof after proof of how wealth is wasted on the wealthy, as Nick seems to continue not to understand that his exquisite taste in everything is a complete irrelevance in this universe. And he still hasn’t realised that the Feddens aren’t his family, that Catherine isn’t, as he insists to himself at one point, his sister. He has a perfectly respectable family in Barwick – we meet them – and it’s an aspect of his failure in this section – one of several – that to all intents and purposes he denies them.
But I’m jumping the gun. In addition to the hedonistic lifestyle that Nick has with Wani – real name Antoine, originally from Beirut – Hollinghurst uses the first two chapters of Part 2 to begin his dissection of the sheer ugliness of the capitalism that was the engine of Thatcherism. In his take on it, it’s an almost entirely philistine culture, and he makes the ugliness literal as well as metaphorical. Bertrand, Wani’s father, is an archetype. He’s made his millions from a chain of mini-marts throughout the country, and as well as being a representative of capitalism red in tooth and claw, he’s got awful taste. The paintings he buys, lurid pastiches of Impressionism, are by an artist Hollinghurst has invented whose name is, near enough, Zit. And his Rolls is a horrible colour. (Maroon, in case you’re wondering.)
Hollinghurst is depending on us being on Nick’s side here. The idea is for us to collude in our disdain for Bertrand and the others like him. And, to some extent, they’re all like him. Gerald puts on a high-status piano recital at the house because, well, that’s what everybody seems to be doing – and Hollinghurst delights in letting us see exactly how bored almost all the invited guests are. It becomes a running joke that the exquisite Beethoven sonata is forgotten as everyone – from Gerald’s mother the toff to Wani’s father the nouveau riche grocer – singles out the blatant crowd-pleaser for praise. It’s the bloody awful Sabre Dance, and all we can do is shake our heads sagely at their ignorance.
There are other things like this, such as the Gauguin that Lord Kessler gives to Gerald and Rachel for their 25th wedding anniversary in the final chapter of Part 2. Gerald ignores its merits, sees it for what it is on a different level: a consolation prize in lieu of what he really wanted. And what he really wanted was a party at the big house where, he thinks, he could have impressed the Lady properly. Will she be so taken with their Islington house? And hadn’t he better get the front door painted ‘Conference Blue’ sharpish? It’s irrelevant, obviously. She doesn’t notice such things, doesn’t play the preposterous upper middle-class game in which matters of taste are all about status anxiety. Or merely status. She isn’t superior to them – although Nick seems almost as besotted as the attendant Tories. She simply doesn’t need to play their game…
…because she is the game. Finding favour with her is as real an objective as any other in the scramble for status, and its apotheosis is the anniversary party which she has agreed to attend. Gerald seems to keep forgetting the ostensible reason for the party in his eagerness to do right by the Lady. Nick, mellow on coke, is free to observe the idiocies the Tory men will perpetrate in order to spend some time in the regal presence – she really is a queen, to all intents and purposes – and, through the confidence his illegal intake of drugs has brought him, engages her in conversation. And the shopkeeper’s son – we’ve seen the shop – has the first dance with the grocer’s daughter. Later – or was it earlier? – he has sex with the grocer’s son, and only we, Hollinghurst’s willing confidants, can see the layers of irony that are lost on the people who think they are the insiders.
However. They really are the insiders, of course, and the main thread of Part 2 is to do with how Nick participates on the sufferance of people with enough power and money to keep him on. The novel’s opening chapter, all those years ago, shows us how convenient he is for the Feddens. At another level he flatters them, especially Gerald: they can engage in what seem like quite erudite discussions that make Gerald think he’s more into cultural life than he really is. He hasn’t really moved on since Oxford days but Nick lets him pretend that he has. Ok…
…but we know all this from Part 1. What moves it on now is his relationship with Wani. Nick is ostensibly an employee of his production company, but really he’s an ornament in what is little more than a vanity project. Wani describes him to his father as his ‘aesthete’ and we’ve already seen how Nick happily uses verbose quotations from Henry James novels as a kind of office party trick. It’s harmless fun… except there’s a price, literally. Wani decides to hand him a cheque for ￡5000, signing it with a flourish of his expensive fountain pen; later he buys him a car as a runabout, which causes Nick’s highly conventional parents some qualms. Later still, when Wani complains that nobody does any fucking work, Nick jokes that he does exactly that. ‘To whom do you beautifully belong?’ (a James quotation, obviously): good question.
What am I saying? That Nick is prostituting himself? I seem to be… and I think that’s what Hollighurst wants us to think. I’m not going to suggest that mixing with the wrong class of people has corrupted him, because when I described him as an innocent I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek. (And I won’t even begin to describe where else that tongue of his has been, ho ho.) Any innocence about him was always based on his willingness to delude himself, as though surrounding himself with beautiful things was only ever part of a project of cultural self-improvement. In Chapter 1 we saw his failure to face a difficulty – the conversation he doesn’t have with the Feddens about Catherine’s cry for help – and now, three years later, he always takes the path of least resistance. He won’t face a tricky social occasion without coke, will leave off his studies for a romp with Wani, has followed his cock for three years wherever it takes him.
And what about ‘the line of beauty’? It’s the double curve on each side of an ogee arch and, on a different plane, it’s the curve of a man’s back. Nick wants to endow it with significance, wants it to represent a kind of aesthetic philosophy. It’s his idea to give the name ‘Ogee’ to the magazine that Wani and he hope to start, and there’s something absolutely spot-on about the fact that 90% of the population don’t even know what it means or assume, like Wani’s father, that he heard them say ‘O.G.’ or ‘Oh Gee’. (My spell-checker doesn’t recognise it either.)
It all begins to seem at best self-deluding (again) and at worst fraudulent. He has an ill-advised conversation with Catherine in France – she’s in one of her truth-telling phases, which I’ll come back to – and once she’s realised that Wani is gay he tells her they have been an item for months. She wonders what Nick sees in him, and all Nick can say is how beautiful he has always found him. Well, maybe. But that delightful little cock of his might have something to do with it, and the coke, and the money, and the car, and the whole rich-kid lifestyle. However superior Nick considers himself to be – and he’s an arrant cultural snob – basically, he presents himself to these people in ways that allow him to live exactly like them. It’s inevitable that by the end of Part 2 the line of beauty is the line of coke he contemplates longingly. It’s a sign of his failure, and he’ll have to pay for it all eventually. Won’t he?
What have I missed? Aids, of course, which is killing off some minor characters we hardly know. And there are a couple of chapters to talk about, one set in Barwick, Nick’s home town where Gerald is the MP, and the split-up chapter set in France. The Barwick chapter is partly to show Gerald in his appalling pomp, spending time there only because he has to to fulfil his political ambitions. We also see his almost psychotic competitiveness: his determination to win the welly-wanging contest is another in a line of similar incidents, like his presentation of a close-fought tennis match as a ‘thrashing’ of his old friend in Part 1, and his fury when he loses at boules to Wani in France later. We also find out discouraging things about Nick: his alienation from his parents, his contemplation of the fact that his father keeps a shop, his belief that his real family is the clan of appalling Tories in London. When he sees Gerald fondling his (female) agent and realises they are having an affair, it’s like the adolescent’s shock at his parent’s feet of clay.
France. It’s Nick’s first time there in the four summers he’s spent with the Feddens: Catherine has gone for her first visit in adult life, and she has another self-serving boyfriend to look after her. Nick arrives with Wani following a Bacchanalian tour of Europe – every taste, and every sense catered for – and… it isn’t good. Sure, the house is nice – there’s an essay that could be written on the interiors in this book, from Leo’s mum’s place to Lord Kessler’s – but the holiday isn’t a success for Nick. His friendship with Toby is polite but in an afternoon of frankness he doesn’t tell him what he later (or earlier) tells Catherine. His relationship with Wani is, he finally begins to realise, built on very little. And Gerald Fedden’s fat-cat guest Maurice Tipper, the one who was going to be Toby’s father-in-law and who Gerald wants to go into business with, is philistinism – and a lot of other unattractive qualities – personified. His early departure, with his equally appalling wife, is to do with the fact that for all their money they have no idea how to enjoy themselves. They also don’t like the left-leaning tone Catherine takes with them, mocking the few francs they put in the box of the local church, or Nick’s frank exposure of what we would now call their homophobia, something else to file away for later.
That’s enough for now. Except that in the anniversary chapter, among the other horrors, Nick practically catches Wani in flagrante with Catherine’s boyfriend. After that there’s only the relatively short Part 3 left to go, and I’m not predicting any happy endings.
Part 3 – The End of the Street
As I said, I’ve read the book before, so I always knew that it ends in Nick’s ejection from the lives of the Feddens. Now I’m wondering how much my reading of Parts 1 and 2 this time around depends on that prior knowledge. The first time I read it, I’m pretty sure I didn’t suspect either the thoroughness of their disowning of him or how Hollinghurst is sowing the narrative seeds of his downfall from the very first chapter. It strikes me now both as ever so slightly implausible and absolutely masterly.
I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that I mentioned Mansfield Park early on as a precursor to this novel in being based on a poor outsider brought into a rich family’s house. The final chapter of Austen’s novel is all about those who are allowed to stay in or near the house – by this time it is being portrayed as a kind of earthly paradise – and those who are cast out. In the 19th Century, the poor relation is one of those allowed a piece of heaven. In 21st Century novels the outsider doesn’t stand a chance. (In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, shortlisted for the Booker Prize three years before Hollinghurst’s novel won it, one of its main characters is Robbie Turner, a lower-class young man taken under the wing of a rich family. The novel starts with him fresh from getting a first in English at Oxford and full of desire for the family member he lusted after from afar while they were both there. I’ll come back to him because there are a lot of other parallels.)
As I was reading, I decided that Hollinghurst isn’t simply portraying Nick’s fall from grace as the necessary conclusion of the workings of a cynical society. That aspect is most definitely there, especially in the way that Gerald is keen to offload all the blame for his own exposure on to the outsider, but it isn’t the whole story. Nick has brought a lot of it on to himself, and whereas if Jane Austen were in charge of handing out the spoils in this novel Gerald would get nothing, well, neither would Nick.
Part 3 is where everything seems to be coming home to roost. Wani, always far more reckless than Nick, is dying of Aids and their project to produce a film is dying with him. It’s a version of The Spoils of Poynton – Hollinghurst has already had one character complaining that its plot seems to revolve around furniture – and Nick’s hopes for his beloved screenplay fizzle away over a dreadful lunch with possible investors in a restaurant that used to welcome them before Wani started to look so dreadful. I’m not sure how Hollinghurst wants us to feel. Certainly not indifferent but, well, it seems like a lesson that Nick has got to learn. It happens early in Part 3, and it seems to be a first step in a long delayed process of growing up. He’s nearly 25, for God’s sake. Later in the year there’s another lesson: Leo’s sister and her gay partner come to visit him to tell him what he already suspects: his first lover has died.
And how about Gerald? The first chapter in this section takes place on Election Day, 1987, and Barwick has almost had enough of their MP. Lazy but ambitious, somebody calls him, and they’re right: it explains why he’s always been so hard to like – and why it’s been so hard to see how Nick could bear to be in the same room as him. Nick is watching the results with Catherine, and she is almost chanting, ‘Lose, lose!’ But he doesn’t lose, is re-elected by a margin of a few hundred votes – down from 8,000 – and Catherine is appalled. Hollinghurst wants us to see just how much she has it in for her father because…
…later in the year, now in the most manic state we’ve ever seen her in – I ended up thinking of this as little more than a plot device, despite Hollinghurst’s care to keep her symptoms squarely within the bounds of manic depression – she decides to do him over. All through the novel she’s been the one to speak truth to power – with the caveat that her particular truth usually sounds like the petulance of a spoilt child. But I like the way that Hollinghurst has provided her with a very plausible motive for disliking her father: he has never done right by her. His arch nicknames – she is always ‘Puss’ to him – mask his unease in her presence, but can’t hide from her the fact that he doesn’t really like the adult she has become, and doesn’t know what to do with her. So…
…her frank dislike of him on Election Night is highly believable, although there’s nothing she can do about it. But then, months later, there is. Neither Nick nor the reader – this reader, anyway – has any idea what she’s up to when she decides she wants to go for a wander one night. She’s just spoken to Gerald on the phone, and her hectic tone lulls him, and us, into a false sense of security. He’s going to be home late, as usual, ‘jerrybustering and filimandering’, as she puts it. Yes, he says in his patronising tone, that’s what he’s doing…. And she tells Nick she wants to go out. Where? She isn’t telling…. But they end up at what has been described earlier in the novel as Badger’s ‘fuck-flat’ in Westminster. And who should be leaving but Penny, the secretary Nick knows Gerald is having an affair with? And whose voice should they hear from inside the flat but Gerald’s?
And to make this revelation morph into Nick’s ejection from paradise, Hollinghurst does the final assembly of some careful plot engineering work. We don’t know that’s what’s happening until it unfolds before our eyes, and it isn’t pretty. First we get a reporter and a photographer hanging around the house because there are rumours that Gerald might be guilty of some sharp business practices – and suddenly there’s a media scrum because word is out about Gerald’s affair. Catherine has mentioned it, in secret, to Russell, the cynical photographer from Part 1 who she’s trying to get back in with. Ah. Then… Nick sees his own face on the front pages: his gay relationship with the dying son of the businessman who has recently been made a life-peer is news because (gulp) he lives in the house of the disgraced MP Gerald Fedden. (Source: same as before – and it’s much too late for Nick to start wishing he’d never told her.)
And in fact, that’s nearly all. Except something else that Catherine has finally let the world know about – and you can see why I started to think of her illness as one big plot device – is her not-quite suicide attempt in Chapter 1, the one that Nick helped her with but never reported to her parents. With this, Hollinghurst has completed the set-up for the demolition of Nick’s illusion of himself as a de facto family member.
There’s a rising scale of horror. At first there isn’t really any horror at all, only a kind of confusion so deep it feels like concussion: the bit where Nick first sees the front page story about himself for the first time is an object lesson in how to describe initial disbelief slowly giving way to acceptance that, yes, this is real. But then we get Nick’s conversations with family members, starting with two of the least fully-drawn characters in a novel which, I’ve just realised, is full of thumbnails. Toby, who we’ve only glimpsed occasionally since the early chapters, is miffed that Nick wasn’t as open with him as he feels he himself was in France that summer. We’re to believe that for Toby this represents a serious failure of trust. Ok. Then comes Rachel. She’s never been much more than an adjunct to Gerald, the real villain of this novel, and in order to make Nick’s conversation with her into a life-changer, Hollinghurst has to fill in whole years they’ve spent living as closely as family members. Their easy rapport, the shared values and in-jokes – basically, their liking for one another – is conjured up for it to be knocked down in minutes.
What makes it work, I suppose, is Nick’s inability to put up any defence against her attack. This is partly to do with good taste: he couldn’t possibly respond to her accusation that he let the family down over Catherine’s cry for help because it would sound like special pleading, and he can’t see that he’s done anything wrong. But it’s more to do with the fact that their relationship is based on almost nothing: a knowing glance here, a gentle touch on the shoulder there. He has nothing to say, and can’t rely on a winning look because she doesn’t let him make eye-contact. What really confounds him is his realisation that she is going to do that Tory wife thing of standing by her husband. As far as that little family unit is concerned, he is firmly on the outside – and, far worse, that he is getting the blame for things that the family has been getting wrong.
But all this is nothing compared to what is yet to come. He realises he is going to have to leave the house, rehearses what he is going to say to Gerald – and has to wait in the shadows while the worst of Gerald’s unspeakable Tory friends harangues Gerald for having let ‘that pansy’ anywhere near the hallowed family territory. It’s a clever little scene as Nick eavesdrops on a description of himself as a cross between a family-hating villain and some kind of perverted contagion. It prepares the ground for Gerald, who is suddenly able to wipe away four years of fairly intimate connection through a rush of righteous anger. And this is where Hollinghurst starts to hammer in the final nail we only recognise as Gerald speaks: Gerald has convinced himself that Nick was the one who showed Catherine the way to Badger’s flat: he has turned his own daughter against him.
I love this. If the 1980s have seen Nick’s gradual slide into self-indulgence and self-deception, it’s nothing compared to what has happened to Gerald. Nick is a serial monogamist and, essentially, he hurts nobody but himself. Gerald, as the novel progresses, has become essentially corrupt in everything from family life to business practices. And this is the man telling Nick that he hasn’t been loyal.
Faced with this, there’s absolutely nothing Nick can say. As I said at the start of this entry, it’s masterly. Poor little Nick has had his vision of paradise, and it’s been wrenched away from him. It isn’t a tragedy, because the loss is of something that was never real in the first place: all he’s really lost is a comfortable lifestyle. There can be no tragedies in the society Hollinghurst describes, because what is at stake is the paper-thin stuff of status and wealth that brings nothing of value with it.
Before Nick says his final goodbyes to the house there’s a scene in Wani’s flat above the Ogee offices. Copies of the first – and, of course, last – edition of the magazine are delivered just after Wani leaves for a wedding that Nick isn’t invited to. (Nick wonders, as ever, whether this will be the last time he will see Wani: he’s taken away one hidden stash of coke, but he might have missed others – which might be enough to give Wani that final massive heart attack.) Nick regrets that Wani missed the delivery of the magazine, which Hollinghurst has made into a kind of symbol of what the 80s have brought them. It’s full of exquisitely tasteful things and advertisements for products – Gucci, Bulgari – representing the most shameless excess. In these final chapters Hollinghurst pulls out all the stops to bring us an inside view of the upheavals inside Nick’s head, and now we follow him as he imagines what it would have been like if Wani had been able to give out copies to the bright young things at the wedding. They would look at it admiringly, show things to one another, leave them tastefully lying about…. But, of course, the copies are still in bundles in the office.
And then it’s goodbye. Hollinghurst can try all he likes to make the pang seem bitter – but he knows he has to up the stakes if we’re really going to care. As Nick leaves, he’s on his way to find out the results of his third HIV test. The three years at Oxford and the four years in London have been a kind of adolescence – I lost count of the number of times Hollinghurst describes him as like a child facing his parents in this section – and now he’s got to go out into the real world. He’s a grown-up now.
I’m saying this, but I’m not convinced. If Nick has learnt anything it’s simply that in Thatcher’s Britain there is no justice, no model of ethical behaviour. (We hear that Gerald has resigned – and is to take up the directorship of a company that will pay him far more than his MP’s salary.) Ok. But on the way to this hard lesson he’s become an unattractive figure, and Hollighurst’s careful evocation of his nostalgia for a better time doesn’t change that. In the end, I don’t give a damn about that HIV test, because I’m really not that bothered about Nick.
Some weeks ago I mentioned in parenthesis some parallels with Ian McEwan novels. There are others, such as… Nick’s first from Oxford, like Robbie’s in Atonement, is a better degree than the one achieved by the family member he fancies. Ok, Robbie is straight and he lusts after the daughter of the big house his mother works in as a cleaner and where he is allowed in as a friend of the family. By the end of Part 1 in that novel – and readers who haven’t read it should look away now – he’s been screwed by the upper middle-class family who are content to view his lowly class status as evidence of his moral turpitude. It’s not as crude as that, but the real perpetrator of the sexual assault on a teenage girl that he is blamed for is never in the frame because his father is a rich industrialist. In other words, what the English upper middle classes do when there’s any threat to them or their complacent view of themselves, is close ranks.
The other thing about Ian McEwan is the way he likes to give his characters big houses. In Atonement it’s big and ugly, symbolic of – guess – the upper middle-class’s philistinism. In Saturday, published a year after The Line of Beauty, it’s a big and desirable London house paid for by the wife’s inherited money. And, er… that’ll do.