Perfect Contradiction: a few gems from Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty”

Last week, I began reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, a brilliant tour of Thatcher-era upperclass London, narrated in close third-person focus on unabashed gay hedonist Nick Guest. Although the window into Nick’s world is undoubtedly fascinating, it is Hollinghurst’s writing that I have been most entranced by. And that’s what I’d like to explore here with you today. Let’s see what we find. Some brilliant kind of a confusion it will be, no doubt.

“Yes that’s exactly how it is–“

Good writing, as nearly as I can identify it in my own mind, is the rigorous observation of the world transferred from one mind to the next. Or at least, this is one element of it. The music of language is another, the aesthetics of the pure words themselves. But to transmit so precisely a feeling or image–that can take the breath away. You have to sit back, blink a moment. You say, “Yes. That’s just how this is. And I’ve never thought of it this way before, but that’s exactly how it is.”

In The Line of Beauty, I’m having this experience frighteningly often. I keep underlining sentences on my e-reader, endeavoring to pick apart what it is about them I admire. I’m certain that what takes our breath away can vary, and it surely has to do as much with who the reader is as what’s waiting in the text. But I don’t think the text is irrelevant. I think there is some magic we can find, work to understand, assimilate into our toolbox as we keep building up our stores. If you please, I’ll share a few of the highlights I’ve been making. I’m curious about your thoughts on these.

Spices ready for the pot. We were making palak paneer last week–without much in the way of restaurants where we are, we have had to learn to make more of our favorite foods. This has been a wonderful adventure.

The subtle oxymoron

One of the tools I see recurring in The Line of Beauty, or at least one recurringly making me pause and think, is a kind of unobtrusive contradiction, which feels really quite true, yet really is a contradiction in other ways, and what I love is that it reveals some of the unspoken contradictions in the world itself. Let’s take a look:

Nick felt their fondness and efficiency as a family unit.

The family being described is the Feddens, a high-powered Tory socialite and political family, Gerald, the husband, an MP, wife Rachel, and children Catherine, dealing with significant mental health challenges, and Toby, Nick’s unrequited crush. What struck me in this line was the parallel description of the family with “fondness” and “efficiency.”

In a real way, these words are contradicting: “fondness” implies mutual care, focus on feeling, the uncomplicated desire to spend time together. Efficiency implies a business transaction, greased wheels, the completion of a task through the necessary family machinery. I think the contradiction is real, yet simultaneously it is perfectly understandable. Family is that complicated mixture of love, and also the social structure within which a person has to navigate other parts of their lives.

Additionally, I think “efficiency” takes on another meaning here: that the family is efficient not just in terms of their interactions with one another, but in their support of each other in achieving the overall goals of the family as a unit. They work together, each playing their own necessary part, to achieve what is desired… or at least what is desired by Gerald.

So in this subtle oxymoron, which we might easily read past, I think there is a significant amount of truth. Thanks, Nick!

Out on the patio, we’ve got jars of kimchi, sauerkraut, and preserved lemons fermenting. These were assembled by students as part of our Slow Food workshop a few weeks ago, and after a day or so inside, the smell was a little much. We’re afraid they’ve frozen now. We’ll see when we finally open them up, then invite the students back to sample them. We’ve been so busy, we keep putting it off.

Little details, a bigger meaning

“Mmm …” In Rachel’s conversation a murmured “mmm” or drily drawn-out “I know …” could carry a note of surprising scepticism. Nick loved the upper-class economy of her talk, her way of saying nothing except by hinted shades of agreement and disagreement; he longed to master it himself. It was so different from the bounding effort of Gerald’s conversation that he sometimes wondered if Gerald himself understood her.

In this passage, Nick (or his dutiful narrator) takes Rachel’s tiny interjection and spins it out into an insightful comment on manners of speech, on the differences between Rachel and her husband, and even Nick’s unwavering envy of their mannerisms. The deeper significance in detail slows the pace considerably, yet it also takes a microscope to things in a way that makes an otherwise throwaway piece of dialogue sing.

I think it’s also worth noting here that Hollinghurst unabashedly tells us the significance of Rachel’s “Mmm” and does not show it through body language or further dialogue. This runs counter to popular writing advice in ways that I think are important to mention. For in explicitly identifying that “note of surprising scepticism,” it deepens Rachel’s character more effectively than a raised eyebrow really could, which I don’t think Rachel would actually do, after all. In fact, what it achieves is a certainty about Rachel’s ambiguity, another seeming paradox. It also highlights Nick’s careful penchant for observation–the telling is ultimately Nick’s thoughts, reported to us by the narrator, and it deepens Nick’s character simultaneously as it highlights Rachel’s.

A big and marvelous cooking project last night: we made Persian jeweled rice, with all its dried fruits, nuts, saffron, onions, chicken, and of course the crispy, caramelized rice that is the signature and the great surprise as you eat. Mmm!

Revealing and hiding things at the same time

In an interesting synthesis of the two above tools, Hollinghurst ultimately lifts up life’s ambiguity subtly and explicitly:

Nick himself was lazily exploring the margin between his affection for Gerald and a humorous suspicion, long resisted, that there might be something rather awful about him.

What struck me about this sentence was its eager kind of insistence on the ambiguity of Gerald as a character, even as Nick dissects him in line after line. That at some deep level, even after the countless observations and investigations by Nick, he is unsure of who he really is. And yet, at the same time, Nick does this “lazily,” as though in the end it doesn’t really matter, downplaying the significance of everything. And so there is this contradiction between the seriousness and the irrelevance of Gerald’s deeper self, and an ambiguity of who he really is, and the whole thing wraps up in a raising of suspicion in the reader, which at least so far in my reading has yet to be clarified. I’m fascinated.


Reading with my writer’s hat on helps me get more out of these texts, and it continually makes me question my own work in ways that are both edifying and tragic. I’ll keep going. I know, with enough self-confidence, the effect will ultimately be a positive one.

Should we try to emulate the writers who impress us? I’m not sure. Maybe as an exercise it is good to attempt a real imitation. But ultimately, if we are all developing our individual styles, we should not perhaps take from others so explicitly. We can measure the tools, and we can use them in the places that fit. At some point, if we’ve done our work well, someone else will read us and say, “Yes. That’s just how it is…”

Thanks for stopping by. What are you reading? What has impressed you recently in what you’ve read? How is the writing going? How are you?

Best wishes for the week to come,

We had our first snowfall last week–just enough for footprints. It really feels like winter now.

One thought on “Perfect Contradiction: a few gems from Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty”

Add yours

  1. Perhaps it is inherent to any description of a person, that it is both true and not true. The untruth may be because the words shine a spotlight on one attribute and encourage the listener, reader, even the speaker or thinker, to focus on that attribute and forget the other contradictory facets of a person. I can call myself an “aging hippie” which captures some truth and hides other unlabeled, unnoticed truths.
    Rabindranath Tagore, a noted poet from India, said – “Words half reveal and half conceal the truth.”


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