For all my occasional cheap sneers at the dull, predictable tastes of the ten-CD-a-year crowd (Keane and Snow Patrol? Oh, the horror! I must reconsider our friendship immediately!) there is an instant, crushing comeback: when it comes to books, I am every bit as safe and slack. Evidence for the prosecution: my holiday reading this year consisted of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and last year’s Booker Prize winner, DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little – two choices which make Keane and Snow Patrol look positively underground. Because basically, if it’s not MASSIVE, then it simply falls under my radar.
All of which helps to explain why I’m now reading this year’s Booker Prize winner, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line Of Beauty, despite finding his last two novels really pretty bloody irritating. We have an altogether strange relationship, Hollinghurst and I. Although he frequently drives me to distraction, I somehow feel compelled to read him, and I’m not sure I altogether understand why.
This was particularly the case with his previous novel, The Spell, which juxtaposed drug-f***ed urban scene-queenery with gracious gay living in the shires in a manner which sometimes had me openly hurling abuse at the page, and at its maddeningly pathetic central four characters. And yet, and yet: was a large part of my irritation not a reflex reaction against an uncomfortably sharp recognition of realities which the book all too accurately depicted? And if I hated it so much, then why did so many of its scenes continue to resonate within me for years afterwards?
Actually, my main bone of contention with Hollinghurst is probably much simpler: it’s that damned writing style. It’s dry, bloodless, and emotionally disengaged; but most annoyingly of all, it’s self-consciously “literary” in such a mimsy, precious way. For example, when one of the characters in The Spell sprays himself with aftershave, Hollinghurst has him “stepping into the costly mist”, if you please. Jeez Louise, it’s only a bit of pong!
This description has since entered our private repertoire of stock catchphrases, deployed whenever one of us catches the other brandishing a bottle of Eau Savage/Burberry Weekend in the bathroom (delete as appropriate).
“He stepped into the costly mist.” Titter, titter. Sets us off, every time.
Although I am only on the third chapter of The Line Of Beauty (and you should hear the way K scornfully pronounces that title alone) I have already started a small collection of similarly toe-curling phrases – which I delight in reading out loud, just to watch him squirm and howl in that peculiarly satisfying way of his.
Here’s what I’ve amassed so far. For maximum effect, these should be read out loud, in a voice pitched somewhere between Brian Sewell and Hyacinth Bucket.
- “The first flight of stairs, fanning out into the hall, was made of stone; the upper flights had the confidential creak of oak.” (We already do rather a nice line in confidential creaking.)
- “Nick would see him from the balcony and go down to join him, slightly breathless, knowing Toby quite liked his rower’s body to be looked at. It was the easy charity of beauty.”
- “To Nick the whole house, as yet only imagined, took on the light and shade of moods, the life that was lived there as steeped in emotion as the Oxford air was with the smell of lake water.”
- “…and at the far end the tennis courts, whose overlapping series of serves and rallies and calls lent a calming reminder of other people’s exertions to the August dusk.”
- “He went over to the much neglected piano, its black lid the podium for various old art folios and a small bronze bust of Liszt – which seemed to give a rather pained glance at his sight-reading from the Mozart on the stand. To Nick himself the faltering notes were like raindrops on a sandy path, and he was filled with a sense of what his evening could have been.”
Oh, I’m being too cruel; it’s a perfectly good read, with some beautifully turned observations of the nuances of social behaviour along the way. Just so long as I can vent when I get to the poncey stuff, I’ll be fine.
As you probably know by now, it’s being sarky little madams that keeps us going.