The Line of Beauty
- Alan Hollinghurst
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Wani was distant after sex, as if assessing a slight to his dignity.
She had a lot of temperament and a terrifying left hand. She played the beginning of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 like a courier starting a motorbike.
There was a strange rough breath from Norman Kent, who was crying steadily—making rather a thing of it perhaps, pulling off his glasses and swiping his face with his hand. Nick admired the spirit of it, the defiant sensitivity, and also felt put out, since he often cried at music himself but on this occasion hadn’t managed to do so.
For a second or two Nina stood there stiffly, then she sat down without a word and played Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp minor. It was a piece the older members of the audience tended to know well, and though they didn’t specially want to hear it, they indulged it and exchanged distracted smiles.
Despite its long mute presence in his life Nick found it hard to care for the house, its pinkish walls and metal-framed windows; it lacked poetry.
Sometimes when he was nervous he asked questions to which he would rather not have known the answers.
the plan almost frightened Nick with its social grandeur, with what it would confer on him and demand from him.
Nick saw at once that the landscape over the fireplace was a Cezanne. It gave him a hilarious sense of his own social displacement.
His longing jumped out in a little groan, which became a throat-clearing and an exclamation: “Oh I say, look at that amazing float.” In a side street a team of young black men with high yellow wings and tails like birds of paradise were preparing for the parade. “It’s marvellous what they do,” said Rachel. “Not very nice music,” said Elena, with a cheerful shiver. Nick didn’t reply—and found himself in fact at one of those unforeseen moments of inner transition, when an old prejudice dissolves into a new desire.
“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.
He had on a dark grey three-piece suit which made no concession to fashion or even to the season; he looked warm in it, but seemed to say that this was simply what one wore.
Kessler had never married, but there was nothing perceptibly homosexual about him.
The furniture was mostly French, and of astonishing quality.
Lord Kessler paid a moment’s wry respect to this bit of showing-off, but said, “Oh, Trollope’s good. He’s very good on money.” “Oh … yes … ” said Nick, feeling doubly disqualified by his complete ignorance of money and by the aesthetic prejudice which had stopped him from ever reading Trollope. “To be honest, there’s a lot of him I haven’t yet read.” “You must know that one, though,” said
Sometimes his memory of books he pretended to have read became almost as vivid as that of books he had read and half-forgotten, by some fertile process of auto-suggestion.
“Now I’ve shocked you,” Paul said unapologetically. “Not at all,” said Nick, to whom life was a series of shocks, more or less well mastered.
The faint paranoia that attaches to drunkenness had set in, and he wasn’t certain if he was being rude or charming.
Across the room Gareth had switched wars and was describing the Battle of Jutland to a paralysed circle of young women. His big velvet bow tie was all donnish conceit. He was going to go on like this for forty-five years.
Nick sat at the table, quick-witted after a mug of coffee, and ready to say all kinds of things.
she was high on her own defiance tonight.
“So what do you do?” “I’m doing a doctorate at UCL—on … on Henry James,” said Nick, seeing the style question might lose her completely. “Oh …” said Jenny warily, getting a hook on it. “Yes. I’ve never got round to Henry James.” “Well …” said Nick, not caring if she had or not.
He was trembling a little from having shouted at someone he hated.
There were also studio photos of Leo and Rosemary as children, in which Nick felt himself taking an almost paedophiliac interest.
Nick felt a tear rise to his eye at the thought of the child’s utter innocence of hangovers. Nick had decided in the taxi that he would stick to water, but when Bertrand came in saying, “Now, drinks!” he at once saw the point of a bloody Mary.
he seemed to resolve into a pattern of squares and lozenges, with his square jaw, tougher than Wani’s, and the same long hawkish nose, all parts of the pattern.
Bertrand took a moment or two to see whether this was nonsense or not.
It made him wonder for a moment how he was talked about; it must be hard for his mother to boast about him. Being sort of the art adviser on a non-existent magazine was as obscure and unsatisfactory as being gay.
The mayoress made a very dull speech, but it rode on the goodwill of the audience, and on the expectation that it would be over much sooner than it was. Families rambled with a half-attentive air across the grass. Her chain could be seen, the glint of glasses, and her bright-blue, white-bowed prime-ministerial dress, on the low platform; and Gerald, standing behind, with beaming impatience. She said something unfortunate about not being able to get a celebrity to open the proceedings this summer, but at least the person they had got was on time—"unlike a certain star of the airwaves last year!” After this Gerald leapt up to the mike as if seizing the controls of a bus from a drunk.
“Bertrand? Oh, a great man!” said Gerald, who used the word very freely, as if hoping it might stick as easily to himself.
“Quite so …” Gerald nodded, as if he took that point very seriously himself. He raised and lowered his eyebrows, in perplexity at his empty glass.
a tone of imponderable irony.
The rooms were tall, deep-raftered, stone-walled, so that you would have a sense of living in the depths of them, like rooms in a castle or an old school.
passageway ran the length of the house, with bedrooms opening off it like prettily appointed cells.
He got on with unpacking, and hung up the suits he had brought—always wary of what rich people meant by “informal.”
Nick loved him with that fondness of an old friendship that accepts a degree of boredom, and is soothed and even sustained by it. What he felt was distilled affection, undemanding but principled.
with a vague air of crisis to her,
she butted her face against Wani’s and brayed, “Hello!” and showed that she didn’t really know him or expect much of him.
Her mouth was slightly open, she might have been asleep, or in the border-zone of voices where the sunned mind dallies with sleep for seconds at a time. She was more beautiful and vulnerable than Nick was prepared for;
“We had a marvellous time, I must say,” said Gerald, with jovial shortness of memory.
“It’s just these business things I’ve got to deal with,” Wani sighed, cleverly apologizing for what Gerald liked best about him.
Lady Partridge, a keen but almost unmoving swimmer, was halfway across the shallow end, apparently unaware that Sally Tipper, beside her in the water, was asking her about her hip replacement: she glanced at her from time to time with mild apprehension.
Gerald, with his frowning moping manner of comprehending the feelings of others while being quite untouched and even lightly repelled by them, made little sighs and rumbles from the head of the table.
He sat down again, opposite Sally, but not quite in relation with her, like guests in a hotel lounge.
“No, that’s true,” Sally sighed. “I mean, they’re going to have to learn, aren’t they, the … homosexuals.” “It’s a hard way to have to learn,” said Nick, “but yes, we are learning to be safe.” Sally Tipper stared at him. “Right … “ she said. Sir Maurice seemed not to notice this, but in her there was a little spectacle of ingestion. Nick tried to put it in her language, but couldn’t think what the term would be. “You know, there are very simple things that need to be done. For instance, people have got to use protection … you know, when they’re … when they’re humping.” “I see,” said Sally, with another shake of the head. He wasn’t sure she followed. Were such cheerful genteelisms any use? She had an air of being ready to take things on, and simultaneously an air of puzzled and frightened offence. “That’s what he’d been doing, had he, I suppose, your friend the actor? Humping?” “Almost undoubtedly,” said Nick. Sir Maurice made a rough, dyspeptic sound, as if chewing a mint. “But as we all know,” Nick went on flatteringly, and with a sort of weary zeal now the moment had come, “there are other things one can do. I mean there’s oral sex, which may be dangerous, but is certainly less so.” Sally received this stoically. “Kissing, you mean.”
“Perhaps not, but…Jasper’s very observant, you know, well, you probably don’t believe me … anyway, he thinks he’s a fag.” “Oh!” Nick tutted disappointedly. “Yeah, people are always saying that. It’s just because he bathes so often and wears see-through trousers.” The odd thing, Nick thought, was that people said it so rarely.
“I mean he makes a lot of noise.” It would probably be better not to tell her about that morning in Munich. “It was hilarious one morning in Munich,” he said.
“I mean, I rather worry about you, if you’re loving him so much as you say, and he’s treating you like this. Actually, I wonder if you do really love him, you see.” He saw this was her usual hyperbole, and her usual solicitous undermining of his affairs. “No, no,” he said, with a disparaging chuckle. It wasn’t that she’d shown him the truth of the matter, but that telling her these few amusing details he’d told himself something he couldn’t now retract. He had a witness too. “Anyway,” he said, “I probably shouldn’t have told you all this.”
Gerald looked at them all, and there was an odd charge of unhappiness, a family instinct, communicated, not quite understood. “I just feel like a fucking drink, OK?” he said, and went off to the end room with the bottle. Just before lunch, in the shade of the awning, he was more cheerful, but also more freely in touch with his troubles. “The fucking Tippers!” he said, counting carelessly on his mother’s deafness. “God knows what the consequences of this
“These champagne flutes are simply enormous!” she said. “I know, they’re sort of champagne tubas, aren’t they,” said Nick.
Nick stood in the plywood booth and turned the thick hexagonal stub of pencil in his fingers. Voting always gave him a heightened sense of irresponsibility.
Really, though, it was Gerald’s wall, and his wife and children appeared as decorative adjuncts to the hero’s life, unfolding in a sequence of handshakes with the famous. The Gorbachev was the latest trophy, not a handshake, but a moment of conversation, the Soviet leader’s smile just hinting at the tedium of hearing English puns explained by an interpreter.
cards were exchanged, and social visits that were never going to happen were delightedly agreed on. Nothing
If Nick answered a question Wani listened to him and then gave a flat little codicil or correction. His technique was to hold a subject up and show his command of it, and then to throw it away in smiling contempt for their interest in it.
If Nick asked him how he felt he was drily impatient with him, both for not knowing and for wanting to know. It was the unfair prerogative of illness.
Out from the speakers came the sinister little jumps that start Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. “There, you like that,” she said. “Up to a point,” said Nick, knowing how much he didn’t want to hear it.
“He sounds fine. He says really not to worry.” She had a new confidence, an almost pleasurable glow, and Nick felt sure she’d just been told how much she was loved. She moved across the room, looking for some small task to perform; found fallen chrysanthemum petals on a table top, swept them into her open palm, and dropped them in the wastebasket.