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Nick’s perfume: “Je promets”

September 1, 2010 6 comments

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst.

In the summer1983, Nick Guest, a twenty-one-year-old student freshly graduated from Oxford moves in with the Feddens, in Kensington Gardens, London. The family is composed of Gerald Fedden, a newly elected Tory MP, his wife Rachel, their daughter Catherine and their son Toby, Nick’s friend from Worcester College. Nick is doing a doctorate on Henry James at University College (London). Nick is gay, handsome, intelligent and has agreeable manners. He’s interested in arts and is described as an aesthete. Unlike the Feddens, he comes from the middle class.

The book is divided in three parts. The first one starts in summer 1983, when Nick is just out of Oxford and out of the closet. It relates the beginnings of his life with the Feddens and his first sexual intercourse and relationship with a black man named Leo. The Tories have won the election and Margaret Thatcher is PM. Gerald Fedden is a selfish, ambitious, rising Tory, whose dream is to have the PM attend one of his parties.

The second part takes place in 1986. Nick is now the secret lover of a rich heir, Wani Ouradi. The Ouradi family is Lebanese and owns food-retail stores. Wani takes Nick into his whirl of parties. Sex, cocaine and money are now Nick’s daily companions, the three mandatory ingredients for the parties in Wani’s class, a world of lies where gay men show off with a girl-friend or wife, paid to keep up appearances. Wani is supposedly straight and has a French girl-friend named Martine. (A rather odd name for a girl born in the 1960s, by the way).

The third part is in 1987, the Tories win the election, but less easily. Everything crumbles and masks fall down. I won’t tell more, to avoid spoilers.

Nick takes life as it comes, accepts gifts and invitations, not resenting their potential ugliness as for him beauty and ugliness can only be grasped through the prism of art. He is under the illusion that good manners and money put these people above common littleness. His own pursuit of beauty, his dandy way to grasp life blind him.

“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever the force and beauty of its process.”

He does not realize how shallow their feelings for him are, that apparent beauty can hide a rotten heart. No matter how long he would know them, he would never belong to their world, the class barrier, the gay barrier would always stand between them. He deludes himself in thinking that his love for art and his art to speak would get him into the world. He never fools anyone but himself.

Thus living, Nick almost turns his back on his family, the only time we see them is when Gerald Fedden comes for a visit, as the MP of their district. His name “Guest” sums up what he is: a guest in the Fedden’s house, a guest in Wani’s life, and eventually a guest in this world, like we all are.

 “Je promets” is the French perfume Gerald Fedden gives to Nick, the summer he moves in. “Je promets” literally means “I’m promising” as in “I have a great future” and “I’m making a promise”. Nick could have a great future, as he is well educated and intelligent but he spoils it. And he makes promises that are not mouthed but tacitly agreed.
I suppose Nick can be despised. After all, he never does anything with himself, living like a sponger on his rich friends. But I could not see him like that. I stood for him right from the start and I pity him. He has a sort of classy/chivalrous manners and an outdated sense of loyalty.

And what a loneliness! I pity his loneliness. I was sad for Nick as he must bear an unbearable double solitude. He does not belong to his own class any more and his homosexuality prevents him to belong to the world, any world. His not belonging to the upper class he now lives in makes of him the perfect scapegoat when things end badly. He never hides he is gay and the weight of others’ secrecy and tricks fall on him.

“What really was his understanding with Wani? The pursuit of love seemed to need the cultivation of indifference. The deep connection between them was so secret that at times it was hard to believe it existed. He wondered if anyone knew – had even a flicker of a guess, an intuition blinked away by its own absurdity. How could anyone tell? He felt there must always been hints of a secret affair, some involuntary tenderness or respect, a particular way of not noticing each other… He wondered if it would ever be known, or if they would take the secret to the grave. For a minute he felt unable to move, as if he were hypnotized by Wani’s image. It took a little shudder to break the charm”.

The 1980s seem well-pictured. I don’t recall clearly the politics of that time or the pursuit of fame and money as an open goal. But I was in my teens and I perfectly remember how AIDS added a second thorn on the rose of sex and an additional fear for parents.
I was amazed of the description of “the Lady”, the “PM”. She dazzles her MPs with her blue eyes and her presence hovers over the story. The image I had of her was more of a merciless warrior joyfully running over social rights and public services, crushing strikes than of a worshipped queen. (No play on word, I swear). Catherine and Nick observe her at a party:

“It’s so funny watching the men with her. They come up with their wives but you can see they’re an embarrassment ̶ look at that one now, yes, shake hands, ‘Yes, Prime Minister, yes, yes,’ can’t quite get round to introducing his wife…obviously longing for her to get lost so he can have a hot date with the Lady himself ̶ now she’s got to sit on the sofa, he’s furious…but yes! she’s got him ̶ he’s squatting now…he’s kneeling on the carpet…”

It sounds like journalists comments on a football game or on a 100-meters run. It also took me a second to collect my thoughts and realize that “The President” could only be Ronald Reagan. In a French book, it would have been written “The President of the United States” but here, “The President” is obviously clear enough, as if there were no other president in the world, as if this president was also theirs.

Several book references popped up in my mind while reading The Line of Beauty. In the first place, I thought of the New York jet-set from Jay McInerney’s books, but the characters invented by Hollinghurst are less vulgar. Then I remembered the decadence and elegant parties of Françoise Sagan and it suited better. The difficulty to enter a prestigious university where so little students come from middle/working classes reminded me of I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. Nick can be compared to the character named Hoyt, because, like him, he plays a game whose rules he thinks he understands but discovers too late he doesn’t.

I was sorry to miss a lot of Hollinghurst’s beautiful prose. I am sure I did not grasp all the innuendos, references and irony hidden behind his precise, subtle and well-chosen words. Incidentally, it has been very educational for my vocabulary. I warmly recommend this book for its style, its picture of the 1980s and its immersion into gay life.

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