Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2004-2005

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

The Master, by Colm Toibin


The Trouble with Islam: A Wake-up Call for Honesty and Change, by Irshad Manji

reviewed by Tony Challis

There is much joy in the matter of being alive and gay and exploring a sexual relationship for the first time in especially the first part of The Line of Beauty. (Henry James can be such a baleful influence.) There is also much cocaine, many Tories, much deceit and many secrets. The later part becomes increasingly sombre as AIDS strikes.

Torrential rain on the tent roof made it necessary to strain to hear even Alan Hollinghurst’s rich baritone when he spoke at the 2004 Edinburgh Book Festival, which I attended for G&LH. He read aloud the now notorious scene where a coke-fuelled and naïve PhD student (both of Henry James and style) dances with Thatcher before going upstairs for a gay threesome. This scene does not by itself convey the complexity of motivation, character and feeling that suffuses this novel. There were times when I wanted to escape the fetid atmosphere caused by the presence of so many appalling characters, but there is often the relief of laughing at them. This is the most overtly gay novel yet to win the Booker, but I’m sure the presence of the former culture secretary Chris Smith as chair of the judges was purely coincidental.

There is much pleasure to be had from reading this novel, though the ending is downbeat, but, in context, reassuringly poignant. The lack of gay characters who display any moral strength is striking, but then, the novel is set between 1983 and 1987 – after CHE shrank like a freeze-dried penis and before Thatcher’s vicious clause stimulated the rise of Stonewall and OutRage!.

PhD student Nick’s young black lover, Leo, is the most sympathetic member of a cast crowded with dissemblers, but Hollinghurst always lets his characters reveal more than they know. It is your loss if you miss this one.

A close contender for the Booker was Colm Toibin’s The Master, a fictionalised account of part of the life of Henry James. Toibin spoke at a breakfast session, with free coffee and cake. He read second, after another Irish writer, so we all had time to extract the crumbs from our teeth before he told us of James’s return to Venice after the suicide of a dear friend, a female novelist with whom he had a strong connection, and of how James and her gondolier went far out from the city to drown all her clothes – and how they resisted this burial.

Early on, we have James attending a Wilde play (An Ideal Husband) to avoid the first night of his Guy Domville. He hated the Wilde and its audience, and we see James defined in opposition to Wilde. He will never accept that he is one of those who should escape across the Channel. Yet we are shown a very affecting scene of the young James standing in the rain for hours beneath the lighted window of a male friend but never daring to do more. There must have been many in Victorian times who lived thus.

The novel moves back in time to the American Civil War. We have the slow destruction of the wounded body of James’s younger brother, and then James’s friend Gus Barker, “shot dead in Virginia ... his skin so white ... his body so full of coiled strength ... wrenched asunder with pain, and left lying there as others pass by ...” It’s worth reflecting on the wasted beauty of dying soldiers in this time of TV wars, Game Boy battles and child soldiers.

This novel provides an intimate portrait of James, and yet retains an appropriate separateness from him. It is very good on the nuances of human interaction. I would never wish to live like James, or in his time, but I am very glad Toibin has brought me so close to him.

Irshad Manji spoke in a small but crowded tent. She describes herself as a lesbian Muslim refusenik. She is very keen on the concept of “ijtihad”, an Islamic tradition of independent reasoning, which she relates especially to Islam’s “golden age” from 750 to 1250 CE. Oh, dear. She speaks (the book is more like speech than considered prose) of not being allowed to lead prayers as a mere girl, and of how difficult it was for her to consult the school library. She spoke of the temptation to leave Islam, that many of her friends had done so, but that some felt unable, stayed and became, “atheists inside their own heads”. An arresting idea. The next time I find myself faced by a woman in a black chador, maybe she will actually be “an atheist in her own head”, but unable to give voice to that.

If all Muslims were more like Irshad Manji, the world would be more interesting as well as less threatening. More can be learned from Manji’s website.

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 2005-02-13 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :