I found out I was pregnant the day I got back from Portugal. As a result, the trip holds a special sort of poignancy, fine and silken and sun-bleached. While my pregnancy was its own sort of slow, that vacation was the last times in my life I was ever truly languid.
It was also one of the first. Vacation or no, my guilt cricket compels me to be at least moderately productive, but Portugal’s langor forces overpowered the cricket, nearly every time. Consider yourself warned.
Portugal is famous for its embrace of saudade, an intensely melancholic and often anachronistic breed of nostalgia. Perhaps it was that that I felt as I lay on a well-cushioned lounge chair beside an immense, elaborately tiled pool in the fading afternoon of our first day in Lisbon. I was sucking at the dregs of a carrot juice and reading, for the second time, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. My legs were sprawled in front of me like two proud grubs. All around, a garden of magnificent, global breadth cast Dr. Suessian shadows. The Lisbon of my mind’s eye, with its pastel tiles and tight alleyways and cornucopia of cod, was miles way. I ordered a second carrot juice.
The Line of Beauty is a novel steeped in languor. Not something often said of novels whose protagonists shove endless amounts of cocaine up their noses, but there you are. The plot concerns a semi-closeted young aesthete and Henry James scholar, Nick Guest, whose desire to fit into the world in which he is perennially a guest conflicts, obliquely and then directly, with his desire for sexual belonging. The novel opens in 1983, just after Thatcher’s second election victory, with Nick newly ensconced as a house guest in the Notting Hill home of his friend Toby Fedden, a labradorilly genial and attractive friend from Oxford whose father Gerald has also just been elected as a Tory MP. Gerald is as socially striving as Nick, though he is driven not, as Nick is, by the beauty that comes with privilege, the art and the music and the sweeping estates, but by the status. There is not a bit of languor in the leonine Gerald, but it coats the remarks of those to the manor born he seeks to rub elbows with. (Hollinghurst’s knack for embedding biting sociocultural commentary into dialogue is very near flawless — reason enough to read the book). The peerage toast and twirl as ever, but one detects, in their drolleries and forced tolerance of petite bourgeoisie like Gerald, a sinking sense of centuries-old positions begun to rot. This, to me, is the ultimate languor: idleness that is unearned and reflexively nostalgic.
Technically, I did earn my vacation, yet I was taking it in a country whose faded economy and sky-high unemployment gave it longer legs than it would anywhere else in Western Europe. I was staying in a castle of filigreed, almost royal opulence, being brought plush robes and fresh juices by doe-eyed, silent young men in crisp white polo shirts—and all for less, per night, than the average pair of Bird mom jeans. The whole thing felt very colonial, and as such, fairly unamerican. Which is not to say I didn’t soak it up. Eventually, I would switch from carrot juice to beer, take a leisurely bath, and totter off with my husband to a cervejaria or the seafood bar at the Time Out Market, where we would drink glass after glass of fizzy vino verde and eat plate after plate of garlicy razor clams and scarlet tiger shrimp and, best of all, goose barnacles, which look like dinosaur toenails and taste only of the cold, crashing surf. After, we might wend up one of the sinuous, leafy streets, watching the setting sun dusken the tiles, listening to competing strains of fuasto and old Bruno Mars and huffing British tourist. Then we’d order a fortifying port from a cart and try to capture the moonlit sky- and ocean-line and marvel at the velvety, deep blue stillness.
Later, we were in Seville, which is, in the week between the eerie pomp of Holy Week and the mapcap Feria, as sultry as guidebooks say Lisbon is. Plus hot and bustling — from natives, mostly, and Spanish was all almost anyone outside of the hotels was speaking, where English had dominated Lisbon’s public spaces. Seville was all wrong for The Line of Beauty, but I picked it back up when we crossed back into Portugal, to hole up for a night in another sweeping villa in the fortified university city of Evora.
In the second part of the book, languor takes a more personal, and debauched turn, as Nick and his lover-cum-business partner Wani, the beautiful heir to a Lebanese grocery fortune, dive the boom and exhaustive bust of anonymous group sex and cocaine. Like the drug itself, the experience of reading this section provides an initial rush followed by chapter after chapter of restlessness. Nick and Wani are ostensibly launching a production studio and arts magazine called Ogee, after Hogarth’s line of beauty, but mostly, they worship more ephemeral lines. By the time the magazine’s first issue is out, the spectre of AIDS is upon them, and the languor changes to regret, sharp and powerful for all it is repressed.
This part of the book matched less with my vacation state in Evora than the first part had done in Lisbon, yet parts of it struck memory chords that the sepia city, in twilight was happy to prolong. And then it was morning and a pair of peacocks were courting in the ruins of an old convent. At the city’s titular Roman temple, one hundred schoolchildren danced vigorously to “Turn Down for What.” I shook the memories off and headed to Lisbon for one more night, where I ate more goose barnacles and wore my grandmother’s alligator-print shirt for what would turn out to be the last time and snapped photos of undulating parks and the prettiest Barclays I’ve ever seen. The Line of Beauty was finished, and heavy; I left it behind in the hotel room and flew home.
PS — for languor of the purest, prettiest sort, go see Call Me By Your Name.