The Sparsholt Affair
When Alan Hollinghurst burst upon the literary world 30-odd years ago with The Swimming-Pool Library he looked like a major talent in search of a minor subject matter. Or was it wrong to say that here was a high comedian of fiction in the manner of Anthony Powell who was somehow so focused on the blow-by-blow minutiae of gay sex that great riffs of his writing were like food porn for particular tastes? The porn aspect in combination with prose of undulating elegance was a bit odd because Hollinghurst obviously wasn’t a great obsessional visionary like Genet, for whom sex was a towering metaphor for power and submission and every ravaging the heart could envisage or endure.
No, Hollinghurst’s eroticism came across as connoisseurship laid on thick. Nor did it help that the plot lines of later books could be so blatantly romances they came across as Mills & Boon for boys.
But the man who won the Booker for The Line of Beauty is, for all this, a writer of prose of gleaming beauty. His newest novel, The Sparsholt Affair, gives a sweeping view of Britain over the past 75 years, more or less through a glass gaily, with not so much physical detail as great richness of texture and a monumental stateliness of pace. No doubt it adds to the sense of long duration and the remembrancing of things past, but the reader is liable to find herself racing through the Jamesian thickets in search of whatever slim narrative is buried behind them.
We start at Oxford shortly before World War II: some sporty dreamboat destined to be a decorated RAF war hero causes quite an erotic frisson among a group of young exquisites. There’s a talented painter who fixes the chap’s image, an intellectual savant of the future who writes the first phase of the account, and the son of a serious and out-of-fashion novelist who actually beds him after he offers to pay the fine incurred by the legend for doing it with his girlfriend against college rules.
Flash to the mid-1960s and the Greek god is a family man messing about on boats, and the world is seen through the eyes of his mid-teens son who has the hots for a French boy there for the holidays. The girlfriend is now his easygoing wife but there’s also an amiable male mate on the boat.
By the 1970s, the son is a budding artist and we discover, slowly and in shadows, that his dad was the subject of some scandal not long after the previous action, in which he fell foul of the law. It somehow involved homosexuality – not legalised in Britain until 1967 – as well as financial corruption. The mate on the boat was a bit like Michael Redgrave’s “friend”. Not that the wife knew.
This thread of revelation does not, however, dominate what passes for the action. The son is now meeting the acquaintances of his father’s youth and enjoying (or not) both the free-for-all of gay liberation and the urbane backbiting of an art world that’s always taken its free and easy serial snipings in strong sips, like gin.
His heart aches for a chap who has a thing for older men, not boys. He finds himself assisting a couple of lesbian comrades-in-art who want to have a baby and the upshot is a daughter, and he makes it a condition that he stay in contact as the acknowledged father. She’s ravishingly rendered as a girl and stays convincing as a young woman about to be hitched in York Minster who wants her bohemian dad to wear not only a suit but a top hat.
It’s now more or less the present. Then his father dies, suddenly. The full outline, not the detail, of the scandal becomes clear and there’s a credible portrait of ageing masculine blindness, refusing to admit to anything much – never mind the newspapers, the books. It’s not without some touch of poignancy.
The Sparsholt Affair is consistently well written and has a story to tell – a historical recapitulation of attitudes that now seem barbarous or otiose – but for all his manifest talent and power of observation, it never creates an independent world of any freshness or strangeness.
We know it’s the ’60s because people watch The Saint on TV and listen to Tom Jones. Real figures such as the critic John Gross appear on panel shows with Betjeman. The frenzied clubbing of the ’70s is given with a recognisable throb and colour. The old luvvies are done to a tee. The sex stumbles or fumbles and the heart has its solitudes as well as its hungers in a way that shows experience and worldliness. But no one in this book leans out too far or in too deep and nor, more particularly, does the author.
You can see the effort to be more than a niche novelist in The Sparsholt Affair. The French teenager, insolent and all too knowing, who jerks off in the bunk above the hero’s, would be a brilliant portrait in a short story. And the lumbering figure of the man who suffers all that disgrace – first in the novel’s future, then in its long-ago past – is a very credible study of dissimulation and slender self-knowledge, not to say a complete refusal to admit to an aspect of his sexual being. One of the subtleties of the novel is that the son doesn’t in any perceptible sense have a gay father: he just has a father who turns out to have been gay, among other things. But all of this whispers and wanders around the sidelines of a book that never quite gets on top of what it’s about. Hollinghurst has too much indirection, too much clever talk and bustling evocation of a world that seems to be a hothouse comfort zone.
In a weird way the complex architectural nature of The Sparsholt Affair and its constant but slowly articulated variations of theme – and its admirable, in terms of good intentions, refusal to let the narrative simply tumble in the hay – dictate why Hollinghurst has always seemed a bit too much like a gay romance writer with very fancy stylistic equipment and a lot of rather mechanistic sex. He doesn’t have enough to say to justify the length he parades with such aplomb and such self-satisfaction. QSS
Picador, 448pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 14, 2017 as "Alan Hollinghurst, The Sparsholt Affair". Subscribe here.