The Sparsholt Affair
As a print journalist, your mind can wonder if a lifestyle centred around the written word automatically inducts you into a realm where being published is a possibility worth entertaining, as if all these daily hours at the keyboard are an ideal training ground for a career in prose, when the time is right.
And then, every so often, books like The Sparsholt Affair come along that scupper such thoughts and bring you back down to earth with a thud. With each turn of the page, fare such as this remind you that language is an elusive concept, one man’s trusty tools of trade, another’s vortex of meaning, psychology and sensation.
Alan Hollinghurst, of course, is writing aristocracy in his native UK where his fourth novel, The Line of Beauty, scooped the Booker Prize in 2004 while his 2011 follow-up, The Stranger’s Child, received a long-listing. The Line of Beauty featured a cabinet minister who falls on his sword following a scandal, and that theme of red-top shifting transgression returns in this latest outing.
The Sparsholt of the title is David, a specimen of a man who causes a stir when he comes to Oxford in 1940 in the manner of a gay Gatsby. The Blitz is taking place down the road in London. Black-outs are a FICTION Alan Hollinghurst
Picador, trade paperback, 455 pages, €15.99
day-to-day reality and inadvertently provide a shady sanctuary for romance between men (a constant theme of Hollinghurst’s catalogue) at a time when homosexuality was illegal. The lights go off and a cloak is cast over acts of lust and love, an alternative dimension where young and promising people can actually behave a little more like themselves.
The effect that Sparsholt has on campus is only one part of this calmly ambitious work. Hollinghurst moves through two subsequent generations of Sparsholts, with David’s artist son Johnny being the fulcrum on which the saga turns. Johnny also emerges as being homosexual and is dogged by comparisons to his father, whose influence lingers long in the glacially changing liberty of gay conversation.
“Johnny’s father”, as Hollinghurst refers to him when the point of focus has shifted to his son, may be omnipresent but the theme of being forgotten or unappreciated is something that swirls about the whole story.
Evert Dax, Sparsholt’s admirer-in-chief at Oxford, is the son of a writer held in high regard by critics and academics but virtually unknown outside this. There is also a long and eloquent seam about art and portraiture as Johnny paints subjects and works in a studio touching up and restoring old artworks. Having one’s image committed to oil and canvas does not necessarily ensure immortality, Hollinghurst observes. Antique appreciation is another metaphor.
Far more effective for reawakening a person from the crypt of obscurity can be something as delicate and fleeting as a familiar look.
In the final stages of The Sparsholt Affair, Hollinghurst lands us in the digital era, with Johnny a man in the winter of his years and the place of the LGBT community radically different to his father’s wartime era. There are now dating apps and gizmos that shoddily mimic the faceto-face affection and hard-earned intimacy that Johnny and his father negotiated with care and discretion.
Hollinghurst’s dialogue is immaculately rendered, and often infused with a drawing-room wit that skirts close to a Wilde or Wodehouse but without ever descending into all-out comedy of manners. Whipsmart one-liners abound.
While waiting to use the loo, Johnny idly inspects “a red chalk drawing of a naked man, with a body-builder’s chest and ridged stomach, artily cut off at the knee and the neck, and with a high-minded blur where the cock and balls should be”. He’s joined there by an acquaintance who comments: