The Sparsholt Af­fair

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

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:

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