Gay Bri­tan­nia

Esquire (UK) - - Culture -

Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel is a mas­terly por­trait of life in the UK be­fore and since the de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity

The 50th an­niver­sary of the land­mark Sex­ual Of­fences Act 1967, which par­tially de­crim­i­nalised gay sex in Bri­tain, as well as the 60th an­niver­sary of the Wolfenden Re­port, which first rec­om­mended that de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion, have been marked in many im­por­tant ways, in­clud­ing Tate Bri­tain’s ex­hi­bi­tion, Queer Bri­tish Art 1861–1967, and the BBC’s “Gay Bri­tan­nia” sea­son. Lives and works of art and cul­tures that were pre­vi­ously hid­den — some­times in plain sight, some­times not — have been re­vealed in their true na­tures, and cel­e­brated as such, and an al­ter­na­tive his­tory of the na­tion has been pre­sented, of­ten tor­tured and tragic, fre­quently coura­geous and in­spir­ing.

The ret­ro­spec­tive ex­po­sure of a clan­des­tine gay Bri­tain is a con­tin­u­ing pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of one of our finest nov­el­ists, Alan Hollinghurst, whose re­turn this month with a new novel, six years af­ter his last, could hardly be bet­ter timed.

Hollinghurst be­gan his ca­reer with a ground­break­ing de­but,

The Swim­ming-Pool Li­brary. Set in the sum­mer of 1983, it jumps back to the Twen­ties, Thirties and Forties, con­trast­ing the mod­ern gay scene with the sex­ual and ro­man­tic lives of gay men of ear­lier gen­er­a­tions. In 2004, Hollinghurst won the Booker Prize for his mas­ter­ful satire of Eight­ies amoral­ity, The Line of Beauty. In 2011, he pub­lished The Stranger’s Child, his se­cret his­tory of gay lit­er­ary Eng­land, span­ning the years 1913 to 2008. That novel was a mys­tery, of sorts, con­cern­ing a fa­mous poem and the de­lib­er­ate con­ceal­ing of the sex­u­al­ity of its au­thor, a young man killed in World War I.

The new novel, The Sparsholt Af­fair, in a num­ber of ways takes up where that book leaves off, with the same leaps in time and place, from Ox­ford in 1940, with Ger­man bombers over­head, to Lon­don in 1974, with the lights go­ing out dur­ing the Three-Day Week, right up to the present day.

(We can’t say for sure, but this may be the first lit­er­ary novel to in­clude a men­tion — an evoca­tive one — for the Range Rover Evoque.)

Again, it con­cerns clos­eted gay lives of the past — one of the things the ti­tle refers to is a pub­lic sex scan­dal of the pre-Wolfenden pe­riod — and out gay lives of the present, cul­mi­nat­ing in a breath­tak­ing de­scrip­tion of a night of drugs and danc­ing in a gay club: a pas­sage that grabs the reader by the sweaty palm and pulls him or her, elated, through the swirling de­bauch.

Again, it de­lin­eates shift­ing tastes in art and cul­ture and so­cial be­hav­iours, changing at­ti­tudes to sex and re­la­tion­ships — es­pe­cially gay sex and re­la­tion­ships — and to class. Again, it fol­lows char­ac­ters over decades, their for­tunes ebbing and flow­ing.

Again, as with all Hollinghurst’s work, it is ut­terly in­volv­ing, un­can­nily re­alised, beau­ti­fully writ­ten and very mov­ing.

The Sparsholt Af­fair by

Alan Hollinghurst (Pi­cador) is pub­lished on 5 Oc­to­ber

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