Hu­man mis­be­haviour

Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS REVIEW - Re­viewed by Ronald Frame

The Sparsholt Af­fair BY ALAN HOLLINGHURST Picador, £20

IREAD this novel, ev­ery word of the 454 pages, in two days. It’s not your usual page-turner – be­ing metic­u­lously writ­ten, acutely in­sight­ful about hu­man (mis) be­hav­iour, con­fi­dently drop­ping its ref­er­ences to Ben­jamin Brit­ten and the Lark Quar­tet, Ben Ni­chol­son and Bar­bara Hep­worth. Turn the pages, however, I did.

Ev­ery good book has an in­volv­ing tale to tell. And this is a very good book, with a skein of skil­fully en­twined what-hap­pens-next? sto­ries rang­ing over seven decades and three gen­er­a­tions. If there’s a pre­vail­ing in­tel­li­gence among the pro­tag­o­nists, it be­longs to former pic­ture-re­storer turned por­trait painter Johnny Sparsholt. In their en­tirety the sto­ries show us how gay life has devel­oped, from its cod­i­fied ex­is­tence in the shad­ows; to in­tru­sive press pruri­ence (a 1960s scan­dal, built up by jour­nal­ists as “The Sparsholt Af­fair”, is the mo­tor of this novel); to le­gal­i­sa­tion; to tur­nup-the-bass dance­floor pos­ing; to sperm-donor-fa­ther­hood/hy­brid fam­i­lies; fi­nally to con­tem­po­rary out-there­ness (club­land drugsand-wa­ter­bot­tles, hook­ing-up sex apps, at­ten­tion deficit and the per­pet­ual il­lu­sion that the next time is going to be even bet­ter).

Alan Hollinghurst is very much at home in his so­phis­ti­cated mi­lieu. We em­bark on the saga in 1940 in Ox­ford, sited “in its bowl of hills”, “the town per­vaded by a mood of tran­sience” – and of ter­ror that the sky will rain Luft­waffe bombs on them. The stu­dent friends mi­grate in the peace, most of them, to London, and to its SW en­claves: ded­i­cated to their ca­reers, ed­u­cat­ing them­selves in art – and de­sir­ing one an­other.

By way of Johnny’s early teenage sum­mer sail­ing on the River Fal in Corn­wall, the au­thor takes us to other places too, to ru­ral Wales and via the mo­tor­way to the Mid­lands conur­ba­tion, prin­ci­pally Johnny’s home town Nuneaton, ex­tend­ing to Coven­try, Birm­ing­ham, Lich­field: he is equally as­sured in these pro­vin­cial set­tings, dusty and com­pla­cent, which in this novel about time and un­remit­ting change are no less at the mercy of the years’ pass­ing.

Some­how Hollinghurst can be rig­or­ously an­a­lyt­i­cal (think Henry James) one mo­ment, slyly comic the next; erotic, then nos­tal­gic (singer Tom Jones might strad­dle both, so to speak); an­drog­y­nous (Mr H is un­usu­ally adept at get­ting un­der a wo­man’s skin); and subtle to the point of cre­pus­cu­lar (Whistler, artist of misty dusk, is a pre­sid­ing ge­nius to Johnny).

Our au­thor does won­der­ful things in the book with light and shade: the wartime black­out at the out­set (“brief dis­lo­cated in­ti­ma­cies, a blur­ring of bound­aries be­tween per­son and per­son”), the loss of elec­tri­cal power (it’s the three-day week of 1974) dur­ing a select at-home in Chelsea (faces glimpsed by im­promptu can­dle­light), a strobe­strafed un­der­ground disco-scape

One has a sense that this novel took sev­eral years to con­struct. The fe­lic­i­ties of the prose are un­ceas­ing: the ob­ser­va­tions and aper­cus are im­pec­ca­bly judged.

“[The taxi] came in at a re­spect­ful speed over the deep gravel, with a sound as if the car drew its own wash.” Exactly so!

The au­thor can put into words a mood which might only be neb­u­lous. “The grind­ing scream of the brakes lent an edge to my nerves.” Or: “Johnny felt the pang of re­gret that came be­fore leav­ing a place he would never see again.”

He hits on ex­pres­sions for the well-nigh in­ex­press­ible: “that air of nos­tal­gia for it­self that per­vades the life of a great city, ubiquitous as fog and soot”.

He has his characters off to a tee. French ex­changepupil Bastien’s “ge­nius, even then [at 14], was his per­fect self­ish­ness, a beau­ti­ful smile that he must have learned early in life brought him any­thing he wanted”. The hu­mour can am­bush us. Of a house­wife in a por­trait, who had agreed to re­move all her cloth­ing to be painted: “She sat with thighs stoutly apart, and a wor­ried look, as if she’d just re­mem­bered some­thing in the oven.”

More mov­ingly, a sit­u­a­tion of mul­ti­ple ac­cu­mu­la­tions can be ren­dered by a sin­gle ges­ture – and a casual flick of the au­tho­rial eye, as­cribed to the di­arist-nar­ra­tor of sec­tion one. “Her del­i­cate fin­gers trem­bled slightly, and I noticed when she reached for her glass the soft ridge where a long-worn ring had been re­moved.”

The characters have been lived with, and so it is that I could be­lieve in them as individuals for the hours im­mersed in read­ing and for the days and – (I’m pre­sum­ing) week and months – ahead, rec­ol­lect­ing.

The other main fig­ure is Johnny’s fa­mously hand­some fa­ther, David: RAF hero/

engi­neer and man­u­fac­turer and Jensen-owner/Fleet Street’s man-of-shame. Shaped from con­tra­dic­tory ev­i­dence, he re­mains a com­pelling enigma through­out the book.

Only Lucy (at age seven) fails to con­vince – she seems aw­fully adult for her tender age – and I’m be­ing churl­ish to men­tion her: the sorry point is my trying to tell my­self there might be any short­fall in the Hollinghurst ar­moury at all. Otherwise his characters seem to have the third di­men­sion of life, mag­netis­ing and mad­den­ing per­sons one could actually en­counter. This, yes, is a chron­i­cle about change. The final two sec­tions of the five have the ti­tles Losses and Con­so­la­tions. Age as we see brings its decre­ments, yet in­spires acts of rash bravura; the in­dig­ni­ties can be cruel, the rev­e­la­tions about some­body’s past be­hav­iour dis­may­ing, but the sur­prise em­pa­thy and kind­ness of a com­plete stranger are what will prove re­demp­tive for Johnny Sparsholt.

A re­viewer prob­a­bly isn’t sup­posed to come out with a ver­dict so un­qual­i­fied as the one which fol­lows, but I shall. It would be hard, im­pos­si­ble, to over-praise this novel.

Alan Hollinghurst is very much at home talk­ing about the com­plex jour­ney of gay life in Bri­tain

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