The Sparsholt Af­fair by Alan Hollinghurst

Pas­sion and folly in a story that moves from a charmer’s wartime years at Ox­ford to his son’s ex­pe­ri­ences in mod­ern-day Lon­don

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Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel is al­most as hard to pin down as it is to put down. Its real sub­ject seems to grow more, rather than less, mys­te­ri­ous as the book pro­gresses. Mean­while, the im­mense as­sur­ance of the writ­ing, the deep knowl­edge of the set­tings and pe­ri­ods in which the story un­folds, the min­gling of cruel hu­mour and lyri­cal ten­der­ness, the in­sa­tiable in­ter­est in hu­man de­sire from its most re­fined to its most bru­tally car­nal, grip you as tightly as any thriller.

Its five in­ter­linked sec­tions, be­gin­ning in wartime Ox­ford and end­ing in mod­ern-day Lon­don, fol­low a group of friends, mostly gay men, whose lives have all been af­fected in one way or another by the fate­ful charms of a hand­some ath­lete from Nuneaton named David Sparsholt.

Part one, A New Man, takes the form of a plum­mily writ­ten lit­er­ary mem­oir by an Ox­ford con­tem­po­rary of Sparsholt’s, Fred­die Green, record­ing the young sports­man’s daz­zling first ap­pear­ance half-naked in a win­dow just be­fore blackout time, and the flut­ter of ri­val­rous long­ings set off in the var­i­ous on­look­ers ogling him from Green’s rooms across the quad. Great use is made of these wartime black­outs, with much of the ac­tion oc­cur­ring in a beau­ti­fully evoked pitch-black Ox­ford where sub­merged lusts bloom into furtive touches and brushes.

Sparsholt has a fi­ancee, Con­nie, and is al­ready in trou­ble for the “rhyth­mi­cal creak­ing” over­heard while she was vis­it­ing. But his ap­par­ent het­ero­sex­u­al­ity only adds to his al­lure, es­pe­cially when it tran­spires that he isn’t above be­ing flat­tered by the ad­mir­ing at­ten­tions of Green’s friends. It’s a vari­a­tion on the clas­sic erotic farce for­mula of vir­ginal in­no­cence be­sieged by cyn­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. Not that Sparsholt’s ul­ti­mate se­ducer, a sen­si­tive aes­thete named Evert Dax, is cyn­i­cal in him­self (he’s too ar­dent for that), but his suc­cess has as much to do with the awak­en­ing of mer­ce­nary ten­den­cies in Sparsholt as it does with the grat­i­fy­ing of ho­mo­erotic ones, which doesn’t bode well for Sparsholt’s fu­ture.

The im­me­di­ate fun of this sec­tion is largely in its re­viv­ing of a par­tic­u­lar style of fine writ­ing, in which the rar­efied plea­sures of eu­phemism and in­di­rect­ness con­cern­ing sex­ual mat­ters still had a cer­tain cur­rency. It isn’t quite pas­tiche, more a sort of dead-on ren­di­tion of how an old-school lit­er­at­teur who also hap­pens to be an old-school re­pressed ho­mo­sex­ual (so re­pressed he re­mains com­i­cally un­aware of his own in­fat­u­a­tion with Sparsholt) might have writ­ten at that time; Henry James via Ron­ald Fir­bank, with a grav­i­ta­tion to­wards words such as “moue” and “ten­dresse”, lots of dou­ble en­ten­dres (“Where do you like to take her?”). There is also some com­pli­cated snob­bish satire, much of it at the ex­pense of Dax’s fa­ther, a fa­mous but ev­i­dently aw­ful nov­el­ist who em­bod­ies the vice that Hollinghurst’s own nov­els seem to de­spise above all oth­ers: bad art.

In part two, set in 1965, Sparsholt, now a war hero and suc­cess­ful in­dus­tri­al­ist, has mar­ried Con­nie and the two have brought their son Johnny, an as­pir­ing artist, on hol­i­day to Corn­wall, along with his French ex­change part­ner, Bastien. Johnny is be­sot­ted with Bastien, but the sex­u­ally pre­co­cious French boy has dis­cov­ered girls, alas, and Johnny spends his days in an ache of (mostly) re­buffed long­ing. Another cou­ple, the Haxbys, are also in Corn­wall, and it be­comes steadily ap­par­ent that a clan­des­tine af­fair is go­ing on. The sec­tion in­ge­niously re­for­mu­lates the pat­tern of pur­suers and pur­sued from the first part, with Johnny in the lovelorn Dax’s role, Bastien repris­ing the role of freshly ar­rived young Ado­nis, a small yacht fur­nish­ing the same sex­u­ally charged at­mos­phere as the Ox­ford dark­ness, and so on. The prose, mod­ernised and destarched, still gives the odd campy twin­kle – with Bastien in his Le Coq Sportif hat – but its com­par­a­tive plain­ness makes a dra­matic con­trast to the care­ful fussi­ness of Green’s nar­ra­tive, with no loss of pre­ci­sion, es­pe­cially on Johnny’s touch­ingly in­tense in­ner life.

Con­tin­u­ing this pat­tern of rep­e­ti­tion with vari­a­tion, part three brings back Dax, now the gay em­i­nence of a bo­hemian house­hold in the com­par­a­tively lib­er­ated Lon­don of 1974. Chance brings Johnny, at this point earn­ing his liv­ing as an ap­pren­tice art re­storer, into the house­hold, where he duly as­sumes the role of flat­tered in­genu (“I like your trousers”). He is ea­ger to be ini­ti­ated into the mys­ter­ies of gay Lon­don but un­aware of the con­nec­tion be­tween Dax and his fa­ther, and of the less than straight­for­ward mo­tives the men around him might have for tak­ing him to bed. The three-day week, with its in­ter­mit­tent dark­nesses, nicely echoes the black­outs of the first part.

It’s a won­der­ful struc­tural de­vice, this lay­er­ing of sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions on top of each other like a se­ries of trans­paren­cies that cu­mu­la­tively por­tray a cul­ture as it ex­ists in time as well as in space. I’d have been sat­is­fied if the book had done no more than keep re­volv­ing the same con­stel­la­tion of long­ings and con­fu­sions, with the grad­ual re­lax­ing of at­ti­tudes around sex­u­al­ity op­er­at­ing as the prin­ci­ple of change. But it has other, more con­ven­tion­ally nov­el­is­tic am­bi­tions too, as its ti­tle sug­gests. We learn in this sec­tion that Sparsholt was caught up in a scan­dal shortly af­ter the Cor­nish hol­i­day, a very English far­rago of sex, graft and pol­i­tics, in­volv­ing an MP and a male pros­ti­tute as well as the nox­ious Clif­ford Haxby. The ques­tions of what ex­actly hap­pened and how the dis­grace of the fa­ther is go­ing to play out in the des­tiny of the son loom large, and seem to prom­ise tremen­dous rev­e­la­tions.

But Hollinghurst chooses not to bring this plot into clear fo­cus, in­stead keep­ing it a mat­ter of oblique glimpses and some­what cryptic al­lu­sions. Per­haps that’s the so­phis­ti­cated way to han­dle some­thing po­ten­tially so sen­sa­tional, but to me it reads as if the au­thor found him­self less gripped by the ma­te­rial, when it came to it, than he’d fore­seen. He doesn’t side­step it al­to­gether – there is a great scene be­tween fa­ther and son at the RAF Club, though it serves mainly to con­sol­i­date Sparsholt as an enigma, which isn’t, for me, the most in­ter­est­ing of lit­er­ary en­ti­ties.

Re­mark­ably, the novel more than sur­vives this slight let­down. What keeps it puls­ing is re­ally hard to say. It could be sim­ply that, hav­ing laid the ground­work for one kind of novel, Hollinghurst found he had the ba­sis for another, bet­ter suited to his gifts, which are pos­si­bly more those of a chron­i­cler than a plotter.

At any rate, the book moves from strength to strength, plung­ing for­ward into the 90s with a What Maisie Knew re­boot, as a young child – the re­sult of a les­bian cou­ple’s in­vi­ta­tion to “do a baby for us” – pieces to­gether the mys­ter­ies of her un­con­ven­tional fam­ily, and on into the present era of self­ies, makeover TV and in­ter­net porn. Johnny, by now a suc­cess­ful por­trait painter, car­ries the novel at this point. He’s a warmly sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ter to keep com­pany with, whether he’s musing on por­trai­ture, at­tend­ing a fu­neral, suf­fer­ing the in­dig­ni­ties of a veg­e­tar­ian in a car­niv­o­rous world, paint­ing the ar­riv­iste Mis­er­den fam­ily, or find­ing new love at a club in au­tum­nal mid­dle age. An amaz­ing amount of the pas­sion and folly of the hu­man com­edy is wo­ven into his mod­est life, all of it beau­ti­fully ob­served and mem­o­rably ar­tic­u­lated. It makes for a looser, freer book than the cun­ning puz­zle of a novel one was led to ex­pect, and al­most cer­tainly a bet­ter one, too.

Scan­dal and satire … Alan Hollinghurst

464pp, Pi­cador, £20

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