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
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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