As it moves from the 1940s to the present day, Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel The Sparsholt Affair traces the complexities of gay sexuality against the backdrop of a changing England. Ahead of Hollinghurst’s appearance at Durham Book Festival, Fraser Riddell reviews a poignant and darkly funny masterpiece.
What Peter had created was a portrait of a demigod from neck to knee, the sex suggested by a little slur, conventional as a fig leaf, while the neck opened up into nothing, like the calyx of a flower.
Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair takes as its starting point the arrival at Oxford of a mysterious, beautiful young man — David Sparsholt. It follows the entangled life of Sparsholt, his friends, and family across the course of sixty years in a finely observed exploration of the possibilities of art, the fragility of memory, the responsibilities of parenthood and the complexities of sexual desire. Hollinghurst’s novel unfolds in five discrete episodes: Oxford in 1940, as the Blitz rages in skies over England; a family holiday in Cornwall in 1964; the intermingled gay scene and art world of London, 1974; the trials of queer parenthood in 1995; the shock of the new for a 62-year old in present-day London.
A virtuoso exercise in restrained narrative disclosure, Hollinghurst’s novel is fascinated with the reticence and awkwardness that attaches to talking about gay sexuality, and the difficulties of penetrating the haze of English reserve that obscures the recovery of queer life stories. Much of the novel’s success is the product of Hollinghurst’s dextrous manipulation of narrative perspective. The novel’s second section is told through the eyes of David’s son, the 14-year old Johnny. This painfully love-struck teenager is so singly focussed on his desire for his beautiful friend Bastien that he remains oblivious to a more significant domestic drama unfolding around him. A later section is focalised through Johnny’s 7-year old daughter, Lucy. The preternaturally perceptive and astute Lucy finds herself a mystified observer of the half-articulated scandal of the adults that hover around her. Hollinghurst delights in sketching the stuttering, clamped embarrassment of adults when they suddenly become aware that their indiscreet chatter is being overheard by a child. Ultimately, the details of the scandalous ‘Sparsholt Affair’ that gives the novel its title are recalled only in vague retrospect, imprecise impressions that resound across time as a shameful echo.
The reticence of Hollinghurst’s novel is also evident in its characterisation. The chief protagonists of his earlier novels have typically been highly literate young men who observe society through the prism of the literature they so avidly consume. Nick Guest’s enthusiasm for Henry James in The Line of Beauty, for example, affords Hollinghurst permission to dwell on the depths of human character with a Jamesian forensic precision. The Sparsholt Affair is, in contrast, a novel that understands the world through the suggestive surfaces of the visual arts. Its characters’ faces are repeatedly marked by blushes, merely hinting at an undisclosed emotional turmoil to which the reader is never made privy.
Johnny, a portrait painter, is rendered isolated from the imaginative world of literature by his dyslexia. Yet his highly developed visual sensitivity bequeaths to Hollinghurst’s text passages that richly evoke the play of light on water and glass, the spongy, messy textures of the natural world, and the enticing allure of taut muscle under translucent fabric. Take, for example, the immersive lyricism of sensory experience in the following passage, written with an attentiveness worthy of the poetry of Thomas Hardy or Edward Thomas:
They walked at first over the mown hayfields, already green with foggage. It was a lovely effect, the delicate first blades of grass among the silver stalks. Ivan was cheerful, but evasive, he went ahead, unusually alert for things to comment on; while Johnny was caught up almost at once in the strange lulled swoon of each warm step to step: he saw how his footprint flattened the new growth and crunched the soft stubble inseparably.
The sketch, the portrait, the frame, the mirror — Hollinghurst’s recurrent motifs all gesture to the novel’s fascination with modes of visual self-presentation, equally revealing and distorting in turn. Yet the novel is likewise sensitive to those aspects of experience that refuse visual description – the aura that attaches to an abandoned house; an atmosphere that suddenly colours a space; the sense of pressure when desired bodies are in close proximity; the frisson of possibility afforded by the darkness of a blackout or power cut.
Hollinghurst can also be cruelly and deliciously funny at the expense of his characters. The bland domesticity of (straight) married life is a particular target: one couple have to leave a drinks party early so as to get home in time for Kojak (‘the plots can be quite hard to follow […] if you miss the start’). Another target is the toe-curlingly awful snobbishness of the perpetually name-dropping members of the London arts scene and their faded aristocratic patrons. Narrated with greater fondness is Johnny’s gay self-discovery in ‘70s London; Hollinghurst captures perfectly the simultaneous excitement and boredom of loitering in a lavatory or propping up the bar in a gay club. Hollinghurst also retains a touching sympathy for those men — such as David Sparsholt — whose lives have been a long fretful negotiation of masculine pride, confused sexuality, and torn loyalties between desire and duty.
As it progresses, the novel’s terse structure reveals a concern with processes of ageing, decay and cultural change. It traces the falling out of fashion of high-minded Modernism, as serious novels of politics and power and serious buildings of concrete and glass are rendered outmoded by the breezy casualness of the ‘70s. In one particularly moving scene, the portrait of a once-famous ‘30s novelist, loaned by him to his Oxford college, is discovered by his son to be hanging above a refrigerator in a disused bedroom. With Hollinghurst’s characteristic wit, simultaneously caustic and wistful, the novel elsewhere tracks the emergence of a crass materialism in which the careful craft of restoring a painting finds its present-day equivalent in a TV home makeover show, and the attentive humanistic self-scrutiny of memoir writing is replaced by the quick, convenient impersonality of predictive texting. The novel examines with especial sensitivity those particular pressures that play upon the bodies of gay men as they age, balancing an inevitable sense of loss attached to fading physical beauty with the warmth of queer domesticities founded upon inter-generational intimacies.
As readers of Hollinghurst’s works have come to expect, his novel engages also in a playful inter-generational dialogue with its queer cultural forebears. In the Oxford of the 1940s, male beauty is hymned in the conspicuously loaded terms of Classical Hellenism. The students listening to the music of Tchaikovsky in their college rooms offer a fond tribute to a similar scene in E. M. Forster’s Maurice. Some erotically-charged rough and tumble between two young boys on a light-soaked Cornwall beach channels something of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.
This is by turns a poignant and darkly funny work by a novelistic craftsman writing at the height of his powers. It will surely be one of the finest new novels published this year.
Alan Hollinghurst will be talking about The Sparsholt Affair on Friday 13th October, at 20.00, as part of Durham Book Festival.