If Edmund White is America’s pre-eminent gay writer, then Alan Hollinghurst holds the honour as Britain’s pre-eminent gay novelist. He is nowhere near as prolific as White, as The Sparsholt Affair is only his sixth novel in thirty years, but the relative rarity of his work somewhat guarantees that any new novel is met with much excitement from enthusiasts. I have been a fan since his debut, The Swimming Pool Library, published in 1988 just as Margaret Thatcher’s government was introducing the infamous Section 28 clause which prohibited local authorities disseminating material deemed to be endorsing homosexuality. At the time The New York Times called Alan Hollinghurst “a polished poet of homosexual desire; of contact and cruising; of bicep and buttock; of the phallus, dressed up or naked.” Set in the “debauched summer” of 1983, that first book established a pattern for all future Hollinghurst novels: an examination of the past through which an understanding of the present is achieved.
The Sparsholt Affair is no exception. It is consumed with the past, and with the ways in which secrets buried over time are excavated, interpreted and inevitably misinterpreted. It plays out across nearly a century of gay life in England. It explores the changing attitudes towards homosexuality through the lives of two gay men: David Sparsholt, a beautiful youth briefly attending Oxford at the start of the Second World War, and his son, Johnny Sparsholt, who comes of age in London just as homosexuality has been decriminalised.
The novel begins in 1940 when David Sparsholt, an impossibly handsome young man bound for a military career, arrives at Oxford University causing quite a stir. Despite having a fiancée, David becomes an object of intense desire among an elite group of closeted young students. They want to paint him, memorialise him in verse and in diaries, and be near him at mealtimes. Most of all, they want to say what one eventually does: “I had him.” Only Evert Dax succeeds but nobody but the parties involved will know that for certain until the memoirs of one of the group confirming the liaison are discovered half a century later.
The novel is made up of five interlinked sections and the first is devoted to David and his brief time in Oxford. For the rest of the novel, the focus shifts to David’s son Johnny. We first meet him as a fourteen year old vacationing in Cornwell with his parents and a French exchange student with whom he is obsessed. In this part there are hints of the scandal that will become known as the Sparsholt Affair of the title, but the details are obscure. Johnny is too young to interpret what he sees. Only later in the novel is it revealed that David, a captain of industry, is caught up in a tabloid scandal involving a Tory MP and male prostitutes. There is a trial, books are written, lives are ruined but the details still remain hazy.
The story then moves to Johnny’s arrival in London in the early 1970s of Glam Rock and Ziggy Stardust, where he finds himself sexually liberated and able to live an openly gay life, taking full advantage of his good looks in a way his father was unable to. Although he cannot quite shake the scandal that is inevitably associated with his unusual surname. But sometimes his unwanted celebrity is an advantage as it gains him access to interesting social circles, including the group of people who knew his father at Oxford. He eventually becomes a celebrity portrait painter, as well as a father after donating his sperm to a lesbian friend. The story progresses through to London’s turn-of-the-millennium rave scene to gay life where dating apps rule or ruin the lives of many, depending on one’s outlook.
The novel culminates in a meeting that Johnny engineers a reunion between David and Evert. They have not seen each other since their Oxford days, and Johnny is curious to find out what they will make of each other after so long. He drops David at Evert’s house, and then leaves them alone together. On his return he finds two old men behaving as if they had remained friends for ever, but Johnny is left none the wiser. There is no acknowledgment on David’s part of any affair between him and Evert.
And here lies the ultimate frustration of this novel. Despite the beautiful and evocative writing, there is too much ambiguity, too many loose ends. Given the chance, could David Sparsholt have imagined leading a different sort of life? Does he envy his son’s matter-of-fact openness? Does he have regrets? How does Johnny’s mother feel about this affair? It’s all a bit too British Stiff Upper Lip. We want to know! But despite this reservation, The Sparsholt Affair is a joy to read. Perhaps the critic from The Spectator says it best: the novel “is the kind you find yourself wanting to read at two speeds at once: very quickly, so that you can get on to the next page, and very slowly, so that you can linger over each beautifully crafted sentence”. – ET
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