The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Alan Hollinghurst pic
British writer, Allan Hollinghurst.

A common theme throughout Hollinghurst’s work is how the past can be shaped by the present. The Stranger’s Child (2011) is about a poem written just before WWI but after the poem becomes famous it acts as a microscope on the lives and descendants of the people who were spending that weekend together when the poem was written in a teenage girl’s autograph book. Even his first The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) the past is a crucial element: a young lay-about is asked to write the biography of an ageing aristocrat and in reading the old man’s diaries comes to see the passions, oppressions, and obsessions of an earlier gay life refracted in his own; and, here too in The Sparsholt Affair, a sexual dalliance at Oxford during WW2 , is re-remembered when a lost memoir is discovered shortly after the author’s death. Whatever is happening, or improved, about the present it’s all because of what happened before.

Hollinghurst studied English Literature at Oxford in the 1970’s but concentrated his interests on writers whose homosexuality, though never expressed or admitted to publicly, permeated their work:  E.M. Forster, Philip Firbank, and L.P. Hartly. He is reported as saying that “I was fortunate to come along just as gay-lit was coming into its own” but it was actually his first, The Swimming-Pool Library, that let the way – particularly in literary fiction – in my memory. And that’s the point. Memory is such a slippery thing. Someone once said, “it’s like an oven; you put something in, wait a bit, open the door and there it is: something else.” Yes, there is an affair in The Sparsholt Affair (“Money, power … gay shenanigans! It had everything”) – in fact there are many Sparsholt affairs – but how much people remember about it is what interests Hollinghurst.

“If you think about the Poulson scandal in the early 1970s [a property and corruption case that resulted in the resignation of the home secretary, Reginald Maudling] … the Profumo affair people remember a bit better, but actually, if we tested each other on it now, we’d probably be a bit rocky, and that was a very, very prominent scandal.”

David Sparsholt arrives in Oxford in 1940 and all eyes, from a room across the quad, are on him as he, in a sweaty singlet, lifts weights in what he thinks is the privacy of his own room. The assemblage, mainly gay, some gay-ish, young men, plot and scheme to get Sparsholt’s attention; all to varying degrees, although one in particular succeeds spectacularly. So ends Part 1: The New Man.

In each successive Part – there are five in all – Hollinghurst jumps decades ahead to the Sparsholt family, friends, some from that Oxford group, now ageing, some new, some older, successful, some dying, to Part 5 which concentrates on David’s son, Johnny Sparsholt, a painter, now in his 60’s whose long-time partner Patrick has just died. Here at the end of the book a regular Hollinghurst theme emerges: how gay life of today is so much different from gay life then, when it was illegal, tragic, rife, but clandestine; and Hollinghurst gives us the most vivid and delicious description of gay clubbing, leisure drug-taking, sex for the moment – during which the past emerges, yet again. Permeating all five parts is the affair from Part 1, or it is the real Sparsholt Affair, the one that made the papers, and shocked the socks off everyone?

“What would two long-ago lovers be likely to feel, one of them twice married, the other losing his memory.”

Curiously, or not, for some, the central character, David Sparsholt is rarely in the spot light; he is relegated to the edges of the story, to the shadows of people’s memory and belief – even his son is a little vague about what his father is like;  but it’s the idea of him and what he did, or did not do, that is at the centre, and what was remembered about him, it.

What has always interested me about novels is not so much what happens but how each is told. Apart from Part 1, which is a first-person memoir, Hollinghurst employs a narrator that entirely operates through what his characters sense. They are all experts at defining and opinionising the thoughts, desires, and threats that flit and tumble over the faces of everyone else in the room. His language is Jamsean and sometimes you relish reading a sentence again just for the pleasure of it. He is interested in the tone, the flavour of things, be it the atmosphere in a bar, of a welcome, in the furnishings of a home, a decision, a sigh; and at times you are impressed by his descriptive accuracy:  “the gay voice that survives through generations, the illusionless adenoidal whine and drag …”

Hollinghurst is a stylist because he has a style, and one feature of this style is his phrases of opposites. It’s his logo, his leitmotif. They pepper all his work.

     ” … seemed to know and not to know …”

     “ … passed from shadow to shadow in doubt and then brief solidarity.”

     “ … he was smilingly both enemy and friend” which, of course is true of any auctioneer

     “ … more present and also more covetably remote…”

     ” … his relief that he wouldn’t be alone with Francesca was mixed with the relief that he wouldn’t be alone with Ivan… “

     “…he might be about to cry, or was just possibly stifling a laugh.”

     “It was as touching as it was annoying.”

     “ … magic as routine …”

It says something about the human condition – always to the fore in a Hollinghurst book – that these opposites are surprisingly apposite.

This is a book I will read again and unlike music which we listen to again because of what we remember, we re-read books because of what we forget, and not just the incidents but the pleasure of re-finding the joy in the details, the words, the phrases, the descriptions.

My only complaint with this book is the editing, or the lack of it, which, sadly, is what we have come to expect these days. I’m pleased that I’m not overtly annoyed by comma splices, of which there are many, but the sloppy use of pronouns especially in scenes with many characters of the same sex make re-reading for clarity an annoying necessity. There is even a sentence on page 181 that makes no sense at all but is due to, I suspect, a cut and paste not being checked for coherence.

Hollinghurst was born in a market town near Oxford in 1954; the only child of a bank manager, he had a happy childhood and especially remembers being flooded with relief, when his father said: “Awfully sorry, old chap, but you’re not going to have any brothers or sisters.” He didn’t mind at all and rather enjoyed playing Hide-&-Seek by himself: “It can’t be hide and seek if no one’s coming to look for you, darling,” his mother told him. “It’s just Hide.” He had a safe and uneventful childhood and eventually studied at Oxford and after gaining a BA and a MLitt lectured for a while at his alma mater, Magdalen College, and several other tertiary piles before landing a job in 1982 at The Times Literary Supplement and becoming its assistant editor from 1985 – 1990.  He spectacularly burst onto the literary scene with The Swimming-Pool Library which put well-adjusted and happy gay lives firmly into the literary landscape. I remember seeing the book, in hard-cover, large and impressive, being handled and protected carefully in the arms of an Anglophile friend of mine, a mauve sweater draped around his shoulders and a sleeve caught in its pages, like a bookmark. I knew very little about it except its gay theme, but what struck me that day was that it exuded importance. He won the Man-Booker Prize in 2004 for his 4th novel The Line of Beauty.

The Booker, once the sought-after pinnacle of literary fiction in English, has been tarnished somewhat by the inclusion, some say, in 2014, of work by American writers; two of them having won the 2016 and 2017 prizes, Paul Beatty for The Sellout and George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo, respectively. In February this year 30 publishing heavyweights wrote to the Man-Booker Foundation asking that the 2014 decision be reversed. The reason for the dispute seems to be to avoid “an homogenised literary future;” or, it could be because a Brit hasn’t won it since 2012. The Foundation responded with “The Man Booker prize expanded in 2014 to allow writers of any nationality, regardless of geography, to enter the prize providing that they are writing in English and published in the UK. The rule was not created specifically to include American writers.” The 2018 prize, its 50th, will announce the long list in July.

You can buy this book in Kindle, hardback, or paperback editions, here.

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