In his sixth novel, Alan Hollinghurst addresses the effects of ageing and social progress, through a story about art, sexuality and family secrets. One of the great themes in Hollinghurst’s writing is the attempt to reconcile gay life and culture before and after the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which legalised homosexual acts carried out in private between two men. In his previous novel, The Stranger’s Child, Hollinghurst used the story of Cecil Valance, an Edwardian poet, to explore the necessarily coded and opaque language of homosexual culture pre-1967, and the way in which this secrecy leaves it open to distortion or erasure by present-day researchers. Earlier works, notably The Swimming Pool Library and The Line of Beauty, have featured young gay men studying the lives of their predecessors, and commented on the difficulty of mutual understanding between the generations.
The shadow of criminalisation hangs heavily over The Sparsholt Affair, too. Told in five parts, the novel progresses from Second World War Oxford through to the present day, and follows a cast of characters who all share a link to one David Sparsholt, whose involvement in a notorious scandal hangs over all of their lives. Although we are not given the specifics of the affair, it is easy to read behind the lines: there are references to ‘provincial misconduct,’ ‘a photo taken through a window’, and a Tory MP. ‘What he did would be quite legal now,’ is the heartbreakingly matter-of-fact summary. However, pre-1967, ‘what he did’ was enough to taint the legacy of a decorated World War II pilot, and cast a shadow over his acquaintances and descendants alike.
We first encounter David Sparsholt as a physically imposing yet apparently naïve young man. Arriving at Oxford in 1940, the young Sparsholt’s taste for al fresco exercise swiftly makes him a figure of fascination for a small group of aesthetes, headed up by Freddie Green, a would-be writer, and Evert Dax, son of a celebrated but difficult novelist. First sighted as a ‘figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights’, Sparsholt is swiftly incorporated into their group, through some expertly written nights in the snug of a local pub and pre-arranged ‘chance’ encounters in friends’ rooms. Although Sparsholt has arrived at Oxford from the Midlands to study engineering with his fiancée in tow, he quickly falls in with the louche ex-public school boys who make up Dax’s social circle. At first, it feels like a simple appeal to his vanity has drawn him in; later events suggest the awakening of a latent desire.
This early section of The Sparsholt Affair is shot through with intrigue; there are repeated references to classified war work, and Evert and Freddie in particular are adept at arranging ‘chance’ meetings under cover of the blackout. The richness of Hollinghurst’s characterisation is given space to shine, and he creates a vivid, deep portrait of a generation. The war soon intervenes, however – Sparsholt is called up after one term, and circumstances will ensure that he never returns.
In the novel’s later stages, we follow Sparsholt’s son, Johnny, and his own daughter Lucy, in London. Johnny has arrived in the city as a student, and then an assistant to an art restorer. Through this job, he is introduced to Evert. Delivering a piece to an address in Chelsea, he finds himself at a meeting of the ‘memoir club’, a social gathering at which Evert and his friends retell stories from their youth. The meeting takes place during the three-day week, bringing back memories of the blitz for the older attendees: ‘My dear, it’s like the War, only not half so much fun’, one remarks. Immediately, we see the difficulty of cross-generational communication, with mention of ‘the war’ acting as a sort of conversational blackout, a linguistic fog which the younger man cannot penetrate. However, his name allows him to slip into this new milieu, alongside Evert’s old friends and younger acolytes.
The question of parentage runs through The Sparsholt Affair, with family being the primary means of placing characters within the social hierarchy of the loose group around Evert. Negotiating these invisible hierarchies, along with the subtle nuances of upper class manners, is a difficult task for outsiders (‘he couldn’t tell how much mockery, how much boredom… was concealed by her hint of a smile’). Evert himself struggles to escape from the shadow of his own father, with much of his life and career dominated by the task of managing his father’s literary legacy. Unable to draw on close personal memories of the man, he is reduced to painstakingly examining photographs to piece the life together: a useful analogy for Hollinghurst’s task as a novelist, creating a narrative from snapshots as his characters’ lives go on in the spaces between the scenes.
As the novel progresses, we see a gradual shift in social attitudes towards homosexuality, whilst also sensing a certain collective forgetfulness about the struggles of the past. This lends the middle sections of The Sparsholt Affair an elegiac tone, as Evert’s generation falls into senescence. The Memorial Theatre dedicated to his father at Lichfield is demolished to make way for a new business school building, whilst Evert himself suffers a stroke, damaging his memory and ability to communicate. This section is narrated by David Sparsholt’s granddaughter Lucy, giving a hazy, child’s-eye view of their activities. Same-sex living arrangements are an accepted fact of life now, albeit with some euphemistic veiling; one character, Ivan, is recognised as ‘one of the funny men who lived in the House of Horrors in Cranley Gardens’. Lucy overhears snatches of gossip about Evert, Freddie and others, but lacks the necessary context to piece them together into a coherent narrative. These passages, alongside an excruciatingly well-observed account of a date between Johnny and a young man met via a hook-up app, particularly reinforce the idea of the generational gap in gay culture.
The novel doesn’t end here, however; Hollinghurst has always been noted for his party scenes, and The Sparsholt Affair’s bravura moment comes late on, as a newly bereaved Johnny is taken clubbing by a friend. Amid the impersonal hedonism, Johnny and a handful of the ‘bald and grizzled pillars of his own generation’ mix with younger men, finding a sense of freedom in the casual atmosphere of the nightclub. If he is not able to communicate completely effectively, he is at least able to enjoy the freedoms available to younger gay men, giving himself up in ‘a marvellous surrender to the currents of the night’. The club is a liminal space in which the conventions of daily life do not apply – a communal counterpoint to the darkness of the blackout, and the three day week. And, crucially, relationships formed in this darkness can survive in the light, as Johnny finds with Ze, a young Brazilian man who shares a cab home with him, which blossoms into a relationship of surprising tenderness and mutual empathy. For Johnny, at least, there is no scandal to hang over his children.
Any Cop?: As with any Hollinghurst novel, The Sparsholt Affair comes with a guarantee of great prose, and erudition. This novel does have its longeurs, particularly an under-developed second section, and I admit a preference for the author’s punchier early work over the multi-generational epics such as this and The Stranger’s Child. However, the fantastic opening and closing sections make The Sparsholt Affair essential reading, and not just for the experience of Hollinghurst describing Grindr hook-ups.