For readers who can imagine English life thanks to college reading lists featuring books by Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and the like, Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel will be both deeply familiar and undoubtedly strange. The Sparsholt Affair begins in the plummy voice of Freddie Green, a literary man remembering his days at Oxford during the Second World War. He offers moments and experiences such as the following:
[It was] that brief time between sunset and blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms. Tall panes which had reflected the sky all day now glowed companionably here and there, and figures were revealed at work, or moving around behind the lit grid of the sashes. In the set directly opposite, old Sangster, the blind French don, was giving a tutorial to a young man so supine that he might have been asleep. And on the floor above, beneath the dark horizontal of the cornice and the broad pediment, a single window was alight, a lamp on the desk projecting a brilliant arc across the wall and ceiling.
Into this world, which he evokes with a confident richness of classic English literary detail free of any postmodern winking, Hollinghurst introduces a new student whose presence electrifies Freddie Green and his friends. All of them are literary and arty young men given to clever and nasty putdowns, highly affected self-presentations, grandiose predictions of their future careers as writers and painters, and half-veiled flirting with one another in gloomy, well-appointed common rooms. Their various orbits re-center on the new boy, David Sparsholt. He’s handsome, athletic, and self-assured, he has a gorgeous fiancée, and he’s also just amicable and elusive and curious enough to beguile them all, Freddie included.
What transpires during this group’s brief, shared time before the war breaks up everything and everyone — there are intrigues involving sex, money, and unevenly shared secrets — is enough to move us from what’s broadly familiar for literary readers of a certain age into comparatively stranger territory: a seven-decade multi-generational chronicle of elite English gay life, with a matching intensification of accompanying details, particularly concerning sex, that’s very much in keeping with broader changes in sexual mores. To be sure, this combination will be immediately recognizable for longtime readers of Hollinghurst’s work. He is the author of a series of acclaimed and popular novels of modern England, including the Man Booker Prize–winning The Line of Beauty (2004), and throughout his writing he focuses on the complex and often fraught intersections of gay life, family life, and the fine arts. For readers new to his work, its frankness about sex might be unnerving; more formidable still is his decision to create expectations of important, even crowning revelations — about important events and the characters’ involvements in them — without ever entirely fulfilling them.
The book is structured as five stand-alone segments featuring the same cast of characters seen from different perspectives and at different points in their lives. Following Freddie’s memoir of late-1930s Oxford, we move into 1960s England: David Sparsholt, wartime RAF hero, is now a successful businessman, the owner of an engineering firm sporting his name, on a holiday with his wife Connie and their teenaged son, Johnny, who’s in the midst of realizing he’s gay. They are accompanied by Bastien, a brash bisexual French teenager whom Johnny met and romped around with during a student trip to France, and by another couple, Clifford and Norma Hardy. Cliff and David Sparsholt are old friends and oddly friendly with each other, prone to disappearing together for extended drives and leaving everyone else at home to not discuss their whereabouts or activities.
“Where’s Dad?” Johnny asks, and when his mother explains, tersely and elliptically, that he’s gone off with Clifford, again, Johnny can only answer “Oh . . .” Hollinghurst makes brilliant stuff of the excruciating tensions that arise when six people spend an extended period of time together, during which their desires for each other cross conventions that affirm both the norms of universal family life and the particular proprieties of post-war English society. These desires are occasionally fulfilled, but more often frustrated, leading to situations such as an impromptu dance party, one night after dinner, whose pairings aren’t exactly what everyone would like. And while David dances with Norma, and Bastien with Connie, “Johnny sat down at the far end of the sofa from Clifford, and they watched, each with his own thin smile.”
Thin smiles and ellipses, and later barely but definitely moved Venetian blinds, suggesting someone has just seen something not meant to be seen, suggest a great deal and build expectations of exposure that are answered only partially as the novel develops into its next section, in which Hollinghurst focuses on Johnny, now a young painter making much of his distinctive appeal in London’s 1970s gay scene. That appeal has to do with long-haired Johnny’s good looks and willingness to be initiated into this world by older and more powerful men, and also, for those men, some of whom are associated with the Oxford circle that Freddie Green wrote about, with Johnny’s family connection. We learn, during this part of the novel, that David Sparsholt was involved in an eponymous scandal during the 1960s that involved sex and politics and ruined his marriage and his reputation. Here, Hollinghurst relies with particular effectiveness on the English preference for indirection and euphemism, matched with Johnny’s lack of full understanding, more sincere than studied, of what happened to his father. He does so to prevent our learning the specific details of the “Sparsholt affair” — which means in turn that you read on, expecting the full story to come out, eventually.
It doesn’t. Instead, Hollinghurst devotes his attention to Johnny’s experiences as an ambitious and adventurous painter living through an era of increased sexual liberty, with various kinds of relationships forged and broken along the way, including his involvement with a lesbian couple who ask him to father a child. That “nearly heterosexual act,” as Johnny thinks of it, taking an “uncertain pride” in the idea of becoming a father and telling his own about this, leads to the novel’s next section, which is set in the 1990s and told predominantly from the perspective of Johnny’s young daughter, Lucy.
Recalling Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, a novel about adult life as perceived by a perceptive if only partially comprehending child, this section of Hollinghurst’s book offers an entirely different experience of a world understood, up until then, through assorted gay male sensibilities. Freddie Green has died, and the old crowd — ever ready with gossip and snipes — comes together to remember him and their time together at Oxford. Some memories prove clearer than others, but no one’s going to make a scene, of course. When an elderly man tells Lucy that he once knew her grandfather — “David . . . oh yes, I knew him awfully well . . . We used to do things together . . . sometimes, you know . . .” — the telltale suspension points mean little to her: “These two sentences sounded a little inconsistent. Lucy saw he was being polite, or perhaps couldn’t really remember. She smiled, understandingly, but it was too long ago to be interesting now.”
That’s far from true for Johnny and many of the other aging characters in the novel. By its final section, they confront the ever-expanding freedoms of 21st-century life, particularly the easy commerce of sex and technology, with excitement and confusion and more than a little horror. There is also in this section a phrase that suggests Hollinghurst’s commanding position, only strengthened by his latest novel, as a very contemporary English writer deeply formed by the tradition: When asked why, despite his successful career as an artist, Johnny never painted a portrait of his father, he explains, “We never really knew each other, . . . what with everything.”