The Sparsholt Affair -Alan Hollinghurst

I enjoyed this more than his previous books: maybe because it isn’t full of Tory ‘toffs’, though one in our group said it felt empty, pointless and though he’s a very good writer there are too many characters. Many chapters start with ‘HJe’ but uit can take you up to two pages to find out who ‘he’ is.

Maybe it’s because it’s the anniversary of the 1967 Act that he was asked to write something pan-generational, though he’s light on the 1960s (covered by The Line of Duty?)

There is a sense of movement from darkness (the blackouts etc.) to light – but is it a critique, rather than an endorsement, or 21st Century gay life?

Many thought that it was about one hundred pages too long: the middle section drugged. There was ‘testosterone coming out of every page for the first 150.’

He writes about death and bereavement very well.. The frame-making is beautifully described.

One member read of three times because some parts weren’t clear.

A young man looks at a red chalk drawing of a muscly torso, made years before. He registers the residual heat of homoerotic longing in this ‘ancient pornography’, but has no idea he’s looking at his own father’s flesh, captured in youth. Johnny Sparsholt is the gay son of a closeted father, David. He is growing up into relative freedom whereas his father was mired in a corruption scandal with a Tory MP and rent boys. The incident reverberates through other lives but Hollinghurst chooses not to bring this into clear focus, instead keeping it a matter of oblique glimpses and somewhat cryptic allusions.

How we view the past, and what we find in it, are questions at the heart of Alan Hollinghurst’s sixth novel; an evocation of time, loss and change, the social and sexual revolutions of the last 70 years.

Two generations of gay men in 5 interlinked sections:

section 1: about stunningly handsome, closeted David Sparsholt in 1942 WWII Oxford, England. ‘A New Man’, takes the form of a plummily written literary memoir by an Oxford contemporary of Sparsholt’s, Freddie Green, recording the young sportsman’s dazzling first appearance half-naked in a window just before blackout time, and the flutter of rivalrous longings set off in the various onlookers ogling him from Green’s rooms across the quad. Great use is made of these wartime blackouts, with much of the action occurring in a beautifully evoked pitch-black Oxford where submerged lusts bloom into furtive touches and brushes.

Sparsholt has a fiancee, Connie, and is already in trouble for the “rhythmical creaking” overheard while she was visiting. But his apparent heterosexuality only adds to his allure, especially when it transpires that he isn’t above being flattered by the admiring attentions of Green’s friends. It’s a variation on the classic erotic farce formula of virginal innocence besieged by cynical experience. Not that Sparsholt’s ultimate seducer, a sensitive aesthete named Evert Dax, is cynical in himself (he’s too ardent for that), but his success has as much to do with the awakening of mercenary tendencies in Sparsholt as it does with the gratifying of homoerotic ones, which doesn’t bode well for Sparsholt’s future.

The immediate fun of this section is largely in its reviving of a particular style of fine writing, in which the euphemism and indirectness about sexual matters still had a certain currency. It isn’t  quite pastiche, more a sort of dead-on rendition of how an old-school literatteur who also happens to be an old-school repressed homosexual (so repressed he remains comically unaware of his own infatuation with Sparsholt) might have written at that time; Henry James via Ronald Firbank, with a gravitation towards words such as “moue” and “tendresse”, lots of double entendres (“Where do you like to take her?”). There is also some complicated snobbish satire, much of it at the expense of Dax’s father, a famous but evidently awful novelist who embodies the vice that Hollinghurst’s own novels seem to despise above all others: bad art. (One enters his books nervous of being found guilty of some appalling error of taste; woe betide any admirer of Strauss reading The Line of Beauty, or of Chagall reading this one.)

sections 2-5: his gay son Johnny, living in his father’s notoriously “scandalous” shadow 1951-2012

In part two, set in 1965, Sparsholt, now a war hero and successful industrialist, has married Connie and the two have brought their son Johnny, an aspiring artist, on holiday to Cornwall (encroaching on Patrick Gale territory?) , along with his French exchange partner, Bastien. Johnny is besotted with Bastien, but the sexually precocious French boy has discovered girls  and Johnny spends his days in rebuffed longing. Another couple, the Haxbys, are also in Cornwall, and it becomes steadily apparent that a clandestine affair is going on. The section reformulates the pattern of pursuers and pursued from the first part, with Johnny in the lovelorn Dax’s role, Bastien reprising the role of freshly arrived young Adonis, a small yacht furnishing the same sexually charged atmosphere as the Oxford darkness, and so on.

Continuing this pattern of repetition with variation, part three brings back Dax, now the gay eminence of a bohemian household in the comparatively liberated London of 1974. Chance brings Johnny, at this point earning his living as an apprentice art restorer, into the household, where he duly assumes the role of flattered ingenu (“I like your trousers”). He is eager to be initiated into the mysteries of gay London but unaware of the connection between Dax and his father, and of the less than straightforward motives the men around him might have for taking him to bed. The three-day week, with its intermittent darknesses, nicely echoes the blackouts of the first part.

There is a layering of similar situations on top of each other like a series of transparencies that cumulatively portray a culture as it exists in time as well as in space, revolving the same constellation of longings and confusions, with the gradual relaxing of attitudes around sexuality operating as the principle of change.

In the 90s we get a lesbian couple’s invitation to “do a baby for us”  on into the present era of selfies, makeover TV and internet porn. Johnny, by now a successful portrait painter, carries the novel at this point. He’s a warmly sympathetic character to keep company with, whether he’s musing on portraiture, attending a funeral, suffering the indignities of a vegetarian in a carnivorous world, painting the arriviste (and viciously named) Miserden family, or finding new love at a club in autumnal middle age. An amazing amount of the passion and folly of the human comedy is woven into his modest life, all of it beautifully observed and memorably articulated.

The author:

“I wanted to create in the reader that sense of half-remembered details,”

“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.”

“I can see that I keep going back to the periods when things were more difficult and clandestine, because they seem from a fictional point of view to be more rewarding.”

“It’s a funny thing; when you could openly have gay clubs after 1967, but they had all these complicated licensing laws, and one thing was that they had to serve a meal. You had to be a member, so you paid; I can remember when I first went to London gay clubs in the late 70s having to become a member, this ridiculous thing, and write down your address. And then you got this fucking salad!” (There is an additional twist of humour: Johnny’s salad includes a revolting knob of sweaty, gristly ham; he later becomes, like Hollinghurst, a committed vegetarian.)

“passing through a door, going down a staircase, into this magical other place where your desires can be made fresh”

“I did have that sense that I was very fortunate in a way, coming along just as gay lit as a genre was really coming into its own, and finding there was this whole fascinating, unexplored world to write about. But then of course that was in the wake of gay liberation and various social and political changes; and then of course the great crisis of Aids was the second stage of that – it gave gay writing a new, unanticipated subject.”

And what about now? “The distinctive purpose of gay writing, its political purpose or its novelty or its urgency have gone, and the gay world, as it changes, is perhaps not so stimulating to a fiction writer like me,” he says – although he’s careful to make clear he’s talking about his own writing rather than issuing blanket statements. “It doesn’t mean it can’t be written about.”

But Hollinghurst has never seen himself or wanted to be seen as a chronicler of gay life or “to claim to be a responsible historian of it; but of course I’m deeply interested in it and its effects on people’s lives, and the way that one’s telling a story that’s not over; it’s not a fixed thing that one’s writing about, but something that’s constantly changing.”

“I was once asked to contribute to a book of essays by writers about being only children, and actually I thought, I don’t want to examine too closely this thing which I just knew was actually rather fundamental to my psychology, to my whole being as a writer. That double sense of being an outsider, wanting to penetrate a world, but also having a sort of self-reliance that I think only children have. They’re very happy to be by themselves and quite a lot of their interesting life is happening when they’re by themselves.”

The business of ageing, he notices, has also led him to feel that in writing, “I’m constantly opening up a forgotten room in my past, as it were”. 

Portraits do interest me. I must say, when I’ve had some spare cash, I’ve found myself collecting them. Since I don’t have much space at home, they are rather small ones, and they tend to be of people I don’t know anything about, so everything is conjecture, really.

BOLLEN: You actually go to auction houses and hunt around the sales?

HOLLINGHURST: Well, I became really addicted about ten years ago, when I discovered that auction houses put all their catalogs online. People get addicted to various things online. My addiction is relatively harmless.

I usually end up giving just a few little physical details, which encourage the reader to make up the character themselves. You could have a sort of Dickensian approach, where you get almost grotesquely detailed with an exaggerated sense of someone’s physical appearance. But I think for a lot of the great fictional characters, you might only know roughly how tall they are or what color their hair is, or perhaps their eyes might be rather significant. Oddly, I think it’s the lesser characters that you might describe more vividly because they only get one moment in the spotlight. But I build a lot of characters more out of what they say and perhaps the way that they say it—the mannerisms and gestures associated with speech, as well as the tones. I’ve always been interested in analyzing the way people say things and what they’re not saying or trying to conceal.

I didn’t want to write an idealized version of Oxford, like a terrible, hackneyed kind of Brideshead Revisited. Those years seemed a fascinating moment when people of different backgrounds might have just been thrust together there in a new way.

BOLLEN: Especially when you’re facing possible doom for the first time. The idea that the world is blowing up and there might not be a future could perhaps symbolize everyone’s college years, but for these characters, they can actually see the bombs dropping on the horizon.

HOLLINGHURST: Normally, as an undergraduate at Oxford, you have this sense of three or four years of a leisurely stretch ahead of you, but back then most people knew they were going to go up for probably only a year before they were going to be drafted and sent to who knew where.

“in a way [scandals] make it possible to talk about things that we wouldn’t otherwise talk about – that was one of the things about the Wilde scandal I suppose, wasn’t it? That it made a shockingly public, unambiguous statement about this thing that was otherwise not talked about in polite society.”

Quotations:

“rhythmical shadow” leaping and shrinking “across the distant ceiling”

“It was that brief time between sunset and the blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms.”

“a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights”.

“indiscriminate darkness”

“no place for polite indecision”

“claiming the full heterosexual allowance to carry on in public”

“It is hard to do justice to old pleasures that cannot be revived—we seem half to disown our youthful selves, who loved and treasured them.”

Evert’s stroke had had two main consequences — his short-term memory was impaired, leaving him sometimes at sea in the midst of a conversation started with a clear sense of purpose and subject. He said he saw soft white squares, where facts in the form of images, or images of words, should be, pale blanks that floated on his mind’s eye like the shape of a bright window. The other effect, somehow doubly surprising, was release from worry — not only the worry that pervaded decisions and plans, but the worry that was caused by not being able to remember. This felt like a blessing, but was also, Ivan felt, a bit worrying in itself.

There was a rather oppressive need to keep him focused — on day-to-day matters, and on the looming plans for the house. Victor was tidied up now, really for good. And all the things that had been put off until he was tidied up loomed much larger. The advance for the biography was £10,000, a much smaller figure when the book was delivered than it had been when the contract was signed. The work on the house might cost ten times as much. Besides which, Evert needed a new project. A proper memoir was the obvious idea; but it could be another art book, portraits of artists he had known over fifty years. Other­wise he was going to spend every day forgetting what he’d gone out for and picking up strangers in Marks and Spencer’s.

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