The Sparsholt Affair is Alan Hollinghurst’s sixth novel, and like his previous two — the Man Booker Prize–winning The Line of Beauty and, subsequently, The Stranger’s Child — the story travels through a series of eras, capturing in each the nature of gay life in England. That, at least, would be one way to describe these works: another would be to say that, like them, the present novel follows the repercussions and echoes of earlier deeds or events over time. Beyond that, the quality that stands out in Hollinghurst’s novels, and here again, is the unstrained precision of his prose style, a justness and aptness of description that send happy jolts of recognition through the reader.
The story begins at Oxford in 1940, the second year of the war, and all is provisional. Buildings have been requisitioned, and students from various colleges have been thrown together. Many have already left to join the military. Some, like the narrator, Freddie Green, have been recruited for intelligence work. Freddie belongs to a group of friends who include Peter Coyle, a rather louche painter, and Evert Dax, a nascent art collector and the son of the novelist A. V. Dax, whose “unshakably serious” books are much admired though seldom enjoyed (their “nearest approaches to jokes were quotations from Erasmus and occasional mockery of the working classes”). Peter and Evert are gay and entranced by the sight, in a window across the way, of a beautiful being lifting weights. This, it turns out, is David Sparsholt, an engineering student who is about to sign up with the RAF — and who goes on to be awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and, later, to found a successful engineering firm.
“Spar . . . sholt . . . Sounds like part of an engine, or a gun,” Peter Coyle observes. And, indeed, Sparsholt is all efficiency and rather chilling practicality. Unlike his admirers, he leads an outward heterosexual life along with a closeted gay one, though, with respect to the latter, it seems that he may employ his beautiful body purely as a means to various ends unconnected — or not entirely connected — to desire. Although his name adorns the title, David Sparsholt, the man, is never really investigated. He is a cipher, a circumstance that is handily evoked by his coming from the industrial city of Nuneaton, which to Freddie has “something null about it,” and, graphically, by a chalk drawing made by Peter Coyle of his torso: “a portrait of a demigod from neck to knee, the sex suggested by a little slur, conventional as a fig leaf, while the neck opened up to nothing, like the calyx of a flower.”
The second part of the novel takes us forward to 1966 and is delivered from the point of view of David Sparsholt’s thirteen-year-old son, Johnny. He is gay, timid, and dyslexic, but with the budding talent of the portrait artist he will become. When we meet him, he is in the thrall of an infatuation with a visiting French boy named Bastien, a heartless little monster of manipulation who comes on holiday to Cornwall with the Sparsholts and another family. The section ends with an intimation of the beginning of the notorious “Sparsholt Affair,” a ruinous, salacious scandal that reverberates through the rest of the novel and turns on the fact that homosexual acts were still criminal offenses in England until 1967. There is a suggestion that the appalling Bastien might have had a hand in exposing the deeds that ended in Sparsholt’s notoriety, but that is never followed up — like so many things in this novel, which is one of lacunae.
Thus we move on to 1974. In Britain it is a dreary year of labor disputes, rolling power cuts, and the “Three-day week.” Johnny is working for Evert Dax, now a writer and part of a bohemian coterie, and through this association he becomes friends with two lesbians, to whom he eventually donates sperm. The resulting child, Lucy, shows up in the next section, set in 1982, and from there we are brought to 1995 and finally 2012. Hollinghurst’s evocation of different eras and of how gay life is lived in each is deftly portrayed; and each section evolves into a substory of what we may loosely call the plot. But therein lies cause for disappointment, for each developing narrative is abruptly cut off once — it truly seems — we have become thoroughly engaged with it. We find ourselves plunged into the next era to find predicaments dissolved and a whole new set of circumstances reigning. It is frustrating, all the more so as each section is so beautifully composed, so filled with fully formed characters, arresting images, and currents of surreptitious humor.
Hollinghurst has few equals in the exactness with which he summons up human traits, often with comic brio. This is especially so in the last part, which finds Johnny at sixty years of age in a milieu that prizes youth and a well-tended physique. He is at a gay nightclub, observing, amid the throng of young men, the few “bald and grizzled pillars of his own generation.” He “was troubled by them for a second, and then as quickly grateful that some looked older than him.” He heads off to the gents, elevated by Ecstasy:
In the mirror as he queued he saw himself, astonished wide-eyed figure, pink-faced, grey thatch rustic among the sharp cuts and shaven heads of the young people sliding and barging past him, but there was nothing he could do about it now and giving himself a sexy smile which got an ‘All right?’ from the friendly Chinese boy pressing in beside him, he went to a place at the trough. A few minutes later he set off again at a strange wading stagger to find his friends.
As with so many passages in this novel, everything is perfect here: the scene, the visual truth, the pacing, the mood, and, not least, the author’s kindly touch. It very nearly makes up for our being wrenched out of story after story.