Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year..
Subscribe for Full Access
Alan Hollinghurst’s break with tradition

Discussed in this essay:

The Sparsholt Affair, by Alan Hollinghurst. Knopf. 432 pages. $28.95.

On a “grey, clearish” day in March 1891, a twelve-year-old E. M. Forster won a small victory against his prep school headmaster and was excused from PE, which he hated. He was permitted to walk across the Sussex Downs for exercise instead. During his ramble, he came across a middle-aged man pissing into some gorse bushes. The man invited Forster to sit down on his coat with him, then undid his fly and told the boy to take hold of his penis. “ ‘Dear little fellow . . . play with it . . . dear little fellow . . . pull it about.’ I obliged with neither pleasure nor reluctance,” Forster wrote in a memoir years later. At the time he “made an entry in my diary < <>> to remind me that it had been something.”

Photograph of Oxford University © Halle Stoutzenberger

In every life, what goes unsaid must outweigh what is said; the same is true in novels, and by this measure, writing is nothing more than a matter of deciding which of the infinite number of nothings is a something. Forster thought that what had happened to him was important, even if he couldn’t write an account of it when it happened, and it may be that silence has a different significance in the work of writers whose intimate lives the state refuses to acknowledge. Although Forster lived through the Summer of Love and the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967, he decided not to publish Maurice, the novel about a homosexual relationship that he completed in 1914, during his lifetime. This sort of silence resembles something more enduringly English: repression. From one point of view, it makes the work of a writer such as Forster look like the dead end of the English novel, a form that can never quite say what it means and so must deal instead with muddles and misunderstandings — which is all that is left if you can’t be honest.

From another point of view — from that of a writer such as Alan Hollinghurst, who published his first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, in 1988, twenty years after the passage of the Sexual Offences Act — the “provoking blanks” (Hollinghurst’s phrase) in Forster’s narration of his own life might look more like a new beginning for English fiction. Hollinghurst’s early novels are sexually explicit, full of the iconoclastic joy that comes from breaking the silence, but the later ones have been interested in leaving certain things out. How would our sense of a novel change if we were to think of it not as the sum of what is said in its sentences but as an accumulation of silences, a series of nothings that are actually somethings? In his latest novel, The Sparsholt Affair, Hollinghurst combines a deeply pleasurable riffing on the repressed English novel — Forster, James, Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Austen; indeed, about half the canon — with another layer of play on his first five works of fiction, which themselves defy and enrich the tradition he is heir to.

The Sparsholt Affair begins at Oxford University. It is a year into the Second World War; undergraduates appear and disappear without warning. One evening, in “the brief time between sunset and the blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms,” an undergraduate literary society called the Club is trying to decide on a writer to invite to speak to them later that term. Orwell is surely busy, Auden has escaped to New York; perhaps Rebecca West? To avert a discussion about extending an invitation to the fashionably impenetrable A. V. Dax, someone points out a swaying shadow just discernible in a room across the quad. “A figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of handweights” emerges. Evert Dax, son of the novelist, gasps; Peter Coyle, an aspiring painter, declares that he’s found his next model; Freddie Green, a literature student, says that he’ll need a telescope in order to admire “that glorious head, like a Roman gladiator.” The group, quick to mythologize and self-mythologize, discover that their gladiator is already in a “bit of trouble” on account of the noise he’s been making: a “rhythmical creaking,” as the French don in the rooms directly below puts it. His name, they learn, is David Sparsholt. “Sounds like part of an engine, or a gun,” one member of the Club says.

Already we are dealing in things glimpsed and the gaps between them: Sparsholt is a rumor, then a shadow, then an Adonis in the gloaming; his name is explosive and already attached to the idea of sex. The first section is narrated retrospectively by Freddie Green; his memoir recalls The Swimming-Pool Library, in which the diary of a closeted gay British man in 1930s colonial Africa throws into relief the liberated ways of the narrator in 1980s London. Hollinghurst has always been interested in making connections between different eras of gay life, and in showing that it has always been there. The Sparsholt Affair has five sections, which take us bounding from 1940 to 1966 to 1974 to 1995 to 2002. In each moment, the same questions recur: Will Sparsholt, so glittering at Oxford, be remembered? And how and for what?

At the end of Part 1, we find out that Freddie’s memories weren’t put down at the time but later, for the purpose of a memoir club (rather like the one Muriel Spark satirizes in Loitering with Intent). Freddie recalls that Sparsholt agreed to be drawn in the nude by Coyle (but without his glorious head); that he had a fiancée, Connie; and that he had sex with Evert one blacked-out night, which somehow resulted in Evert lending him the money to pay a fine. The impression we get is of someone who is adept at seeing what people want from him and how that might help him get what he wants — as well as of a beauty and insouciance that deranges.

Unlike those who are drawn to him, David Sparsholt isn’t a painter, a writer, or a critic; he is an engineer with a busy rowing schedule. He also has a cutthroat sort of intelligence: after reading the opening pages of a Dax novel, he declares the writing “fancy” and the narrative far-fetched, and says that he can’t understand why the main female character is in love with the hero, as “a real woman wouldn’t have felt like that about such a boring bastard.” Freddie finds he has no good answer to these remarks.

I thought it was the kind of criticism that might have ensued if readers with no literary training were to write the newspaper notices instead of professional reviewers; but . . . what Sparsholt said, though ignorant, was lethally true.

Sparsholt leaves Oxford to fight the Third Reich as soon as he is able, and he doesn’t return to the university.

When we catch sight of him again, in the second part of the book, he is summering in Cornwall with Connie, whom he has married, and their fourteen-year-old son, Johnny. He has had the sort of war he probably wouldn’t have let himself even fantasize about: he was the youngest-ever squadron leader in the Royal Air Force and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He is still glorious — even his son can see his “neatness and power” — but now he is celebrated. We are witness to his grace under pressure on a sailing trip: Sparsholt; Johnny; Johnny’s French love interest, Bastien; and Sparsholt’s friend (and secret lover) Clifford Haxby have been lent Ganymede, the boat of a local MP. When they get out to sea and put the sails up, Bastien loses his footing and falls into the water. Sparsholt tears down the mainsail to turn the boat around, throws a pink lifesaver to the boy, and reels him in. “It was a crisis, dealt with by David Sparsholt in swift wordless actions, over almost at once.” This way of his — the cool handling of a muddled world — draws people to him, but it may also be what precipitates his downfall, in that his ability to smooth over, to elude, to get out of things (or rather his knowledge that he has always found ways to get out of things) also leads him into trouble.

One idle afternoon shortly after the boating incident, Bastien and Johnny call on Haxby and find Sparsholt’s car parked outside. Should they say hello or would they be interrupting? There seems to be no one at home, until Johnny senses, at the periphery of his vision, “the unfolding ripple, the slow wink of light and shade, of the fine slats of a Venetian blind swiveled upwards and then downwards on their cord and closed.” This is the sort of nothing that indicates the presence of a something — and it is also the sort of something that should be a nothing, an ordinary part of someone’s emotional life, of limited interest to the world but naturally consuming interest to the two people in love, Sparsholt and Haxby.

It is a commonplace to remark on the amount and the nature of the sex in Hollinghurst’s fiction. And there is a lot of sex: when reading back over his oeuvre, I started to think about it as functioning the way weather does in realist novels, always available for a quick change of mood. But the sheer abundance of it, as well as the care and detail and lack of squeamishness with which it is treated, has, paradoxically, the same effect as the more common lack of sex in canonical novels: it is love that comes into focus. Sex, Hollinghurst shows, can be about friendship, and self-discovery, and power, and distraction, and comfort, among many other things, but love — well, love is rare. And sex with someone you love is rarer still, and not necessarily a straightforward experience. In The Folding Star, the thirtysomething Edward Manners is in love, Villette-like, with Luc Altidore, a seventeen-year-old to whom he is giving English lessons in a Belgian city. Before Manners confesses his feelings, he has sex with people to whom he isn’t romantically available: most frequently and comfortingly with Cherif, who says he is in love with him; with a man whose name he never learns in a darkened park, simply for the thrill; with Matt, who becomes a source of extra money and a way of getting to know the city. As with Humbert Humbert, when Manners does finally consummate his obsession, it is fatally untender, as if he were taking revenge on his pupil for making him feel so vulnerable to him. Hollinghurst is interested in couplings across and between races, nationalities, generations, classes, sexual orientations. But in his hands, the traditional obstacles to romance — age, upbringing, inclination, society’s expectations — become the sparks that bring about a Forsterian interpersonal connection and, at length, a full-blown liberatory force blasting through the divisions in British society. The experience of English repression in a Hollinghurst novel shows you the way out of English repression: when Edward Manners fucks his pupil, or William Beckwith a murderer, they ignore England’s traditional aristocracies yet achieve something close to emotional aristocracy.

This amatory theme is taken up again in The Sparsholt Affair, which explores the romantic possibilities available to the two Sparsholt men, one before and one after decriminalization. David willingly marries and procreates with Connie but finds passion elsewhere. When he is caught up in the scandal that gives the book its title, he gets a divorce and marries his secretary, with whom he remains, in affection and comfort, until his death. His son is in a different position. In the third section, which takes place in 1974, a twenty-one-year-old Johnny has a brief affair with a man he picks up in a club, from whom he gathers a sense of what a stable, long-term relationship might be like. Showering after sex, the two then

towelled each other, which wasn’t easy to do well, and in the way Colin let Johnny dry him between the legs and half-excite him as he did so there was a vision of what day-to-day life with another man might be, everything he wanted of love and coupledom constantly granted.

Johnny wants to be an artist and is drawn into the circle around Evert Dax, who had been in love with his father, and himself falls in love with an art historian, Ivan. Can Ivan love Johnny back? They fool around during a long weekend in an abandoned country house, but that doesn’t mean much in the emotional economy of the Hollinghurst universe. Johnny realizes on a walk that Ivan doesn’t see the world in the manner he does and is also disconcerted by how eager this potential partner seems to be to meet his father, about whom Ivan will eventually write a book. At this point in his life, Johnny is love’s onlooker: during a sitting for a double portrait that he wants to make of a lesbian couple, they disarmingly ask him to donate his sperm so that they can have a baby (“We think you’re quite nice . . . and reasonably good-looking”), and he eventually agrees.

If love and sex are reliable means of escape from the prison of English society for Hollinghurst’s characters, so is art. Detailed descriptions of music, painting, architecture, and writing appear across all his books. Sometimes the artwork described is real (The Swimming-Pool Library includes many evocations of the writings of Ronald Firbank, as well as a cameo by the writer himself), but sometimes it is imaginary, like the poem “Four Acres,” which has a starring role in The Stranger’s Child. In The Sparsholt Affair, Hollinghurst describes Johnny’s growing ambition to become a portrait painter — a sort of compromise between the unearthly symbolism of the artist Edgard Orst in The Folding Star and the pinched hackwork of the biographer Paul Bryant in The Stranger’s Child. “Johnny’s instinct was for the lurking hint of sex in a photo, the shock of what a photo could catch,” the narrator says as the protagonist takes a detour one morning to the National Portrait Gallery. “As someone who wanted to paint people, he envied it.”

Silent but speaking objects, like photos, often betray their subjects or their critics in Hollinghurst’s novels, and The Sparsholt Affair, with its unseen tabloid telephoto lens trained on the Venetian blinds, is no exception. Because it is pleasurable, in the Jamesian manner, to read beautiful descriptions of beautiful things, you can forget that the descriptions also establish character, mood, tone; they are beautiful and hardworking. Guests arriving to dinner with the imperious A. V. Dax have a “look of walking simultaneously on air and on eggshells.” Birthday sparklers “cast only a short-range light, there was a dreamy weakness of effect.” As Johnny nears the sea he discerns “a sense of it in the sky above the long bare hill, a freshness, a deflected lustre.” I can almost see the shimmer in the gray. If it weren’t so well done, it could feel sub-Jamesian, sub-Forsterian, sub-Firbankian. But you can see most clearly what Hollinghurst has learned from his heroes when he writes about things that they didn’t — or couldn’t — experience.

In the novel’s final section, Johnny has recently lost his longtime partner, Pat. To Pat, Johnny wasn’t lurid collateral from a political scandal but someone who was “funny, almost articulate, and rich in things worth saying.” Now Johnny is dating, desultorily. One night, he goes clubbing with an old friend who gives him a slip of paper full of a “crystalline powder.” Looking into the bathroom mirror as he unfolds the small package, he wonders what his father would think if he died on the dance floor. He takes the drug anyway.

All around them in the fluent glancing colours of the lights men half their age danced, shoulders rolling, hands rising and pointing; among them Johnny spotted here and there the bald and grizzled pillars of his own generation, and was troubled by them for a second, and then as quickly grateful that some looked older than him. After a bit, Mark pulled him into the amorous headlock that signalled a wish to speak, and said again, “Who are you with?” Johnny looked back, said, “Well, I came with Graham” — and wondered as Mark’s fingers slid down his arm and interlocked with his own in a warm strong grasp if there was more to this question, some faint enduring thread through the great perspective of time that seemed to open up under the glittering archway of the club.

As the drug kicks in, the Jamesian prose is unloosed, and sentence runs into sentence down the page. Text messages get misspelled, shirts come off. But there is an unexpected lucidity and pathos to the image of the older gay partygoers as “bald and grizzled pillars” — if there’s something shameful about clubbing in your sixties, there’s also a beauty in still being there when so many of your generation are not. For all the apparent unbridledness of the writing, there is poise in the three-word descriptions “fluent glancing colours” and “warm strong grasp,” which capture the two strongest sensory effects of MDMA. The last triplet — “faint enduring thread” — opens out to what, Hollinghurst is hinting, lies behind all this hedonistic escapism: a desire to forget time, or, more accurately, to forget that our time is limited. Forster’s < <>> was a moment that grew bigger in his memory, outliving by far the seemingly ordinary minutes in which it happened. When Johnny looks at his phone, he discovers that time has warped again: his father has died.

The Stranger’s Child took a Rupert Brooke–like poem about an unsullied England and complicated the poem’s mythology, watching its reputation rise and ultimately fall over the decades; in The Sparsholt Affair, Hollinghurst withholds the scandal from which the novel takes its title. We never come to it quite head-on, and the little phrase itself remains gnomic. Does it mean the business at Oxford? Or the 1960s scandal? Or the love affair with Colin or Ivan or Pat? With each turn of the plot away from its expected center, we encounter another aspect of Hollinghurst’s fiction — the book has a greatest-hits feel, for which it is none the worse. The sex scenes recall The Swimming-Pool Library, the drug-taking scenes The Spell, the country houses The Stranger’s Child; finally, a satirical sequence in which Johnny paints a dot-com millionaire and his family recalls the satire of The Line of Beauty. Bella Miserden, the matriarch and a famous TV personality, sees the work as a latter-day version of John Lavery’s portrait of George V and his family. Johnny’s reply: “Well, quite . . . ”

Hollinghurst paints a portrait of a different kind:

Samuel was red-haired, skinny, taller than both his parents, his face a tragi-comedy of spots. His mother wanted him to stand behind. Alan was neat, handsome, silky-haired and oddly devoid of sex appeal; Bella, heightened and hardened by being so much seen, was sharply pretty, a businesslike blonde with a good figure. The room near the back door with weights and an exercise bike was clearly much used, though not perhaps by fat little Alfie, in his Arsenal strip: he hoped to be painted holding a ball. Tallulah was self-possessed, gracious, and sitting for her picture from the moment she entered the room.

This is the prose equivalent not of Lavery’s gentle palette and enhancingly fuzzy brushwork but of the biting colors and vicious framing of a Martin Parr photograph. Alan, the millionaire, doesn’t bother to hide that he is googling Johnny; when he finds a series of nudes, he asks his wife, “Can you see me in that sort of pose, darling?” The painter is forced to sit there in “the mild inanity of anyone having their work looked at.” Once the painting is done, Bella tells Johnny that her family refers to it as their Sparsholt Affair. To the professional movers who come to Johnny’s studio to transport the painting, it is Bella, and not the elderly painter’s name, that makes it noteworthy.

As the Sparsholt name is emptied of meaning, Johnny, our romantic, hopeful, bewildered hero, becomes ever more free. The Swimming-Pool Library sought to show that the closeted gay men of the previous generation were more like the liberated younger men than the latter knew, but The Sparsholt Affair is more interested in trying to define what might be possible now, given that gay men can marry their partners across much of the West, with some choosing a version of the traditionally heterosexual domesticity that Hollinghurst once teasingly described as “polyfilla-progenitiveness”: that is, “having more children to stop up the gaps in a marriage.” A gay love story doesn’t have to be about thwarted longing anymore; it can be about a couple pottering around the kitchen. If there is a loss of intensity in the gay novel, there might also be a gain to the canon. Forster’s decision not to publish Maurice looks different in 2018 — not so much a “provoking blank” as no blank at all. Nothing was lost on the writer, or could be lost. The ignorance, rather, was ours: we didn’t know until 1971 that it was writing a gay love story that carried Forster from his state-of-England novel, Howards End, to the mysterious, enduring A Passage to India.

Forster’s work was not a dead end; in writing something he thought it unwise to publish, he conducted an underground assault on the repressed English novel — and discovered that the stultified form might need to become broader, stranger, and more enigmatic to survive. On the manuscript of Maurice, Forster wrote, “Publishable. But worth it?” After him, such calculations no longer needed to be made. Any other writer would make visible the duty in taking on such a legacy. It is entirely to Hollinghurst’s credit that his work is never dutiful.

is an editor at the London Review of Books.

More from

| View All Issues |

July 2018

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now