Reviews — From the March 2018 issue

Family Affair

Alan Hollinghurst’s break with tradition

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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?

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is an editor at the London Review of Books.

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