‘The Sparsholt Affair’ by Alan Hollinghurst is his first book since 2011’s ‘The Stranger’s Child’ and his sixth overall. Having won the Man Booker Prize for his masterpiece ‘The Line of Beauty ‘ in 2005 the expectations every time he releases a book are high. His books are about the lives of gay men, but such is the beauty and power of his writing, they transcend that limiting categorization, and get placed in the General Fiction section of the bookshop.
This latest book is an episodic tale, told over the course of seventy years and is split into five sections (a similar structure to ‘The Stranger’s Child’ which was spaced out over a century from before world war one to the present day).
The first section of ‘The Sparsholt Affair’ tells of the effect the arrival of a muscular new student from the Midlands named David Sparsholt, has on the lives of a group of intellectual students who form a literary society called ‘The Memo Club’ at Oxford University in 1940. Sparsholt is waiting to enlist in the Army. The members of the Memo Club are closeted homosexuals – one of whom, Evert Dax – the son of an esteemed but dull novelist – becomes obsessed with Sparsholt. David’s girlfriend Connie has come to Oxford to work as a secretary. This section of the book is told in the form of a memoir by another member of the club Freddy Green, and evocatively captures the era of wartime Oxford and the blackout.
The second section is set in 1966. David Sparsholt (by now a decorated war hero) and his wife Connie are on summer holidays on the coast with their fourteen year old son Johnny, who is tormented by an unrequited passion for fifteen year old French exchange student Bastien, who has discovered the charm of girls. Present also are Clifford Haxby and his wife Norma. It becomes clear that an illicit affair is happening.
Fast forward nine years to the mid-1970s. Johnny is now a portrait painter who is working for an art dealer and he is sent to Evert Dax’s house to appraise some art. He becomes embroiled in the action of Dax’s house, and in the burgeoning London gay scene during this time of liberation. Dax’s employee Ivan seems slightly obsessed with Johnny’s dad David, and the gay sex scandal he had been involved in the 1960s which had involved an MP, a rent boy and salacious photographs. This controversy was a national scandal and led to the breakup of his marriage to Connie. Johnny starts going to nightclubs and bars of 1970s London. The three day week is in force because of the oil crisis – reminiscent of the first section which featured the wartime blackout.
The next section is set in the mid 1990’s. Johnny is now the father of a six year old daughter Lucy, the result of an arrangement with a lesbian couple. Johnny is coupled up with Patrick. Freddy Green gives Johnny his diaries which recount the affair between Evert Dax and David Sparsholt at Oxford in 1940. Johnny brings David, who is now in his 70s, and long since remarried to June, on a visit to see Evert, whom he has not seen since 1940, and with whom he has had no communication with since the sex scandal of the 1960s.
The final section is set in the present day. Recently widowed, a sixty year old Johnny must navigate the new dating world of Grindr and online hook-ups. His father is still alive at ninety.
This is an incredibly frustrating book. Beautifully written as his books always are, the five sections are only loosely linked. While each is reasonably successful as an individual piece (particularly the first section) there are far too many new characters introduced briefly in each section. It becomes virtually impossible to remember who they are when they are referenced later on. The ‘Sparsholt Affair’ of the title – the sex scandal of the 1960s is never fully explained – only alluded to. This is the major failure of the book as clearly this is the defining episode, but it contents and context are only hinted at. It remains the most fascinating part of the story. I wanted to read a book about this scandal and its aftermath. Instead we are left guessing. The most interesting character in the book – the bisexual David Sparsholt also remains a mystery throughout the book – his motives or intentions never explored or acknowledged.
The descriptions of times and places and events are excessive and unnecessary. Did Hollinghurst not have an editor to tell him where deep cuts would greatly improve the story? Too many of the characters are grotesques – Ivan and Denis in particular. The main protagonist in the book – Johnny – has a fatal flaw. He is terminally boring. I wanted to read about his Dad, not him.
The circles in which the characters all move – the world of art dealership – is so esoteric, that it is alienating. This a feature of all Hollinghurst’s work – he clearly can’t write about people with office jobs – but never in such a boring manner as here.
‘The Sparsholt Affair’ has glimpses of brilliance – Hollinghurst can occasionally capture a mood or a feeling perfectly – but remains a deep disappointment. I really hope that for his next book (which judging by his output will be released in 2024) he abandons the device of setting a book over the course of a century, and focuses on a shorter period of time. And I hope he finds a new editor. He is capable of genius. Sadly not here.