In his 1963 preface to Jill, which tends to eclipse the novel, Philip Larkin described the Oxford he went up to in 1940, which became the setting for the book. It was, he wrote, “singularly free from…traditional distinctions” of class and background, though one might be forgiven for thinking that Jill is almost wholly concerned with them. This freedom lent an unexpected sweetness to wartime Oxford. The slightly glamorous austerities—college festivities proscribed, wine cellars locked, no excursions, no dressing up—introduced a new intimacy among the fewer students in the common room and communal bathrooms. “Perhaps the most difficult thing to convey,” Larkin wrote,
was the almost-complete suspension of concern for the future. There were none of the pressing dilemmas of teaching or Civil Service, industry or America, publishing or journalism: in consequence, there was next to no careerism.
In Jill wartime regulations have upset the wood-paneled charms—going to the pub is a small act of defiance—and new routines, like putting on the blackout curtains, interrupt the old. When John Kemp arrives in Oxford at the start of the book, the stationmaster goes up and down the platform calling out the name of the town: all the signs have been removed.
In his new novel, The Sparsholt Affair, which also begins in October 1940, Alan Hollinghurst captures this mood of Oxonian romance under pressure, inverting some, though not all, of its characteristics. Instead of the exoticism of class, we have the exoticism of male beauty, in the person of David Sparsholt, a new student glimpsed across a college quad, framed by a window, unaware that he is being watched, “a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights,” seemingly “shaped from light itself.” His voyeurs are a group of literary-minded friends, and Freddie Green, our first narrator, is at its center, self-assured and articulate—familiar territory for Hollinghurst—and reading two books a day, though “my rate was slower if the books were in Italian, or Russian” (Italian ought to be a breeze to Freddie, who must have Latin and French).
Unlike Hollinghurst’s usual protagonists, however, Freddie isn’t gay, though he’s so completely unconvincing as a straight character that he must be the token latent homosexual the period demands. How else to explain Freddie’s lukewarm ardor for Jill (yes, “Jill”), who eats greedily and has bunchy brown hair and the “strong chin of a Wagnerian soprano” (was there ever a more suspect form of praise from a male admirer?). When his advances are rejected, it’s clear Jill understands something that he doesn’t. “I sometimes wondered,” a character says later, “if he wasn’t really queer, you know, deep down.”
But Freddie and Freddie’s sexuality are not the story; indeed he declines into a minor character for the rest of the book. Freddie is useful in this first of…
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