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 the novel’s five sections because he allows us to see David Sparsholt without getting close to him, and Hollinghurst is keen to keep us apart from his titular character. Freddie’s interest is predicated, we’re told, on the attraction David holds for his two gay friends, Peter Coyle and Evert Dax. (Freddie’s half-brother is gay too—he “had” Auden at college—and there’s more than a hint that Jill might be a closet lesbian.) Peter, a flamboyant art student, manages to convince Sparsholt to sit for a nude portrait, while the more retiring Evert, son of a famous, though diminishing, novelist, can barely summon up the courage to speak to him. Freddie thinks he’s helping Evert along in this unrequited romance until it becomes clear that Evert doesn’t need Freddie’s help at all. Against all the odds he has “had” the apparently straight Sparsholt.
Despite the slightly coy vernacular—from the cocks and dicks of the earlier books we now get “his sex” and “organ”—Hollinghurst’s Oxford is free from the oppressive cloud of secrecy around homosexual dealings that overshadows Cambridge in E.M. Forster’s Maurice, which, like Jill, reverberates here. In his earlier novels, Hollinghurst has often done the remarkable thing (though it shouldn’t be) of making living one’s life as a gay man appear the most natural and enjoyable thing in the world, without shame and mostly without fear. In the Oxford section the characters struggle with attraction straightforwardly, that is to say, clumsily. Evert and Peter pursue David Sparsholt, who seems to like only his fiancée, Connie, but must have something more to him, and Freddie makes passes at Jill while looking over her shoulder to see what the others are doing.
What do Jill and Connie feel? Perhaps they don’t know—sex is just one of the ways the characters have for framing and deceiving each other. They watch one another covertly, leave cryptic notes, orchestrate accidental meetings, read each other’s letters and diaries (themes in Maurice and in Jill), creep up to one another’s rooms. And despite Larkin’s sense of the lack of personal ambition in the period, they are watching to see who everyone will become; some (like Evert) are desperate to escape their names, and others eager to make them.
Because it’s wartime, there are bigger issues of spying and deciphering at the peripheries. The more astute may pick up on the first or second clue (“some papers I was expecting”) and realize that Freddie’s exemption from active service is because of his part-time code-breaking activities at Blenheim Palace (MI5 headquarters in the early stages of the war). There is a cover story involving an aunt, which Freddie lays carefully, and odd hints and comments about absences we wouldn’t otherwise be aware of, which are quite disorienting at first. Other dislocations, inconsistencies, in Hollinghurst’s Oxford put us on our guard. David doesn’t seem to remember meeting Freddie, despite apparently having had a conversation with Peter about it. Everyone tells little lies.
This is all good fun, up to a point, but it can feel like hard work too. What are we supposed to pay attention to? Is it important that we remember that David’s fiancée, Connie, is working at Blenheim Palace as well? She is barely noted by the other men, who are only interested in getting inside David’s old flannels. Are we meant to read something into every aside, into the semi-innocuous mentions of Edmund Blunden, Whistler nocturnes, Tchaikovsky; the period placing of Camp coffee and shove ha’penny boards (something people play in pubs, or did)? The abstracted Jill comes to life when talking about old coins and admiring Freddie’s Meissen cups. Is this something more than just culture-signaling, or merely the stuff of everyday life?
The first section of the novel—the Oxford days—is signed off with: “This narrative, written for, but never read to, the Cranley Gardens Memoir Club, was found among Freddie Green’s papers after his death.” This complicates proceedings; if one now reads it as an account written many years later, certain allusions (and evasions) become clear; the vanity appears self-deprecating—a performance for friends. But it also invites a scrutiny the narrative can’t quite sustain. After all, memoirists don’t stage conversations like this, novelists do. A passage supposedly recounted by Evert strains the conceit, and the voice, which is meant to be entirely Freddie’s, is much too inflected with Hollinghurst, too close to the voice of the rest of the book.
“A New Man” is the heading Hollinghurst gives this first section, and David Sparsholt is new in more than one way. What Freddie realizes, uncharmingly, is that
my greater age and experience, the people I knew and the thousands of books I’d read, counted for nothing in his eyes. The War had levelled us…. I might have won the Chancellor’s Essay Prize in my first year and the Gifford Medal in my second; but to him I was just an eccentric weakling.
(Would it be unfair to point out, as people always do, that Hollinghurst won the Newdigate Prize for poetry while at Oxford?) Hollinghurst’s leading men are usually defined by their literariness and the self-satisfied pleasure they take in it, the talent it gives them to impress, to undress (and embarrass), tempered with the occasional anxiety that it might not have any transactional value at all. This makes them very attractive—especially to themselves—and also rather despicable. Will Beckwith, in The Swimming-Pool Library, says of his working-class black lover, Arthur: “The fact that he had not mastered speech, that he laboured towards saying the simplest things, that his vocal expressions were prompted only by the strength of his feelings, unlike the camp, exploitative, ironical control of my own speech, made me want him more.”
Given such Forsterian romanticization of the inarticulate boy, it’s intriguing to see Hollinghurst make one his main subject for the remainder of The Sparsholt Affair. Johnny Sparsholt, David’s son, doesn’t remain the boy we first meet him as, but he retains something of the boyish blank canvas. He is introduced to us in the second section as a teenager who doesn’t read (“never quite got the knack, have you, old lad”). Johnny may not aspire to books, but he draws, which must set him at odds with his father. And sex is again the refrain: primarily, since we’re closest to him (in the third person now, not the first of the previous section), Johnny’s palpitating lust for his French exchange friend, Bastien, with whom he apparently did all sorts of wonderful and wicked things the previous summer at Bastien’s home in Nîmes, but which aren’t being repeated now that they are on holiday in Cornwall with Johnny’s family.
Hollinghurst generally prefers wealthy characters, who afford him the opportunity to describe leisure and its fruits—music, architecture, paintings, antiques, private clubs, country houses, debauchery—but he has a flourishing sideline in middle-class aesthetics, usually seen through the wincing self-consciousness of some young aspirant. If we follow the aesthetic hierarchy of the novels it should seem a waste for Hollinghurst to exert himself on the house in Nîmes, which is “completely without character”—by which he means aesthetic or historic value—though he does in fact give its crazy-paved patio more than a flourish of character, as the recollected scene of Johnny’s first seduction. He also outlines with tidy strokes the unsettling contours of Johnny’s time in France:
the meals, which either failed his needs and habits (a breakfast of milk coffee and hard-crusted French stick) or heavily exceeded them (rich meats, crêpes for pudding, a small disorientating tumbler of red wine); the movable duvet, the two-pin plugs, the button light-switches, the taps that switched themselves off to save water.
One of the pleasures of reading Hollinghurst is the clarity he brings to descriptions of a certain class of feelings and behaviors, the ones that ripple across the surface of our lives. He can pick out the texture of a period or experience—Johnny’s 1960s holiday is the picture of what it ought to be: visits to the seaside, castles and churches, too much drinking, paste sandwiches, queues. But the real story, the affair of the book’s title, is taking place behind this façade, a scandal that is never properly described, and that becomes only partially clear many pages in, as two characters try to recollect it. Their memories center on an infamous photo taken through a window: David Sparsholt, the well-known war pilot and successful engineer; Clifford Haxby, a buff local councilor; and a male prostitute at the house of a notorious MP. Johnny, caught up in his own affairs, is oblivious to the cheesy machismo of the two men:
“I’d say you keep pretty fit, then, David?” Clifford said.
His father swung round, as if not expecting the compliment. “Oh, I like to keep in shape, Cliff.”
Perhaps that’s how everyone talked back then. The frisson of this possibility shimmers across the section; as Johnny puts it, “sex ran visibly close to the sunlit surface.” Only he doesn’t see it, and we don’t get to see the fallout, nor is there any illustration of what it might have meant then, rather than how it ends up being remembered later. The Sparsholt scandal is suggestive of more than one that brought down British politicians in the mid-twentieth century, but very far from the Montagu case of 1954, in which Peter Wildeblood became one of the first British men to publicly admit to being gay. The 1950s were a period of particular gruesomeness for gay men, as the home secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, introduced his “drive against male vice” and the police proceeded to lock up thousands of alleged offenders. Wildeblood described it as being “an exile in one’s own country.”
The nervous character of the times could be rich material for Hollinghurst, but he prefers to act obliquely, even if his books often mark in some way the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act that decriminalized sex between men (The Sparsholt Affair was published in Britain last year, on the fiftieth anniversary). Hollinghurst is interested in the ways in which stories change over time. Like his last novel, The Stranger’s Child, this book jumps between five moments roughly twenty years apart, and both examine the same subject—here the scandal, there a poem—in a passive, observational mode. The difficulty, as we follow Johnny into the next section, in which he moves to London as a young man and falls in with his father’s Oxford admirers (they have followed their former object’s fall from grace and are hungrily intrigued by his gay son), is that we have to remain curious about the issue that is everywhere whispered and nowhere expressed. Its legacy mostly takes the form of irritating remarks (“It’s so cool…. David Sparsholt’s son’s gay!”).
Instead of examining the politics or pain of the scandal, the novel gives us the experience of half-knowing about it and showing us the ways people “know” it over time. It doesn’t matter of itself that the affair and its participants are so removed from us. But there’s a more serious deficiency. In focusing his lens on different moments before and after a public/private scandal, Hollinghurst invites us to consider its effects on the people involved, their families, the country. Yet the only aspect of it that seems to really interest him is the process by which history works on the story, the way in which the scandal becomes a name, the name a metonym, then an echo, slowly mutating and decaying with the passing of time. This leaves a gap at the center, the crude human blank that must be filled with our own vague memories of tawdry affairs dragged through the press. Why not claim this central event in his own words, rather than letting the taint of the tabloids waft through the book?
Nor does Johnny have any hold over us: we follow him here and there, are given some of his vaguer thoughts and feelings, but haven’t any real intimacy with him. This seems to be the price Hollinghurst is willing to pay to keep us suspended; the cost of formal ambiguity and uncertainty in what might otherwise be a nice bourgeois family saga. His taste for evasiveness has its roots in earlier writing on homosexual desire; for his MLitt at Oxford he discussed the strategies of Forster, Ronald Firbank, and L.P. Hartley, who sublimated and coded it in their published works, complicating the pose of knowing complicity the author is meant to have with a reader but making their books all the more intriguing—and stylish—as literary documents.
Hollinghurst is famous for writing candidly about sex, as these authors couldn’t, but he is fond of withholding nonetheless, and seems to want to transfer the effects without the substance. Much of the action in The Sparsholt Affair happens in the gaps between sections. Strands of the story are left forgotten, characters disappear from view, and the narrative vexes us with minor questions that go unanswered. Hollinghurst’s tactics sometimes require a significant suspension of disbelief: in The Swimming-Pool Library the gay protagonist doesn’t know that his grandfather was responsible for the most important antigay persecutions of the century.
Perhaps there is a virtue in this. Hollinghurst’s novels play hundreds of little tricks on the reader, many of them highly enjoyable, like placing us in a painting, or a daydream, without telling us. The opportunities for ironic displacements increase in the third section of The Sparsholt Affair, the longest, as one generation rubs up against another. Johnny, apprenticed to a picture restorer, knows nothing of Evert’s history with his father; he doesn’t recognize Peter Coyle’s drawing of David’s torso hanging in Evert’s hallway. Part of Hollinghurst’s refractive approach is to move between characters, so in the third section we follow Evert and his young friend Ivan as well as Johnny (Johnny fancies Ivan, Ivan fancies Evert). The narrative progresses in a series of small scenes, some just a paragraph or two long.
Most of Hollinghurst’s books have been thematically concerned with visual arts, and this one seems structurally indebted to images: the scenes are really paintings, only lightly animated by the demands of narrative, and the suggestions of plot are simply the passing of time—the invisible thread between all the little pictures in the gallery (“Small Oils” is the section’s title). If it sometimes seems confusing that Hollinghurst can be such an intricate detailer and yet bring nothing vital to bear on his characters, it is worth remembering that his motivations, as he described them for The Guardian in 2011, are pictorial first and foremost:
I seem always to begin with the apprehension of details, as if, among objects in a commonplace view, one or two had begun to glow or resonate with imaginative potential. I want to describe life as it is, or was, but to give it an order I might loosely call poetic—a matter of rhythm, echoes, form as an agent of irony, an attempt to create a pervasive harmony through the narrative voice.
This sounds like Virginia Woolf, though the results are very different. Hollinghurst gives excellent descriptions of practical things (two of the best scenes in The Sparsholt Affair are of painting and restoring pictures), yet art largely figures in his books as another form of knowingness, something people use to influence others. In The Sparsholt Affair such matters of taste are handled relatively gently. There is a funny, though overly poignant, account of Evert sorting out his collection for a sale—wanting to neither relinquish the things he loves, nor have them be rejected as not desirable enough. No one is willing to say they admire Graham Sutherland (then in fashion), but neither are they prepared to defend Chagall (out). And Hollinghurst allows us glimpses of art outside its function as social currency. When Johnny visits the house of Sir George Skipton to do a portrait, he stops to look at the three Whistler views of the Thames on display, then compares the same view from the window:
Beyond the traffic, between the plane trees, lay the grey expanse of the river, the cold wellings and streakings of its currents. And on the other side, an odd ruinous nothing—which Whistler (when Johnny came back in and looked again) seemed already to have noted in the three brown brushstrokes whose mere accidents, the spread and flick of a loose hair, the ghost of a bubble, the sticky split second as the brush left the canvas, were also small miracles of observation, a wall, a roof, a chimney rising through mist. Well, it was genius.
The problem, and it seems churlish to complain when the writing is so lovely, is that despite Hollinghurst’s making painters and paintings central to the book, we rarely come into real contact with the artworks, and their function is usually to make people feel smug or inadequate or sentimental or scrutinized, but not to carry ideas in themselves, or to symbolize anything that might be at stake for the characters. Johnny eventually finds out that his father and Evert were once lovers, and even brings them together briefly (we’re not allowed to see their meeting), but the portraits of David that seem so suggestive at the start, and that Johnny encounters unknowingly, remain purely decorative.
The fourth section of the book is again told from the (third-person indirect) point of view of a character removed from the proceedings: Johnny’s seven-year-old-daughter, Lucy (he provided the sperm for his lesbian friends). It’s indebted to What Maisie Knew, of course, and like Freddie and Johnny in previous sections there is much that Lucy doesn’t understand about what everyone else is up to (a joint is a “giant cigarette”; two men coming out of a room together is “rather odd because it was a lavatory”). Neither do we: we might get to walk down the long corridor and admire the pictures, but the doors remain resolutely shut.
Hollinghurst is ambitious and full of delights, but these effects are surely easier to achieve when we are convinced of the characters, less disposed to be critical, or else the comedy, which often slips by, should be made to govern the storytelling. We don’t look to Hollinghurst to be the capacious, wise, large-hearted novelist. But you can try so hard to be subtle you end up being crude. A strange digression at the end of the book has Johnny painting a family portrait of the wealthy but vulgar Miserdens (what a miserable name), whose awfulness is enumerated at length. People like this probably exist—I think I’ve met them and despaired also—but this sketch is too predictable. Unlike with Hollinghurst’s other books we can’t think the joke is partly on snobbish Johnny, because he’s not really snobbish, unless you count his love of classical music (inevitably Mr. Miserden talks all through the Lark Quartet).
Hollinghurst doesn’t much like the conventional forms of ending, and The Sparsholt Affair turns in the final pages on quick scene shifts and new characters. In what seems like little more than a nod to the changing modalities of gay life, Johnny, now in his fifties and single after the death of his partner, Pat, hooks up with a twenty-three-year-old via a dating app and is alienated by the “frictionless” encounter with someone whose real life takes place on his phone and for whom sex is so clearly defined and easily accessible. (I wonder what reaction the irrepressible protagonists of his earlier books would have had.) Hollinghurst deprived himself of a nightclub scene in his last book—he has written with memorable exuberance about drugs and clubs—but there are two here, and the second leads to a sudden romance, closing the book on a strange sort of happy ending.
For a book that meanders a good deal, the final sections feel hurried; or perhaps it’s just the accumulation of deaths: first of Jill, then Pat, Freddie, Evert, David. A cruel trick is played on Jill, whom we’ve barely seen since the opening section. We were, after all, meant to remember her fancying those Meissen cups: at her funeral it’s discovered she was a rampant kleptomaniac. To reintroduce her for this made me foolishly angry. It’s breaking some sort of contract between author and reader. There are so few writers who write as well as Hollinghurst does, and he knows this, and the critics know it too. But perhaps he can also allow his books to earn our affection—what Forster called a novel’s final test—and become a writer that readers return to again and again, rather than one who leaves you feeling like he’s had his cake and left too little for us.