The Sparsholt Affair

By Alan Hollinghurst

Picador, £20

Review by Ronald Frame

I READ this novel, every word of the 454 pages, in two days. It’s not your usual page-turner – being meticulously written, acutely insightful about human (mis)behaviour, confidently dropping its references to Benjamin Britten and the Lark Quartet, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. Turn the pages, however, I did.

Every good book has an involving tale to tell. And this is a very good book, with a skein of skilfully entwined what-happens-next? stories ranging over seven decades and three generations. If there’s a prevailing intelligence among the protagonists, it belongs to former picture-restorer turned portrait painter Johnny Sparsholt.

In their entirety the stories show us how gay life has developed, from its codified existence in the shadows; to intrusive press prurience (a 1960s scandal, built up by journalists as "The Sparsholt Affair", is the motor of this novel); to legalisation; to turn-up-the-bass dancefloor posing; to sperm-donor-fatherhood/hybrid families; finally to contemporary out-thereness (clubland drugs-and-waterbottles, hooking-up sex apps, attention deficit and the perpetual illusion that the next time is going to be even better).

Alan Hollinghurst is very much at home in his sophisticated milieu. We embark on the saga in 1940 in Oxford, sited “in its bowl of hills”, “the town pervaded by a mood of transience” – and of terror that the sky will rain Luftwaffe bombs on them. The student friends migrate in the peace, most of them, to London, and to its SW enclaves: dedicated to their careers, educating themselves in pictorial art, literature, music – and desiring one another.

By way of Johnny’s early teenage summer sailing on the River Fal in Cornwall, the author takes us to other places too, to rural Wales (a mildewed modernist dream house at the end of a rutted lane) and via the motorway to the Midlands conurbation, principally Johnny’s home town Nuneaton, extending to Coventry, Birmingham, Lichfield: he is equally assured in these provincial settings, dusty and complacent, which in this novel about time and unremitting change are no less at the mercy of the years’ passing.

Somehow Hollinghurst can be rigorously analytical (think Henry James) one moment, slyly comic the next; erotic, then nostalgic (singer Tom Jones might straddle both, so to speak); androgynous (Mr H is unusually adept at getting under a woman’s skin); and subtle to the point of crepuscular (Whistler, artist of misty dusk, is a presiding genius to Johnny).

Our author does wonderful things in the book with light and shade: the wartime blackout at the outset (“brief dislocated intimacies, a blurring of boundaries between person and person”), the loss of electrical power (it’s the three-day week of 1974) during a select at-home in Chelsea (faces glimpsed by impromptu candlelight), a strobe-strafed underground disco-scape

One has a sense that this novel took several years to construct. The felicities of the prose are unceasing: the observations and apercus are impeccably judged.

“[The taxi] came in at a respectful speed over the deep gravel, with a sound as if the car drew its own wash.” Exactly so!

The author can put into words a mood which might only be split-second, or quite nebulous. “The grinding scream of the brakes lent an edge to my nerves.” Or: “Johnny felt the pang of regret that came before leaving a place he would never see again.”

He hits on expressions for the well-nigh inexpressible: “that air of nostalgia for itself that pervades the life of a great city, ubiquitous as fog and soot”.

He has his characters off to a tee. French exchange-pupil Bastien’s “genius, even then [at 14], was his perfect selfishness, a beautiful smile that he must have learned early in life brought him anything he wanted”.

The humour can ambush us. Of a housewife in a portrait, who had agreed to remove all her clothing to be painted: “She sat with thighs stoutly apart, and a worried look, as if she’d just remembered something in the oven.”

More movingly, a situation of multiple accumulations can be rendered by a single gesture – and a casual flick of the authorial eye, ascribed to the diarist-narrator of section one. “Her delicate fingers trembled slightly, and I noticed when she reached for her glass the soft ridge where a long-worn ring had been removed.”

The characters have been lived with, and so it is that I could believe in them as individuals for the hours immersed in reading and for the days and – (I’m presuming) week and months – ahead, recollecting.

The other main figure is Johnny’s famously handsome father, David: RAF hero/engineer and manufacturer and Jensen-owner/Fleet Street’s man-of-shame. Shaped from contradictory evidence, he remains a compelling enigma throughout the book.

Only Lucy (at age seven) fails to convince – she seems awfully adult for her tender age – and I’m being churlish to mention her: the sorry point is my trying to tell myself there might be any shortfall in the Hollinghurst armoury at all. Otherwise his characters seem to have the third dimension of life, magnetising and maddening persons one could actually encounter.

This, yes, is a chronicle about change.

The final two sections of the five have the titles Losses and Consolations. Age as we see brings its decrements, yet inspires acts of rash bravura; the indignities can be cruel, the revelations about somebody’s past behaviour dismaying, but the surprise empathy and kindness of a complete stranger are what will prove redemptive for Johnny Sparsholt.

A reviewer probably isn’t supposed to come out with a verdict so unqualified as the one which follows, but I shall.

It would be hard, impossible, to over-praise this novel.