30 September 2017
The Daily Telegraph
Alan Hollinghurst gives us all the usual with little of the magic, says Nakul Krishna
THE SPARSHOLT AFFAIR by Alan Hollinghurst 464pp, Picador, £20, ebook £16.99
The structure of Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel will inspire severe déjà vu in readers of his last, The Stranger’s Child. He deploys again the technique he took, with gracious acknowledgement, from Alice Munro: scenes are set at intervals, from the early Forties to the 2000s. Much happens in the gaps (puberty, artistic careers, death and, of course, the scandal of the title) but all this must be inferred from clues obligingly planted in the dialogue.
In The Stranger’s Child, which traced the afterlives of a middling Edwardian poet who was not quite Rupert Brooke, the ellipses were used to secure distinctive effects – surprise, pathos, disappointment – and treated those un-Munrovian, but very Hollinghurstian, themes: literary reputation, buried homosexuality, Englishness. The novel made its readers work, but not too hard, its emotional impact deep and honestly earned. It is distressing to see the technique going stale before our eyes, drawing attention to itself with a gaucheness uncharacteristic of this usually nimble craftsman.
The Sparsholt Affair opens in the Second World War rather than the First, and the homoerotic subculture its characters inhabit is that of wartime Oxford with its randy painters and air-raid sirens rather than the Cambridge of The Stranger’s Child. The narrative shifts its focus from David Sparsholt, the athlete who arrives at Oxford in 1940 with a body out of Greek sculpture and the sexual ambiguity of Dorian Gray, to the travails of David’s son Johnny, an artist, who will never be quite free of the whiff of the Sixties scandal that did his father in. The past sullies the present even when no one can remember quite what the fuss had been about.
Hollinghurst leaves the details of the affair – which has hints of Profumo, Thorpe and John Poulson – deliberately sketchy. “Money, power… gay shenanigans! It had everything,” says one character. If the intention was to tantalise, it doesn’t come off. The scandal cannot sustain the narrative weight it needs to bear, and its effects are too diffuse. The figures at its heart do not manage to intrigue, still less elicit sympathy.
Johnny Sparsholt’s maunderings in Seventies London allow Hollinghurst to return to another pet theme, the vagaries of artistic fashion. The wartime neoromanticism of Graham Sutherland and others features heavily, first as a contemporary fad, then as an older generation’s folly, then as a golden age ripe for rediscovery. When Johnny’s mother is spotted in an earlier scene with a copy of The Red and the Green, we know both that we are roughly in the mid-Sixties and that she is probably that very English readerly type, the Iris Murdoch completist.
We follow Johnny to the present day, letting him navigate the mores of 21st-century gay life: dating apps and the impossibility of finding an untattooed male torso at a nightclub. These scenes are written with the big-hearted generosity Hollinghurst has always brought to modern life, marked by that rare and unfakeable capacity for the connoisseurship of every kind of pleasure, high and low. There is little explicit sex, but this is of a piece with Hollinghurst’s growing fascination with the appurtenances of sex over the act itself: frustrated yearning, chastity, and the persistence of desire long after one has ceased to be desirable except to the “gerontophile”.
When Johnny, recently bereaved, tries to prolong a one-off with a much younger man, he finds his overture politely rebuffed:
He heard back from him next day, a cool, almost contentless paragraph: ‘You’re right, I am working on my Subjectivity module. You have a good memory Johnny.’ And signed off disconcertingly, ‘Thanks for reaching out, MX’. The phrase disturbed him, and went on doing so. There was a euphemistic kindness to it, a hint of surprise at his worthy but absurd attempt to see Michael again. He had an image of a hand stretching out through the bars of a cell – he might have reached out, but he hadn’t, by some distance, reached what he wanted; and Michael, it was clear, was unlikely to reach back.
There is pathos here, and pity, and a flinty honesty, but the young are not exempted from judgment. Hollinghurst sustains a prose register alive to the ethical dimension of his story. He achieves this without a hint of the fingerwagging moralist disappointed in the shallowness of the young, not least because his old men have been just as shallow in their time.
Hollinghurst’s prose remains consistently but judiciously elegant. He has learnt, as Martin Amis for one never has, that Keats’s injunction to load every rift with ore is terrible advice for the prose writer. He is, as usual, excellent with the quotidian observation: Johnny watches the brushes of a London street-cleaning truck “almost beautifully missing the seven or eight bits of rubbish on the cobbles and leaving a wet dirty smear as it circled, turned, and disappeared the way it had come.”
The evocation of motorways and provincial towns (this time, Nuneaton) is as sharp as ever. Never has the experience of dyslexia been more lyrically conveyed than in the passage where the teenaged Johnny looks a piece of text to see
the occasional chimneys that ran straight down between words, line after line, or climbed like diagonal flues across a long paragraph, the odd accidental poolings of ascenders, descenders and inverted commas into small abstract images, knots, mouths, sea anemones…
One must make do with these sundries as the main course is so lacklustre. But Hollinghurst is enough of an eminence in English letters, and sufficiently unprolific, that even a minor work is of interest simply as a book by him. His admirers should extend to him the courtesy he has extended to the lesser lights of the English canon by rescuing them from the enormous condescension of critical fashion. Ronald Firbank, Peter Pears and Angus Wilson (the focus of important scenes in earlier novels) will be pleased to be joined as beneficiaries of Hollinghurst’s bounty by Walter Sickert, Graham Sutherland and Iris Murdoch. The Sparsholt Affair may well end up being remembered as a celebration of the gloriously minor English tradition in which Hollinghurst himself asks to be read.