Good novelists usually have an unmistakable voice. There are exceptions of course, and by what must seem a stroke of injustice, such novelists, no matter the other qualities they may have, rarely last. Alan Hollinghurst is not prolific – this is only his sixth novel in more than a quarter of a century – but you might pick paragraphs at random from any of them, and his authorship would be immediately recognisable. His voice is leisurely and persuasive, mellifluous and well-mannered. There’s a dandy elegance to his writing, but it is a restrained dandyism; he is never a show-off.
He marked out his territory from the start; all his novels are variations on favourite themes. He writes about gay life in a way that was once shocking but no longer is, about art and literature, for his characters are mostly what used to be called cultured, about families and what people might want to inherit from parents and grandparents and what they might prefer to discard, about the passage of time and changing perspective on the past. Life is perceived and experienced as comedy, sometimes painfully. He is also a master of omission.
The five sections of the novel take us from wartime blacked-out Oxford in 1940 almost to the present day. David Sparsholt, oarsman and enthusiast for physical culture, is only a temporary undergraduate, awaiting his call-up to the RAF. He is already engaged to be married but arouses the passionate interest of other undergraduates. Most of them are gay, though Freddie, the narrator of this section, is perhaps surprisingly straight. The atmosphere of the diminished wartime Oxford is beautifully caught. Sparsholt himself, mysterious, reserved, both naïve and self-confident, is prepared to go to bed – once – with an admirer, recompense for a much-needed loan.
Twenty years later Sparsholt, decorated war hero, is a successful Midlands industrialist. This section – a holiday in Cornwall – is presented through the eyes of his 14-year-old son, Johnny, strong on filial admiration, disturbed by the passage to sexual maturity of his French friend Bastien, and puzzled by the couple who share the holiday, the husband, Cliff, a business associate of David’s and a county councillor who takes them sailing on a boat belonging to a MP.
The “affair” of the title takes place off-stage as it were, and is never spelled out. It involves David, Cliff, the MP and rent boys, just a year before the de-criminalisation of homosexual relations between consenting adults. David goes to jail, emerging, we learn later, to resume his business career. There’s a beautifully-managed scene later when he and Johnny have lunch in the RAF Club. The point of the “affair” is that nobody knows or remembers the details, but it casts a shadow over the last half of the novel.
This is almost all seen through Johnny’s eyes as , from an apprenticeship as a picture-restorer, he becomes a successful portrait-painter, becoming friends, shyly and hesitantly, with men who had known – and fancied – David in his months at Oxford. Likewise, Johnny eagerly but sometimes vainly explores and then happily accepts his sexuality. Providing sperm for a lesbian friend, he becomes the father of a daughter whose ability to adapt to what
would once have been a scandalous family arrangement is testimony to the relaxed morality that emerges over the 70 years covered by the novel – a relaxation that Hollinghurst doesn’t pretend will exclude unhappiness.
The Sparsholt Affair is a chronicle novel which moves easily from one conversation-piece to another, conversation-pieces in both the verbal and pictorial sense of the expression. Johnny paints portraits of people; Hollinghurst a portrait of the ebbs and flows of ideas and moral principles. His characters exist as individuals in their own right – well-imagined and well-realised individuals, while also having an emblematic significance. One can speak at length of the ideas explored in this novel, and this runs the danger of making it sound abstract. In truth it is anything but that; it’s rich in the sense of felt life, Hollinghurst moving with practised ease from moments of pain and puzzlement to scenes rich in comedy.
*The Sparsholt Affair, by Alan Hollinghurst, Picador, 454pp, £20