The Sparsholt Affair opens with the delicious promise of scandal. It’s the autumn of 1940 at Oxford, windows are blacked out at nighttime to conceal the town against air raids, and the dimly flashlit hurrying about of students before curfew makes for an atmosphere of both strict regulation and rule-breaking permission. One morning, Freddie Green, our narrator of this so-called “little memoir,” the first of five sections in Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, happens upon David Sparsholt, the “new man” at the college, in a subterranean bathroom. David, 17, shirtless, possessed of a “muscular upper body,” and a bit vain, has aroused the prurient curiosity of Freddie’s friends Evert Dax, the scion of a famously underread author, and Peter Coyle, a painter. “Was he good looking?” asks Freddie, that most un-Hollinghurstian figure, a straightish man. “I hardly knew.” Upon David’s departure from the bathroom, an awestruck Indian student, emerging from the shower, declares to Freddie that David looks like a Greek god. “I began to see,” Freddie notes, “that Sparsholt’s effect might be larger than I thought.”
If only. In Freddie’s retelling—“A New Man” is the only part of The Sparsholt Affair written in the first person—David does exert quite an effect on Peter (who gets David to pose for a nude sketch) and Evert (who manages to pull off an improbable seduction) and Connie (David’s busty girlfriend and future wife). Yet, not long after the term begins, David is called up to join the Royal Air Force. Just as suddenly, with a wayward glance at David running with a convoy down an Oxford high street, Freddie’s memoir draws to a halt, and this first canto concludes with a strapline stating, in italics, that the narrative was “found among Freddie Green’s papers after his death.” That’s about it for Freddie Green, who in the succeeding sections makes brief cameos on a television game show and at a meeting of the Cranley Gardens Memoir Club, and is otherwise hardly referred to again. And David Sparsholt? Later made infamous by the public scandal of what will become the “Sparsholt Affair,” David is oddly relegated to the margins, well known but unknowable.
High-end literature with gay themes often wants to have it both ways. Publishers no doubt seek the gay market, but to judge by the coy jacket copy on novels such as André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name (“the story of a sudden and powerful romance that blossoms between an adolescent boy and a summer guest”) and Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy (“a sensitive, universal portrait of boyhood and sexual awakening”), the presumably straight, and therefore universal, audience of book buyers is the more lucrative one. (The Sparsholt Affair “evokes the intimate relationships of a group of friends bound together by art, literature and love across three generations.”) Attempting a crossover from niche fiction to something more “general” can be viewed as a provocation. When Hollingurst won the Booker Prize for his novel The Line of Beauty, in October 2004, a headline in the Daily Express shouted “Booker Won By Gay Sex.” But, above the noise of the tabloids, the literary types were more circumspect. The Line of Beauty, the Prospect insisted, “is not a ‘gay novel’ at all, just a novel about the unraveling of a family that happens to have a gay man at its centre.” But what does literature that happens to be gay look like? And what determines whether a novel is gay enough? Can gay authors “transcend” their gayness and produce a universal, market-ready story? Should they have to?
Reviewers of Hollinghurst tend at the outset to pay homage to his masterful style, his polished command of a sentence, which in his early novels was put to the service of illuminating—perhaps even legitimizing—gay life, gay sensibilities, and gay sex in fiction. His first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, is radically erotic and deliriously literary; it was also, in a way, the first of its kind. “I remember coming down from university to London to buy it as soon as possible,” recalled the novelist Philip Hensher who was 22 at the time, in 1988. “Before that, you couldn’t imagine a gay novel about gay life appealing to anyone else.” Thirty years after its publication, The Swimming-Pool Library, set in 1983, the “last summer” before HIV and AIDS would destroy the libertine atmosphere of gay life in London as elsewhere, still feels remarkably alive to the frisson and the friendships discovered by and between men in spaces of their own invention, or in public, just behind the scrim of respectability. “I had the strong sense of doing something that was unprecedentedly frank,” Hollinghurst has said of writing The Swimming-Pool Library. “I was very excited by the idea of telling truths that hadn’t been told before and breaking down literary categories.”
But, having broken through the taboo of gay sex in literature, and, as Adam Mars-Jones noted in the London Review of Books, adapted a “19th-century manner to subjects the past could not accommodate,” in The Sparsholt Affair, Hollinghurst avoids telling truths in the way his readers might come to expect. The one sequence worth the price of admission to this beautifully rendered, but curiously passive novel, follows upon wartime Oxford by twenty-six years. Part Two of The Sparsholt Affair, called “The Lookout” after the name of a holiday home Cornwall, is nearly like the beginning of another novel altogether. There’s someone named Norma, who’s smoking; there’s someone named Johnny, who likes to draw but doesn’t read much; there’s a sexy French teenager who wears tight jeans and follows Johnny’s mother around flirtatiously; and there’s Johnny’s father, who, after several pages, is finally referred to as “David.” Could it be . . . David Sparsholt . . . and his family? Yes, with a little arithmetic but no preamble from the author, we’re in the 1960s, the War is a proud memory, David is a decorated RAF fighter pilot, Connie is his attractive wife, and Johnny is his adolescent son whose flickering, inchoate sexuality is set off with unanswered desire by Bastien, a 15-year-old from Nîmes on an exchange. It’s summer and the men of the house are about to set off on a sail with Clifford Haxby, Norma’s husband. Clifford and Norma are childless; they’re “town people,” and Clifford, while “not a ladies’ man,” in Connie’s estimation, nonetheless refers to certain men as “fruits” and “fairies.” Still, homophobia is no hindrance, and Clifford has his eyes (and sometimes his hands) on David.
The previous summer, Johnny traveled to Nîmes for a three-week stay with Bastien’s family to work on his French—and a few other things besides. The boys shared a room; at night Johnny became Bastien’s “gullible pupil.” But Bastien, magnetic and capricious, “mocked him each morning for wanting the very things he had taught him to ask for.” Bastien’s parents are relaxed and Frenchly intelligent about sex: his mother might have realized “from stray glimpses, stifled phrases, the stink of semen in the boys’ room, that something was going on.” One year later, after the long months of Johnny’s breathless anticipation, Bastien arrives in England taller, his legs hairier, and his interests broader. He’s just a regular teenage Lothario, picking up girls in the airport or the yard of a ruined church, and Johnny’s more or less at the periphery of his vision.
Motoring out on the water, aboard the Ganymede, a sailboat belonging to an MP, Clifford Haxby shows off for David and then orders everyone to help with the sails. Just as they’re getting up to speed, as Bastien, otherwise indifferent, begins to feels his own strength in gripping the rope that holds firm the boom, a lick of wind takes off with his cap; reaching for it, he lets the rope go and is instantly flung into the sea. David rescues the boy in a minor bit of thankless heroism, and there follows an incandescent moment of observation exemplary of Hollinghurst’s finest powers:
After a while, Clifford started up the motor again—it took a couple of goes. “Tell him to take his fucking trousers off,” he said “we’re all men here”—with an odd cut-off laugh, Johnny tense at the sound of that word in his father’s presence. He looked nervously at him but he seemed, blank-faced, to allow it. Bastien turned away as he unbuckled his belt, and prised the clinging jeans over his buttocks and down his thighs. His wet underpants hinted at transparency, a flesh-tone through white cotton grey with water, but were decent still. To Johnny it had the hot-making magic of those sudden but longed-for moments when sex ran visibly close to the sunlit surface.
That’s pretty hot, but don’t expect anything hotter for the rest of the book. There is cautious sexual rapport between the older Englishmen that flares subtly throughout the scene, as Johnny notices Clifford noticing Johnny’s father; at one point, belowdecks and unbeknownst that Johnny is watching, Clifford taps David “lightly on the bum.” But, men do that sometimes, right? Men show off their bare thighs and adjust themselves, men admire the muscles of other men, men want to be away from the women, teenage boys want to fool around with each other.
Johnny never does get together with Bastien in Cornwall, apart from some kissing on a swim a few days after their misadventures on the boat, and a jack-off race under the cover of towels but in full view of holidaymakers enjoying the beach. And at the very end of “The Lookout,” if you don’t look closely, you might miss a peek into what will become known as the “Sparsholt Affair” itself. Returning from the beach, the boys pass by “Greylags,” the Haxby’s holiday house, and see both Clifford’s Daimler and David’s Jensen in the carport. Johnny, turning toward the house, sees, or thinks he sees “the fine slats of a Venetian blind swiveled upwards and then downwards on their cord and closed.” Then, with a blank page, and a new section title beyond, The Sparsholt Affair lurches ahead, leaving behind Bastien, Clifford, and David Sparsholt himself in its wake.
For anyone keeping up with the math—and, for American readers, a bit of research—it will become clear, between “The Lookout” and the next section, “Small Oils,” that the Sparsholts’ holiday in Cornwall is set just before the signing of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. The Sparsholt Affair was published last year in the UK on the fiftieth anniversary of the legislation, which decriminalized homosexuality in England and Wales—but only for private acts between two men twenty-one years or older. Hollinghurst doesn’t make explicit reference to the act within the book; instead, it’s meant to be a known landmark between two regions of gay history. Certainly whatever happened with David—we never do find out—was illegal at the time. Perhaps it was just a threesome, innocent but punishable. David is sent to prison and his marriage falls apart; he later marries his secretary, keeps his head down, and stays the course.
In “Small Oils,” Johnny, now 21 himself and constantly in the shadow of his father’s name, falls for a young man called Ivan, a “gerontophile” and therefore an unrequited prospect. More interested in Johnny’s father, Ivan presses Johnny for details about the “Sparsholt Affair,” the Cornwall scandal involving his father, Clifford Haxby, and Leslie Stevens, MP, owner of the Ganymede. Ivan, like most of the nation, had read the salacious newspaper coverage several years before, when Johnny was only a teenager. “‘Well, it was a big story, wasn’t it, for a while,’” Ivan says. “‘Money, power . . . gay shenanigans! It had everything.’” (“‘Oh, yeah, it was perfect,’” Johnny replies.) There’s a sense of regret about public discussions of homosexuality that elsewhere in Hollinghurst’s work is expressed as a kind of optimism. The Sexual Offences Act, a young gay man suggests in a 1960s-era scene from Hollinghurst’s previous novel, The Stranger’s Child, “could open the way for a lot more frankness.” But, in The Sparsholt Affair, we don’t get any frankness about the affair itself from Hollinghurst, who told the Guardian last year that he “wanted to create in the reader that sense of half-remembered details.”
Well, we don’t come to Alan Hollinghurst for “half-remembered details.” We come for the promise of sex and stay for the prose, the architecture, the manners, the boozing, the social comedy, the spectacular dialogue. All those “gay shenanigans” would normally be his exclusive province, but instead, according to Hollinghurst, David Sparsholt is the “glamorous blank into which people read what they want.” (When discussing the book with friends, the NPR host Ari Shapiro recently told Hollinghurst in an interview, “I described episodes that are not in the book, that take place between the sections.” Which sounds more like a problem than a compliment.) Toward the end, with Johnny in his sixties, still fielding questions about his father’s exploits even though the “Sparsholt Affair” has been consigned to the public archive of Wikipedia, someone suggests that the affair, if only it had happened one or two years later, would have been legal. “‘It wasn’t exactly an affair,’” says Johnny, who also claimed, years earlier, that his father wasn’t gay, “not really.” Dyslexic and kept from the news by his mother, the scandal was “all a bit of a blur” to Johnny, even as the shame followed him well into adulthood.
At this point, you might be wondering what the plot of this book is, and that’s a fair question. “My old friend the novelist Lawrence Norfolk used to say, ‘You write marvelous descriptions, but why do you have these terrible plots?’” Hollinghurst noted in The Paris Review, in 2011. “I like evoking atmospheres and analyzing relationships and feelings, but plot I feel faintly embarrassed by.” If I try to explain the wider plot of The Sparsholt Affair, and the half-tangled lives of a cast of supporting characters who flit in and about without too much consequence, it all begins to fall apart. In the fourth section, as the book begins—very slowly—to wind down, Johnny is living a relatively untroubled life in London as a moderately successful portrait painter. He’s a vegetarian. He fathers a child with a lesbian couple. He has a long-term partner called Pat, of whom we only really glimpse his “broad back and hairy thighs and long fat member, retiring now after a hard half-hour’s work,” and who later dies, of cancer, essentially in a footnote.
The final section of The Sparsholt Affair, “Consolations,” finds middle-aged Johnny in a state of muted grief, working on a portrait commission for a wealthy straight couple, and thinking about the coming wedding of his daughter, Lucy. Upon the suggestion of a friend, Johnny tries out a dating app (a “ticket to instant sex”) and meets Michael, a very rich, very young man who, during their encounter in a glamorous townhouse, toggles between laptop, iPad, WhatsApp, and lines of cocaine. Hollinghurst is peerless when it comes to clandestine sex in toilets or gyms, but he seems—like Johnny himself—at sea in the world of smartphones and divided attention, which, so close to our own era, can only come off as mildly satirical or even self-effacing:
“You’ve probably heard of the Sparsholt Affair?”
Michael smiled, almost tenderly, at his screen, murmured, “No, bitch . . .” and thumbed in a quick answer. He glanced at Johnny. “Sorry, what was it called? A movie, right?”
“Well, not yet,” said Johnny. “No, it was . . . oh it doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, OK . . . “ said Michael, with a little doubting look. “Is it a book?”
As a matter of fact, Ivan, Johnny’s erstwhile love interest, wrote a book about the affair, and so did a Sunday Times journalist, but Michael doesn’t have “much time for reading.” It would be too easy to write off Michael as a millennial with no care or interest in gay history. But as elsewhere in the book’s later, contemporary settings, this exchange points to Hollinghurst’s disengagement with the central conflicts of late-20th-century gay life, namely AIDS and the political movements for legal equality. No novel with a gay theme is required to hit these points, as if prerequisites, and no novelist should rerun his past glories, but shouldn’t a book that purports to cover three generations of gay relationships in England at least gesture, with some definite point of view, to the world that created and then dismantled the Sexual Offences Act?
In a booming gay nightclub, a locale more closely associated with Hollinghurst, Johnny does some ecstasy and meets Zé, a young Brazilian who loves gray hair. (Finally gerontophilia is working in Johnny’s favor.) They’re just about to get it on in the barroom toilets when Johnny receives a crush of texts from all quarters—condolences: his father has died. This doesn’t prevent Johnny from taking Zé home, where he pops a Viagra; but, between the beer and drugs, he can’t feel any pleasure. Zé, however, comes “like a dream”—whatever that might mean—and Johnny has the strange problem of suffering an “implacable erection.” All of this Johnny recalls in Nuneaton, the suburban town of his childhood, where he had gone to comfort his father’s second wife. There, on a lonely, mournful walk, Johnny spots a twentysomething straight couple kissing and dawdling around like teenagers, and imagines holding Zé in the same public embrace: “Johnny felt a weary resentment of them, their happiness, claiming the full heterosexual allowance to carry on in public.”
Would this pointed observation about the naïve, often callous, privilege of heterosexuals have landed with more of an orchestral slap had Johnny’s own conflicts in the world been truly dramatic? “It almost seems as if Hollinghurst is refuting the most commonly made criticisms of his work: that he’s not very interested in women; that there’s too much sex; that his writing is too lush; that his characters are not likable,” Theo Tait wrote in the Guardian of The Stranger’s Child, adding that Hollinghurst seemed to have taken a vow of chastity, having “radically cut down on the sex.” The same might be said of the new novel. A work of gay literature doesn’t necessarily have to feature explicit gay sex: gayness can manifest as a kind of form, or a mode of world making. Yet to me, those older criticisms, from whatever middlebrow and probably straight precincts they issued, sound like compliments. They sound like the qualities of gay literature—or at least the kind of gay literature Hollinghurst pioneered with The Swimming-Pool Library and refined with The Line of Beauty, novels in which you might find evocations of a painting, a party, a man’s desire for anther man, or the glimmering shock of sexual pleasure all rendered with equally lyrical brilliance. Which is why it’s tricky to say whether The Sparsholt Affair is a gay affair at all. At the center is David, that “glamorous blank.” I mean, he’s hot: I’d get with him, if I could. No doubt a line would form around the block to pick him up, if he were made of flesh and not words. Instead, he’s made of cardboard. I can’t help but think of Nick Guest’s comical distaste of Strauss in The Line of Beauty: “What the problem was was this colossal redundancy, the squandering of brilliant technique on cheap material, the sense that the moral nerves had been cut, leaving behind the great bloated body to a life of valueless excess.”
Alan Hollinghurst enjoys, as he says, living in the “liberal present,” even though, in literature, he prefers the past, the time when the constraints on gay men created for a culture of illicit thrill. “There’s much less to say about the present,” he told The Paris Review, “because, happily, gays are living more or less in parity with everybody else, at least in our culture.” But that’s a highly privileged opinion, not a fact. The world that gay people might want to seek, the one of peace and acceptance Johnny appears to inhabit at the novel’s end, simply isn’t guaranteed. Édouard Louis’s brutal cri-de-coeur in The End of Eddy, for instance, set in the not-so-liberal present of contemporary France, shows that gay lib has yet to reach the rural areas. No progress arrives without a backlash, and even on the most enlightened streets the sight of two men holding hands might be a dangerous provocation.
Maybe there’s a gem of truth to Charles Nantwich’s evocation of the past in The Swimming-Pool Library. “I gained a kind of confidence from the certainty that another world was waiting, a certainty, if you like, of uncertainty, the only part of my life whose goings-on were subject to nobody’s control,” Nantwich, jailed in the postwar years for picking up a man in a public bathroom, writes of his somnolent existence in prison. “The prisoner dreams of freedom: the dream is to be free.” I’m glad The Sparsholt Affair exists: it’s a chapter, for what it’s worth, in gay literary history. But I’m not glad that it’s bloodless. With a Booker Prize in the rear view mirror, and a readership well beyond the gay community, how has Hollinghurst used his own freedom? On the last page of The Sparsholt Affair, Johnny’s daughter, who’s sitting for a portrait, tells him he should bring Zé, now his affectionate boyfriend, to her wedding. “She looked at him in the face, differently now, with no easel between them. ‘He’s rather a find.’” Yes, he would have been rather a find indeed—in a different book.