THE SPARSHOLT AFFAIR, by Alan Hollinghurst. Alfred A. Knopf, 417 pp., $28.95
British novelist Alan Hollinghurst writes hefty, talky books. But their prevailing theme is silence — secrets kept, scandals covered up, sexuality primly stuffed in the closet. From his 1988 debut, “The Swimming-Pool Library,” to 2011’s “The Stranger’s Child,” he’s been obsessed with the ways that keeping things quiet in the name of good manners (or fear of persecution) can shape and warp people across decades.
Thematically, Hollinghurst doesn’t change his strategy much in his latest novel, “The Sparsholt Affair.” The central figure in its multigenerational story is David Sparsholt, who we meet as he arrives at Oxford during World War II. In short order he becomes the lust object of a clique of artsy, literary fellow students. One draws a nude of him but doesn’t get around to the head: “The neck opened up into nothing, like the calyx of a flower.” It’s a beautiful line and a potent symbol — he’s been metaphorically beheaded, and others project their identities upon him.
Sparsholt is nearly as much a mystery to the reader as he is to his friends. After serving in the war as a fighter pilot, we learn, he married, had a son and launched an engineering firm. He also became embroiled in a sex scandal in the ’60s that clobbered his reputation and marriage. “It was a big story, wasn’t it, for a while,” one character recalls. “Money, power . . . gay shenanigans! It had everything.”
How much of everything, though? You imagine something scandalous along the lines of the 1963 Profumo scandal, a tabloid sensation that brought down a handful of British leaders. But Hollinghurst resolutely avoids detailing the exact nature of the incident. You ache for a big reveal, with some of the lavishly explicit sexual detail that’s a hallmark of Hollinghurst’s fiction. But no fireworks are forthcoming. This is a largely gay-shenanigan-free novel, for better and for worse.
Better, because despite Hollinghurst’s deliberate, sober indirection, the book is rich with the kind of emotional detail that marks his best work, especially the 2004 Man Booker-winning novel, “The Line of Beauty.” The bulk of “The Sparsholt Affair” follows David’s son, Johnny, from childhood to his rise as a major portraitist, and his keen observational powers come from decades of listening to people gossip about his father sideways, and being suspicious of their motives. Describing a lover, Johnny tells a friend, “I got the feeling he’s more in love with my dad than he is with me.”
Integrity and honesty in this high-class London milieu is hard to come by — indeed, it seems exclusively reserved for gatherings at a club whose members share autobiographical essays and Johnny gets his schooling in relationships “with all the teasing oddity and secret connectedness of London life.” And even then, the connectedness seems distant and collapse-prone. The somber closing chapters of the novel are rife with riffs on fading reputations and dying creative powers. David Sparsholt’s business ends, and a famous writer becomes “best known in England as an unread writer — he was almost famously neglected.” Ars longa, vita brevis, sure — but Hollinghurst suggests that ars is often pretty brevis, too.
Because Hollinghurst is meticulous about how slowly this erosion takes place, “The Sparsholt Affair” often operates at an emotional low boil. The erotic energy that’s made him a major author — not just his sex scenes, but his understanding of how private passions have a stark and surprising influence on political and social spheres — is largely absent. In its place is an emphasis on the consequences of those lusts, the way they create false narratives and deliver needless burdens upon families. Hollinghurst has taken a sizable risk in constructing a narrative whose main character is undefined — or, more precisely, only roughly sketched by others. The novel’s dividends are there, but they’re often subtle.
Midway through the novel, a friend of David’s muses that people “did just the same destructive lustful things in 1925 as they did now, but they talked about them differently, if they talked of them at all.” Hollinghurst uses the novel to lay out how that talk has changed over time: A gay affair that was once a matter of top-secret locked-down silence becomes whispered gossip, then open scandal, then memorable history, then an old news story that hardly bears remembering. “What did it add up to, really? — just a few weeks,” David himself recalls, late in life. “I can barely remember it, if I’m honest.” But that doesn’t mean everybody, especially his son, escaped unscathed. For all its occasional ponderousness, the main virtue of “The Sparsholt Affair” is its recognition of the distance between reality and how others perceive it, and how that distance is quite often cavernous.