If you think you know what to expect from an Alan Hollinghurst novel, then when it comes to The Sparsholt Affair, you’ll almost certainly be right. Once again, Hollinghurst explores British gay history by plunging us into haute bohemia over several decades of the 20th century. (A few years ago he told an interviewer that the main characters in his next book ‘will all be more or less heterosexual’: a plan that sounded pretty unlikely at the time and, seeing as this is his next book, was evidently abandoned.) Once again, he combines his broad sweep with plenty of equally impressive close-up analysis — and all in prose that manages to be both utterly sumptuous and utterly precise.
The novel opens in wartime Oxford, where a group of Christ Church students have spotted an unknown hunk in the rooms opposite. He is, it turns out, David Sparsholt, who’s due to be there for only a term before joining the RAF. He’s also engaged — although, as Hollinghurst readers will rightly suspect, this doesn’t mean that he’s not available for some man-on-man action.
In the next section, set in the mid-1960s, David is married with a 14-year-old son Johnny, through whose eyes we see the rest of the novel and who at this stage is suffering a (mostly) unrequited crush on a French schoolboy staying with the family. We then move to the early 1970s, where Johnny’s job as a picture restorer introduces him to his father’s former Oxford admirers, centred around the home of a gay art critic — and from there, to the exhilarating new sexual possibilities that London traditionally offers Hollinghurst’s leading men.
But by now we also know that Johnny’s father was imprisoned after a public scandal. Given that this is another Hollinghurst novel where the big events occur between the sections (his previous one, The Stranger’s Child was a first world war novel in which the first world war took place off-stage) the details of the eponymous Sparsholt Affair remain hazy. We do learn, however, that it included ‘money, power… gay shenanigans’, and that it took place in 1966 — the year before the decriminalisation of homosexuality, an understandably pivotal point in Hollinghurst’s work.
A couple of time-shifts later, and Johnny ends the book trying his best to adjust to a world of dating apps — and allowing Hollinghurst to remind us that yet another of his lavish gifts is for rueful comedy. (For all his seriousness, he’s never a solemn writer.) Less comically, the time-shifts enable him, as in The Stranger’s Child, to show how the gilded figures of their generation gradually turn into awkward relics. If, that is, they’re not forgotten completely.
In his art-restoration work, Johnny’s job is to make every part of pictures from the past gleam as brightly as when they were new. And as perfect scene follows perfect scene, Hollinghurst duly does the same here. No object in The Sparsholt Affair is too unimportant to receive his full and thrilling attention: in the last section, Johnny gets out his old ghetto-blaster, ‘with its yard-long aerial, and its cassette deck, which dropped open sleepily, as if surprised to be still in use.’ No character is too passing for a devastating one-sentence summary: ‘He preserved into old age something starkly coquettish, an unrelinquished belief in his own naughtiness and appeal.’
Hollinghurst is as deft as ever, too, at applying unexpected adjectives to abstract nouns (‘luxurious inevitability’; ‘elaborate pointlessness’; ‘sour enthusiasm’) and at subjecting virtually every thought and emotion to an exquisite scrutiny that reveals some ambiguity or paradox at its heart (‘his impatience… was mixed with a nervous longing for delay’; ‘Johnny was gripped… by the pain of not having acted, and under it, a little salve, the sense of having escaped’).
Which just leaves the question of whether it matters that these techniques — together with the structure, themes and characters — are so familiar from Hollinghurst’s previous work. And on this I have to confess a certain ambivalence myself. Like Hollinghurst’s other books, The Sparsholt Affair is dazzlingly good: the best new novel I think I’ve read this year. At the same time, you can’t help noticing — and occasionally even being distracted by — just how like his other books it is.