Monday, 13 November 2017

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

"But this was pure choice, it had the beauty of action, unlike the long compromise of being acted upon"

Beginning a new novel by Alan Hollinghurst comes with a certain set of expectations. We know from The Line of Beauty that Hollinghurst writes eloquently from the perspectives of gay men yet we've also seen in The Stranger's Child that his sparkling prose is so beautiful it fully deserves its place on the shelves marked 'literary fiction' rather than 'gay fiction'. So it is with a mixture of excitement and assuredness that I picked up a copy of new novel The Sparsholt Affair last week and dived in immediately. 

From chapter one we're in familiar territory. The story begins in the quadrangles of Oxford's colleges during the 1940s with a memoir from novelist Freddie Green that captures the impact of the war on the closeted collegiate world. Freddie and his cohorts; artist Peter Coyle and writer Evert Dax, are less interested in the nightly risk of aerial bombing as they are in the arrival of handsome and enigmatic new boy David Sparsholt. Sparsholt's athletic physique, Midlands accent and lively girlfriend set him apart from the bohemianism of his cohorts yet he becomes the centre of their world nonetheless. 

This section of the novel would have made a tightly written and sophisticated novella (Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene would approve) but instead the novel switches gear and moves forward some thirty odd years to focus on Sparsholt's son Johnny who is trying to forge a career as an artist in 1970s London. The main point of this section seems to be to compare the life of gay men before and after the landmark 1967 legalisation of homosexuality and it works to a point. The problem is that as readers we're left wanting more from the cloistered wartime part of the novel in Oxford.

As the book moves from the Seventies right through to the new Millennium we learn more about the 'Sparsholt Affair' itself but not nearly enough. Yes there are some really interesting observations, off the back of 'The Affair', about the realities of being a older gay man in the new Millennium but for me, these almost belong in a different book.

The Sparsholt Affair is a stylish and sophisticated novel set in a  middle class world of art dealers and academics. The prose is shimmering and elegant and the narrative moves forward at pace across the sixty or so years the story covers. For me, the only concern is that that The Sparsholt Affair simply tries to do too much.
I read this novel at home in Oxfordshire

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst published by Picador, 461 pages.     

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