Hollinghurst may have been inspired by this real-life 1950s homosexual scandal. But the scandal isn't really the subject of this book, despite its title.
What is it?
It’s a book by the English writer Alan Hollinghurst, published in 2017.
This is one of the oddest novels I’ve ever read (and I read a lot, both for pleasure and for my work). I’ll use a pictorial metaphor: it’s like a picture where you can’t find the centre, or subject. What is this book about? Who is it about? These questions bothered me almost until the very end, and then got somewhat resolved in the last few pages.
So, what’s it about and who’s it about?
Well, it’s not about the Sparsholt Affair, which was a (fictional) sexual-political scandal from the 1960s in which David Sparsholt, a successful businessman and decorated war hero, was discovered having homosexual relations with another businessman, against a backdrop of political intrigue and influence peddling. If this all sounds a bit vague, it’s because the Affair is never actually described; we only hear about it from other people, who mention it in retrospect.
Neither is the book really about David Sparsholt, who is a shadowy figure throughout, always seen through someone else’s eyes. We don’t even know if he’s homosexual, bisexual or a handsome heterosexual who uses sex to get things from men. The only two instances of homosexual activity we know of from the novel are both designed to produce an advantage for David.
Okay, so it’s not about that. What’s it about?
For me, it's a portrait of many different ways of being gay in England from 1940 to the present day. The book is divided into five parts: 1940, the mid-1960s, the mid-1970s, the mid-1990s, and 2012. There are many gay men (and a couple of lesbians), and together they constitute a kaleidoscope of gay life during this period. English gay life, that is. Well-to-do English gay life. Well-to-do English gay life in London artistic and literary circles, mostly.
Did it ring true?
It did. Alan Hollinghurst is a beautiful writer, no doubt about it. Each of the five parts is quite different in tone. I loved the first part, which tells of a couple of gay Oxford students who become obsessed with the devastatingly sexy but to all appearances hetero 17-year-old David Sparsholt. And I adored the second part, a laconic account of the summer David’s son Johnny (who is, ultimately, the “main character” of the book, if there can be said to be a main character) is blossoming into his (homo)sexuality, as he obsesses over a young French friend who’s visiting for the summer—against a background of his father’s (homo)sexual adventures (soon to become the Sparsholt Affair in the media), which are hinted at in the most sublimely oblique way. And the last section of the book has one of my favourite bits, a “date” that the 60-year-old Johnny has with a 23-year-old he meets on Grindr. The clash of generations produces much humour, as the young fellow seems more interested in chatting with guys he doesn’t know on his smartphone and showing Johnny raunchy videos than in actually engaging (or even having sex). It’s a painfully accurate study of modern gay life (or just modern life).
It all sounds quite wonderful.
Well … As I said, Alan Hollinghurst is a gorgeous writer. I must say, I did spend much of the book wondering what it was about, and feeling a bit frustrated with the multiple strands that didn’t always seem to have a common theme. And on a more subjective level, I didn’t relate terribly much to these gay characters. None of them seem to struggle with their sexuality at all; each of them assumes his/her nature with confidence and panache, which is maybe what you do if you’re in well-off and artsy London circles. I’m more convinced, frankly, by gay stories of misery, shame and hopelessness!
John, that’s terrible.
I know. But I’m in good company. The wonderful writer Colm Tóibín said that he has “an urge to have gay lives represented as tragic, an urge I know I should repress” (Love in a Dark Time, p. 28).
So there’s no tragedy here?
There’s the Sparsholt Affair itself, which resulted in a criminal conviction for David Sparsholt and an indelible blemish on his reputation. But as I say, Hollinghurst quite deliberately doesn’t focus the book on that, as if to say that the “Affair” was, in a sense, nothing—which it would have been if it had happened a couple of years later, after the decriminalization of homosexual activities in Britain.
It’s an odd book! There’s so much that isn’t dealt with. For instance, Johnny has a child with a lesbian who asks him to donate his sperm, but this is never elaborated on. (How did he feel about doing this? What’s his relationship with the child’s mother? What does the daughter think?)
And I keep coming back to David Sparsholt, who is such an enigmatic (and fascinating) character. Is he a gay man who can never admit to his desires? Or is he a conniving sexual manipulator? He goes to his grave an utter mystery, like so many gay men of previous generations, who lived their authentic sexual lives in the shadows.
A book of mysteries, some of which I appreciated and some of which I found maddening.
So are you giving it any stars?
1 star. Splendid writing, a huge panorama of gay lives. I’ll read this book again, it’s that rich. (And maybe when I do, I’ll get things I didn’t get on a first reading, and give it 2 stars.)