Since Hollinghurst’s debut novel ‘The Swimming Pool Library’ in 1988, he’s published a new book in approximately six year intervals. This is enough of a gap for each new novel by this much-lauded writer to feel like an event. His 2011 novel ‘The Stranger’s Child’ was a long ambitious story spanning a period of time from the First World War to close to the present day. In chronicling the transition of time, he charted how the reputation of a poem and its poet transform over many years and subsequent generations. In this new novel ‘The Sparsholt Affair’ Hollinghurst has adopted a similar narrative strategy that’s slightly more compressed spanning The Second World War to close to the present day. The story begins with a literary club in Oxford and the infatuation some members have for a sexually-appealing conventionally-masculine young man named David Sparsholt who is intent on enlisting in military service and settling down into a traditional marriage to his sweetheart. The subsequent sections leap forward in time to show the legacy of portraits and sexual scandal in a circumscribed social world of British society. In doing so, Hollinghurst creates a fascinating depiction of how reality doesn’t change but the frame around it and the way we view it significantly alters over time. In particular, the novel focuses on how views on homosexuality have evolved to alter the way in which individuals perceive themselves and negotiate their public identity as well as their sexual desire. It’s a tale that develops a unique power with its rich accumulation of detail and gains momentum as time slides forward to show the complexity of characters’ relationships and their legacies.
It’s interesting to compare this novel with John Boyne’s most recent novel “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” which similarly leap-frogs through the past century showing how changing attitudes about homosexuality personally impact the characters involved. However, Boyne’s novel is much more concentrated on a single gay man’s transforming self-perception in tandem with social and political events/progress in Ireland. Hollinghurst presents a much broader canvas with more shades of sexuality from bisexuality to a lesbian couple intent on having a child to gerontophilia. That’s not to say either of these novels is better or worse: they just have a different scope, writing style and way of chronicling shifts in social perceptions about sexuality. Where Boyne posits how his character of Cyril thrives and benefits from social development, Hollinghurst shows how the UK’s decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1967 came too late for some individuals to ever recover from.
‘The Sparsholt Affair’ is something of a slow-burning novel. The accumulation of detail in Hollinghurst’s precise and eloquent writing takes on an increasingly profound meaning as the novel progresses. As time moves forward, we make connections, discover coincidences and uncover the surprising fates of a number of characters. In this way the author wonderfully captures, as he describes it at one point, “all the teasing oddity and secret connectedness of London life.” These interactions frequently involve the way sexual desire is either expressed or repressed. In fact, Hollinghurst persistently represents how these desires surge up in day to day life and “the hot-making magic of those sudden but longed-for moments when sex ran visibly close to the sunlit surface.” Early on, this largely takes the form of small circles of gay men who lust after an outwardly straight man. This felt problematic to me at first because straight-chasing is such a cliché of gay culture but it took on a greater degree of poignancy when contrasted with how Hollinghurst represents the expression of desire towards the end in more contemporary times. Now that there’s social media and hook-up apps the fulfilment of that once suppressed or misdirected desire feels like it’s tantalizingly within reach. But this raises poignant questions. How does the expression of desire transform in different social contexts? To what degree does power factor into the enactment or withholding of sex? Where is the overlap between desire and emotion?
These are all powerful questions which were also raised from an entirely different point of view and different context in Garth Greenwell’s “What Belongs to You.” Despite Hollinghurst’s novel being suffused with the melancholy of emotional and sexual disconnect, there are many funny observations made throughout and much of it is ultimately quite hopeful. It also feels brave in a way to be asking questions about what’s been hidden in the past and why the reality of what happened is still unnameable. At one point a character wonders “Things had happened, not quite named before; why not name them now?” This story shows how important it is that our perceptions evolve alongside those of the society around us.