‘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.