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Family matters: An interview with Alan Hollinghurst

By Dion Kagan
The author of ‘The Sparsholt Affair’ on the role of the not-always biological family in his work

Tutors, mentors and the transmission of knowledge across generations are abiding themes in the work of Alan Hollinghurst. In his breakout novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, a modern libertine befriends an elderly aristocrat after saving the older man’s life during a heart attack in a public toilet. The friendship they develop enables the younger man to connect with queer history – a hidden heritage of only partially visible lives, stifled or destroyed by the scandal of homosexuality. Like the novelist himself, the young man grows fascinated by periods in the past that seem in retrospect to have abounded in thrilling sexual codes; yet he also discovers, shockingly, that he’s much closer to the violence of this past than he’d imagined.

Hollinghurst is also interested in father-son dynamics, although not always strictly in the biological context. In the celebrated Booker Prize–winning fourth novel, The Line of Beauty, a gay literature student is welcomed into the lavish family home of a wealthy Tory MP after the historic re-election of the Thatcher government in 1983. The young man, Nick Guest, takes up the role of proxy son while the MP’s actual son is in Europe. The elite family’s adoption of a surrogate comes to resemble, ironically, a “pretended family relationship” – which was an actual phrase used in the notoriously anti-gay Section 28 legislation introduced in 1988 to proscribe any official endorsement of homosexuality in English schools.

“Those sort of quasi-paternal relationships come up quite a lot,” Hollinghurst tells me on the phone from London, a week out from his trip to Australia for Perth and Adelaide writers’ weeks. It’s an interest, he acknowledges, that stretches back to the first novel, “with the young man falling in with the much older man from whom he learns lessons about gay history and the experience of his kind in more challenging periods”. But the transmission of knowledge can flow in both directions: “Sometimes,” he says, “[it’s] the other way around, where an older person is sort of brought out of themselves by a younger person who brings them back to life, as it were.”

We’re talking about his most recent novel, The Sparsholt Affair, which came out last year, although he could easily be referring to the literal resuscitation in The Swimming-Pool Library. The resurrection of an elder also takes place in his third novel, The Spell, where a middle-aged public servant, Alex, is brought proverbially back to life by his new and much younger lover, Danny, after the break-up of a long-term relationship. A contemporary gay take on a Jane Austen–style sex farce, the plot of The Spell very brazenly took the romance of intergenerational desire and the father-son dynamic and mixed them cheekily together. Danny also happens to be the son of an architect in his forties called Robin, whose slightly younger boyfriend, Justin, was the man previously in the long-term relationship with Alex. To one critic’s suggestion that Hollinghurst’s novels want to “queer the Oedipus complex”, the author said: “I don’t really quite know how this became quite so recurrent a theme – how such a Freudian maquette came to govern the books.” The Spell was also the subject of a notorious New Yorker review by a scandalised John Updike, who resented Hollinghurst rubbing his readers’ noses “in the poetry of a love object’s anus”.

“I’m quite interested in that intergenerational thing in the new book,” Hollinghurst says. “And,” he adds quite plainly, “I was interested too in sort of sexualising the intergenerational thing.”

There’s a variety of intergenerational relationships in The Sparsholt Affair, the most obvious one being between the two generations of Sparsholts. In this somewhat strained relationship the sins of the father become a kind of primal stain hovering over the life of the son. Sparsholt senior – David, a handsome and successful industrialist – was the central figure in a public sex scandal (the “affair” of the book’s title). The five sections of the novel traverse a long period of 20th-century history; the scandal occurs in the ellipsis that takes place after section two, somewhere in the mid-to-late-1960s, before we pick up on the life of David’s son Johnny, an emerging – and eventually openly gay – portraiture artist, in 1974. The subtle aftershocks of this vaguely recalled scandal haunt Johnny in curious ways.

The Sparsholt affair has clearly been catastrophic, although as time passes everyone’s memories of it are a little sketchy. Who else was involved? Was it financial and political as well as sexual? When it comes to the precise, sordid details, the novel remains titillatingly vague. Hollinghurst was, he says, “more interested in the strange sort of positions of a scandal in the public consciousness, as well as the more specific effects it might have had on people very close to the hero or anti-hero of the thing”.

“They’re very hard to remember – the details of scandals,” he continues. “Notoriously if they go to trial they go on for months or years, these things. But, especially if there’s a person principally associated with it … they may have a resonance long after people have forgotten exactly what happened.” Much like the real-life Profumo affair of the early ’60s, the memorable name of “Sparsholt” enters a pantheon of notoriety. “That’s one reason I gave Johnny a very unusual name, so that people meeting him decades after the scandal would think ‘Oh, any relation?’”

Sex scandals and the spectacle of moral castigation that surrounds them can often become formative moments in the history of shifting mores, rituals performed in public that act out the drama of social and sexual change. I mention that the Sparsholt affair occurs on the eve of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK – surely this was a deliberate contrivance?

“Yes,” Hollinghurst agrees, “in a way [scandals] make it possible to talk about things that we wouldn’t otherwise talk about – that was one of the things about the Wilde scandal I suppose, wasn’t it? That it made a shockingly public, unambiguous statement about this thing that was otherwise not talked about in polite society.”

But his intention in crafting a novel revolving around a fictional scandal wasn’t an explicitly political one. “I wanted [to create] this sense of a lingering, slowly fading sort of stain, and the peculiar way a scandal which seems to touch on some live issue – whether it’s the legalisation of homosexuality, or whatever – [involves] a sort of lingering sense of shock to the system of the ordinary … and then it fades.”

“There’s something very glamorous about the person, the scandalous figure,” Hollinghurst adds, going some way to explaining why the strapping young Sparsholt is remembered as someone around whom there was already an aura of the mythic. We first meet him at Oxford in the 1940s where he’s doing a brief university stint before joining the RAF. He’s spotted through his bedroom window practicing his calisthenics, “a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights” “It was”, as fellow Oxford alumni Freddie Green recalls, “that brief time between sunset and the blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms”, and the sight is like a glimpse of some athletic, aesthetic ideal. Sparsholt emerges “in his square of light, as massive and abstracted, as if shaped from light himself”.

The Sparsholt pre-history is narrated in retrospect, of course, with Freddie knowing what would happen to the young man further on in his life. And Freddie is the Jamesian type of observer that Hollinghurst devotees will recognise – sharply observant, lightly acerbic, but, in all of his knowingness, failing ultimately to recognise his own investment in the situation. The wartime Oxford he conjures is a scene of blackouts and heightened, urgent-seeming desires. The startling appearance of David Sparsholt sets off a chain reaction of longings and small rivalries among Freddie’s small artistic circle, which includes Peter Coyle, the painter who will sketch Sparsholt’s anonymous torso, and Evert Dax, the writer who becomes the most successful of the group at securing the glamorous young athlete’s attention.

“David is obviously a tremendously handsome and heroic person.” Even after the scandal, Hollinghurst says, “there would be quite a sort of eroticised interest in him, even on the part of people who were disapproving of what he’d done”. He’s describing the way that the subject of a public sex scandal can become a sort of glamorous figure as well as an object of disgrace. This has been true from Lord Byron to Russell Brand: if handsome, talented and young, the man made a celebrity by scandal may become a figure of intense erotic fascination to all onlookers. In Freddie Green’s memories, Sparsholt was an Adonis-like ideal in young male human form, “a figure so unstoppable [it] was alarming as well as splendid”, and upon which an entire coterie project their desires and fantasies.

But what does this mean for the life of the son? “Obviously Johnny’s family falls apart and he has a difficult relationship with his own father for never-resolved reasons,” Hollinghurst observes, but, on the other hand, like many gay men of his time, Johnny finds an alternative community in the metropolis. “I think that that sort of ‘alternative family’, that sort of ‘queer family’, is something that interests me.” Accident brings the young man into the orbit of another artistic set in 1970s London, a group comprised of some of the same Oxfordians who knew his father during wartime – including, by chance, Freddie Green and the very same Evert Dax who succeeded in seducing Sparsholt senior many years earlier.

Johnny falls for Ivan, a member of this circle, but Ivan is a self-declared “gerontophile” – his gaze fixed on Evert Dax. I ask Hollinghurst about Ivan’s almost fetishistic fixation with the past, the second-hand look he wears that “seemed to fit with the boy’s strange attraction to the world of thirty or forty years ago, when Evert and his friends had been young themselves”. Does Hollinghurst imagine that a fascination with history might be part of a younger person’s attraction to their older lover? It’s almost as if, in falling love with Evert, Ivan is in love with the past that Evert has come from.

“Yes, I think that’s very much part of it,” Hollinghurst says, “it does have this strangely erotic dimension to it for him. He’s excited when he looks into Evert’s eyes by the thought of all the lovers, even before he was born, that those eyes had looked at … He’s quite sort of turned on by the past.”

This makes me think of the way that in gay culture the figure of the “daddy” has a potent masculine eroticism but also gestures to these kinds of intergenerational transmissions – of knowledge, feeling and culture – which themselves are almost like kinship structures. The daddy has become a pop-culture moment more broadly (even Malcolm Turnbull was recently the subject of a daddy meme), and has made something of a comeback in gay culture in recent years. Some observers have linked this to the losses endured during the worst years of HIV/AIDS, which eventually led to an absence of older men able to transmit knowledge about queer life to the next generation. Now, the passing of enough time since the advent of life-saving antiretroviral treatments means there is a growing cohort of older gay men where there wasn’t one before, a generation of gay elders.

I put all of this to Hollinghurst. Was this on his mind when he wrote The Sparsholt Affair? It certainly is “a book about daddies of all different kinds”. He laughs warmly.

“You know, I’ve certainly known people who, from early on, cultivate older people and like that intimacy not only with them but through them with periods in the past that have a fascination for them,” he says. “I felt that it was actually something that I haven’t really seen written about very much in fiction, and I find it quite interesting: to try to see Evert through the eyes of Ivan … I hadn’t really read much that was written from that point of view, you know, with the eroticised approach of a younger man to an older man – there’s so much of it the other way around.”

Dion Kagan

Dion Kagan is a writer and co-host of fortnightly culture podcast ‘The Rereaders’. He’s the author of Positive Images: Gay Men and the Culture of Post-Crisis.

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