November 2017

Noted

‘The Sparsholt Affair’ by Alan Hollinghurst

By Stephanie Bishop
‘The Sparsholt Affair’ by Alan Hollinghurst
Picador; $32.99

In the midst of World War Two, the young David Sparsholt arrives at Oxford like some bright Adonis, “as if shaped from light himself”. He is first spotted through a window, just before blackout, by a group of students gathered in a college room. Sparsholt is lifting weights, the friends secretly admiring his “glorious head, like a Roman gladiator” and the “blue veins standing in the upper arms”. In the tense atmosphere of “near-readiness for action”, Sparsholt quickly becomes a figure of intrigue and desire. Although engaged, he falls into an affair with a male student.

This opening episode is narrated in the first person by one of those who saw Sparsholt through the window, and while we expect this situation to develop, the narrative instead jumps ahead, landing us in a Cornish summer almost two decades later. Sparsholt is married and father to the adolescent Johnny, whose perspective dominates the rest of the novel. In Cornwall, Johnny is realising his own homosexual desire, while his father’s remains hinted at but carefully hidden.

Through a series of narrative evasions, we next encounter Johnny in London in the 1970s. He is working as an art restorer when, by chance, he falls in with the same Oxford crowd that his father once knew. We learn that his father was caught up in a sex scandal prior to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1967 and in the aftermath of the Cornwall episode. Johnny feels great shame in relation to this, but he is also idolised and pursued because of the familial connection. His life is charged by the sudden openness of a revolutionary London, and this wave of change carries the novel forwards across its remaining three parts and into the near present, as we observe Johnny undergoing a series of liberating transformations that nonetheless remain perpetually checked by his father’s experiences.

For while moral attitudes alter significantly from the time of the scandal, Johnny can never wholly escape his father’s shadow. An uncertain and reserved character, Johnny, like many of Hollinghurst’s leading men, is a nervous outsider – an observer of those who move with greater confidence and panache. Hollinghurst has long been celebrated for his grand narrative structures and the Jamesian poise of his prose. In The Sparsholt Affair these signature features reappear, supporting the subtle development of Johnny’s interior life. Relying on oblique strategy, the narrative is marked by gaps and omissions. For this reason, The Sparsholt Affair lacks the narrative drive of Hollinghurst’s best work, most notably The Line of Beauty. What we find instead is a more porous, airy quality – one that elevates subtle patterning and ambiguity, drawing attention to inescapable repetitions within the claustrophobia of family life.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. Her new novel is Man Out of Time.

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