Book review: Hollinghurst’s continuities

Alan Hollinghurst’s sixth work of fiction is an Epicurean novel about time, loss and change and the focus on aging

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Thu, Oct 05, 2017 - Page 14

It used to be said of the English poet John Keats, and maybe still is, that he began with a Shakespearean phase and then moved on to a Miltonic one. By this was meant that he started with liveliness, color and a general joie de vivre, and progressed to a more somber vision, with a special interest in structure. Something similar could be said of Alan Hollinghurst, whose sixth novel, The Sparsholt Affair, is published in the UK today.

The title refers to an industrialist in the British Midlands, David Sparsholt. He’s first seen at Oxford in 1940 when he’s described by one character as being like a Greek god. We next meet him married and with a 14-year-old son, Johnny. Johnny then appears in the third section aged 22, but something has happened in the interim — David Sparsholt has been involved in a sex scandal, and has become a household name. Details are withheld, however, so that a crucial fact is only revealed in a single word spoken on a beach in Wales. A key detail about events in the first section is also only made clear in the middle of the novel (on page 182).

The book proceeds to depict the lives of Johnny (who is gay) and a range of other characters living in the same London house. Johnny at first works as an assistant to an art dealer, then becomes a portrait painter in his own right. He has two lesbian friends, and one of them asks him to donate sperm so that she can have a child. Johnny agrees and becomes the father of a girl, Lucy.

Continuity is clearly a main theme here. By means of his surrogate parenthood Johnny passes on the genes of his father, David Sparsholt, and right at the end of the book he notices the color of his father’s eyes in the eyes of Lucy. This is a novel about time, loss and change, and the focus on aging is present elsewhere, too, with more than one instance of a gay relationship between a younger and an older man. Time, in other words, is preoccupying Hollinghurst, and it all seems a long way from the hilarious high jinks, albeit with dark themes running underneath, set in a single year of his brilliant debut novel, The Swimming Pool Library.

This new novel ranges from superbly written episodes to passages whose justification you wonder about. One episode involving some indoor fireworks seems oddly out of place, whereas a crucial one describing David Sparsholt’s visit to his son in London is so perfectly judged that it made me gasp in admiration.

One inevitably wonders if Hollinghurst as a novelist is putting aside the sexual life and focusing instead on some of life’s imponderables. None of the sexual relationships in the novel, except Johnny’s final one, resonate with a sense of pleasure, and although a gay nightclub is presented very favorably, even enthusiastically, it’s almost as if Hollinghurst is urging urban gays who never abandon the promiscuous and superficial lifestyle to take a longer view. There’s one endlessly partying character, plus a young one who makes love while playing a game on his phone.

As usual, the social details of the different eras described are carefully researched. But there are also issues that may be personal to Hollinghurst in present-day London. Johnny, for instance, becomes a vegetarian half way through the book, not for health reasons but because of a revulsion at the connection between eating and the slaughter of animals. Hollinghurst, as was revealed in a Financial Times interview in 2011, is himself vegetarian.

What else? It’s inadvisable to give away too much of the plot of any novel under review, but I can safely say there’s a lot of eating in the book, and even more drinking. There are more gay characters in it than in its predecessor, The Stranger’s Child, but the sex scenes never proceed beyond their initial phases. How different this is from his earlier novels which seemed to combine the explicitness of pornography with the urbane prose style of Henry James.

The Stranger’s Child is here echoed in other ways. Strangely, both novels focus on five selected years within a wide historical sweep. But for some reason, hard to track down, I found The Sparshalt Affair much more engrossing.

As Hollinghurst has now completed six novels, it’s an entertaining game to compare them to Jane Austen’s six. The parallels are surprisingly close, with only one serious exception. I won’t go into all the details, but if The Swimming Pool Library is Hollinghurst’s Pride and Prejudice, this new novel is his Persuasion — cooler, more thoughtful and soberly optimistic at the close. And there is a small coterie of Austen fans who consider that novel to be her best.

It’s become something of a cliche, certainly in the UK, to say that Hollinghurst is the country’s finest fictional stylist, and to give all his novels unqualified approval. I, too, await his books with unequaled anticipation, and I’ve already read The Sparsholt Affair twice. The reported facts of his working daily from 8am to 6pm, but only producing 300 to 400 words a day, and taking seven years to come up with a novel such as this new one are, however, are hard to understand. Henry James, by contrast, published three long novels, dictating them to a typist, between 1902 and 1904. But just as we all wish Jane Austen had gone on to write more books after Persuasion, so too we look forward to many more novels, however slowly produced, from someone who seems destined to become a classic English author.