In the week that Phillip Pullman returns to the world of his Dark Materials trilogy with the first of a new series, I do find it heartening that, as a reader, I still await new novels by favourite authors with all the excitement of a teenager with an Internet alert for Ariana Grande tickets.
I would have bought the Pullman in Hatchards had the hardback edition of Alan Hollinghurst’s sixth novel, The Sparsholt Affair, not cruised me with such ruthless success. I’ve been a devotee of Hollinghurst since 1988 when he published his debut The Swimming Pool Library.
For the time, the novel was so graphically gay that the ripe sexual content obscured the beauty of the prose. I know because I went back to The Swimming Pool Library as soon as I’d finished The Sparsholt Affair. Central character Will is as I remembered feral, dirty, amoral and predatory. The difference today is that this language is all over the Internet and has lost the power to shock and thrill… more’s the pity.
The Swimming Pool Library does introduce themes that repeat in Hollinghurst’s work and draw comparisons with Henry James and E. M. Forster. The plotting turns on a scandal buried in living history before homosexuality was partially decriminalised in the UK in 1967. The interplay between several generations of gay men explores universal facets of the human condition: the power of art, ageing and a wistful envy for the past or present.
Hollinghurts’s The Line of Beauty won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 and stands among the great novels about 1980s London. Like The Swimming Pool Library, The Line of Beauty stays in the present and is seen entirely through the perspective of protagonist Nick Guest.
Nick is an outsider like the narrator of The Great Gatsby of the same name. Unlike Gatsby, Nick’s actions have profound consequences on the privileged family he gatecrashes. The Line of Beauty relishes gay sex with the same earthy enjoyment as The Swimming Pool Library but, unlike the former, there are more rounded heterosexual characters not least the bi-polar daughter Cat.
So is The Sparsholt Affair Booker material? Like its predecessor The Stranger’s Child (2011), Sparsholt share a narrative structure of five chronological sections beginning in the 1920s idyll of Evelyn Waugh novels and progressing to the present. Each novel pivots on a gay encounter or scandal that runs like a DNA code through the generations.
We never know when one section closes where or with whom Hollinghurst will take up the story. In the case of The Sparsholt Affair the central character we follow is David, a muscular, bisexual gilded youth at Oxford for a term in the 1920s. It is his genes that we follow in The Sparsholt Affair and he who holds (and keeps) the secret of the Sparsholt Affair of 1966 that made him a marked man.
I would agree with the criticism of a great friend who read The Stranger’s Child and complained that every male character – boy to man – is either gay, bisexual or more than happy to give it a go. The same is true of Sparsholt but my only crit is that the gays grow less likeable with each new generation in a Hollinghurst novel.
I did devour Sparsholt and surprised myself for enjoying the plot twist when David Sparsholt’s daughter is introduced and we get an echo of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew that sees adult failings through a child’s eyes. Disappointing though was the cat-and-mouse game about the nature of the actual Sparsholt Affair (David, an MP, rent boys, film) that is never elucidated.
The Sparsholt Affair is practically PG compared to The Swimming Pool Library and The Line of Beauty. So, though I agree with the critics that one can appreciate the golden prose all the more minus the graphic smut, I must say I miss it. Perhaps if the affair itself had been described we could have had at least a section that was true blue.
Alan Hollinghurst does seem to have an open goal when it comes to contemporary literary fiction with strong gay themes. Pre-1967 we had any number of literary lions who were homosexual and wrote with those themes and codes in fiction however deeply buried. Funnily enough, I find E. M. Forster’s Maurice as erotic as The Line of Beauty but there we are…
But it is fair to say that American novelists have made a much greater strides in gay fiction compared to the Brits: Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Michael Cunningham, Edmund White and honorary Yank Christopher Isherwood. We seem to do rather better with the ladies such as Sarah Walters and Jeanette Winterson.
I don’t think I have a ‘state of the nation’ novel like The Line of Beauty in me but I do think there’s room for a London Tales of the City like Armistead Maupin’s marvellous series of San Francisco gay novels. But in order to write comedy you’ve got to get happy and for me that’s a work in progress. Until next time…