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The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst is an ambiguous tale of the permeating aftershocks of encounters with the charming David Sparsholt: war-hero, strong-man, closet gay man prior to the British sexual liberation of 1967. Set over five parts, numerous narrators give us peep-hole insights to the influence and lasting touches of Sparsholt, and cleverly leaves the unspeakable to occur behind blinds, during blackouts (of both varieties), and between parts. Be warned: the Sparsholt Affair is not entirely what it seems.
We are first introduced to David Sparsholt as an entry in Freddie Green’s memoir of Oxford during the war, in ‘that brief time between sunset and blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms’. Spied by Green and his contemporaries Evert Dax and Peter Goyle, Sparsholt’s impressive aesthetic ignites a male infatuation that will both mire Sparsholt’s life and carry the novel. Sparsholt is an engineer and athlete training for the RAF, and is embroiled in sexual scandal from the outset thanks to the ‘rhythmical creaking’ from his room during visits from his to-be wife, Connie. Sparsholt’s blatant heterosexuality seems to only fuel the intrigue as Green, Dax, and Goyle each fall into pursuit of Sparsholt in their own ways. Between the suggestive war time black-outs, this competition is won by Dax, and recorded as told to Green. Sparsholt is doused in secrecy and scandal, spoken about in the same way neighbours may trade gossip in whispers before an inevitable disgrace.
Leaving Sparsholt’s war to occur in the part break, the novel now jumps to 1965, where Freddie Green’s literary journal has been replaced with a contemporary yet equally insightful narrative from the perspective of Johnny, Sparsholt’s adolescent son. Sparsholt is now a war-hero and established industrialist, married to Connie. Together with Connie, Johnny, French exchange student Bastien, and the Haxbys, the story moves to summertime in Cornwall. The Cornish setting allows air to two flames: that between David Sparsholt and the noisome Clifford Haxby, conducted in secrecy yet with a recklessness that makes one’s stomach turn somersaults, and simultaneously for Johnny – the typically sexually repressed English teen – who is besotted with his liberal French counterpart, Bastien. Should Johnny not have been so consumed by his own pubescent crush, he might have had warning of the scandal his family was on course for.
The story jumps again, this time into Evert Dax’s house in London post the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality. We re-connect with Evert as Johnny Sparsholt, now a strapping young gay man, enters Evert’s house as an art restorer. Oblivious to the relationship once shared between his father and the paunchy old art enthusiast, Johnny is both eager to gain a place in the gay scene based at Cranley Gardens and naïve about the intentions of those around him. We learn that the actual Sparsholt affair that was so pregnant in the previous setting has been and gone between parts, and we turn the pages in eagerness for a climax, trembling for the revelations that might come with it.
But Hollinghurst holds back, denying us any juicy details, giving us only scraps: ‘money, power, gay shenanigans…it had everything!’ This is somewhat frustrating, as up until this point the reader has been led to believe the explosiveness of the affair was the carrot we’d been patiently chasing. Once the disappointment abates, however, the Sparsholt Affair morphs away from a legacy instead into a story of life’s vice and drama, particularly for gay men in a liberated London. It is a generational comparison, pulling a colourful contrast of experience from each side of 1967.
By the 90s we are led by Lucy, the child (born in the part-break) of Johnny and a lesbian couple who had requested him to ‘do a baby for us’. We see Johnny finally in the new millennium, where parenting and dating apps have again revolutionized the gay landscape. Johnny does his best to adapt, as a successful portrait painter who suffers love, loss, and reincarnation.
As a first-time reader of Hollinghurst, his tendency to let pivotal scenes happen between the parts can leave you feeling crestfallen, but the Sparsholt Affair withstands these temporary disappointments as one begins to recognize the larger, comedic, and charming design of the story.
Reviewed by Abbie Treloar
The Sparsholt Affair
by Alan Hollinghurst
Published by Pan Macmillan