THE SPARSHOLT AFFAIR
By Alan Hollinghurst
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
This new novel is similar in structure to Alan Hollinghurst’s previous book The Stranger’s Child – it ranges over more than seventy years but jumps decades as it moves from one section to the next. This can make for an unsettling experience for the reader to be yanked from characters and storylines they were invested in to a period decades on and it takes some concentration to identify the links with what has been left behind. This is especially true of the opening section set at Oxford University in 1940 which is so fascinating as a moment in history, yet also atmospheric and suffused with a sexual tension which is heightened by the necessity of the blackout. It is here we are introduced to the young and strikingly handsome David Sparsholt who dazzles a circle of aesthetic male friends. They spy on him doing exercises in his room to develop his muscles, and then plot to encounter him, half-naked in the communal bathroom or by getting rostered into an all-night fire-watching duty on the roof with him. One of the group even persuades Sparsholt into posing for a nude portrait.
Many readers would undoubtedly have been very content with the novel to settle in and continue this Oxford storyline for the remainder of the novel, but it doesn’t. Instead we jump more than twenty years, abandon almost all of the characters we have been introduced to, and find ourselves on a coastal holiday in 1966. Eventually we realise that the new focus is actually the teenage son of David Sparsholt, Johnny, who is enthralled by the French exchange student, Bastien, who has come to stay. The previous summer in France the two boys had experimented together sexually, but Bastien’s tastes have moved on and are now fixated firmly on women. This second section, like the first, is suffused with sexual desire, but Johnny’s covert longings and Bastien’s more direct intent are not all that is at play. In the background, we get a vague inkling that ‘something’ is going on with David Sparsholt and his friend Clifford.
This is the first of the novel’s two sections to be told from the perspective of a teenager or child. It’s an interesting literary device – what the inexperienced narrator sees or hears is reported but it falls to the reader to ‘do the math’. It occurs more explicitly later in the novel, when a much older Johnny Sparsholt and his young daughter are out on a walk and encounter an old flame of Johnny’s emerging from a tryst at a beat. Even the narrator of the opening Oxford section Freddie Green may not be entirely trustworthy. Some facts in his account are disputed later, his war work was in the murky world of spies and subterfuge, and he seems to have lived his entire life in the closet. The Sparsholt Affair is not a novel for the reader who likes everything spelt out and underlined. Many of the book’s major plot points occur ‘off-stage’ or between chapters or sections, and it is left to the reader to deduce what has happened from a few scattered clues. The heart of the novel – the scandalous Sparsholt affair – is never directly revealed and certainly never from the man at the heart of it, David Sparsholt himself. Instead we are subtly introduced to the main players on the coastal holiday, then the narrative jumps again, and we learn of what happened after the fact and its devastating aftermath.
This is a novel that demands concentration and is best read as continuously as possible. There are also a large number of characters to keep track of and some minor (and secondary) characters from the opening section crop up again late in the novel. But the rewards for the reader are your own journey of discovery and revelation as you come to understand Hollinghurst’s purposes. It’s also a novel of such complex construction that it really deserves a second reading, equipped with the knowledge you’ve acquired from the first reading.