Thursday, March 23rd, 2023

Longings and confusions across more than six decades for a large but underdeveloped cast of English characters

The Sparsholt Affair

by Alan Hollinghurst

Published by Alfred A. Knopf (Canada)

Published March 13, 2018
432 pgs. • Find on Amazon.comWorldCat

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

January 20, 2018

There was much that I admired in Alan Hollinghurst’s sixth novel, The Sparsholt Affair (appearing in the US in March), though it is far from being “reader-friendly.”

This is not just by making unmarked twenty-year jumps but by starting the later-in-time section with opaque anaphora (pronouns with no antecedent), and by not deigning to follow through with key information about what happened. (This is true not only in the titular “Sparsholt Affair,” but Hollinghurst also fails to mention how the lesbian couple, or the nouveau-riche Miserden (!) family, liked the paintings by the junior Sparsholt.)

Though some characters reappear in later sections set in later epochs, there is little character development even of those who do not just disappear from the text.

David Sparsholt, an Adonis rower first glimpsed across an Oxford courtyard in 1940, remains an enigma. A seemingly very conventional heterosexual, without any gay identity or consciousness, seemingly likes to be anally penetrated. His buxom-bosomed fiancée of 1940 does not seem aware of his “walks on the wild side” until the whole country is reading about a boy-prostitute-consuming cabal including his business partner, Clifford Haxby, in 1966 1 There is nothing at all about Connie’s second husband, Jonathan Sparsholt, the step-father of the main protagonist of the last four parts of the novel who becomes an openly gay portrait painter.

Let me pause to question whether a closeted businessman named David would name his son Jonathan (leaving open the question of what his wife, Connie, knew about her husband’s homosexual interest and its Biblical reference). Also, while on this aside about character names, isn’t “Jonny” the nickname for Jonathan (“Johnny” for Johns)? And the usual Portuguese name is “Joseph,” though “José” is not unknown. Not that Hollinghurst seems to know much of anything about Portuguese mother-tongued Brazilians…

Back to the chronological flow: the second section occurs on a Cornwall holiday in 1966, which the reader will later learn was just before the scandal and imprisonment of David Sparsholt. He recurrently goes off with Haxby, who is staying nearby, but the main focus is on Johnny, who is frustrated that his French friend Bastien no longer wants to play sex games as he had a year earlier at his home, where Johnny was staying. Is he now completely heterosexual? This is obscured by a hint of a possible return of the suppressed, though if anything happened it is elided. Regardless, Johnny recapitulates the frustrated longings for a heterosexual peer that various Oxonians had for his father.

Jump to London A.D. 1974. Johnny has become an apprentice art restorer, working mostly on frames (hence the cover illustration of frames on the British edition) who comes in contact with the no-longer (as-)closeted circle who had once pined for and “had” his father before he became an RAF pilot/hero and then a public disgrace (one that makes more sense set in 1956 than in 1966, though that is still before decriminalization of sodomy in the UK, closer in time to the thoroughly heterosexual Profumo scandal). Johnny does not know that these older men knew (etc.) his father or even that his father had spent a term at Oxford before joining the RAF, so he does not realize that bedding him is fulfillment of fantasies from more than a quarter of century earlier for them (if not for the younger partner of one whom Johnny desires and with home he has an unsatisfying weekend in Wales, because his too young for Ivan).

This third, rather weak section (largely due to the vague representation of Ivan) ends with a lesbian couple soliciting Johnny as a sperm donor. The result of this, Lucy, is close to being the protagonist of the fourth section, one obviously heavily influenced by the young girl’s attempts to understand her elders’ conduct in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew. There is a reunion (offstage/off-the page) between Everet Dax (who after much pining “had” David in 1940 and has a drawing of the heroic torso of the young David) and David, engineered but not attended by Johnny. There is also the funeral of the author of the first section (Freddie) as Lucy tries to make sense of her elders (her parents’ elders). And there is a guarded lunch (on the page!) between father David and son Jonathan. David remains an enigma to Jonathan and to the reader. His character and sexual orientation are, perhaps, mysteries not worth solving—to Hollinghurst if not to Jonathan.

The final section is set (I think) in 2012 or a few years later. Jonathan’s partner, the never-developed character of Pat, has died. Jonathan feels old and decrepit but is pleasantly surprised that there are sex and drug gay dance clubs, like those of the 1970s (AIDS is also elided from the novel). There are gerontophiles, one of whom, Zé (his own abbreviation of José), is determined to go home with Jonathan, even after Jonathan receives a message that his father has died. Another funeral, but there is a fairy-tale happy ending for Jonathan (especially after an earlier misadventure with a text-messaging young gerontophile), so it appears that the now orphaned Jonathan will not end up alone. (The book includes three ardent gerontophiles, a comfort to gay men of Hollinghurst’s (and my) generation of now-aged baby-boomers.)

Jonathan is likably unpretentious, but he is more an observer than a developed main character. To me, none of the characters are very developed, and the titular plot point remains obscure. Homoeroticism is abundant, but homosex is mostly offstage, most irritatingly in the titular “Sparsholt Affair.” The book is oddly reticent about sex, especially coming from the author of The Swimming Pool Library (Hollinghurst’s first novel, which centers on intergenerational gay transmission of knowledge about the “old days” but also includes a hedonist precursor of Johnny whose sex life is more detailed) or even of the Booker Prize-winning The Beauty of the Line (or of The Folding Star, which otherwise is in the same realm of youthful longing as the second part of The Sparsholt Affair). I wonder if Hollinghurst lost interest in the characters and their relationships and forced himself on to another section set in another era? Perhaps this indicates a waning of the author’s libido and/or having tired of being treated as a “gay novelist” and/or wanting to retain the larger audience that admired The Beauty of the Line.

For American readers, there are a lot of unfamiliar labels that may convey information about class to British readers (trilby, donkey coat, etc.) but that convey nothing to me. Fortunately, the reader does not have to understand cricket.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray


  1. A decade later than its seeming model, the Lord Montagu and friends scandal, though that involved consenting adults, and the crossing class boundaries without the graft that is hinted at in “the Sparsholt Affair.”

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.