Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, “The Sparsholt Affair,’’ was published to near-universal acclaim in the UK last fall, and early reaction in advance of publication here has been enthusiastic, which is not surprising. There is much to admire. The first section, “A New Man,” is utterly captivating and immersive. It is a literary memoir by former Oxford student Freddie Greene, whose wry, bemused, plummy voice is perfectly realized. With wit and elan to spare, Greene expatiates on the intrigue that ensues when David Sparsholt, an engineering student with a fiancée, Connie, and a plan to join the Royal Air Force, arrives at Oxford in 1940.
First glimpsed through a window while lifting weights, Sparsholt is an enticing abstraction: a figure of beguiling mystery and a near-universal object of desire. Sketched in the nude by one student, pined after, peered at, and ogled by many, Sparsholt gets into trouble for “rhythmical creaking” the night he has Connie in his room but also engages in dalliances with men. Sparsholt’s enigmatic allure, the impossibility of possessing, knowing, or pinning him down casts a dreamy spell over character and reader alike. In this “New Man” section, rife with “brief dislocated intimacies” and “fleeting alliance[s]”, Hollinghurst gives us a brilliant homage to Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford novels while creating a mood of provocative possibility and ominous foreboding distinctively his own.
Alas, Greene’s memoir is only one section. Hollinghurst leaves the first person behind, and the rest of the novel is close third person primarily from the perspective of Sparsholt’s son, Johnny. We follow Johnny from a childhood holiday with his family to a fledgling career as an art restorer to his coming of age as a gay man, a successful portrait artist, a father, a husband. Figures from David’s Oxford days flit in and out of Johnny’s life, both bringing him closer to and taking him farther away from his father, who went on after college to become a celebrated World War II pilot and a wealthy industrialist. David remains a figure of odd reserve and imperturbability; “something in him repudiate[s] . . . sympathy.”
The meaning of the “Affair” in the title shifts over the course of the novel. First alluding to the stir David causes at Oxford, through his liaisons with male friends while married to Connie, it later refers to a public scandal involving corruption, infidelity, and a gay threesome that lands him in prison in 1966, one year before the Sexual Offences Act de-criminalized homosexuality in England.
Like Hollinghurst’s acclaimed last novel, “The Stranger’s Child’’ (2011), “The Sparsholt Affair’’ spans decades, is divided into five named parts which each take place at a distinctive point in British history and depict the dramatic changes in gay life over roughly 70 years. But where “The Stranger’s Child’’ focused on the lead-up to World War I and its aftermath and told the story of a closeted poet and his changing place in the literary world, “Sparsholt’’ takes us from World War II to the present day and centers mainly on visual artists.
The structure allows Hollinghurst to explore the seismic shifts in gay life over three generations, from furtive and shameful encounters to the thrilling candy store of online dating and unabashed, drug-fueled reveling in gay clubs, decorous surfaces covering illicit desires to proud openness.
And it gives him the opportunity to muse on the warping and ennobling, destructive and beneficent effects of time on reputation and identity. But the technique is less successful here than in “The Stranger’s Child,’’ the jumps more jarring, the proliferation of characters a bit overwhelming. What we gain in scope and coverage, we lose in intimacy and taut, suspenseful storytelling.
The most compelling aspect of “The Sparsholt Affair’’ is its insistence on the fundamental unknowability of other people, even those to whom we are ostensibly closest. Sparsholt’s opacity, his resistance to easy categorization, his susceptibility to projection and fantasy are but extreme examples of what all Hollinghurst’s characters both exemplify themselves and seek to penetrate in others. In this, they are the artist and the work of art alike, the wishful analyst of the scene and the obdurate block of marble refusing representation.
Throughout “The Sparsholt Affair,’’ memoirs are written; portraits are painted; and yet the living thing, the particularity, the “irreducible mystery” of human beings remain forever beyond the frame and off the page, even for the most gifted artists. If this novel lacks the overall brilliance of his 2004 Booker winner, “The Line of Beauty,’’ Hollinghurst remains one of our most gifted writers, unspooling sentences as precise and lyrical, deft and ingenious as any in the English language.
THE SPARSHOLT AFFAIR
By Alan Hollinghurst
Knopf, 417 pp., $28.95
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Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’