One way to approach the novels of Alan Hollinghurst is to think about them as being about gay lineage over a century with 1967 at its centre: five decades before England decriminalized homosexuality and five decades after. Again and again, under various guises, his books explore lines of descent in the form of hidden knowledge passed down through sex and art. The great traumas are those that irreparably disrupt these lines: lives lost too early to war and AIDS.
Hollinghurst's latest, The Sparsholt Affair, looks directly at this theme of lineage through gay fathers and sons – biological and otherwise. It is also the novel that complicates the author's presentation of gay history by foregrounding the severity of past prejudice.
The story opens in 1940 during David Sparsholt's one term at Oxford before joining the air force. At Oxford, David's physique is a point of intense interest to a group of older male students. Decades later, David will be embroiled in a scandal that will have repercussions for his son, Johnny, who is also gay.
Hollinghurst leaves the eponymous affair vague – what we know is pieced together from passing references scattered throughout the text. The affair took place in 1966, it involved corruption comparable to the 1972 Poulson scandal – which involved bribery of public employees to attain lucrative government contracts – but with gay sex in the mix. Although David Sparsholt was not the principal actor, his beauty and exemplary war service put him in the spotlight. Through this lack of detail Hollinghurst suggests it matters less what happened (after all, gay sex would be legal a year later) than how this event echoes through the decades after.
Over the course of his five previous novels, Hollinghurst developed a reputation for distinction in three areas: highly literary, evocative prose; explicit descriptions of gay sex; and recounting the progression of his characters' desires: desire for people, beauty, sex, romance. When the object of desire is a person, Hollinghurst will provide few physical details – the point is the desired's influence.
What does The Sparsholt Affair's David Sparsholt look like? His distinguishing feature is his muscular figure from lifting weights. What does his beauty do, and allow him to do, to people? That's what this 400-page novel is about – especially as it relates to Johnny, a portrait painter. Johnny can capture his father's likeness in a painting, but many aspects of David remain a mystery, to characters and reader alike.
Part of the mystery can be attributed to David being of a generation that came of age during the Second World War. Johnny lives his entire adult life with increasing openness, after that key year of 1967. (For comparison, Canada decriminalized homosexuality in 1969.) David Sparsholt's sexual identity is murkier – it might not even be fully correct to call him gay – and he carries with him the witch-hunts of an earlier era. The Canadian government's recent apology to LGBTQ civil servants, military members and criminalized Canadians highlighted the damage caused by decades of "state-sponsored, systemic oppression and rejection." The Sparsholt Affair is about the effects of such prejudice in a British context. Outed by scandal, for which he served time in prison, sexuality for David thereafter represents exposure and shame.
Johnny's shame is his uncommon, tarnished last name – and the questions it elicits from near-strangers. His father's interior life is closed to him. Instead, Johnny finds a father figure in Evert Dax, an acquaintance of David's from Oxford who introduces Johnny into the London world of arts and letters.
The Sparsholt Affair is a natural evolution from Hollinghurst's previous novel, The Stranger's Child. Both employ five-part structures with large time jumps in stories that span the better part of a century. The Stranger's Child marked a change from Hollinghurst's previous work in that it had less sex described on the page and more of the narrative was from the perspective of female characters. That is also the case here.
In The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst's fourth novel, which won the Booker Prize) a character notes the hidden sexuality in the writing of Henry James is in its style "that hides things and reveals things at the same time."
In exploring a less liberated past, Hollinghurst's fiction reveals connections otherwise hidden. This is ripe material for a novelist, although deriving such literary pleasure could be confused with romanticizing the past. Hollinghurst tends to write about white gay men of relative privilege exactly because these characters offer a novelist freedom of movement. It would be an error, however, to view Hollinghurst's gay lineages as the only ones.
The Sparsholt Affair leaves little question as to what era gay readers would want to live in, even if our hyperconnected present can be ironically marked by disconnection. As a further cautionary note, Hollinghurst introduces another kind of father-son relationship through the character of Ivan, a young man who dates men several decades his senior. The issue here isn't Ivan's gerontophilia, but that his sexual tastes are accompanied, maybe even caused by an attraction to the world of the 1930s and 40s that goes beyond nostalgia. This is the novel where Hollinghurst makes clear that the past should not be fetishized. It's not the turn-on Ivan thinks it is.