Alan Hollinghurst's The Sparsholt Affair feels like looking through a keyhole

There’s a shift from the first person to the third, but the pastiche quality never lifts.

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Oxford in the blackout. In London and the north, bombs are falling, but here, despite the requisitioned colleges, the meatless dinners and marching khaki-clad volunteers, war seems far away. What it does provide is a kind of blind eye, a sense that possibilities might be available in the darkness and disorder that were hard to attain on Broad Street in daylight.

Just before the shutters are closed on an autumn dusk, a group of literary-minded students – all male bar one – observe a glorious young man in the room opposite, a happy erotic visitation, stripped to his singlet and lifting weights. His name, they discover, is Sparsholt. “Sounds like part of an engine, or a gun,” one observes. Hollinghurst has always liked a name to ring with Dickensian determinism; think of the perennial lodger in The Line of Beauty, Nick Guest. Not only does David Sparsholt go on to establish himself as a successful engineer, he is also the sputtering motor of this sprawling sub-fusc tale.

Sparsholt has a girlfriend, but is not unwilling to spend tangled nights with one of the students, Evert Dax, whose father is a famous writer along the line of John Cowper Powys, now toppling from his laurels. What passes between them is recorded and relayed by a third party, Freddie, in what purports to be an unpublished memoir, found among his papers after his death.

Since Hollinghurst’s own style is hallmarked by a devotion to the circuitous phrasing of Henry James and Ronald Firbank, the distinction between this ponderous ventriloquism and the sections that follow is not marked. There’s a shift from the first person to the third, following a series of related characters, but the pastiche quality never lifts, nor does the sense of watching proceedings through a keyhole.

Sparsholt, now a war hero, marries his girl and fathers a son, Johnny, first glimpsed slyly sketching the nose of one of his parents’ friends. Johnny’s life is revealed in disjointed scenes, starting with a Cornish beach holiday, where he lustfully shadows his disdainful French pen friend, who on a previous vacation was a willing erotic co-adventurer. It’s here that the limited viewpoint works best, creating a lovely seesawing of perceptions and misunderstandings. Johnny’s pleasure in the ghastly towelling ponchos his family nickname Zulus abruptly dissolves when he sees them through Bastien’s scornful gaze. Out on a yacht with his father and Sparsholt’s friend Clifford, Johnny worries about seeming manly enough, observing but not grasping the implications of the adults’ long looks and play-tussles.

At the next sighting, Johnny is all grown up, a painter with luxuriant hippie hair. It’s the 1960s, and he’s delivering a picture to Evert Dax, with whose life his own will intertwine through the coming decades. He announces his name to strangers tentatively, associated as it is with the scandalous Sparsholt Affair.

What might in other hands form a tense centrepiece is here revealed sidelong, by way of snippets of conversation, hints dropped over years. Male prostitutes, an MP, “they never found out who the third man was”: the Sparsholt Affair evidently has some relationship to the real Montagu Trial of 1954. In a gay club, Johnny is lauded for his sexuality, the martyr’s queer son, though he stumblingly explains that his father was bisexual and anyway silent on the subject of sex. The commonality of father’s and son’s desires does not serve as a bond but a division, “the irreducible fact that Johnny was doing openly what for David had been a matter of secrecy and then very public shame”.

Inter-generational gay relationships have long fascinated Hollinghurst, both in terms of personal dynamics and how the consequences of secrecy and trauma manifest through time. In his first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, a young gay man befriends an elderly aristocrat whose life was destroyed after he was prosecuted and imprisoned for public indecency, another nod to the Montagu Trial. The politician who drove the charge was, it transpires, the young man’s grandfather.

Keyhole aesthetics make sense when recounting those closeted eras, when homosexuality was illegal and frank conversation fraught, but there’s something perverse about maintaining this halting, blinkered perspective right through to the present day. Later sections come from the point of view of Johnny’s daughter, Lucy, through whose limited What Maisie Knew-style apprehension one glimpses cruising, poppers and other such jolly exploits.

But Lucy’s incomprehension doesn’t quite ring true, since she is apparently the daughter of two lesbians, who are wheeled on briefly to deploy handsome Johnny as a sperm-donor. Being likewise the child of 1980s lesbians, I feel confident in saying Lucy might have been slightly more au fait with queer mores, especially by the time she reached adulthood.

Recreating lives conducted necessarily in shadows obviously requires that one lower the lights, but there’s an odd reluctance here to get too close, a strange coyness about placing either of the Sparsholts in the swim of their own gay life. The nearest we get to an immersive present is in two scenes set in nightclubs, once an obsession of Hollinghurst (The Spell was one long mortifying homage to ecstasy’s disinhibitory effects). Even on the dancefloor, the dominant emotions are anticipation and nostalgia.

It’s beginning to seem that there are only two possible vistas in the Hollinghurst universe, the young man teetering at the threshold of a gorgeous future, and the old man gazing back. There’s no doubt that he does both beautifully, but it comes at an expense. The stiffness, the hollowness is only emphasised by the mannered prose, with its quelling of feeling, its perpetual ironies and aesthetic quibbles about how to hang a Whistler or the correct iPhone etiquette during sex. A generalised dullness, a not-quite-ness falls over everything.

The effect is something like an Adams ceiling Johnny encounters on an unsatisfactory hook-up. “The drawing-room ceiling, with its graceful light roundels and quadrants of stucco, its lovely repeating formula of fans, bows and garlands, had been painted all over with a heavy, brassy gold, shiny enough to reflect the lamps below.” It’s gilded, sure, but wouldn’t it have been better to vary the tone? 

Olivia Laing’s latest book is “The Lonely City” (Canongate)

The Sparsholt Affair
Alan Hollinghurst
Picador, 454pp, £20

This article appears in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy