Peep Show

The Sparsholt Affair BY Alan Hollinghurst. Knopf. Hardcover, 432 pages. $28.

The cover of The Sparsholt Affair

A fan of Alan Hollinghurst’s masterpiece The Line of Beauty has created a Twitter account, @lollinghurst, to document the many epigrams and sly jokes and thrillingly acute descriptions found throughout that novel. These “lines of beauty” don’t just serve to decorate the book; they are the book. “His lips quivered and pinched with the sarcastic alertness that was his own brand of happiness.” “He felt victimized, and flattered, pretty important and utterly insignificant, since they clearly had no idea who he was.” In The Line of Beauty, Hollinghurst evokes inner states and interior decor with effortless mastery; both of them obsess Nick Guest, a graduate student from a humble background who finds himself embedded within a quasi-aristocratic family, the Feddens, whose patriarch is a Tory MP. Nick observes their flaws and foibles from 1983 to 1987, a manageable span that Hollinghurst cherry-picks for scenes and episodes. The Feddens, in their turn, ignore Nick’s foibles, or seem to, until everyone’s secrets are revealed in a devastating final sequence that has the cinematic perfection of Nick Carraway’s final glimpse of Daisy and Tom Buchanan through the window of their mansion, after he and Gatsby have been exiled from their world forever. The Line of Beauty is perfect. There’s no other word for it.

The Sparsholt Affair is certainly by the same author. From the first pages, it’s clear that Hollinghurst is still writing some of the most beautiful lines currently to be found in English: “It was that brief time between sunset and the blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms. Tall panes which had reflected the sky all day now glowed companionably here and there, and figures were revealed at work, or moving around behind the lit grid of the sashes.” The setting of this first section, “A New Man,” is Oxford in 1940; the blackout is Blitz-related. The narrator of this section, an ancillary character named Freddie Green, peers into one of those lit rooms and a “rhythmical shadow” is revealed—it is a muscular new student named David Sparsholt, exercising in a singlet, “massive and abstracted, as if shaped from light itself.” Over the course of the following four hundred pages, the reader might expect that abstraction to resolve itself into something more like a definite shape, especially given the book’s title. But it never does.

Freddie is close with Evert Dax, the gay son of a respected novelist. Evert describes the progress of his crush on David to Freddie in unstinting detail. Sparsholt is just seventeen, spending one term at Oxford before he’ll join the RAF at eighteen. His stunning physique elicits awe from even the most ostensibly heterosexual among his fellow students; we hear secondhand reports of his doings throughout this section, but witness them rarely. Though Freddie himself is preoccupied with a woman named Jill, he isn’t immune to David’s attractions. Encountering him shirtless and shaving in a dormitory bathroom, Freddie clocks a “careless glimpse of his sex in the open slit of his pyjamas.” Sharing a blackout patrol alone in a tower, he gets even closer, noting in David’s friendly embrace “at this late end of a long day, the faint mildewed smell of someone thirsty, unwashed and unshaven,” and “a quick sample of his withheld power.”

But this is a confusing bit of misdirection; it turns out that Freddie exists mostly as a conduit for Evert’s experiences with David. As the section draws to a close, Freddie tells the story of the night Evert successfully seduced David, with so much detail that he seems to be inhabiting Evert’s mind as the events unfold. “I give the story as he let me see it,” Freddie explains, but that disclaimer fails to render what ensues convincing as retold anecdote: “‘Well, we’ll have to have the light out,’ he said. It was with an incredulous tension, as if carrying some large delicate object, that Evert, with his eyes fixed on David’s, slid back step by step towards the bedroom door.”

Can you imagine, in the course of telling your friend about a one-night stand, describing how you walked as if carrying some large delicate object? Even though, at the end of the section, Freddie’s story is revealed to have been a literary creation—“written for, but never read to, the Cranley Gardens Memoir Club”—the book’s opening remains marred by a kind of falsity that makes the reader fundamentally mistrust the author. At the level of pure description, Hollinghurst is untouchable, the modern master. But this very mastery seems to have misled him; he seems to think he no longer needs to obey the fundamental rules of narrative. “Just have Evert narrate the first section!” someone must have said, at some point in the book’s gestation. But Hollinghurst is determined never to convey anyone’s intimate experience of David Sparsholt directly.

Paul P., Untitled (detail), 2010, oil on canvas, 13 3/4 × 10 5/8". Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.
Paul P., Untitled (detail), 2010, oil on canvas, 13 3/4 × 10 5/8″. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

In the next section, “The Lookout,” set in 1966, we find ourselves in more familiar territory. Our point-of-view character now, and for most of the rest of the book, is Sparsholt’s son Johnny, who’s fourteen. A budding artist whom we first glimpse sketching his parents’ friends on a seaside holiday, he is immediately more sympathetic, more real, and more gay than anyone in “A New Man.” Every chance brush with Bastien, his French exchange friend, awakens excruciating pangs: “the warmth of him so painful both to feel and to resist.” A year ago, before Bastien discovered girls, Johnny had been permitted much closer contact. Now, though, “Bastien was disdainful, and mocked him each morning and night for wanting the very things he had taught him to ask for.” The mood is sun-drunk, horny, and inescapably twee, giving the reader a sense of subliminally listening to the world’s most elegantly wrought Belle and Sebastian song.

But while Johnny’s desires must mostly be sated solo, his father seems to be permitted more latitude. A hint, uncomprehended by Johnny, that there’s something more than business interests between David and his friend Clifford Haxby, occurs on a fishing expedition:

Was it “Difficult age . . .” his father murmured, as he leant over, some private joke, odd bit of grown-up clowning, which made Clifford suddenly grip him round the waist, white hand on brown flesh, in a little rocking tussle, his father distantly amused and turning his face close to Clifford’s as if thinking of something, as Clifford said, “Now, now,” and tapped him lightly on the bum.

What they’re up to is so unthinkable—and illegal— in 1966 that it escapes the conscious notice of even someone as primed to notice as Johnny. The reader could be forgiven for missing what’s hiding in plain sight; it helps that passages like the one above are buried amid pages and pages in which similar close narrative attention is paid to far less consequential moments. Clifford and David are discovered later on by the world at large, though, and though the details of the resulting scandal—the actual Sparsholt affair of the book’s title—are (surprise!) never revealed, they make their way into the national press. Homosexuality and malfeasance of some nature seem to have intertwined in whatever it was they did. The Sparsholts’ marriage collapses, and David’s business takes a hit; whenever Johnny introduces himself, for the rest of his life/the novel, he has to shrug off the stigma of . . . whatever it was.

None of this happens in narrative real time, though—we learn it in retrospect, in the next section, when Johnny is living in London in his early twenties, beginning his career as a portraitist. We meet him in the home of Evert Dax, now a writer himself, who is hosting a crew that includes several other middle-aged versions of the people we met in “A New Man,” for the same club that was the intended audience for Freddie’s memoir. Encountering them in this new context might be interesting if we had learned enough about them to be interested the first time around, but as it is the reader is treated, alongside Johnny, to the experience of overhearing a lot of reminiscences that don’t quite mean anything. He does meet a boy his own age, Ivan, there, but their romance never gets off the ground because Ivan is in love with Evert; he’s a “gerontophile,” he explains apologetically. The only thing that really happens in this section is that Johnny meets and begins a portrait of a couple of society lesbians, who ask him for some sperm; in the next section we learn he has complied, and has become the conveniently part-time father of a girl named Lucy.

The following section, “Losses,” introduces an elegiac mood that, again, feels not quite earned; if we knew these people better, or cared about what they did, we’d care a lot more when they started to decline and die. Johnny, meanwhile, is entering his prime—happily partnered, father to Lucy, doing well in his artistic career. The centerpiece of “Losses” is a lunch with David, which amounts to unadulterated small talk, though at the end of it David agrees to be painted. Then Johnny takes him to visit a cognitively diminished but still lucid Evert. They catch up over tea and éclairs while Johnny tactfully disappears for a few hours, so all we glimpse of the intimacy the two older men (maybe???) share is a moment when, in parting, Evert “tenderly fingers the Fighter Command badge in David’s buttonhole.”

In the final section, “Consolations,” a sixty-year-old Johnny is occupied with painting a TV-makeover-show star’s family portrait, and his reflections on his chosen profession seem so close to an authorial self-assessment that it’s hard to interpret them otherwise. Almost reaching the end of his assignment, he still feels something is missing: “the joy of construction, the magic of depiction, the bright run up the keyboard that told you suddenly it was done, all eluded him.” He shows it to its subject, who seems to approve, but he suspects that she’s unsatisfied. “He knew Bella felt it could all have been glossier, goldener, while part of his own regret was that he hadn’t been blacker and sharper. He had failed as both eulogist and satirist: it was the compromise of his trade, though at best, of course, the truth.” This seems at once too harsh and too generous an assessment of Johnny’s creator’s own artistic failings. On the other hand, though, who but Hollinghurst could have summoned the acuity to even write that sentence?

Emily Gould is the author of Friendship (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) and the forthcoming Perfect Tunes.