From his first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, Alan Hollinghurst has proved himself a deeply intellectual writer, a novelist of elegance and grace, whose work has been defined by his preference for finding joy rather than trauma in his youthful characters' exploration of their homosexuality. Since winning the Man Booker Prize with The Line of Beauty in 2004, he has turned his attentions to lengthy epics, straddling generations and major historical events while charting the course of gay history in British society from criminality to acceptance.
The opening of his sixth novel recalls the introduction to his fifth, The Stranger's Child, in that both are saturated with lust. In the earlier book, set shortly before the outbreak of the first World War, teenager George Sawles finds himself breathless with desire for his friend Cecil Valance. Here, the second World War has broken out, the Blitz is a nightly event leading to a "fire-watching" timetable for those students who remain at Oxford for reasons of incapacity or otherwise, and 20-year-old Evert Dax can barely contain his longing for David Sparsholt, a handsome, muscular youth who has come up to college in advance of his 18th birthday and the inevitable army call-up. Sparsholt, like Valance, is a passing figure in the book although his actions, or rather the hints and suggestions that we get at his actions in later life, linger over every page.
The Lookout, introduces us to David's 14-year-old son, Johnny, who is enslaved to his passion for French exchange student Bastien
Hollinghurst is very good on the desperate yearning that a young gay man can have for an apparently straight friend, and the lengths to which Evert goes in his attempts to get close to Sparsholt are both moving and pathetic. Dax cuts a pitiable if curiously unsympathetic figure, lusting after a boy who seems to be encouraging the flirtation while at the same time remaining oblivious to it. A scene where Evert is forced to spend an evening with Sparsholt and his somewhat lacklustre fiance, Connie, in a local pub, the two giving off an unmistakable air of postcoital satisfaction, is filled with pathos, and even the narrator of this particular section, Freddie Green, longs to escape.
Another feature of The Stranger's Child that Hollinghurst repeats is the use of time leaps between sections, and frequent changes of the central protagonist. It's almost as if these are a series of novellas about people who, for one reason or another, have found David Sparsholt at the centre of their lives and the author has brought them together into a unifying whole. Individually, they work rather well. The second section, The Lookout, introduces us to David's 14-year-old son, Johnny, who is enslaved to his passion for French exchange student Bastien. It's a near perfect depiction of both teenage sexuality and the power games that the confident can play over the fragile. While Bastion is only 15, he too recalls both Cecil Valance and David Sparsholt in his irresistible sexuality. Even the middle-aged Norma, Johnny's mother's friend, can barely keep her eyes off him, muttering that "he could pass for older, couldn't he? Good-looking…", a throw-away line that reveals her own frustrations, the reasons for which become obvious later.
Johnny is by far the most interesting and engaging character in the novel. Hollinghurst subverts the reader’s expectations by turning the shy and frightened boy of The Lookout into a reasonably confident and attractive young man in the next section, set in 1970s London, one who is neither distressed by his homosexuality nor frightened by it. He meets men, is open about his desires and endures no hostility from the circles in which he moves. He has a crush on Ivan, who prefers the now middle-aged Evert Dax, but is happy to turn his attention to others when such opportunities arise.
It becomes so interesting that one rather wishes there had been another section devoted entirely to it
Johnny’s unusual surname provokes intrigue and disapproval in some, for they relate it immediately to his father, and through their reactions we begin to understand the unhappy and scandalous life David has lived since his “magnificent war”. It’s an intriguing way of telling a story, although it becomes so interesting that one rather wishes there had been another section devoted entirely to it, although that would have, by necessity, extended a lengthy novel even further.
While The Sparsholt Affair is certainly an immersive reading experience there are moments and scenes that often feel superfluous to the action. Conversations in restaurants or literary salons occasionally overstay their welcome, the dialogue becoming a little dreary. They stand in stark contrast to the exchanges between the young men in the opening section, which sparkle with secrecy and passion. Hollinghurst is better with just two characters, such as when he allows Johnny and Ivan to take a weekend holiday together, than with groups, where the various personalities struggle for identification and the reader feels tempted to tune out the noise.
Ultimately, perhaps The Sparsholt Affair is a novel to admire rather than love. Gripping storylines sit alongside more lacklustre ones while in his characters, to twist Yeats's words, the best are full of passionate intensity while the worst lack all conviction. But there can be no denying the elegance of the novel or the great skills and empathetic style of Hollinghurst who, along with Sarah Waters and Philip Hensher, has become one of the finest chroniclers of gay lives in contemporary Britain.
- John Boyne's most recent novel is The Heart's Invisible Furies (Doubleday)