Tied to the Mast

Adam Mars-Jones

  • The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
    Picador, 454 pp, £20.00, October 2017, ISBN 978 1 4472 0821 1

Alan Hollinghurst’s tally as a published novelist is six books over 29 years, so that’s more than two thousand pages of astonishing responsiveness to light, sound, painting, the past, social nuance, music, sensation both sexual and otherwise, buildings inside and out, the inner life of sentences – this is only the beginning of a list. He is saturated in the literary past but unhindered by it, able to adapt a 19th-century manner to subjects the past could not accommodate; he’s hardly unaware of the siren voices of modernism but remains safely tied to the mast. It’s likely that Hollinghurst has encouraged more aspiring novelists than anyone else currently writing to give up, putting them in the position of the narrator of Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, who hears Glenn Gould play and realises that although he is gifted enough as a performer to attend the same piano masterclass in Salzburg, there is simply no point in making any more efforts in that line. He gives away his Steinway the next day.

It isn’t only the overtly gorgeous passages that shine. Here’s a sentence, anything but self-advertising, from late in the new novel: ‘There was the noise, like a rough breath, of the drawer pulled open for socks and pants, the surprised little squeak of the wardrobe and the flick of hangers as he chose a shirt.’ A man in bed, lazing after sex and in no hurry to get up, is watching his partner dress, drowsiness perhaps prompting the shift away from the visual register, familiar actions in a familiar space imagined behind half-closed eyes. But even disregarding the context, a set of ordinary actions has been attended to and ushered from one sort of life into another, carried tenderly across in language that is unhurried and precise. If the writer felt the temptation to produce a tiny tour de force by using three successive auditory analogies then he has held out against it, though the reading brain is likely to supply the sliding scrape of loaded hangers, the jangle of empty ones – the lightness of ‘flick’ suggests wire hangers, whatever Joan Crawford would have had to say about that. (This is not a dressy household.)

Hollinghurst’s past choices for titles have tended to the oblique and allusive, offering no clue to subject matter (The Folding Star, The Stranger’s Child). By comparison The Sparsholt Affair has an almost retro directness, strongly implying that someone in the book called Sparsholt will have an irregular relationship that results in scandal. This is true, just as it’s true that something happened last year at Marienbad in Resnais’s film, but the direct approach is not Hollinghurst’s way. The title phrase occurs regularly in the earlier part of the book, with ‘affair’ uncapitalised, and later acquires the full upper case of actual notoriety, but all details are withheld throughout. After four hundred pages someone says in passing, ‘There are books about it, aren’t there?’ but The Sparsholt Affair doesn’t really fit that description – and those ‘books about it’, of course, only exist inside this one. With the passage of time a Wikipedia page on ‘The Sparsholt Affair’ can be called up, but only by the book’s characters, not its readers. The fictional laptop turns its face away from those who hold The Sparsholt Affair in their hands.

The opening section of the book, ‘A New Man’, is set in Oxford in 1940. Hollinghurst’s evocation of the city in wartime is ravishing in its detail: undergraduates on night fire-watching duty taking turns to stay awake in the bell tower of Christ Church, the smell of blackout curtains, the ominous poetry of the blackout itself, the eight-second interval between trucks in a military convoy, with a press of bicycles behind the last one. This section is written in the first person, potentially a return to an earlier set of strategies, since Hollinghurst’s first two novels also had embodied narrators: all too embodied for some readers, taken aback by the mixture of aesthetic connoisseurship and defiant frankness. This qualm was both expressed and lightly lampooned by Nicholson Baker, writing in U&I: ‘Hey, I’m reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library, and you know, once you get used to the initially kind of disgusting level of homosexual sex, which quickly becomes really interesting as a kind of ethnography, you realise that this is really one of the best first novels to come along in years and years!’ The bouncy tone is explained by this being a fantasy of what Baker might say to John Updike in the unlikely event of their finding themselves playing a round of golf together.

It was the sure convergence of apparent incompatibles that gave The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) its impact, even for readers who found William Beckwith, the studly toff who narrates it, a fantasy projection rather than a plausible human portrait. Baker came up with his own explanation for the reason such an alien artefact, along with Edmund White’s The Beautiful Room Is Empty and Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, could speak to him, namely that the sudden scope given to the truth-telling urge in ‘the Eastern homosphere’ – whatever that is –

has lent energy and accuracy to these artists’ nonsexual observations as well, as if they’re thinking to themselves, Well fuck it, while I’m humming along at this level of candour, why should I propagate all the other received fastidiousnesses? Truths are jumping out at me from every direction! My overemphasis on sex is leading me back towards subtler revelations in the novel’s traditional arena of social behaviour, by jingo!

Homosexuality in The Swimming-Pool Library was a backstage pass to where the real action was in all its sordid glamour, offering the young and privileged a vantage point in the wings, if not the royal box. There were traces too of sexual dissidence as a sort of gnosis, offering access to esoteric truths. A forbidden identity could be claimed, not in the spirit of political critique but as an exile that was also a passport to freedom. The 1980s were not a wonderful time to be gay in Britain: the year of the novel’s publication was also the year Clause 28 of the Local Government Bill became Section 28 of the Local Government Act, and the year the first residential centre for people living with Aids and HIV was opened. The Swimming-Pool Library looked to the past, not just to the heyday of pleasure without consequence before the outbreak of a politicised disease but further back in history.

The Folding Star (1994) was a companion piece to the earlier novel, in the sense that it too was a first-person narrative, following Edward Manners, an educated and attractive young man, in his cultural and sexual adventures. Hollinghurst extended his range abroad, with much of the book set in Belgium, and may even have taken Baker’s reference to overemphasis on sex as a challenge, in his description of the climactic erotic encounter, when the narrator at last has his way with Luc, a 17-year-old he has been employed to tutor. It’s Luc who finally initiates the sex, though Germaine Greer suggested at the time of the book’s publication that the heterosexual equivalent of such a scene, if publishable at all, would excite definite protest. It didn’t seem that gay fiction benefited from much of an amnesty after so many years of reflex condemnation, but it’s also true that the power relations between teacher and pupil are more obvious now than they were then, before ‘grooming’ acquired its sinister secondary meaning. The tone of the passage also seemed conflicted, with the civic responsibility signalled by the use of a condom overridden by a gloating aestheticised ugliness: ‘He was folded in two, powerless, the breath was pushed out of him, there was just the slicked and rubbered pumping of my cock in his arse, his little stoppered farts.’

Hollinghurst’s novels since then have opted for third-person narration, fertile territory for Jamesian negotiations of perspective (James being the writer whose effects he most admires). A stronger sense of a social web, and of the claims of belonging, has been evident, particularly in The Spell (1998), where domestic intimacy as well as pleasure-seeking was part of what the characters wanted for themselves. In The Line of Beauty (which won the Booker Prize in 2004), set in the 1980s, the protagonist, Nick, was invited to stay in a large house in Notting Hill by a Tory MP and his family. He stayed there for years. Nick’s last name, Guest, almost insists on this status of provisional privilege, the satisfaction and desolation of being included without belonging.

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