Tied to the Mast
- 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.
Freddie Green, the first-person narrator in the first section of The Sparsholt Affair, differs from his predecessors in not being gay. Even so, he seems a special case of heterosexual for 1940. He describes his fellow undergraduates’ assessment of a young man, ‘a figure in a gleaming singlet’, seen steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand weights, as having ‘a hint of deviancy’, but he isn’t unsympathetic. He may say, of the obsession that one of his friends, Evert Dax, conceives for the splendidly built David Sparsholt, ‘I struggled slightly to understand it,’ but there’s no element of disapproval. Dax even asks why he’s so sympathetic, and he replies: ‘So much of that sort of thing went on at school it would seem very odd to me if it suddenly stopped at Oxford – especially now, you know, with things in such a muddle and no one knowing what’s round the corner.’ It helps that his older half-brother, Gerald (who doesn’t actually appear in the book), is gay. Gerald even went to bed, as a freshman, with Auden. Even so, Freddie’s vicarious interest in ‘the Sparsholt affair’ seems an authorial convenience.
It’s not just that he isn’t much of a mouthpiece for the prevailing morality. You could say that he occupies the place in the text that an unfulfilled gay man would take up in an another book, since he’s a spectator of other people’s passions (the romance for which he has such hopes comes to nothing), suffering from an obscure hurt, an unspecified condition that disqualifies him from military service. His usefulness for Hollinghurst is presumably as a sort of extractor fan, keeping the temperature of the prose relatively cool.
As the climax of this section approaches, Freddie is required to narrate an extended scene at which he wasn’t present. This is a formal flaw, and requires some awkward balancing. The account must be authoritative: ‘I felt that what I was hearing was the primary text … I was the recipient of the essential truth … I give the story as he let me see it.’ Yet it must also be worked up to Hollinghurst’s standards of lyrical exactness, from the ‘quick and irregular licking sound’ made by an unseen river at night to the way a pint glass being pushed over the beaten copper top of a table in a pub ‘roared a little’. The conventions, whether of distance or immediacy, seem to have delaminated by the time the following sentence arrives: ‘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.’ It was indicated at the beginning, and is underlined at the end of the section, that everything in it represents a memoir prepared by Freddie much later in life, though presumably based on his diaries, but that’s not enough to bring about a satisfying retrospective harmony.
The section’s last glimpse of David Sparsholt (‘Drum’ to his fiancée, Connie), running on the High Street in shorts and singlet, is from Freddie’s point of view: ‘It was in two successive gaps that I saw him, as the convoy passed, like a man in a Muybridge photo, in exemplary motion: first here, then there, then no longer there, as if swallowed up by his own momentum.’ The image beautifully combines persistence and broken continuity, but from this point on the book opts decisively for the discontinuous. The next section takes place many years later, and is in the third person, though it closely follows the point of view of a new character, someone not even born in 1940.
Right up to the structurally equivalent point in The Stranger’s Child (2011) – that is, over the course of four substantial novels and a good chunk of the fifth – fragmentation played little part in Hollinghurst’s fictional world. Discontinuity was what his style existed to banish or perhaps redeem. His achievement was to find a way of writing that could accommodate promiscuous sex, the experience of watching Scarface and the use of Ecstasy on the same plane as evocations of Whistler’s brushwork, Henry James’s prose or Frank Lloyd Wright’s way with a building. This was a sensibility that seemed not to recognise a separation between high and low, past and present, glory and disgrace.
The immediate context for the disruption of The Stranger’s Child was that Hollinghurst had given an account (one of his finest things) of the writing in 1913, by a figure of Rupert Brooke-like magnetism and talent, of ‘Two Acres’, a tidied-up version of a poem commemorating his relationship with a man. During and after the First World War the poem becomes a patriotic utterance and a cherished piece of cultural property. It made sense for the narrative to break off before the war and start again later, but the experience was made artificially disorienting by the withholding of cues about period and the identity of characters in the new section – it was 1926, it turned out, and ‘Lord Valance’ was not the Lord Valance of the last section. Even a man’s apparently demented cries of ‘Rubbish! Rubbish!’ were misleading, since he was merely shouting at a dog of that name. These alienation effects could be described as mimicking, on the level of a formalist device, the dislocation of the war. Most period novels serve up the past on a plate, and Hollinghurst’s standards wouldn’t allow such a thing. The writing began to exert its spell all over again, until at the end of the section continuity was dashed away once more, with an interval this time (period again needing to be gradually deduced) of forty years. The dislocation was twice repeated after that, with a diminishment each time in the book’s sense of movement.
These effects insisted on setting the construction of each page against the structure of the book, with the uniform small steps inside individual sections at odds with the seven-league-boot strides, or hops, between them. The overall composition was skewed, as if by Cubism, but the paint surface carried on with its Impressionist notation, its devotion to qualia. The imperturbable thoroughness of the writing’s progress became problematic and even perverse when confidence in an overarching wholeness had been so purposefully shattered. Modernism’s sense of fracture had arrived late and by stealth, bringing with it the abandonment of formal unity – but the sentences hadn’t been told about this and carried on with what they did best.
The new novel, which is also in five parts, follows the same pattern. The second section again supplies no clues about its date, leaving the reader to struggle with mental arithmetic. Let’s see: if ‘Johnny’ is David Sparsholt’s 14-year-old son, and his mother is Connie, then obviously David did go on to marry her, and if in 1940 he was talking about how urgently he wanted a son (I almost wanted a pat on the back here for remembering this detail), then perhaps this is the mid-1950s? No, out by a decade, the correct answer is 1966. There’s a slight souring now in the rapport between reader and writer, a hint of power game. The manner of the book is unchanged, but the context of that manner is subtly different: the chauffeur’s livery immaculate as ever, the coachwork of the Silver Shadow (or perhaps an S series Bentley, a car Sparsholt admires) blindingly bright, but why has he turned off the GPS? Why is he asking, with that faintly menacing suavity, where it is we’re going?
Johnny at 14 is obsessed with Bastien, a French exchange student who is staying with his family, and longing for a return to the intensity of connection they enjoyed the previous year, in France, before Bastien became so focused on girls. The two boys go on a trip with Johnny’s father and a business colleague, Clifford Haxby, on a yacht borrowed from an MP, but Johnny doesn’t pick up the undercurrents, some of them sexual – it doesn’t occur to him that his father might have secrets of his own. In a literary novel with a Connie and a Clifford there is certainly a Lady Chatterley allusion lurking, but it isn’t Connie who is the focus of attention here.
The chapter is set just before the affair erupts, and the book avoids dramatising those events, but jumps forward again by a handful of years, leaving a scattered trail of hints and clues. The supposed scandal shrinks by being withheld, until readers may turn peevish and not actually want to know the details, teased with the prospect of food for so long that all appetite shuts down. Having chosen a plot-heavy title for once, Hollinghurst doesn’t follow through with a plot. Though it would be hard to name a more autonomous writer, it’s as if the set-up of the novel had been handed down to him – gay son of sexually compromised father, fifty years of changing attitudes, for a book to be published in the half-centenary year of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act – and was repugnant, so that he scrupulously resisted all the cheap effects that might be expected to come with it.
The set-up is familiar from gay novels, such as David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of Cranes, though it certainly happens in life. Patrick Gale’s recent television drama Man in an Orange Shirt, part of a season marking the anniversary of decriminalisation, was based on his family history, right down to the novelettish-seeming details of his mother discovering her husband’s love letters to a man (with whom he had spent the night before their wedding) and burning them. If those letters had survived, bringing with them an authentic voice of the past, the screenplay might have had more power. The fascination of watching lay elsewhere, in imagining what was going through Vanessa Redgrave’s mind every time she referred to her screen husband as ‘Michael’, the name of her own father, whose sexual nature was more complicatedly divided.
The third section of The Sparsholt Affair is set in London, with Johnny Sparsholt now 21, his surname causing a stir wherever it’s mentioned. He explores London while working for an art dealer and learning the trade of restoration. When he delivers a painting to Evert Dax, who was obsessed with his father thirty years before, he doesn’t register the extra frisson of recognition, or that the drawing on the wall of a well-defined nude torso is of David Sparsholt, done by another man whose eye he had caught. In his innocence Johnny thinks it’s not the sort of thing his father would allow in the house.
It’s in this section, ‘Small Oils’, the longest in the book, that the narrative takes on a strangely desultory character, an underlying uncertainty about what belongs in it and what doesn’t. Johnny Sparsholt is the book’s central character, but only because no one else qualifies; he seems oddly peripheral. The section begins with a sense of thronged social space as Johnny meets Evert’s circle (a number of whom knew his father), in the period of the three-day week in 1973, which may have been chosen for the opportunity it offers to recapitulate the effects of the wartime blackout with winter power cuts. The point of view widens to show this young man from outside: ‘He offered himself as Johnny: with immediate modesty and hesitant intimacy and as with all Johnnies a half-hidden plea to be indulged and forgiven … To introduce yourself as “Johnny” was to say “You won’t have heard of me, but I think you’ll like me” – and as “Sparsholt” to say “You know me all too well.”’ Later in the section the texture thins, with an extended passage describing the department store Fenwick almost redeemed from dullness by a brilliant sentence about a woman’s make-up being done – the assistant darkens the middle-aged woman’s ‘doubting lashes into beating signals of attention’ – except that the scene has been eclipsed by the detail devised to substantiate it. The characters don’t hold the interest, or they hold it only thanks to the prismatic drizzle of insights through which they’re seen and rendered. It seems a mistake to base an entire tentative romantic relationship on a silly misunderstanding, with Johnny being warned that attractive young Ivan is a gerontophile – ‘through some association with the name Geraint he guessed this was a word for a Welshman.’
It’s not a terrible joke, though weak as the pretext for 25 pages of scenic narrative backwater. In general the (enviable) problem Hollinghurst has is that his extraordinary gift for the condensing and enriching detail leaves conventional storytelling close to redundant. Why give an account of old age in human terms when you can get just as sharp an effect by listing its decor? ‘In the downstairs cloakroom there were rails flanking the loo, in the sitting room a hideous adjustable armchair, outsize intruder among the oak and chintz; on the coffee table a square magnifying glass.’ He can give a tiny history of the high street and a thumbnail sketch of a life-story all in a few dozen words, like these about the old-fashioned baker’s in Nuneaton, Johnny’s home town: ‘In Walsh’s he stared smiling at the little man who slipped the loaf into the bag and twizzled the ends as he had forty years ago, but in plastic gloves now and a hairnet, the stay-at-home son turning into his old mother.’ It’s hard to imagine the drawback of such skills unless that sureness on the level of the sentence makes the sense of drift in the book’s larger design seem all the more evident. The solution might have been to economise in terms of novelistic architecture, instead of taking a lush inherited form and hollowing it out. Hollinghurst admires Firbank as well as James but takes lessons from only the one Master.
The beginning of the fourth section offers the reader another little ordeal by mental arithmetic. It’s narrated from a female perspective – a rarity in Hollinghurst, even when the point of view seems to wander freely. Lucy is Johnny’s daughter; the idea of his becoming a donor father was mooted in the previous chapter by a couple of gay women friends, and Johnny had taken to it at once: ‘He imagined for a moment telling his own father the news, the uncertain pride in this nearly heterosexual act, the unhoped-for vindication.’ That was in the mid-1970s, and Lucy seems mature, fully socialised and alert to subtext, noticing when a woman claims to be sorry about something ‘in her usual tone of not minding very much’ and having a wide range of comparisons available to her: ‘Evert sighed as he looked for the answer, as though he’d gone into the junk room and didn’t know what to bring out.’ Lucy turns out to be seven, but the decision to reproduce seems to have taken a long time after all, because it’s 1995. Lucy doesn’t convince as a seven-year-old of any period, even if other passages are more plausibly pitched for a person of her age. Finding something with a resemblance to mince in the food served by her vegetarian hosts, Lucy ‘thought she had better not mention it, in case Pat had made a terrible mistake, and they would have to go upstairs and make themselves sick, which had happened more than once, apparently, when they were in hotels abroad’. But it isn’t easy to climb back into Lucy’s skin, or Henry James’s, once you’ve shed it.
All the little obstacles placed in the way of the reader’s catching up seem very odd – sleeping policemen designed to slow down progress when being waved smoothly on might be more appropriate. This late in the book, rewards for perseverance would make more sense than deterrents to an unlikely hurry. The book’s tempo is generally adagio, at odds with the lovely description of David Sparsholt’s sporty car of the 1960s, a Jensen, with its smoothly surging gear changes: ‘The beauty of its slowness was its mighty potential for speed.’
By the end of The Sparsholt Affair Lucy is about to be married in York Minster, so the book contains all the elements required for a generational saga, though it fastidiously abstains from assembling them. There’s no sense of a symphonic development either. Plot climaxes, if they come at all, are displaced onto minor characters, so that the discovery of a lifetime’s kleptomaniac booty in a dead person’s home can only fall flat, being attached to someone on the far edges of the cast list. Dramatic events take place in the gaps between sections: as an adult Johnny has a single muted scene with his father onstage, as it were, meeting him for lunch at the RAF Club in Piccadilly, then taking him to visit his old admirer Evert in a now chaotic and dilapidated house in Cranley Gardens. Over lunch Johnny proposes, with some shyness, to paint his father’s portrait, but the idea seems to have no appeal to David. Seventy pages later Johnny mentions in conversation that they did in fact make a start on such a project: ‘We had a first sitting for a portrait about twenty years ago, but then we had a terrible row, it was impossible.’ The book has turned its back on the road it seemed to mark out for itself, and readers are shielded from vulgar drama. But if everything important is relegated to the peripheries or takes place in the gaps between sections, what’s in the centre? Is there really no need for one?
The period covered by the book, though ‘covered’ is exactly the wrong word, was one of convulsive change in the status of people like the ones who make up most of the book’s leading characters. In 1940, when it begins, Alan Turing was engaged on war work of supreme importance at Bletchley Park. In 1952, the year of Johnny Sparsholt’s birth, Turing pleaded guilty to a charge of gross indecency and, rather than serve a prison sentence, agreed to take the synthetic oestrogen stilboestrol to suppress his sexual urges (as a result he grew breasts). He committed suicide two years later. In 2012, roughly the date of the novel’s last section, he was officially pardoned, an unusual procedure since he was technically guilty. Legal equality for homosexuals has been approached and even, once or twice, overshot. A residually oppressed minority is currently in the embarrassing position of having more mechanisms for regularising its domestic arrangements than the majority, marriage being available to all couples, civil partnerships only to same-sex ones.
Naturally these changes affect the characters in The Sparsholt Affair, but, again, offstage. Though the character of his partner Pat is left very shadowy, Johnny has a long, quasi-marital and eventually officially recognised relationship: ‘At Chelsea he and Pat had had ten guests, both groom and groom were in their fifties, and the event was no less heartfelt for the element of irony and surprise that ran all through it.’ The ages given suggest that this is a civil partnership rather than a marriage (Johnny, born 1952, would be sixty before marriage between men was legalised in 2014), but it’s still a lovely dollop of human rights, and there seems something rather grudging about presenting it as a sort of lottery win having no connection with the gay activism that isn’t mentioned in the book. If Johnny was a donor father in the late 1980s, then the women involved (Francesca and Una, minor characters but hardly doormats) would have insisted on an HIV test, and there would have been support available to him from voluntary agencies. But Aids doesn’t feature in The Sparsholt Affair, an omission equivalent in subcultural terms to skipping over the Great War à la Stranger’s Child. In fact the prejudice most sharply evoked in the book has nothing to do with sex: it’s the muffled feeling that vegetarians should stop making a fuss about nothing, pick up their spoons and enjoy the vegetable soup without pestering staff to ask if its base includes chicken stock, and not worry either about the pink flakes mysteriously manifest in the pasta bake.
Rather surprisingly, commercial club culture, heavy on drug use and anonymous sex, gets a favourable review late in the book. Johnny, now bereaved, goes out with an old friend (though new to the reader) and finds himself welcomed in a club with open arms and greedy kisses – ‘the rapturous possession of the lover’s mouth which the blind tongue described to the seeing mind’. Not every sixty-year-old, without a history of gym visits and with no interest in clothes, would be greeted so warmly, offered admiration for his grey hair (‘Is it natural?’), the goodwill and sexual interest of strangers and even an improvised but highly effective amateur counselling service when he gets news of a significant death while in the club. Gerontophilia is no longer an obstacle to Johnny’s happiness but a disposition from which he may benefit. An odd gust of happy-ever-after feeling sweeps into the book shortly before it ends, when a connection made in the club persists into daylight.
For Hollinghurst the appeal of this milieu (which also featured in The Spell) is perhaps the absolute suspension of judgment induced by drugs, with the normal jockeying operation of groups and the shifting balance within relationships, so tirelessly notated in his fiction, chemically paralysed. Only once elsewhere in the novel does he try to suggest an underlying warmth in human interaction, the enabling drug in this case being alcohol, and it doesn’t quite come off: ‘With a glass of wine down, people turned away in sudden conversation towards the window or the sofa and the unselfconscious life of the party, which after all was life itself, began.’ Hollinghurst is not a companionable writer, and the moment doesn’t ring true. Virginia Woolf would have risked the intimate sententious parenthesis, but she would also have prepared for it.
The conventional family-saga ground plan, laid out but not built on, is a particularly puzzling feature of the new book. The past retains its mysteries, and what trickles down to Johnny hardly changes him. The realisation that his father was an object of obsession at Oxford, who posed naked to be drawn by an infatuated fellow student, is an insignificant pendant to the scandal that erupted decades before. The Swimming-Pool Library was in its own way a family saga, but took a more formally inventive approach, reversing the flow of time. In that book the past was an inheritance that didn’t descend automatically but had to be claimed. The narrator’s participation in sexual culture gave him access to secret histories, and the discovery of a dark family secret: not hidden homosexuality, as the Gothic revelation might once have been, but its counterpart in a distorting mirror, the exploitation by his grandfather (source of Will’s money and the title he will inherit) of homophobic hatred.
The rite of passage that gave access to this knowledge at the beginning of The Swimming-Pool Library was a subterranean kiss, rhyming with the one near the end of The Sparsholt Affair, but very different in character. The venue, nothing like the ecstatic paradisal basement of the club in The Sparsholt Affair, was a public lavatory in which Will administered the kiss of life to an old man who had collapsed, having gone there, presumably, like Will, with sex in mind:
I gripped his nose with two fingers and, inhaling deeply, sealed my lips over his. I saw with a turn of the head his chest swell, and as he expired the air his colour undoubtedly changed … I breathed into his mouth again – a strange sensation, intimate and yet symbolic, tasting his lips in an impersonal and disinterested way. Then I massaged his chest, with deep, almost offensive pressure, one hand on top of the other; and already he had come back to life.
The connection made in this underground space gave Hollinghurst’s readers a thread to guide them through what the new novel calls the ‘dim labyrinth’ of a book. Such threads don’t need to be thickly woven, but they need to be there.
Homosexuality has lost the mystique and even the tinge of sulphur it stubbornly retained, even for some gay people, at the time The Swimming-Pool Library was published. It doesn’t seem too bad a bargain, if Quentin Crisp was right about tolerance being the result of boredom rather than enlightenment, to have your activities greeted with a yawn rather than a howl of protest. It’s highly unlikely that Hollinghurst, as a citizen, hankers after the rolling back of his civil rights – but his imaginative preference is for closed societies. The throb of his interest is aroused by shadows and half-tones, by hints and the unspeakable. The opening section of The Sparsholt Affair is much the strongest, as it was in The Stranger’s Child. If the past is what excites you, why trudge dutifully on (allowing for the time-machine lurches between sections) towards the present?
It’s a tactical decision to blur the details of the ‘Sparsholt Affair’, so that even Johnny, whose life was shattered by it, never fully grasps what the corruption case was about: it is described as a ‘dim nexus of provincial misconduct’, perhaps a sort of Poulson scandal with sexual illegality thrown in. Johnny, being dyslexic, has a fraught relationship with the printed word. Naturally, though, he experienced a time of catastrophe, with the public disgrace of trial and imprisonment matched by the collapse of his parents’ marriage. The time scheme leaps arbitrarily over all this and fifty years later he has only oblique memories of that period, summoned up by the tension he observes in a couple whose portrait he is painting, memories of ‘brief, raw glimpses, in adolescence, of the private life of his parents – moments of lust or animosity, frighteningly unlike the normal banter of home. The summer, the autumn when everything went wrong, had been full of them.’ But his attention must return to the subjects of his painting and the tantalising moment passes.
Johnny resents his father for betraying his mother – the feeling pre-existing his knowledge of Freddie’s memoir but given a boost by it. He sees his father as relentlessly exploiting the power of physical attractiveness, though obviously that’s not the way David would see it if the book gave him a point of view. The closest approach to such a thing is the layered assessment of the father’s resistance to visiting his grown-up son:
The arrangements in the house itself – the studio, the big bedroom the men shared – were stubborn evidence of the way Johnny lived his life: the puzzle and worry of his being an artist, the subtler problem of no one, in David’s world, having heard of him, and hiding behind these convenient concerns (‘You’ll be working, I don’t want to disturb you’) the irreducible fact that Johnny was doing openly what for David had been a matter of secrecy and then of very public shame.
It may be a fact, but it has certainly been reduced if it occupies such a small corner of a large book.
A young man transforms himself with two years of obsessive training from a ‘total weed’ and a magnet for bullies into an athletic pin-up, whose new physique must seem fully as miraculous to himself as it does to others. His goals in life are entirely conventional (war service, marriage, son) and he successfully pursues them, but he has desires not compatible with any endurable social identity, and surprises those men who successfully court him with an erotic submissiveness not all of them will welcome. In his forties he builds up a career and a family life while also introducing sexual complications into his business dealings – at a time when absolute compartmentalisation of activity offered the only possible safety – which destroy both the family and the career. In disgrace and old age he continues to perform the role of stiff, uncomplicated military man that so poorly represented him even when people had the option of taking him at face value. It’s a magnificent present for a novelist with a particular genius for inhabiting the past to give himself, so why not unwrap it?