Among the armfuls of books in my new LGBTQ section, Alan Hollinghurst’s comprised the largest number. And for good reasonby / November 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
I recently acquired a second-hand bookshop, and have been rearranging the stock. Last week I decided to create a specialist section: LGBTQ.
Among the armfuls of books, Alan Hollinghurst’s comprised the largest number. This made sense as his works, beginning with The Swimming Pool Library in 1988, have played a major part in bringing gay fiction into the British literary mainstream—not least through the widespread acclaim for The Line of Beauty, which won the Booker Prize in 2004 and was successfully adapted for television.
His latest, The Sparsholt Affair, occupies Hollinghurst’s familiar territory—the human comedy as it plays out over generations and the interaction between those with power—sexual, financial, political— and those who aspire to it or are victims of it. Desire is the current that propels the plot.
It opens in wartime Oxford where a precious coterie of undergraduates becomes fascinated by a new arrival, a charismatic athlete called David Sparsholt. Their interactions play out in five sections over three generations until the turn of the century —notably in the life of Sparsholt’s son, Johnny. A portrait artist, gay and a member of the haute bohème, he finds himself blighted by his industrialist father’s public disgrace in the 1960s, the “affair” of the title. Its details are never fully revealed, only its baleful consequences.
Hollinghurst, like his master in prose style, Henry James, feels most at home in the milieu of the cultured and privileged bourgeoisie and its patterns of consumption. We are never far from an appreciation of Meissen china, Mahler’s symphonies, holidays on private yachts, Bentleys with chauffeurs—with the occasional chemically-enhanced excursion into London’s demotic nightlife—all beautifully described.
The thought occurred to me that there is no other author more suited to produce a new sequence of novels, like Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, portraying not just a family saga, but a panorama of high society over the last 60 years.