The Sparsholt Affair - a review

Alan Hollinghurst won the 2004 Man Booker prize for his novel “The Line of Beauty”. This is not the reason that I bought “The Sparsholt Affair”. I am not sure why I bought it; perhaps I liked the colour of the cover. Perhaps it was the typeface. I do not know and I wish I did for I might learn which books I am not likely to enjoy. This, I am afraid, would have been one of them. It is not because it not well-written. It contains some of the most exquisitely descriptive prose that I have read. Hollinghurst is an observer of the minutiae of life and, if this book is anything to go by, he enjoys writing down those minutiae. I do not want to judge Hollinghurst on this one novel so when on Saturday I saw a copy of “The Line of Beauty” at the Congo Bongo for $1 I went for it. After all, if it’s $1 then it doesn’t really matter if I never read it.

The trouble with “The Sparsholt Affair” is that I cannot quite discern what the plot is. There is a story in the book though the multitude of characters tends to get in the way of following what it is. The book starts in Oxford in the very early 1940s. It’s pretty obvious from almost the first page that this is a novel about gay life. Gay literature is not a genre I focus on though some of it is truly brilliant; notably, of course, Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness”. The Sparsholt of the title is David Sparsholt and he is one of the two central characters in the book. The second is his son, Johnny. David Sparsholt runs a successful engineering company and the “affair” in the title relates to a homosexual liaison between Davis Sparsholt and another man Clifford Haxby. The affair, or at least its discovery and exposure by the press, took place in the late 1950s or early 1960s. We know about it only because it is referred to; Hollinghurst never describes the circumstances. Neither does he directly discuss changing attitudes to sexuality; he leaves this, I think, to the reader.

The book is split into five sections. These do not flow neatly and the reader needs to spend some time figuring out who the characters are, where they came from and how they fit into the narrative. Perhaps I am lazy but I do not like this device. It seems to me that although the author knows what’s going on, he either cannot be bothered to explain to his reader or he wants to wind him up.

There are two themes running through the book other than the gay context. These are art and family. David Sparsholt’s son is a portrait painter and this provides some connection between the characters. Johnny, who is also gay, acts as donor to a lesbian couple who have a daughter, Lucy. Part of the story is about Johnny’s and Lucy’s relationship.

I struggled with this book and, as a result, I would not recommend it unless you are happy with a narrative whose plot requires you to do a good deal of work that you have already paid the author to do. But I have read it and I may well be a better man for the experience. The dollar I spent on “The Line of Beauty” will probably not prove to be a dollar well spent. Maybe I am missing something here but I hesitate to investigate further. The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst, Picador, 2017, ISBN 978-1-5098-4493-7, 454pp

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