Fifty years of notoriety
In his marvelous novel The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst spanned the 20th century to tell the story of an enigmatic poem and its relevance to generations of one family. He employs a similar structure in his new novel, The Sparsholt Affair, another multigenerational saga, this time focusing on the Sparsholts and the effect a highly public midcentury scandal has on their family and legacy.
The first of the novel’s five sections is set in 1940. Several Oxford classmates, many of them gay, belong to a literary society. The students become infatuated with David Sparsholt, an aspiring engineer whom they first encounter as he exercises in front of an open window, “a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights.” David has a girlfriend, but the classmates wonder if that might be a smokescreen. One student convinces David to pose nude for a drawing. Another is determined to sleep with him.
The novel’s main character, however, is Johnny Sparsholt, David’s son. Readers first meet Johnny in the mid-1960s when, at age 14, he’s vacationing with his parents and eager to pursue a romance with Bastien, an exchange student who’s staying with Johnny’s family. During this holiday, a scandal involving David’s secret affair brings ignominy to the family. The notoriety of the scandal weighs on openly gay Johnny for the next 50 years, as he becomes a celebrated painter and interacts with many of the people from his father’s past.
Hollinghurst has a tendency to use dialogue too obviously to convey background information, but the Jamesian elegance and psychological acuity of his previous novels grace The Sparsholt Affair as well. This is a moving work from one of modern literature’s finest authors.
This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.