His novels do not come around particularly often — his new one, “The Sparsholt Affair,” is his sixth in 30 years — but they are always worth attending to.
“The Sparsholt Affair” plays out across nearly a century of gay life in England. It begins in 1940 when David Sparsholt, an impossibly handsome young man bound for a military career, arrives at Oxford University.
Despite having a fiancée, David becomes an object of intense desire among an elite group of closeted young students. They want to paint him, memorialize him in verse and in diaries, and be near him at mealtimes. Most of all, they want to say what one eventually does: “I had him.”
We follow a handful of these men, several of whom are writers, through the novel. Primarily we follow David’s son, Johnny, the product of his eventual marriage, who becomes a painter and who is also gay.
The book moves from Johnny’s experiences in raffish 1970s London to the city’s turn-of-the-millennium rave scene to his social life after the arrival of dating apps like Grindr, which turn out to be a boon for old as well as young men.
The “affair” of this novel’s title is an incident that looms over the narrative while remaining hazy in its details. In the mid-1960s, Johnny’s father, by then a captain of industry, is caught in a tabloid scandal involving a Tory MP and male prostitutes. There is a trial. Books are written about the mess. The older Sparsholt retreats from the novel’s view to lick his wounds while the incident reverberates through other lives.
When Hollinghurst picks up an aspect of human experience, however banal — riding a bus, sitting for a portrait, being on a sailboat — he is so exacting that it’s as if no one has described these things before.
Do we have a better appraiser of how the world sounds? Here is a young woman, Johnny’s daughter, on place names: “‘Fullum,’ they said, a dead footfall, flour shaken in a Tupperware box (unlike sugar, with its quick shoosh, which to her mind was the sound of Chelsea.)” Good grief.
Of course the sex writing is good. Sometimes it’s brutal, other times fond and funny. About an older man living with a younger one we read: “The cheeky taunt, ‘Come on, old man!’ that had once thrilled them both” during sex “was now barely usable for its note of pathos and criticism.”
He also catches sex’s afterglow, what he calls “the slight invalidish luxury of having been had.”
One aspect of social life Hollinghurst closely considers here is this one: “the problems of being truthful but kind.” (In terms of verity I tend to follow the advice contained in the title of a book by the great journalist and critic George Seldes: “Tell the Truth and Run.”)
The truth about “The Sparsholt Affair” is that it is not among this writer’s more successful novels. It is intricately patterned on the sentence level yet moves tentatively, at the rate of afternoon sunlight creeping across a floor.
It winds between so many characters and time periods, as if tacking into a wind, that little momentum, emotional or otherwise, is allowed to build. New characters keep being introduced; you’re left missing the old ones.
You feel you are watching impeccable B-roll or a John le Carré novel without bad guys or an important work of theater as seen from 300 yards away. Your mind rates this book rather highly; your heart gives it only two stars. You come to regard it with respect but not ecstasy.
If you’ve not read Hollinghurst, the place to begin is probably with his exquisite first novel, “The Swimming-Pool Library” (1988), or “The Line of Beauty.” His last one, “The Stranger’s Child” (2011), is very good as well — like this one, it is made up of five interlinked sections.
Hollinghurst is a cerebral sensualist. His characters work themselves into each other’s hearts and minds as devotedly as they work themselves into each other’s underpants.
In her (excellent) recent book of dairies, Tina Brown wrote about journalists that while you can teach them things like structure, you cannot teach the most important thing of all, which is “how to notice the right things.”
Hollinghurst remains one of the great noticers.