Alan Hollinghurst's potent mix of literature, sex and gay history - We Recommend - My Gay Toronto

The Sparsholt Affair: Alan Hollinghurst's potent mix of literature, sex and gay history
3 April 2018.

by Drew Rowsome -

On my way to interview Alan Hollinghurst, I returned to my now well-worn copy of his new novel The Sparsholt Affair, and dipped randomly into different sections. Hollinghurst is a much-lauded author, the recipient of many awards, with his first book The Swimming Pool Library propelling gay literature into the mainstream. As well as being book that had a profound effect on me personally. As did The Sparsholt Affair, which is such a masterful piece of work that I was nervous about not being prepared enough to meet the author. Sampling turned into reading for the sheer joy of being immersed in such a well-constructed and gloriously written book. I was so immersed that I missed a subway connection and had to backtrack.

The Sparsholt Affair recounts the story of three generations of Sparsholts, but also provides an overview of a segment of gay life from the 1940s until today. The structure is unusual and highly addictive, with many events taking place off the page and each section focussing on a different character and different time. "I feel I'm doing something different through the vehicle of the form of the book," says Hollinghurst. "Taking it in unexpected directions with these strange gaps and jumps in the structure. To me the pleasure of the reader is the paramount thing. I want the reader to be seduced by each section of the book. Somewhat disconcerted when they're wrenched out of the story and then have to reorient themselves."

At the heart of The Sparsholt Affair is a scandal, the titular "the Sparsholt affair." Though we never learn the gritty details, the scandal, taking place just before gay sex was legalized in Britain, appears to involve not only gay sex but also a threesome. The scandal reverberates throughout the book and affects all the characters, all of whom have secrets of their own. "The book charts the move from a time when secrecy and gayness were closely connected towards one where it's almost the opposite," says Hollinghurst. "There's been a huge change in the concept of personal privacy. The exhibitionistic and probably narcissistic world of Instagram, putting pictures of their own sex life online for anyone to look at. It's an amazing reversal of the canvas of the world of the first part of the book."

The first part of the book takes place at a British university during World War II. The bombing of England, the blitz, is underway, so there are blackouts and the characters are feeling what Hollinghurst describes as "that tremendous aphrodisiac effect of being thrown together in the dark all the time. I'm sure there was an upturn in homosexual activity during that period. As there was in sexual activity in general. Partly because of the pressure of the imminent possibility of being killed.  And that feeling of 'If I don't do it now, I might never do it.'" 

A small circle of friends make the acquaintance of, essentially stalk, a new student who is physically a god and much desired. "I loved writing the first part, it was easiest" says Hollinghurst, and he has created a marvellous depiction of the simmering lust of a boy's school without ever slipping over into parody or porn. "I started out being very explicit which then sort of seemed to be the point," says Hollinghurst. "But as it went on, I wanted to do less and less. Partly because in life you don't really know what happens between other people and that itself is part of the point of the book. Jane Austen didn't have to have all sorts of cocks and tits and things. Of course by agitating the imagination of the reader you can get this sort of collaborative thing. That's one effect of leaving things out, you get them to fill in the gaps. You can have something with that charged erotic feeling without getting explicit. I think I'm more drawn that. And I didn't want to be mealy-mouthed about it. I've always thought that sexual behaviour was a distinct thing to describe. And difficult."

While Hollinghurst is somewhat circumspect, the characters do have a lot of  arousing sex, some furtive and some brazen. There are recurring vivid descriptions of nipples and of how tactile the feel of skin is. "Well I've read some bad porn," says Hollinghurst laughing. "It has a different purpose. I just write about sex as another part of human interaction, of character, of conventions. I always thought it was worthy of detailed description, I haven't lost that feeling. Nonetheless, I seem to be closing the bedroom door more often. Describing the evolving life of the characters doesn't necessarily mean describing an explicit sex scene. Sex which goes wrong or doesn't quite happen is interesting and revealing. And more realistic. There is this pornographic tendency of idealizing which is actually kind of boring."

The themes of darkness and secrecy continue as characters move forward through time and more lusts smoulder and eventually are either satiated or denied. To give away more of the plot would be to destroy the excitement of discovery, of solving the puzzles of just who characters are and how they fit into the narrative. "It would be very boring if you knew everything about a book before you started it," says Hollinghurst. "The rewarding thing for me is to discover as you read. Ideally you wouldn't have a blurb at all. So much of the effect of the book depends on surprises." The surprises in The Sparsholt Affair do create a most addictive structure which parallels the echoing themes and the relentless sense of time moving forward. Visits to a 1940's pub contrast with the discovery of a '70s gay bar and eventually a contemporary sex and drugs-soaked nightclub.

"The excitement of going to an underground place to be together, I think that's nice," says Hollinghurst. "There's something special about any gay space. Pre-1967 it was done in a furtive way, the places couldn't declare themselves. You had to find it. There's still a thrill, it's still a big step. You're declaring who you are and where you're going." Hollinghurst compares it to the big-windowed spaces open to the street that many gay bars have evolved into and wonders if we've lost "the black door. Though there still are lots of black doors, perhaps people prefer it. The mystique of the gay space."

Talking with Hollinghurst and then re-reading The Sparsholt Affair, I affirm just how intricate and clever the novel is. A character declaring that "We'll have to have the lights off" in order to complete their liaison, echoes when a highly visual character is frustrated to have sex in complete darkness. Moments that only registered subliminally on my first read. "I do plan in some detail when I'm first thinking up a book," says Hollinghurst. "I really just collect masses and masses of details which then have to be systemized into something. I don't start writing until I have a sense of the whole thing. The early parts required a lot of detail for the significant events. There are recurring motifs. You hope that the organic imaginative life of the book prompts you with these little connections. Ideally the reader will read it twice to appreciate all the things that are signalled yet don't appear all that significant when they happen."

With any story wherein a character's time frame parallels that of the author, it is hard not to make autobiographical assumptions. "It's hard to say how much of myself I'm putting in," says Hollinghurst. "A certain amount. One is always drawing on memory when writing. Certainly the people, particularly gay people coming from the provinces to London to be in the place where you can lose yourself and hope to find yourself. That trajectory is very familiar." However he points out that main character in the book has a distinct difference: he is dyslexic. Hollinghurst says he did that deliberately as many of his previous characters have been "bookish."

The very title of Hollinghurst's first success, The Swimming Pool Library, is a three-tiered "bookish" metaphor. "You can never recapture the experience of your first book," says Hollinghurst. "I had a full-time job at the time and I got home in the evenings and the weekends and nobody knew anything about it. I did have a feeling that I had a really good idea. It was impossible to predict how it would be received, and there was a lot of nervousness around it at the time. It was impossible to sell the paperback rights before publication. No-one would touch it. I couldn't get an agent because I had nothing yet to sell. That made me very nervous about its prospects. But then it became a bestseller and I had paperback publishers jostling to get the book. I was able to sell the rights for vastly more after."

When I relate how much The Swimming Pool Library meant to me when it came out, Hollinghurst is modest. "I guess it was a turning point," he says. "You have a large general readership reading a book about a gay life from a gay point of view. It was almost exactly 30 years ago and it was a very different world from the one into which this one is emerging." Though Hollinghurst admits he did consciously create a specifically gay novel aimed at the mainstream. "I thought it could change, it could happen in a new way," he says before referencing an influence of a few years earlier. "I think Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story is quite important. It made quite an effect on me. It just wasn't like those coded bummed-up British things, but it was, in my experience, unprecedentedly frank about what the actual experience was. And it was beautifully written, almost too beautifully. And that suggested new possibilities to me. These experiences that had never been written about before in English."

The Sparsholt Affair is an anomaly, a highly literary book that is as absorbing as a beach read. In many ways it is a mystery novel, the solution of which the author guides the reader through but never quite solves. "Literary fiction is rarely going to sell a whole lot unless you win a big prize or something," says Hollinghurst, adding that neither does gay fiction. I point out that gay fiction usually has the advantage of a bare-chested man on the cover to lure the reader to enter within. Hollinghurst considers the rather austere cover of The Sparsholt Affair and admits, "We thought about that but in the end decided not to."


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