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The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

The Sparsholt Affair

by Alan Hollinghurst

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The main reason why I chose this novel was because it promised to take a long view of LGBTQ life in England from the war years through today. With the exception of those war years, it's a time I lived through, and as a long-time ally, as well as someone on the queer spectrum as an Ace, I'm fascinated by accounts of the changes in society and how they affected the gay community. And The Sparsholt Affair does work as that kind of history.

It begins with a time when homosexuality was illegal, but in some quarters more tolerated. The narrative begins with a diary kept by Freddy Gray and focusing on a young man who has come down to Oxford to study while waiting to be called up. The young man is David Sparsholt, and he is rather godlike to many of the other undergrads. He's tall, muscular, and handsome, and several of the young men and women in Freddy's circle court him. Peter Coyle draws him, Evert Dax falls in love with him. And Freddy is fascinated.

The story moves to the sixties, to David, his wife, and his son Johnny, who is smitten with a young French boy one summer. Though there is some reciprocity on Sebastian's part, it's pretty clear it's just that he's an-any-port-in-the-storm type and prefers girls. But the disappointment of Johnny's summer is nothing to the scandal that breaks around David who is caught in the act with two other men, one an MP. We learn, as the novel progresses that David spent 5 years in prison for this.

Flash forward and Johnny is now living in London and working as an art restorer as he works toward becoming a portrait painter. He's taken up by the people who orbit Evert Dax (including Freddy), falls in lust with Ivan, who prefers old men, engages in sex with strangers in lavatories, and tries not to think about his father's fall from grace.

Johnny is the central character of the novel, but I think it's safe to say that David is the heart of it. He is the person who connects all of these other characters in one way or another. His is the story that keeps being relevant to everything that happens in the book, and in society. In each era, in every even that Johnny participates in, we understand that what happened to David was part of why Johnny can live the life he does.

We understand that David not being able to express his sexuality, whether gay or bisexual, is certainly part of what informed the gay culture of anonymous sex. When you refuse to accept and validate who people are, you force them into niches where they can be themselves, but outside of accepted social channels.

But the book works just as well on a more personal level when we come to understand how little we can ever know another human being. It doesn't matter if it's a partner, a child, a sibling... we are simply not capable of knowing them fully. And by pairing Johnny's experience of his father's death, with his interactions with his daughter, Lucy, before her wedding, we understand that all we can truly hope for is time to come to know them better, and the will to listen, to pay attention to who they are, and love them for it. ( )
  Tracy_Rowan | Aug 9, 2018 |
I aborted into the 3rd timeframe. I don´t remember reading anything so ponderously pretentious that hadn´t been written before 1938. For the record, I wanted to like this, but in the end I decided that lide was really too short. ( )
  thiscatsabroad | Aug 4, 2018 |
This is the 3rd book I have read by Alan Hollinghurst and "The Line of Beauty" is the best and one that I recommend to anyone who has not read him. This book has his trademark excellent prose and description. He is a master of description and getting into the subtle nuances of any social situation. This book covers over 70 years and deals with characters that are mostly gale and mostly male. You see the changes over the years towards gay life and also the English social class issues. I did find it surprising that a book that had sexual desire as a major theme did not address the HIV/Aids situation. I found that at 417 pages that a book without a compelling plot tended to be a slow go. If you like great prose, then you may like it but I recommend "The Line of Beauty" as your introduction to Hollinghurst. ( )
  nivramkoorb | Jun 19, 2018 |
I groaned when I found out this was yet another story about posh gay men at Oxford... so imagine my surprise when that was the best bit! The character we end up spending the most time with is nowhere near as fun as those from the start, and the titular Sparsholt seems to undergo a.complete personality transplant between each section. Very disappointing! ( )
  alexrichman | May 27, 2018 |
Hollinghurst has a way of engaging the reader with the soft and low-key or in other subtle and intangible ways. This book especially glories in what is left unsaid. And in what seems to be a pulse in the author's peculiar ever-present-ism - perhaps with an aura of glowing emotion. Some of it flares with understated brilliance. Great story. And fascinating - like a bejeweled jigsaw puzzle the reader puts together as he reads. Rather an exploration of the many stages of what it means to be gay. "She sells completely useless items that she calls Essentials. Rather a clever idea - I believe she's doing very well." ( )
  dbsovereign | Apr 21, 2018 |
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The evening when we first heard Sparsholt’s name seems the best place to start this little memoir.
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In 1940, Evert Dax and David Sparsholt, two young men from very different backgrounds, meet at Oxford University. Dax is a second year student reading English, coming from a rackety upper middle class background; Sparsholt is from a humbler Midlands community and is reading engineering, a young man whose good looks and fine figure have proved highly attractive to his peers.

This time is a unique one in the history of the university: with military call-up at twenty, soon brought forward to nineteen, almost all students come up to Oxford knowing that they will only have a year or so of study. A sense of futility is mixed with one of recklessness. All life after dusk is lived under black-out, encouraging and covering what would normally be impossible liaisons. What happens to these two men in this year will affect many lives and will set in motion the mystery at the heart of The Sparsholt Affair.

Alan Hollinghurst's masterly novel takes us through several generations and across key periods of uncertainty and change in British society. From the darkest days of the Second World War, it moves to the changing world of the a socially and sexually liberated London of the 1960s, before landing in the mid-1970s, with the three-day week, fuel shortages and power cuts. The reverberations continue through the next generation in the 1990s before reaching a conclusion in the present decade, a world of new media and new ideas.

Throughout the novel there is also an examination of the visual and aesthetic, looking at what it is to be Modern, through modernist architecture and abstract painting: we witness buildings being destroyed and replaced; we watch works of art go in and out of fashion.

Featuring a remarkable cast of characters, The Sparsholt Affair is both thought-provoking and highly entertaining, a novel in which children are connected by the acts of their parents and individuals are both damaged and saved by the changing attitudes to sexuality, privacy and intimacy. [Amazon.co.uk]
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"A multi-generational story of fathers and sons during the second half of the twentieth century in England"--

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