I’ve been really looking forward to the publication of this, Hollinghurst’s sixth novel in 29 years. This highly talented British author is one of the few novelists whom I’ve read everything by. I read his debut “The Swimming Pool Library” (1988) not long after it first came out and it is one of my all-time favourites. The standard was every bit maintained for “The Folding Star” (1994) and both of these were my Books of The Year from when I first read them and have been re-read and much enjoyed since. His Booker Award Winning “The Line Of Beauty” (2004) may very well be my favourite Booker winner. This is an author I hold in very high esteem.
But it is not all roses. He has let me down in the past. His third novel “The Spell” was nothing special and his last from five years ago “The Stranger’s Child” was good but didn’t make it onto my end of year Top 10 (and thus ended up at the charity shop). I couldn’t shake off a slight disappointment over it. His characters were strong but largely unlikeable and although I admired the epic sweep of British life from World War I to the present day I felt his “moments in time” structure a little artificial and felt that it led to him not following through with his characters. It was undoubtedly haunting, but I also described it as “mannered and often dry.”
There has been five years between novels and I’ve been certainly eagerly anticipating the latest since the title was being bandied around in notifications of forthcoming releases at the start of the year. I’ve changed a lot in the 29 years I’ve been reading Hollinghurst, but I’m not totally convinced that he has nearly as much. He’s found his groove and has stuck to it. Unfortunately, this means that the criticism that I aired for the last novel largely still applies, but this time more so.
Once again he’s gone for a saga format with two generations of family and friends. We move from Oxford during World War II to present day (ish) London. A group of artistic friends notice another student working out which sparks an interest in him as a potential friend, lover or artist’s model (or some combination of the three). We meet this athletic young man, David Sparsholt, at other times in his and his son’s life.
The most successful section features a tale of unrequited love. David’s teenage son, Johnny, had a fling with Bastien on a trip to France. A year later Bastien is with the Sparsholts in England and Johnny is keen to rekindle things but Bastien’s interest is now firmly in girls. This is handled perfectly. Once again, though, I found it to be too dry and mannered (which the first two novels are definitely not) and that I felt indifferent to many of the characters. I think it’s that they take everything too seriously and there’s no humour in their relationships, which just doesn’t ring true with family and friends, where most of us need the humour to survive! Also, a lot of the action in the lives, including the central “Sparsholt Affair” and most birth, marriages and deaths take place between the sections. This reminded me of a production of “Madame Butterfly” I once saw where much of the action seemed to take place off-stage. It leads to me feeling a bit cheated. On that occasion I threw off Opera as being not for me, but I don’t wish to throw off Alan Hollinghurst, we go back such a long way! I thought his early novels spoke to me directly as a reader in a way few novels of the time did. As we have both got older this no longer seems to be the case. The worlds he depicts, both in the distant and recent past and in the present feels somewhat alien and aloof.
There are memorable sections and it is carefully plotted and so elegantly written and put together but there doesn’t seem to be much development from the last novel and it felt like I’d read it before, which after a five year wait and a nearly thirty years devotion to previous work made me feel somewhat disappointed on this occasion. I’m sure that this is just a rocky patch between us but I hope I don’t have to wait another five years to find out.
The Sparsholt Affair was published in hardback by Picador in October 2017.