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.