The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst. Knopf. 452pp, $28.95.
“Almost everyone has an aunt, if you look into it,” Freddie Green says to his friend and classmate Evert Dax at the beginning of Alan Hollinghurst’s latest novel, The Sparsholt Affair. It is not clear that Freddie has an aunt, though she is the ostensible reason he leaves Oxford every few weekends.
Freddie Green’s memoirs, unfinished, are the first section of The Sparsholt Affair, in which we first encounter, in the middle of World War II, an un-self-consciously beautiful David Sparsholt. Green and his friends, with varying levels of homoerotic force, find themselves drawn to Sparsholt. One of Freddie’s friends convinces Sparsholt to sit for a nude sketch, with a repressed smudge left in place of Sparsholt’s genitals.
The next section marks the beginning of a different sort of Sparsholt Affair, set in the 1960s. David Sparsholt’s son, Johnny, yearns for Bastien, a visiting French exchange student. The two boys’ summer adventures—Bastien in search of rare glimpses of breasts, Johnny in search of rare glimpses of Bastien’s erections—lead them to a neighbor’s house as David visits. The blinds close quickly. We discover in the next section that what Johnny and Bastien almost witnessed was later exposed as The Sparsholt Affair, a sex scandal involving David, his neighbor Clifford Haxby, and a Tory parliament member (the very public Affair takes place in 1966, one year before Britain decriminalized homosexuality).
The novel jumps once again, eventually to the present; it remains attached to Johnny, whose social awkwardness is not particularly matched by a rich interiority or imagination. Fortunately for the reader, he is always in the right place to hear gossip about the social milieu he has inherited—a collection of queer men and women who (in pace with British society) accept, first, the polite tolerance of the 1990s and, secondly, the expectations of bland queer domesticity of the 2000s.
What Freddie actually does on those weekends when he ostensibly visits his aunt in the middle of World War II—or what most of the characters in The Sparsholt Affair actually do—is left between the chapters. The titular affair (or at least its most public and scandalous iteration) occurs somewhere between the second and third sections, and Johnny seems to lack any desire to think or speak about it when his last name reveals his scandalous heritage. Instead, Hollinghurst forces us speculate what occurs in the breaks.
Perhaps, more accurately, he urges us to gossip—a fitting invitation for a novel where sex, scandal, success, and sensation never occur in the text. This is a far cry from Hollinghurst’s previous novels, where he successfully managed to combine the close erotic thrill of voyeurism with the aesthetic distance of an art critic. His best works, The Line of Beauty and The Swimming Pool Library, revel in this erotic dreamscape, where even the vicissitudes of HIV, Margaret Thatcher, the end of the British Empire are somehow enfolded into gay desire.
Hollinghurst’s interest in gossip—especially when it missteps and over-speculates—was the primary focus of the more recent The Stranger’s Child, which followed a mediocre love poem between two men at the brink of World War I across the twentieth century. In that novel, the gossips were literary critics eager to read the poem in question as expressing heterosexual desire or homosexual desire, depending less on the poetry itself than on the changing social fads. In this sense, The Stranger’s Child is a lure for readers of The Sparsholt Affair: gossip and speculate all you wish, and revel in what you will never know for sure.
Gossip, speculation, and longing—and the discomfort (and occasional pleasure) of perpetual doubt—are the grounds on which contemporary queer men and women have become used to constructing our genealogies. We possess historical facts enough to fantasize about our “great-grandparents”: the evasive extravagance of Oscar Wilde; the repression with which E.M. Forster asks us to “only connect”; the ambiguity in Djuna Barnes’s famous claim, “I am not a lesbian, I just loved Thelma”; or the half-missing archive of Emma Goldman’s correspondence with women. The following generation of gay men was decimated by a plague, meaning that 30- to 50-year-old gay men will be the first generation to be both openly gay and alive. Even if it is easier now to imagine a queer family of brothers and sisters, it remains much more difficult to imagine a queer lineage. We long for a family tree that never quite appears in full: for queer mothers and fathers that could somehow supplement (or replace) the biological ones whose lives differ so greatly from our own. We construct these families through gossip and speculation, staring at chapter breaks and ellipses until they give us that aunt we might have had. Looking hard enough, we hope, we all might have that aunt.
In the place of hereditary inheritance, Hollinghurst suggests, we might trace our genealogies through poetry and painting, mining them for clues about a queer past whose objects of affection were left un-gendered or prudently smudged. We could thus recuperate a pockmarked queer genealogy from the collective losses of silence and death. The transmission of queerness from one generation to the next looks nothing like its biological counterpart: it clings instead to aunts we look hard enough for, and to all of those whispered-about relatives we never meet. Queerness is not hereditary; it forges its own makeshift generations alongside heterosexual reproduction.
Hollinghurst has always been good at accounting for the generation of men whose homosexuality was never spoken (although it may have been endlessly spoken about). This includes Cecil Valence and George Sawle at the brink of World War I in The Stranger’s Child; Evert Dax and David Sparsholt in World War II in The Sparsholt Affair; and Lord Nantwich and Will Beckwith shortly before the AIDS crisis in The Swimming Pool Library. With the exception of The Line of Beauty, Hollinghurst has been more reticent to write about the generation lost to AIDS, the only biological transmission between gay men (but one that ends lives rather than produces them). It was this plague through which, presumably, characters like Johnny Sparsholt watched helplessly as their friends died around them.
The last section of The Sparsholt Affair, set in the 2010s, is told from the point of view of Johnny’s daughter, and thus offers perhaps the most dismal outlook on the future of queerness. Has Johnny, now an openly gay man, been allowed to live the life that his father lived secretly? Or has the privilege of mainstream gay acceptance reordered the transmission of a queer way of life to more obviously heteronormative configurations? Fortunately, queerness is not hereditary. Though we owe them our persistence to live, the beneficiaries of our contemporary queerness cannot be known to us, even if they are our future nephews and nieces. They will not have to look so hard to discover us, but at a cost: the pleasure of speculation and doubt among the gaps and breaks.
Daniel Elam is an assistant professor of comparative literature at the University of Hong Kong and a Fellow in the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University. He is working on two books: one about revolutionary anticolonialism, and one about his great-uncle.
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