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'The Sparsholt Affair' Confirms Alan Hollinghurst's Status As A Literary Master


This is FRESH AIR. Our critic at large John Powers has a review of a new book by one of his favorite authors - the Booker Prize-winning English writer Alan Hollinghurst. It's called "The Sparsholt Affair." And it centers on how the laws of social propriety shape the destinies of a father and son, spanning the decades from the 1940s until now.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: When it comes to writers, I'm a bit of a cad. After a few books, I tend to move on even when I've enjoyed them. Still, I do remain loyal to a handful of writers whose work always excites me. One of them is Alan Hollinghurst. Ever since his 1988 debut, "The Swimming Pool Library," this gifted English novelist has been an unsurpassed chronicler of worldly gay lives. Yet to label him a great gay writer is diminishing, like calling Philip Roth a great Jewish writer or Toni Morrison a great African-American woman writer. As with them, his talent is so big it explodes the category. While gay life is his terrain, Hollinghurst uses it to investigate all manner of things - art, money, social class, the perils of family, the weight of history and the way sexual desire overrides them all - in the moment, anyway.

He explores all these themes in his new novel "The Sparsholt Affair," only his sixth in the last 30 years. Broken into five interlocked sections, this domestic epic leapfrogs across seven decades, from a luminous evocation of World War II Oxford during the blackout to today's diode-lit world in which hookups are arranged via apps. The first part puts us in Oxford, where a straight writer, Freddie Green, comes across a handsome fellow student, David Sparsholt, whose hunkiness draws the attention of Freddie's gay friends who are eager to bed him, despite the fact that he has a fiance. But could the laconic, bottled-up Sparsholt actually be interested in men but unwilling to admit it? By the second part, it's 20 years on. And David is a married manufacturer with a tween son, Johnny, who turns out to be the main character.

This we discover in part three, when Johnny, an aspiring artist who's gay, comes to '70s London and gets to know his father's old Oxford friends. Diffident and good looking, he must live under the shadow of what's known as the Sparsholt affair, a famous sex scandal involving his father that broke when Johnny was a teen. As we hop to the '90s and then onto the present decade, Johnny goes from being a young guy chewing over his dreams to a venerable figure able to lead a life freer than his father ever could've dreamt. Hollinghurst's literary hero Henry James once said that a writer must be one on whom nothing is lost, a phrase that hints at what makes Hollinghurst so extraordinary.

He's simply brilliant at capturing the nuance textures of life - everything from the enveloping hues of moonlight and the exact sounds of the street - like the great sneeze, as he calls it, of a truck braking to the insecurities, resentments and lusts that race through the guests at a party. "The Sparsholt Affair" is filled with scenes that let us feel what it is to stand atop a tower, watching for German bombers, bid at your first auction or paint a portrait of an entitled rich family you just can't stand.

Hollinghurst began writing when gayness was more marginalized and riskier than it is today. As he championed gay identity and desire, his early work was notorious for unblinkingly explicit sexual descriptions that, among other things, seemed to announce, this is what we do, and we like it. There's little such explicitness at any level of "The Sparsholt Affair," which, like his previous novel, "The Stranger's Child," often turns on things that aren't being said or shown. Most obviously - how Johnny's dad became tabloid fodder, the episode that most writers would spend the whole book detailing. Such deliberate obliqueness makes the novel fascinating. Yet at the risk of slowing its sales, I'd suggest that if you've never read any Hollinghurst, you're probably better off starting with "The Line Of Beauty," his tremendous Booker Prize-winning novel that's the great fictional portrait of the Thatcher era, or "The Swimming Pool Library," whose audacity makes the naughtiness of Martin Amis feel pallid.

Those books crackle with the rebellious energy that, here, has been harnessed to the more refined ends of a literary master, a master who, in his mid-60s, clearly hears the whispers of his own mortality. Jean-Paul Sartre once claimed that the greatest art is about the passing of time. And whether Hollinghurst is showing the decades-long erosion of repressive values or the flowering and slow fading of his characters, this magisterial novel offers evidence that Sartre was right.

GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "The Sparsholt Affair" by Alan Hollinghurst. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guests will be investigative journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn, the authors of the new book "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump." They've both broken key stories about ties between Donald Trump, his campaign and Russia. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN TENTET'S "LORO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.
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