The Sparsholt Affair
1 journaler for this copy...
A wonderful, absorbing novel following the lives of a group of men people – two in particular – who meet at Oxford University during World War Two. Divided into sections with titles based on art the first is a very well done piece, purportedly by Freddie, written for a biography club in post-war London that I’m pretty sure is based on a real-life one. It details the appearance of David Sparsholt, a hearty type with a fiancée, who appears in College and mesmerises all of Freddie’s friends (but not Freddie, of course!). A drawing is made at this point which crops up deliciously time and again in a “Dance to the Music of Time” way (the whole novel reminded me of a compressed Dance”, in fact).
After this section, which is read by some of the characters much later on, we move to spend time with the lovely Johnny, son of David Sparsholt, seen in snapshots, first as a teenager obsessed and annoyed by this French exchange partner on holiday in Cornwall, with here a brilliant description of going sailing with his father, the French boy and an odd friend of his father’s, Cliff:
… a looming sense of all the discipline of sailing, the shouting and blaming cutting through the fun. (p. 102)
We then meet Johnny as an adult, working as an apprentice art restorer and by accident thrown into the household of Evert, friend of Freddie and David; he starts to explore the world of London’s gay clubs and encounters. Another section sees Johnny partly through the eyes of his own daughter, drifting between his household and that of her two mums, a complicated affair for the older generation of their families to understand and explain, if common currency in the world they inhabit.
Because this is basically a history of gay life in Britain from the war, fumbles in the blackout, through wild 70s parties and on to Grinder, selfies and a redeeming International and accepting landscape which is quite moving to read about. Johnny’s a lovely character, shabby and different, persisting in his own channel even though his father’s scandal follows him. We’re not told the details of the scandal, just as Freddie’s extracurricular work during the war is kept hush-hush – some reviewers seem to have disliked this but I enjoyed the ends not being tidied up. Characters come and go, like in “Dance” again and make patterns. It’s carefully crafted and full of echoes across generations, with everyone seemingly obsessed with David Sparsholt. Gay love is told tenderly, elderly gay love even more so, chronicled carefully. But there’s also David’s elderly track through London and the negotiations of valuing a disintegrating art collection (I loved the Barbara Hepworth sculpture which has been restrung).
As an extra touch to this excellent novel, which I didn’t find Murdochian although I read a review before buying it which said it was, Hollinghurst has I believe said he was inspired by Iris Murdoch and he pops in both Johnny’s mum reading “The Red and the Green” and a character called Jack Ducane lightly mentioned. A bonus in an already great read, and I will certainly seek out his other works.
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