Love through the generations
THE SPARSHOLT AFFAIR By Alan Hollinghurst, Picador, Rs 450
By: Sonia Sahoo|
The regimented monotony of life at wartime Oxford is momentarily broken for a group of undergraduates when the young and charismatic David Sparsholt arrives at Christ Church College for a single term before his inevitable call-up to the RAF. Life suddenly acquires purpose, even beauty, as the nagging futility and anxiety of nightly blackouts, fire-watching routines and military drills are replaced by a new-found interest, if not homoerotic obsession, about the enigmatic Sparsholt. Soon enough, David’s physical appeal and charming nonchalance paves the way for a brief and unlikely tryst with the shy, lonesome and hopelessly besotted Evert Dax. In his sixth and latest offering, The Sparsholt Affair, Alan Hollinghurst, winner of the 2004 Man Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty, carries on the legacy of exploring the narrative of gay experience.
Yet, it is not this covert liaison that the title refers to, although it does impart emotional and narrative cogency to the novel as it spans the lives of three generations between the years 1940 and 2012. Instead, it alludes to the ignominious public scandal that clouds Sparsholt’s later life, the exact details of which are left deliberately vague, guessed only through scattered hints and suggestions — “Money, power… gay shenanigans” — from other characters. More important, occurring just a year before the historic legislative enactment of the Sexual Offences Act (1967) that partially decriminalized same-sex intimacy in England, the fictionalized affair holds in taut balance the divergent histories of homophobic prejudice and its subsequent acceptance through narratives centring on the closeted David and his openly gay son, Johnny. While David is never able to reconcile his social and sexual identity, using the mask of an enforced heteronormativity to avert shame and earn legitimacy, for Johnny the acknowledgment of his alternative sexuality is easier, given the new permissiveness of the experimental 1970s and 1980s.
The greater part of the novel unfolds like a gay bildungsroman that traces with an almost Jamesian precision the trajectory of Johnny’s exploration and affirmation of his homosexuality from an impressionable 14-year-old to a man in his sixties who finds himself at sea in a world of online dating apps, drugs and nightclubs. The process of self-discovery takes place through an intricate web of casual flings and long-lasting relationships — the adolescent fantasy and frustration over Bastien, who no longer responds to his romantic overtures, the frisson of his unrequited longing for Ivan, the brutality of his passion with Colin or the staid stability of midlife with Pat, his long-term live-in and later married partner.
It is sheer chance, if not neat authorial contrivance, that Johnny’s initiation into the mysteries of gay London takes place through his acquaintance with the now middle-aged Evert — although at this point he has no inkling of what had transpired on a fateful autumnal night nearly 30 years ago. The discovery of this well-preserved secret allows him one last opportunity to mitigate the coldness of his relationship with his father, binding them both in an unspeakable similarity as he devises a meeting between David and Evert to give a sense of closure to an alliance that unfortunately never took off. Although the crushing burden of David’s past haunts and thwarts any romantic prospects, yet the quiet mimicking of gay domesticity inherent in the scene not only adds to its pathos but also hints at why this relationship would never have worked.
Hollinghurst interrogates cultural stereotypes and undermines social expectations surrounding traditional family models by revealing fissures both in the heterosexual marital bond and the biological parent-child relationship. Instead, love, emotional belonging, respect for difference, commitment and honesty are qualities that attach to unconventional families of choice, same-sex intimacies or surrogate parenting. The boundaries of family life are revealed to be increasingly fluid, negotiable and provisional, especially in the case of Lucy who is born when Johnny consents to become a donor to a lesbian couple. The latter part of the novel is filtered through the seven-year old Lucy’s perspective. She tries to make sense of her unconventional family and the perplexing world of adult sexuality. She is bewildered by her father’s interest in men and innocently asks if he is ever going to marry her mother? Yet the greatest concession to new social forms and sexual possibilities is reached when the now adult Lucy invites the recently ‘widowered’ Johnny’s Brazilian partner, Zé-José, to her wedding, adding, as if as an approving afterthought, “He’s rather a find.”
Notwithstanding the various shades of gay life, the fictional world presented in the novel is essentially a patriarchal one, centred on the male body and the homoerotic gaze. Female characters, whether straight or otherwise, remain incidental to plot development, appearing and disappearing at convenient points in the narrative. One hopes that Hollinghurst’s later novels will do greater justice to dynamic lesbian characters such as Una and Francesca.