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Legacy of the Unspeakable

Man Booker Prize-winning author Alan Hollinghurst appears at the 92nd Street Y on March 29. | ROBERT TAYLOR PHOTOGRAPHY

BY GARY M. KRAMER | Out gay novelist Alan Hollinghurst, who won the 2004 Man Booker Prize for “The Line of Beauty,” will appear at the 92nd Street Y on March 29 at 8 p.m. in support of his new novel, “The Sparsholt Affair.” The book opens in the 1940s at Oxford, where three male students each become enamored with the handsome “new man,” freshman David Sparsholt. As the novel progresses, it jumps through the decades, mostly following David’s gay son, Johnny, who is seen first as an adolescent, then as a young man in 1970s London, and later as a 60-year-old. The novel’s title, which refers to a scandal that unfolds almost entirely off-page, has ramifications for both the decriminalization of homosexuality and Johnny’s place in the world.

Alan Hollinghurst’s latest novel explores echoes and variations across the generations

The author chatted recently via Skype about his new book, his penchant for depicting intergenerational romance, and affairs that he has had.

GARY M. KRAMER: The first part of the book has Freddie, an Oxford student recounting the experiences he observed or heard of regarding David Sparsholt. The rest of the book takes readers in a different direction with Sparsholt’s son, Johnny. Can you talk about why you took this approach to the novel?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: Freddie is an ambiguous character. We only know him from his own account, written 30 years ago. He is creating — as people do when they write memoirs — a fictionalized version of himself. It’s unclear what he feels — chasing after Jill, this unavailable woman—and the goings-on of his queer friends and his intense interest in them.

The first part of the book has clear parallels with a shift in the background with what can be said and accepted. Big historical things are not directly mentioned; the slow social changes brought about by the 1967 decriminalization of homosexuality and the new world of openness of going to gay bars and clubs that were more clandestine and illegal. There is slow emergence into a new life, not a dramatic change. That produces echoes, repetitions, advances, and variations.

Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel is “The Sparsholt Affair.” | KNOPF

GMK: I like how your characters say one thing when they really want or mean the opposite. It’s very much about the manners and mores of the times they live in over the decades.
AH: We are a famously hypocritical and repressed race. I have a large interest in behavior. I reveal, like Henry James, hinting and speculating what lies behind commonplace things people are saying and being constrained by social forms.

A lot of this book is about things that are unspeakable, which is why the sexual event that happens in the first part is not spoken of. I felt I’d treat the scandal in the book in the same way.

GMK: There is much talk about aging and talk about gerontophilia in the book. You often depict themes of aging and intergenerational relationships in your work, going back to your first novel, “The Swimming Pool Library.” Are you considering your own mortality?
AH: No. I’ve written about intergenerational friendships, and I think there are references in that — where gay people in the past have a mentor or someone who inducts them into a world of what in those days was secret behavior. In my earlier novel, “The Spell,” there’s the shy middle-aged man, brought out by a younger man on the scene. The idea that you can learn things from another generation has always interested me. The cross-generation affairs in this book take that further. It’s not something I feel I’ve seen written about. The amorous, erotic feelings of Ivan [in “Sparsholt”] and his fascination with Johnny’s father, who is notorious and famously handsome.

GMK: Family is also a key theme in “The Sparsholt Affair,” with David and Johnny both reinventing their families. Can you explain the father/ son dynamic?
AH: I’ve perhaps not written directly about father/ son relationships before. I’ve done the generational thing of the gay father figure before. It has something to do with growing up a sensitive, passive, observant person, with an insensitive father. There are conflicts with their temperaments, but they are linked by sexuality. The younger generation seized a freedom the older one failed to do. Johnny’s coming out in 1974 London is more difficult because of the stain of the family name. He can’t get away from it. It complicates his own coming out and adds to his self-consciousness.

GMK: There are several affairs in the book: from a seduction and a scandal to a celebratory event and a business transaction. What can you say about an affair you had?
AH: [Laughs]. It wasn’t like any of those. I’ve tended to have affairs with people younger than myself. I didn’t have affairs when I was Johnny’s age. I think that the interest and tensions of cross-generational affairs are deep in me the way the older person is a teacher-enabler to younger one, and the younger one is rejuvenated. That’s something I’ve learned from affairs I’ve had. That and the inevitable tensions when the older man is more settled and the younger is changing and restless.


THE SPARSHOLT AFFAIR | By Alan Hollinghurst | Knopf | $28.95 | 417 pages

ALAN HOLLINGHURST & AMINATTA FORNA | 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave. at 92nd St. | Mar. 29 at 8 p.m. | $22-$28 at 92y.org

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