Alan Hollinghurst discusses his sixth novel, The Sparsholt Affair, with author Dimitri Nasrallah. The Sparsholt Affair explores the changing attitudes towards homosexuality in England through the lives of two men: David Sparsholt, a teeneager briefly attending Oxford University during WW2, and his openly gay son, Johnny Sparsholt, who comes of age in London just as homosexuality is being decriminalized. Alan Hollinghurst is the author of the novels The Swimming-Pool Library; The Folding Star; The Spell; The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Man Booker Prize and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and The Stranger’s Child. He has also received the Somerset Maugham Award, the E. M. Forster Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. He lives in London. Dimitri Nasrallah is the author of three novels. He was born in Lebanon in 1977, during the civil war, and lived in Kuwait, Greece, and Dubai before moving to Canada in 1988. He’s won Quebec’s McAuslan First Book Prize, the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and was nominated for CBC’s Canada Reads and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and went on to become a critical and commercial success in French. A film adaptation is currently in pre-production. He is currently translating Éric Plamondon’s 1984 Trilogy from French to English. Alan Hollinghurst appeared in conversation with Dimitri Nasrallah on March 23, 2018 at Toronto Reference Library's Appel Salon.
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Book by Alan Hollinghurst
The Sparsholt Affair
The Stranger’s Child
The Swimming-Pool Library
The Line of Beauty
Books by Dimitri Nasrallah
If you like Alan Hollinghurst…
A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
Howards End by E.M. Forster
Live Mic: Best of TPL Conversations features curated discussions and interviews with some of today's best-known and yet-to-be-known writers, thinkers and artists, recorded on stage at one of Toronto Public Library's 100 branches.
Episodes are produced by Natalie Kertes, Jorge Amigo, and Gregory McCormick. Technical support by Michelle De Marco and George Panayotou. AV support by Jennifer Kasper and Mesfin Bayssassew. Marketing support by Tanya Oleksuik.
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Live Mic: Best of TPL Conversations
Alan Hollinghurst: The Sparsholt Affair
Gregory McCormick (GM): Welcome to Live Mic: Best of TPL Conversations, our regular Toronto Public Library podcast series featuring curated discussions and interviews with some of today’s best-known and yet-to-be-known writers, thinkers and artists, recorded on stage at one of Toronto Public Library’s 100 branches.
Dimitri Nasrallah (DN): The best way into this discussion would be the latest book, The Sparsholt Affair, which has been out for six months now. Just coming out in North America. There's, in a way, it continues from where your last novel went... Began aesthetically, in that you're covering a large span of time, where it begins in 1940 in Oxford, carries through to close to the present day. It a has an episodic nature which is quite sweeping within its period pieces and it's held loosely together by the Sparsholts. In your view, as an introduction, who are the Sparsholts?
Alan Hollinghurst (AH): Well, the Sparsholts are a family that nobody else in the book has heard of when it begins. We first meet at Oxford in the autumn of 1940 David Sparsholt, who's 17, very handsome, very athletic, two things which particularly draw him to the attention of a little group of rather bookish public school types. Sparsholt is different from them in various respects. One is that he comes from a working class background in the Midlands, the other that in the strange conditions prevailing in Oxford at the beginning of the war, the others are dreading the fact that... Life in Oxford was very different in this time.
AH: It's not the conventional Oxford picture where you go up for three years of doing almost nothing, and most people who went up knew they were only going to be there for a maximum of one year and then they were going to be called up for military service and most of them, of course, are dreading this imminent thing and the utter uncertainty of the future. But David Sparsholt is someone who, from the first, is very, very keen to get on with it and as soon as he's 18, he's going to... He plans to join the RAF and he plans to have a very good war and to emerge afterwards, get married, set up an engineering company, and I'm not, I think, giving too much away to say that he does all those things. But he's also, I think, from when we first see him as this young man beginning to recognize his own power over other people. He's someone who's also likely to get into a bit of a fix, which he does in the middle of the book.
DN: He's got a bit of a God-like presence for all the other characters at Oxford at that time and, of course, this is happening in 1940 in the midst of World War II. The war is blitzing London at that point and it casts a shadow over Oxford, both figuratively and literally. There's blackouts and the entire scenario is obscured in this light and shade, this wonderful texture, and yet the way these boys operate is also within the shadows as well. It's almost as if they can't get close to David Sparsholt.
AH: Yes, I think that's right. It was a very strange and interesting time, which very little has been written about, actually, of Oxford during this period. Oxford is 50 miles from London, so far enough to be considered safe whilst the Blitz was raging in the capital, and various things were evacuated from London to Oxford, such as various government ministries which requisitioned Oxford colleges. MI5, at this time, split its operations in half into what they called "town and country" and the country element established itself at Blenheim Palace just outside Oxford. These are both things which play a part in the book. The Slade School of Art, which is normally part of University College London, was evacuated to Oxford as well. So you have this rather destabilized situation. Normal functions are changed and, as you say, there is the prevailing blackout from dusk every day when all lights are extinguished, which gives the novelist a marvelous opportunity for all kinds of goings on.
AH: So it is a weird, a very untypical period, but I think one in which sexual feelings, too, are particularly stimulated. There was a fascinating study of this written a few years ago by a wonderful writer called Lara Feigel called The Love-Charm of Bombs, which was about the tremendous affect on the libido of various writers in London during The Blitz and, of course, the fact that this might be the last night of your life. Here you are sheltering from the bombs with some attractive person. Why not? So it's fascinating, the untypical. I loved those, the strange prevailing conditions of this moment in the Oxford story.
DN: And, of course, your novels have been known for their libidinous nature, but this one strikes me as being more about desire and obsession than actually achieving that goal in itself. It seems that you're revelling in those details of wanting and not quite arriving at just yet.
AH: Yeah. I think that's right. The first three sections of this book, which was set in 1940, 1966 and 1974, are all actually narratives of which the main character is yearning for somebody else that they probably can't have but just might. So there's that element of, I agree, not of sort of ready consummation but of life being infused with this sense of dissatisfied yearning.
DN: During the first part of the book, one assumes that the central protagonist is going to be David Sparsholt but in the end, it's his son, Johnny, that ends up guiding us through the remainder of the book. He's not much like his dad. Apart from also being gay, he's definitely not as God-like and his presence doesn't centre a room. He's more comfortable in the shadows.
AH: I think that's right. Yes. They're very different characters. David marries a very nice woman who reads a lot, called Connie. David himself doesn't read. He says he hasn't got time for books and, in both the literal and the figurative senses. And I think he himself suggests that it's from his mother that Johnny gets his sensitive and artistic side. Johnny himself is not a reader. He's dyslexic and, in fact, when we first see him, he's doing the thing which will sort of define him professionally, he's... As a 14-year-old boy who's drawing pictures of the people around him and he's someone who, unlike most of my protagonists, doesn't approach the world through words and literature. In fact, he actually says very little in the whole book. But he's constantly observing and I think that's his way of sort of controlling experience and expressing something essential about himself.
AH: And this is very, very unlike his father and there's very little sympathy between them. I think Johnny as a boy is overawed by his father and he knows... There's a scene where he's on the sly when they're all watching television, Johnny is drawing his father in profile and realizing for the first time something strange about portraiture, that you've got to not only show what the person looks like but who they are. And his sense of who his father is is something rather overwhelming to him. But David is an almost aggressively, a sort of active and determined, a rather hard person, I think, and someone who finds it very difficult to admit the claims and the sort of softer claims of the affections and so forth.
DN: Sons who are overshadowed by their fathers are littered across this book. We have AV Dax and his son Evert, who have a very similar dynamic as well. Is there something to this dynamic of older generations casting a shadow over the next generations in line or is it simply generations diminishing across the course of time?
AH: Well, it is a generational thing and there is obviously that parallel, yes. That Evert Dax, the son of one of these students observing David Sparsholt at the beginning of the book, and he's going to be very... Sparsholt's going to play a rather significant part in his life. His father is AV Dax, this formidable, almost unreadable novelist who is invited to come down and read to this literary club of the students. Someone who is so wrapped up in his work and so... Well, I suppose, so profoundly self-important that he really has very little time for his own family life. And later on in the book, Evert finds himself landed with the task of trying to write a biography of his father, discovering all sorts of things about him. There's a lot of uncovering of long ago secrets in this book. He has the task, a rather unwelcome one to him, of finding out about his father's own outrageously libidinous life. But also by that time, AV Dax has... He's fallen completely out of favor, so he's doing this strange thing of trying to resurrect this writer whom nobody now reads and he finds this a great burden.
AH: And he's always been a rather fluent writer before but he feels... He says he feels unmanned by his own father, even from beyond the grave. So, yes, the idea of David Sparsholt, we'll get into some very prominent trouble which will have its impact on young Johnny's life and Evert. They're both people who are, I suppose, struggling with the effect of difficult, prominent fathers.
DN: I'm glad you brought up the actual Sparsholt Affair that grants us the title, because it's not something that actually transpires in the book so much as we feel its after-effects, much like the Blitz on London or the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. All of these are major events of the times that we only really see the consequences of along the outer orbits of society. And it seems to me it's a parallel almost for the father and son relations, in that we only see the diminishing returns of what these great consequences have led to.
AH: Yes, I suppose that's right. I think I feel increasingly interested on avoiding the big, glaringly obvious topics. The Stranger's Child, my previous book, which was sort of a book about the First World War but it doesn't actually have the First World War in it. And I depict a group of people just before it happens and then we rejoin those who've survived afterwards and see what's happened to them in the interim. Quite a lot, as it happens. And in this book, too, there are these similar ellipses where things that are going to have great impact on the story are only registered, as you say, at a distance, as if by a diminishing echo. And I think actually I've always been interested in really, essentially, in writing about the private life, intimate relations between people and, indeed, about people often seen by themselves. And not about, not directly about large societal questions, but of course they inform the book quite profoundly, these things which are going on in the gaps or in the background.
DN: I mentioned at the beginning that you were born in Stroud, which is about 90 minutes from Oxford and you spent most of the 70s in...
AH: Amazing the research you've done for this.
DN: It doesn't take much these days. You're quite the researcher yourself. Speaking of research, though, you lived above a bank. And I found this wonderful quote from you. "I spent the first eight years of my life living in a house above a bank and playing in the bank after everyone had gone home." It seems like such a lovely yet isolating quote. What was your childhood like?
AH: Well, the first eight years of my life, yes, were spent in a little town called Faringdon in Berkshire. My father was the manager of Lloyds Bank and we lived in the house, as I said, above the bank. I'm an only child, and it was rather nice having all... I called them my aunties and uncles, the people who worked at the bank. And I would go down... Actually I would go down when the bank was open and play around, and rather get in the way. But after they'd gone home I could sit at the cashiers' stations and the money, sadly, was all locked away at night. [chuckle] But when I was writing The Stranger's Child, there's a section of it in which there's a young man in the mid 60s who's a bank clerk. And the whole thing came back to me and I remembered the little wooden bowls with the paper clips and the rubber little thumb stalls that people used for counting money. And so it was all there. My father was very much a farming banker, and it was a very agricultural area. And so I grew up in the... Really in the countryside. Which is something I haven't written about so much because I was so magnetized as a result, towards London in particular, which I think I've written about a lot.
DN: Were you the type of only child who is happy to be... Run off in his imagination?
AH: I think I did live a lot in my imagination. All children do, but it probably gave me a degree of self-sufficiency, I think. The story-making habit probably started in me quite early. And I'm someone who's always... I love company and I love my friends and so on, but I've always been quite happy being by myself, which is a good thing for a writer.
DN: When did you discover your love of literature?
AH: Well, there's the love of reading it or writing it, I...
DN: Yeah, well let’s start with reading.
AH: Reading it, I can remember surprisingly simultaneous passions for PG Wodehouse and Tolkien when I was about 12 or 13. And funny, Wodehouse, I think, was a marvelous writer, and one I've continued to love. Tolkien, I now find... I mean, I read the Lord of the Rings six times in succession. I just couldn't read anything else. I wrote my friends letters in dwarfish runes and things like that. I was completely... I had a map of Middle Earth above my desk in my school cubicle and I was obsessed by it. But now I find him totally unreadable, and of course, the exact opposite of Wodehouse and being utterly humourless. [chuckle] And they're both, actually, very sort of sexless writers, funnily enough. So I was perhaps trying to remedy that when I came to write novels myself. I think I started writing poetry about, the age of about 14 or so. My early efforts were sort of Wordsworthian sonnet sequences. Then we were introduced to TS Eliot, and The Wasteland, and I then... There was quite a lot of kudos at my school attached to writing poetry. And I realized there'd be even more kudos in writing incomprehensible poetry. So I wrote very experimental, modernist poems at the age of about 16, with alarming abundance. And I carried on writing poems, really, I suppose through to when I was about 30, then I signed a contract for a book of poems with Faber & Faber, of which I had written about half. And from the day I signed the contract, I've never written another poem.
DN: Quit while you're ahead. [laughter] So was it in Oxford that you began to discover the novels of Ronald Firbank and EM Forster? These novelists, who almost seem like a precursor to your own writing.
AH: Well, I got very interested in this... I came out in my last year at Oxford, and so this was 1974, so actually the time that the middle section of this book is set. And I suppose I was looking around for a gay literature, which didn't seem to exist. And there were dubious bits of antique pornography which you could access under very special supervision in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. They had the Greek letter Phi was the special marking for [chuckle] dirty books, which is obviously a joke on "fie on you" for wanting to look at it. And you could only read them at a special desk just under, immediately under the desk of the librarian. So you had to keep your hands on the desk. [laughter] There wasn't much going on. Of course, I'd... There were people like, a writer almost forgotten I think now, Angus Wilson, who was one of the first British novelists to introduce gay characters as just ordinary people getting on with their lives, rather than as agonized martyrs or victims. But there wasn't much.
AH: And I got very interested in this subject, which couldn't really be much talked about, and certainly not for living writers before 1967 and the Sexual Offences Act. And one of them... I wrote about in a graduate thesis, about writers like Forster and Ronald Firbank, who hadn't been able to write openly about their sexuality, but had found other ways of expressing it, and had written rather original novels as a result of this serious constraint. If a heterosexual writer had been living under a prohibition of writing about their own sexuality, it would be a quite extraordinary thing. So, I got into all that at that time, and Forster had died in 1970, but no one in his lifetime and he not in those three last years of his life had ever said publicly that he was gay. Which is something now so essential to our sense of him as a writer. So in those years, there was a very interesting emergence of this subject, and sometimes some rather over-excited outing of writers who were... Like Henry James, who was such a sort of fascinatingly ambiguous case and someone we'll never quite know the truth of, but it was a very interesting period. And so, what I was doing sounds rather obvious now, but in the mid 70s it wasn't, it was something that hadn't been... Hadn't really been looked at.
DN: Would it be fair to say that when in 1982, you moved to London, it catapulted the trajectory of your mission or your vision for what you wanted to do forward, both in your personal life and in writing?
AH: That sounds a grandiose [chuckle] way of putting it. My mission really was to get a job, I think. And yes, London seemed almost physically to represent new possibilities. I think I'd hung around in Oxford for far too long. And I had a very excited and strong sense that from now on I was going to be a Londoner, and I think it probably quite quickly suggested itself as a subject to me. And I think I must've been thinking by that time about a novel, and I'd started and abandoned several novels, but about the novel which would become my first published novel, The Swimming Pool Library, which sort of grew out of that thesis idea about repression, and it juxtaposes the story of a young man living a sort of hedonistic, and a beautiful young man living very heedlessly in the early 1980s, and the story of a much older man, a man in his 80s, whose journals he reads and which offer him some kind of education in the history of his kind in the earlier parts of the century. And there's so much, I suspect, about my own excited discovery and exploration of London in that period in that book.
DN: What was the gay community like in London in the early 80s, mid 80s under Thatcher? We have the onslaught of the AIDS crisis coming up soon. Can you recall something of the aura of the community?
AH: Yes. It was very different from now. And I can remember making my first petrified sorties into gay bars and clubs. Things changed enormously when AIDS happened. It was an extraordinary thing about writing that novel, which was determinedly a book about gay life. I started writing it at the beginning of 1984, which was the year and at the end of that year a very close friend of mine died very quickly and horrendously, and was actually one of the first people evidently to die of AIDS in Britain and suddenly the whole thing was upon us, and the world that I was writing about in this book was being changed in this very serious way. And I think the whole... The sort of culture did change and it was very difficult. It was a difficult time, there was a famous sort of anti-gay backlash took place, on top of the terrible trauma that people were going through anyway because of the disease. So, an element of defiance probably emerged out of that as well, and I think it politicized gay life in England probably in a new way. And certainly I felt when I did come to publish that book in 1988, that it was all the more important to be upfront and defiant about the whole gay question and not to slink into some apologetic sort of posture.
AH: It was a very strange moment, and the Thatcher government had introduced this new local government bill at the beginning of 1988, which had a clause which forbade local government from spending money on anything which in the wording of the bill "promoted homosexuality," as if you had a really successful advertising campaign run by Saatchi and Saatchi or something, it would really catch on and everybody would become gay. And my book, which came out in the spring of that year, was held up as an example of something which perhaps a public library would be prosecuted if it stocked... And whether The Swimming Pool Library actually promoted homosexuality, I wouldn't want to say. Anyway, the wording of the clause was so absurd that no prosecutions were ever brought under it. But it was typical of that strangely reaction removed at the time, I think, in public life.
DN: It must have felt quite different coming out in this very public forum in this day and age. It's one thing to come out to people around you, it's another thing to publish a book that puts you on the map as speaking to this subject. Were there any doubts along the way about wanting to be such a public representation?
AH:I never thought of myself at all as a representative, and I rather... I've never liked or felt comfortable taking public positions about things, which doesn't mean that I don't support any initiatives and movements. And I have a slightly guilty sense of riding on the more courageous and hard-working efforts of others. I was conscious of it as a potential threat to my own peculiar freedom as a writer. And I think after The Swimming Pool Library came out, the AIDS crisis was raging. I picked up a sense that it would be the thing to do, to write an AIDS novel at that time, which I didn't do, because I... Partly, I resisted having this story given to me, partly because my books sort of come to me from somewhere, but not from that sort of suggestion, but they sort of accrue in a mysterious way which wasn't that. And partly feeling that I didn't want to be a... I didn't want the responsibilities of a chronicler of something, I think.
AH: People have sometimes talked about my books as being chronicles of gay life, which to me, suggests something more systematic and responsible. I feel I've sort of dipped in, rather like the diaries of the old man in The Swimming Pool Library. I kept dipping into episodes of gay history, but never with any sense of an overall structure to it. As we were saying at the beginning, what I'm really interested in is writing about the private lives of often rather untypical, unexemplary, peculiar characters. So I've shunned any kind of platform role, I think.
DN: Even though it's been propelled on to you, The Swimming Pool Library took some risks to get published. But after its publication, it was a quite a big book, and your career just grew to another level at that point. How did it feel to win an award for that book for the first time?
AH: I was pleased.
DN: Was it validation?
AH: I suppose it was. Yes. An award of any kind feels like a validation. Apart from our famous British or the Bad Sex Award, which I always nervously scan the shortlist of, but, yes, there was some trepidation about the book. I knew that I had done what I wanted to do, and I was relatively confident of it in itself. But in the publishing world, there was a lot of anxiety about it. But then, as you say, it was a great... It immediately became a bestseller and I had a gratifying auction for the paperback rights and so on. I think that gave me a lot more confidence in it, and probably allayed, not only some of my anxieties about appearing in this dramatic way, but those of people around me, such as my parents, who were... I think were obviously rather startled by this exceptionally candid book about something we never really talked about. But when they saw everybody was saying, that it was marvelous, and it was winning prizes and so on, they said, "Oh, perhaps it's okay."
DN: It would be remiss not to ask about winning the Booker 20 years after you began writing. How did that moment change your life?
AH: Well, I think entirely sort of benignly, really. It was an incredibly nice thing to happen. And it is a very transforming thing. My third book, The Spell, had been my least successful critically and commercially and the graph, generally, was almost sort of downwards. I'd had some trouble in selling The Line of Beauty originally. And it was very, very difficult publishing it and in America it was turned down by pretty well every publisher in New York. So it was terrific when it had that success. And, of course, it does bring you... Other people pay far more attention to the Booker Prize than I do. It carries a sort of weight all over the world and actually carried a big weight in America. I think it had a mystique, because of Americans not being eligible for it, which it's now rather lost. So people who have never heard of you before will now be reading your book, and if they like it, even read the next one. And so you make a lot more money, which is pleasing. I traveled, hadn't before, probably for two years, just talking about the book until I just could not bear the mention of its name. And I felt the whole lovely thing was, in the end, just keeping me from writing another book, so I just had to... I think I actually cancelled a tour that I'd promised to do. I said I cannot speak about this book again. And I wanted to go home and write another book.
DN: Is it fair to say that we can draw a line in the sand between the first four books which you've discussed as being kind of a tetra-cycle, a quartet of ideas that you'd largely finished with after that point? And beginning with The Stranger's Child and following through to The Sparsholt Affair were in another territory for you?
AH: Yes, that's an over-simplification, but I did... It's a very interesting question of how writers themselves see their work as it accumulates. It's something which I think is very rarely talked about, but I had a feeling of... Not that the books had any real coherence as a quartet, and they weren't designed as a quartet of books, but I've... My own private way of looking at them was as the movements of a symphony. There was the first movement, which was a sort of sonata movement with two stories, separate themes reaching a resolution. The Folding Star was a kind of a long, rather introverted slow movement, and The Spell was a lighthearted scherzo. And then, in The Line of Beauty, I went back to... The Line of Beauty actually sort of starts on the day that The Swimming Pool Library ends, but carries on that story through the later 80s which I hadn't told before.
AH: And yeah, that seemed... That revisiting of the 80s and tying up of that huge bit of unfinished business, with AIDS and everything, seemed to me to be a sort of a termination. And certainly, the two books I've written since then have had very different structures from those books, and I got much more interested in sort of ventilating the whole thing and writing books in a more fragmentary way, getting away from a more massive sense of resolution or closure in a book and opening the whole thing up into a sense of uncertainty and actually a whole lot of important things in the narrative never being explained. I think it's a desire to make the novel itself more like the experience of life and less like the experience of a novel.
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Live Mic: Best of TPL Conversations is produced by the Toronto Public Library. Episodes are produced by Natalie Kertes, Jorge Amigo, and me, Gregory McCormick. Technical support by Michelle De Marco and George Panayotou. AV support by Jennifer Kasper and Mesfin Bayssassew. And marketing support by Tanya Oleksuik.
Music is by Worst Pop Band Ever also known as WPBE.
I’m Gregory McCormick, Manager of Cultural and Special Event Programming at Toronto Public Library. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for another episode of Live Mic: Best of TPL Conversations.