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The Sparsholt Affair
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Moderator's Choice > The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst (June 2018)

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Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
Our moderator's choice read for June is The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst. The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Here is part of the Goodreads blurb:

In 1940, Evert Dax and David Sparsholt, two young men from very different backgrounds, meet at Oxford University. Dax is a second year student reading English, coming from a rackety upper middle class background; Sparsholt is from a humbler Midlands community and is reading engineering, a young man whose good looks and fine figure have proved highly attractive to his peers.

This time is a unique one in the history of the university: with military call-up at twenty, soon brought forward to nineteen, almost all students come up to Oxford knowing that they will only have a year or so of study. A sense of futility is mixed with one of recklessness. All life after dusk is lived under black-out, encouraging and covering what would normally be impossible liaisons. What happens to these two men in this year will affect many lives and will set in motion the mystery at the heart of The Sparsholt Affair.

Alan Hollinghurst's masterly novel takes us through several generations and across key periods of uncertainty and change in British society.


message 2: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val | 1709 comments I read it earlier this year, but shall probably read it again. (I will remember to avoid spoilers in the comments.)
The early part of the book, set at Oxford, is particularly good.


Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
I've just started and am enjoying the Oxford part - Hollinghurst's writing style is wonderful. Glad to hear you enjoyed it, Val.


message 4: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val | 1709 comments He is one of my all-time favourite authors and The Line of Beauty my favourite Booker winner. This one is closer to The Stranger's Child in its structure, but I would have awarded the Booker to that one as well.


Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
I loved The Line of Beauty, but haven’t read any more by him - glad to be reading this one.


Nigeyb | 10371 comments Mod
I will not be able to get to this for a week or so however am really looking forward to reading and discussing it with you all.


Susan | 10625 comments Mod
The beginning of this novel was, to me, very reminiscent of Waugh - almost a tribute. There are five parts, I think, in the novel as a whole and some parts are better than others. However, I would agree that this is an excellent novel overall. I listened to it on Audible and really enjoyed it.


Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
I've now finished the opening Oxford section, which is very good. I'm interested in your Waugh comparison, Susan - this hadn't struck me, but I can see the similarities.

I found myself thinking more of The Great Gatsby, because of the way that narrator Freddie is slightly in the background and taking so much interest in everybody else's lives around him, like Nick. I find Freddie slightly creepy though because of his intense interest in others.

The move to the second part is a bit abrupt, but I'm hoping to find it just as compelling.


message 9: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val | 1709 comments Hollinghurst has put a few literary homages in other books, so I am guessing the similarities to 'Brideshead Revisited' in the Oxford section are intentional. I didn't think of 'The Great Gatsby' comparison, but the narrator slightly in the background is used in quite a lot of first-person accounts.


message 10: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
That's interesting about the literary homages. I was particularly thinking of the way his own love life is in the background, like Nick and Jordan in Gatsby.


Nigeyb | 10371 comments Mod
The way you describe it Judy also sounds like it could echo Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time narrator Nick Jenkins who is a very opaque individual


message 12: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val | 1709 comments Nigeyb wrote: "The way you describe it Judy also sounds like it could echo Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time narrator Nick Jenkins who is a very opaque individual"
That was the one I did think of Nigey.


Nigeyb | 10371 comments Mod
Great minds Val. I can't wait to get started on this book. Hopefully in about a week.


Susan | 10625 comments Mod
I wonder how many other Hollinghurst novels any of us have read? I know Val is a fan, but I have only ever read The Stranger's Child. I did find similarities between that and the Sparsholt Affair. Would anyone say this novel is typical of his writing, or is it a coincidence that the two novels I have read share similar themes?


message 15: by Hugh (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 751 comments I have a copy and will try and squeeze it in later in the month but I can't make any promises. The only Hollinghurst I have read is The Line of Beauty which was very enjoyable.


message 16: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
I’m into the third section now, in the 70s, and am enjoying that but still missing Freddie’s voice in the first part.


Susan | 10625 comments Mod
I will be really interested to start discussing this, so will be interested to know who has finished the book.


Nigeyb | 10371 comments Mod
I hope to start it in a few days. Just finishing up the huge D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor. I'm closing in on the finished. The Sparsholt Affair will follow straight on.


Pamela (bibliohound) | 534 comments Have ordered it from the library but it is not due to come in till the 29th, so I will be a bit late reading this one.


Susan | 10625 comments Mod
I hope you both enjoy it. It has definitely left me wanting to read more by Hollinghurst. I have read The Stranger's Child. What else would anyone recommend?


message 21: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val | 1709 comments The Line of Beauty, definitely.
You might then want to try his earlier ones, but that one is outstanding.


Susan | 10625 comments Mod
That was the Booker winner, wasn't it, Val? Duly downloaded, many thanks.


message 23: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
I’m into the ‘Losses’ section now and am a bit disappointed- although it is good, for me it hasn’t lived up to the opening section. It all
feels rather bitty and has a lot of similar characters


Susan | 10625 comments Mod
I saw it takes place in Thatcher's Britain, so would have been great for our 1980's theme.


message 25: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
I liked The Line of Beauty a lot more.


Susan | 10625 comments Mod
Good to hear, Judy.


message 27: by Val (last edited Jun 10, 2018 03:20AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val | 1709 comments Susan wrote: "I saw it takes place in Thatcher's Britain, so would have been great for our 1980's theme."
It is about Thatcher's Britain and I was going to nominate it, but we already had this one lined up instead.


Susan | 10625 comments Mod
Ah, OK. Definitely looks good, Val.


Nigeyb | 10371 comments Mod
I should start this later today


message 30: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
An interesting moment was the mention of an obituary of a gay man saying just, "He never married," despite a long partnership. I remember reading obituaries like this in the past.

Ludicrously, there was an obituary of author Angus Wilson which used this wording, despite the fact that he lived with his partner Tony for more than 40 years and introduced him as his husband. They even made a TV programme about their relationship, so it was hardly secret!


message 31: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val | 1709 comments That was the situation for lot of gay people, they lived with their partners openly so that their friends and acquaintances all knew, but did not feel that the general population needed to know as well.


message 32: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1290 comments Here they would frequently say that he was a "confirmed bachelor". I had a neighbor who was known as this when I was growing up. Years later I learned that his partner also had an apartment in our large apartment building - separate entrances.


message 33: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
I have finished this now and thought it strengthens again at the end - beautiful writing although for me it sags in the middle at times


message 34: by Nigeyb (last edited Jun 11, 2018 03:18AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nigeyb | 10371 comments Mod
Thanks Judy - that's good to know


I've just started and am really enjoying it so far.

Freddie Green really echoes Nick Jenkins (the narrator of A Dance To The Music of Time).

This Oxford section also reminds me of Waugh

I like how Sparsholt appears to be completely at odds, character-wise, with Freddie's set. Keen to get into the RAF and studying engineering.

Still, early days


Nigeyb | 10371 comments Mod
So who do we think Victor Dax is based on?


Victor Dax being Evert Dax’s father. We know he's an “unshakably serious” writer, admired without being enjoyed.

I chuckled at Freddie Green's comment, upon Dax's latest novel....

"....it was unshakeably serious, and I like my prose to have at least a glimmer of humour"

I couldn't agree more Freddie.


Nigeyb | 10371 comments Mod
This is the first book I have read by Hollinghurst, however I'm guessing, based on having read reviews, that the assured writing, the sense of time and place, and the fascination with human desire, are all regular features. Or are they?

To what extent would you say that The Sparsholt Affair is a typical Alan Hollinghurst book?


message 37: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
Can't say anything about how typical this is as I've only previously read The Line of Beauty, but it did have all those elements.


Susan | 10625 comments Mod
I have only read The Stranger's Child, but this definitely had similarities with that novel.

I am not sure who Victor Dax was based on, if anyone, but there is a sense that author's and artists are put on a pedestal and admired. There is a war raging, but the characters we first meet are not discussing current events, but running a book club. They have artistic sensibilities and scorn those in the running/rowing clubs - Sparsholt aside - and so we can immediately gauge what kind of people they are.

It did remind me of the 'us' and 'them' feeling in Brideshead, with Anthony Blanche and Sebastian and then all the 'bully boys,' throwing Blanche in the fountain!


message 39: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val | 1709 comments Nigeyb wrote: "This is the first book I have read by Hollinghurst, however I'm guessing, based on having read reviews, that the assured writing, the sense of time and place, and the fascination with human desire, are all regular features."
They are all regular features, but dividing the story up into separate times and places is not typical of his books generally, although he did do the same thing in The Stranger's Child.


Susan | 10625 comments Mod
I think that is why they seemed so similar to me, Val. I also felt that the first part of Sparsholt was the best, which was a problem, as it didn't quite live up to the promise of the Oxford section.


message 41: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val | 1709 comments Judy wrote: "I have finished this now and thought it strengthens again at the end - beautiful writing although for me it sags in the middle at times"
The '70s section has a lot of characters, some from earlier sections and several new ones. It seemed less focused than the other sections. Is that the section you felt sagged?


Nigeyb | 10371 comments Mod
Thanks all - very helpful and illuminating. I'm feeling v positive about reading more by Alan H.


I'm also braced for a mid book slump now. It's a shame, as this opening section is really enjoyable.

I can't really think who (if anyone) Dax Snr is based on. We know his work is challenging and full of classical allusions, and that he gets rave reviews in Horizon. I enjoyed Sparsholt's observations about it, have read a few pages whilst sharing the night watch with Freddie. Freddie secretly agreeing with him but unable to give him a somewhat pompous response.


message 43: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
Val wrote: "Judy wrote: "I have finished this now and thought it strengthens again at the end - beautiful writing although for me it sags in the middle at times"
The '70s section has a lot of characters, some ..."


Yes, the 'Small Oils' section was the part I meant, but I also thought the 60s section didn't live up to the opening.


Susan | 10625 comments Mod
I certainly struggled with the second section, where Johnny is young. Once we met up with Evert again, I thought the story improved. However, I liked Freddy as a narrator and did enjoy that first part the most, I will admit.


message 45: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
Yes, for me it's a pity it doesn't carry on in that vein - at first I thought it was going to be a masterpiece, but in the end I really didn't think so, although still well worth reading for the beautiful prose and flashes of insight.


message 46: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val | 1709 comments I liked "The Lookout", it had the correct mid-sixties coming-of-age feel (in the same way as "New Man" felt right for 1940).
Perhaps A. V. Dax is a composite of several modernist authors who became less popular with time rather than being based on any one of them: the seriousness of D. H. Lawrence, the challenging style and classical allusions of James Joyce, rave reviews in Horizon for Henry James or Hugh Walpole and the womanising from H. G. Wells, for example. (Most of those did not survive as long as A. V. Dax, so that is probably completely wrong.)


Nigeyb | 10371 comments Mod
Actually I think you may have nailed it Val.


A composite seems the most likely source.


message 48: by Nigeyb (last edited Jun 12, 2018 05:55AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nigeyb | 10371 comments Mod
I'm now into part two. Funny how (in the early section at least - which is all I have read so far) David Sparsholt is regularly referred to as "Johnny's father"

I'm finding the leap forward in time to be a tad discombobulating - which I'm guessing is intentional. What do you think?

I must admit, like (I think) the rest of you, I’d have been happy with the whole novel set amidst the dreaming spires.


Nigeyb | 10371 comments Mod
Here's another question, to what extent do you think that Freddie Green was gay, or at least bisexual? He too seems more than a little infatuated (perhaps even obsessed) by Sparsholt, and yet unaware of this. I thought it was very skilfully done. Or was I reading too much into it?


Nigeyb | 10371 comments Mod
Nigeyb wrote: "I'm finding the leap forward in time to be a tad discombobulating - which I'm guessing is intentional."


It really is though. It's actually also very well written, just so jarring in comparison with with the Oxford section


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