To say that Alan Hollinghurst introduced me to homosexuality in 1988 may be a slightly overstated claim. As a student of a London Music Conservatoire, I thought I was pretty familiar with the gay scene. But on finding a discarded copy of The Swimming Pool Library on a tube train, my eyes were opened to a world well-beyond the camp milieu of my college Student Union. Hollinghurst’s first novel shocked and thrilled in equal measure, and despite the huge class differences between us, I felt this writer was saying something significant.
Hollinghurst’s latest novel, The Sparsholt Affair, continues to examine the history of homosexuality in this country, but through a longer lens, since the author (as he admitted) is of a ‘certain age.’ All good writers leave holes in the narrative to allow their readers to crawl into and form their own interpretation or ‘reading’ – and this transpired to be the theme of this event.
Roland Gulliver, introducing, spoke about ‘layers upon layers’ and Serena Field, hosting, picked up on the ‘restorative’ metaphor: as with a painting, stripping off the varnish of the past can reveal interesting truths. First, we hear Hollinghurst’s own surprise (perhaps, delight) at how so many talking points come up at these events; what different and various things strike each reader. Next, we learn about how gently the author treats the process of research, even in a ‘historical’ novel.
In some novels the research can “shout from the page,” he believes; without “spoiling the verisimilitude” of the work, the power of suggestion is better. For Hollinghurst, there was a familiarity with certain topographical elements – in particular, Oxford which remains stolid even in war-time despite the unwelcome intrusions shipped in from blitz-torn London – and yet, there was a frisson of excitement in the black-outs. Hollinghurst translates this part of history into a “curious aphrodisiacal sensitively.”
He may have a plummy-toned maturity about him, but there is no shortage of mischief as he over-uses the expression “fumbling around.” He also talks about ‘groping for names’ in his forming of characters… no doubt those in the front rows of the Theatre spotted a cheeky glint in his eye. We are treated to three short readings from Sparsholt which illustrate clearly the writer’s deft use of words, wit, and observation; his characters coming alive in his clear, crisp diction.
Sadly, the event is equally clipped, and after what feels like a short hour the audience are left with holes in the texture or text that can only be filled by buying the book. In true Book Festival fashion, an orderly queue forms to meet the author in person and get him to sign the book. It seems this is a ‘snapshot affair’ – perhaps appropriate – or like the ‘frames’ of reference (the main character providing this metaphor through his work as a picture restorer and portraitist) we can only glean a glimpse of the past through the novelist’s lens.
Nonetheless, it interesting to consider how far we have come as a society in the thirty years since The Swimming Pool Library. Then we had AIDS and Clause 28; now we have Gaydar and Grindr – but are we better off? When restoring a picture, there is always compromise beneath the discoloured varnish. Hollinghurst concludes, “the past is unrecoverable.” But writers should give readers enough ideas to create their own; leaving loose ends for the imagination to do what it will.
A one-off, out-of-season special event staged by the Edinburgh International Book Festival, with Alan Hollinghurst introducing his latest novel The Sparsholt Affair without plot-spoilers, leaving the audience with plenty to imagine – and a chance to buy the book.
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s Booked! programme click here.