How the Year's Most Beautiful Book Was Written
Alan Hollinghurst doesn’t write quickly. In 30 years, the British author has penned just six novels, however, this relatively small collection of beautifully crafted work has earned him a rabid following and a slew of awards, including the Man Booker Prize for 2004’s The Line of Beauty. His latest novel, The Sparsholt Affair, is out now and seems to fit nicely into his oeuvre; an NPR review cooed “The Sparsholt Affair confirms Alan Hollinghurst's status as a literary master.”
The book opens at Oxford University in 1940, when a new student named David Sparsholt arrives and very quickly finds himself the object of fascination and desire for a group of artistic, tweedy classmates who are members of the same literary club. Over the coming decades—many of which we’ll make stops in as the book hopscotches toward today—Sparsholt, a war hero and businessman, will find himself disgraced by a very public (though never quite explained) scandal, and his son Johnny will unexpectedly end up making a second family among some of dad’s school friends—as well as enduring a lifetime of watching eyes light up with curiosity every time he reveals his last name. It’s a beautifully drawn portrayal of families (both given and chosen), memory, and the compromises that can make up a life.
Here, Hollinghurst talks about creating the story, why he hates research, and when his most famous novel might make it to the big screen.
This is a novel told in a number of sections across more than half of a century. Which part of the story came to you first and where did you start writing?
My books always come to me in a rather miscellaneous way. I have never thought I was going to write a book and immediately seen the whole thing clearly. Because I work very slowly, I tend to find the world of book building up in my mind and in situations I develop. It’s hard for me now to remember quite what came first in this case; certainly the idea of a scandal but not so much the scandal itself as the effect on people afterward. I think I first came up with the middle section of the book and then it developed in both directions. Different things brew in my mind and then begin to morph into some shape.
What kind of additional work do you do when you’re writing about multiple specific eras instead of just one?
It’s terribly important to get things right, but I’ve never been one for research. I’m wary of the way it tends to announce itself in a book. If you’re writing about periods in the past, you want to create an actual sense of people living their lives with no sense that one day it will seem rather quaint to people in the future.
You write in this book about a series of parents and children. Is there something important to you about portraying generations?
I’ve always been interested in the relationships between generations. The father-son thing is more prevalent in this book than anything I’ve written before, but also generational relationships are ways for younger people to understand something about the past. It comes with writing about gay life as well; an older person might be the one instructing a younger person in the secret codes of that life. I’m fascinated by these things.
A recurring theme in the book is the importance of portraiture; throughout the
story characters are captured for various reasons and to various effect by painters. What about that was important to you?
There was recently a ghastly portrait done here [in England] of the Duchess of Cambridge. If there is a portrait of a notable person, then suddenly this archaic form gets a lot of attention. I’m interested in the form’s survival. We’re in an age when portraits can be made in other ways so easily, and there is an element of pretention in something like the big portrait Johnny is painting at the end of the book. I’m still amazed going to the annual exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters to see these huge canvases, of families showing off in their large houses with their Labradors, trying to revive the form of display that was prominent 200 years ago. It’s a compromised form, as Johnny realizes, because it becomes as much about pleasing the person paying him as it is about pleasing himself.
There’s also something here about the idea of who is remembered and how their story is told.
That was always part of it. We don’t hear about David’s affair until eight years after it happened, when people who would have known about it would already be a bit vague on the details. That’s why I gave Johnny an unusual surname, so that when he’s introduced to people they do a double take. What interested me was creating a portrait of a young man growing into his own potential, and also the slowly fading stain of a thing that happens after. I knew I’d never get bogged down in the nitty-gritty of the scandal itself, which didn’t particularly interest me. Generally, I’m trying to capture how things are not fully understood.
The idea of these friendships and romances between younger and older people has been in your work before, and it’s been more visible lately thanks to movies like Call Me Be Your Name. It’s sort of surprising that your first book, The Swimming Pool Library, which deals with the subject, never became a film.
It would be fascinating if it happened now because it would be so different in meaning from if it had been done when the book came out [in 1988]. A wonderful playwright called Kevin Elliot wrote a very good three-part screenplay for the BBC in the early 1990s, which they sat on for years and then decided not to do. Then the AIDS crisis had barely subsided and it was a very different world; things have changed so enormously, and now it would be much more of a historical document than it would have been. But I would love if that happened.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.