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THE SPARSHOLT AFFAIR
By Alan Hollinghurst
417 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95.

Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel is a portrait of a man who isn’t there. It’s not that David Sparsholt doesn’t appear in the novel that bears his name. On the contrary, we’re continually getting glimpses of him and hearing tantalizing rumors. Over the course of a story that spans 70 years and three generations, we learn about Sparsholt’s heroic career as a pilot during World War II, his successful business — and then, with a shock, about the political sex scandal, the “Sparsholt Affair,” that made him a household name.

Yet the man himself always remains at a distance. Indeed, he initially appears as a literal shadow. The year is 1940, and Oxford is largely empty — most of the male students have been drafted, or are about to be — when a small group of friends happen to spy David in his room across the quad: “The source of the shadow moved slowly into view, a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights.” At first, no one knows the young Adonis’s name, but his physique alone is enough to make one of the group, Evert Dax, fall madly in love with him. Another, Peter Coyle, manages to persuade Sparsholt to sit for a portrait, a nude chalk sketch. And a third, Freddie Green — who is the narrator of this section of the novel — spends a long night during the Blitz on the roof of the college with Sparsholt, watching for enemy bombers.

In their tiny undergraduate world, these reverberations of feeling constitute a major event — a “Sparsholt affair” of its own, before the later, public one is even imaginable. This is the subject of the novel’s opening section, a self-contained drama rich with seduction, betrayal and exploitation. Peter and Evert maneuver fiercely for David’s affections, regardless of the fact that he has a fiancée; and one of them gets what he wants, for a price. Still, Freddie supposes the whole thing will soon be forgotten: “It had already assumed its true scale, something fleeting, and entirely personal, too hidden to rate even a footnote in the history of its time. I doubt anyone has spoken a word of it till now.”

But a writer, according to Henry James, should be one of those on whom nothing is lost; and Hollinghurst, a very Jamesian writer, doesn’t allow this “affair” to slip into oblivion. Instead, it turns out to be the overture in a long and complex saga — five substantial episodes that take us, in long leaps, from the Blitz to the age of smartphones. Structurally, this makes “The Sparsholt Affair” very similar to Hollinghurst’s previous novel, “The Stranger’s Child,” which dealt with the life and literary afterlife of an English poet who died in World War I.

Readers of that book — or of Hollinghurst’s earlier “The Line of Beauty,” which won the Man Booker Prize — will find much that is familiar here, stylistically and thematically. As always, Hollinghurst writes classically beautiful prose, which like James’s is constantly intelligent, alert and mobile. Though he is a wonderful noticer and describer — of skies, paintings, bodies — it is his party scenes that are most famous, and justly so. Few writers are so good at capturing the currents of intention and emotion that circulate in a crowded room.

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There is something particularly English about this talent, and it can produce a very English comedy of polite noncommunication. In one scene, a group of guests at a party — actually, at the wake of Freddie Green, who has died half a century after we first met him — are standing outside as it starts to rain. “It’s hardly raining at all,” one says, and another agrees, “It’s quite nice to be out, isn’t it”; and then, “with a sudden collective coming to their senses everyone in the garden walked, almost ran, back into the house.” To understand what people really want, Hollinghurst suggests, you have to ignore what they say and pay attention to what they do — especially when it comes to sex.

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