Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair

by Dickon Edwards

This review contains plot spoilers.

It seems apt that in the time between the publication of Alan Hollinghurst’s last novel, The Stranger’s Child (2011) and the emergence this month of his latest, The Sparsholt Affair, a lot has happened in Hollinghurst studies. Apt, because both novels concern things happening between the acts, as it were. Key events – deaths, births, world wars, sex scandals – only take place in the large gaps of time separating each novel’s five sections of narration. Similarly, in the real world the gap between the two novels’ publication saw no fewer than three academic books on Hollinghurst emerge; in 2011, there were none. Allan Johnson’s study Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) was followed by two essay collections, Alan Hollinghurst: Writing under the Influence, edited by Michèle Mendelssohn and Denis Flannery (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), and Sex and Sensibility in the Novels of Alan Hollinghurst, edited by Mark Mathuray (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). This last book includes an essay by Bianca Leggett, a recent tutor of contemporary literature at Birkbeck.

Whether this recent surge in Hollinghurstian scholarship will continue it remains to be seen. One theme of both The Stranger’s Child and The Sparsholt Affair is, after all, the way literary reputations can wax and wane over time. Just as The Stranger’s Child tracks the life of a 1913 poem by the fictional Cecil Valance down the decades, The Sparsholt Affair begins in 1940s Oxford with the establishing of a similarly invented figure, this time a novelist. A.V. Dax is described as a celebrity on the level of George Orwell and Stephen Spender [i]. But by 1995, in the novel’s fourth section, Dax has become one of those writers dimly heard of and mostly unread. A lecture theatre named in his honour during the 1960s is demolished in the 1990s, leaving Ivan, a biographer, to muse on the way memorials can be as intransigent as their subjects: ‘If the memorial itself was destroyed, then what remained?' (332). In 2017, at least, Hollinghurst’s own profile has never been healthier, critically and commercially. While academia has saluted his work with the aforementioned trio of scholarly books, the British public made the paperback of The Stranger’s Child one of the biggest selling books of 2012 [ii]. Last week the new novel’s publication warranted its own segment on the BBC current affairs programme Newsnight [iii]. Thankfully, the news is good. Admittedly, with its more bohemian settings, The Sparsholt Affair lacks the frisson of 1980s power and politics found in The Line of Beauty (2004). It also cannot eclipse the innovatory impact of Hollinghurst’s style in his debut, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988). Nevertheless, the new novel succeeds in combining a historical meditation on age, time and identity with contemporary questions of sexuality, public memory, and the changing meaning of images.

Hollinghurst himself has suggested that his first four novels (including 1994’s The Folding Star and 1998’s The Spell) can be likened to movements within the same classical ‘symphony’ [iv]. In which case, it is now tempting to view the first four books as Hollinghurst’s ‘Explicit Symphony’, given their focus on foregrounding gay male sex and gay male lives within a style of Forster-like literary realism. The fifth and sixth books might then be considered as ‘Implicit Symphonies’, given their temporally epic scopes, their distinct movement-like structures, and their focus on not making things explicit.

For example, the news story at the heart of The Sparsholt Affair is left tantalisingly undescribed. Hints are laid down in the first two sections, set in 1940 and 1966, while in the remaining sections, set in 1974, 1995, and 2012-3, only fragmentary references are made. All that is certain is that the scandal takes place in 1966, it involves the public disgrace of David Sparsholt, a war hero turned mechanical entrepreneur, and that it concerns gay sex acts – just before the 1967 decriminalisation – in connection with corrupt business dealings. The only glimpse the reader gets of the scandal in ‘real time’ is at the close of the 1966 section. Here, David’s teenage son Johnny realises that an empty bungalow in Cornwall is not so empty after all:


In the moment that he turned he saw, or thought he saw (the reflections of sky, cloud and blue in the wide windows), the unfolding ripple, the slow wink of light and shade, of the fine slats of a Venetian blind swivelled upwards and then downwards on their cord and closed. (153)


This image further encompasses one of the novel’s main themes. Whereas The Stranger’s Child was about poetry and words, The Sparsholt Affair is about images and looking. Key sights are framed by windows, drawings of naked bodies are secretly passed around, portraits are painted, and paintings are judged. The historical scenes are eventually contrasted with the contemporary era, offering fresh perspectives on such issues as the meaning of online porn for those old enough to remember Profumo (p. 413).

Given that Hollinghurst is also a noted author of queer literature, it is particularly interesting to note the use of ekphrasis in his work. Ekphrasis, being the literary term for the textual mobilization of visual art, is, as Allan Johnson argues, frequently exploited by modern gay narratives [v]. In Hollinghurst, it is often used to enhance an effect of immersive realism, blending invention with details from real life. In the 1974 section Johnny Sparsholt is employed in an art shop, allowing Hollinghurst to muse on the way restorers are the unsung collaborators of art (p. 226). One painting Johnny works on, Late Summer, Dusk, a landscape of Kensington Gardens by Paul Maitland, is either a real painting or a composite of similar works by Maitland which really exist. In the 1995 segment, meanwhile, a vinyl record sleeve is described as having the title ‘Resurrection’ on the cover, with ‘a picture of an old man in glasses smoking a pipe’ (p. 361). For this researcher, the details are enough to identify the record as the 1971 HMV reissue of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, ‘Resurrection’, as conducted in 1963 by Otto Klemperer, the pipe-smoking cover star [vi].

If a gazed-upon image depicts other men, the queer implication of ekphrasis is more overt. One only has to think of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and his short story ‘The Portrait of Mr W. H.’. In a similar spirit, Johnny Sparsholt visits an exhibition of photography at the National Portrait Gallery titled ‘Londoners At Home’. He becomes fascinated by an image of two young men sitting on a large double bed. Johnny feels excited and eluded:


There were psychedelic posters behind them and a blown-up photo of Mick Jagger dancing and pointing on the nearer side wall. Close up in the foreground, items on a tabletop loomed large, two glass ashtrays, a gleaming packet of Benson & Hedges, a painted bowl in which objects had been heaped, surmounted by a square white adaptor plug, strangely prominent. They didn’t have much, these two young men, but they were tidy, and the adaptor was nothing to be ashamed of. Was it also the photographer’s way of saying something the men themselves couldn’t make so explicit? (200-1)


A little research reveals that this is a real image of real people, as taken by Nancy Hellebrand. It can be found in her book Londoners (London: Lund Humphries, 1974) [vii]. Mick Jagger is already something of an encoded queer symbol in Hollinghurst: in The Line of Beauty, Margaret Thatcher dances with Nick Guest to a Rolling Stones song. Accordingly, in the Hellebrand photograph, the unexpected description of an electric adaptor plug as ‘nothing to be ashamed of’ now becomes a comment on the post-1967 status of gay lives: ways of living which could be now be adapted to fit the mainstream, as opposed to the shame of illegality.

In the opening scene of Sparsholt, Hollinghurst extends this ekphrastic sensibility to include a sight from real life, framed by a window as if it was an artwork. The scene manages to combine the opening of Dorian Gray with the voyeurism of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. There are also echoes of the Oxford scenes in Waugh’s Decline and Fall and Brideshead Revisited, in which characters watch young men from quad windows at night. Just as Wilde has the painter Hallward and the wit Wotton discussing Dorian’s portrait, Hollinghurst has a painter, Peter Coyle, and a wordsmith, Evert Dax, looking out across a college quad at the sight of the muscular David Sparsholt, who is exercising in his room. Crucially, the sight is described like an artwork, or even a backlit smartphone image. Set against the night, Sparsholt in his room appears to be ‘shaped from light itself’ (5). The moment even suggests a neo-historical allusion to the way smartphones have reconfigured photography in a form of acceptable voyeurism.

In the same section of the novel, a real image is created when David agrees to pose in the nude for Coyle. Reduced to a headless torso, this homoerotic drawing in red chalk then passes down the decades like the poem in The Stranger’s Child, not as a public work but as a private talisman. Its meaning changes with the times, and with its owners. In 1974, Johnny sees the drawing hanging in Evert’s house and regards it as ‘a symbol of the London life’ – by which he means the gay London life – without realising it is of his father (p. 170). The act of looking is thus presented as a form of not just sexual desire but the desire for truth and validation – the kind now manifested on internet discussions by the catchphrase ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ [viii].There is, however, a twist on the Dorian Gray aspect, as in the obsession with youth. One seduction scene is in fact told from the point of view of a young man, Ivan, seducing a much older one, Evert. Ivan confesses to being a gerontophile, someone who is sexually attracted to older people (p. 272). In this way, The Sparsholt Affair might be part of an under-discussed subgenre: novels featuring a gerontophile gaze.

Meanwhile, obstacles to the act of gazing illustrate their different historical contexts. As well as the dwelling on window blinds for the 1966 scandal, parallels are offered between the blackouts in Britain during the second world war, and the power cuts of London in early 1974. By 2013, people in London are living in the opposite of blackout: an excess of backlight, of images, and of digital Windows (with no blinds), where expectations of explicitness are on a level unthinkable in 1966. In contrast, figures from older generations, like David Sparsholt, keep their own sexuality buttoned up till the grave. It is no surprise that Johnny becomes a portrait artist: frustrated by a lack of words from his father (as indeed is the reader), Johnny’s reaction to the older Sparsholt’s dead body is to sketch it. As he does so he thinks to himself, ‘this is what we get to do’ (p. 436).

This sentiment shows Hollinghurst at his most optimistic. When it comes to the unknown, the missing, or the ambiguous, interpretation – such as the act of portraiture – can be a form of agency. Whole lives may be unfairly framed by uncontrollable circumstances: Johnny is ‘framed’ by his surname. Like ‘Profumo’ it has become a kind of infamous brand. By the novel’s close, the scandal may have been mostly forgotten about in living memory, but as Hollinghurst suggests, Google and Wikipedia mean that the very idea of living memory has dramatically changed in itself: all it takes is curiosity (pp. 394 & 406). The novel suggests, however, that we can still respond with our own frameworks – such as Johnny’s art – and possess the truth of those instead.



[i] Alan Hollinghurst, The Sparsholt Affair (London: Picador, 2017), p.3. Subsequent references are given in this piece as page numbers.

[ii] John Dugdale, ‘Bestselling Books of 2012 – Commentary’, Guardian, 28 December 2012 <> [accessed 4 October 2017], (para 9 of 14).

[iii] Newsnight, BBC2, 28 September 2017, 10.30pm.

[iv] Hermione Lee, ‘What Can I Say?: Secrets in Fiction and Biography’, in Alan Hollinghurst: Writing Under the Influence, ed. by Michèle Mendelssohn and Denis Flannery (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), pp. 191-207 (p. 206).

[v] Allan Johnson, Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 115.

[vi] The record sleeve can be seen at

[vii] At time of writing, the image can be found on the website of Cult Jones, the rare books seller:   <>.

[viii] Jacob Silverman, ‘“Pics Or It Didn’t Happen” – The Mantra of the Instagram Era’, Guardian, 26 February 2015 <> [accessed 4 October 2017].


Dickon Edwards has recently commenced work on a doctoral thesis at Birkbeck, University of London. 


Image by abby chicken, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.



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