From The Sparsholt Affair to The Spell: An Alan Hollinghurst Primer

Alan Hollinghurst, who wrote five novels before The Sparsholt Affair as well as several volumes of poetry, is often compared to Henry James for his ability to hide, within the graceful curlicues of his elegant prose, the quiet devastation of crumbling lives. But where Henry James is a virtuoso of repression, Hollinghurst is equally interested in joy and even, though it may elude Evert in particular, pleasure. To read more by the Booker Award winner who has made a career of beautifully wrought stories about gay men in twentieth and twenty-first century Britain, check out these novels.

  • The cover of the book The Sparsholt Affair

    The Sparsholt Affair

    In the first chapter of The Sparsholt Affair, Alan Hollinghurst describes two characters standing next to each other: “Peter smaller, hair thick and temperamental, in the patched tweed jacket which always gave off dim chemical odors of the studio; Evert neat and hesitant, a strictly raised boy in an unusually good suit who seemed to gaze at pleasure as at the far bank of a river.” This sentence, just one of several similarly representative passages, is pure Hollinghurst. The unexpected adjectives that create wryly vivid descriptions (temperamental hair, dim odors, an unusually good suit), the sentence that appears languid, yet creates two contrasting characters with swift economy, the final bittersweet note of yearning and wishes unmet.

  • The cover of the book The Swimming-Pool Library

    The Swimming-Pool Library

    Published in 1988, Hollinghurst’s first novel won raves for its gorgeous prose – and raised eyebrows for its detailed descriptions of anonymous gay sex. The protagonist, Will, divides his time between going over the papers of an aging gay aristocrat and cruising for men at his swim club. While the public’s reaction to the book now seems dated, the novel itself stands the test of time, and reads as a beautiful elegy for the exuberance of unencumbered youth.

  • The cover of the book The Folding Star

    The Folding Star

    The only of Hollinghurst’s novels not set in England, this story takes place primarily in Belgium, where the British protagonist, Edward Manners, has moved and soon takes up with two young men while becoming interested in the life of a symbolist painter. Exploring ideas about beauty in art versus life, the impermanence of physical attraction and the nature of obsessive love, Hollinghurst’s second novel won him comparisons to Nabokov, Mann, and Proust.

  • The cover of the book The Spell

    The Spell

    The couplings and intrigues between assorted guests over a weekend at an English country house has been a staple of British literature, and in this novel Hollinghurst archly turns that tradition on its head. The four gay men who gather at a cottage in Dorset all become entangled in one another’s lives, with results as heartbreaking as they are humorous. Drugs, sex, and gorgeous scenery can’t quite quell the loneliness of each of the characters in Hollinghurst’s third novel.

  • The cover of the book The Line of Beauty

    The Line of Beauty

    Hollinghurst won the Booker Prize for this novel of gay love, class conflict, and political change during the height of the AIDS crisis. Nick is a young, gay, diffident James scholar who becomes smitten first with his posh Oxford friend Toby, then Toby’s entire upper-class, pro-Thatcher, thrillingly dysfunctional family. Brideshead Revisited meets And the Band Played On as AIDS insinuates its way into Nick’s world, touching everyone he loves and changing the way he thinks about class, race, and what it means to be a gay man in the modern world.

  • The cover of the book The Stranger's Child

    The Stranger's Child

    In his most recent novel before The Sparsholt Affair, Hollinghurst turns his attention from England at the close of the twentieth century to the century’s beginning. In 1913, a group gathers at a country house – some straight, some gay; some destined to die in the war, others fated to spend their lives reimagining and trying to make sense of what happens over the course of their brief, confusing, and eventful time together. Spanning nearly the entire century, the book explores secrets, misunderstandings, and the way a formative loss can shape a life.