Alan Hollinghurst on subverting expectations
“Of all novelists working in the English language, Hollinghurst has the most beautiful command of the language.”
This was the introduction given by Hay Festival director Peter Florence, who was in Mantova on the final day of the 2019 festival to talk with novelist Alan Hollinghurst about his book The Sparsholt Affair, recently translated into Italian.
The plot of Hollinghurst’s sixth novel centres around a scandal which takes place in the nineteen sixties; loosely inspired by the Profumo affair. Holinghurst wanted to explore the effect on David Sparsholt’s son Johnny. “I wanted a surname which would be heard and remembered,” said Hollinghurst about the name, which he took from a group of hills which he has known since infancy. Because of his surname, the scandal trails Johnny through the rest of his life. The novel is set in Oxford, a topic so clichéd in British literature that the author felt it was ripe for subversion. The second world war passages, during the blackout, allowed him to show a side of Oxford about which not much is known.
Other themes Hollinghurst has explored in his fiction are how memory works: our perception of history, both national and social. His work often features celebrities, but he likes to show them making a brief and dramatic impact on others’ lives. “I’m interested in the second and third rate,” the author said. The character Nick Guest from his Booker prize-winning novel The Line of Beauty is a skilled artist, possibly with unfulfilled ambition. “No-one in the book ends up doing what they once hoped they would do,” the author said. “I think this is true for many of us.”
On the subject of prose, the author said that he tries to write accurately, without overdoing it, and to create sentences that run pleasingly. He is fascinated by stylists such as Henry James and Vladimir Nobokov, but would be wary of taking them as models. The session ended with a reading from The Sparsholt Affair, giving the audience an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of Hollinghurt’s prose for themselves.