Brow Beat

Alan Hollinghurst Hates Similes Like a …

Oh, wait, I was about to write a simile.

Alan Hollinghurst.
Alan Hollinghurst, his stare as piercing as a—dang it! Robert Taylor Photography

According to his biographer, James Boswell, Samuel Johnson “disapproved of a parenthesis,” and “in all his voluminous writings, not half a dozen of them will be found.” Johnson’s stately Latinate prose was so thoroughly considered, his thoughts so ordered and complete, he never needed to drop in an aside. It’s an intimidating notion of what it means to write well (who wants to be disapproved of by Dr. Johnson?), akin to the often-repeated dictum that good writers don’t use adverbs. I might say that such rules, in their austerity, are like one of those fad diets where you’re forbidden to eat anything cooked or processed—but maybe I shouldn’t, because I’d be employing simile, a figure of speech I’ve come to feel insecure about after reading Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Sparsholt Affair.

I’ve written that there is no better English stylist alive than Hollinghurst, and I am far from alone in that sentiment. Critics marveling over his wizardry take sample sentences and pick them apart to demonstrate what amazing little machines they are for producing both meaning and aesthetic pleasure. Every word does double and sometimes triple duty, a fitting technique for a novelist so entranced by codes.

A less celebrated aspect to Hollinghurst’s eloquence is that he seems to be taking a stand against the humble simile. At some point while reading The Sparsholt Affair, I noticed that I almost never saw a sentence in which two things are explicitly compared using the words “like” or “as.” “He was,” he writes, describing the main character the day after learning that his father has died, leaving him an orphan, “ambushed again by the loss of his mother, felt the hard downward drag, too familiar now, of a death close at hand, of things irrefusibly to be done.” His grief isn’t like a weight, it is a weight. Anyone who has been through this experience can testify to the precise accuracy of this line, even to the—gasp!—adverb “irrefusibly,” not even a legit word, but compressing within it the balky, childish longing to escape the implacable machinery and logistics of mourning.

I was tempted to count the pages between similes in The Sparsholt Affair. You could make a drinking game out of taking a shot every time Hollinghurst uses this figure of speech, and you’d never get drunk. Merely to comment on a resemblance, I suspect, is in his eyes pretty thin stuff. The world is more vivid, more compacted in its sensations and significance, than a wan noticing of similarities can ever convey. Everything is many things at once.