Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Review: Arctic Summer by E M Forster

E M Forster
Arctic Summer

Published by Hesperus Press

Reviewed by Drew Gummerson

‘Arctic Summer’ is a fragment of a novel. Forster began writing it in 1911, after the publication of ‘Howard’s End’ and at a time when he was established as one of England’s leading novelists.

It opens with an accident. Martin Whitby is at Basle station with his wife and mother-in-law. They are to take a train to Italy. In an effort to secure them all seats Martin rushes forward, slips, and is prevented from falling under the train by a young soldier, Clesant March. The novel is to centre on the clash between these two men.

Forster described himself as being at the ‘fag end of Victorianism’. He was describing a new world, that of Edwardian times, when the classes were jockeying for position. Martin is a civil servant. He believes society is perfectly formed, everything that is to be discovered, has been discovered. It is just a question of tidying it all up. Clesant is part of the old world. He comes from a background of the manor house. His is a world of chivalry, where gentlemen should behave as gentlemen.

Martin inadvertently snubs Clesant when they meet again at Tramonta. Clesant wants to view the frescoes, it is said that they depict one of his ancestors, performing heroic deeds. Martin speaks disparagingly of ancestry. All that doesn’t matter, it was what you do now in the world that makes a man. This he regrets after, and he writes to Clesant, says if there is anything he can do, he will be more than willing to help.

This being a Forster novel, you know that the two men will meet again. There is a gunshot, a death. The fragment comes to a full stop.

Around this time Forster was also contemplating his ‘gay novel’ Maurice. There is a sense that he was tired of writing about relationships he didn’t care about, or rather that, relationships he didn’t want to write about.

After ‘Howard’s End’ there was only one more novel, the great, ‘A Passage to India’. At this centre of this novel is a hole, a central event in the caves that either did or did not happen. For Forster this was the hole at the centre of his ambitions. It wasn’t until his death that ‘Maurice’ was published.

Yet I wish he had persevered with ‘Arctic Summer’. I, at least, wanted to know what happened next. For me Forster is both a sharp writer and a sexy one. There is one scene in which Lance March leaps out of the bath and runs naked through the house, shocking his brother. There is something both sweet and innocent about this, and Forster writes so clearly, I can still see that naked man in my head.

Drew Gummerson lives in Leicester, England. In 2002 his first book 'The Lodger' was published. It was a finalist in the Lambda Awards in the States. Drew’s next book 'Darts' was a finalist in the UKA/PABD Great Read Novel Competition. Drew’s latest novel 'Me and Mickie James' is due to be published in July 2008 by Jonathan Cape.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Review: Memoirs of a Novelist by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf
Memoirs of a Novelist

Published by Hesperus Press

Reviewed by Drew Gummerson

You feel you should go easy on Virginia Woolf these days. After all it is not too long ago that she was played by Nicole Kidman with a large prosthetic nose. Woolf herself wouldn’t have liked it, I’m sure. I can’t imagine her having approved of antipodeans.

‘Memoirs of a Novelist’ is a collection of five of Woolf’s early short stories. Each of them deals with the lives of women, the hidden lives that is, what goes on after the tea-party has finished, when the men are to bed or out at work.

‘Phyllis and Rosamond’, the eponymous heroes of the first story, are two of five sisters. They are the ones without the brains, the ones who have only been bred to marry, and to be happy that this is their lot in life.
They attend a bohemian party. Opinions are aired and there is talk of love. What is love to them? They must think of their place in society. A good marriage will give them freedom from their family, their own homes and own tea parties. If not perhaps they will end up like Mrs V in the second story, ‘The Mysterious Case of Mrs V’.
She is another society lady. She does the rounds of parties, concerts, events. She is like a well-dressed chair, part of the background. She is there and not there. When she stops attending no one really notices. It would take an investigation to find that she has been sick, she is, in fact, now dead. Not noticed.

Perhaps if she had kept a diary like Joan Martyn in ‘The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn’ she would have been remembered. This is both the longest and most interesting of the stories.

The narrator, a Miss Rosamond Merridew, aged forty-five, is a writer of the history of land tenure in mediaeval England. She is somewhat idiosyncratic. From these dry and dusty old formal documents she will extrapolate the lives she imagines.

While travelling through Norfolk she takes an impulsive detour and happens upon an old house. She is excited by what documents she may find and when after dinner she is taken into the study and is confronted by rack after rack of old pages she can’t believe her luck.

One document is a diary. In it is recorded the daily life of Joan Martyn, dating back from 1450. Miss Martyn writes of her impending marriage. Like ‘Phyllis and Rosamond’ this will not be for love but for status.

Miss Martyn wonders why she should write of her life. She would rather surely write of battles and princesses? But it is precisely this daily life that Woolf is concerned with. The untold history that goes on in the background, too little spoken about or given a voice.
Drew Gummerson lives in Leicester, England. In 2002 his first book 'The Lodger' was published. It was a finalist in the Lambda Awards in the States. Drew’s next book 'Darts' was a finalist in the UKA/PABD Great Read Novel Competition. Drew’s latest novel 'Me and Mickie James' is due to be published in July 2008 by Jonathan Cape.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Review: Wings by Mikhail Kuzmin

Mikhail Kuzmin
Translated by Hugh Aplin

Published by Hesperus Press

Reviewed by Paul Kane

It is salutary to note that Russia’s leading gay rights organisation, Wings, took its name from this short novel by Mikhail Kuzmin (1872-1936). Originally published in 1906, Wings was the first Russian novel to openly and sympathetically treat the theme of homosexuality; and even today it is of considerable interest. The novel tells the story of one Vanya Smurov, at its start a naïve youth, and it is about how he comes of age and (as we would now view it) comes out as a gay man. In Kuzmin’s hands, though, this is as much a spiritual quest as a question of sexuality. Vanya wants to live fully and rightly, and this means living in accord with his essential nature; in Nietzsche’s terms, he wants to become what he is. At one point, our protagonist is told by a friend that:

It does sometimes happen too, they say, that a woman loves a woman and a man a man … And it’s not hard to believe it, is it not possible for God to put that thorn too into the human heart, then? And it’s hard, Vanya, to go against what been put in, and perhaps it’s sinful too. (p.44)

This quotation illustrates one of the still fascinating aspects of Wings: the way it functions as a kind of manifesto. For throughout the novel, it should be emphasised, Kuzmin makes a concerted attempt to argue for the naturalness of homosexuality at a time - and in a society - when this was needed. So there are, as one might already have expected – those Russians! –quite a number of earnest intellectual justifications along these lines, some of them quite subtle (e.g. the notion that nature itself is more variegated and diverse than our common unitary conception of it).

Still another point of interest lies in how the novel is made. Wings is in three parts, set respectively in St Petersburg, on the Volga and in Rome, and it is told in myriad episodic scenes of perhaps 2-3 pages in length: a curious and intriguing structure. In his Introduction, Hugh Aplin compares this structure to cinematic montage, which seems a fair approximation. These scenes, often thematically linked (e.g. death by suicide appears in parts 1 and 2, and the ‘death’ of an artist in part 3), are like dots that the reader must join together – if he or she wants to get the full emotional import of Vanya’s story, that is. Aplin’s translation, by the way, is masterly: the English prose has a definite chiselled majesty in places, and has many unexpected and incidental pleasures. He also provides full notes to the text.

As for the notion of “wings”, it is a metaphor threaded throughout the novel for a whole host of things: for the culture and friendships which allow us to soar, for what we acquire when we are open to beauty and courageous in our love, and as an allusion, in the final pages, to Icarus and his brothers.

Wings is a wonderful novel, chockful of truth and beauty, and well worthy of being re-read; and its significance in the history of gay literature can hardly be doubted. Perhaps also its present publication will encourage an interest in the poddyovka as a fashion or fetish item. Hesperus Press’ edition has two typos, on pages 24 and 58, but is otherwise impeccably produced. Thoroughly recommended.

Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Review: Breathing Underwater by Lu Vickers

Lu Vickers
Breathing Underwater

Published by Alyson Books

Reviewed by Leon Fleming

The account of a young girl growing up in one of the less glamorous areas of Florida, and in this instance a place virtually on the border with Georgia, being forced to reconcile her being ‘different’ in a place where her outside world consists of one of the largest collections of mentally ill persons in the United States, and where the world interned within the walls of her own home are dominated by her mother, whose psychological state is in many cases possibly more seriously deranged than that of any of the patients in the hospital, is bound to make for an interesting, and in all likelihood, amusing read.

This work is certainly an amusing description of growing up gay in a world that is full of temptations but with very little understanding when it comes to anyone who may be a little different, even when most of the people in this real though fictionalised version of Chattahoochee are there because they have been deemed to be different, in mental terms at least.

It has many moments that are extremely well written, where the style utilised by this obviously very skilled and talented writer captures vividly the colours that lie behind the soft haze of forever moving family life. It is unfortunate then that this clarity of language is muddied slightly by the rather heavy and annoying overuse of one seemingly constant and obdurate metaphor; that of the protagonist’s life being one of living, or drowning, under water.

In many ways the lesbian, though not the sexual, aspect of this book; the difference made a point of throughout the novel; is somewhat inconsequential, as the story more forcefully encircles a space held by the girl and her mother; encapsulating the interesting, if severely disjointed, relationship between them. In fact, it could be argued that this story is really a curiously fascinating case study of a woman whom life has thrust children and family circumstances upon, and who doesn’t know what to do with them now that she has them, while her mental capabilities are becoming further and further removed from her own life and the relationships within it; making her the most exciting, yet troubling, character in this novel.

This is a pretty easy book to read, and one that is also easy to enjoy; even though it perhaps doesn’t go very far, and possibly doesn’t delve to the great depths of emotion that the author aspires to examine.

For anyone who likes personal accounts or this type of fictional autobiography, then this book would make a very pleasant addition to your collection. No matter how well this book is written however, it is still a coming-of-age type account of growing up in difficult circumstances, and one that has been written both well and badly many times before.

Leon Fleming lives on the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands, where he writes short stories, stage plays and the odd article, and he is currently working on his first novel. More information regarding Leon’s work, along with samples of it, can be found at his website: