Review: Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jelloun
Tahar Ben Jelloun
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
Published by Arcadia Books Ltd
Reviewed by Max Fincher
Honest, informative and moving, Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jelloun is a novel that explores the struggles facing young Moroccan people who want to leave their country in search of a better life. It is a novel that explores dreams, aspirations, isolation, and the need to find a better existence, but leaves us with an overwhelming sense that these dreams are eventually disappointed.
The central character, Azel, has studied law and lives with his mother, Lalla Zohra, and his sister, Kenza, in Tangier. Unemployed, he feels disaffected, and frustrated at not fulfilling his potential. His sister, Kenza, works as a nurse in a private clinic for a miserly surgeon. Azel spends his days in the local cafe where: ‘Long pipes of kif pass from table to table while glasses of mint tea grow cold, enticing bees that eventually tumble in, a matter of indifference to customers long since lost to the limbo of hashish and tinselled reverie’ (p.1). Jelloun evokes a sense of endemic apathy in Azel’s community, where everyone yearns for what they think is a better life across the 8-mile stretch of water to mainland Spain. Azel’s narrative voice is dream-like. He exhorts the young people of Tangier not to ‘give in to the siren call of sadness’ but to believe in the figure of Toutia, a mythical, redemptive woman who offers them hope to cross to Spain.
Al Afia, a local crook and pot dealer, also arranges for people to be smuggled across the water. He is hated by Azel, who holds him responsible for the tragic death of his cousin Noureddine in a boat crossing, along with several others who drowned. A brutal, hard man, Jelloun’s description of Al Afia’s regime of corruption is portrayed with unflinching honesty: ‘he buys everyone, of course, this country is one huge marketplace, wheeling and dealing day and night, everybody’s for sale, all you need is a little power, something to cash in on’ (p.6). ..we stink of corruption, it’s on our faces, in our heads buried in our hearts’ (p.6). Jelloun captures the sense of powerlessness that young men like Azel feel against the corruption of men like Al Afia, who can arrange freedom for a price who dominates their lives: ‘a man so feared, so loved, - or rather, protected – by those who lived off his generosity’ (p.9). Corruption extends everywhere. When Miguel is beaten up by the police who arrest him on a false drugs charge, the police use the opportunity to rape him in prison. Azel calls on Miguel, a wealthy Spanish art dealer who picked him up in the café, to come to his rescue. Employed as a waiter at one of Miguel’s parties, Miguel arranges for Azel to live with him in his villa in Barcelona. For Azel, Miguel epitomizes elegance and luxury, and as Azel hopes, his salvation to a better life abroad.
Miguel’s characterisation follows a long line of gay men, both literary and factual, who enjoy Moroccan men as exotic commodities, as sexually available for a price. We are told that Miguel ‘loved the ‘awkwardness’ of Moroccan men, by which he meant their sexual ambiguity’ (p.32). Azel is entranced and blinded by Miguel’s glamorous lifestyle in Tangier, only to be deeply disappointed when he arrives in Barcelona and is treated like a house boy. Azel encounters prejudice from Carmen, Miguel’s old housekeeper, who represents the conservative traditionalist fears about immigrants. Unhappy, he secretly seeks affection from a prostitute, Soumaya, also an emigrant from Tangier.
Azel and Miguel’s relationship gives us an insight into contemporary Moroccan attitudes to homosexuality that points up how difficult it is to grow up gay in Muslim culture. Azel repeatedly refers to himself as a ‘prostitute’ or a ‘whore’ to Miguel, while at the same time pursuing a relationship with Soumaya where he attempts to prove his masculinity to himself. Azel’s confesses that his relationships with girls were episodic but straightforward: sex was the object, nothing else’ (p.20). He admits to his girlfriend, Siham, that he doesn’t like anal sex: ‘When I was a kid, in my times, I did it a few times with boys, never with girls. I don’t like it much’ (p.25). What emerges in the novel is the overwhelming disdain that Moroccan men, even gay men Moroccan men, feel for the figure of ‘a zamel, a passive homosexual. The ultimate shame!’ Al Afia is a contradiction to Azel’s mind: ‘A man so powerful, so good, lying on his belly to be sodomized!’ That Siham confesses that she can take it both ways, and prefers anal sex because it preserves her virginity, may be one explanation for Azel’s disgust. When Abdeslam, Noureddine’s brother confesses to Azel that he likes having sex with men and to keep it a secret to himself, Azel is shocked: ‘You’re a homosexual’. Abdeslam denies the label, arguing that for him it’s a matter of what he prefers at any given time: ‘I switch back and forth’. What emerges is that Azel views his sexual relationship with Miguel purely as an economic transaction, as another part of his job. There is a culture of secrecy and repression in Moroccan society over men admitting that they desire each other, especially passively, which is associated with Western-European society: ‘In our country, the zamel is the other guy, the European tourist, never the Moroccan, and no-one ever talks about it but it’s not true, we’re like all the other countries, except we keep quiet about those things’ (p.107). Internalized homophobia and repression still operate powerfully in the minds of men like Azel, who admits to not loving Miguel and to their relationship being one based on selfish reasons on both sides.
Azel confesses to Siham, that he feels guilty about having sex with Miguel. He feels desperate that he will end up ‘doubting my own sexuality’. It is difficult to gauge how far Azel is bisexual, confused or suffering from denial and internalized homophobia (p.66). At one point in his diary he notes his complex feelings about being Miguel’s lover, and his fears over what he thinks his mother would think of him: ‘How can I tell her that her son is just an attaye, a faggot, a man who crawls on his belly, a cheap whore, a traitor to his identity, to his sex?...One can’t talk about such things’ (p.68). Later, Miguel reflects that ‘He was always watching himself, afraid of his impulses and couldn’t manage to be spontaneous when they made love’. However, the novel shows that Miguel’s treatment of Azel, treating him like a slave, commanding him to perform the role of a submissive servant and sex object hardly helps matters. We discover that Miguel has adopted two twins, and admits that the ‘gesture is both selfish and generous’, as he is afraid of dying old and alone. His need for Azel is just as selfish: to make him feel younger and desired. Nevertheless, Azel also uses Miguel: he asks him to marry his sister, Kenza, in order that she can secure a visa. As Miguel observes: ‘...there was something in Azel’s eyes that was difficult to put into words, a kind of pseudo-smile, an implicit way of revealing and inadmissible form of deception’ (p.92). By agreeing to marry Kenza though, Miguel hopes to ‘make Azel more manageable’. At no point does the reader feel that Miguel is a victim of a fortune hunter like Abbas, a man whom Azel become friendly with in the barrio of Barcelona, and who later confesses to cynically exploiting rich old gay men, one of whom turns out to be Miguel’s friend.
Jelloun is aware of how, historically, Morocco has lured Western gay writers, like Jean Genet, because Moroccan men have been seen as sexually available. Miguel self-consciously compares himself to Genet at one point in the novel, but one feels that this is a fantasy Miguel indulges in as a self-consciously civilized, middle-class aesthete: ‘Azel thinks I’m Jean Genet, you know – that French writer who used to come to Tangier, a rebel, a great poet, a homosexual who had served time prison for theft....It’s curious – even though I’m sure Azel hasn’t read Genet, he must think he’s pleasing me by acting like street trash. (p.132). Earlier, we are told that ‘Miguel had read the works of Jean Genet and wondered why he loved to say that Tangier was the city of perfidy’ (p.92). Perfidy, or deceit, is the essential theme to many of the lives and stories told here, most notably for how Jelloun feels that the socio-political conditions of Morocco has frustrated and disappointed their dreams and aspirations. Both Azel and Kenza practice deceit, and are in turn deceived by a dream of a paradisal European life that turns into nightmarish struggle to survive economically and socially.
Tahar Ben Jelloun
A multitude of stories are told in Leaving Tangier, of lives lived under the yoke of poverty, oppression and corruption. The stories of Azel’s family – his protective mother, Lalla Zohra who survives selling contraband luxury products, his sister Kenza, his wife, Siham and his friend Malika, educated but enslaved in the local shrimp factory – all give the reader an insight into how hard life can be. As we later learn, even Miguel’s story is similar to Azel’s own. Miguel’s friend Gabriel tells Azel that Miguel’s family were poor and that ‘like you, he had to follow a man, a rich and powerful English lord’. Each of the characters’ narratives in turn draws out unexpected congruences and parallels between each other, and each story fits into the web of shared experiences.
Leaving Tangier is also important for how it explores some of the potential causes and reasons for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Morocco. We are shown how intelligent, talented young people can be twisted by desperate circumstances to believe in fundamentalist rhetoric that, while seeming to offer freedom and independence, is ultimately restrictive and oppressive. Unconvinced by the arguments of a man he meets in the café, who tries to recruit him to an Islamist cause, Azel is warned that he will miss Tangier once he leaves: ‘You’ll miss your culture, your religion, your country. We are against emigration, legal or clandestine, because our problems are things we have to solve here and now, without counting on others to fix them for us’. Mohammed Labri, Azel’s friend, joins a fundamentalist cause when he experiences life in Brussels, to disappear to Pakistan ‘never to be seen again’.
Importantly, the novel does not give us a one-dimensional perspective of how and where racism occurs. Azel is shocked and disgusted when he discovers that Kenza is having sex with Nazim, a Turkish man living in Spain whom she befriends. After abusing Nazim to Kenza, she asks him which other nationalities he hates and if this includes Arabs. His reaction shows that he is filled with self-loathing: ‘Arabs? I could never stand them. I’m an Arab who doesn’t like himself’ (p.144). Despite being treated badly by people like Carmen, and ultimately Miguel, Azel’s emotional immaturity and possessive attitude to his sister’s relationship prevent him from him seeing that his own view of Nazim is no different to the way that some Spaniards think of him. More broadly, the novel shows that crossing the water is two-way traffic; the Spanish or ‘Spanoolies’ as they termed who have emigrated to Morocco suffer from the same kind of attitudes that Moroccans encounter in Spain. Jelloun’s reminds us of how fragile a country’s social-political conditions can be and how these conditions can change with time. Not so long ago, it was Morocco that was perceived as a haven for the Spanish from the repressive tyranny of Franco’s regime in Spain. We see Miguel discovering a journal of his father that gives and account of the lives of political refugees in Morocco in the 1950s, and Miguel’s surprise at discovering that it was the Spanish who were the ‘illegal aliens’. When Kenza tried to commit suicide, Miguel finally understands the devastating psychological effects of unhappiness and broken dreams: ‘Miguel now realized that there was something terrifying about the loneliness of immigration, a kind of descent into a void, a tunnel of shadows of warped reality’ (p.199).
Fittingly, the novel finishes on the theme of return with a poetical, dream-like chapter that depicts a universal voyage back to Tangier under the guidance of Toutia, and which symbolizes an infinite number of journeys that have been both desired and undertaken for centuries. As in other of his novels, Jelloun employs the everyman figure of Moha, ‘a holy fool’, an itinerant storyteller who appears and who symbolizes Morocco’s hopes and dreams. As Don Quixote explains to the captain and those assembled: ‘He’s the immigrant without a name! This man is who I was, who your father was, who your son will be...we all hear the siren call of the open sea, the appeal of the deep, the voices from afar that live within us, and we all feel the need to leave our native land, because our country is not rich enough, or loving enough, or generous enough to keep us at home’ (p.219).
Max Fincher wrote his PhD at King’s College London, a queer reading of late eighteenth-century Gothic fiction that was published as Queering Gothic Writing in the Romantic Age by Palgrave Macmillan (2007). He has taught part-time on eighteenth-century fiction and women’s writing, at both King’s College London and Royal Holloway, and is an occasional book reviewer for the TLS. He is currently writing his first novel, tentatively titled The Pretty Gentleman, a queer historical thriller set in the Regency art world.
Review: NAKED LUNCH @ 50 Anniversary Essays
NAKED LUNCH @ 50
edited by Oliver Harris & Ian MacFadyen
Published by Southern Illinois University Press
Reviewed by Richard Livermore
Ever since Rimbaud, poetry and letters in general has been split in two - the bourgeois and the anti-bourgeois, by which I do not mean the anti-capitalist, but rather the militantly ‘perverse’ and ‘disreputable’ - or, if you like, the transgressive. The bourgeois sensibility, which promotes the ethical at the expense of freedom, turning an essentially transrational phenomenon into a category of the rational, includes the politically-correct. Edmund White’s recent biography of Rimbaud, for example, in which, on behalf of politically-correct values, he questions Enid Starkie’s Freudian assertion that Rimbaud might have enjoyed being raped by some soldiers he encountered during one of his teenage sojourns falls, I believe, into the category of the politically-correct. The politically-correct is an attempt to hold the line, to stop discourse spilling over into the anarchic and finding in freedom values to live by. What Rimbaud sought in poetry and life was a complete disordering of the senses, an opening up of himself to all the possibilities and permutations within himself. Why should that not include enjoying being raped?! Whether or not he did enjoy it is another question entirely, of course. What we are talking about here are possibilities not actualities, which anyway cannot be known. The point is that the transgressive transgresses the politically-correct, no less than it did bourgeois morality in Rimbaud’s time. I once wrote an essay called “Rimbaud, Our Contemporary”, in which I tried to show Rimbaud’s relevance to our own times and if there is a post-Second World War writer who embodies the kind of values which Rimbaud the poet would have believed in, it is, I believe, William Burroughs. No writer seems to have gone further than Burroughs in the Rimbaudian quest to disorder the senses and this is what makes The Naked Lunch such a seminal work and one worthy of a book of the nature of Naked Lunch @ 50.
What is it that is so good about this book? Well to begin with, except here and there, it completely eschews an academic approach to its subject. What we have instead are personal documents registering the impact Naked Lunch has had on its contributors - many of whom are creative figures in their own right. And there is such a wide variety of these that it in fact becomes a pleasure to turn the pages of this book and go from one writer to the next, knowing that what you’ll get is something different from what you’ve just had. What I would expect from a book of this nature is that it tells me things about its subject that I did not know before and therefore illuminates the complex, fragmentary text which is The Naked Lunch - not to mention the enigma of William Burroughs himself - and this expectation Naked Lunch @ 50 fulfils in abundance. Nearly all the contributions are memorable encounters of some kind or other, whether they are discussing aspects of the novel’s background - for example the racist South of the USA in which the lynching of ‘niggas’ was treated as an enjoyable family occasion, or Tangiers during a time of upheaval against French domination - or the impact the book has had on various cultural milieux from Germany to (gay) Apartheid South Africa, or simply the impact it had on individuals poets, writers and musicians, such as Barry Miles Jü rgen Ploog and R.B. Morris, it is a fascinating compendium. There is no attempt to whitewash its subject or gloss over some of Burroughs more ‘dubious’ political positions, especially in connection with the pre-occupations of certain post-Colonial critics, but you are very much left to come to your own conclusions. After all, no-one can have the last word in such matters. Works of literature ( & I do not use the upper-case L here), have a life of their own which invariably escapes any attempt to consign them to political boxes.
Those sections of the book which deal with Burroughs’s heroin addiction, his impact on other creative figures, on certain cultural milieux of the early 60s, his implicit anarchist critique of contemporary society and its methods of bureaucratic and technological control, his relationship with the Beats and Brion Gyson, his position vis a vis “Queer Culture”, the anti-colonial struggle, the racist South, or the War on Drugs, even the difference between the novel and the Cronenburg’s heterosexualised (Why, oh why?) film based on it, make for fascinating reading. As do Ian MacFadyen’s connecting “dossiers” which explain some of the more obscure references in the essays and place them in their wider contexts. Then, of course, there is Jeremy Reed’s vivid poem at the very end of the book, Avedon’s Burroughs Portrait, which adds a nice finishing touch to the book as a whole.
William S. Burroughs
Less satisfying - for me anyway - are the essays which attempt to place Burroughs in the critical context of the academic ghetto, arguing over whether Burroughs is a modernist or a post-modernist or even an amodernist, using jargon-terms such as paratext and intertextuality in attempts to define his precise literary or canonical status. Frankly, I couldn’t care a less about such discussions; they mean nothing to me and the only purpose they serve is to reinforce my belief that academics need to get a life or go out rather more than they do. Such discussions have very little ‘street-cred’ in my opinion, and they are certainly not going to inspire anyone to erect barricades or mount any ramparts. Auden said that poetry makes nothing happen. That wasn’t Burroughs’s philosophy. He obviously wanted to make things happen by drawing our attention to the kind of world and society we live in. He was nothing less than an anarchist who believed: “Democracy is cancerous, and bureaus are its cancer. A bureau takes root in the state, turns malignant like the Narcotics Bureau, and grows and grows, always reproducing more of its own kind, until it chokes the host, if not controlled or excised. Bureaus cannot live without a host, being true parasitic organisms. (A cooperative on the other hand can live without the state. That is the road to follow. The building up of independent units who participate in the functioning of the unit. A bureau operates on opposite principle of inventing needs to justify its existence.)” His radical stance is very well stated by Theophile Aries in his own contribution: “His many arrests, searches at airports, the many routines enacted by cops, the many bureaucratic procedures he had to undergo— all these experiences he went through were intelligently used in Naked Lunch but applied to everyone, not only addicts. He extended police encroachments to all citizens, foreseeing that some day everyone might be considered a criminal under obscure, ever-changing laws.” In 2009, we can see how prescient Burroughs was. Given all this, how anyone can make such a writer conform to their specialist concerns is beyond me. The Naked Lunch is not, and was never intended to be, a football to be kicked around from one academic to another. Burroughs was offering a radical critique of society as he saw it evolving in front of his eyes.
Another issue about Burroughs which is raised primarily by academics and touched upon here is the extent to which his ‘resistance’ has been co-opted and even to what extent he might have collaborated in this by setting up his own corporation to market his books. Well, to answer the second question first, all I can say is that writers have to operate within the limitations of the society that they are thrown into. This is very distinct from their written work which expresses a certain imaginative vision that transcends these limitations. As I have said, a writer’s work has a life of its own. Such criticisms of Burroughs remind me of those critics of Chomsky who call Chomsky a hypocrite because he owns shares in companies while calling himself an anarchist and writing against Corporate America and its wars. We all need to get by in this world. Engels, after all, was a businessman who supported Marx and, as Marx himself said, we make history, but not in circumstances of our choosing. This issue regarding the moral consistency between a writer’s life and his or her work is a real red herring in literary biography. Writers write in part to transcend the limitations of their day to day lives, and their work should not be held to account because of the way those limitations impinge on the way they live. As for the criticism that his work has been co-opted by corporate capitalism, well, that point is arguable. Has the spirit of his work been so co-opted? I very much doubt it. But post-modernist academics seem to want to convince us of the idea that we cannot transcend this society we live in, that the imagination has no function but to reinforce the social, cultural and spiritual norms generated by this society. Well, that is a point of view which is far from being settled at the time I am writing.
As I have said, only a very small minority of contributors approach Burroughs from an academic perspective and the book takes them in its stride very well. They do not intrude or alter the general tone of the book, which is very definitely a non-academic one. It is on the whole a true celebration of Burroughs’s book that really does live up to Michael Hrebeniak’s ‘blurb’ on the back cover, which talks of “a dynamic assembly of writing forms.” and describes it “as a whole new critical form.” It is one of those rare occasions when I agree with the blurb, and the editors, Oliver Harris and Ian MacFadyen, are to be congratulated for having the vision to produce such a book.
Richard Livermore was born in 1944. 6 weeks later, his father was killed in a bombing-raid over London and, not long after that, his mother was sectioned. He grew up in homes and boarding-schools, which he left at 15 to join the army. 6 months later, he was discharged and over the next few years went from job to job or was unemployed until in 1974 he went to Newbattle Abbey College and from there to Edinburgh University to study English Literature and Philosophy. On leaving university, he was largely unemployed until in 1985 he went to teach English in Spain. He returned in 1990 and did various cleaning jobs until his recent retirement.
He has had many poems published in magazines - both on-line and off - and numerous collections in book-form by various publishers (Lothlorien, Diehard, Chanticleer). His most recent collection is his "Selected Poems" published by Chanticleer.
At the moment Richard Livermore is a gentleman of leisure at the expense of the state and Her Majesty’s Government.
Event: Poetic Licence
Gay IconsNational Portrait Gallery
2 July – 18 October 2009
Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson
At the National Portrait Gallery in London, there is currently an exhibit on called Gay Icons which seeks to “explore gay social and cultural history.” The “gay icons” were chosen by a range of influential figures such as Jackie Kay, Ian McKellen, Chris Smith, Sarah Waters and Elton John and present a fascinating range of individuals from those from the centre of gay cultural life to the outermost and nearly-forgotten fringes. Jonathan Keane has organized a dynamic series of events
to accompany this exhibit. On this evening, writers/performers Alan Hollinghurst, Paul Burston, Jay Bernard, Bette Bourne, Dean Atta and Neil Bartlett gathered for the event ‘Poetic Licence’ to read from their work, present a selection of their influences and question the degree to which words/literature can be iconic.
Alan Hollinghurst spoke about how the novelist Ronald Firbank was virtually unknown in his lifetime and how his slender highly-stylized novels were critically misunderstood, but how Firbank was a strong influence on writers like Evelyn Waugh. He read a passage from Ronald Firbank’s majestic The Flower Beneath the Foot
Paul Burston began by presented a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire and spoke meaningfully about how when he studied the play everything but Tennessee William’s sexuality was considered in his seminar. Yet, it seemed to him impossible to discuss the seminal tragic figure of Blanche DuBois without acknowledging that she came out of the imagination of a gay sensibility. Burston read a passage from his novel The Gay Divorcee where he brought to life his own feisty female.
Paul Burston and Tennessee Williams
Jay Bernard presented a series of autobiographical illustrations and spoke powerfully about how influence doesn’t necessarily come from expected sources. She discussed how William Golding’s orphaned island boys left an indelible mark upon her and how she could feel more authentically herself posing as a white boy on an internet chat forum flirting with a teenage Texan girl rather than presenting herself as who she really was - an adolescent black girl questioning her sexuality in Croyden.
Bette Bourne gave a mesmerizing talk/performance about portrayals of identity and how the most flamboyant artifices can be the most sincere expressions of who we are inside. From September 21st – 27th he’ll be showcasing a no-doubt essential new performance at the Soho Theatre.
Dean Atta presented a series of powerful performance pieces about coming to terms with his estranged father and an individual’s responsibility to the community. He discussed a range of influences ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Maya Angelo to Bob Marley and how the beliefs and messages of these prominent figures have in some cases been obscured.
Neil Bartlett cited his most important gay icons including the masterful Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo and ended reading a passage from Oscar Wilde’s little known story “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” (printed in Ganymede issue #4). In reading passages from this story and his own novel Skin Lane, he spoke about the power of the character who walks through the night experiencing the inverse of societal norms as a way of getting to the essential core of his identity.
The event was an inspiring evening which successfully honored the icons which inspire us, brought to light some queer figures whose influence has been nearly forgotten and showcased an impressive range of talent that will no doubt inspire many future generations.
Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review and the anthologies From Boys to Men and Between Men 2.
Labels: Art, Event
Review: Bigger Than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore
Bigger Than Life
By Jeffrey Escoffier
Published by Running Press
Reviewed by Kevin Killian
Jeff Escoffier writes with ease and efficiency on a subject upon which hardly anybody has a handle: gay porn and the films that emerged from photographic studio practice in the 1960s. As history, Bigger than Life is as sprawling as its subject, for commercial porn as we know it today comes from multiple sources and practically defines the Marxist concept of uneven development.
Escoffier’s earlier chapters are perhaps his liveliest. We learn that some of the physique photographers had made private sex films for private clients, with perhaps only a single copy run off, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that anyone thought of going public with this material. The moving image captures an urgency and a phenomenonolgy that quickly made the still photo seem antique (thus, many old school lensmen bitterly protested the new medium). Sex seems more “real” on film, and as if to prove that it was really happening, subsequent generations of porn fetishized the come-shot to the point where it now provides most of the narrative interest of whatever actual feature it appears in. But this was not always the case. Sometimes—often—the early hardcore gay cinema did without the laundry list of kissing-oral-anal and did whatever the storyline dictated. In other ways the directors of the day shared the improvisatory, often goofy strategies of the New American Cinema, a sort of experimental frame of mind based on Emersonian pragmatism that might yield a shockingly “artistic” result, as well as being hot.
Thus the Joe Gages, the Cadinots, the Toby Rosses and the Wakefield Pooles. The supersaturated Technicolor washes of James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus—like Vincente Minnelli on Ecstasy—will never be repeated today. —Well, maybe someone like Todd Haynes might do it in pastiche, but the industry itself has moved on. Escoffier excels when analyzing the plots of early hardcore films, (e.g. Desires of the Devil, 1971), to show how a director’s cinema quickly became a performer’s medium or at best, a collaborative performance between actor and cameraman.
Escoffier’s critical skill never falters but as his narrative goes on, we see with a sinking feeling that practically no two careers in porn can be distinguished, and any individual career is so brief that it’s over before it has begun, like butterflies in reverse. Bigger than Life is filled with hundreds of names—most of them dopey and pseudonymic—and only a handful of good stories hide in the haystack of bodily perfection. It’s a cinema of “stars” who, like the starlets of the classical Hollywood cinema, make a film every month, then after two years they’re invited to jump off the giant Pornotopia sign—because they’re history. Do porn aficionados develop lifelong attachments to the stars they once jerked off to? Probably not, because otherwise wouldn’t the stars have longer careers? Seems like their audiences tire of them quickly, or else the peak of physical perfection is brief as that of a banana or apple. Escoffier is quiet on this subject; the affectional and the obsessive are outside his purlieu.
Three cataclysmic disasters overtook porn, one after the other. Video supplanted film at a certain point, leading to an increased democratization of body and fetish types on the one hand, but to a slapdash and muddy visual look on the other. (This was the argument animating Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film Boogie Nights.) The genre reacted by exploding, so it was only a disaster to the dandy. In the second disaster, well, it is useless to complain of AIDS in this context, that it ruined porn, but it decimated the ranks of its actors and its effects continue to manifest themselves today. The rise of barebacking video shows that the market still wants to see that dick slide up that ass, naked and unwrapped. Finally, the internet happened so there is no longer a “gay porn film industry” today, not when you and I could start our own channel, aim the webcam at our own crotches, and take the money of a paying public. Well, I wouldn’t make much money but I’ve seen guys uglier and older than I going at it and often. Indeed, commercial studios are now resorting to faked “amateur,” “candid” footage to please the tastes of a public interested only in the “real.” Again, everyone’s a “porn star” now - I was just reading a statistic that said that everyone - everyone of you reading this review - has photographed his own genitals in arousal. In a world of infinite images, whither arousal?
In a way, as Escoffier indicates, what has happened to porn parallels what happened to the larger gay movement during the same period. Jostled back and forth between radical and conservative factions, both porn and the political arena in which it was crucibled have tended to follow the formulas of neoliberal globalism - a complete lack of care, a totalizing system dedicated solely to the market. This book tells you how we got there.Kevin Killian is a San Francisco writer His books include Bedrooms Have Windows, Shy, Little Men, Arctic Summer, Argento Series, I Cry Like a Baby, and Action Kylie. His new book of stories is called Impossible Princess (from City Lights Books).
Review: Collected Poems and The Unfinished Poems of C.P. Cavafy
The Unfinished Poems
C. P. Cavafy
translated with an introduction and commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Reviewed by Richard Canning
A new English edition of the poetry of Constantine Cavafy might ordinarily not constitute news. In the past half century, plenty have come our way: six full or complete new translated collections in the last decade alone: Mavrogordato (1951), Dalven (1961), Stangos and Spender (1967), Friar (1973), Keeley and Sherrard (1975), Khairallah (1979), Kolaitis (1988), Theoharis (2001), Sachperoglou (2007), Barnstone (2007), Haviaris (2007), Sharon (2008) and Boegeheld (2009). He is, then, not only ‘the foremost homosexual poet in modern European literature’ (Christopher Robinson) but among the most translated of all twentieth-century poets – a rather startling achievement for someone of whom E.M. Forster (an early advocate) could write in 1951: ‘To be understood in Alexandria and tolerated in Athens was the extent of his ambition.’
These two volumes from Knopf, though, arrive with fanfare and a deal of advance praise (Richard Howard; Mark Doty, whose collection My Alexandria nods to his Greek forebear; Edward Hirsch), and with good reason. In Daniel Mendelsohn (The Elusive Embrace, The Lost: a Search for Six of Six Million), they have a translator of rare pedigree. He makes his way through the Ithacas and Spartas of the known Cavafy canon – comprising over 250 works, long classified as the ‘Published’, ‘Repudiated’ and ‘Unpublished’ poems - with great dexterity and a formal awareness that distinguishes the poems, as I shall show. But ardent Cavafy fans will head directly to the second book. For Mendelsohn is the first English translator to tackle the thirty incomplete poems Cavafy left when he died in 1933, which were first collected in a Greek scholarly edition, Ateli, in 1994. Though they take up only 33 pages of The Unfinished Poems (the rest is substantial textual apparatus), they illuminate the last fifteen years of Cavafy’s career in startling and diverse ways, returning to themes common in the verse we had, but also pointing to emerging preoccupations previously unsighted. This becomes even more important, given that – by general consent – Cavafy is considered a late developer; the great poems came to him in mid-life. His earlier writings were considered - even by himself during his ‘Philosophical Scrutiny’ of them at the age of forty - to have constituted a twenty-year accumulation of juvenilia.
Cavafy’s obsessive scrutiny of his own oeuvre, and the dismissal, suppression or concealment of material he did not (yet) rate (so) highly, might make Mendelsohn’s embrace of the late poems appear speculative. (Cavafy was orderly in everything. He even died on the day of his seventieth birthday.) Will these new poems bear any comparison to the known output? The answer in most cases is a definite yes. Moreover, Mendelsohn persuasively argues that Cavafy meant for all the pieces present here to be seen and recognized in due course - as with his many ‘Unpublished Poems’, to which Cavafy typically appended a note: ‘need not be published. But it may continue remaining here. It does not deserve to be suppressed.’ To him, verses were like seedlings, to be slowly nourished and encouraged until they had recognizably come to flower. (One bears in mind helpfully here Yeats’s belief that a poem is never finished, only abandoned).
The recent past has seen a tendency to distinguish between Cavafy’s ‘historical’ verse and the ‘erotic’ material, which is then invariably accorded lesser status. Mendelsohn challenges this, arguing that Cavafy ‘did not have two subjects – present desire and the ancient past – but looked at the decline of civilizations dead for a thousand years and the end of love affairs that sputtered only months ago with the same eye… In both cases, it is the contemplation that redeems that object from oblivion.’ I agree. To understand Cavafy’s historical aesthetic, we need to perceive the world as he did: by way of Alexandria, his home city: an ancient one, but, more importantly, a living palimpsest: a place where the past hadn’t gone anywhere. It is not merely that there are ghosts among Cavafy’s Alexandrian peers: it is that ghosts and flesh-and-blood men and women co-exist and prove – to the poet – indistinguishable. Even at their most consistently ‘historical’, then, Cavafy’s poems – like Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, many set in the Italian Renaissance – resonate with the urgency of contemporary concerns. Forster noted that there was ‘nothing patronizing in his attitude to the past’, but the truth is even stronger than this: Cavafy chose to judge, and thought it fit to judge, historical figures according to values which were not just contemporary, but perennial.
The late poems are reflective, quite frequently nostalgic, with some of the wistfulness of late Auden whenever they tackle desire. One, at least, might have been written yesterday: ‘The Item in the Paper’, where a young man reads of the murder of a boy he enjoyed a sexual tryst with: ‘The newspaper/ expressed its pity, but, as usual,/ it displayed its complete contempt/ for the depraved way of life of the victim.’ The word ‘contempt’ – its true subject – echoes through this poem, a caustic threnody to prejudice. Another poem, ‘On the Jetty’ - about an evening of illicit lovemaking – isn’t designed as a companion piece, but might well have been: ‘Night of our encounter/ on the jetty; at a great/ distance from the cafes and the bars.’ ‘The Photograph’ has the poet gazing at the ‘beautiful youthful face’ of a former lover, now dead, but adds in consolation: ‘they didn’t let any foolish shame/ get in the way of their love, or make it ugly.’ (On the subject of shame, a friend recorded how, each and every time Cavafy consorted with a male prostitute, he would return home and write the words: ‘I swear I won’t do it again.’)
‘The Bishop Pegasius’, meanwhile, illustrates Cavafy’s chronological sleight of hand. Nominally, it describes an encounter between two men of the early Christian period – the bishop and young emperor-to-be, Julian - who professed to be believers, but were secretly pagan sympathizers. Yet it resonates with a different, yet entirely comparable, erotic significance to the attuned reader:
They entered the exquisite temple of Athena
…They looked with longing and affection at the statues –
still, they spoke to one another haltingly,
with innuendos, with double-meaning words,
with phrases full of cautiousness,
since neither could be certain of the other
and they were constantly afraid they’d be exposed…
Indeed, furtiveness, suspicion, discretion and secrecy are hallmarks of the corpus of Cavafy’s poetry, including those on historical themes; these preoccupations, it seems clear, arose readily from the poet’s temperamental concerns about his sexual identity and consequent social predicament: ‘An obstacle was there and it stopped me/ on many occasions when I was going to speak.’ (‘Hidden’, an ‘Unpublished Poem’ from the Collected Poems).
Thus a poem about Justinian, the despotic Byzantine ruler savaged in his adviser Procopius’s Secret History reads:
Frequently Justinian’s gaze
caused terror and revulsion among his servants.
They suspected something that they dared not say…
Another Unfinished Poem trumpeted by Mendelsohn is ‘After the Swim’, which literally wrong-foots the reader, seeming to be set in one moment in the contemporary world, in the next, at the tail end of Byzantium: ‘They were slow getting dressed, they were sorry to cover/ the beauty of their supple nudity/ which harmonized so well with the comeliness of their faces.’ ‘Crime’ is spoken by one of a set of young thieves, who describes his partner in the crime, Stavros, unaffectedly as: ‘The best lad in our group,/ clever, strong, and beautiful beyond imagining.’ Cavafy’s attraction to the physicality of poor, working-class youths is obvious – but his rationale for imitating their direct and straightforward mode of expression relates not to his erotics, but to the obsession with secrecy and hypocrisy that Cavafy felt was part of bourgeois, hypocritical social mores (hence Forster’s reference to his ‘amoral mind’).
In one note of 1906, for example, Cavafy rewarded his simple ‘folk’ with a ‘beauty’ which, he argues, is singularly absent in ‘affluent youth who are either sickly and physiologically dirty, or filled with fat and stains from too much food and drink… you think that in their bloated or dimpled faces you can discern the ugliness of the theft and robbery of their inheritance and its interest.’ Joe Orton and Morrissey might concur. Another new late poem, ‘Company of four’, similarly observes a gang of ruffians, if from the outside: ‘The money that they make certainly isn’t honest./ But they’re clever lads, these four, and they have found/ a way to make it work and stay clear of the police.’
As well as the thirty new complete-if-unfinished poems, there are four less prepared drafts, one of which is memorable. ‘My Soul Was On My Lips’( a reference to Plato’s Symposium) is spoken by a boy of twenty-five, on realizing that his younger lover’s comment that he might soon die was no idle fantasy. He returns, seizes the boy and kisses him all over. The poem ends, however, with this proleptic denouement:
I didn’t go to the funeral. I was sick.
All alone his mother mourned for him,
over the white coffin, pure of heart.
Of the Collected Poems, it is probable that Mendelsohn will receive both praise and some censure. No translation to date has satisfied everybody. Yet it seems to me that at his best, Mendelsohn’s liberties - in at times adopting a different poetical schema for the lines; at others, in freely embracing all manner of English idiolects and coinages – renews the verse admirably without misrepresenting it. He manages, I’d hazard (though I’m not a native speaker), a version of Cavafy’s peculiar, sometimes unstable shackling together of demotic Greek and elevated idiom. Keeley and Sherrard’s versions, perhaps the best known in English, come to feel somewhat prosaic by contrast, even while they may be more literally correct. Compare ‘Walls’:
With no consideration, no pity, no shame,
they have built walls around me, thick and high.
And now I sit here feeling hopeless.
I can’t think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind –
because I had so much to do outside.
When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed!
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
Imperceptibly they have closed me off from the outside world.
Without pity, without shame, without consideration
they’ve built around me enormous, towering walls.
And I sit here now in growing desperation.
This fate consumes my mind, I think of nothing else:
because I had so many things to do out there.
O while they built the walls, why did I not look out?
But no noise, no sound from the builders did I hear.
Imperceptibly they shut me off from the world without.
It is neither apt nor fair to compare these poems in terms of accuracy (Cavafy, incidentally, being fluent in English, read over and commented on the very first translations, and, early on, even wrote three poems in English. But he was never as keen to see the approved translations published in Britain and the States as Forster expected or wanted). Vassilis Lambropoulos – in an essay in an American exhibition calalogue,‘What these Ithakas mean’ (2002), argued that Cavafy’s own use of the Greek language was ‘not diachronic but precise, or, to use his word, upright.’ Paradoxically, on the one hand then, to Lambropoulos, it ‘needs no translation: its exact vocabulary operates on a shared level of abstraction.’
Yet that’s only putting half of the case. It is also true that Cavafy sought to bring to some accommodation the span between the tradition of elevated (written) Greek literature and the contrasting example of demotic (spoken) language. The result the poet himself described as a ‘blend’. As Mendelsohn points out, it is consequently a mistake to overemphasize the supposed ‘laconic plainness’ of the verse, which is just one aspect of its texture in the original.
Consequently, while it is true that Cavafy’s language, as Lambropolous allows, ‘can sustain almost any translation: its exacting vocabulary in the end makes each new rendition its own,’ I’m persuaded that Mendelsohn’s version of ‘Walls’ is starkly the more poetic. It is more memorable, resonant, but also more spacious. Its somewhat imagistic phrasing “stutters” the reader into the predicament of the speaking poet. The poem feels more porous, itself an intrinsic Cavafyan quality. (Mendelsohn’s ‘Introduction’ to the Collected Poems makes a similar claim: that he sought to offer us ‘a Cavafy who looks, feels, and sounds in English they way he looks, feels, and sounds in Greek’). What it also manages to reflect is the fact that Cavafy had chosen a clear, if loose ‘a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d’ rhyme scheme in the original (even Forster did not realize that any of Cavafy’s verse rhymed). Mendelsohn alludes to it, and opts to echo it, without being enslaved by any demand for a purely imitative English rhyme scheme. (In his ‘Introduction’, Mendelsohn makes an equally intelligent case for aiming broadly to imitate Cavafy’s distinctive enjambment.)
It can be somewhat difficult to find particular poems that have been retitled in Mendelsohn’s version - perhaps my sole quibble. An appendix might have listed the original Greek titles, as well as those found in Keeley/Sherrard. Still, when I did get to ‘The Year 31 B.C. in Alexandria’ (a poem better known as ‘In Alexandria, 31 B.C.’), it was a revelation. Few translators have attempted to match Cavafy’s use of rhyme in this poem. Those that have done so have, arguably, done the poem a greater disservice by making it sound like ‘doggerel’, as Peter Bien characterised Mavrogordato’s rhymed version. Walter Arndt similarly came unstuck. His rhymed version nevertheless “cheats”, since Cavafy’s poem is rendered in rhyming couplets, yet Arndt opens with:
From his suburban village come,
Still dusty from the way he’d fared,
The pedlar arrived. And: “incense!” “gum!”
“The finest oil!” and “scent for the hair!”
Arendt also uses a French word, ‘canard’, to effect a rhyme in this poem’s closing lines: ‘He is tossed the prodigious Palace canard:/ Antonius in Greece is winning the war.’ As Bien has noted (again, in ‘What these Ithakas mean’), though the vowels are spelt the same, there really is no way of securing a rhyme between ‘canard’ and ‘war.’
Bien himself offers a version of this poem which closes with:
he too is tossed the gigantic palace yarn
that Antony, in Greece, has won.
He concedes, however, that ‘yarn’ is something of a stretch here. Cavafy’s Greek word would most directly become ‘lie’ in English, the word Mendelsohn prefers:
someone tosses him the palace’s gargantuan lie:
that victory in Greece belongs to Antony.
I find this the best by far of the many versions we now have. Mavrogordato’s couplet is simply ungainly:
And someone tosses him too the gigantic piece
Of palace fiction – Antony’s victory in Greece.
Keeley and Sherrard get the award for literalness, opting for ‘lie’ and also preserving the present continuous sense of Cavafy’s original (‘is winning’, rather than Bien’s ‘has won’, which is too dogmatic):
someone tosses him too the huge palace lie:
that Antony is winning in Greece.
(This is certainly superior to Dalven’s account, which manages couplets but no rhyme, and is resolutely unpoetic:
One of them hurls at him also the gigantic lie
of the palace – that in Greece Anthony is victorious.)
Yet the effect in Keeley/Sherrard is simply lacking in force, as a result of the abandonment of the original’s rhyming couplets. No translation can capture all, but I liked Mendelsohn’s resort in English to ‘victory in Greece belongs to Antony’, too, which aptly suggests imminence, rather than achievement: the victory is rumoured, not secured. Overall, Mendelsohn’s ‘The Year 31 B.C. in Alexandria’ – by responding in a relaxed way to Cavafy’s metre, but stringently to his poetics - proves succinct, memorable, dexterous, lapidary: again, Cavafy-like, in sum:
From his little village near the city’s outskirts,
still dusted with his journey’s dirt,
the peddler arrives. He hawks his wares –
“Incense!” “Gum!” “The finest oil!” “Scent for your hair-”
through the streets. But the tremendous stir,
and the music, and parades, won’t let him be heard.
The mob shoves him, drags him, knocks him down.
And at the height of his confusion, when he asks “What on earth is going on?”
someone tosses him the palace’s gargantuan lie:
that victory in Greece belongs to Antony.
Now, to complement Mendelsohn’s two volumes - perhaps to be collected into a single, indispensable paperback edition? - we might hope for a successor to Robert Liddell’s 1974 life of the poet. Still the only one available in English, while full of diverting and helpful incidents, it is marred by a somewhat meandering and incomplete narrative structure, and shows its age too in its implied approach towards Cavafy’s erotic nature.Richard Canning’s forthcoming edited volume, 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read (Alyson, 2009) will include an essay on Cavafy’s poetry by the American novelist David Plante. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Labels: Poetry Review
Review: Hotel de Dream by Edmund White
Hotel de Dream
Published by Bloomsbury
Reviewed by Gregory Woods
Poor Henry James! What did he ever do to deserve his exhumation and re-animation by early twenty-first century novelists? His fastidious particularity about human relationships seems to have become regarded as if it were a distant and exotic cultural practice, like foot-binding or cannibalism, vaguely picturesque but ultimately demanding to be stamped out. Is loquacious celibacy such a terrible crime? It is as if we can no longer imagine a thoughtful, inactive man without speculating on what it is he is concealing about his person. Now, in a novel about the American Naturalist novelist Stephen Crane (1871-1900), Edmund White has introduced James as a more or less malevolent presence, working against the interests not only of the uninhibited life, but even of literature itself.
Some of this may have been my fault. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle (June 19, 2004), Colm Tóibín said it was a reading of my History of Gay Literature (Yale University Press, 1998)—which he had been asked to review in the London Review of Books—that led him back to Henry James: ‘James loomed quite large in that book, and I had to go back and look up things about his sexuality and how it was both concealed and disclosed in his novels’. The eventual consequence, for which I cannot sensibly claim any credit, was Tóibín’s wonderful novel The Master (2004).
When I first heard of White’s new novel I egotistically wondered whether something similar had happened with White and Stephen Crane, a friend of James’s. After all, I had ended one of the chapters of my History by conjuring up a book combining the virtues of his prostitution novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and his Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) to express how much had been lost when Crane abandoned his ‘gay’ novel. The story is told that he did write forty or so pages of such a narrative, but then destroyed it on the advice of Hamlin Garland and other friends. I am not seriously suggesting that my book, which he has probably not read, gave White the idea for his; but he is answering questions many of us have independently asked on hearing of the phantom Crane book. Like the rest of us, White has asked himself what such a book would have been like, and why its author would have embarked on it in the first place. In his ‘Postface’ to Hotel de Dream he asks, ‘How would a heterosexual man who had wide human sympathies, an affection for prostitutes, a keen, compassionate curiosity about the poor and downtrodden, a terminal disease—how would such a man have responded to male homosexuality if he was confronted with it? How would he have thought about it in an era when homosexuals themselves were groping for explanations of their proclivities?’ (pp.225-226).
White imagines Crane deciding to reassemble the story Garland persuaded him to destroy. Hotel de Dream is delivered in three parallel narratives: that of Crane himself, close to tubercular death, being tenderly conducted across Europe to a sanatorium in the Black Forest by his beloved not-wife Cora, retired whore and brothel madam; that of a boy Crane once encountered in the streets of Manhattan, who wore make-up, sold himself to older men, and inspired Crane to attempt to tell the story of a relationship between such a boy and such a man; and the third, Crane’s novel itself, entitled The Painted Boy. In this, Theodore, a respectable, married banker with no form in such matters, is so taken with a boy he meets in the street that he sets him up in a rented room, has a nude figure of him sculpted, and, ultimately, sacrifices job and family to his evanescent charms.
The main bulk of White’s book alternates Crane’s journey towards his own demise with Theodore’s pathetic decline into social non-existence. By comparison with Theodore’s loss of his lover, job and family, Crane’s loss of life is a relative cheerful affair. White has diligently researched what Crane would have had to research, and provides us with atmospheric and persuasive glimpses of late nineteenth-century gay Manhattan. That Crane knows he is in his final illness, and that he is dictating this novel to a woman who used to be a brothel-keeper, allows White to make The Painted Boy explicit to an extent that would otherwise have been implausible. Crane has nothing left to lose, so not only can he compose what he refers to as his ‘boy-whore book’ (p.9), but he can include thoughtful details on penis size and other matters that look somewhat more Whiteish than Craneish.
Henry James and Stephen Crane
One of White’s early books, co-authored with Charles Silverstein, was The Joy of Gay Sex (1977), in its day a daring and ground-breaking work of celebration, its title recalling not only its heterosexual counterpart by Alex Comfort (1972) but also the 1957 obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the most shocking line of which was taken to be ‘who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy’–its most shocking word being not ‘fucked’ but ‘joy’. While never pretending that sex is untroubled, White has always argued, even when the odds seemed against it, that it could be both copiously entertaining and the source of deep personal fulfilment.
In States of Desire (1980), his remarkable travelogue through gay liberationist and anti-gay America just before the outbreak of AIDS, he wrote: ‘My ideal reader, at least when I write fiction, is a cultivated heterosexual woman in her sixties who knows English perfectly but is not an American’. It was for her sake—or rather, for the sake of his own grip on her attention—that he hoped his books would not be consigned to the gay sections of book shops. She accounted for certain over-refined aspects of his first couple of novels, not least their aesthetic preciousness. Only by turning his attention to another type of reader would he be able to achieve his most striking effects.
The critical commonplace of those days—still not entirely discredited today—was that the liberation of homosexuality was destroying the literature of homosexuality, because what had once been so satisfyingly hidden away in discreet metaphor and expedient obliqueness was now becoming brazen and unapologetic. Where once there had been Proust, there were now writers like Genet and Burroughs. It is an odd rule if you apply it to anything else (American literature would be so much better if it never mentioned America…) and its proponents tended to rely on forgetting that Proust had actually treated the topic in a straightforwardly explicit manner. In a 1980 essay, ‘The Political Vocabulary of Homosexuality’, White argued that, on the contrary, ‘liberation should free gays from tediously repetitious works that end in madness or suicide, that dwell on the “etiology” of the characters’ homosexuality (shadowy Dad, suffocating Mum, beloved, doomed, effeminate Cousin Bill) and that feature long, static scenes in which Roger gently weeps over Hank’s mislaid hiking boot’. Far from hobbling gay writers, the release from (self-) censorship would allow them the freedom to stretch the boundaries of their work. The implicit aim was a point at which it would seem no more limiting to call someone a ‘gay writer’ than to call him an ‘American writer’.
White saw that he belonged to a generation of gay writers who, because they could be open about their sexuality, might actually address gay readers in their own language, using the conventions and assumptions of their own subcultures. They would write about gay life without explaining it to a judgemental, non-gay audience; and they would avoid the language of statute books and medical directories. Where possible, they would be positive about homosexuality, but they would not dogmatically cover up the negatives. If they wrote well, it might even be possible to overcome the indifference or overt hostility of the non-gay reader, yet to do so without apology and without compromising on gay subject-matter. (No more swapping of the genders of pronouns, for instance, and no more speaking of mere friendship when love or physical desire were meant.) As White put it in a 1993 speech, ‘I decided to work on the principle behind the New Yorker that pretends all readers are Manhattanites, a policy that flatters even Iowans’.
That has been White’s great achievement. No writer of his generation has done more to shape a viable future for the gay novel beyond pornography, yet he has done so without airbrushing out sexual detail, whether pretty or ugly. His reputation rests on the trilogy of autobiographical ‘gay novels’, A Boy’s Own Story (1982), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) and The Farewell Symphony (1997), plus the later continuation of his own life story, A Married Man. All the rest of his books are offshoots and byways, albeit impressive ones. For many years he has been the most interesting, adventurous and ambitious of the American gay novelists. Not for him the aimless dispensing of camp froth that has waylaid so many gay writers; nor for him endless variations on the teenage coming-out story. He has far more to say about humanity’s queernesses than most of his colleagues herded together. Like Proust and Isherwood before him he has made fiction and even myth out of the quotidian materials of his own life; like Genet, of whom he has written the authoritative biography, he has transmuted his deepest degradations into a life-affirming poetry. Although he works in a discernibly gay tradition, his preoccupations with love and loss cannot rationally be regarded as any less ‘universal’ than the rampant heterosexualism of an Updike or a Roth.
In The Farewell Symphony, White examines the first years of gay liberation in New York City, and their legendary sexual excesses, with both enthusiasm and scepticism. Since the book is the third of a trilogy, he is able to look back on his (narrator’s) life and evaluate his changing impressions as representative of major social changes for American gay men in general. Whereas in the 1950s he had thought he was the only one, by the 1960s he had come to believe that everyone was one. In the previous decade, people had laughed at the idea of homosexual rights as if at that of safe-crackers’ rights; now they were part of a coherent political platform. And yet, he claims, the only rights gay men really wanted to protect were sexual—above all, quantitative. (‘Even “love” was a suspect word, smelling of the bidet’—by which I think he means women.) In those days before gay marriage and partnership rights, he says, gay men had sex first and then, over conversation, decided whether they could become friends. He and others of his generation imagined that the couple could be replaced by a more general festival of Whitmanly adhesiveness. Yet he keeps insisting, reasonably, that anonymity does not preclude intimacy; indeed, he avers that the most romantic experience he ever had was with a stranger.
Then, of course, everything changed. The last chapter of The Farewell Symphony begins with the sentence ‘Somebody at my gym became ill’. The catastrophe of AIDS begins and the players start to leave the stage. As if summarising the changing moods of the trilogy as a whole, the narrator speaks of gay men as having been ‘oppressed in the fifties, freed in the sixties, exalted in the seventies and wiped out in the eighties’.
It is to White’s great credit that, notwithstanding his productive vanity—always readily acknowledged by him with wry irony—he exposes his own faults with exhibitionistic flair, anal warts and all. The narrator of his trilogy is no sexless observer, as Proust’s Marcel and Isherwood’s Christopher so often seem to be. On the contrary, he commits some terrible sins (if I can borrow a concept from an alien cosmology). Of these, perhaps the worst is when the HIV-positive narrator of The Farewell Symphony rapes a young rent boy without using a condom.
Reviewing A Boy’s Own Story in the TLS (19 August 1983), Alan Hollinghurst ridiculed White’s more extravagant metaphors, associating them with ‘the forced and yet strangely complacent diction of queens’. Such expressions as ‘the terrible, decaying Camembert of my heart’ reduced him to fits of hilarity. Such eccentricities of expression have proliferated over the years, but now, in order to sound a bit like Stephen Crane—who was a precursor to Hemingway, writing in visual images and respecting masculine inarticulacy—White has reined in his wilder excesses. Even so, there are moments when the language of the book falters. Crane would not have used the word ‘sex’ to mean sexual activity (p.8), and it is extremely unlikely that he would have spoken of sharing accommodation ‘with five other male friends’ (p.28)’, rather than just with five friends, their maleness being taken for granted. Although White takes care to point out that some of Cora’s diction is learnt from her lover (‘philtrum’, for instance), there are times when she waxes unconvincingly literate, as when she is thinking of Henry James: ‘all he did was write and contemplate life as obscured by the prismatic interference of the mirrors in her mind’ (p.41). Theodore sometimes seems to know too much about his era in Manhattan. This is a side-effect of White’s trying to keep his readers abreast of late nineteenth-century detail, rather than of any such need on Crane’s part. Although White is aware that this might be a problem—at one point another character has to intervene in Theodore’s information-giving, saying ‘Yes, I know … I, too, read the papers’ (p.181)—he apparently has not felt the need to solve it. At other times, for similar reasons, White includes for our sake a detail that would, for Crane’s readers, have been a statement of the obvious, as when Theodore speaks of ‘The United States, all forty-four of them’ (p.171).
White is rather more sentimentally sympathetic to the foolish Theodore than one would have expected of Crane. In the end, though, his portrayal of Crane is scrupulously respectful, and his attempt to construe Crane’s writing, in terms of both his general style and the specific substance of The Painted Boy, is an impressive tribute. One cannot say the same about his portrayal of Henry James. When Crane dies, his boy-whore book unfinished, Cora sends the only manuscript to James, hoping that he will sympathetically fill in its gaps and try to get it published. But it shocks him and he destroys it. Thus, Hotel de Dream begins and ends with the two burnings of The Painted Boy, Garland’s and James’s. There have been other, minor holocausts in between: thinking it a veiled attack on herself, Cora burns a published short story that Henry James has dedicated to Crane; Theodore destroys the report that a detective compiles for him when he jealously has Elliott followed. Then, when he is stolen from Theodore by a pretty stereotypical Mafioso, Elliott gets a lot more than his fingers burnt. It is as if White is both celebrating and deploring a period when the written word was revered to the extent of being routinely erased for its tendency to scandalise. None of his own career could have happened in Henry James’s lifetime—unless he had adopted Jamesian strategies of indirection and obfuscation. Yet he seems to be blaming James for having submitted to and colluded in such anti-literary social pressures.
Although without the preaching, there is something implicitly preachy about this ending. It conveys a (what?) post-Freudian? post-Kinsey? post-Stonewall? dogmatic attitude to telling the truth about sex—and telling it straight, not slant. We see James almost entirely from Cora’s point of view, and she does not like him. Not only does she think him as ‘queer as a football bat’ (p.38) but she believes he can approximate Crane’s ‘throbbing’ masculinity ‘only through a eunuch’s sly attitudinizing’ (pp.42-43). He emerges as a flaccid monster of inhibition. What is lacking is much sense of why he does what he does—other than because he was a closeted celibate who should have known better. Aimed at the master of the nuance by a writer who is himself mighty respectful of nuance, this makes little sense. White has James acting on a decisive opinion not so much about literature as about propriety. If this leaves James looking mean-spirited, it has a similar effect on White himself. There is something dispiriting about this attack—from such a great distance—on the author of The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl. It is not much fairer than manuscript-burning itself.
Gregory Woods is Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. His critical books include Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry (1987) and A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (1998), both from Yale University Press. His poetry books are published by Carcanet Press. His website is www.gregorywoods.co.uk