GAY-THEMED BOOKS THAT INFLUENCED ME
My first encounter with a book whose principal theme was homosexual love came when I was 15. The book was Lord Dismiss Us by Michael Campbell. Set in a boarding school, and telling the story of two teenage boys discovering the pains and pleasures of love and sex, it practically exploded into my own life, also at boarding school and just beginning to grapple with my own, at the time rather alarming, same-sex impulses – as well as grappling in a rather more robust sense with my schoolmates’ private parts. In a world where there were no ‘gay’ shelves in libraries or shops the impact this had on me was rather like turning a corner and coming unexpectedly upon my own naked reflection in a mirror I hadn’t known was there.
Lord Dismiss Us was both insightful and accurate in its portrayal of adolescent passion, employing humour as well as limpid prose in descriptions of sex that were at once both reverent and, for their time (the late ‘60s) enjoyably frank. I think that page 136 was the one that you had to read time and time again – though perhaps it was page 132. (Maybe someone reading this still owns a copy and can check!)
Next along came a book that wasn’t strictly gay at all. The ‘buddy-buddy’ film, Midnight Cowboy, starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, was based on a book of the same name by James Leo Herlihy - which, having watched the movie, I simply had to buy. There were things in the relationship between the two young men that the film skated over rather. For instance, the look they gave each other after Joe tidies Ratso’s hair when they’ve just been thrown out of a party. What was that all about?
The book explained (approximately): ‘Something nameless had come into the air between them, it floated, hovering’ … (Dear Mr Herlihy, you wrote the moment far better than that. Apologies for my memory’s clumsy recall of your words after so long.) Even this, though, was still tantalisingly vague about what that something was. But I knew exactly. I was 16 now and something of the same sort was hovering equally disquietingly in the air between myself and one or two of my best friends…
Unlike Lord Dismiss Us and Midnight Cowboy, the next two books I want to mention have not really had time to ‘shape’ me, either as writer or person: I discovered them too recently. Nevertheless they both lit up my horizon like lightning flashes. Reading In Youth Is Pleasure by Denton Welch I rediscovered that experience you have as a child when you peer into a microscope for the first time, and see things your imagination would never have come up with on its own. Welch’s writing homes in on the minute details, physical and sensual, of the events of a few days in the life of a young teenager on holiday in the 1930s. The protagonist, Orvil (who we may reasonably suppose shares rather more than 98% of his DNA with his creator) is a strikingly odd child, solitary and self-absorbed. Today he would probably be pronounced autistic. His bizarre exploits, his developing sexual longings and mildly masochistic experiments are presented with the precision of microscopy but, strikingly, without authorial comment or interpretation. This effect of naïve artlessness is in fact the result of rigorous observation, careful selection and finely crafted writing. Overall it gives the reader a sense of profound unease. There are no explicit sexual descriptions (Orvil is rather young after all, and the book was published in 1945) yet Welch manages to imbue the whole work with a powerful erotic charge. Impossible to read Welch’s description of boys rowing up a river, naked to the waist, without seeing clearly in which direction Orvil’s developing sexuality will take him.
But if sexual matters are veiled and implicit in Welch’s book, in Eric Jourdan’s Wicked Angels (Les Mauvaises Anges) published in 1955 and subsequently banned for 30 years, they are trumpeted from the rooftops. Jourdan’s two protagonists are already 17 – Jourdan’s own age when he wrote it - and spend most of the short book in each other’s arms, either in bed or on the willow-hung banks of the River Loire. Here is a book that tells the truth about falling in love when the love is a forbidden one and the lovers are just 17. And what a terrifying - if initially beautiful - abyss that love turns out to be. The story has a mythic quality, in the real sense of the word. Exquisite pleasure and exquisite pain are described in sumptuous prose that is jewel-like in its elegance and devastating in its precision and power. Few writers past their teens would dare to write in the more than opulent style that Jourdan chose, and attempt to sustain such a pitch of intensity throughout, in telling the tale of a falling in love - and passion, and lust - that is as sheer and bottomless as the fall of Lucifer. And only a teenager whose immense confidence in his formidable powers was entirely justified could have pulled it off.
Now, I don’t propose to out Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) as a crypto-gay author, but I have to remark that some of those books of hers that I’ve most enjoyed do exhibit marked homosexual tendencies. No Night Is Too Long and A Fatal Inversion have both made an enormous impression on me. The first is a story of doomed love between two young men who tragically misunderstand each other’s temperaments and needs. With echoes of Crime and Punishment, it is full of Rendell’s characteristic insights, dark yet loving, into the human heart. There is a vividness about it that make parts of the book almost physically painful to read.
The same qualities mark A Fatal Inversion. Although the gay issue is far from central, appearing as only one of many elements in the changing cloudscape of emotions among a group of very young adults, I have singled it out (or perhaps it singled me out!) because of its powerful evocation of that dreamlike quality that real life is seen to posses when we take the trouble to examine it closely – most particularly, perhaps, in remembered youth. In this book Rendell’s writing has a sheen on it like that on shot silk, or like the play of sunlight on the surface of a stream.
And it this quality, this capacity to depict our dreamlike perception of reality, that I find too, and admire, in the book I want to end with: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star. I first read this at a time when I was failing to place my early novels with publishers and was beginning to fear I never would. Then suddenly this brilliant virtuosic book of Hollinghurst’s burst upon the scene: a book that dealt with themes similar to the ones I wanted to tackle, and which was not afraid to do so in a prose style of conspicuous, striven-for, beauty. For Hollinghurst is at rock-bottom a poet, and poetry is seldom absent from his prose. It was a coincidence of course, though it somehow didn’t feel like it, when the book I’d been failing to persuade anyone to take an interest in for a year or more found a publisher shortly afterwards.
The Folding Star, that elegiac ‘minor-key’ novel in which misty backdrops of Bruges and the surrounding coastal flatlands frame not only some gloriously earthy sex but also an intimate personal shipwreck, will be familiar to many people reading this. One critic praised it as being like a Flemish painting. To which another retorted sniffily: ‘In what way precisely?’ Well, several that I can think of. Words are applied to the page with a keen appreciation of colour and texture, confident use of contrast and shade, and understanding of associative resonance and effect. In other words Hollinghurst is a master craftsman. There is shape and balance within and between each individual scene. The three part structure, in which a powerful central section set in England (moving effortlessly between the narrator’s present and his past) holds together the two outer sections - the two halves of the linear Belgian-set story - subliminally echoes the design of the triptych painting which is lovingly re-assembled in one of the novel’s sub-plots. And then, as the end of the book tiptoes quietly away from the debacle without moralising or other comment, I am reminded of what WH Auden wrote, in Musée des Beaux Arts about an artist’s depiction of suffering in another, this time real, Flemish painting:
“About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters…
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster….
…and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
I don’t know if Hollinghurst is himself a painter in addition to being both novelist and poet. Denton Welch managed to be all three. But that is not the point. What I really want to demonstrate by the foregoing is that the best of gay literature – and there are many other wonderful books that I can’t explore here without making a long story twice as long – can, like the best of any art form, not only escape its ghetto but even transcend its genre. So-called gay fiction often does.