“If you were gay, I’d shout hooray” (Avenue Q)

London Pride, the LGBT+ festival which runs for 3 weeks in June, culminated with a parade this weekend. The Orlando shootings had already given this year’s festival an added poignancy, and after the week we’ve had in Britain, a joyful parade celebrating diversity warmed my battered heart. My favourite thing at this year’s festival is undoubtedly this – we should keep it all year round.

download (1)

Image from here

In this post I’m going to look at two classic novels which explore an experience of being gay at the start of the twentieth century. They are both set in Britain, where at the time being a gay man was illegal (repealed in 1967). Lesbians weren’t acknowledged in law, but being gay of gender was broadly speaking, socially taboo.

Firstly, Maurice by EM Forster, which was written in 1914 but not published until after Forster’s death in 1970. Maurice grows up in an England where sex education involves conversations like this:

“To love a noble woman, to protect and serve her – this, he told the little boy, was the crown of life. ‘You can’t understand now, you will some day, and when you do understand it, remember the poor old pedagogue who put you on the track. It all hang together – all – and God’s in his heaven, All’s right with the world. Male and female! Ah wonderful!”

Good grief. Maurice blindly follows the path laid out for him: prep school, public school, Cambridge. Forster is rather scathing towards his protagonist, emphasising his lack of intellect and inability to question his life in any way. Events force him out of this spiritual somnambulism when his best friend makes a confession:

“Durham could not wait. People were all around them, but with eyes that had gone intensely blue, he whispered ‘I love you.’

Maurice was scandalized, horrified. He was shocked to the bottom of his suburban soul, and exclaimed, ‘Oh, rot!’”

Gradually however, Maurice realises what the reader already knows, that he is sexually attracted to men and loves his friend. This is the start of him living consciously and becoming generally more pleasant:

“After this crisis, Maurice became a man. Hitherto – if human beings can be estimated – he had not been worth anyone’s affection, but conventional, petty, treacherous to others, because to himself. Now he had the highest gift to offer.”

Maurice isn’t totally redeemed: he can still be selfish and a terrible snob. This is one of the novel’s strengths – he isn’t idealised, he isn’t better or worse than most people, he is just an ordinary person with the need to love and be loved, but because “England will always be disinclined to accept human nature” Maurice suffers greatly, because he is forced to try and supress such basic human needs.

“He lived on, miserable and misunderstood, as before, and increasingly lonely. One cannot write these words too often: Maurice’s loneliness: it increased.”

Meanwhile, heterosexual couples are welcomed and celebrated, able to live openly.

“They loved each other tenderly. Beautiful conventions received them – while beyond the barrier Maurice wandered, the wrong words on his lips and the wrong desires in his heart, and his arms full of air.”

However, this isn’t a sad novel – apparently Forster was determined it would not be so as he didn’t want a gay protagonist to appear to be punished. It is about how accepting who we are enables us to live better lives not only for ourselves but for those around us, and it is about the damage that can be done when society attempts to force a predetermined conventional ‘norm’ upon people. Maurice is also beautifully written and highly readable; never preachy and emotionally affecting.

There was a Merchant Ivory adaptation of Maurice in 1987, which I’ve never seen, but looks like a faithful adaptation, starring many of the Merchant Ivory regulars:

Secondly, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928). Unlike Forster, she published at the time, but given the novel was subject to an indecency trial, it seems Forster judged correctly that Maurice would cause outrage. The Well of Loneliness tells the story of Stephen Gordon, a daughter to landed gentry who were so convinced she’d be a boy that they give her a masculine name. As Stephen grows up, she struggles against the gender expectations placed on her.

“And Stephen must slink upstairs thoroughly deflated, strangely unhappy and exceedingly humble, and must tear off the clothes she so clearly loved donning, to replace them with the garments she hated. How she hated soft dresses and sashes, and ribbons, and small coral beads, and openwork stockings! Her legs felt so free and comfortable in breeches; she adored pockets, too, and these were forbidden”

The novel follows Stephen through her young life, isolated from her peers, distanced from her mother who is revolted by a difference in her daughter she cannot name. Stephen’s solace is her kind father and her horses. She gradually realises that she is attracted to women, and that this is unacceptable to the society in which she lives.

“What remained? Loneliness, or worse still, far worse because it so deeply degraded the spirit, a life of perpetual subterfuge, of guarded opinions and guarded actions, of lies of omission if not of speech, of becoming an accomplice in the world’s injustice by maintaining at all times a judicious silence”

The wiki page about this novel tells me it’s been criticised by people who see the difficulties experienced by Stephen as encouraging shame, but I think this is a bit unfair. Written in 1928, I suspect living in a society where you had to hide a fundamental part of who you are, where “Love is only permissible to those who are cut in every respect to life’s pattern” could be a bit bloody at times. Stephen is never portrayed as needing to be anything other than she is: the fault is society’s not hers, and she remains defiant to the end.

“She must show that being the thing she was, she could climb to success over all opposition, could climb to success in spite of a world that was trying its best to get her under…Yes, it was trying to get her under, this world with its smug rules of conduct, all made to be broken by those who strutted and preened themselves on being what they considered normal.”

The Well of Loneliness could do with being about 100 pages shorter (Sarah Waters judges The Unlit Lamp as a much stronger novel) but I still found it very readable and whizzed through it. It’s somewhat depressing stance may mean it’s controversial amongst critics, but love it or hate it, it remains a highly significant novel of the time.

To end, a chance to indulge my slightly baffling but most enduring Danny Dyer obsession. Often cast as the stereotypical uber-straight macho man, here he is getting an opportunity to perform gender in a much broader way:

Advertisements

“It’s the final countdown.” (Europe (the band))

This isn’t a political blog, but it is one where I try and relate books to what’s going on in my life/the wider world, and this is the week when Britain votes on whether to stay in or leave the EU. So in this post I’m looking at two books by European writers, and in order to maintain the blog’s thin veneer of impartiality, I’ve picked one by a writer from a country inside the EU, and one from outside.  Between them they are two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge hosted by Hard Book Habit– with none of the attendant worries of which passport queue to join, should major changes ensue…

Firstly, The Blue Fox by Icelandic by poet/novelist/songwriter for Bjork/all round Renaissance man Sjon (trans.Victoria Cribb).  This short novel (112 pages in my edition) is stunning: lyrical, sparse and truly magical. I can’t remember whose blog first introduced me to this, so if it was you please leave a comment 🙂

The story begins in 1883, with the priest Baldur Skuggason hunting a rare blue vixen:

“Snow covered the land up to the roots of the glacier, not a bare patch of earth to be seen; the vixen would write the tale of her travels on the blank sheet as soon as she embarked on them.

Grasping the weapon in both hands, he set off.”

Not a word is wasted, as Sjon creates characters and atmosphere with the minimum needed. This style is highly effective as it evokes the quiet focus of the hunt and the frozen expanse of the winter landscape.

“The sun warms the man’s white body, and the snow, melting with a diffident creaking, passes for birdsong.”

The second part of the novel goes back 16 years to explore the relationship between naturalist Fridrik B Fridriksson and his ward Abba, who has Down’s Syndrome. This section is more densely written but still beautifully constrained.

“Ghost-sun is a name given by poets to their friend the moon, and it is fitting tonight when its ashen light bathes the grove of trees that stand in the dip above the farmhouse at Brekka. This little copse was the loving creation of Abba and Fridrik, and few things made them more of a laughing stock in the Dale than its cultivation, though most of their endevours met with ridicule.”

Back in 1883, the stories intertwine and move towards an eerie, unsettling conclusion. The Blue Fox occupies a space between poetry, prose, myth, mystery and fable. Highly recommended.

Secondly, Berlin Stories by Robert Walser (tr. Susan Bernofsky), which also occupies a space between genres, this time autobiography and fiction. Walser moved to Berlin in 1905 as a young man, and Berlin Stories collects together his impressions of the city, the people he meets, the experiences he has.

I had no idea what to expect, not having read any Walser before. Picture the scene, reader: It is early morning. You hate your job. You are on a crowded platform waiting for a delayed train. You are surrounded by other commuters, who by their disregard for even the most basic social niceties are telling you that they too hate their job, and they hate you only marginally less.  Then you read this:

“Onward, onward.  That blue-eyed marvel, the early morning, has no time to waste on drunkards. It has a thousand shimmering threads with which it draws you on; it pushes you from behind and smiles coaxingly from the front. You glance up to where a whitish, veiled sky is letting a few scraps of blue peek out; behind you, to gaze after a person who interests you; beside you, at an opulent portal behind which a regal palace morosely, elegantly towers up. Statues beckon you from gardens and parks; still you keep on walking, giving everything a passing glance: things in motion and things fixed in place”

Needless to say, by page 4 of Berlin Stories, where that passage appears, I knew I was in for a beautiful journey around Berlin in Walser’s company. His style is brilliantly evocative of a city: short sketches of whatever interests him creates a series of impressions of Berlin, rather than a fixed, focused depiction. He is funny and sad, he has an eye for the minutiae and the broader picture. It is a love letter to the city, and you are left in no doubt as to why Berlin has such a culturally rich history.

“Berlin by comparison – how splendid! A city like Berlin is an ill-mannered, impertinent, intelligent scoundrel, constantly affirming the things that suit him and tossing aside everything he tires of. Here in the big city you can definitely feel the waves of intellect washing over the life of Berlin society like a sort of bath. An artist here has no choice but to pay attention.”

Like The Blue Fox, this is a short volume (139 pages) and therein lies its power. Walser creates concise, delicate yet richly vivid portraits of Berlin. Just gorgeous.

To end, I want a badge. A badge to commend my enormous self-restraint in not going on a 1980s cheese-fest (which is something I rarely restrain from) by capturing either the titular song or the band Berlin in embedded video form. Instead I’m going for a guaranteed earworm clip from a musical inspired by the Berlin stories of another writer, Christopher Isherwood.  Take it away, Liza:

“I’m the greatest thing that ever lived! I’m the king of the world! I’m a bad man. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.” (Muhammad Ali)

As usual, I’m a bit behind the times: here is my post to commemorate the death of Olympian/activist/philanthropist/iconic legend Muhammad Ali on 3 June, whose memorial was last Friday.

c8c7ccdd-25ee-454b-bd57-8cd8566212a8-1630x2040

Image from here

I thought I would therefore theme this post around ‘greatest’.  Just over a week ago Lisa McInerney won this year’s Bailey’s Prize for her debut novel The Glorious Heresies, so I’ve decided to look at Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which won the Baileys (then the Orange) in 1997 and was chosen as the prize’s Best of the Best in 2015. I’ve paired it with Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie which won the 1981 Booker, and then in 1993 (25 years of the Booker) and 2008 (40 years of the Booker),  it won the Best of the Bookers (the latter by public vote). They are also two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit– away we go!

Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria during the civil war of the 1960s, when there was an attempt to establish Biafra as an independent nation. Focusing on two sisters, Olanna and Kainene, their partners Odenigbo and Richard, and Olanna and Odenigbo’s houseboy Ugwu, the war is explored through its varied but monumental impact on all their lives.

Before the war, Olanna and Odenigbo live a privileged middle class life in the university town of Nsukka, entertaining in the evenings with friends who debate issues of post-colonial identity:

“‘I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different from as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.’”

Ugwu joins them and is mesmerised by their sophistication, and the worlds they open for him through the books they provide. However, Adichie shows that the legacy of colonialism is deep-rooted:

“Master’s English was music, but what Ugwu was hearing now, from this woman, was magic. Hers was a superior language, a luminous language, the kind her heard on Master’s radio, rolling out with clipped precision. It reminded him of slicing a yam with a newly sharpened knife, the easy perfection in every slice.”

As the Igbo people try to establish Biafra and civil war escalates, Olanna, Odenigbo and Ugwu’s lives are ripped apart and Adichie does not pull her punches. There is forced conscription, rape as a weapon, starvation and mutilation. However, there is also reconciliation between the estranged sisters, and Adichie’s focus is not on horrors but on how the human spirit survives against overwhelming odds:

“The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with frothy rage. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die.”

Adichie is a hugely popular and successful author, and I feel the hype is fully deserved: she’s a brilliant writer. I whizzed through this book – she manages to write a compelling, political, angry, compassionate and highly moving page-turner. What a feat.

Half of a Yellow Sun was adapted into a film in 2013, apparently not that successfully despite a seemingly perfect cast including smoking hot eye candy hugely talented actor Chiwetel Ejiofor:

On to Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981) which like Half of a Yellow Sun was the author’s second novel: so much for the ‘difficult second novel’ theory. It’s taken me about twenty years to read Midnight’s Children, which works out as 6% of a page per day. It’s been quite a ride.

rhpsf

I jest of course, but it did take me 3 goes spread over 20 years to get into this novel.  Normally I would have resigned it to the DNF pile (which is tiny, my TBR aspires to be that size one day – never going to happen) but I kept persevering because people who loved it really loved it and it always cropped up on various book lists (including Le Monde’s , which forms one of my reading challenges).

Now that I’ve read it, I can’t say I loved it – something about Rushdie’s style meant this was always a tough read for me – but I did find it impressive. Midnight’s Children is hugely ambitious, tackling themes around nation-making, history writing, colonialism and culture. Seemingly impossible within one novel, but Rushdie and his massive brain are clearly equal to the task. The story is narrated by Saleem Sinai who is born on the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947, the exact moment that India gained independence from Britain.

“Thanks to the occult tyrannies if those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape.”

Saleem’s story, and that of his family, becomes the story of the nation of India. The novel makes heavy use of magical realism, and I think this is Rushdie’s masterstroke. It would be impossible to explore such enormous themes and multiple events if the novel were entirely grounded in a recognisable reality. By allowing for magic realism, Rushdie can take the story in any direction he needs to.

Saleem discovers that all the children born into India between midnight and 1am on the day of Independence have special powers – his own being telepathy, powered by his enormous nose and blocked sinuses (told you there was magic realism).

“the children of midnight were also the children of the time: fathered, you understand, by history. It can happen. Especially in a country which is itself a sort of dream.”

“Midnight has many children; the offspring of Independence were not all human, Violence, corruption, poverty, generals, chaos, greed and pepperpots…I had to go into exile to learn that the children of midnight were more varied than I – even I – had dreamed.”

Saleem is a self-acknowledged unreliable narrator. His memory fails him at times, regarding both events in his own life and those in the wider political history of India. What Rushdie is questioning is the narratives we are all within – family, nation, history, culture – and how there is no one reality for any of us.

“Family history, of course, has its proper dietary laws. One is supposed to swallow and digest only the permitted parts of it, the halal portions of the past, drained of their redness, their blood. Unfortunately this makes the story less juicy, so I am about to become the first and only member of my family to flout the laws of halal. Letting no blood escape from the body of the tale, I arrive at the unspeakable part; and, undaunted, press on.”

I realise I may have made Midnight’s Children sound like a heavy read, and in some ways it is, but it also has a gentle humour running through it to lighten the tone.  I’ve certainly never read anything else like it.

“One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell is overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth”

To end, I can’t help wishing the dress code for book award ceremonies was monochrome cat suits and that winners collected their awards by emerging from a fog of dry ice:

“Honeymoon, keep a-shining in June” (By the Light of the Silvery Moon)

As a companion piece to my last post about marriage, I thought I would look this week at portrayals of honeymoons. Originally I planned to include On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan but I ran out of time & wanted to re-read it in order to do it justice, as I remember it being very moving. So please don’t let my inadequacy prevent you from checking it out if you haven’t read it 😉 Onwards to honeymoon stories I’ve read more recently!

All the 'honeymoon' pictures I googled made me want to vomit, so here's a Weimaraner puppy instead

All the ‘honeymoon’ pictures I googled made me want to vomit, so here’s a Weimaraner puppy instead

Firstly, Orkney by Amy Sackville (2013), which is an eerie, claustrophobic tale of a honeymoon taken on a remote Scottish island. Richard is a professor of English literature who is entranced by literary sirens and by his silver-haired wife, forty years younger than he, strange and unknowable:

“She is a tiny, perfect, whittled trinket found bedded in the sand, carved patiently, for comfort; she is a spined and spiky urchin with an inside smooth as polished stone, as marble; she is frond of pallid wrack, a coral swaying in the current, anchored to the sea-bed; she is an oyster, choking on grit, clutching her pearl to her.”

The unnamed wife is obsessed with the sea, taking long, lone walks by day and having water-filled nightmares by night:

And as she dreams her submarine dreams I lie beside her, a whale’s carcass, a wrecked ship, a vast ribcage in the dark blue deep; and she is a tiny luminescent silver fish, picking me clean, in and out of all that’s left of me, bare bones long since freed of flesh and rigging.”

Each chapter covers a day of their honeymoon, told from Richard’s perspective. This is not a plot-driven story as very little happens, in some ways it is quite a slight tale, but I found Sackville’s beautiful writing made it compelling and carried me along. The atmosphere gradually becomes more uncanny, with a sense that is not just Richard’s wife who is unknown, but that there are no certainties at all:

“An overcast, lowering sky this morning; the clouds have clotted through the night. Something gathering, brooding, out on the sea. A darkness spreading. The edges of my wife blur against the sky.”

Orkney is short novel about the stories we tell ourselves and each other, how we understand the world, and how what is real and unreal is not always clearly delineated:

“He tells her tales of the finfolk and selkies. Nothing can replace those first tales, which have coloured the cast of her thought, which have filled her nights with the sea, which are at least as real to her as anything she’s learned of the world since.”

BANNER4

Secondly, the short story Here We Are by Dorothy Parker (1931). A young couple are on a train, having been married “exactly two hours and twenty-six minutes”.  Most of the story is dialogue, and they come across as so terribly young and naïve.

“He sat down, leaning back against the bristled green plush, in the seat opposite the girl in beige. She looked as new as a peeled egg. Her hat, her fur, her frock, her gloves were glossy and stiff with novelty.”

They sit and talk about the day, the wedding, those they know, and bicker about silly things: hats, mainly.

“‘Hell, honey lamb, this is our honeymoon. What’s the matter?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘We used to squabble a lot when we were going out together and then engaged and everything, but I thought everything would be so different as soon as you were married. And now I feel sort of strange and everything. I feel so sort of alone.’”

Of course, what they are not saying is that the train is speeding them towards a hotel room, and they are terrified about what is going to happen once they are alone together.  The story is a masterclass in ‘show, don’t tell’ writing. Parker’s trademark acerbic wit is not to the fore – the story is gently funny, and I felt sorry for this unknowing couple marrying in such a different age, and desperately hoped it would work out for them.

Speaking of virgins: