“Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?” (Ernest Gaines)

Although June was Pride month, in London it culminated with a Pride parade during the sunny weekend just gone, so this week’s post is two novels involving LGBT+ themes.

The first thing that struck me on picking up Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928) is that Penguin Classics have managed to disprove what I had previously taken to be an absolute truth: that film tie-in covers are always repulsive. Apparently not when Tilda Swinton is involved (credit also to Billy Zane’s arms):

Orlando is a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, and the novel is full of references to her: her family, history, homes, lovers. As Orlando, Woolf makes Vita someone who is not bound by the laws of time, or by gender. At the start of the novel, Orlando is a young man living in Elizabethan England. I took Shakespearean Studies for my MA and I enjoyed Woolf poking fun at the nobleman poets of the time:

“He was describing, as all young poets are forever describing, nature…Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural apathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces. The shade of green Orlando now saw spoilt his rhyme and metre…one drops the pen, takes one’s cloak, strides out of the room, and catches one’s foot on a painted chest as one does so. For Orlando was a trifle clumsy.”

The oak tree on Orlando’s estate is a recurring motif, as Orlando writes throughout their life the epic poem The Oak Tree:

“To the oak tree he tied [his heart] and as he lay there, gradually the flutter in and about him stilled itself; the little leaves hung, the deer stopped; the pale summer clouds stayed; his limbs grew heavy on the ground; and he lay so still that by degrees the deer stepped nearer and the rooks wheeled round him and the swallows dipped and circled and the dragonflies shot past, as if all the fertility and amorous activity of a summer’s evening were woven web-like around his body.”

He is popular in the Elizabethan court and romances a Russian princess named Sasha (based on Vita’s lover for many years, Violet Trefusis). Sasha ultimately breaks his heart and Orlando retreats from court, but is later and ambassador to Turkey for Charles II. While in Constantinople he falls asleep for several days and wakes quite altered:

“Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatsoever to alter their identity.”

This change enables Woolf to make several pointed comments about gender roles:

“For women are not (judging by my own short experiences of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline.”

Ultimately though, Woolf is not interested in preaching. Orlando is an enjoyable romp through the centuries with plenty of sly digs at writers of the past and satirising of British society through the ages. It’s also about the difficulty of writing, both biography (Woolf-as-biographer addresses the reader directly to highlight these difficulties) and fiction as Orlando struggles with The Oak Tree and takes centuries to finish it (I enjoy Sackville-West’s writing but apparently Woolf didn’t rate it much).

For me, Orlando isn’t Woolf at her best, but I don’t think it was intended to be; she referred to it as ‘a writer’s holiday’. However, like all her writing, it is multi-layered and lends itself to re-reading. For all its complexities it’s a surprisingly easy read and can be whizzed through if you’re not stopping to read footnotes to catch all the allusions 🙂

Secondly, The Spell by Alan Hollinghurst (1998). This was a lesson to me to keep an open mind. If I didn’t rate Hollinghurst as a writer I would never have picked up this novel from the description on the back, taken from The Times review: “Alex drops a tab of ecstasy, provided by young Danny, and embarks on a bewildering voyage of self-discovery in a drug-fuelled London club scene”. To me, that sounds like an incredibly tedious premise for a novel. Thankfully, it seems The Times book reviewers were as inept then as they are now* and this is not what the novel’s about. What The Spell is about is dealing with the pain of heartbreak, and the awkward negotiations of intimacies when you’re male and British and don’t say what you feel.

Alex is nursing a broken heart when his ex-partner Justin invites him to spend the weekend with him and his new partner, Robin. Robin’s son Danny is there and Alex and Danny start a relationship. Alex is conservative; he works for the government and lives a quiet life. Danny is several years younger and completely different:

“He took in the jumble on the mantlepiece, but didn’t study the the curling snapshots too closely for fear of cutting himself on the grins and glints of Danny’s world. He had an impression of life as a party, as a parade of flash-lit hugs and kisses, in a magic zone where everyone was young and found to be beautiful.”

Robin is also negotiating his relationship with Danny and Hollinghurst captures the pain and guilt of the divorced parent:

“Even though the marriage had broken up eighteen years ago, Danny’s visits still left Robin with an aftertaste of disappointment, of adulterated sweetness; sometimes they had been anxious charades of the life they might have led together, but played out with an eye on the clock and a mawkishness which shifted from one to the other.”

Over the period of their relationship, as The Times review mentioned, Danny introduces Alex to London nightlife:

“He could easily argue the feeling away as the elation of drink and dancing and the company of a thousand half-naked men. Though the men were beautiful, it was true, in the cascades and strafings of coloured light.”

The Spell isn’t Hollinghurst’s most sophisticated novel but it’s simplicity makes it touching. It’s a look at a period of time in four ordinary, connected lives, written before he went onto the broader scope of The Line of Beauty and The Stranger’s Child. It’s about how we deal with pain, both big (bereavement, heartbreak) and small (the tiny hurts we cause one another each day). The final image is one of friendship, and as this endures, one of hope.

To end, the theme of this year’s London Pride was #PrideMatters. It’s about the importance of Pride as people who are LGBT+ still face discrimination and abuse. A pretty depressing state of affairs in 2018. And I am struck yet again at how audacious Jimmy Somerville was in making this video 34 years ago:

*Not that I read the Murdoch rag but instead base my opinions on the much more reliable source of Twitter. I saw Matt Haig’s tweet about their review of his latest book which showed all the nuanced understanding of mental health that you’d expect 😦

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” (Groucho Marx)

I’ve decided to give into the inevitable and make the theme of this week’s post politics. *sigh* But unfortunately it is what dominates just about everything at the moment. I went to a lecture last week which was supposed to be about The Merchant of Venice, but turned out to be about tolerance, accessibility of the arts and the power of the humanities to understand nuance, subtlety and multiple viewpoints and how this is needed now more than ever. The speaker was genius American academic Stephen Greenblatt who I’ve seen before but he’s never made me blub like a baby (my friend was also a total mess, I’m hoping he’s short-sighted and didn’t notice). The previous week I went to a talk about nineteenth-century European theatre, which included a determined assertion from a British playwright that he too was a European writer (cue cheers from the audience, I’m guessing there weren’t many Brexiteers present). Unfortunately at the moment, all roads seem to lead back to the horror show we’ve found ourselves in. In the words of Cher:

(Note to my brother: Cher is AWESOME. Accept that I am right on this.)

So, two novels about politics. Firstly, Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (2012, trans. Jamie Bulloch 2014), a satiricial novel which looks at what would happen if Hitler woke up in 2011 Berlin. Naturally there is fun to be had at his misunderstanding over modern life:

“ ‘But I still don’t recall seeing you anywhere, Have you a card? Any flyers?’

‘Don’t talk to me about the Luftwaffe,’ I said sadly. ‘In the end they were a complete failure.’”

And there is also poking fun at the self-aggrandizing former Fuhrer:

“Now my razor-sharp gaze pierced the darkness between a jar of bulls-eyes and one of sugar drops, where the bright light of the moon soberly illuminated my brainwave like an icy torch.”

But the bulk of Vermes’ satire is reserved for modern society, for this Hitler becomes a star. He appears on an alternative comedy programme and his rants become huge hits on YouTube. People think he is satirising Hitler and yet this means Hitler’s rhetoric is once again endorsed by the masses. Vermes challenges what we laugh at and why, and the unquestioning nature of modern media. As Hitler becomes more popular, it is so easy to see how he, or someone like him, could rise again, and also that some of what happened has never gone away.

“It still remains a mystery to me why that relationship never worked. How many more bombs would we have to drop on their cities before they realised that they were our friend?”

Satire is a demanding form and Vermes is not entirely successful. Look Who’s Back is a bit overlong and flags in places. Considering it’s about a fascist despot it all feels a bit too restrained at times and the plot doesn’t really develop beyond the original premise. But still a worthwhile read, and – in terms of showing how easily an insane media personality can achieve real power *cough* – a little bit terrifying too.

Secondly, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, which won the Booker in 2004. Set in 1983, 1986 and 1987, Maggie Thatcher’s government is systematically destroying Britain to extent from which it will never fully recover  elected by overwhelming majorities and Nick Guest is down from Oxford to stay with his friend Toby’s family, headed by an ambitious Conservative MP, Gerald Fedden.

 “Gerald was a knowing, self-confident speaker, trained at the Oxford Union, polished at innumerable board meetings, and his tone combined candour and insincerity to oddly charming effect.”

The ruling class, ladies and gentleman.

Nick is from an ordinary family and grew up in an ordinary town. He has a strong aesthetic sensibility and is carried away by the glamour of the Fedden’s money and power, and ability to surround themselves with beautiful things.

“Nick felt he had been swept to the brink of some new promise, a scented vista of the night, and then held there.”

Nick is also gay, and the story is about his sexual development within a backdrop of thinly disguised homophobia and fear of AIDS, which cut a swathe through the gay community during the decade.

 “It wasn’t their fault they didn’t know – Nick couldn’t tell them things, and so everything he said and did took on the nature of a surprise, big or little but somehow never benign, since they were the aftershocks of the original surprise, that he was, as his mother said, a whatsit.”

Despite being a fairly long novel (501 pages in my edition), The Line of Beauty is not overly plot-heavy. Nick stays with the Feddens and struggles for a sense of purpose beyond pursuit of various lovers, Gerald gets elected MP and enjoys his life of extraordinary privilege, and the 80s rumble on with cocaine fuelling a deregulated City. The novel is a mix of pithy attacks on political elites and the shallowness of relentless acquisition, whether of power, money or the next high:

“Gerald had still not received the accolade of a Spitting image puppet in his likeness, but it was one of his main hopes for the new Parliament.”

And a broader, more melancholy consideration of love and loss. The descriptions of the characters who succumb to AIDS are truly moving, and unexpected in this novel populated by self-interested self-promoters.

“He commanded attention now by pity and respect as he once had by beauty and charm.”

Like Look Who’s Back, I felt The Line of Beauty was overlong, and not the strongest Booker winner there’s been, but at the same time the characters were recognisable and fully realised, the 80s were brilliantly evoked in all their horror, and Hollinghurst is capable of writing truly stunning passages:

“He caught the beautiful rawness of those days again, the life of instinct opening in front of him, the pleasure of the streets and London itself unfolding in the autumn chill; everything tingling with newness and risk, glitter and frost and glow of body heat, the shock of finding and holding what he wanted among millions of strangers.”

To end, despite the horrific politics of the time, I’m finding 80s YouTube videos a good respite from all the madness of the world at the moment (as you may have gathered from the one at the start where Cher wears a costume made of black dental floss and sits astride a giant canon – what’s not to love?)  Here is another one I employ to great effect, but a word of warning: I am a hardened user of 80s pop-culture. If this is one of your first forays, you might want to ease yourself in by watching Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go Go video first, or else your eyes might start crying deely-boppers and mismatched fluorescent socks, or something. I’m not kidding – there’s a blouson leather dinner jacket at one point…