Author: Edward Prime-Stevenson
What do we know about the author?
Although Edward Prime-Stevenson was born in New Jersey in 1858, upon moving to Europe as an adult he lied and stated his year of birth as 1868 (Gifford). Prime-Stevenson came from a wealthy, religious family (Gifford). He studied law, but he spent his entire career writing, especially fiction and music criticism for periodicals (Gifford). Many of his works of fiction have homoerotic themes (Gifford).
In his 20’s, Prime-Stevenson fell in love with an heir to an oil and railroad fortune, Harry Harkness Flagler (Gifford). While they shared a love for music, theater, and literature, Flagler ended their friendship in 1893 (Gifford). To Prime-Stevenson’s great sadness, Flagler married a woman a year later. Prime-Stevenson never really recovered from losing his friend and crush (Gifford).
He used money inherited from his mother to immigrate to Europe, where he could be more open with his sexuality (Gifford). The money allowed Prime-Stevenson to travel frequently around Europe (Gifford). In Europe, he studied homosexuality extensively (Gifford). Prime-Stevenson talked to a number of medical professionals, and he visited many gay meeting places (Gifford). In response to medical professionals conveying homosexuality as an affliction, he published a very long non-fiction book called The Intersexes: A History of Simi-sexualism as a Problem in Social Life (1908), based on knowledge acquired from his conversations with noted Viennese sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (Gifford). Imre: A Memorandum was the fictional counterpart to his longer work of non-fiction (Gifford). He only initially published 125 copies of Imre: A Memorandum under the name Xavier Mayne (Gifford). However, by 1913 he published a book of short stories with overt gay themes under his own name in Italy (Gifford).
Prime-Stevenson was a bold writer, and a proud champion of queer masculinity. Through climbing mountains and going to gymnasiums, among other activities, he maintained a fit physique (Gifford). Perhaps like his protagonist Imre, Prime-Stevenson is a symbol of gay virility (Gifford).
What is the plot of this book?
Imre: A Memorandum takes place in Budapest, Hungary. Like the main characters in the story, even the city of Budapest is masked. Prime-Stevenson calls Budapest Szent-Istvanhely, after the patron saint of Hungary (Gifford). In the gay cruising area of this city, Oswald, a British man who is “past thirty,” approaches the twenty-five-year-old Hungarian military officer Imre in a café. In fact, a man before his time, Oswald carries with him his iced coffee to Imre’s table.
Imre is a conflicted man in many respects. He enjoys the arts and music, but his father forced him into a military career. As the son of a Transylvanian family of high regard, military service is a family tradition. Imre excels at being a military officer despite the dissatisfaction and depression that his career inflicts upon him. Oswald is in Hungary to learn the Hungarian language, with time and money not seeming to be constraints.
As Oswald and Imre talk, Oswald notices that many soldiers approach Imre to greet him warmly. Imre’s reserved response to these soldiers stands out to Oswald. One soldier even criticizes Imre for not writing back to him. Imre explains to Oswald that he hates writing letters. He further explains that he has many acquaintances but few true friends. Imre laments the loss of one close friend named Hermes Karvaly, an officer friend who gets married and is called to go to China. As the conversation unfolds, Oswald and the readers understand the meaning of the memorandum in the title as a “guidebook of Imre’s emotional topography.”
Oswald and Imre’s friendship blossoms, and the two meet each other frequently, talking at length on various subjects. They talk about art, literature, politics, current events, and more. Their “inexhaustible curiosity about each other” exists “in friendship as in love,” as readers contemplate the nature of the love between the two men. Imre even invites Oswald to his parents’ home on multiple occasions. Nevertheless, in public the two are more cautious about their meetings. They meet in quiet cafes, away from the military officer crowd. In addition, they even lie to others about not having seen each other for several years.
As Oswald observes Imre’s standoffish behavior toward his male friends and his indifference toward women, he wonders if Imre is gay. Imre and Oswald even talk about homosexuality as a curiosity, a strange phenomenon. After this conversation, Oswald concludes that Imre is not gay.
When Oswald is called back to England for a long period, his departure from Imre causes him great sadness. Oswald becomes angry when Imre shows “indifference” and “nonchalance” over his departure. Ever the stoic, Imre has inured himself to disappointment and loss as a self-defense.
The conflict deepens as Oswald tells Imre to “be a man” and endure his military service career despite Imre’s misgivings and unhappiness. Anguish over departing clearly imbues the scene. Imre states his discomfort with Oswald’s loving words and romantic sorrow for their separation. Even as Imre says these words, he holds Oswald’s hand and acknowledges that Oswald knows the real Imre.
Imre’s tenderness inspires Oswald to tell his story. Oswald recounts his close friendships with other boys as a youth. One boy whom Oswald really loves returns his affection, but the boy tragically dies from an epidemic. As a young man Oswald sees an American doctor who advises him that he can be cured of his homosexuality if he simply marries a woman and avoids “introspection, idealism, and the sedentary life.” Taking his advice, Oswald gets engaged to a woman who is very committed to him. The engagement unravels when Oswald quickly falls in love with a straight man whom he meets at a party. Although Oswald abandons any hope of a relationship, he eventually reveals his homosexuality to the man, whom he considers a friend. The man is disgusted and rejects Oswald’s friendship.
Despite this painful encounter, Oswald realizes that he does not need a cure, and he ends the engagement. As rumors about the end of the engagement emerge, Oswald flees to Europe, where he talks to several specialists about homosexuality. Through his studies, he realizes that not only are queer men not diseased, they are also not necessarily weak or feminine. All types of people—good and bad—are part of this “Race-Homosexual,” just as straight people can be both good and bad. Oswald’s newfound confidence allows him to have passing friendships with many queer men he meets in his travels, including an English officer, an Austrian architect, an Italian painter, and a Polish doctor.
At the end of this story, Oswald boldly proclaims his love for Imre. In his reserved manner, Imre assures Oswald that they are still friends and that his words do not change Imre’s feelings toward him. Still, Imre makes Oswald promise that they will never talk about Oswald’s feelings again. The men then quietly return to Oswald’s hotel. Imre keeps his arm in Oswald’s arm for the entire walk back to the hotel. At the hotel, Oswald receives a telegram that he is no longer needed in England. They both rejoice.
The next day, Imre is suddenly called to the military camp, where he writes several letters to Oswald. Oswald observes that Imre’s behavior is unusual, as he previously stated that he hated writing letters to friends. Imre assures Oswald that he very much enjoys writing to Oswald. Imre eventually returns from the camp with his hands outstretched to Oswald, and Imre kisses Oswald’s cheek.
Oswald tries to maintain a platonic friendship with Imre, but he cannot deny that he is attracted to Imre. He apologizes to Imre for his desire, but Imre tells Oswald that he need not apologize. Imre finally comes out to Oswald, and he acknowledges that he has been gay all his life.
Imre tells Oswald that he had never been effeminate, but he had had many intense boy friendships, like Oswald had. Imre did not have to endure the “religious and ethical misconceptions” in “Anglo-Saxon civilization” or the “British” and “Yankee” “social hypocrisy” of homosexuality. Nevertheless, he suffered from homophobia in society, and he even contemplated suicide on two separate occasions.
Imre explains that his friendship with Karvaly was an ill-fated attraction. Imre knew that Karvaly was not queer, despite his attraction to him. Nevertheless, Imre asks Karvaly about his opinion of homosexuality, and Karvaly tells him his unfiltered opinion. Karvaly tells Imre that he would recommend suicide if Imre told him he was gay.
Disappointed with Karvaly’s reaction, Imre learns to be removed from male friends and to avoid suspicion of homosexuality. To elude this suspicion, Imre cultivates a reputation as a “Lothario” and womanizer, even as he actually lives a chaste, lonely life. Imre’s fear of being outed and his self-destructive impulse of martyrdom explain why he waits so long to confess his love for Oswald after Oswald professes his love for him. The novel ends happily as the two men make a commitment to each other that will seem to endure through the adversity of societal disapproval.
How is this book queer?
As a tale of introspection, love, and identity, the entire story is gay. Still, certain key moments stand out for their gayness. Most superficially, appreciation of male beauty abounds. Upon meeting Imre, Oswald immediately notices his “seductive” quality and that he is “of no ordinary beauty.” Later, Imre compares Karvaly to a beautiful Greek statue. However, Prime-Stevenson depicts the beauty of male intimacy as well. The time that Oswald and Imre spend together is the most “important matter of each day.” Their “inseparable sort of partnership” from the very beginning is so strong that Oswald even visits the home of Imre’s parents.
Masculinity is a significant part of this beauty. Imre is an exquisite gymnast and swimmer, and Oswald has never witnessed such “elasticity and dignity.” Imre’s appeal is traditionally masculine in many ways. He abhors jewelry, and he does not mingle with musicians or “theaterfolk in general.” Observing Imre, Oswald deduces that gay men are not necessarily any more feminine or masculine than straight men. After all, gay men, like straight men, work in various fields, including politics, sciences, and the military.
As Imre asserts his masculinity, he shies from femininity, equating it with weakness. To mask his sexual orientation, he carefully constructs a persona of a womanizer. In addition, to demonstrate his discomfort with male intimacy, he complains about a male friend who is “so hideously womanish” that he kisses him. When Oswald initially jokes about same-sex attraction, Imre proclaims that there is nothing “womanish” or “abnormal” about him. By the end of the novel, when Imre finally concedes his homosexuality, he equates his own weakness with that of “the woman” who “says ‘no’ when she means ‘yes.’” Clearly, to Imre, women have a weak will.
The misogyny that Imre espouses is inextricably conjoined to the homophobia of the time, as these two prejudices frequently are interconnected. Both Oswald and Imre, closeted gay men, perpetuate homophobia as they attempt to make sense of the world around them. As he gets to know him, Oswald wonders if Imre is “Uranian,” the term formerly used to describe gay people. Imre initially firmly rejects even the suspicion of anyone in the military identifying as gay; overt gayness automatically disqualifies one from military service. When Oswald and Imre first talk about the subject of homosexuality, Oswald stumbles over his words, stating that it would be “better not to try to understand” it while also claiming not to express disapproval. Avoiding an understanding is indeed an expression of disapproval; Oswald avoids an understanding of his own true desires. Even worse, Imre tells Oswald about ending a friendship with a “particular brand of fool” who got caught making love to a cadet. Clearly, the journey that Imre and Oswald take together from their initial homophobic utterances to their eventual self-acceptance is stunning.
Equally stunning is that Imre and Oswald even find each other. At different points in the novel both men seem resigned to the fact that they will never be in a loving relationship with a man. Imre understands that “the world thinks as it thinks now” with little hope for change or acceptance of gay love. In contrast, Oswald even doubts that he could privately find love. He imagines his “life alone, year after year.” Oswald faces a backlash when he privately comes out to a close straight friend. Upon attempting to do so, the friend yells that they are “strangers.” Oswald resigns to being “content with tranquility, pleasant friendships.”
Given the high stakes, coming out and the very publication of his book were huge risks in 1906. The novel frequently compares coming out to a dramatic unmasking. The titles of the three sections of the novel are “Masks,” “Masks and—A Face,” and “Faces—Hearts—Souls.” Indeed, Oswald understands “perfectly that a man must wear the mask” and stay in the closet for his own self-preservation. Privately, Oswald makes the journey to self-acceptance with an acknowledgment that some of the greatest minds belonged to gay men. Prime-Stevenson claims many notable men as part of the queer community: noted poet Abu-Nawas, Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, King Ludwig, Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, and Ludwig van Beethoven, among others.
The necessity to stay closeted makes Imre and Oswald’s eventual coming out to each other very powerful and understandably tentative. After Oswald comes out to Imre and even confesses his love for him, Imre cautiously says, “We are what we are!” It is a begrudging acceptance of Oswald, not an expected embrace. Oswald proclaims that he “will go to the other end of the world” to escape Imre after he fears that his desires have ruined his friendship, echoing a concern that many queer men still face as they come out to other men. Imre later explains that his survival instinct had instilled in him a commitment to “bear anything alone—alone—yes.” To maintain his acceptability among his male peers, Imre becomes a “friend of everybody in general who is the friend of nobody in particular.” To coexist with male peers, queer men and boys still adopt this strategy of detachment and blandness to avoid offending straight men. Fortunately, Imre manages to overcome this mindset to realize his love for Oswald.
Who would enjoy reading this book?
Those inclined to an introspective look at gay male identity will enjoy this book. There is a romance in this novel, but it is not the focus. The memorandum subtitle refers to the deep reflection on the characters’ places in the world. Because Imre and Oswald are so cautious with the expression of their identity and sexuality, one does not immediately understand the characters. The reader must rely on clues along the way to make sense of interactions. In this sense, the novel almost progresses like a mystery novel. Who are Imre and Oswald? By the second half of the novel, readers understand who they really are. To the modern reader, the last half of the novel may drag on a little too long. Nevertheless, this slow progression affirms the caution and apprehension around coming out in the early twentieth century. This is a beautiful tale of self-discovery during a time when self-discovery was virtually impossible for gay men. If schools are serious about diversity and inclusion, all students should read a book like Imre: A Memorandum to understand the pain and joy of coming out as a young person. While the novel ends happily, one wonders what will happen to the lovers as they pursue a secret relationship. That would be the topic of a great sequel.
Prime-Stevenson, Edward. Imre: A Memorandum. Edited by James J. Gifford, Broadview Literary Texts, 2003.