Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

Author: Christopher Isherwood

At the end of this article, please find discussion questions. 

Christopher Isherwood was a famous British gay writer of the twentieth century who lived in Berlin as the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s. Although Isherwood was proudly gay, he did not feel that he could include a gay narrator in his novels and still get them published. Hence, in Goodbye to Berlin, the narrator is also named Christopher Isherwood, but this character’s sexual identity is unclear. Despite this ambiguity, the queer innuendo in this book is strong. In fact, the innuendo is strong enough that it influenced queer authors such as Truman Capote and Armistead Maupin.

As the title suggests, Goodbye to Berlin is a story of a British expatriate’s years in Berlin in the early 1930s before he ultimately returns to Britain. The book is a series of vignettes told in different chapters, allowing the narrator to communicate with an eccentric cast of characters. Below I provide brief plot descriptions and queer aspects in each chapter.

A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)

This first chapter establishes the setting and characters. Having graduated from university in Britain, young Chris arrives in Berlin and teaches English in private lessons. One of his clients is Hippi Bernstein, a nineteen-year-old woman from a wealthy Jewish family. Chris seems to have communist leanings, and the anti-Semitism in Germany bewilders him. Chris lives in a room in a flat owned by Fraulein Schroeder, a middle-aged woman. Other boarders in the flat include a prostitute, a yodeler, and a bartender. 

Sally Bowles

This is the most interesting chapter, and it is the inspiration for the musical Cabaret. Through a mutual friend, Chris meets Sally Bowles, a dynamic young woman who is a force of nature. However, unlike Liza Minelli’s depiction of this character in the film version, Sally is British and she has very little musical talent. In fact, most of the action takes place outside of clubs and bars. Sally and Chris become close friends, and Chris assists Sally with gold-digging, helping her to take advantage of rich gentlemen callers. He even assists Sally as she gets an abortion. Sally is very similar to Audrey Hepburn’s depiction of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sally’s friendship with Chris is similar to those that frequently exist between straight women and gay men. 

On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931)

Chris goes to Ruegen Island on the Baltic Sea and shares a house with Peter and Otto. Peter is a wealthy British man the same age as Chris who has suffered nervous breakdowns. After trying to talk out his problems with a prostitute and an analyst, Peter finally finds Otto, a handsome German seventeen-year-old boy. Peter pays Otto a daily fee simply to talk to him about his anxieties. Peter is clearly obsessed with Otto, and the former becomes quite jealous of the latter when Otto shows increasing interest in the young women on the island. Chris meets a young doctor on the island who comments on the toxic relationship between Peter and Otto. The doctor labels Peter as a degenerate, and it is quite clear that Peter is an anguished queer man. Of course, in the end Otto leaves Peter forever after the two bicker and Otto steals from Peter.

The Nowaks

After returning to Berlin, Chris goes to live with Otto and his family in a crowded flat. Though Otto shows much interest in girls on Ruegen Island, he shows an abiding affection for Chris that sometimes seems homoerotic. For example, Otto exercises without wearing clothes in front of Chris, and he flexes his muscles for him. Nevertheless, Otto continues to date women. After Otto’s ill mother enters a sanatorium, Otto and Chris visit her, and they also meet two young female patients named Erna and Erika. While Otto and Erika are smitten with each other, Chris seems very indifferent to emaciated Erna. Otto and Erika fool around with each other while Chris lets his mouth press against Erna’s “hot, dry lips” in an encounter that lacks any passion or romance. In fact, Chris says, “I had no particular sensation of contact.” Again, Chris is neither overtly homosexual or heterosexual. 

The Landauers

With anti-Semitism waxing in Germany, Chris is inspired to become friends with the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family who owns a chain of department stores. At first he socializes with Natalia Landauer, a vibrant, strong-minded eighteen-year-old woman. Then he spends most of his time with Bernhard Landauer, Natalia’s cousin. Though it is never made clear, Chris engages in a sort of romance with Bernhard that involves flirtation, mind games, and intimate discussions. In a homoerotic scene, it is suggested that Chris may consummate his seeming desire for Bernhard when Bernhard invites him to stay the night. In addition, Bernhard invites Chris to run away to China to live with him. Though Chris at first thinks that Bernhard is joking, he later believes that Bernhard is serious. Through eavesdropping on a conversation between two businessmen, Chris later learns that Bernhard dies of heart failure. The two businessmen believe that the stated cause of death is a coverup for the Nazis’s assassination of Bernhard. 

A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3)

As Chris concludes his stay in Berlin, he observes interactions with both communists and Nazis. One communist he meets is named Rudi. Rudi enjoys wearing Russian blouses and short leather shorts. In addition, Rudi enjoys being around half-naked men. This chapter also sees Chris very comfortable at what seems to be a drag show in a bar that caters to straight audiences.

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe the relationship between Chris and Hippi. What does their relationship tell us about Chris?
  2. Why do Sally and Chris become good friends? What are the challenges in their friendship? Why do you think they are never romantic?
  3. How is Peter different from the other men in this chapter? Is Chris more sympathetic to Peter or Otto? Why do you think so?
  4. How do Chris and Otto express their sexuality differently? What aspects of this chapter are homoerotic?
  5. How is Bernhard a queer character? What examples from the story indicate his queerness?
  6. Why do you think Christopher imagines Rudi being tortured to death?

Reference

Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin Stories. New Directions Pub, 2008.

Advertisements
Advertisements

Better Angel (1933)

Author: Forman Brown (originally published under the pseudonym Richard Meeker)

What is the connection between the author and the queer community?

Better Angel is overt and honest in its queerness. It is miraculous that Forman Brown was able to publish this book in the 1930s, even if he did so under the pseudonym Richard Meeker. This novel is largely autobiographical, and each of the main characters (Kurt, Derry, David, Chloe, and Tony) is based on a real person. Brown is the basis for Kurt, and he had a long relationship with the man who is the basis for David’s character. In fact, Brown describes this man, Richard Brandon, as the “one great love” of his life. With Brandon and Harry Burnett, who is the basis for Derry, Brown established the Yale Puppeteers and the Turnabout Theatre. The Turnabout Theatre performed marionette shows and live revues. Brown even wrote songs for famous performers, such as Sophie Tucker, Elsa Lanchester, and Bette Midler.

What is the plot of this novel?

As the novel opens, the reader meets the protagonist Kurt Gray when he is a young boy in the small town of Barton, Michigan. While other boys enjoy playing sports, Kurt enjoys reading books and playing make-believe. The other boys taunt him for his unusual interests, but his mother encourages him to be different and be a leader. 

The action skips ahead to Kurt at the age of thirteen, when he and another boy see each other naked as a result of escalating dares. In a game of hide and seek, another boy almost succeeds in sexually assaulting Kurt.

As Kurt gets older and he becomes more unsure of his feelings for other boys, he feels guilty about masturbating and having unspecified sexual dreams. His prayers seem to be answered when a revival comes to town. As Kurt’s parents are church leaders, Kurt attends the revival sessions and hears about the evils of gambling and masturbation. 

The revival eventually leaves town, at least momentarily, and Kurt receives an uneventful high school education. He’s part of a strong social group, and he plays the organ for his church.

After high school, Kurt goes to the state university in Ann Arbor. He initially boards with an older woman that his parents vaguely know. Once Kurt meets a girl named Chloe in one of his classes, the two became fast friends. He moves into her house, where her mother and younger brother Derry also live. Kurt spends a lot of time with Derry, and the two have an affair. Despite becoming infatuated with Derry, Kurt fears that Derry’s distant and moody temperament is not ideal for a relationship.

Upon graduation, Kurt decides to pursue a career in music and songwriting. Before doing so, he spends the summer with his parents in Barton, corresponding with Derry through letters. In one letter, Kurt tells Derry that he loves him. Kurt becomes jealous when Derry writes to tell him that he is spending a lot of time with another student named David. 

Kurt returns to Ann Arbor for the wedding of Chloe to Roy, a college classmate that she does not really love. Kurt anxiously awaits seeing Derry, and he dreads seeing David, believing him to be Derry’s lover. Derry claims that his house is too crowded with house guests, and he has Kurt stay with David. David confesses that he is in love with Kurt, and Kurt kisses him. As Kurt leaves for his new life in New York, he feels encouraged by David’s promises to visit him. He also doubts that he actually loved Derry, and he suspects Derry mostly appreciated the physical aspect of their relationship. 

When Kurt returns to Michigan for the holidays, Chloe reveals that she is deeply dissatisfied in her marriage and that she intends to divorce Roy. Kurt fears that Chloe may actually be in love with him. Roy tells Kurt that Chloe is in love with him. Roy worries how divorce might malign his reputation and career. Roy tries to convince Kurt to tell Chloe that he is a complete phony and not a true artist. Roy believes that Chloe is attracted to Kurt because he is a true artist. Further, he believes he can save his marriage by deflating her worship of Kurt. Kurt initially agrees, but then realizes that he cannot go through with this lie. 

After her divorce, Chloe moves to New York and tells Kurt that she is in love with him. When Kurt tells her that he is gay, she is shocked, but she claims to accept him for who he is. Still, Kurt hopes that he can somehow learn to love Chloe, but he suspects that he will never be attracted to women. David and Derry come to New York to say goodbye to Kurt before he boards a ship for Europe, as Kurt receives a scholarship to study and write music abroad for several months. Before the ship departs, David and Kurt kiss once again.

As Kurt travels around Europe, Chloe writes to him to tell him that she observes Derry and David wasting their lives around “pretty boys” in the West Village. Chloe tells Kurt that she believes that Kurt can do better than both of them. Kurt fears that Chloe still harbors feelings for him. 

Kurt meets a charming young man named Tony on the ship to Europe, and Tony comes to stay with Kurt in France. Tony guesses that Kurt is gay, and he tells Kurt that he has made love to quite a few men, and even some women. Tony urges Kurt to try to live a heterosexual existence to make his life easier. 

Kurt then makes love to Tony and immediately regrets it. He feels that Tony proves that he is promiscuous like all of the other queer men. However, Tony still believes that Kurt is quite innocent and inexperienced. Tony reveals that David was the kept man of a wealthy older gentleman named Ozzy when David lived in Philadelphia. Tony knows this because he met David at one of Ozzy’s lavish parties that he frequently holds for queer men. Despite this shocking revelation, Kurt and Tony form a close friendship, and Kurt even writes the libretto to a play that Tony writes.

Tony and Kurt eventually part ways, with Tony going back to New York to audition for stage roles. Kurt goes to Paris and agonizes that he is not interested in the female prostitutes as so many men are in the city.

Kurt returns to New York and stays with David and Derry. David is ashamed of his past association with Ozzy. Further, he seeks to free himself of the gay clique. David loves Kurt’s innocence and the fact that Kurt is not in any way caught up in the gay clique.

Kurt accepts a job as a music teacher at a boys’ prep school in Connecticut, and David makes plans to someday join him in New York. Meanwhile, Kurt and David continue a long-distance relationship, with both of them falling more and more in love with each other. When David comes to visit Kurt in Connecticut, Derry gets arrested and calls them for help. Kurt and David pay for his bail and an attorney for his hearing. Because it is obvious that an undercover police officer nearly coerced Derry into having sex, Derry is cleared of all charges for “immoral behavior.” 

Kurt returns to his school in Connecticut and becomes a mentor to a queer student named Ford. He accidentally catches Ford making love to another boy in one of the practice rooms. In coded language, Kurt apologizes for interrupting a special moment and praises Ford for being different from the other boys. To show his appreciation, Ford gives Kurt a replica of Donatello’s David, which reminds Kurt of David. On the spur of the moment, Kurt decides to go to New York for the weekend to visit David. He wants to buy a farmhouse in Connecticut to share with David.

Once Kurt arrives at David’s apartment, no one is home. Kurt finds a note from Ozzy addressed to David to meet him that evening, and Kurt notices that David’s formal clothing is not hanging in his closet. Concluding that David is unfaithful to him, Kurt writes a note to David on the back of Ozzy’s note, demanding an explanation. In a moment of anger, vulnerability, and questioning his life choices, Kurt meets Chloe in a hotel room and has sex with her. They are both awkward and unfulfilled.

When Kurt returns to Connecticut the following day, he finds a telegram from David. In the telegram, David says that he is on his way to see Kurt to explain everything. Kurt realizes that he still loves David. At the close of the novel, Kurt waits for David’s arrival with the intention still to invite him to live together in a farmhouse in Connecticut. 

What are the queerest aspects of this novel?

Better Angel is one of the first American novels to portray homosexuality in a positive way with a happy ending. This novel contrasts sharply with contemporaneous novels such as Strange Brother that have very tragic endings. The novel stands out in its realistic treatment of queer existence, and it is interesting that many themes discussed still resonate in twenty-first century queer life. 

The character of Kurt is sexually inexperienced even in his twenties and he prefers monogamy, which is a rebuttal in itself of queer stereotypes of promiscuity. Kurt and Tony even discuss an autobiography of a straight writer who fails to see the double standard applied to queer men regarding sexuality and promiscuity. It seems that straight men can have many partners without criticism, but queer men cannot. Added to this discussion is the existence of gay cliques in the major cities across America. Brown portrays these cliques as insufferable and incestuous. David yearns to break from this clique, and Kurt is not in any way a part of a clique. Brown seems to suggest that queer men can happily exist apart from these cliques.

The character of David keeps the reader guessing. His protestations of love for Kurt seem disingenuous at the beginning because David barely knows Kurt. As the narrative progresses and David’s love for Kurt does not abate, David seems more genuine. However, both Chloe and Tony disdain David. Chloe justifies her hatred for David because of his weakness, while Tony criticizes David’s relationship with Ozzy. Although the reader never quite knows the true nature or fate of David’s relationship with Ozzy, it is easy to understand how a vulnerable, closeted young man in the 1930s might fall under the influence and control of a wealthy older man. David represents so many young queer men who try to make their way in a homophobic world, stumbling along the way. David’s ability to persevere shows his strength and Chloe’s clear homophobia and jealousy. By the end of the novel, the reader understands that jealous Chloe and vain, closeted Tony reflect society’s homophobia while David dares to love Kurt in secret. 

An avid reader, Kurt consistently mentions his desire to see queer representation in books. After reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, Kurt is convinced that Shakespeare was queer. Kurt also enjoys the queerness in Proust’s writings. 

Most touching is Kurt’s interaction with his student, Ford. Upon walking in on Ford making love to another boy, Donald, Kurt is speechless. He invites Ford and Donald for tea just to assure them that everything is all right. Only much later does he finally find the words to tell Ford that his queerness is good, even if Kurt must do so in coded language. Even in the twenty-first century it can be difficult for queer educators to assure queer students of their place in the world. This is a shame. Young queer people benefit from the wisdom and example of their queer elders. We should live in a society where this mentorship is more common. 

Reference

Brown, Forman. Better Angel. Alyson Publications, 1995.

In Search of Lost Time: Sodom and Gomorrah (1921/1922)

Author: Marcel Proust

What is the connection between the author and the queer community?

Marcel Proust was born into an upper-middle-class existence in the Parisian suburb of Auteuil in 1871. Proust’s mother was of Jewish descent, and his father was a renowned doctor. While Proust grew up in Paris, he spent a lot of time in his family’s country home. With much anguish, he acknowledged his homosexuality, and he had an affair with composer and pianist Reynaldo Hahn. Violent asthma attacks prevented Proust from having a traditional professional life, but he did manage to infiltrate aristocratic social life and attend many parties with the elite. After his mother’s death and subsequent declining health, Proust retreated from public life and devoted himself almost entirely to writing. During this time, he wrote the manuscripts for the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Sodom and Gomorrah was the last volume of In Search of Lost Time that was published before Proust died. Proust’s friend and acclaimed writer André Gide, who was also gay, disliked Sodom and Gomorrah because its depiction of homosexuality did not emphasize youth, beauty, and passion.

Marcel Proust

What is the plot of this book?

The seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time portray the relationships of the French elite in the early twentieth century. The main families of distinction include the Guermantes, the Verdurins, and the Cambremers. Sodom and Gomorrah is told from the point of view of an unnamed male narrator as he attends myriad parties and dinners in and around Paris and Balbec, a French coastal town. The story opens with the narrator waiting for the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes to arrive. As the narrator waits, he instead covertly observes a tryst between the duke’s brother, Monsieur de Charlus, and Jupien, a tailor. This encounter causes the narrator to reflect on the experience of being an “invert,” the outdated term for a queer person.

As the narrator continues to socialize with Charlus and many other characters throughout the novel, queer themes continue to emerge in the actions of Charlus and also in those of Albertine, the woman who the narrator loves. Despite ambivalence over Albertine’s lower social standing from the narrator’s family, the narrator continues to pursue a relationship with Albertine. Jealousy overwhelms the narrator as he repeatedly suspects Albertine of having same-sex desires. Albertine has a particularly close relationship with another woman named Andreé. Nevertheless, the narrator decides ultimately that he must marry Albertine.

In addition to the queer themes, Proust also addresses anti-Semitism and the passing of time. The narrative unravels as the Dreyfus Affair vexes France. Controversy emerged when a French Jewish captain was accused of treasonously selling military secrets to the Germans (Britannica). The captain’s Judaism gave rise to anti-Semitism, and a backlash emerged when evidence came to light supporting the captain’s innocence (Britannica). The Jewish characters and supporters of the captain are outcasts in a similar way that the queer characters are outcasts. As Proust had Jewish heritage, his empathy for otherness in religion and sexuality is apparent. Moreover, the narrator’s grief over his grandmother’s passing echoes the grief that Proust seemed to experience over the passing of his mother. Proust devotes large sections of the text to the memories of his grandmother that inundate him as he revisits a vacation spot in Balbec and the phenomenon of remembering the deceased.

The novel is named Sodom and Gomorrah in an irreverent allusion to the Biblical story. In the story of Sodom of Gomorrah, God destroys these two cities because of the inhabitants’ wickedness (Britannica). Although this wickedness has traditionally been interpreted as homosexuality, modern interpretations have identified the vice as inhospitality (Britannica). Nevertheless, the narrator believes that the angels posted at the gates of Sodom should have been Sodomites, or queer people. If the angels had been Sodomites, they would have been able to determine who was lying about their “vices.” Since this did not happen, Sodomites, especially those that castigate others about their homosexuality, have thrived. This explanation is an apparent criticism of policing sexual conduct among consenting adults.

How is this book queer?

The title Sodom and Gomorrah is a bold declaration of queerness, and the book opens with a very queer scene. The narrator happens to observe the main queer character Charlus initiate a sexual encounter with Jupien the tailor. Proust juxtaposes the interaction between the birds, bees, and flowers in the background with the flirtation between Charlus and Jupien. Proust compares Jupien with flowers and female birds, and Proust compares Charlus with pollinators like hummingbirds and bumblebees. In common parlance, “the birds and the bees” is an expression for the natural act of sex between two consenting people. This phrase usually refers to heterosexual sex, yet Proust extends this imagery to gay sex. In doing so, Proust classifies gay sex as a very natural act, just as heterosexual sex is.

Charlus and Jupien

While the opening scene normalizes gay sex, the narrative perpetuates some outdated attitudes about queer men. Proust equates male queerness with femininity, and he confuses sexual orientation with gender identity. While true mutual love is rare among heterosexual people, Proust believes that it is even rarer between queer men. He theorizes that most queer men are effeminate, yet they seek masculine men as lovers. As a result, he believes queer men must make concessions in order to find lovers. In other words, he opines that queer men cannot afford to be choosy if they want to find lovers. According to him, effeminate queer men will inevitably be lovers to each other, even if they seek masculine lovers. Further, Proust even traces queerness to “hermaphroditism,” an outdated term, in organisms that have both sexual organs. In summation, Proust is completely incorrect on the science of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Even as the narrator characterizes Charlus as very effeminate, Charlus is the central, commanding queer character in the novel. Indeed, in the first party scene Charlus informs Vaugoubert, a closeted queer man, about “the inverts” in attendance at the party. Vaugoubert is married to a masculine woman in what is assumed to be a marriage without passion. This does not matter to Charlus, who commands respect from fellow queer men. Similarly, at the party Charlus exchanges knowing glances with another queer man, the Duke of Sidonia, but the two men give each other distance. Proust, through the narrator, believes that queer men, at least in this era in France, are either lovers or rivals.

With queer men acting as either rivals or lovers, it is natural for love affairs to extend beyond class divides. Charlus’s initial encounter with Jupien lasts through the course of the novel, as Jupien becomes Charlus’s secretary and later his accomplice. However, Charlus’s true love is Morel, a bisexual violinist in the military band. Charlus becomes Morel’s patron and lover, and the two manipulate each other into staying together. There is even a suggested queer relationship that does not include Charlus. The Duc de Châtellerault, a very minor character, meets the usher of the Princesse de Guermantes while he goes incognito to the Champs-Élysées, and the two seem to bask in the romance of Paris. The usher, of course, recognizes the Duc de Châtellerault as he enters a party, and the latter is frightened his identity, and his sexuality, will be revealed.

The ruses that Charlus executes are for more elaborate than that of the Duc de Châtellerault. Charlus feigns disinterest in and even criticizes the beautiful adult sons of his brother’s mistress, Madame de Surgis. In doing so, he engages Madame de Surgis in defending her sons, which eventually allows him a path to introduce himself and invite the sons to lunch. Similarly, Charlus lies to the narrator about knowing Morel so that the narrator will facilitate an introduction between the two men. For his part, Morel angles to replace Jupien as the Charlus’s primary beneficiary. Indeed, Morel and Charlus have an impassioned relationship that gives way to arguing when Charlus tries to control his career. Charlus tries to convince Morel to adopt the artistic name of “Charmel,” in recognition of Morel’s first name, Charlie, and the commitment to his patron. Feeling stifled, Morel vehemently objects. To win back his affection, Charlus tricks Morel into thinking that he will engage in a duel with Morel’s military superiors, whom Charlus falsely claims have slandered their relationship. Even more, Charlus, with the help of Jupien, secures Morel’s complete fidelity when  Charlus convinces Morel that he is always being watched. One way or another, Charlus will have his man to himself.

The intensity of Charlus’s affection for men does not go unnoticed, and Charlus does not attempt to contain his personality to appease a heteronormative society. Charlus speaks openly about his interest in the homoerotic passages of Balzac’s work. The narrator even interprets Charlus’s flamboyant expression of his preference for strawberry juice over orangeade as a sign of Charlus’s preference for the “stronger sex.” Charlus’s flamboyance arises in his daily interactions, as he ogles masculine laborers and even makes conversation with them. Charlus requests the service of a waiter named Aimé, whom is married to a woman and whom the narrator recognizes as just the type of man that would appeal to Charlus. When Charlus feels neglected by Aimé, he writes a scathing letter to him decrying his insolence and castigating him for possibly thinking that Charlus hoped for more than simply good customer service from Aimé. A confused Aimé is nonetheless relieved to read that Charlus does not maintain any bitterness against him. Charlus’s plans unravel again when he requests the company of Madame de Chevregny’s masculine, rustic footmen. Confused at his request, she sends her effeminate footmen to Charlus. Naturally, Charlus is not at all interested in the effeminate footmen, who may in fact be queer.

Practically every character knows that Charlus is queer, even as Charlus never openly acknowledges his sexuality or his relationship with Morel. Morel faces teasing and jokes from his fellow soldiers, but he does not contend with bullying or physical harassment. Perhaps because of his high social standing, Charlus is spared any explicit ridicule. While some characters joke and gossip about his sexuality, others even accept and support his relationship with Morel. Madame Verdurin gives adjoining rooms to Charlus and Morel when they stay at her home, and she assures them not to worry about making noise due to the “thickness of the walls.”

Who would enjoy reading this book?

Patient readers who enjoy the deliberate pace of novels from long ago will enjoy Sodom and Gomorrah. The novel contains many characters and subplots that will keep the reader engaged despite the slow pacing. Those who like to read about French culture will certainly enjoy the novel’s portrayal of the social hierarchy. Sodom and Gomorrah contains many long sentences, which will mean more upon repeated reading. In fact, listening to the audiobook version and then reading the text again would be an excellent method for experiencing the richness of this book. Lastly, the theatricality of the seminal queer character Charlus cannot be missed. Charlus reminds the reader of a character Oscar Wilde or countless other queer authors of the last one hundred years would imagine. Indeed Charlus is sly and scheming in his sexuality, and on the other hand erudite and a lover of culture, as seen in the pageantry of his devotion to the archangels Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel.

References

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Dreyfus Affair.” Encyclopædia

Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 6 Mar. 2019, www.britannica.com/event/Dreyfus-affair.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 22 Nov. 2018, www.britannica.com/place/Sodom-and-Gomorrah.

Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time, Volume IV: Sodom and Gomorrah. New York: The Modern Library, 1993. Digital.

Proust, Marcel. Sodom and Gomorrah: Remembrance of Things Past – Volume 4. Narrated by Neville Jason. Naxos, 2012. Audiobook.

Imre: A Memorandum (1906)

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).

Edward Prime-Stevenson

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.

Oswald and Imre meet in Hungary.

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 and Imre hold hands.

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 masks that Imre and Oswald wear

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.

Reference

Prime-Stevenson, Edward. Imre: A Memorandum. Edited by James J. Gifford, Broadview Literary Texts, 2003.