Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948)

Truman Capote (Carl Van Vechten / Public domain)

Author: Truman Capote

Truman Capote

Truman Capote was a celebrated novelist and short-story writer of the postwar period in twentieth-century America. Capote was a natural writer who was determined to be famous despite the fact that he did not do well in school. He had an unstable childhood. His mother sent him to live with female relatives in Alabama when he was very young. In Alabama, he met Harper Lee, who is the inspiration for the character of Idabel Thompkins in Other Voices, Other Rooms. Capote is the inspiration for the character of Dill in Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). He later went to high school in New York, but he never graduated. 

Not finishing high school did not deter Capote, as he believed that writing could not really be taught. While working a desk job at The New Yorker, he completed his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. The book was published when Capote was only twenty-three years old, and it achieved critical and commercial success. Capote achieved even greater success with the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and the true-crime non-fiction novel In Cold Blood (1966). Although Capote struggled with alcohol addiction, he maintained a longtime companionship with a man named Jack Dunphy.

Other Voices, Other Rooms

Thirteen-year-old Joel Harrison Knox leaves his hometown of New Orleans by himself in the 1940s to go to rural Mississippi to live with his father and step-mother, Miss Amy. Joel does not have it easy. His mother has died, and he’s more effeminate and polished than most boys his age. On his way to Scully’s Landing, the name of his step-mother’s mansion, Joel encounters Florabel and Idabel Thompkins, twin sisters roughly his same age who live nearby. Florabel is friendly and feminine. Idabel is crusty and butch. Although Idabel ridicules Joel’s femininity by calling him a “sissy,” Idabel and Joel eventually become friends, perhaps in part because of the fact that they both defy gender norms.

Other minor characters include Zoo Fever and her grandfather Jesus Fever, black servants who work for Miss Amy. Like most novels of this period, this novel portrays its black characters in problematic ways and employs the use of racist slurs in dialogue. Zoo and Jesus do not factor in a significant way in the core plot, which is a missed opportunity.

There are suggestions that Joel is queer—and perhaps inspired by Capote himself—though his queerness is never confirmed. While Joel is not religious, he does pray “to be loved” when he is forced into a religious ceremony with Zoo and Jesus. Joel appreciates the friendship of Florabel and Idabel, though he becomes closer to Idabel. There are suggestions that he may harbor romantic feelings for Idabel, though a romance never comes to fruition, largely because Idabel does not harbor any feelings of desire for the male sex. When Idabel and Joel go skinny dipping in a pond, she finds his naked body completely unremarkable. 

Most of all, Joel has a special affection for the novel’s queerest character, Randolph. Randolph is the cousin of Miss Amy, and he lives with them in Scully’s Landing. Randolph is effeminate. He has hairless legs and fancy blonde curls. He wears silk pajamas and a kimono. He is also a mystery. Shortly after meeting him, Joel asks Randolph about a mysterious old woman he has seen peering out of the window in the mansion. Both Randolph and Miss Amy do not answer Joel’s inquiries about the whereabouts of his father, Ed Sansom. 

Miss Amy and Randolph eventually reveal that Ed is confined to a bed. Joel discovers that his father is paralyzed and mute. Randolph explains how his own heartbreak resulted in Ed’s paralysis. Randolph tells Joel that he met Ed while he was dating a woman named Dolores in New Orleans. Dolores is an unusual woman. For example, she keeps a journal in which she writes about her dreams of murdering her lovers. Randolph and Dolores meet a local boxer named Pepe Alvarez and his manager, Ed. Pepe falls in love with Dolores, and Randolph falls in love with Pepe. Dolores tells Randolph that she always knew he was gay and that he should not torture himself by pining for Pepe, who will never return Randolph’s affection. Dolores nonetheless pursues her own affair with Pepe. 

Randolph cannot help himself. He buys Pepe and Ed expensive clothing to win their favor. They despise Randolph despite his generosity because Randolph is obviously queer. The four people eventually become friends. As Mardi Gras approaches, Dolores gives Randolph a costume to wear to the celebration. Randolph dresses as a countess. Since he is masked, Randolph fools Pepe into dancing with him, fanning the flames of his desire. After the celebration, Dolores and Pepe run off together, and Randolph is inconsolable. In his state of grief and hearing noises outside his bedroom door, Randolph grabs his gun and shoots. Ed receives the bullet and falls down a flight of stairs. As Ed recovers, Miss Amy tends to him and eventually marries him. The three of them return to Scully’s Landing. 

Meanwhile in the present, tensions mount between Idabel and Florabel. Idabel runs away from home. Joel accompanies her as they run off to the carnival, which has just come to the local town, Noon City. There Joel and Idabel meet a little person named Miss Wisteria. Miss Wisteria touches Joel inappropriately, and he runs away to find Idabel. In his effort to escape and find Idabel, Joel catches pneumonia, yet his relatives eventually find him. Randolph helps nurse Joel back to health. Joel realizes at the end of the novel that Randolph was likely the old lady that he saw peering out of the window of the mansion. 

References

Capote, Truman. Other Voices, Other Rooms. Vintage International, Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., 2012.

Krebs, Albin. The New York Times, The New York Times, 1997, movies2.nytimes.com/books/97/12/28/home/capote-obit.html.

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The City and the Pillar (1948)

Gore Vidal (Carl Van Vechten / Public domain)

Author: Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal was a larger-than-life inhabitant of the twentieth century. He was a novelist, playwright, and a screenwriter. He also occasionally acted. He was in Federico Fellini’s Roma and in the movie Gattaca. He never expected any of these careers. He imagined himself as a politician. However, the publication of The City and the Pillar in 1948, one of the first mainstream novels to honestly address male homosexuality, perhaps shaped the course of his life and career. 

Vidal was born in 1925 to an elite family. His father was an aviation expert who worked for the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, and his mother was a Washington socialite who married and then divorced Hugh Auchincloss, who would later marry the mother of Jacqueline Kennedy. 

According to Vidal, his father was in a love triangle with Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart. He alleges that Roosevelt loved Earhart, but Earhart loved Vidal’s father. Vidal’s father was an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy who later founded three different airline companies. 

Because Vidal did not get along well with his mother, his grandfather, a blind U.S. senator for the state of Oklahoma, raised him. Vidal graduated from the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, yet he never went to university. Instead, he enlisted in the army. 

His years in the military inspired his early writing, and he was a successful novelist by his twenties. He later ran for national political office twice, but he lost both campaigns. Regardless, he was a known television personality, notably for his explosive feuds with writer Norman Mailer, conservative writer William F. Buckley, Jr., and Truman Capote. 

Despite being very forthcoming about his numerous sexual contacts with men, Vidal resisted being labeled gay. However, the singer Howard Auster was his life companion for fifty-three years, until Auster died. Auster and Vidal had a platonic relationship that was loving and emotionally affectionate, even though they did not have sex with each other. They had an open relationship in which both men separately had sex with younger men. Vidal referred to these young men as “trade.” Masculine men particularly appealed to Vidal. Those close to Vidal believed that he liked to separate sex from emotions so that he could refer to himself as bisexual, even though his family and friends believed he was gay. According to Vidal, only acts, not people, were gay. 

Although there are reports that he was once engaged to the actress Joanne Woodward, Vidal and Woodward have denied that they were an item. Indeed, Vidal’s desire for men is well established. Even so, many believe that Vidal was not comfortable with the stigma of being labeled gay. He was not a gay rights activist or an HIV activist, to the chagrin of his gay nephew, artist Hugh Auchincloss Steers, who died of AIDS. Despite his discomfort with being called gay, Vidal maintained friendships with famous gay men such as ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev, Christopher Isherwood, and Tennessee Williams. Why could Vidal not fully embrace the queer community? Perhaps Vidal did not want to be considered powerless. Perhaps power and money were important to him.

Regardless of his personal identification, Vidal was brave. His third novel, The City and the Pillar, was a huge risk, and it created quite a stir for its frank depiction of homosexuality. It continues to make waves for its commentary on masculinity, especially within a gay context. Jimmie Trimble, to whom Vidal dedicated the book, is the inspiration for the book. Trimble was Vidal’s former schoolmate who died as a Marine in the battle of Iwo Jima. Trimble may have been Vidal’s one true love. Vidal kept pictures of Trimble in his house, and he stared at them before going to bed at night. 

Vidal often did not shy from controversy. The City and the Pillar succeeded commercially, even though the New York Times refused to advertise it, and no major U.S. newspaper or magazine would review it. Vidal continued to court controversy with his publication of Myra Breckinridge, a novel about a sociopathic transgender person who tries to become a star in Hollywood. Much later, Vidal publicly defended Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and the two men were pen pals until McVeigh’s death by execution. Vidal was a fierce critic of national security policy in the United States, and he controversially claimed that the George W. Bush administration colluded with the 9/11 terrorists. 

Vidal died of pneumonia at the age of eighty-six. He is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., next to Auster.

The City and the Pillar 

Jim Willard is the protagonist of the novel, set during the 1930s and 1940s. At the beginning of the novel, Jim is a teenager, and by the end of the novel he is in his twenties. Jim is athletic, masculine, and good-looking. In his high school in a small town in Virginia, Jim is a tennis champion. Jim has a crush on Bob Ford, who is also very good-looking yet not as athletic as Jim. After Bob graduates, he invites Jim to his cabin in the woods, where their wrestling leads to kissing and sexual contact. After their tryst, Bob feels ashamed, but Jim is euphoric. 

Shortly thereafter, Bob joins the Merchant Marines and sets sail while Jim finishes his last year of high school. After Jim graduates, he joins the Merchant Marines in search of Bob, who has not responded to Jim’s letters. In pursuit of Bob, Jim travels to various places with the Merchant Marines. Jim finally ends up in Seattle where a fellow sailor sets it upon himself to find a girl who will take Jim’s virginity. When Jim and this fellow sailor finally arrive at the apartment of two young women, the sailor promptly has sex with one of the women. Jim realizes that he is disgusted by womanly bodies and he flees the apartment. As Jim leaves, the sailor yells, “Let the queer go! I got enough for two.” Jim hates being called queer.

After that night, Jim decides to quit the Merchant Marines and go to Hollywood. He works at a garage for a while, and then he becomes a tennis instructor at the Garden Hotel in Beverly Hills. Jim lives at the hotel with the hotel employees, including several gay bellhops who are aspiring actors. The bellhops lust after Jim, and Jim enjoys this attention. However, Jim maintains that he is straight, partly because the femininity of the gay bellhops disgusts him. 

One of the bellhops invites Jim to a party hosted by Ronald Shaw, a famous closeted actor. Shaw is mean, greedy, and perpetually single. He is extremely attracted to beautiful masculine young men, but these encounters never lead to anything lasting. Naturally, Ronald is drawn to Jim, who reluctantly returns the affection of an older man in his thirties. In truth, only those near his own age really have the power to attract Jim. However, Jim and Ronald share an aversion to feminine men, and Ronald makes Jim his personal, live-in tennis instructor and boyfriend. Meanwhile, the feminine gays salivate at the masculinity of Jim and Ronald. 

As Jim and Ronald have an affair, Jim still holds out hope for reuniting with Bob. Bob doesn’t appear. Instead, Paul Sullivan, a moody writer enters Jim’s life at a dinner party that Ronald hosts. Like Jim and Ronald, Paul likes athletic men. Tragically, Paul tends to be attracted to bisexual men who prefer the safety of family life. Paul and Jim have an affair to Ronald’s great dismay. 

Paul and Jim go together to New Orleans, where they encounter an old of friend of Paul’s named Maria. Maria is a vibrant woman who tends to fascinate gay men, and Jim falls under her spell. Paul notices Jim’s fascination, and he can see that Maria is extremely attracted to Jim. Moreover, he is committed to engineering his own destruction, so Paul attempts to choreograph an affair between Jim and Maria. To this end, Paul drinks all day and goes to bed early, leaving Maria and Jim with plenty of time to spend together alone. Jim kisses Maria, but he does not consummate the affair, as the softness of women’s bodies do not appeal to him. Nonetheless, Paul believes that they had an affair. The three people part ways, and Jim joins the army.

In the army, Jim’s dark side comes into focus. He rebuffs the advances of his sergeant, whom he does not find attractive at all. Nevertheless, Jim is very attracted to another soldier named Ken, who is extremely heterosexual. Observing Ken’s strong heterosexuality, Jim resolves to get Ken so drunk that Jim that can take advantage of him. This plan does not work. As Jim’s frustration with the army mounts, he becomes very sick and later develops rheumatoid arthritis. Due to his arthritis, Jim qualifies for an early discharge with a full pension. A black soldier observes Jim’s good luck, and this soldier remarks that this good luck would never happen to a black soldier. Jim acknowledges the truth of the remark, but he nonetheless does not seem to care too deeply about the lack of justice.

After his recovery, Jim returns to New York and becomes a tennis instructor. By chance, Jim encounters Ronald Shaw on the street, and the two become friends again. Ronald takes Jim to elite parties of gay men in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Jim feels extremely bored and out of place among the more effeminate and intellectual gay men in this crowd. In New York at this time there were far more closeted gay men in straight marriages than gay men living openly with each other. Jim much prefers having affairs with the married gay men, who are also more masculine. He also frequents bars where he can find “trade” and the masculine soldiers and sailors. This leads to nothing enduring, and Jim feels quite lonely and without friends.

Paul Sullivan enters into Jim’s life again, but their casual relationship does not last either. As Paul leaves to write a book in Africa, Jim receives a letter from his mother about Bob’s return to Virginia. Jim discovers that Bob has married Sally, a high school classmate, and that he intends to settle down with her in Virginia. Desperately clinging to the hope that Bob is bisexual, Jim devises a plan to have an affair with Bob, even if he doesn’t necessarily intend to break up Bob’s marriage with Sally. 

Upon his return to Virginia, Jim has dinner with Bob and Sally. He reconnects with Bob and feels a genuine rapport with him. Bob likes his work in the Merchant Marines, and he does not really want to work for Sally’s father’s insurance company, as Sally has requested. However, Bob’s feels better about returning to Virginia if Jim is there. Nevertheless, Jim returns to New York, and Bob eventually visits him there. Jim and Bob eat dinner together, and they later get very drunk in Bob’s hotel room. Believing that Bob is asleep, Jim starts groping Bob. Bob awakens, and Jim and Bob get into a physical fight. Jim overpowers Bob and rapes him. Afterward, Bob cries, and Jim leaves the hotel room without any feelings of sorrow. Jim candidly rejects a man who tries to pick him up at a bar, and then he wanders to the docks by the river, wanting to board a ship again. 

This ending recalls Melville’s New York of gay sailors, but it is also extremely tragic. One interpretation is that Vidal criticizes the fixation on masculinity that characterizes Jim’s existence and even Vidal’s own existence. However, an equally probably interpretation is Vidal’s abhorrence to tying affection to sexuality. Jim wreaks havoc because he puts all of his hopes for desire in Bob, one single man. By contrast, Vidal lived his life separating out sex from affection. The ending is problematic, as is Vidal’s demonizing of effeminate men in the book. Nevertheless, Vidal never ceases to provoke and facilitate reflection on the nature of male sexuality. 

References

Balaban, Judy. “Gore Vidal’s Beloved Women: Susan Sarandon, Joan Collins, and Others Remember Their Friend.” Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, 29 Jan. 2015, http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2013/02/gore-vidal-beloved-women-susan-sarandon.

Teeman, Tim. “How Gay Was Gore Vidal?” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 31 July 2013, http://www.thedailybeast.com/how-gay-was-gore-vidal.

Teeman, Tim. “Inside Gore Vidal’s Cliffside Palace of Sex, Scandal, and Celebrity.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 22 July 2017, www.thedailybeast.com/inside-gore-vidals-cliffside-palace-of-sex-scandal-and-celebrity.

Tyrnauer, Matt. “Gore Vidal’s Years in Italy: ‘A Wonderful Place to Observe the End of the World.’” Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, 29 Jan. 2015, http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/08/gore-vidal-in-ravello-italy-obituary.

Vidal, Gore. The City and the Pillar: a Novel. Vintage International, 2003.

Woo, Elaine. “Gore Vidal Dies at 86; Iconoclastic Author.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 1 Aug. 2012, http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-gore-vidal-20120801-story.html.

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)

Author: Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers (Carl Van Vechten / Public domain)

This novel is not an easy read because the plot and characters take unexpected turns that leave one both amused and confused. The interest of a female writer in the 1940s in exploring male queerness is unique. This portrayal of queerness is complex and not obviously judgmental. Carson McCullers, the noted writer of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, hailed from Georgia and died in New York at the age of fifty. Her life and this book leave one with more questions than answers. 

When reading Reflections in a Golden Eye, one is reminded of the film American Beauty (1999) and all of the films that were popular in the 1990s and 2000s about secrets and taboos. The third-person narrator allows the reader to be privy to these secrets and taboos. From the beginning of the book, the reader knows that a murder happens and that the characters involved include two officers, one soldier, two women, one Filipino, and one horse. 

The story takes place on a military base in the South in the early 1940s. Captain Penderton and his wife Leonora live in a house next to Major Morris Landon and his wife Alison. Private Elgee Williams works at the stable where Leonora, who is an avid equestrian, frequents. Private Williams becomes more familiar with the Pendertons when the captain asks him to clear the brush near his house. The captain remembers how Private Williams accidentally spilled coffee on him once. After Private Williams finishes the job of clearing brush, the captain is very dissatisfied with his work. Despite the captain’s dissatisfaction, Private Williams becomes quite enamored with Leonora, whom he sees naked when he peers into one of the windows of the house. For the rest of the novel, Private Williams lurks outside of the Pendertons’ house, spying on Leonora. In addition, he even enters the home at night and watches Leonora sleeping in her bed.

An extramarital affair haunts the relationship between the Landons and the Pendertons. Leonora and Morris have an affair throughout the novel, and both the captain and Alison secretly know that this affair is happening. Moreover, the captain lusts after Morris. Instead of confronting Leonora, Alison chooses to become her close friend. 

Alison Landon is not well. She has heart disease and struggles with depression. At one point, she even cuts off her own nipples with garden shears. She does not like her husband, and she wishes to divorce him. Her only real companion is her fawning, flamboyant, Filipino servant Anacleto. Alison eventually has a nervous breakdown and a heart attack that kills her before she can divorce Morris. 

Captain Penderton is even more unusual. He has inexplicable urges. For example, he suddenly steals a silver spoon at a dinner party. At the beginning of the novel, the captain encounters a kitten on a rainy night. He inexplicably puts the kitten in a mail receptacle on the street. When he is riding a horse by himself, he is even more cruel to his horse. The horse stumbles, causing the captain to sustain a minor injury. Penderton beats the horse thoroughly. After this beating, he sees Private Williams completely naked standing before him. Seeing Private Williams naked makes Penderton eventually realize that he really lusts for Private Williams, not Morris. Penderton’s hatred for Private Williams dissolves into passion. 

Although Private Williams’s stalking and spying seems harmless, the narrator reveals that Private Williams killed a man unapologetically before joining the military. After arguing with a black man about the ownership of a wheelbarrow of manure, Private Williams killed the man and hid his body in an abandoned quarry. Karma comes back around when Captain Penderton unknowingly kills Private Williams when Penderton spies a stranger lurking outside of Leonora’s bedroom. Penderton ironically kills the man that he had learned to love instead of hate. 

Reference

McCullers, Carson. Reflections in a Golden Eye. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

Author: Christopher Isherwood

Christopher Isherwood (National Media Museum from UK / No restrictions)

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.

Better Angel (1933)

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

Forman Brown, Harry Burnett, and Roddy Brandon (Author unknown, Public Domain)

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.

The White Book (1928)

Author: Jean Cocteau

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

Jean Cocteau was a famous French artist, actor, writer, and film director. Cocteau was gay and had a long relationship with his muse, actor Jean Marais (Criterion). With Cocteau as the director, Marais starred as the beast in a gorgeous rendition of Beauty and the Beast (1946) and the titular character in Orpheus (1950) (Criterion).

Although Jean Cocteau never explicitly conceded his authorship of The White Book, it is now widely accepted that he was the book’s author. The book was published anonymously in 1928. For the 1957 edition of the book, Cocteau wrote a preface and contributed several illustrations, but he remained coy about whether he was the book’s author.

Another translation of this book is The White Paper, which is a term used to describe a government briefing document. The title means that that author is not trying to persuade his audience but rather to inform them about the reality of being a gay man.

Jean Cocteau, 1923 (Agence de presse Meurisse)

What is the plot of this novel?

The story begins in 1920s France with the nameless narrator acknowledging his own homosexuality. The narrator then briefly describes experiences from his childhood that help him realize that he is gay. He faints when he happens to see a naked farmer taking a break from work to swim. He fondly remembers seeing naked gypsies climbing trees on his family’s property. He even draws a picture of a naked woman to lure the interest of a beautiful male servant named Gustave. When the narrator reveals his true feelings of same-sex desire to Gustave, the latter quickly rebuffs the former.

At school, the boy forms a crush on a virile, arrogant bully named Dargelos. At first the narrator avoids Dargelos, afraid of disclosing his true feelings. Eventually, the narrator tells another boy at school about his crush on Dargelos. Surprisingly, the boy advises the narrator to reveal his desire and overwhelm Dargelos with flattery. The friend believes that Dargelos will embrace the narrator passionately.

One day the narrator invites Dargelos to talk with him in an empty classroom after school. Dargelos arrives, but the narrator can see in his cruel smile that Dargelos knows why he has been summoned. Nervous, the narrator makes up a lie and says that the vice principal is watching Dargelos closely. Dargelos retorts that if the narrator wastes his time again with a stupid story he will physically beat him. After this encounter, Dargelos develops angina from bathing in the Seine River during a camping trip. Dargelos dies, and the narrator weeps for the loss, not thinking of Dargelos’s threat of violence.

As the narrator and his peers mature, other boys become very interested in girls. In turn, the narrator feels the peer pressure to be interested in girls. The narrator starts joyless affairs with women, knowing that he is not pursuing his heart’s desires.

The narrator advances into young adulthood, and he begins seeing a woman named Rose. When the narrator meets Alfred, Rose’s brother, the two men fall in love with each other. Alfred confesses that he is Rose’s pimp, not her brother, and that he wants to run off with the narrator. Before this plan can come to fruition, Alfred aborts the plans because he cannot abandon Rose. After the narrator accuses Alfred of stealing his gold chain, Alfred threatens the narrator with a weapon. The narrator flees in a taxi, with a crying Alfred running after him in despair and grief.

In the town of Toulon, the narrator has an affair with a sailor who was wrongfully imprisoned for a mutiny that he did not commit. The morning after the affair, the narrator leaves the sailor, but he forgets his gloves. When he returns to retrieve the gloves, he sees the sailor weeping into the gloves through the keyhole. He also sees the face of Alfred “superimposed” on the sailor’s face. The narrator quickly leaves without getting his gloves.

Seeking comfort at the beach, the narrator meets a man who is bathing nude in the ocean. The men both believe in God, and they fall in love, believing that “God loves love,” even their love. They return to Paris together, and the narrator discovers that the man has a mistress. In fact, the man has multiple affairs with women. Each time the narrator discovers a new tryst with a woman, the narrator and his lover argue, with the lover profusely apologizing and assuring the narrator that he only loves him. Eventually the lover perishes from a drug addiction. Before doing so, the lover tells the narrator that he never loved women and that he only loved the narrator. He explains to the narrator that he had affairs with women to prove to himself that he was “free.”

After his lover’s death, the narrator is distraught, but he nevertheless wants to get married. He does not seek love or romance, just marriage; therefore, he manages to become engaged to a very masculine female friend with whom he got along well while he was studying at the Sorbonne. The narrator once again falls in love with a woman’s brother. His fiancée’s brother loves him in return, and the brother begs him to cancel the engagement to his sister. Before he can act, the brother reveals the truth to his sister in a cruel and confrontational manner. Due to his excessive cruelty, the narrator hits the brother across the face. As the narrator consoles his fiancée, her brother promptly goes into the next room and kills himself. Of course, the marriage never happens.

After this sudden tragic death, the narrator sinks into depression and a feeling of hopelessness. Because he remains Catholic, suicide is not an option. He briefly considers joining a monastery, but he does not do so because of the severity of that lifestyle. The novel ends with the narrator’s gratitude with not facing criminal penalty in France for being gay, but also with his frustration with merely being tolerated and not accepted.

How is this book queer?

Although this book is very short, it powerfully addresses the fear of commitment, the stereotyping of queer men, and the angst of being queer in a society that merely tolerates.

The narrator cannot escape the haunting resemblance of his lovers. Alfred resembles the servant named Gustave and the farmer whom the narrator observes swimming naked. The narrator also sees Alfred in the face of the sailor that the narrator leaves crying into his gloves. Perhaps Gustave’s initial rejection of his homosexuality indelibly marks the narrator’s feelings of commitment and intimacy. Furthermore, one of the narrator’s most tumultuous encounters happens with the man who does not stop having affairs with women, despite his many apologies to the narrator. When the man claims that he only had affairs with women to feel “free,” readers wonder whether he actually had the affairs to feel equal in worth to his male heterosexual compatriots.

Indeed the narrator knows the Catholic Church rejects his same-sex desires, and the narrator realizes that his country merely shrugs at these desires. Nevertheless, the narrator remains Catholic and French, hating himself as the major institutions in his country strive to ignore his queerness. From his earliest memories, the narrator knows deeply that he is a gay man. It is this innate conviction about the naturalness of his queer feelings that eventually help the narrator triumph over the bigotry of his religion and nation. By the novel’s end, the narrator observes that his country, which does not criminalize homosexuality, does not sufficiently embrace and welcome queer people. Even as much of the world enacts anti-discrimination laws, many queer people today feel that schools, religious institutions, and other public spaces do not do enough to promote queer acceptance.

Nevertheless, despite the forward-thinking central message of this book, the narrator also succumbs to stereotyping. Even as a queer person, the narrator draws conclusions based on stereotypes about queer people. For example, the narrator believes that his father is secretly gay because of the way that he walks and the unusual phrases that he uses in conversation. In addition, the narrator draws conclusions about his male lover that cause great anguish. The narrator assumes that his male lover is gay because the lover primarily socializes with women. According to the narrator, gay men are primarily friends with women while heterosexual men are only friends with other heterosexual men. This assumption crumbles when the narrator discovers that his lover has affairs with women. The narrator does not anticipate the possibility that his lover could be sexually fluid, and he commands his lover to choose between loving him or women. The narrative portrays the lover as confused and burdened with drug addiction when the narrator is actually the unreasonable party. After all, love and relationships should happen with a mutual understanding of boundaries and expectations, regardless of the lovers’ specific sexual orientations.

References

Cocteau, Jean. The White Book = Le Livre Blanc. City Lights Books, 1989.

“Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais’s Creative Marriage.” The Criterion Collection, 2017, http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4501-jean-cocteau-and-jean-marais-s-creative-marriage.

The Great Gatsby (1925)

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

F. Scott Fitzgerald had a famously tumultuous marriage with his wife Zelda Fitzgerald. Some scholars have suggested that he saw himself as the more submissive partner in his marriage and that he hated this aspect of his life (Delistraty). For Fitzgerald, some scholars argue, homosexuality was a character weakness (Delistraty). Nevertheless, Fitzgerald knew that one of his close friends, Gerald Murphy, was gay, even though Murphy was married to a woman (Delistraty). Fitzgerald used himself and Murphy as the basis for characters in tumultuous marriages in his novels, such as Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby, in which a beautiful woman dominates a weak man (Delistraty).

F. Scott Fitzgerald (The World’s Work / Public domain)

What is the plot of this novel?

Set in New York City and Long Island during the early 1920s, The Great Gatsby is a book of a very particular time and place. However, the excess and lavishness described in the book continue to this day in the United States. The mansion of millionaire Tom Buchanan in fictional East Egg, Long Island and the mansion of millionaire Jay Gatsby in fictional West Egg, Long island are just two examples of this excess. Tom is a white supremacist who comes from a wealthy family in Chicago. He is married to the socialite Daisy Buchanan, who hails from Louisville, Kentucky. Daisy is beautiful, selfish, and superficial, yet Jay pines for her. Gatsby and Daisy were lovers before Daisy even met Tom, but Gatsby left her to fight in World War I. 

When Gatsby returns from the war, he amasses a fortune through various criminal activities in order to woo Daisy. Gatsby imagines that he is Daisy’s one true love and that she will gladly leave Tom for her. Indeed, there are cracks in the foundation of Tom and Daisy’s marriage. Tom engages in a tumultuous affair with Myrtle Wilson, the wife of mechanic George Wilson, whose garage Tom passes on the way from East Egg to his job on Wall Street.

Into this emotional turbulence unknowingly steps the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, who is also the catalyst for the main action. Nick is Daisy’s cousin, and he moves to West Egg upon accepting a job as a bond salesman. Although Nick is Gatsby’s next-door neighbor, he rents a modest house that does not compare to the grandeur of Gatsby’s mansion. 

After Nick moves to West Egg, he socializes with Daisy and Tom, and he meets Jordan Baker, a successful golfer and a friend of Daisy. The two have a very tepid romance that is truly an afterthought in the narrative. The primary focus of Nick’s energy is his friendship with Gatsby. Gatsby throws exuberant, opulent parties at his mansion, hoping that Daisy will discover him. When Gatsby discovers Nick’s link to Daisy, he asks Nick to stage a reunion between him and Daisy, who is unaware that Gatsby lives not far from her. The reunion is successful, and Daisy and Gatsby have an affair. 

Daisy awkwardly makes their affair explicit when Gatsby, Tom, Nick, and Jordan are visiting one afternoon. The five of them travel together to a swanky hotel room in New York City on a sweltering day in the summer. Tom and Gatsby have a contentious argument for Daisy’s affections. Tom pledges his devotion to Daisy and exposes Gatsby as an unreliable swindler. On the way home from this heated encounter, Daisy accidentally runs over Myrtle with Gatsby’s car as the two of them drive to Long Island. Seeking revenge for his wife’s murder, George kills Gatsby, whom he believes was driving the car that killed Myrtle. Later, Nick discovers that Tom told George that Gatsby was Myrtle’s murderer. 

Disillusioned with New York, Tom, and Daisy, Nick moves back to the Midwest, from which he came. Before doing so, Nick is dismayed to discover that he is one of only a few guests at Gatsby’s funeral. The many business associates who always phoned Gatsby and the revelers at Gatsby’s grand parties are nowhere to be seen. 

How is this book queer?

Overt queer male themes and characters do not appear in The Great Gatsby. A careful reading of the book suggests that Nick Carraway is queer and that he may also be an unreliable narrator, adding an additional layer to the male posturing so prevalent in this book. Readers may infer Carraway’s queerness from his descriptions of characters, his actions in certain scenes, and his relationship with Jay Gatsby.

While Jordan Baker may seem like the love interest for Nick Carraway, his interest in her is not abiding. Upon meeting her, Nick “enjoys” looking at Jordan. He describes her as “small-breasted” and compares her posture to that of a “young cadet.” This is a curiously masculine description of a female romantic interest. As Nick gets to know Jordan, he has a “tender curiosity” about her, but no feelings of love. Ultimately, the reader wonders if Nick ever has strong feelings for Jordan. Mild flirtations between Jordan and Nick mildly pepper the narrative. By the time the relationship dissolves in a telephone call, the dissolution seems like friends parting ways. Indeed, Nick does not remember who hung up “with a sharp click” and he did not care.

Even more telling is Nick’s description of Myrtle Wilson. While Myrtle seems to be the curvaceous bombshell who attracts Tom’s interest, Nick describes her in an unflattering way. Nick first notices Myrtle’s face, which in his estimation contains “no facet or gleam of beauty.” Nick describes Myrtle as “faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can.” Not appreciating the femininity of Myrtle, Nick is unimpressed with Myrtle’s “wide hips.”

Nick’s seeming apathy for Jordan and Myrtle contrasts with his characterizations of male characters. He describes George Wilson, the novel’s tragic weakling and eventual murderer, as “spiritless,” “anemic,” and yet also “faintly handsome.” While Nick struggles to find beauty in Myrtle, he can appreciate the handsomeness of her husband. Similarly, Nick describes Tom Buchanan, the novel’s most obvious jerk and racist, as “sturdy,” and he praises the “enormous power of that body” even in “effeminate” riding clothes. Nick notices the “rare” smile of Gatsby that contains a quality of “eternal reassurance.” Perhaps Nick believes that Gatsby intuits Nick’s queerness and accepts him nonetheless, which would explain the rare, reassuring nature of Gatsby and Nick’s fascination with Gatsby. Lastly, in contrast with his “handsome” wife, Chester McKee, the photographer at a party hosted by Myrtle, is a “pale feminine man.” These two descriptions imply Chester’s queerness, and Nick’s observations of his queerness imply his own queerness.

During the party scene with Chester McKee, Nick becomes very drunk and has a very suggestive encounter with Chester. Near the end of the party, Nick wipes away “the remains of the spot dried lather” from Chester, who sleeps in a chair. Later in the elevator on the way out from the party, Chester invites Nick to lunch. Before Nick can answer, the elevator boy scolds Nick for touching the lever. Not knowing where his hands are, Nick does not even realize that his hands are on the lever, a sign that Nick is very drunk and not in control of his movements. Nevertheless, Nick does accept Chester’s lunch invitation, though the narrative never discusses their lunch date. Fitzgerald uses an ellipsis to omit details in the narrative and thereby suggest that this is more than just a friendly encounter. Nick suddenly finds himself “standing beside” Chester’s bed as Chester sits in his underwear on the bed “with a great portfolio in his hands.” Through the ellipsis device, Fitzgerald next suddenly places Nick at Penn Station waiting for the 4:00 train, not knowing how he got there. The implication is clearly a drunken tryst between Chester and Nick.

Fitzgerald also uses the ellipsis device in another scene that seems like a non-sequitur to the central plot. While Nick rides the train from Long Island to Manhattan during a sweltering summer day, a woman sitting next to him drops her pocketbook. Nick picks it up and gives it to her, “holding it at arm’s length and by the extreme tip of the corners to indicate” having “no designs upon it.” Nick almost seems disgusted by the feminine pocketbook, suggesting his disgust with the actual female physique. The ellipsis transports the reader to a juxtaposition with the train conductor asking passengers if it is hot enough and leaving sweat stains on tickets as he takes them. Curiously, Nick is not disgusted. Instead, the encounter with the conductor makes Nick wonder if the extreme heat does not make people care whom they kiss. The comment suggests Nick’s interest in sexual fluidity is inspired not by the dropped pocketbook but rather the deposit of the train conductor’s bodily fluids on tickets.

In addition to the encounters with minor characters, Nick’s relationship with Gatsby may be the strongest indicator of his desire. Although not initially having a good time the first time he attends a Gatsby party, Nick’s mood lifts once he actually talks to Gatsby. Jordan asks him, “Having a gay time now?”, to which Nick replies, “… much better.” From this first positive encounter, it is no surprise that Nick becomes Gatsby’s confidante and eventually his lone defender. After the car accident, as Gatsby’s grim fate begins to unravel, Nick talks with Gatsby and intently listens to Gatsby’s actual life story. Nick even eats breakfast with Gatsby and contemplates missing work because he “didn’t want to leave Gatsby.” While Gatsby waits desperately for Daisy’s phone call, Nick calls Gatsby several times from his job. By the novel’s end, Nick is the only one on Gatsby’s side. At Gatsby’s funeral, Nick tells Gatsby’s father that they were “close friends.” Nick’s devotion to Gatsby, a known swindler and criminal, is inexplicable. Perhaps Nick hoped to be more than “close friends” with Gatsby.

While Nick’s loyalty to Gatsby is never fully explained, Nick may be an unreliable narrator with regard to how he describes his sexual identity and emotional desires. At the beginning of the book, Daisy pesters Nick about rumors of his engagement to a girl in the Midwest. Nick shrugs off the rumors by claiming that he moved to New York to escape the rumors, an implausible explanation. Equally unusual is Nick’s claim that he ends an affair with a woman in his office because of her brother’s disapproval. Only later in the book when Nick commits to getting more serious with Jordan does the reader discover that Nick has been writing insincere love letters to a woman in the Midwest. Nick is suspiciously abrupt about the women he sees to the point of questioning his allegiance to these women.

While Nick’s approval wavers on at least one occasion, it is not enough to deter him from his devotion to Gatsby. At the novel’s end, Nick tells Gatsby that he is “worth the whole damn bunch together,” affirming Gatsby’s superiority to Tom, Daisy, and their lot. In doing this, he privately admits to himself that he “disapproved” of Gatsby “from beginning to end.” However, Tom Buchanan observes that Gatsby throws “dust in his eyes” and in the eyes of Daisy to make them love Gatsby despite their disapproval. Nick’s devotion to Gatsby until the end happens most plausibly because he is in love with Gatsby. Symbolically, this is clear from the beginning of the book. Upon leaving Daisy’s house and returning to his own house, Nick sees Gatsby in his yard looking at a green light across the bay. Gatsby strives to win Daisy’s affection as Nick strives to win Gatsby’s affection. When Nick looks at the green light, Gatsby disappears, and Nick is “alone again in the unquiet darkness,” the turmoil of his inner desires.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

If you are interested in the tragedy of the pursuit of the “American dream” and tales of New York, this book will interest you. If you are interested in differences between film portrayals of novels, it is interesting to compare the many film versions of The Great Gatsby, namely the 1974 and 2013 productions. Both film versions omit the suggestively queer scenes with Nick Carraway. An open embrace of Carraway as a queer character would better explain his devotion to Gatsby on the big and small screen.

References

Delistraty, Cody. “Distinctly Emasculated.” The Paris Review, 5 Dec. 2018, www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/04/24/distinctly-emasculated/.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, and James L. W. West. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Olear, Greg. “Nick Carraway Is Gay and in Love with Gatsby.” Salon, Salon.com, 9 Jan. 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/01/09/was_nick_carraway_gay/.

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 (Unknown author / CC BY-SA 3.0 NL (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)

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.

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).

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.

Reference

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

Maurice (drafted 1914, published 1971)

Author: E. M. Forster

What do we know about the author?

The noted British writer E. M. Forster came of age during the turn of the twentieth century, and he lived until 1970. At the age of sixteen, the trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde for his homosexuality left an indelible mark on Forster’s ambitions as a writer. The trial motivated Forster, who was also gay, to avoid discussion of queerness in his work. Indeed, his most celebrated works, such as A Passage to India, portray heterosexual characters. Forster managed to publish novels with traditional themes until 1924, when he could no longer bear to write only about heterosexual people. For the last thirty-seven years of his life, he only published essays.

A year after his death, Forster’s friend, famous gay writer Christopher Isherwood, published Maurice, a novel with queer characters that he originally drafted in 1914. The book was inspired by queer encounter upon a visit to gay poet Edward Carpenter, when his lover George Merrill touched Forster’s backside. Despite Isherwood’s pleas, Forster never published the book during his life because he believed that society would roundly reject it for its queer subject matter. Forster even wondered whether the novel was moving prose or just salacious trash. 

E.M. Forster circa 1917 (Unknown author / Public Domain)

What is the plot of this book?

Maurice opens with the titular character, Maurice Hall, as a young teenager learning about human sexuality from his reserved, British teacher Mr. Ducie. After Mr. Ducie provides a very heteronormative explanation of sex, he expects a lot of questions from Maurice. However, Maurice does not have any questions, foreshadowing his bewilderment with the heterosexual norms imposed on him.

Maurice comes of age in turn of the century London. He comes from a privileged suburban background, but he is not nearly as posh as the real British aristocracy. Nevertheless, he still goes to elite schools, including Cambridge for university.

Despite his privileged status in society, Maurice is very average in many ways. He is not the smartest or most cultured man. He develops into a fairly attractive man, but he is by no means a heartthrob. His family knows what they want him to be. From a very early age, Maurice understands that he will go to Cambridge, get a job as a stockbroker, and settle down with a wife and children.

Of course, that plan does not completely come to fruition. The undoing begins when Maurice becomes fascinated with a flamboyant character named Risley at Cambridge. When Maurice calls upon Risley at his dormitory, instead he finds Clive Durham. Clive and Maurice become close friends, even as flirtation lingers in the background of their friendship. Their friendship is further solidified when Clive confides in Maurice about the difficulty of telling his mother that he is not a Christian.

In awkward fashion, Maurice and Clive reveal that they love each other. Maurice initially tells Clive about a crush on a girl that arises during a school break, and Clive is disappointed. Maurice slowly realizes that the crush is not real. Their friendship progresses, and they casually caress and stroke each other’s hair. Clive summons the courage to tell Maurice that he loves him, and Maurice reacts in horror. Clive, in turn, reacts with embarrassment, and the two try to forget the whole incident. Maurice eventually admits to himself that he is only attracted to men, and more specifically to Clive. After some frustration and social awkwardness, he tells Clive that he loves him.

In the throes of love, Maurice and Clive skip school to go on a country romp. They both flagrantly flout authority, yet only Maurice receives punishment. Unlike Maurice, Clive comes from a very aristocratic family. Clive is also very intelligent, and many anticipate a political career for him. The school officials take note with wariness of the extremely close friendship between Clive and Maurice. As a result, Maurice is expelled until he apologizes to the dean. Obstinate Maurice refuses to apologize, but Maurice still manages to become a successful stockbroker.

While Maurice and Clive are separated they still manage to continue their romance. Maurice visits Penge, the Durham family estate, and Clive and Maurice nest in a secluded wing of the estate. The happiness is too good to be true. Mrs. Durham reveals that Clive must marry to inherit the family estate. For the next two years, Clive and Maurice maintain a discreet relationship with each other. Maurice spends every Wednesday and his weekends at Clive’s flat in London.

During dinner one evening at the Hall residence, Clive becomes ill and faints. Maurice’s surreptitious kiss does not revive him. To add insult to injury, Clive tells Maurice that he prefers the nurse to restore him to good health, even as Maurice loyally cares for him. Clive’s health eventually improves to some degree, but he goes to Greece to fully recover.

Shockingly, Clive writes Maurice from Greece to tell him that he is no longer queer. Clive believes that his illness causes the epiphany. During his illness, he notices his nurse’s charm and beauty. Clive believes that he simply experiences a natural, physical change in his sexuality. A disbelieving Maurice tries to convince Clive that he is queer, to no avail.

Nevertheless, Maurice manages to sustain a friendship with Clive, as Clive wants to stay friends. Clive gets married to a woman named Anne Woods, whom he meets in Greece, and the three miraculously live in harmony. Clive and Maurice espouse similar political views, and Maurice visits Penge regularly. Clive has now become a successful lawyer, and he seems close to attaining a higher office.

Feeling anguish over his queer desires, Maurice decides to visit a doctor to try to vanquish his homosexuality. Maurice’s visit to close family friend Dr. Barry is a disaster. Dr. Barry says Maurice’s desires are “rubbish,” and he advises Maurice to avoid the “temptation from the devil.”

Maurice’s visit to a hypnotist, Mr. Lasker Jones, goes more smoothly. Lasker Jones diagnoses Maurice with “congenital homosexuality.” Maurice consents to treatment, and he follows Lasker Jones’s advice. Lasker Jones advises Maurice to stay at Penge with Clive and Anne, but this stay thwarts the treatment efforts. When Maurice returns to Penge, the gamekeeper Alec Scudder becomes the object of his affection.

Although Maurice is initially very rude to Alec, Maurice warms to him. One night, Maurice sleepwalks to the window of his bedroom and cries out “Come!” Repairmen who were repairing the tiles on the roof had left a ladder resting against the windowsill of Maurice’s room. Conveniently, after Maurice cries out, Alec climbs up the ladder and whispers, “Sir, was you calling out for me? … Sir, I know … I know.” They talk in low whispers, and they sleep in each other’s arms.

After a cricket game the next day, Maurice becomes ill and abruptly leaves Penge. Alec sends telegrams and letters to summon him back to Penge, and more specifically the boathouse at Penge. Maurice longs for Alec, but fears that Alec is trying to blackmail him. Meanwhile, Maurice gives up his treatment with Mr. Lasker Jones. Lasker Jones tells Maurice that he is subconsciously resisting hypnosis, and they both agree that Maurice is unavoidably gay.

Maurice persistently avoids Alec’s messages, but the two eventually meet at the British Museum when Alec threatens blackmail. The threat is a bluff, and the two profess their love for each other. Maurice cancels an important social engagement, and they spend the night together.

Alec has long planned to move to Argentina, and Maurice implores him to stay in England. Alec does not believe that they can reasonably maintain their relationship without ruining their lives. Maurice tries to say farewell to Alec, but he discovers that Alec never boards the ship for Argentina. Returning to the boathouse at Penge, Maurice discovers Alec. The two pledge their commitment to each other. The book ends with Maurice proudly telling Clive about his commitment to Alec.

How is this book queer?

Forster makes it clear from the beginning that Maurice is gay. In the opening scene when Mr. Ducie tries to explain sex to Maurice, Maurice only replies that he does not think he will marry. He perhaps says this because gay men did not marry in that era. Nevertheless, Maurice cries when George the garden boy leaves his home abruptly; he later dreams of a naked George playing football.

At Sunnington College, the all-boys prep school that he attends before Cambridge, Maurice even surreptitiously flirts with boys: “He dared not be kind–it was not the thing–still less to express his admiration in words. And the adored one would shake him off before long, and reduce him to sulks.” At the end of the novel, Maurice sees Mr. Ducie again in the British Museum when he is with Alec. Maurice rests his hands on Alec’s neck, but Mr. Ducie does not notice. Maurice is finally comfortable with his sexuality, even as a cluelessly heterosexual Mr. Ducie observes him.

The queerness of Maurice and Clive truly blossoms at Cambridge. In their translation class, Clive and Maurice hear the dean say, “Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks,” in reference to gay love in the text. While this comment piques the interest of Clive and Maurice, it also explains how positive portrayals of queerness have been erased from history and perhaps even religion. Rightfully so, Clive is incensed over the dean’s omission: “… to omit it is to omit the mainstay of Athenian society.” Maurice is relieved that homosexuality can even be discussed in public, and Clive recommends for him to read The Symposium.

The evolution of Clive and Maurice progresses in surprising ways, as Clive ultimately rejects his own queerness and Maurice embraces his own homosexuality. The reader wonders if Clive is a repressed queer man or if his queerness mysteriously vanishes. The evidence suggests that Clive is closeted and repressed, but the truth is never revealed. As a boy, Clive struggles with an attraction to men and also wanting to be part of his family’s tradition of wealth and dominance. Even as a boy, he tries to find a Biblical justification for homosexuality: “He wished Christianity would compromise with him a little and searched the Scriptures for support. There was David and Jonathan; there was even the ‘the disciple that Jesus loved. But the Church’s interpretation was against him.’” This struggle portends Clive’s eventual submission to money and power.

Indeed, Clive has an unusual marriage to Anne, and it seems fraudulent: “He never saw her naked, nor she him. They ignored the reproductive and the digestive functions.” Perhaps this sort of relationship was typical for the era, but one wonders why Forster emphasizes this dynamic. Moreover, Clive’s homophobia intensifies, perhaps as a sign of his repression. Clive is positively disgusted as he tries to break up with Maurice: “The horror of masculinity had returned, and he wondered what would happen if Maurice tried to embrace him.” Only when Maurice ceases to threaten his sexuality does Clive let down his guard. Clive is overcome with emotion and gently kisses Maurice’s hand when Maurice lies about getting engaged to a woman: “Dare he borrow a gesture from the past?” Clive returns to his homophobia when Maurice reveals his love for Alec: “Clive sprang up with a whimper of disgust. He wanted to smite the monster, and flee …”

Clive’s homophobia is in stark contrast to his initial feelings for Maurice. Clive and Maurice skip class to enjoy nature, in a beautiful description of love in its infancy: “All this last part of the day was perfect. The train, for some unknown reason, was full, and they sat close together, talking quietly under the hubbub, and smiling.” Frustrated by the heterosexism in society, Clive fumes about Maurice’s punishment for skipping: “If a woman had been in that side-car, if then he had refused to stop at the Dean’s bidding, would Dr. Barry have required an apology from him? Surely not.”

Nevertheless, for a while, Clive perseveres with his love affair with Maurice. When Maurice visits Clive at Penge, Clive arranges for them to have their own secluded wing of the country estate. The necessity for the seclusion revives Clive’s frustration with the heterosexist status quo: “‘It served my mother right when I slipped up to kiss you before dinner. She would have no mercy if she knew, she wouldn’t attempt, wouldn’t want to attempt to understand that I feel to you as Pippa to her fiancé, only far more nobly, far more deeply, body and soul, no starved medievalism of course, only a—a particular harmony of body and soul that I don’t think women have even guessed. But you know.’” The comment reveals Clive’s misogyny, and Maurice also possesses his own brand of misogyny, as seen through his poor treatment toward his sisters. However, Forster rightly notes the frequent equality in same-sex love that is often missing in heterosexual love: “He educated Maurice, or rather his spirit, for they themselves became equal. Neither thought “Am I led; am I leading?” Love had caught him out of triviality and Maurice out of bewilderment in order that two imperfect souls might touch perfection.” They forge a deep love that continues through the foulness of sickness. When Clive becomes ill, Maurice lovingly cares for him: “Maurice lifted him out of bed and put him on the night stool. When relief had come he lifted him back.” Yuck.

Naturally, Maurice is a broken man when Clive abruptly terminates their relationship. As desperate times lead to desperate measures, Maurice is ashamed at his lust for Dr. Barry’s nephew, who is far too young for Maurice. An embarrassing and suggestive encounter with an older man leads Maurice to seek treatment. Maurice flirts with an old man in a train, and the man smiles back. Chaos ensues when Maurice plays too rough and knocks the man down, giving the man a bloody nose: “He sputtered apologies, offered money. Maurice stood over him, black-browed, and saw in this disgusting and dishonourable old age his own.”

Resolving to get rid of his homosexuality, Maurice decides to see a doctor to get rid of his homosexuality: “He might ‘keep away from young men,’ as he had naively resolved, but he could not keep away from their images, and hourly committed sin in his heart.” Maurice does not know if any doctors actually treat homosexuality, or if he can even trust any doctors. Maurice’s feelings echo the feelings of many queer people even to this day, as queer people strive to find care that affirms their identities. Indeed Dr. Barry’s reaction to Maurice’s confession is what queer people fear most: “‘The worst thing I could do for you is to discuss it.’” Maurice reasonably responds that he wants advice: “It’s not rubbish to me, but my life.” Forster notes that Dr. Barry is typically clueless about caring for queer people, as were virtually all British doctors in that era: “Dr. Barry had given the best advice he could. He had read no scientific works on Maurice’s subject. None had existed when he walked the hospitals, any published since were in German, and therefore suspect.” Sadly, Maurice had always trusted Dr. Barry, and he wonders if his own sexuality “might not be rubbish, though every fibre in him protested.”

Fortunately, Maurice seeks a second medical opinion, which turns out to be slightly less flawed. The hypnosis of Mr. Lasker Jones ultimately fails, and Mr. Lasker Jones tells Maurice to live in a country such as France or Italy where homosexuality is not a crime. Mr. Lasker Jones doubts that England will ever accept homosexuality as England “has always been disinclined to accept human nature.” Forster’s critique of England cannot be missed. Through Mr. Lasker Jones’s care, Maurice accepts that there have always been people like him, that there always will be, and that queer people have been and continue to be persecuted. This is a feeling queer people continue to realize even today. Disappointingly, Mr. Lasker Jones is not the queer ally that the reader hopes him to be: “The doctor wanted to get on to his next patient, and he did not care for Maurice’s type. He was not shocked like Dr. Barry, but he was bored, and never thought of the young invert again.”

Thankfully, Maurice concludes with the happy romance between Alec and Maurice that transcends class. The bond between Alec and Maurice overcomes their class difference, as Alec belongs to a lower class. Indeed, Clive tells Maurice that Alec is smart, but “you can’t expect our standard of honesty in servants, any more than you can expect loyalty or gratitude.” Forster emphasizes Maurice’s classist attitudes, as Maurice jokes about the poor and works in a profession that prioritizes wealth preservation. Maurice’s immediate distrust of Alec is revealing, as he assumes that Alec only wants to be intimate in order to blackmail Maurice. Regardless, the coming together of Alec and Maurice in front of an Assyrian bull sculpture in the British Museum reinforces that the men inescapably belong to a rigid class system within an imperial behemoth.

Jealousy is also an obstacle to the romance between Alec and Maurice. From afar, Maurice first sees handsome Alec flirting with two maids, and a “pang of envy” arises in him. Alec later says that Maurice in that moment had looked at him with anger and gentleness. Alec believes that Maurice does not respond to his letters out of jealousy. The reader wonders whether Alec is actually bisexual: “It was before you came. It is natural to want a girl, you cannot go against human nature.” Is it natural for everyone? This is a curious comment that would benefit from further explanation, as Maurice survives the novel as an increasingly balanced man who is only attracted to other men.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

If you enjoy beautiful writing and a happy ending, Maurice will not disappoint you. Indeed, this is a good–almost great–book. Maurice addresses male queerness with great sensitivity, acknowledging a range of experiences. Forster portrays the misogyny that was pervasive during that era, even among queer men. In addition, the author imagines both class tension and class deconstruction between queer men. Queerness takes different forms in the characters of gay Risley, gay Maurice, ostensibly bisexual Alec, and questioning Clive. The novel could be even better if it discussed with more depth the sexual identities of these characters, with the possible exception of Maurice. Admittedly, the work is refreshingly candid given the moral propriety of the era, but a modern reader yearns for more. 

References

Forster, E. M. Maurice. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011. Digital.

Symondson, Kate. “E M Forster’s Gay Fiction.” The British Library, The British Library, 4 May 2016, www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/e-m-forsters-gay-fiction.