Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Caricature

As part of my ongoing worship of the hippest chick in dyke lettres, a small tribute to the great Terry Castle, author of The Professor and Other Writings, The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology From Ariosto To Stonewall, among others, and queen of my heart.

(She digs Art Pepper. Read her book.)

Daily Dose

From The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame


"'Dear, kind Rat,' murmured Toad, 'how little you realize my condition, and how far I am from 'jumping up' now -- if ever! But do not trouble about me. I hate being a burden to my friends, and I do not expect to be one much longer. Indeed, I almost hope not.'"

From Chapter 6, Mr. Toad

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


One of the ongoing astonishments of finding myself on the shady side of forty has been the unhappy knowledge that the only cure for even so simple a thing as a cold or flu or sinus infection -- what have you -- is rest, by which, I'm sad to report, I now mean sleep. When, exactly, did that happen? Not for me anymore the periodically engaged drowsing in front of the television, dipping into the books scattered across the bed, the uncomfortable but active "rest" I remember so well from just a decade ago. Nowadays it's sleep or... nothing.

I used to take to my sick-bed with a stack of classic mystery novels. I'm ill? Very well. Time for murder. It's a habit I acquired in my youth, murder. Almost as soon as I'd outgrown ghost stories. And the kind of murder I craved when suffering abed, was the perfectly straight forward homicidal puzzle perfected by the lady thriller novelists during roughly the first half of the last century. Complicated not so much by psychosexual confusions or larger social issues, or meant to explore, at least tangentially, larger philosophical or spiritual conundrums, but just old fashioned detective fiction; books no more taxing to even the unhealthy mind than a crossword puzzle or a game of solitaire. As a somewhat sickly boy, and before I'd decided I ought to read nothing but truly more elevating literature, I could read such a thriller in just one sick-day, and two or three over a weekend, if I was seriously ill. I found the plots carried me along, the murders kept me from boredom, and the workings of the invariably superior mind of the detective, and the promise of the final exposure of the murderer, kept me comfortably just above unconsciousness. Mysteries of the kind I mean required only a willingness to read mechanically, retaining nothing but rudiments of the crime, a rough recollection of the dramatis personae, and a trust in the familiar presence of Holmes, or Miss Marple, or Miss Pinkerton to do any proper thinking that might be required. Most satisfying between bowls of tomato soup and pots of tea.

Now I find instead that even reading Mary Roberts Rinehart is all but too much for me when I'm ill.

This morning, finding myself awake, all I wanted was to go back to sleep -- and did. This was nothing like a pleasant mid-morning-doze, mind you, but actual, additional, numberless hours of dark, sweaty blankness. I'd wake occasionally, but just long enough to register the shock of yet another hour having fallen off the clock, and then, after a quick call of nature, and a change of nightshirt, back into the dark. Honestly, there was nothing that could keep me even nominally awake, even the promise of a good mystery. I had a small stack, right there on the table next to my bed in the guest room (no sense in infecting the good husband who, for the most part, has had the sense to stay well away.) But neither Christie nor Crispin could hold me. I found I fell asleep after just a few pages of even the most reliable English thriller.

Having picked up a different book every few hours, night and day, only to have it slip from my hands within minutes, I finally had to give it up and resign myself to oblivion.

The only thing more boring than being ill is describing one's illness to others --and the only thing worse than that is reading about someone else's, so I'll spare the reader any of the details of my present situation. More uncomfortable than life-threatening is all it really is, but enough to knock me out, keep me from work, and most appallingly, keep me from reading.

And, I had plans, you see.

Once it was established that I was going to be home with this... whatever it is, for some time, I made a brave venture into my library and hauled just the right sort of books for a bronchial bit of "bed-rest" back up to my stinking den, and settled myself with them in amidst the dirty comforters and less than fresh sheets. (Why bother pretending my personal environment just now is anything but a dank, dark, dirty wallow? Is what it is. I yam what I yam. Cough.) I tried:

Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase -- got lost before the lady of the house and her companion had finished putting out the lights for the night.

Two Agatha Christies I'm pretty sure I've never read or seen dramatized, at least under these titles, always a danger with Dame Agatha, Hickory Dickory Dock and Murder in the Mews -- I think I managed a chapter in each.

And on the recommendation of a trusted friend, I thought I'd have another go at Edmund Crispin, this time with Holy Disorders -- I think there's a priest in it.

I won't go on.

So, now then, what have I managed to read in the rare moments snatched from oblivion, today? Well, as it seems I'm too old even for puzzles, I tried ghost stories, and much as I'd enjoyed starting Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House just a scant 24 hours back, I couldn't keep straight even if it was Eleanor or Theodora talking, so I gave that up too. Having worked my way unconsciously back and back again through my most juvenile of reading enthusiasms...

You'll laugh. I can't blame you.

Soon as I'm done with this fitful attempt at signally my continued, miserable existence?

"They glided up the creek, and the Mole shipped his sculls as they passed into the shadow of a large boathouse. Here they saw many handsome boats, slung from the cross-beams or hauled up on a slip, but none in the water; and the place had an unused and a deserted air.

The Rat looked around him. 'I understand,' said he."

But, honestly, so far it's the only thing for which I seemingly can keep my eyes open long enough to read.

And there's Toad yet to come. I sound a bit like him, just now. Maybe that's it. Doesn't matter.

I'm on page 26. That's something.

Daily Dose

From Tales My Father Taught Me, by Sir Osbert Sitwell


"Sister Dorothy was middle aged and buoyant. In appearance she seemed positively bursting with ill-health, though she contrived in the end to live to be eighty; except for the tea-fiend's protruding teeth, her face looked as if it had been roughly thumbed into shape out of a ripe tomato."

From Chapter 8, Jezebel House and a Grand Piano

Monday, June 28, 2010

Library Haul

As we do every June, just before we do the bookstore's inventory, we had our semiannual Living Beyond Our Means Celebration, a. k. a. Employee Appreciation Day. Our discount goes up for the day. I live for this. As I do every year, I set aside all the Library of America volumes that have come out since the last Employee Appreciation Day, and then put the lot onto my store charge. It is exhilarating.

To review:

Two volumes of Emerson's Selected Journals, to be added to the volumes already published of his Essays and Lectures, and his Poems and Translations. At four volumes then in the series, I now have enough Emerson to have myself, someday, something like a read-right-through of the old boy. I will confess, while I've read in the essays, and found that single volume quite the easiest way to carry ol' Ralph Waldo around now and then, I'd never read the poetry at all until I read a quote from Jorge Luis Borges -- a quote I can't now locate -- recommending them. Go figure. Since, I've actually read more of the poetry than anything else. Do. They're remarkably good. The journals have quite a reputation, though I don't know that I've ever read a word of them. But, as everyone sooner or later came to see Ralph, I'm thinking the index will be my way in. The work-wife, Madame T., is a great enthusiast of RWE, but then, she likes the out-of-doors and all that. Still, on her recommendation, and because I now own these two elegant volumes, I do plan to have a go... someday.

The new volume of Twain, A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator and Other Travels, I think, just about completes the Library of America's Mark Twain, though I still hold out hope for a volume or two of his letters. I have an early edition of those, and later volumes of just his letters to his wife and another of his correspondence with William Dean Howells, but it would be nice to have something in the series as well.

The first book I plucked from the stack to actually read was not the volume by Twain, but The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. This one, I took with me to lunch. Read a fascinating essay by David Bradley, a writer I admit I'd never read before, and another by Sterling Brown, just while I ate my tacos. The book is full of unexpected writers, contemporaries of Twains and moderns, everyone from Hamlin Garland and Jose Marti, (!) to Ralph Wiley and Gore Vidal. Wonderful. There's even a charming piece from Hal Holbrook, the great one man Twain player. I've already read my way through a dozen pieces or more. Perfect for just before bed, though it makes me then want to read Twain right after.

The only volume of history this time, John Marshall's Writings, I bought, as I always end up doing at some point in these semiannual orgies, just 'cause. It's not that I haven't any curiosity about the first Chief Justice, just not enough to be much bothered right now.

The one that got me, and got me the minute I saw it, was the other anthology this time, The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner, edited by Laurence Senelick, and with a charming foreword by actor John Lithgow. It was a profile of George S. Kaufman, directing the first production of The Man Who Came to Dinner, a profile by one Morton Eustis, killed only a few years after in WWII, that I read the first night. A brilliant portrait of a masterful theater technician at work, I can honestly say, I've seldom read a better on the subject. From there, I've gone back and forth, from the oldest piece, indeed by Washington Irving, to Frank Rich's valedictory "'Dolly' Goes Away," and nearly all points in-between. It's a delightful book, as good as the earlier Library of America volume on film.

I do not always buy these anthologies as they come out. Nothing thrills me less generally than sea stories, unless it's baseball, and the Library of America has done volumes for each. But both the theater volume and the celebratory volume on Twain I would now rank among my favorites.

Finally, there is the Shirley Jackson. Unable to sleep but fitfully the last night or two, I've been reading Shirley Jackson stories for the first time, I think, as an adult. Without exception, every story has been a model of deftly handled psychological tension, genuine wit, and a weirdly, wonderfully black comedy. I'm thinking we may just have to read a couple of these aloud at the bookstore, right around Halloween, and see if we can't scare up some more adult readers for the woman. I'm reading The Haunting of Hill House, for the first time since I was a kid. Much as I've always enjoyed and admired Robert Wise's movie, I have to say it hasn't half the pleasure of the book. It's Jackson's sly humor that seems to be left out of most of the adaptations of her work. I really had no idea the novel would make me smile as much as it has. And the frights are, if anything, even better on the page. Bless the Library of America, yet again, for reminding me to a neglected little masterpiece.

And now, Hill house wants me. I must go.

Daily Dose

From The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson


"If any of you has trouble sleeping, I will read aloud to you. I never yet knew anyone who could not fall asleep with Richardson being read aloud to him."

Dr. John Montague, from Chapter 3

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Spending the Day with a Band of Bikers

As I've evidently resigned myself to celebrating my weekend, and the weekend of Seattle Pride, in bed with a delayed inventory-related-flu, a cement-head, and an aching everything else, I've decided to take such comfort as I can find in queer books, preferably with lots o' pictures. This in mind, I've been pouring over a slim volume of found photographs, collected and introduced with a thought provoking essay by New York poet, Scott Zieher. Band of Bikers isn't the kind of book I might ever have studied so closely, had I not been home, in bed, and not much inclined to read anything at length. Yet, here I am, here it has been all day, propped on my knees, and so there we are.

Zieher's essay is a graceful thing, careful to explain something of his history as a collector of other people's discarded effects, and specifically how he came to own, and eventually decided reproduce in a book, these snapshots of gay bikers from 1972, without once suggesting that his interest in them is in any way different in kind from the other things he's found and kept through the years: a stranger's sketchbook diary, a collection of greeting cards with two signatures painstakingly cut away from each card, his own family photo albums. "If this is voyeurism," he admits, "it is also poignant, elegant, enticing history at once." As if to prove this aesthetic and historical interest as being superior to the more common kind of nosey curiosity and or prurience that might make anyone look twice at a dead someone's antique snapshots of leathermen, Zieher discusses these pictures -- none of which is actually sexually explicit -- as one might an exhibition of pre-Colombian pottery shards, or the isolated frames from a lost film, or indeed, the same dead man's rather unimpressive stamp collection, likewise discarded in the author's laundry room.

"These photographs don't need specific explanations to be archaeological jewels with immense cultural value," he says at one point. While that seems to me a serious overstatement -- the anonymous men in these photographs hardly constituting a lost tribe -- Zieher's enthusiasm and amateur connoisseurship as a rag and bone collector, does set up a certain reverence in the reader of these pictures that might not otherwise be assumed. Zieher has already established, right at the start of his essay, that these photographs, like all the totemic treasures he's kept from the junkyard, are for him repositories of infinite narrative possibilities. His is a poet's appreciation of ruins, rather than a scholar's curiosity for evidence. Rather than subjects for further research, the men in these snapshots, for Zieher, and by extension for the readers of his book, may and are meant to be seen, as subject to conjuration rather than cogitation -- ghosts rather than just a bunch of gay guys in Levis. This is, in a surprising way, very satisfying.

So many of the photographs suggest sex without showing anything like. The biker gear, the little leather caps, the motorcycles, the row of pitched tents, some with the flap down at mid-day, and all those hairy chests and tight pants, are after all the stock props and decorative elements of numberless porn stories. Just as often though, the club pennants and patches, the scenes of kitchens and contests, are just as reminiscent of jamborees, the less loaded kind of camping, and the silly arcana of any all-boys-clubbing. What, if anything, is there in this smile, or that embrace that might as likely mean friendship as fucking? Zieher's quite right, the not knowing, the guessing at the mysteries and meanings of these snapshots, has a pleasure that might well have been absent from a better documented record of the day.

Nevertheless, it is a melancholy, statistical likelihood that many if not most of the men in these pictures from 1972 are, like the original owner of the photographs, now dead. Browsing through the pictures then, admiring this handsome face, and the guy elegantly draped across the hood of a car, smiling at the general good spirits, and the outbreaks of plain silliness and camp; the helmets decorated for a contest, the passing slap on the ass caught from a distance in one picture, it is never really possible to forget, even for a moment, the fragile, healthy innocence in which these men played, or for that matter, the daring it still required in 1972 to be seen so openly as queer.

So even as I've allowed myself to read these pictures today as their present owner does, I'm mindful that there is a certain self indulgence in so doing when what I'm looking at is indeed not just an historical curiosity, but part of the record of real gay men, men perhaps still living, and as participants in history, perhaps better remembered, for instance, in Scott Bloom's 2005 documentary film, "Original Pride: The Satyrs Motorcycle Club." Yet Scott Zieher has made a contribution to that history by rescuing and publishing these pictures, and if he chooses not to document these images, or even try to find the original owner's name, he can't really be faulted for that. It was never his intention to make documentary use of these things, but rather to simply share these pictures, to exhibit the evidence just as he found in on that basement floor, and in so doing, save something precious from the fire or the tip. And he's right. It is enough. It is enough sometimes just to see.

I've been doing just that all day.

Daily Dose

From Days of Reading, by Marcel Proust, translated by John Sturrock


"Friendship, friendship in respect of individuals, is no doubt a frivolous thing, and reading is a form of friendship."

From Days of Reading (I)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Still Not Down With It

Back in February, the press and the Internet were all abuzz with the story of Helene Hegemann's debut novel, Axolotl Roadkill, and the 17 year old author's deadpan apology for having plagiarized various sources for her book, or, as she was quoted in the Time Magazine article as saying at the time, "not having mentioned all the people right from the outset whose thoughts and texts have helped me."

I haven't had the opportunity -- let's call it that -- to read Hegemann's novel, nor am I likely to, now that the teenage "wunderkind" has been exposed as a bit of a magpie, as I can't read German. (Haven't seen any announcements of an English translation or an American edition since.) Just to be clear, according to the last few items I read about all of this, the girl didn't just quote a line or two, without acknowledgement, from various anonymous bloggers and at least one published novel, in other words, she didn't just "sample" other writers, but lifted whole pages of what she would probably, neutrally describe as 'text."

What brings me back to the clippings I saved on this story, is another quote from Hegemann, that I haven't been able to shake, this from a New York Times story:

“There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

All these months later, I'm still pondering that statement.

One's response will be decided by that last word, won't it? I don't think anyone would argue, at this late date, at least in so far as art in general or literature in particular are concerned, that this young woman's first novel was likely to be something new under the sun. As described, Hegemann's debut would seem to be yet another underage night out: clubbing, drugging, drinking, fucking, etc., etc. So taking "originality" here to mean something truly sui generis, I think she's quite right to dismiss the possibility that anyone reading or reviewing contemporary "youth" fiction -- of say the past thirty to forty years -- wouldn't recognize the genre as, if anything, hungover by now. Yet the critical response in the girl's native Germany, at least initially, and in some cases even after the scandal broke, would seem to have been almost unanimously enthusiastic. Many of the reviews quoted in news stories here insisted the book was still a worthy contribution to German letters. It even got a nomination, well after the plagiarism was proved, "as one of the finalists for the $20,000 prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in the fiction category." I can't resist quoting this in full from the Times story:

“Obviously, it isn’t completely clean but, for me, it doesn’t change my appraisal of the text,” said Volker Weidermann, the jury member and a book critic for the Sunday edition of the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, a strong supporter. “I believe it’s part of the concept of the book.”

I've just looked the critic up, and in addition to editing that Sunday book review, himself has written Light Years: A Brief History of German Literature from 1945 to Today. At forty-one, with a title like that to his credit, while hardly a grand old man of German literary criticism, he's not exactly a club kid either, is he? So it isn't just a few other youngsters with what might be a healthy disregard for authority piling on, it's what might be described as the new establishment who've taken up the cause Heggemann's novel. Taking not only what the young novelist has said in her own defense seriously then, but considering what Weidermann has said of the book as well, that one word, "authenticity," would seem to decide the matter, so...

At least part of the controversy in recent years with memoirs that have proved to be more fiction than not, and with various literary prodigies being exposed as a little too light-fingered in the library, has been answered by that word, "authenticity." Just how authentic then can a lie or a theft be? Remembering that a case is being made, by no less an authority than the author of a book-length history of post-war German literature, among others, that this sort of thing can be defended so long as we accept the premise that the plagiarism was intentional and, presumably, that the borrowed glad-rags proved to be most becoming, it would seem "authenticity," or rather it's near relative in English vocabularies, "genuine," may need defining before any argument is to be made.

First, to dispense with the factual. If one says, as the middle-aged fat lady did when she invented the abused teenaged boy whore, J. T. Leroy -- perhaps my favorite case of literary/critical gullibility in recent years -- that "this happened to me," when it didn't, then that's a lie. Likewise, if a doughy fratboy claims, as the unlamented James Frey did, to be one badass junky jailbird after less than one night in the drunk-tank, that too is just a lie. The "authenticity" put in question by the acceptance of such obvious, easily disproved frauds is not literary, but actual. Not who they said they were. Since who they said they were is the only reason they were published, read and critically acclaimed, they're done, right?

The word then is disingenuous.

Let's be honest now, and see if what everyone was on about here, is really plagiarism, or something else. Seems to me, it's only when, as was the case apparently with Heggemann, what was published as fiction receives great critical attention because of who the author is, in this case a seventeen year old girl, that the issue of "authenticity" comes into question because of her admitted plagiarism, no? As any number of commentators were quick to point out, the history of literature, and the novel specially, has ready examples of borrowing, and even outright theft, by perfectly respectable names like John Dos Passos, in his USA Trilogy, and Burroughs' various cut-ups. The collage techniques used in either example do not include any indexed acknowledgements, so far as I remember, and no one seems to fault either gentleman for what therefor was, legally speaking I suppose, a kind of plagiarism. So why pick on this little German girl?

When Jack London, or Garth Stein for that matter, spoke as dogs, there wasn't much said to suggest that the enterprise was inherently fraudulent. Or to bring the thing into a higher species of imitation, when Joyce Carol Oates, not very successfully, it must be admitted, wrote a novel entirely in the voice of a teenaged gang-banger girl, no one seems to have suggested she ought not to have done so just because she's a remarkably unlike little white woman. What is at issue then isn't the right of novelists to imagine themselves as something or someone other, but how well or badly, and by what means, the imitation came off.

So when a seventeen year old girl, already established as a prodigy, having had her first play produced at fifteen, publishes her first novel, about the adventures of a sixteen year old girl in the Berlin club scene, surely her older fans may be forgiven for accepting her portrait of such a girl as "authentic," no? Seems likely enough. And even when some of the girl's novel turns out to have been lifted directly from someone else's novel, and from various other sources including the blogs of actual club goers, that plagiarism doesn't quite explain the level of outrage, or it's absence, by itself, now does it?

No. The whole business is embarrassing because this kid, having played her elders with the usual juvenile pastiche of other people's fiction, other people's drugs, other people's abuse, other people's bullshit, sees no reason now, considering how easy it is to face down her critics, to knock it off.

What I suspect goes on here is a rather desperate and unseemly desire to not be thought old. I would guess that among the reviewers, academics and critics dependent on keeping abreast of trends and the like, unless one is willing to be pegged as a reactionary, one presumably wants to be thought down with the young people. Stands to reason. So if, rather than confessing her rather lazy appropriation of other people's writing as just a youthful error of judgement, the seventeen year old novelist shrugs, those who might be expected to know better are quick to shrug too. Here then, Ms. Heggemann offers the first shrug:

"I think there are good ethical grounds for giving sources for a book - and the fact that I neglected to do so reflects my thoughtlessness and my narcissism," Hegemann said in an interview with Die Welt, adding, "But for me personally, it doesn’t matter at all where people get their material - what matters is what they do with it."

And here, in an unattributed quote from another online story, presumably from her forty-one year old friend at the newspaper, first the endorsement:

“This is a book everyone over 30 should watch out for,” wrote the sober Frankfurter Allgemeine.

And then, again from the same source presumably, comes the shrug, when Hegemann's book is described, with a straight face, as a paramount example of:

“modern web-based intertextuality.”


If this sounds familiar, sadly, it is. It is the sound of middle-aged critics talking like teenagers. The source of one's discomfort, both with the teenager and her defender then, is the inauthenticity of their bullshit.

What did this chick really know about the wild doin's in late-night Berlin dives? Well, it seems, just what she'd read online. How convincing was her sexually-abused, drug-addled heroine? Convincing enough... for the middle-aged editor of the Sunday paper and his fellow jurors at the Leipzig Book Fair, eager to discover fresh, seventeen year old novelists with whom they might frighten the middle-aged, middle classes.

Which begs the question, would anybody really be discussing any of this if this girl wasn't seventeen years old?

Well, did the Sunday edition of the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine review Strobo, the novel by the twenty-nine year old blogger Airen, from which Hegemann stole so many telling lines, set-ups and whole scenes?

What's kept me thinking about this story all these months later then is not authenticity or inauthenticity of this little girl's novel, but the disingenuousness with which she, and those who ought to know better, set about defending her hacky dishonesty as somehow innovative, hip and, well... defensible.

No one capable of referencing Burroughs and Dos Passos' USA can honestly suggest that Axolotl Roadkill was just such a considered, intentional, public experiment in form. And how does one defend the book's seventeen year old author, once she was caught cutting and pasting, and exposed, when the best she can do to defend herself, having admitted her own "thoughtlessness" and "narcissism," is to suggest that what she did with what she stole was better than the sources from which she stole it?

And yet...

Closer to home, when a fifty-four year old professor declares the novel dead, dude, and comes out for Hip Hop sampling as the future of literature, our collective embarrassment isn't so much at his refusal to acknowledge the sources from which he's collected the borrowed bling in which he's decided to decked himself -- though that's bad enough -- as it is the sight of such a bald old bean declaring himself King Wigga. It's his never quite convincing adoption of low-riding, and his assumption that he can either fully assimilate, or translate such fashions to his own purposes as a novelist no longer interested in writing novels, that brings a blush when he takes to floor and starts clownin' like... well, like a bald, fifty-four year old professor.

Inauthenticity is not something, evidently, one necessarily ever outgrows.

Daily Dose

From Beautiful People: My Family and Other Glamorous Varmints, by Simon Doonan


"We are now a 'we.' Everything is about how incredibly great and special we are and how pedestrian/uninteresting/unstylish the rest of humanity is."

from Chapter 17, Blanche

Friday, June 25, 2010

An Adrienne Rich Poem

Daily Dose

From Band of Bikers, by Scott Zieher

THE LATE ST. MARK'S (circa 1995)

"Inside the bathhouse were piles of office supplies and rubber stamps, racks of keys and rows of lockers, and ghostly floors of mattresses heaped with sheets, all left untouched, a complete Pompeii."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Poem by Thom Gunn

Daily Dose

From Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women, by Leila J. Rupp


"At the outset of the twentieth century the Japanese Sexologist Ishikawa Kiyotada thought that prostitutes were the man practioners of female same-sex love, but by 1920 Sawada Junjiro gave the honor to students in girls' schools (although in addition he suspected it among factory workers, nurses aristocractic ladies, unmarried daughters, married women, concubines, widows, prisoners, maids, sales girls, clerical workers, teachers, actresses, geishas, prostitutes, and nuns -- hardly a select list.)

From Chapter 8, In Public (1920 - 1980)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Poem by May Sarton

Daily Dose

From Fifty Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read, edited and introduced by Rickard Canning


"In my life, she was my teacher in terms of love, since she was the first writer whose love story I could feel with my whole heart.""

From Jim Grimsley's essay on The Persian Boy, by Mary Renault

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hangin' With the Kids: Josh Kilmer-Purcell in Gum Boots

My dear friend, N., a.k.a. Signora Anita DiMartini, Book Club Queen of Seattle*, surprised me not a little in 2009 by picking Josh Kilmer-Purcell's memoir I Am Not Myself These Days as the March selection for the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club. Surely -- sniff -- we were better than this? By that time, of course, we'd already abandoned the idea of reading only pre-Stonewall classics as having proved too depressing, even for us, but our reading list had still been pretty consistently highbrow rather than lowdown. The Signora's sudden enthusiasm for the then only three year old memoirs of a drunk New York drag queen, known as "Aquadisiac," and famous for keeping live goldfish in her plastic tits, was... unexpected. To that date, the book club hadn't much considered funny, or, for that matter: camp, drag, whores, booze or pets. True, Genet lay straight ahead, but then Genet was a classic, wasn't he? Dead, after all, and French, and that. Kilmer-Purcell, or rather, "Aqua," seemed something of a compromise of our standards, hardly likely company for Thomas Mann et al. Not even dead, this one, despite her best efforts.

Frankly, I questioned Anita's thinking on this one. But then, Signora DiMartini is always thinking, when it comes to her clubs. I, for one, have learned to trust her superior instincts, at least when it comes to book club selections. And again, she was quite right. I thought "Aqua" delightful. This queen was funny, and, I thought, she could write. Certainly reading that book was an unexpectedly happy experience for me. Had no idea. It was worth reading the book just for the story of the queen who'd decided to make a candy-cannon part of her act. (Read the book. I won't try to explain.) Besides the drag and the drugs and the drinking, at the heart of the book was a doomed romance with a high priced call-boy. That was not an unfamiliar story from the literature, but in Kilmer-Purcell's telling, the heroine not only survived, but didn't even get all preachy in her recovery. I loved it.

Not everyone in the book club did. Some seemed to think the author a bit too flippant about such serious dysfunction. Our group leader had hoped to entice some of the recovery crowd, who meet in the same space as the book club, to join us. Don't know how well that worked out, but there were those at the meetings I did attend who seemed to think the tone was lowered by the jokes. Recovery, for some, ain't the least bit funny. Oh well.

Still, when a reader's copy of Josh Kilmer-Purcell's latest came into the store, I was quick to snag it for Anita to read. Perhaps it was a case of once burned twice shy, at least in so far as the group's reformed tweekers et al were concerned, but for whatever reason, she chose not to make the new memoir an official book club selection. I might not have thought any more about the new book, had I not been surfing cable TV with the husband one night and come across a new reality show.The Fabulous Beekman Boys is the story of a successful Manhattan queer couple gone all Green Acres in upstate New York. Guess who?

Josh Kilmer-Purcell's new book, The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir, ought not to be my sort of thing. The show was amusing, because these queens are funny, but also uncomfortable to watch; the boys never see each other anymore, what with the tall one working sixty hours a week at an advertisement firm in The City, just to keep the country house weekends going, while the little one wraps individual bars of handmade goats' milk soap, dreams of empire, and washes the barn windows for a garden party. Not my kinda people, really. Still, it's a cute young gay couple mucking around in gum boots. Kinda fun, in a Jean Claude Cardinot directed, doin' it in the barn kinda way, and after just the first two episodes, I was sure the little one was going to at least get his ass spanked. So I've stayed tuned.

Now, having grown up in the country, grubbing root vegetables out of the back garden, and surrounded by farmboy homophobia, the country, for me, holds no special charm. I do rural roughly once a year, on our annual pilgrimage back to see the folks in Pennsylvania. That's usually quite enough rednecking for me, thanks. Goats, and the men who tend them, smell bad. Not an issue, just watching television, but I remember.

Then there is the whole Martha/Oprah connection. (If I had to pick the two women in my lifetime who have done the most to undo the Women's Movement in America, these two would top my list. Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey, between them, taught a whole generation of women how to just be girls again. " Want a pony? Well, I got one. Everybody deserves a pony. Every one's getting ponies! Wish hard. Nothing wrong with wanting a pony, just make sure you only feed your pony organic carrots and pure, unprocessed cane-sugar. I'll show you how to make your own, homemade sugar-cubes!" It's female -empowerment by means of Disney princess fantasy. It's fatuous celebrity-capitalism, talk-show-tycooning, in which opportunities simply come to those who deserve them, as opposed to those who do well well in supposedly unscripted media, and hard work is rewarded with money, power and "a staff." Fame, real estate portfolios, ostentatious wealth and guardian angels, these things aren't just compatible with feminism, in this brave new world, but the natural outcome of personal growth. It's as if of all the labors of all the movements for social equality in this country were sweated and bled just to make a Martha Stewart Living Ominimedia, Inc. and or a Harpo Inc., possible. It's repugnant.) Kilmer-Purcell's adorable husband, lil' Dr. Brent Ridge, worked his way through medical & business school, to become Martha's director "of healthy living." In his new book, Kilmer-Purcell describes attending a taping of the Oprah show and coming away convinced that he too deserves to be living his "best life," or at least to be the star of a reality TV show. Oh dear.

So, why'd I read this book? Because Josh Kilmer-Purcell is not inspired. Thanks be. Inspiration, as it turns out, is dangerous as hell, hard as hell on a marriage, and a shitty business model. I realized as soon as I'd read the "Author's Caution," that I was in familiar and welcome company:

"This book is about living your dream. It will not inspire you," he begins.

What the television show can only uncomfortably suggest, and what the book is really about, is lovers in some deep shit. To use the language of the television chat shows, can a long term, committed, gay relationship survive separation, economic hardship and conflicting personal agendas? Now that's interesting, at least as Josh Kilmer-Purcell tells it in the book, largely because the author hasn't got an answer, or, often as not, so much as a clue. (I've been in just such a domestic situation for more than twice as long and my own understanding of how and why is still, at best, notional.) What Kilmer-Purcell does have is wit, a strong sense of narrative, and a beautiful, ridiculous house in the country. We don't have one of those. This might be interesting.

I should say, what Kilmer-Purcell and his partner have, is a mansion, the Beekman Mansion, by name. A beautiful, big old house, built in 1802 -- thus the eventual name of their farming enterprise/life-style-website, Beekman 1802 -- and the book is all about their struggle to keep it, and their marriage, going. It seems that, once upon a time, on their annual jaunt into the countryside to go apple-picking, the city-boys came across a restored house in a bucolic farm setting, and on something like a whim, they buy the joint. Keep in mind, this is a roughly million dollar whim, but at the time, lil' Dr. Brent is an on-camera cog in the vast Martha media machine and Josh has long since hung up his aquarium brassiere for a partnership in a Manhattan ad agency. These boys have done well, economically, and personally. Then came the market crash. Ad agencies don't do well in down markets. The good lil' doctor gets unsentimentally shit-canned from Martha's magic kingdom. There are dead flies all over the place. What was to be a country retreat for the weekends, in roughly a year's time, becomes a working goat farm (don't ask, it's a charming story,) a full time home/business for lil' Dr. Brent, and something of a curse for the boys. This then isn't a book about dreams, but about mucking through, the part of life called reality, with which media goddesses no longer concern themselves and about which they talk hardly at all. Not perhaps the story Kilmer-Purcell intended to tell, but the one he had the sense and grace to instead. It's a good story. Go looking for dreams and you'll find yourselves... weeding at night.

But what they also found in the country, besides a community, were some uncomfortable, and often hilarious, truths about what it means to lead what Martha/Oprah would call "an authentic life" and, by contrast, what authenticity really means: dirt, mess, imperfection, misunderstanding, hurt feelings, but also: tenacity, faithfulness, friendship, hope.

In the end, both in the book and on television, maddening as they can be, The Fabulous Beekman Boys are good company. and the artisan cheese looks delicious.

*Seems I'm the only one to call him that, or find it funny, but maybe if I just keep it going long enough...

Daily Dose

From The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir, by Josh Kilmer-Purcell


"It's been a lifelong goal of mine never to die ironically."

From the Prologue

Monday, June 21, 2010

Wendy Moffat's Forster... and others

My first Forster, I can't now say. I think it safe to assume that I encountered the author, early on, in one of Isherwood's memoirs, before I'd read a word of Forster's writing. E. M. Forster came up, even if his novels didn't much then, for me. Reading around with the boys from the Thirties: Isherwood, Auden, Orwell, etc., and then back to visit Bloomsbury, briefly, reading anywhere in English literature for the first three quarters of the last century, in fact, there he was: the great maiden aunt of English letters. Why I didn't read Forster until I did, I don't know. I knew I liked him well enough, strange as that may sound, for not having read him, but more as just a dear old party than as a writer who mattered. He appears in so many English literary memoirs, in so many diaries & letters, from Woolf and Lawrence forward, I felt I knew something of him even before I'd read The Longest Journey, which I'm pretty sure was my first Forster novel. I suspect I didn't feel the need to read him until I did because he just seemed so old fashioned, certainly as he appeared on other people's pages: a rather harmless, comic figure, a spent force, an old man who had stopped writing novels by the time I was most interested in reading about, someone who'd dated quickly. His novels were obviously important, once, but not so much as to move him up the list, past writers who still mattered more, I thought. He wasn't a modern, was he? Certainly, politically, he was at best a liberal, and I hadn't much patience for that sort of thing as a youngster. Radicals mattered, political and sexual and aesthetic revolutionaries were what I felt most keenly in need of, when I first ran through the moderns. Not that I understood a word of modernism, really, but I felt it, so to say. So when I did come to read that first Forster, there might not have been much there to make me feel I'd missed something vital. His books were just comedies of manners, middle class stories, awfully funny, and quite beautiful, in an Edwardian way, but they were all a bit subtle for me. I wasn't much for subtlety at fourteen or fifteen. It's difficult to remember, all these years later, just when I did finally take Forster for a turn, but when I did, I think in the summer of my sixteenth year or thereabouts -- sounds about right -- I know I was only a recent convert to subtlety. I'd fallen hard into Henry James by then. I then read Forster straight through. I did that sort of thing a lot as a teenager, and read Forster book by book until I'd done him. I do remember my disappointment, which was genuine, and my cocky pride, which was just as real if not more so, finding there was no more of Forster to read. Reading was a race then, and I felt myself handicapped by my background and bad education, constantly catching up, so speed was important. Literacy was something to be gained, marked by the obvious mileposts, one didn't linger for fear of being left behind. I remember too, that last Forster novel, the last published anyway, published posthumously, and to great gay fanfare, and my disappointment that that book turned out to just be Maurice. Everyone seemed to agree that while it mattered, it wasn't very good. I agreed with everyone. Unlike the other books, even the grand film adaptation of that one, in 1987, didn't inspire me to have another go. Actually, I've only just reread that novel for the first time, for book club, and I must say, I'm a little disappointed in my younger self for having been so dismissive of that novel, among other things, and of being so sure I'd done full justice -- at sixteen! -- to reading E. M. Forster.

The great thing about a novelist like Forster is that one can't.

I've been reading Forster on and off all the years since and don't think I'll ever not. When I put down Maurice this time, at forty-seven, I picked up A Passage to India again that same night, reluctant to let Forster go. All his books are on the case by my desk, the bookcase containing only my favorite rereading. (Interesting to note how few of my youthful enthusiasms, how few of the really important books I felt I had to have read -- and please note that phrase -- before I could claim to be a serious person, have made it into that case.)

In addition to not being done reading Forster, I can't say that I've read everything worth reading about him. If I ever thought I had, turns out, I was wrong about that too. Live and learn. Reading Wendy Moffat's new biography, A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster, I've been mindful that hers is neither the first I've read, nor likely to be the last life I'll read. Consulting my own bookshelves, this looks to be my fourth, not counting Lionel Trilling's critical study of the fiction. In fact, Moffat's isn't even the first book about Forster that I've read this month, that being Frank Kermode's 2007 Clark Lectures, Concerning E. M. Forster. Clearly, I've still got a lot to learn.

Kermode's book has one of the most interesting things I've ever read on Forster's writing, in the lecture/essay from which I took today's daily quote, "Beethoven, Wagner, Vinteuil". The critic's exploration of Forster's ear, as it were, and only incidentally, Forster's appreciation of his contemporary, Marcel Proust, from whence that last composer comes remember, and the actual influence of music on Forster's methods and style, was new to me, even if this was not the first time I'd encountered the idea, and this essay was just the kind of criticism I find most helpful: ingenious, elegantly simple, and obviously right, though I'd certainly never thought much about the subject before reading this. I can only envy the kind of reading and writing Kermode is able to do in an essay like this. Commenting on a brief quote from Forster's introduction to his collected stories, Kermode summarizes with just this little sentence of his own, " Among those words lurk the rhythms." That's perfect.

Elsewhere in Kermode's short book, I found myself getting a little impatient with the venerable critic. (As of these lectures, Professor Kermode is well on in his eighties -- long may he thrive.) First, there is a tetchy insistence, the fault worried by the critic like a bad tooth, that Forster failed, as a novelist, to express the appropriate intellectual interest in what were then called, "the lower classes." As a result, not only do his most important characters from backgrounds other than his own --Leonard Bast in Howards End, Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India -- fail, but the novels do as well, because of this. For Kermode, this failure represents a more significant failure of Forster the novelist to achieve the kind of greatness he might, or ought to have done. Not to say that Kermode is wrong, but his emphasis suggests someone other than his subject might better have written Forster's novels, and that kind of supposition always strikes me as being pointless. (One of the things Wendy Moffat's biography so delightfully, and rather mischievously does, is give their due to the working class people, lovers and friends, in the company of whom Forster was to spend so much of his life after he ceased writing novels. Hard, I think, of Kermode to fault the man, for who the novelist wasn't yet when he wrote his best books.) Kermode also faults Forster once too often for his failure to acknowledge "The Master," Henry James, as such, and while, again, I have a personal sympathy with this point, I don't know that Kermode actually makes much of it. Henry wasn't really Henry, was he, in 1905, when Forster's first novel was published? Or even in 1927, when Forster himself gave the Clark Lectures that then formed the basis for his book, Aspects of the Novel, the book which seems to really exercise Kermode most. Who, in Forster's generation of novelists, even among the younger writers, talked of James much then? And even when they did, didn't they keep well out of Henry James' shadow, at least in public utterance? It was, I'd say, critics, rather than practitioners, who have always since cited James with Kermode's familiarity. Again, why so much about who Forster failed to be?

A good deal of the critical response to Wendy Moffat's new book, at least in this country, has been focused on a book that Moffat chose not to write, rather than on the very good book that she did. While I wish she might have been spared some of the bluff and condescending notices I've read, I can only hope that she's found some of this inevitable, mannish primness as amusing as I do. It's true, Moffat chose not to write the traditional, critical biography, a book more like the excellent one written by P. N. Furbank thirty years ago, but then, did she really have to? Isn't that book right here at my elbow, along with Lionel Trilling's, and the brief, illustrated life by novelist Francis King? Doesn't Richard Canning have a new book coming soon, a brief life presumably meant to replace the older one I have right here? Much has been made of Moffat not taking up the novels one by one, offering the usual summary of each, elaborating the context in which the books first came to be, and then reviewing the accepted critical opinion, as it stands, before gently knocking it around a little. That, after all, is the way this sort of thing is done, my girl, remember that. Huff puff. The emphasis of Moffat's research, and the focus of her book, generally takes as given the critical reputation of the novelist, and this would seem to have offended some of those reviewers, many of them academics like the lady herself, who can't quite believe that the function of literary biography might sometimes be something other than the more usual, respectable sort of professional narrative and reappraisal of the critical literature. If Moffat doesn't linger for so much as a paragraph over Where Angels Fear to Tread, it is suggested, then the woman can't be serious. Instead, in a most unseemly fashion, utilizing materials that while not themselves entirely new or unknown to previous scholars, have never been made so much of before, Professor Moffatt sets about to restore the sentimental education of a great writer. Is that such an untoward thing to have done? Surely there have been other novelists, here D.H. Lawrence comes most quickly to mind, but Joyce too, whose sexual histories have come to be seen as intrinsically important to an understanding of their life and work? And then there are writers, Henry James for instance, or Whitman, for whom the absence of such a history has been much lamented, sincerely or not, as leaving something of a biographical void. So, is it just Forster about whom we'd really rather not know these things?

Which would seem to me to be what's really ruffled some of these old cocks. Words like "gossip," and "tittle-tattle," as silly as that sounds, have been dusted off to describe the details in Moffatt's biography. Forster's own diary, as quoted extensively throughout Moffatt's book, hardly constitutes an unreliable source, so why this prim, and frankly proprietary , dismissal of her scholarship and purpose? It seems to me that there has been a kind of critical consensus, at least so far as Forster's biography was concerned, that the explanation of his long silence as a novelist after A Passage to India, in 1924, was best accomplished, not as Forster himself explained it, at least privately, but by means of all sorts of elaborate critical constructions that depended less on what Forster said, and didn't say, than on what the critics themselves chose to dignify with a theory. As it turns out, Forster's explanation is startlingly blunt. If I may paraphrase, he was tired of writing exclusively about heterosexuals, and as he couldn't at the time publish a novel about anyone else, he wasn't much interested in writing novels anymore. Moffatt's book, while not perhaps the first to be written with the knowledge of this decision, may well be the first to take Forster at his word, and more than that, to earnestly explore not only the consequences of what that meant for the novelist, but why the man might have meant what he said. Confronted by a great novelist who ceased writing novels, and the supposedly mystifying, and surprisingly busy "silence" that came after, Moffatt seems to have decided to give full weight to everything Forster did say for the remaining 46 years of her subject's life. What's more, instead of an elaborate search for clues in the fiction he'd finished with writing by the time he was middle-aged, to explain the second, and much happier half of Forster's life, Moffatt takes the rest of Forster's life as he lived it; writing, broadcasting, friends, responsibilities, lovers and partners, and tells that story as if E. M. Forster not only had a right to it, but ultimately made a wise decision. Imagine that.

It's this idea, that Morgan Forster's life might have mattered more to him than E. M. Forster's reputation, and that his biographer might take such an idea seriously, that seems to have given not a few critics the collywobbles. What makes matters oh so much worse for some of these old birds, is that Moffat would seem to approve of much of the new life she describes, or at the very least doesn't feel the urge to sniff at it disapprovingly. She doesn't hesitate to describe either her subject's limitations or his failures, but I think she is at her best when he's happiest, and that of course is not the way of things in critical biography. Moreover, she has the audacity to suggest that Morgan Forster, while far from being a saint, was actually a better man, in the end, for not continuing as a novelist. Finally, Moffat has the unusual, even unprecedented nerve to take seriously the relationships that came to matter most to Forster himself. That the men Forster loved were all less well-off, less accomplished and less articulate than he, and that more than one wasn't white, uniquely in my reading about Forster, for Moffatt, doesn't make them somehow unworthy of love. In addition, she doesn't see the life Forster made with these men, and yes, in the most significant of these relationships, with the man's wife, as in anyway demeaning or inferior to, say, Forster's platonic love for a straight classmate, or his sometimes prickly friendships with writers and worthies of his own class. Moffatt actually seems to enjoy the company of some of the men with whom Forster shared his intimate life. Imagine that. (Furbank, for instance, couldn't help himself, anymore than Francis King could, and invariably describes Forster's first great lover, Mohammed-el-Adl, as just "a bus conductor," and Forster's most loyal and beloved partner, Bob Buckingham, as a cop, as if Morgan Forster had only a mildly interesting uniform fetish rather than real and lasting relationships with both men. Is it fair to say, do you think, that E. M. Forster was hardly the last Englishman to never entirely escape his class?)

Paradoxically, I have read more than one gay critic who dismissed the second half of Forster's life as unnecessarily timid and Forster, the great gay novelist, as lacking in character. In their reading of his life, Forster, born in 1879, ought to have done something other than he did by putting Maurice in a drawer, in 1914, and dedicating it to " a Happier Year". His "silence" thereafter, by some lights, is unacceptable, cowardly even. Presumably, having met Edward Carpenter and having been inspired by his example, and felt up by his boyfriend, as indeed Forster was, Forster should then have taken up the old man's sandals and walked the walk thereafter, consequences and nature be damned. Moffatt is no more invested in Forster's failure to act the prophet than she is in the donnish nonsense of seeing Forster as the holy virgin of the Twentieth Century English novel, sadly abandoned to Sodom.

That I think is what makes Moffatt's book so interesting, and yes, important; her refusal to make something more, or less, of E. M. Forster than Morgan Forster made of himself; a novelist of genuine importance, and a limited number of books, and a man of very real interest, and considerable soul. It's a controversial reading of Forster's life, because it isn't so much a reading of his work, as of what he said about himself.

Imagine that.

One last note, on the respective American and English titles and dustjackets of Moffatt's book: while the American edition has the fuller and, I think, better title -- the English one simply called "A New Life of E. M. Forster" -- neither has a very good photograph of Forster. The English edition, tellingly I think, shows him very much the gentleman in a hat and draped on deck chair of some kind, and the American edition uses the same dowdy photograph by George Platt Lynes as did Francis King's book, from 1978, E. M. Forster and His World. Neither is the least flattering. Now Morgan Forster was never a very prepossessing looking figure, or a handsome man, but he did have a nice smile, I think. So have a look above. I'd think, if he could, Forster would be smiling now.

Daily Dose

From Concerning E. M. Forster, by Frank Kermode


"Committed to a certain realism in his fiction, Forster sought ways to make his novels musical as well as respectful of the manners appropriate to the traditional novel and reasonably acceptable to the unadventurous customer (whom he referred to as Uncle Willie)."

From Beethoven, Wagner, Vinteuil

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Caricature

Read John Waters' Role Models to learn more.

Daily Dose

From The Frozen Thames, by Helen Humphreys


"Leaving this world should not be an easy thing, should not be without effort."

From 1776

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Caricature

Helen Humphreys proves time after time that poets can write beautiful, austere prose, gripping narratives and some of the most inventive and interesting fiction in recent memory. Love her.

Daily Dose

From The Apprentice Writer: Essays, by Julian Green


"Without knowing it always, he is going to tell us about himself, but he feels perfectly safe because he masquerades as a dozen different people and never credits the reader with enough perspicacity to find him out."

From How a Novelist Begins

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Caricature

If I had to pick just one Seattle novelist with a national reputation, or one contemporary lesbian writer, or just one novelist I can't get enough of, to recommend to anyone to read, anywhere, any time, and again and again, she'd be the one.

Daily Dose

From Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadimam


"So far, so good. There was rumored drug use in House of All Nations -- and at least one homosexual."

From Stead Made Me Do It: House of All Nations, by Christina Stead, essay by Michael Upchurch

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Caricature

Was there anyone the woman didn't know?! I would encourage anyone with an interest in Joyce, modernism, 20th Century literature, ladies in suits, Paris, etc., etc., to pick up the new book of Sylvia's letters, edited by Keri Walsh.

For Miss Beach, it seems changing the world was just another day's work in the shop, bless her.

Daily Dose

From E. M. Forster and His World, by Francis King


"It has become a cliché to say that Forster became more and more famous with every book he did not write."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fanged Clerihew


Anyone says
Jewelle Gomez
Is just bloody genre writer,
May well be told that they can bite her.

Daily Dose

From Sister & Brother: Lesbians & Gay Men Write About Their Lives Together, edited by Joan Nestle and John Preston


"Even black men can think they're John Wayne."

From In the Wink of an Eye: Black Lesbians & Gay Men Together, by Jewelle Gomez

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Poem by May Sarton

Daily Dose

From Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, by May Sarton


"The minute one utters a certainty, the opposite comes to mind."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Deliciously Damp Clerihew


While May Sarton
Got her start in
Writing more the usual thing,
Then she heard the mermaids sing.

Daily Dose

From E. M. Forster: A Life, by P. N. Furbank


"He had never before felt such power in another man, and he put it down to Carpenter's breadth of humanity:'He touched everyone everywhere.' Forster liked George Merrill too, though he doubted if he were as devoted to wholesome toil as Carpenter believed, and Merrill also touched people -- in his case, usually on the behind."

From Chapter 14, Maurice

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Dyke Crush

I'm in love with a lesbian. This has happened before. (You know who you are.) Give me a woman with just the right smoky laugh, a dry wit and a dirty mouth, and I am generally as smitten as a Catholic school girl riding backwarmer on her first Harley. I know it's not all that common among gay men of my generation, but I have always loved dykes. And I've always loved butches, so long as they were female, specially. My grandma had a neighbor lady wore dungarees with the cuffs rolled and a man's cotton dress shirt with the sleeves cut out. I'd watch her when she worked in her vegetable garden. I liked the way she smoked: the cigarette between her lips until it was just a hot little butt that she'd take out and study between her finger and thumb before she'd draw one last hit and flick it up onto the road. I admired that quiet economy of motion. I liked the single-mindedness in everything she did, and the absence of waste. I liked that she could carry on a conversation without taking that cigarette out, and kill potato-bugs at the same time. Something told me we should be friends, and eventually, we were.

In high school, my two best girlfriends were both baby dykes. One was tough as the ratty old docksiders she wore without socks every day, summer and winter. She was something of a lipstick lezzie and wouldn't come to school when the power went off at home 'cause she couldn't use her hot-comb. That said, she cursed like a truck driver, lived on speed and Pepsi, and cut a wide swath through the local virgins. Crazy as Hell, but beautiful, that girl. Smart too. And funny? Never laughed so hard again in my life. She was so busy pretending to be tough in those days, I think she couldn't help but be later, when she needed to be. I was perfectly right in thinking she could survive The Flood. She has now, more than once. My other favorite was my first real intellectual, a great mountain of a girl in big laced boots, men's corduroys and buttoned up button-downs. She came to a kind of snowy peak at the top, where an unwashed bowl-cut framed a face and a mind of surprising delicacy. An odd, wall-eyed creature, a head or more taller than me, walking and talking together we must have looked like an anomaly in deep time; the mastodon and the vole. She was my first real loner, and a bit of a challenge, but behind thick glasses and that awkward reserve, I sensed there was someone extraordinary, and I was right. She had about the sharpest mind I've ever encountered. Every thought was a slow grind, but inexorable, and worth the wait.

Since then, there have always been dykes in my life. Women generally, as many or more than otherwise, but lesbians specially. I've never really questioned the affinity. Others have, other gay men specifically, though that was a long time ago and in a more gendered community and less enlightened time.

Looking back, it is amazing now to think how infrequently gay men and women mixed, back in the day. Even then I found the whole business ridiculous. I could however appreciate how any real distinction between gay and straight men was pretty negligible for a lot of gay women back then. Sexism, when I was coming up, while less obvious in the gay community than the straight, was still widespread and gynophobia accepted as a gay cultural norm. The atmosphere in most gay places was distinctly unfriendly to women, at least to any woman not prepared to enthuse about dick, and the bars, even the rare supposedly "mixed" ones, seemed to all be all about dick. Dick, dick, dick, dick, dick. (Thanks to poppers, the joints even smelled like an old jockstrap.) Even when one did find dykes out in a gay club, nobody seemed happy to see them. Seems obvious to me at least that while the boys had bigger mustaches, the dykes had had that whole drag down first, and I suspect they found the boys' efforts at being "hard" slightly risible. No one likes to have their new look challenged as tired. The only thing the new clones seemed to have in common with their nelly ancestors was a general disdain of the women. Still "no females allowed" in the all new He-Man Woman Haters' Clubhouse. Girls, you know, just spoil everything. (The women all just seemed pissed that they couldn't afford a place of their own.) Most social interactions that weren't yet specifically political were still willfully segregated by sex. The bars certainly were. In lesser cities where there weren't many options, this proved to be hilarious: the girls all to one side and the boys on the other, like a junior high dance. Sometimes it felt a little like rival gangs keeping a fragile truce. The gay disdain of lesbians struck me, even then, as being specially ironic, to say the least, considering how much the boys owed Feminists and the Women's Movement for our own Liberation, but then I was also shocked, at about the same time, when I discovered that there could even be such things as NRA dykes, Republican fags, and racist queers. (I think much of the old misogyny got knocked out of the boys when queer women saved our lives without being asked. Hope so, anyway.)

Coming from a straight little place, full of straight little people, I found the wider gay world still shockingly small minded. I'd expected... more, at least from my own. (Who would have guessed that grown men could still think girls had cooties?) My first gay mother was a woman, remember, and there were so few of us, in a small town like that, that when we found one another, boys and girls, we just naturally tended to hang together. Who else? When I finally had the chance to move in more exclusively male circles, I found it terribly exciting at first, but soon enough realized that I was no more comfortable in those dark, sticky, faux locker-rooms than I had ever been in the real ones.

When I met a few authentic old queens, still bullying the "trade" in dim old bars like The Jockey Club in Pittsburgh, PA, I was very much relieved to find that gay men needn't now all be glowering machos, silently tippin' long-necks and grunting. Sadly though, these antiques in angora were, if anything, even less inclined to appreciate any female not named Bette. The queens were more fun, and funnier, but just as primitive about the girls.

I've also met the unfunny, earnest dyke of queer mythology, by the way. The second of my two high school buddies, after years studying wymin's theology and the like, and finally finding herself a girlfriend with chin-whiskers, actually became something like, and dropped me. Understandable, in a way, I suppose. Her lesbianism, despite being rather obvious to everyone but her for years, was arrived at by means of ratiocination and thoughtful research as much as in answer to her nature. She had always about her an atmosphere of careful assessment, and like many of the real intellectuals I have encountered since, even her affection was less impulsive than a deliberate commitment, in principle. Love, for some people, seems just to be the right thing to do. When we parted ways, I was never made to feel I'd somehow disappointed her or done something wrong. Regrettably, I'd just somehow become irrelevant, if not an actual impediment, to her happiness thereafter. Sad for me, sad for her, but there we logically were. Hope that all worked out the way she wanted for her. (I suppose I'll never know. She doesn't seem to be on facebook.) Since then, I've met, if that's even the right word for the encounters I have in mind, some terrifyingly serious sisters, too. I still find myself attracted to the occasional laughless, intellectual dyke, to that kind of tweedy, theoretical lesbian. The rare times I've had the chance to actually interact with one, I've always been careful to respect their reservations about people with penises. They have their reasons. Far be it from me to oppress strangers. Obviously though, I'm more often drawn to dykes with a bit more blue than starch.

In contemporary lesbian literature, there seem to have been fewer real, solid dykes than one might have liked, though there've always been a few. (My definition of solidity, in the contemporary lesbian, being a capacity to discuss her sexuality and female anatomy in general honestly, and interestingly, without resort to either clinical abstraction or squeamish floral similes, and for whom the word "fucking" -- good ol' Saxon word like "cunt," -- is not considered either titillatingly transgressive or antifeminist.) I'll always love the literary dyke-mamas of my youth: Kate Millet, Lorde, Karla Jay, Lillian Faderman, Bishop. Solid. (Of the more Classic generation, I still owe a fierce loyalty to Willa and Sarah Orne Jewett, and those other more necessarily discreet maids. In the in-between, I can think only of Highsmith. Turns out, the woman was even creppier than her novels, but I still love her.) My last major literary dyke crush was Helen Humphries. Still not over that girl.

But now that I've met Terry Castle, in her new book The Professor and Other Writings, as I said right at the start, I'm in love all over again.

Professor Castle is the kind of feminist scholar with whom I haven't had much truck since I stopped trying to keep up with the girlfriend who read Mary Daly. The list of Castle's previous publications includes at least a few of the kind of titles I once toted dutifully in my knapsack when my friend and I went for long, late-night walks and she taught me how to think aloud. I don't imagine that Castle's earlier books, with titles like The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture, and The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny were written with me as the reader she had in mind. That's okay with me, if it's okay with her. (Don't want to piss her off.) But in this new book of personal essays, I've found perhaps the most congenial spirit, and the most welcome familiarity of voice, I've read in a lesbian writer, or writer with or without modifier, in years. Terry Castle is my kinda woman. I wanna be her faggot.

To begin with, she's solid. Witness this, on O'Keeffe, from her essay, "Travels with My Mom":

"... she is supposed to have celebrated – fairly unabashedly – something called ‘female sexuality’. Who can contemplate those swelling pink and purple flowers – or the roseate canyon-wombs opening up within them – without thinking of the plush, ding-donging joys of female genitalia? Georgia, by god, must have had orgasms to spare."

Now I have a only a quite limited experience of such "plush, ding-donging joys," but lord knows, I've looked into O'Keeffe's canyon a few too many times myself, and I've read far too much poetry in celebration of the female principle that might best be summarized by that deliciously spoofy phrase. I bless the womyn for it. I'll never read Adrienne Rich again without hearing Castle ringing somewhere in my head.

It is that kind of rough wit that really makes me go all swoony over a gal, that and real smarts. Castle -- or rather, Terry, 'cause that's what I call her now I'm her faggot -- is a full-on intellectual, with an obvious command of literary language and cultural history, of the kind at which I can only marvel. Had I first met her in her more studious books, academically robed, as it were, I should have been too intimidated to even be introduced, let alone offer my devotion, though perhaps, even then, that dead sexy, smoky laugh might have made me brave. (She must be both great fun and scary as Hell in a classroom. Can't imagine sitting anywhere but giggling in the back row. I'd love to hear her lecture though. I've always liked tops at the lectern. Bottoms always seem so needy when they have a larger audience.)

Like the best essayists, she's wonderfully unpredictable: taking off after such weird enthusiasms as WWI cemeteries in "Courage, Mon Amie," or shelter-porn -- wonderful phrase -- as in Elle Decor -- in "Home Alone," and the great, straight, junky, jazz musician/hipster Art Pepper, and his unbelievably filthy memoir that she reads with such barking delight in "My Heroin Christmas." (She digs on his butch. I get that.) Even in a book of occasional prose, this could seem random, rather than charmingly eccentric, but the author has produced a book, not just loose a folio of reprinted pieces. This is not journalism. Each of these essays is in fact nakedly personal, but made of more than autobiography. Castle is a daughter of Montaigne, so the object is not simple self-promotion or caricature, or comedy, but an exercise in sensibility, and hers is a charmingly mordant voice. She is a serious comic stylist. She doesn't just write comedy, though she can, as here, in a little run, from "Home Alone," about the "established interiors trope" in shelter-mags, of introducing the latest trends as "not your mother's (whatever.)"

“'Not Your Mother’s Tableware' is a typical heading—meant presumably to assure you that if you acquire the featured cutlery you will also, metaphorically speaking, be giving your mom the finger. (Other online items that are not your mother’s: wallpaper, mobile homes, Chinette, faucet sponges, slow cookers, backyard orchards, and Tupperware parties. Beyond the realm of interior decoration—it’s nice to learn—you can also avoid your mother’s menopause, divorce, Internet, hysterectomy, book club, Mormon music, hula dance, antibacterial soap, deviled eggs, and national security."

That's funny, and funnier in the context of her complex relationship with her own mother, to which she returns often in the book, but that is by no means all she can and does do, even in that essay.

Then there's this, from "Desperately Seeking Susan," a largely admiring, and very personal, and very funny assessment of the late Susan Sontag. (I'm tempted to quote at length here, -- as this essay is easily the best description I've read to date of the woman -- but instead I'll offer just this one perfectly pitched line to stand for the whole):

"The carefully cultivated moral seriousness -- strenuousness might be a better word -- coexisted with a fantastical, Mrs. Jellyby - like absurdity."

And there she is before us, Susan Sontag, Dowager Empress of the unfunny earnest dykes.

It might have been that Castle herself came close to being just such a one. She has all the intellectual qualifications, as I said before. It isn't obvious in the quote I pulled, but the essayist's admiration of Sontag is genuine, and her assessment considered. So it is not a want of seriousness, or even reverence, that prevents Terry Castle becoming yet another stone literary butch. For all I know that was just what she was when she was writing to a less popular tune. Perhaps all she lacks to be just such a one every time out is the inclination. Put it another way, to paraphrase The Wizard, she's got one thing they haven't got: a nerve.

There is a mistake made all too often by really superior minds when addressing themselves to inferior experience -- and let's face it, most of life is not so transcendental for any but I suppose the oldest souls -- a mistake, at least for the common reader for whom and to whom I can presume to speak, that undoes any real satisfaction, even intellectual, in reading someone like Susan Sontag when she would try to let all that glorious hair of hers down; she all but invariably mistakes communicating the idea, however brilliantly, for describing an experience. Nothing, not admiration, affection, outrage, not a book, not a trip, not a death, even the anticipation of her own, no piece of art, is ever unabstracted. Every telling instance, every example, from the most harrowing event to the happiest accident, or worse, every observation of the commonplace, is offered only postmortem, after thorough vivisection, and however careful the reconstruction, however flawless the presentation, there is always the smell of recent refrigeration. However noble or humane or eager for affection the impulse that instigates this kind of writing, and thinking, the results are at best a lifeless beauty, a barren gesture at expression, the abstraction of feeling.

There's a species of egotism, a refinement of the more usual bombast of say, politics, that is only possible in the real, if inferior artist, and most common in modern critics of serious reputation. It is there in the evident satisfaction taken in the rightness of every proof and the refusal of mess, romance, humor, happenstance, embarrassment, genuine spontaneity, emotion. (There is a reason modernist abstraction is so often praised for it's "experimental" intention.) There is a posture -- what after all am I trying to describe just here if not an insistent, rigid dignity --that once assumed can not be relaxed. In such sad cases, while almost any obscenity may be deemed interesting, any inconsistency telling, and any vulgarity indulged as amusing, the capacity to indulge in obscenity, to exhibit imperfection, to be vulgar, is made unthinkable. Amazingly enough, the one subject sooner or later invariably addressed, if not attempted, by just such proudly unfunny imaginations is humor. (See Sontag's "On Camp.") Everybody's a comedian. But to actually be funny, one has to admit the possibility of being found funny. It is not enough to study funny. It is not enough even to be seen to laugh at one's self. One must invite the laughter of other people. There's an inherent pusillanimity in the unfunny, a failure of nerve, in their incapacity not to get the joke, but to tell it on themselves that bespeaks a fundamental dishonesty, and a smallness of spirit.

Now, Terry Castle, (remember her?) is one solid dyke. In her essays, there is no failure of nerve. She's neither a clown nor a comedian. She won't abandon either sense or seriousness just to get a laugh, but she invites her readers to laugh at everything she finds funny and nothing seems to amuse her more than the fundamental ridiculousness of love, and her own disconcerting humanity in the face of it. It is the title essay in her new book, "The Professor," by far the longest and best thing in the book, that convinces me that she is the real deal and worthy of worship. I've read more than my share of coming out narratives, by men and women, old and new, and hers is perhaps the funniest and the most achingly honest I've ever read. It isn't just the familiarity of the protagonist's comical precocity and inexperience and the completely believable and complex portrait of the unworthy object of first love, it is rather the profound good humor with which she relates this oldest of old stories that makes me want to take her out and get her drunk and hear the whole thing again.

It is in her own "brusque, unselfconscious, even flagrant rejection of femininity," -- a quality she recognized as uniting her punk idol Patti Smith and her older and otherwise utterly unlike lover, the Professor, in an unexpected continuity of timeless style, and into which Terry has herself most happily relaxed -- that the writer has reclaimed something of that admirable, ineffable fuck-it I've always found so irresistible in my favorite dykes. It is this defiance of that supposedly gendered, mystically matriarchal, indiscriminate and undiscriminating womanishness that makes the forgiveness she offers not only her old lover, but her younger self, both admirable and palatable to a gay male reader like myself who has always thought the wholesale adoption by an earlier generation of lesbians of such watery spiritual slop the greatest disservice ever done to the real dignity my dear dykes. (Just as the worst turn gay men ever took, in my opinion, was the collective decision made some time after the coming of The Plague that we would hereafter strive to all becomes better patriots than our grandpas, better husbands than our fathers and better mothers than our own. If for quite awhile there it seemed like the women had gone to pray in a cave, we all looked to be pricing houses near "good elementary schools." Such passivity is unbecoming in a radically non-normative people.) This is a woman, finally, who didn't need to tell this story. Terry Castle, while admitting hilariously that she's been no better than her sisters when it comes to community trends, bad hair choices and all the rest, has settled into herself, as a person and a writer, and embraced her contradictions, found her own voice. Nobody has, or possibly could have told this tale better. The girl can blow, baby. She makes a joyous noise. The echos of days and dykes gone by no longer jar the ear, but delight because she can bounce them off the kind of solid prose missing from most romantic memoirs, queer or straight, and do it with a big, brash, happy sound. The woman knows who she is, as a writer and a person of some substance, or comes as near to knowing as any of us ever do, and that makes for instance the aching vulnerability of the girl she describes herself as having been funny rather than laughable, sad rather than tragic. This is a coming to maturity, this little book, for a still pretty new literature. (I know, I know, we've been around forever, but you know I mean just ours, the one we've made since coming out.) It's not the happy endings, or the first review in the New York Times Book Review, or the coming of "queer theory" that makes our arrival in literature real, it's writing so good, so genuinely fresh and funny and confident anyone can, and everyone should, read it. It's Ed White turning tricks in perfect American English. It's David Sedaris learning French for his boyfriend.

It's Terry Castle's The Professor and Other Writings.

I tell you, honestly, I'm her bitch, if she'll have me.

(Again, I get the whole Art Pepper thing. I so do.)