I haven’t posted here in a while for lots of reasons, but I’m so saddened by the Orlando massacre this week. The Strand Bookstore has put together a great list of LGBTQ+ books, well worth reading at any time, but now more so than ever.

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“I shall not begin at the beginning since there is no beginning, only a middle into which you, fortunate reader, have just strayed…”

I’ve always loved satire, and I’d like to think that I’m far more subversive than conservative, but my self-image as a camp, tongue-in-cheek, irreverent has been somewhat shaken by Gore Vidal’s 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge.

Set in the 1960s, Myra makes her way to Hollywood to seek the inheritance she’s owed by her dead husband’s Uncle Buck. Attractive, intellectual, and sexually complex, Myra is convinced that the golden days of the US came and went with the Golden Age of Hollywood.

I am seated in front of a French cafe in a Montmartre street on the back lot at Metro. … Over a metal framework, cheap wood has been arranged and painted as to suggest with astonishing accuracy a Paris bistro. … From the angle where I sit I can see part of the street in Carvel where Andy Hardy lived. The street is beautifully kept up as the shrine it is, a last memorial to all that was touching and – yes – good in the American past, an era whose end was marked by two mushroom shapes set like terminal punctuation marks against the Asian sky. (p. 30-31)

The book is written largely as a memoir – Myra’s confessional with a preening eye always to her audience; with snippets of Uncle Buck’s suspicion-filled memos. In his 1995 autobiography Palimpsest, Vidal said that he found inspiration for Myra’s lofty tone in the “megalomania” of Anaïs Nin’s diaries – which I’m not sure is quite fair, but certainly did give me a giggle to discover. I can’t say I found Anaïs Nin’s short stories or diaries particularly enjoyable to read, but that opinion doesn’t seem to be particularly popular.

Is it possible to describe anything accurately? That is the problem set to us by the French New Novelists. The answer is, like so many answers to important questions, neither yet nor no. The treachery of words is notorious. I write that I ‘care for’ Mary-Ann. But what does that mean? Nothing at all because I do not care for her at all times or at any time in all ways. To be precise (the task set us in the age of science), as I sit here…I can say that I like her eyes and voice but not her mouth (too small) or hands (too blunt). I could fill many pages of yes-no and still not bring the reader to any deep knowledge of what it is I feel at 7.10pm, March 12. It is impossible to sort out all one’s feelings at any given moment on any given subject, and so perhaps it is wise never to take on any subject other than one’s own protean but still manageable self. (p. 116)

I appreciate the topics that Vidal broaches in Myra Breckinridge, and the panache with which Vidal broaches them – generational attitude changes in America, masculinity, feminism, transsexuality, homosexuality, heterosexuality, pornography, intellectualism, hypocrisy. There’s still truth to be found in plenty of Vidal’s barbs, but the language used is certainly (and thankfully!) far outdated.

Most human beings, however, prefer the short duet, lasting anywhere from five minutes with a stranger to five months with a lover. Certainly the supreme moments occur only in those brief exchanges when each party, absorbed by private fantasy, believes he is achieving mastery over the other. The sailor who stands against the wall, looking down at the bobbing head of the gobbling queen, regards himself as master of the situation; yet it is the queen (does not that derisive epithet suggest primacy and dominion?) who has won the day, extracting from the flesh of the sailor his posterity, the one element in every man which is eternal and (a scientific fact) cellularly resembles not at all the elixir of victory, that which was not meant for him but for the sailor’s wife or girl or simply Woman. (p. 80)

Even though my love for Gore Vidal knows no bounds, and there was plenty I enjoyed about Myra Breckinridge, I can’t fully enjoy (or really recommend) any book that uses rape as a key plot point. That’s not to say Vidal didn’t write it well – it’s deeply disturbing, a severe counterpoint to the frippery of much of the book – but I still feel like rape is rarely more than a cheap narrative device.

Myra Breckinridge is dated, nearly entirely silly, and certainly has issues. It may not be quite what it was 40 years ago but it’s certainly a good snapshot of a particular American era, with a few eternal truths thrown in for good measure.

But then it is out peculiar fate to destroy or change all things we touch since (and let us never forget it) we are the constant and compulsive killers of life, the mad dogs of creation… Death and destruction, hate and rage, these are the most characteristic of human attributes… (p. 122)

 

“… that should be obvious to anyone who has not grown up ass-backward, as most Americans have.”

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My CV is in desperate need of re-writing, so obviously I spent the day reading Gore Vidal’s essays instead. His essay “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” originally published in 1981, is a wonderful read – not just for Vidal’s gleefully acerbic wit, but for its insight into the not-so-joyful history of the gay experience in the US – and how some things haven’t changed all that radically. Ostensibly it’s Vidal’s review of Renaud Camus’s book Tricks, but he locates his review in a comparison of homophobia to anti-Semitism, and a criticism of the deeply homophobic, perpetually horrified nature of the American middle-class, embodied by the shrill Midge Decter article “The Boys on the Beach”.

Decter can only cope with two stereotypes: the boys on the beach, mincing about, and the drab political radicals of gay liberation. The millions of ordinary masculine types are unknown to her because they are not identifiable by voice or walk and, most important, because they have nothing in common with one another except the desire to have same-sex relations. (p. 314)

Decter should take a stroll down San Francisco’s Castro Street, where members of the present generation of fags look like off-duty policemen or construction workers. They have embraced the manly. But Frued has spoken. Fags are fags because they adored their mothers and hated their poor hard-working daddies. It is amazing the credence still given this unproven, unprovable thesis.  (p. 314)

Most men – homo or hetro – given the opportunity to have sex with 500 different people would do so, gladly; but most men are not going to be given the opportunity by a society that wants them safely married so that they will be docile workers and loyal consumers. It does not suit our rulers to have the proles tomcatting around the way that our rulers do. (p. 316)

The family, as we know it, is an economic, not a biological, unit. I realize that this is startling news in this culture and at a time when economies of both East and West require that the nuclear family be, simply, God. But our ancestors did not live as we do. They lived in packs for hundreds of millennia before “history” began, a mere 5,000 years ago. Whatever social arrangements human society may come up with in the future, it will have to be acknowledged that those children who are needed should be rather more thoughtfully brought up than they are today and that those adults who do not care to be fathers or mothers should be let off the hook. (p. 321)

“…and loathsome canker lies in sweetest bud.”

imageClouds and Eclipses is the collection of Gore Vidal’s eight short stories, published in completion in 2006. Originally published as a collection of seven in A Thirsty Evil in 1956, those were joined by the eponymous story “Clouds and Eclipses”, a fictionalised episode from Tennessee Williams’ childhood involving teenage suicide, blackmail, and sexual misconduct. The story was left unpublished in 1956 at Williams’ (quite understandable) request, and forgotten entirely until 2005 when it was found among Vidal’s archived papers.

The eight stories are sparely written, with much of the action happening off-page – considered unsatisfying in some reviews I’ve read, but I prefer authors who don’t see a need to spoon-feed every detail to their reader. The potential for an “ooooh” or an “a-ha!” moment, no matter how small, makes for much more rewarding reading. Short stories aren’t my favourite genre, and while I don’t think they’re Vidal’s strongest suit, his customary clarity of observation, expert turn of phrase, and biting wit carry the stories over their lower points.

I was surprised by how frankly the stories addressed homosexuality – not that I’m particularly puritan, but I was expecting winks and nudges, a sly glance toward the camera, rather than the direct dealing Vidal gives us.  Not to say that they’re particularly joyful treatments (it was the 1950s, after all), but interesting to see such plain explorations of gay themes from that era.

The highlight of the collection by an absolutely mile is “The Zenner Trophy” – the most realistic and personally accessible of all the stories in the collection. Mr Beckman, a teacher dealing with his own heavily repressed homosexuality, is charged with expelling the star athlete of an elite boys highschool over some severe, unnamed breach of conduct – later revealed to be a relationship with another student. The boy in question, Flynn, has a refreshing self-assurance and lack of shame – “‘I still don’t see why what I want to do should ever be anybody’s business except my own… after all it doesn’t affect anybody else, does it?'” – a confidence which leads to uncomfortable realisations for the repressed Mr Beckman – “…he hated Flynn for reminding him of the long and tedious journey ahead, down an endless, chalk-smelling corridor where each forward step took him ever farther away from this briefly glimpsed design within a lilac day.” (p.73)

Gore Vidal’s biographer Jay Parini described Vidal’s books as “all acts of solo talking… whether it’s the voice of Burr or the voice of Lincoln, that’s just Gore talking. It’s Gore’s tone… So Gore has the one voice, but he puts different clothes or costumes on the character, but it’s just core… he’s not a real novelist like E.M. Forster, [who could] really tell a story and create dramatic tension and follow a theme.” (The ‘Degenerate’ Genius of Gore Vidal). I agree that there was a certain dramatic something lacking at times, and I’m interested to see how this plays out in his longer novels, but with a voice as interesting as Vidal’s, his constant presence might be sin worth overlooking.

While all of the stories might not be roaring, overwhelming successes, there’s enough lovely moments in each to make it a book well worth reading.

His own voice this summer had assumed the resonance of manhood, to the mild alarm of his uncle and aunt who had taken to studying him nervously, tentatively, as though afraid perhaps that, through some freak mutation, a barbarian had appeared among them, sprung from the discarded child’s body of their nephew to disrupt their gentle Christian circle with pagan deeds and sudden violence. (Clouds and Eclipses, p. 151)

“Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct…”

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Lord, what a fantastic opening line. I’ve had Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway sitting unread on my shelf for far too many years, so with all this unemployed time on my hands and a dear friend who references it with some frequency (Alex, of Town&Cooking fame – proving he has excellent taste in writing and also writes excellently about taste), I decided it was high time to get the damn book read.

All I knew going in was that it follows Clarissa Dalloway during a single day in June 1923, as she prepares for a party she’s to throw that evening. I was so surprised once I finally got into it to find that it is so, so much more than that (obviously that’s a lie – I’ve read other of Woolf’s books, so I knew what I was getting myself into, but… you know what I mean.)

Clarissa’s narrative is closely shadowed by that of Septimus Warren Smith, a decorated World War I veteran suffering severe shell shock, with their paths crossing throughout the day, both characters haunted by the same Shakespere quote from Cymbeline, their troubles with unarticulated homosexual desires, their mental health at serious stake.

Clarissa on p. 6 -“She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged… she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. … Did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?”

cf. Septimus on p. 81 – “The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes. But why should he kill himself for their sakes? Food was pleasant; the sun hot; and this killing oneself, how does one set about it, with a table knife, uglily, with floods of blood, – by sucking a gaspipe?…Besides, now that he was quite alone, condemned, deserted, as those who are about it die are alone, there was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know.”

I always try to read a handful of reviews or reflections on books as I finish them, and while I loved some of the tidbits on Mrs Dalloway at 88, I don’t think I agree with the claim that “[Woolf] shows us that Clarissa is a shallow, silly woman who has little to show for her fifty-two years,” – I think it’s quite a disservice to both Clarissa and Woolf to minimise and dismiss her at such.  Clarissa at the time of the book is deeply self-conscious of her social role, of her intellect, of both her public and self-image – but this self-consciousness is not a new thing, with her recalling, “…the perfect hostess [Peter] called her (she had cried over it in her bedroom), she had the makings of the perfect hostess, he said.” (p. 5). Clarissa is being treated for depression and dealing with unarticulated and unrequited love – for her husband, for the returned Peter Walsh, and “the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally… not like one’s feeling for a man.” (p. 28)

Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it – a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling! – when old Joseph and Peter faced them:
“Star-gazing?” said Peter.
It was like running one’s face against a granite wall in the darkness! (p. 30)

There’s very few breaks within the book, frustrating when trying to find a convenient spot to stop to go to sleep, but which make such delightful sense when you realise that the book is broken into 12 sections, one section for each hour of the day the book covers.

The book is written in seamless stream of consciousness, weaving the internal thoughts, reflection on past and present of about 20 characters. Internal speech interests me a lot, and Woolf does it very, very well. I love reading about projects on internal speech, so it was quite fun to find Mrs Dalloway referenced in this article about Andrew Irving’s internal speech projects.

The book is lovely, tense, nostalgic, frequently sad. In one introduction to the book, Carol Ann Duffy writes that “[Mrs Dalloway] is a vivid reminder to us, should we need one, that some of our best poets have written in prose.” Unnecessary, but wonderful to be reminded anyway.

One might fancy that day, the London day, was just beginning. Like a woman who had slipped off her print dress and white apron to array herself in blue and pearls, the day changed, put off stuff, too gauze, changed to evening , and with the same sigh of exhilaration that a woman breathes, tumbling petticoats on the floor, it too shed dust, heat, colour; the traffic thinned; motor cars, tinkling, darting, succeeding the lumber of vans; and here and there among the thick foliage of the squares an intense light hung. I resign, the evening seemed to say, as it paled and faded above the battlements and prominences, moulded, pointed, of hotel, flat, and block of shops, I fade, she was beginning, I disappear, but London would have none of it, and rushed her bayonets into the sky, pinioned her, constrained her to partnership in her revelry. (p. 143)