Jack Holmes and his Friend – Edmund White

JHAHFMost people in our group found it very readable. Some observed that the book has an interesting structure. The first part is classic White but he goes astray when the narrator changes person and he writes about things about which he knows less. However, one person really loved the second section where this happens. Some of this section echoes John Irving’s In One Person (and Irving does appear in the acknowledgements).

There’s a better study of obsession in Alan Holinghurst’s The Folding Star.

I enjoyed reading this book (twice) and it still amazes me how English attitudes are way ahead of those in America. I need reminding that many Americans come from small, remote, farms whereas the majority of brits now live in cities and so they encounter a wide variety of views.

Jack is a believable character. Because he doesn’t want to face up to his sexuality he keeps promising that he won’t ‘do it again’. He regards his sexuality as “a vice, a mental illness’. I like Jack and want to know what will happen to him and how things will turn out.

When Jack becomes promiscuous, his internalised homophobia makes him regard all hi8s partners as in some way less than normal, flawed. He can’t date anyone as this shows commitment and he wants to remain a libertine.

He confirms a hunch that many share – that gay men tend to have larger ‘equipment’ than straights because those so endowed get adulation from other men and they continue to seek this until it becomes habitual. Also that gay men give better head than women.

Is there meant to be a double-entendre in ‘Will was the cunning loser with his bland caginess, his refusal to take a stand.’?

Those who keep check of their stocks and shares will appreciate: “I write annual reports for corporations. They’re too para­lyzed by bureaucracy to write them for themselves, so I have a freelance business—”

“But what are they?” Pia asked, sounding fastidious, as if she’d found a mouse paw in the compote.

Before I could answer, Jack said, “They’re these glossy pam­phlets sent to the stockholders explaining why the company’s losses are a good thing. I get them at Newsweek all the time. The law forces companies to make a full disclosure, but these four-color photos and carefully worded bromides are designed to throw dust in everyone’s eyes.”

One reviewer asked it believable that Jack would spy on Will in the toilet. Well, if he was that desperate, then yes.

Jack says that he never remembers his dreams and then proceeds to tell his psychiatrist about one of them. He has kept his sexuality from one of his friends and yet suddenly starts telling her about it as if she had always known.

I am not sure whether this description has much literary merit: She shone like an ingot in the banklike majesty of this room; the light outside had just faded, and the gold bead curtains came to life, strafed by the electric lights projected up onto them.

“It seems funny just to say hi in this room,” I said. “It feels like we should be hammering out the Treaty of Versailles or something.”

 There’s an odd spelling mistake on p. 85 where a joss stick is called a ‘doss’ stick. Maybe some sort of Freudian slip thinking of hippies.

I have to look up ‘pseudopod’ on p. 188 and was none the wiser. Also axonometric.

There’s pretentious language: a ship in a bottle is described as being in a ‘vitrine’.

And what is this talk of ‘days in purgatory?’ Years, surely.

I really got annoyed in the second half of the book, where it changes narrators, and Will says to himself ‘thought to self – that is a good idea for a story’ – sometimes three times on the same page.

There is some insight into full body organisms which only a gay man like the author, certainly not straight Will, could know about: In marriage I’d had a mouth for kissing and a penis for intercourse and ears to be whispered into, but now in concubinage my whole body had come alive and was glowing and yearning for more……Alex’s father might be a dynamic lawyer, but he obviously had a body that was 90 percent numb below the neck. I could tell how in­sensitive it was; I’d seen him at the Larchmont Yacht Club in a swimsuit. He could have lost a leg to a shark and felt nothing. Body armoring. A Charlottesville friend of mine, Edith, who was seeing a shrink, a follower of Wilhelm Reich, talked about “body armoring” all the time. The theory was that you hid your feelings and they got lodged in your muscles—which must have been why my shoulders ached. Edith had said that when her shrink manipulated her muscles, he would release the pain stored in them and she would sob. Pia never made me cry, but she did awaken me, unlock all those emotions….. (Or is this a clunky stereotype – men are less in touch with their bodies than women?)

The adultery guilt is well told – going to confession to a deaf priest, getting crabs and trying to find an excuse in case you’ve passed it on to your wife.

I just loved hearing of the fear straight men have in locker rooms: One guy at work started lift­ing weights and wearing his shirts tapered. We never let up on him. He admitted that he was expecting women to flirt with him now that he’d gotten in shape, but as he told us red-faced a month later, after many drinks, his only true admirers were ho­mos at the gym. He couldn’t change into his shorts in the locker room without first wrapping a towel around his waist because these two persistent fairies kept buzzing around him, hoping for a peep at his peter.

“Let ’em see it,” we drunkenly shouted. “Then they’ll lose interest!”

“Fuck you!” he bellowed. “I’d never shake them. Not after they saw what a real man was made of.”

The old gay man’s contempt for gaylib rings true to that generation.

I agreed with the sentiment that straight men become effeminised on marrying – the women choose the wallpaper.

I liked the idea that Pia’s brains were the size of golfballs.

Also the difference in the way gay and straight split up: “That shows what bad heterosexual values you both have.”

“How so?”

“Straight people, as soon as they’ve broken up, it’s off with their heads.”

“And gays?”

“We stay friends. Why invest so much energy and time in an­other person and then just cut him out of your life forever? That’s the nasty, brutish way straights behave.”

“But it doesn’t mean anything to you gay guys—it’s all just a joke for you.”

“Not a joke,” Jack insisted. “We’ve invested so much—” “Invested! But you’re defending your investments like a dry goods merchant.”

“And why do you straights gladly throw over everything you’ve achieved?”

“Love,” I said, “isn’t an achievement. It’s like a sonata. Once you’ve finished playing it, nothing remains. Not even sounds in the air.”

“There are marks on the page someone else can follow,” he said.

JHAHF2 And the gay man who admits that he is ageing and than there is more to life than playing the stud: He was always expecting his real life to begin in another year or two. He hadn’t worked out the details, but he vaguely hoped that suddenly he’d be doing different, better work and living in another city far away with new, superior people, even a perfect lover. Strangely enough, when he pictured that lover, he was an older man, not his type at all but someone who might be a lively companion. When he wasn’t in heat or bored or afraid to be alone, he deplored his relentless sex drive. He started to do vol­unteer work for St. Luke’s in the Village; they provided free shel­ter for the local bums, but they needed someone to stay awake and supervise the men lest they steal from one another. One night every two weeks Jack would sit on top of a ladder and survey the loud, sleeping men, or he’d patrol the aisles between the beds. He thought he was no better than they were, except that his addiction was more or less compatible with holding down a job.

He liked the idea of volunteering and doing charity work. He enjoyed going to benefits for the church. He recognized that he had a natural gift for getting along with old rich ladies. He thought they were cute, and even a very grand doyenne of society never intimidated him. He started beaming the minute they began talking together, and he would touch her elbow or even her waist. A few drew back in horror, but most of them liked his physical warmth. He could be very soothing. No one quite knew who he was, but he fell into that vague category of “extra men,” those creatures with good manners, nice clothes, respectable jobs, and no obvious moral flaws. They could be counted on to fill out a table or cut in at a dance. Husbands trusted their wives to them for a night out at the opera or an outing to the Village in search of antiques. Everyone assumed that most of the extra men above a certain age were gay or pathologically sin­gle, but no one wanted to talk about these drawbacks too openly. For one thing, it was very agreeable for a sexagenarian lady to have a handsome, well-groomed younger man flirt with her—why dispel that pleasant mystery?

This, from Will, is true and needs to be told: “I hate the way Europeans think that puritanism explains ev­erything about America. Anyway, what they mean is prudish, not puritanical. There’s no reason to imagine that the puritans were that prudish. I’d like to write a pamphlet in praise of puritan­ism that would be handed out on every plane bound for America and would explain that it was the puritans who thought up universal free and compulsory education and prison reform and abolitionism.”

The best quotation of all: “At your age it’s hard to believe, but you’ll find out that in the end that’s all anyone has, family.”

Palmer said, “That’s the most depressing thing you’ve ever said.”

And who gets STDS? Not who you think.

JHAHF3 Quotations:

“I just love musicals. I identify with the waitress in The Most Happy Fella. Oh my feet, my poor feet.”

“She knew what I wanted and apparently wasn’t afraid of it”

“Isn’t it strange how heterosexuals see competition and rivals everywhere?”

“excessively pliable”, “a ‘nice’ boy who knew how to please others”

“a Princeton luster”

“with a woman you could have a real relationship conducted in the sunlight, whereas this homo thing was just slithering around in the shadows”

“They’d throw it over one shoulder and burp it and weep.”

“canine rapture”

“this blend of patchouli and boy mud was the most intoxicating scent, the true smell of modernity”

“hold my cock at the base like a throttled child, and to lick the head with thorough care, almost (to change the image) as if it were a doll’s head that she was painting with her tongue, determined to cover every last centimetre”.

“[the]  beat movement was just winding down and the hippies were emerging”—a time when “[knowing] that someone was queer could place him at your mercy and, if you blabbed about it, could cost him his job.”

“I’d come back to the Northern Review after many years away, and even the old people on the staff were too young to have ever known me …. Someone—maybe it was me—had killed two young men …..
Dr. Adams lowered herself into the bathysphere, the better to be laved by the unconscious. When she reemerged, her mouth smoking, she said, “I think the two young dead men in this dream are you and Will. It’s your younger, neurotic selves who are dying off to be replaced by—who knows? It’s a hopeful dream.
His ribs were as visible as hands around a cup.”

“I’d rather come back with a few transcendent memories than an album of snapshots.”

return to the home page

The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst

TFS2This book, his second novel, appeared six years after Hollinghurt’s first book “The Swimming Pool Library”. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize (he later won it with “The Line of Beauty”) and is often on the list of the Greatest Ever Gay novels.

In its Flemish central location (an amalgam of Bruges and Gent?), Edward follows Luc, the teenager with whom he is obsessed, and later, a couple of friends on their weekend in France.

Edward Manners took up the position as private tutor in English to a couple of boys. Marcel is the son of an expert in the fictitious painter Orst. Manners, who is in his early thirties, tells of his own background and friends, including his early sexual exploits with boys at school and on the common.

Like his forerunner von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (who obsesses over the beautiful Tadzio), and the artist Orst, Edward is a lover of beauty, not a lover of people, and people’s beauty is fleeting. Thus the disappearance of Jane Byron, Orst’s beautiful model, and later of Luc, Edward’s version of Tadzio, represents how cruel life can be to those who worship at Beauty’s altar.

Although he is narcissistic and self-absorbed, he is conscious of it in a way that seems truthful and can be comically endearing. His voice mixes slangy colloquialisms with high-flown, precise notation, perfectly echoing his own, shifting milieu, from bourgeois dinner parties and conversations about high art to bottom-rung porn, telephone sex and rough trade – and his experience of the exquisite, almost metaphysical glow of love, to the carnality of raw lust. In one pathetically poignant scene, he spies on Luc sunbathing, ravishing every tiny detail of his body, while being masturbated himself by one of his lovers.

Marcel’s father takes a close interest in Edward, and enlists him in his compilation of the catalogue of Orst’s work, and much of the novel dwells on the artist, his life and his work. But we also follow Edward as he makes new friends, including Chrerif who becomes his lover, and the enigmatic and insular Matt with his interesting and inventive ways of making money.

The Maeterlinck Museum is probably the model for the Orst Museum.

Half-way through, Manners must suddenly return home briefly to England, and thereupon his history prior to taking up his teaching post in Belgium is related. The glimpses we are then given into Manners’s very Home Counties middle-class and typically-English domestic and public-school life provide a kind of psychological “justification” for narrator’s irrational fixation.

Symbolism forms the sub-text: the narrator’s first love was named Dawn and the object of his Flemish obsession is called Luc(ifer), the Morning, Evening, Falling, Folding Star – otherwise known as the planet Venus.

Echoing a stereotype, one reviewer asks: Is Hollinghurst embracing the plight of the modern lonely Homosexual? Is this the essence of the lonely Gay? Is some dejected creature trying to elevate his sense of self-worth by gaining acceptance from other more worthy men? Is he reaching for self-acceptance by seeing himself united with the manifestations of his young self? Perhaps it is this conflict that many men face and try to conquer?

Why is Hollinghurst obsessed by posh people?


‘I couldn’t help thinking back . . . to the naked prefect he had been . . . the blue veins that ran over his upper arms, the idle beauty of his big cock and balls. Not for the first time I thought what an excellent homosexual he would have made . . . There was always something lacking in those men who had never had a queer phase as boys.’

the darker sense of stepping already along the outward edge of youth, and looking back at those who were truly young with unwelcome eagerness and regret.”

“not knowing if further waiting was merely adding to the tally of lost time or if it was the essential prelude to a pleasure that would be all the greater for the falterings of hope that came before it.”

“Part of the misery of swimming was that you couldn’t do it in glasses;”

he darker sense of stepping already along the outward edge of youth, and looking back at those who were truly young with unwelcome eagerness and regret.

like rivalrous old men friends who fought you for the conversational advantage.

I knew there had been a good deal of boredom and pretence, he hadn’t perhaps been interesting to me in himself, and yet I also knew he was the motor of my grandest feelings and most darting thoughts, the ground bass to those first intense improvisations. At moments I felt lonely with him; at others, never so excitedly at peace. And what had there been since then? Nothing quite the same. Everything in some way melancholy, frantic or foredoomed.

after a term with our A-level texts we were recycling alexandrines and spoke with a marked sense of the caesura.

not knowing if further waiting was merely adding to the tally of lost time or if it was the essential prelude to a pleasure that would be all the greater for the falterings of hope that came before it.

return to the home page