As with the author of Guapa, the book we read in October, the author visited the city to give a talk, previous to our meeting, which once again provided us with some valuable insights to the book and the author.
The book divided opinion on this occasion, but there was no particularly enthusiastic response to it.
Perhaps unusually, a supporting character, Mitko, the protagonist’s sexual interest, provided more of a talking point than the lead character. However, whilst one member commented that they felt the lead character seemed sad by the end of the novel, another admitted to feeling very sad for Mitko by the end; that they felt sorry for him.
The dynamic between the the foreign teacher and his hustler associate, with, as one member noted, his coterie of clients, was poignant and an almost constant throughout the story. Yet it was commented that the power between the two characters remained unexplored and was notably absent in the descriptions of their sexual encounters, which lacked detail and clarity of who did what to whom.
Although their relationship was, at it’s very base a sexual and financial transaction, both characters seem inexplicably drawn to each other and their relationship is limited, by and large, to an ongoing series of transactions. One member voiced his lack of understanding of why the lead was involved with Mitko, asking “was it love or lust, or something else”? Considering the numerous suggestions of and allusions to Mitko’s violent temperament, it appears that the teacher may be attracted by the danger.
One member felt the interaction between the lead character and Mitko was interesting, but that the main bulk of the story detracted from that part of the story, that the main narrative was perhaps a distraction to the meatier side story.
With one member proclaiming Miko to be “a blackmailing shit”, another felt they warmed to to the character as the story progressed. Another chipped in that they found Mitko to be “vile and not even attractively so”.
Our proclaimer went as far as suggesting that the character of Mitko was the cause of them not enjoying the book, or that he made the book “bad”. They added that they were “appalled” by their inability to read the novel, which he did so in fits and starts as a result.
They did however concede that there were bits of the novel that appealed, such as the bus trip taken by the teacher to a city neighbouring Sofia, for the purpose of obtaining treatment for an STI. Another noted about the trip that the hospital staff treated their patient, who was quite open about his homosexuality, like filth. There was general surprise that he would be treated in such way in 2012, when the novel was set.
The lack of a homosexual nucleus for the lead character was highlighted. In the group’s previous novel, Guapa, the protagonist and his circle of friends congregated and sought refuge in the liberal and accepting titular bar, whereas the setting of this novel contained no gay scene or any other gay characters. As such, it was felt we didn’t learn anything of the culture or politics of Bulgarian gay society; perhaps due to both lead characters being quite isolated. This was perhaps borne out of the notable sense of shame which runs through the novel.
The amount of Bulgarian the author includes in the book was raised. A member, who attended the recent talk with the author, mentioned that he was interested how the sound of the Bulgarian language appeared to non-speakers. He believed the cadences of the language couldn’t be successfully translated, so included Bulgarian in the novel to illustrate that point.
There was appreciation of the author’s distinction between ‘you’ in the formal and informal sense of the term, which added an interest to the linguistics of the book.
That the story was told in the first person was commended, as the reader never knew what the other characters thought. It was claimed that it would have been a completely different novel had it been told by an omniscient narrator. The long passages used by the author were frustrating to some, while others didn’t enjoy the writing style as a whole the author employed.
A member felt it reminded him of a Hollinghurst novel, feeling that the author was trying to convey consciousness. Another likened it to Mann’s Death in Venice.
For some members, who read the novel for the second time, felt it made more of an impression the second time around, as there was a lot in the novel which can easily be missed.
Whilst some enjoyed the novel, with one adding that not all of it was good, some felt it was very much a ‘first novel’ and not great, but they did enjoy reading it. However others felt a lot more strongly about it, with someone stating that they just didn’t care about the novel; that it failed to make him care.
The three part structure of the novel drew criticism. One member found the second part of the novel difficult to follow. But it was thought that was the author’s intention; being a very traumatic time for the lead character. Another made reference to the “list” part of the novel as “utterly boring” describing it as completely different to the other two parts of the novel. Another added that the third part of the novel was self-conscious and another described it as “something to love or loathe”.
A member who attended the talk with the author stated that the author had been interesting, but added that they don’t know what he might write next.
The title comes from Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’
Greenwell wrote the novel while teaching in Bulgaria himself, though he says the book is fiction and “the narrator is not me”.
Greenwell is unabashedly a “queer writer”, one who is interested in articulating a specifically gay experience.
Cruising has been central in my life since I was 14 years old. It was the first gay community I found in the pre-global internet in Louisville, Kentucky, where I grew up. I do think “community” is the right word for those places, which have not disappeared. When I found this cruising bathroom in Bulgaria where the novel begins, I immediately knew what it was. I barely spoke Bulgarian, but I descended into this place, and I suddenly had a complete fluency.
The latest proof of Greenwell’s genuine interest in Bulgaria’s reality is called Mitko – an award-winning novella about the romantic relationship between two men, who meet in the bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture and travel emotionally between desire and intimidation all the way to a hotel room in the Black Sea city of Varna.
In its article, “Of LGBT, Life and Literature,” the Sofia Echo credits Greenwell’s publications with bringing much needed attention to the LGBT experience in Bulgaria and to other English-speaking audiences through various broadcasts, interviews, blog posts, and reviews
What Belongs to You really started with a place. I moved to Bulgaria in 2009 and spent four years there, teaching high school at the American College of Sofia. Bulgaria is a fascinating, beautiful, difficult country, and I fell in love with it. I think the spark of the novel came from the weird experience I kept having there of foreignness and familiarity. On the one hand, my first months in Sofia were a time of intense disorientation: I had never been to that part of the world before; I could barely speak the language; everything seemed strange to me. At the same time, though, and especially as I started meeting gay men and exploring queer communities, both online and in person, I found myself forcefully reminded of my adolescence in Kentucky in the early 1990s. This was especially true of the cruising places I found in Sofia, where all the sudden I found I could communicate fluently: all the codes I learned as a kid cruising the parks in Louisville were the same in Sofia. And when I started to talk to gay men in their thirties and forties, I found they said many of the same things that I heard gay men that age say when I was an adolescent. It seemed to me that there was a similar horizon of possibility, a similar set of assumptions about the world and what it offered.
A Grave – stream of consciousness – a very long chapter – 56 pages. The middle section, “A Grave,” is a departure both from the character of Mitko and from the style of the rest of the novel. Some news from home triggers a flood of memories and associations that the narrator experiences while he walks through the Bulgarian city where he lives. While the first and last sections are concerned with action as it unfolds.
“A Grave” came very much as a surprise. I wasn’t intending to write it—I had ideas for other things I wanted to work on. But then, one hot day when I was walking around Mladost, the part of Sofia where I lived, I was seized by a voice that demanded I follow it. I really don’t know how else to put it, and I haven’t had an experience quite like that before or since. It was a really angry, importunate energy, and I remember I went to coffee shop and started writing on the backs of receipts, on scraps of paper—on trash, really. I wrote the first draft very quickly, and it ended up being a long block paragraph, much longer in that first version than it is in the book. I stuck it in a drawer and couldn’t look at it for more than a year; it made me nauseous to think about it. Once I could look at it again, I rewrote it by hand several times, something that I didn’t do with the other sections of the book. It was really hell to write. And as I said before, it wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realized how it was responding to the story told in “Mitko” (and later continued in “Pox”), that the exploration of the narrator’s childhood was a way to try to investigate some of the weird things about him, especially in his approach to intimacy, the way he seems to disclose everything while actually hiding a great deal of himself away. I think the middle section is the part of the book where the narrator is most vulnerable and available. And I hope the block paragraph format gives a sense of the simultaneity of his memories, how he’s thrown back and forth between various times: his early childhood, his adolescence, the landscape he’s walking through and the landscape he has fled.
The only character who is fully named in the book is Mitko, and even he isn’t given a full name: Mitko is a nickname, short for Dimiter, and his family name is never disclosed. In the first scene the narrator is stripped of his own name, when we learn that Mitko can’t pronounce it, that it’s unpronounceable in Bulgarian. I wanted Mitko to be the only character in the book with a name, which felt to me like a kind of spotlight illuminating him throughout the book. Like a spotlight, it felt like a way of giving him a kind of privilege, of foregrounding him and making him the most vivid thing on the page. And, again like a spotlight, it’s also a kind of vulnerability: he’s stripped of a protection, or the semblance of a protection, other characters are afforded.
In the novel’s final section, “Pox,” the narrator has overcome some of his internal hurdles and formed a healthier relationship with a man from Portugal called R. At the same time, he can’t quite let go of Mitko — or is it that Mitko will not let go of him? Greenwell poignantly evokes the narrator’s inability to resist the draw of Mitko’s erratic neediness. Much (but not all) of the sexual charge of their relationship has dissipated for the narrator, yet a mysterious feeling of responsibility for Mitko’s increasingly grim fate remains.
From the author, whom some of us met recently: For him, this is related to being asked repeatedly whether he would consider himself to be a “gay writer”. This, he understands, is a fraught question for many writers, who for decades have been told “if you write books centred on queer lives, where the gay guy isn’t just one strand, or a friend, then there are straight people for mainstream readers to identify with – but if a book really is centred on gay lives, you’ll be in this gay ghetto”.
But, he says, he has never accepted that – in fact, he thinks quite the reverse. “Absolutely I am a gay writer. And not only that, I want to tell gay stories about gay communities for gay readers, because I think that this incredible progress that queer people have made in things such as marriage equality have come at the cost of a mainstreaming narrative that has homogenised queer lives in a way that has sacrificed far too much and, tragically, has further marginalised the most vulnerable members of the queer community.”
He talks further about marriage equality as “really a marketing battle: it was about packaging queer lives in a way that allowed the value of those lives to be seen by people who are disgusted by queer lives” – although his point is also that this is probably an inevitable and necessary stage that any minority rights movements has to go through. Where that becomes problematic, he insists, is when those at the edge of the movement become further distanced, as when human rights campaigners “at their rallies in front of the supreme court in support of marriage equality, said, Oh trans person get off the stage.”
Ultimately, he says, “any project of liberation has to have as its goal the multiplication of legitimate models of life”.
much in the book turns on the gaps between English and Bulgarian, and in particular the word priyatel, which Mitko deploys to mean friend, boyfriend and client. Some of it is structural: while the narrator appears to control the story, and we are never granted direct access to Mitko’s consciousness, Greenwell shows enough to allow us to empathise with him. It is a novel of transactions, of inequalities, and of fine moral judgments; the narrator, it is clear, could leave Bulgaria whenever he wished, while Mitko, who becomes increasingly frail, is trapped.
Reviews by two who couldn’t attend the discussion:
This book has been heavily trailed on the social media circles I hang around; twitter, Facebook etc of writers I tend to follow.
I found the mid-way switchback to his early life an unwelcome distraction; it was clunky and seemed to hold the story up for me. I understand that this book had originally been a novel and I suspect that this was bit stitched in. I’m not sure that worked.
I did like visceral nature of the attraction, which drew then together and continued to hold them together. I think that was a good reason, but I then felt the descriptions of the sexual attractions could have been even more visceral.
I was often asking myself how old the American was, I imagined older, but not so much older, and I’m sure the writer was trying to steer away form it just being an age thing…as there was foreigner/local, richer/poorer, seller/buyer thing going on. He explored those things but not age, interesting decision.
As the world becomes smaller and less friendly (e.g. Russia) to westerners and especially gay men the exploration of this subject (the western gay man abroad) and his loves and losses I think are an interesting area for gay writers.
I think this was a very good first novel, better than Guapa I think.
I enjoyed the pace of this book, and the rich descriptions and vocabulary. I went back and reread the first section I had enjoyed it so much but felt I had missed details from the first reading: I wanted to slow down and immerse myself more in the atmosphere of the book. I enjoyed the reread.
I loved the character of Mitko, and felt like he was real and present. This was unsettling by the end of the book when I realised I actually knew very little about him. We were seeing Mitko through the experience of the narrator and I felt a lot of empathy with his superficial knowledge of Mitko. The development of their relationship was fascinating and the rich writing helped me feel immersed and close to it. I felt the desire and the need to have a human connection, but how this was not going to be successful. It was a simple set up, and a complex emotional relationship that I hope you get a chance to discuss.
The book ended bleakly and with little hope. The beautiful, confident Mitko was almost at his end, the narrator was alone in a difficult foreign country, isolated from his mother and his new partner and seemingly not further on than when the book started. I saw no happy ending for him either.
SUMMARY: I loved this book: I found it a strong experience emotionally (even though the characters were not deeply emotional) and I really enjoyed the writing (I know some of you didn’t).
It wasn’t all great though:
The Bulgarian words thrown in became annoying and self-indulgent. Early on this did help establish that the narrator was struggling with the language and the culture. I would have phased out most of these after the first 1/4 of the book.
At times the descriptive and detailed writing got a bit wearing: e.g. the bus trip to the out of town hospital and the fly: Why?
I was there not as guard but as audience. I was there to see how different from me he was.”
“You disgust me, he said, do you know that, you disgust me, how could you be my son?”
“I wouldn’t answer, I wouldn’t see my father again, I wouldn’t mourn him or pour earth on him.”
Even as I descended the stairs I heard his voice, which like the rest of him
was too large for those subterranean rooms, spilling out of them as if to climb
back into the bright afternoon that, though it was mid-October, had nothing
autumnal about it; the grapes that hung ripe from vines throughout the city
burst warm still in one’s mouth.
As I knelt there, still tasting the metallic trace of sink water from his skin, I felt my anger lifting as I realized that my pleasure wasn’t lessened by his absence, that what was surely a betrayal (we had our contract, though it had never been signed, never set in words at all) had only refined our encounter, allowing him to become more vividly present to me even as I was left alone on my stained knees and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.
Suddenly I was enraged for him, I felt the anger I was sure he must feel that futile anger like a dry grinding of gears. But from a distance Mitko didn’t seem to feel anything at all; these were only my own thoughts, I knew, they brought me no nearer him, this man I had in some sense loved and who had never in the years I had known him been anything but alien to me.
I understood his desire to be naked before the world, his madness, as he says, to be in contact with it. I even felt something of that desire myself, though it was nothing like madness for me, in my life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.
how helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived.”
“…always I feel an ambivalence that spurs me first in one direction and then another, a habit that has done much damage.”
I said, come on, tasting him and tugging at his shoulders. He tried at first to put me off again, he said we could take our time, the night was long; he was counting on a place to spend that night, and no doubt had experienced hospitality withdrawn by men whose desire dissolved immediately to disgust.
He did speak of the terrible boredom he felt in the hospital, where he was confined to a bed, without a computer or even a television for distraction, since the one mounted in his room would only play if fed constantly with coins. Nor were books or magazines a diversion, since he read Cyrillic with difficulty; he had left school in the seventh grade, and was more comfortable with the Latin characters used in Internet chat rooms.
But he was still detached, he kept glancing at the television, and when I asked him what was wrong he just shrugged and answered that he had already had sex that afternoon, which seemed like a breach of contract, though I suppose I had no real basis for complaint.
It’s not like there were that many of them, she said, seeing the dismay I felt, I didn’t even have sex with all of them, I just liked being with them, I liked the attention. I don’t know why I cringed at her stories, when I had done so much worse at her age, having sex in parks and bathrooms, dangerous and indiscriminate sex; but I was troubled that her history seemed to parallel my own, that we shared what I had thought of as my own gnawing affliction. And I knew she would outgrow the satisfactions she had found, that soon she would desire other and more intense experiences, drawn forward by those appetites we share, that humiliating need that has always, even in my moments of apparent pride, run alongside my life like a snapping dog.
It would be years before my father spoke the words that finally severed the bond between us, but there were no more showers or games. Nor could I find anywhere else the closeness I had taken for granted: the friends I turned to were scared off by the need I felt for them, and soon the best I could hope for was their indifference.
“As I walked along that path,
I felt drawn from myself, elated,
struck stupidly good for a moment
by the extravagant beauty of the world.”
“I fell back from him then, I lay next to him thinking, as I had had cause to think before, of how helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived.”
“You can’t speak to him, he said, if you speak to him, if you give any sign to him at all, he will come back; he has to stop existing for you.”
“What would it mean to do enough, I wondered, as I had wondered before about that obligation to others that sometimes seems so clear and sometimes disappears altogether, so that now we owe nothing, anything we give is too much, and now our debt is beyond all counting.”
“He had always been alone, I thought, gazing at a world in which he had never found a place and that was now almost perfectly indifferent to him; he was incapable even of disturbing it, of making a sound it could be bothered to hear.”
“the poorly typed lines, the symbols and abbreviations of Internet chat that make such language seem so much like a process of decay. As”
“There was something in his manner of seduction, no show of desire at all; what he offered was a transaction, and again he showed no disappointment when reflexively and without hesitation I said no to him. It was the answer I had always given to such proposals (which are inevitable in the places I frequent), not out of any moral conviction but out of pride, a pride that had weakened in recent years, as I realized I was being shifted by the passage of time from one category of erotic object to another.”
“I realized that my pleasure wasn’t lessened by his absence, that what was surely a betrayal (we had our contract, though it had never been signed, never set in words at all) had only refined our encounter, allowing him to become more vividly present to me even as I was left alone on my stained knees, and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.”
“He caught me and held my gaze without welcome or warmth or any hint of what we had shared, and my sense of having violated something, of having looked where I shouldn’t have faded, as I understood that this was what he wanted me to see all along, that I was there not as guard but as audience. I was there to see how different from me he was, how free of the foulness my father had shown him; and now that I had seen it, I knew our friendship had run its course.”
“But I’m your son, which was my only appeal and the last thing I would say. He made a dismissive sound, almost a laugh, and then he spoke again, with a snarling voice I had never heard before, he said The hell you are. He went on, he spoke without stopping, A faggot, he said, if I had known you would never have been born. You disgust me, he said, do you know that, you disgust me, how could you be my son? As I listened to him say these things it was as though even as I laid claim to myself I found there was nothing to claim, nothing or next to nothing, as though I were dissolving and my tears were the outward sign of that dissolution.”
“I grew up at the height of the AIDS panic, when desire and disease seemed essentially bound together, the relationship between them not something that could be managed but absolute and unchangeable, a consequence and its cause. Disease was the only story anyone ever told about men like me where I was from, and it flattened my life to a morality tale, in which I could be either chaste or condemned. Maybe that’s why, when I finally did have sex, it wasn’t so much pleasure I sought as the exhilaration of setting aside restraint, of pretending not to be afraid, a thrill of release so intense it was almost suicidal.”
“I had been sick before, of course, but this felt more than sickness, like a physical confirmation of shame.”
“That’s all care is, I thought, it’s just looking at a thing long enough, why should it be a question of scale? This seemed like a hopeful thought at first, but then it’s hard to look at things, or to look at them truly, and we can’t look at many at once, and it’s so easy to look away.”
“Sometimes we talked the whole night long, as one does only in adolescence or very early in love. I was happy, but also I felt an anxiety that gnawed at me and for which I could find no cause, that gnawed at me more deeply precisely because I could find no cause.”
“Love isn’t just a matter of looking at someone, I think now, but also of looking with them, of facing what they face.”
“As we joined the line of people getting off at the last stop before Sofia, I looked once more at the little boy, whom I felt I would never forget, though maybe it wasn’t exactly him I would remember, I thought, but the use I would make of him. I had my notes, I knew I would write a poem about him, and then it would be the poem I remembered, which would be both true and false at once, the image I made replacing the real image. Making poems was a way of loving things, I had always thought, of preserving them, of living moments twice; or more than that, it was a way of living more fully, of bestowing on experience a richer meaning. But that wasn’t what it felt like when I looked back at the boy, wanting a last glimpse of him; it felt like a loss. Whatever I could make of him would diminish him, and I wondered whether I wasn’t really turning my back on things in making them into poems, whether instead of preserving the world I was taking refuge from it.”
“… my mother reached over and laid her hand on my arm, saying that was true, … and I felt something twist in me, the motion of some unthinking thing when it is gripped too hard, and I had to resist the urge to pull away.”
“He stopped then, as if he realized he had gone too far, had leaned too hard on the fiction of our relationship and felt the false surface give way.”