What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell


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.

wbty-2From 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.”

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Lust (or No Harm Done) – Geoff Ryman

(lt2Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

The ultimate fantasy? Or a nightmare of self-discovery? Michael Blasco, a young scientist investigating what happens to the brain during the process of learning, suddenly finds himself on the other end of experimentation. On the way home from his lab one night he runs into Tony, a fitness instructor from his gym who he harbors a crush for, on the same platform waiting for the subway. When Michael imagines Tony naked, a pleasant fantasy to spice up a dull journey home, an extraordinary thing happens: Tony strips then and there on the platform and offers himself to Michael in front of all onlookers. Horrified, Michael flees. But back at his apartment, Tony reappears, as if by magic. And disappears again, when Michael wishes him away. Being a scientist, Michael recognizes an experiment when he sees one, and sets out to test the parameters of his newfound gift. In quick succession he conjures up Billie Holliday, Johnny Weismuller, Daffy Duck, Picasso, Sophia Loren, even his younger self.

The world is seemingly there for the taking. But what does Michael really desire? Mad with lust and losing all scientific objectivity, he runs the gamut of his fantasies inventing new lovers and calling up old ones, until, sated and morally bankrupt, he’s forced to confront himself. What happens to the heart when it gets everything it desires?

But when he screws his father – is hat a sort of cross with oedipal complex and ther myth that gays have weak or absent fathers?

lt Quotations:

Then he got up and looked at the curriculum covered by the SAT test, and made a list of American textbooks and thought of joining summer school. And after that there would be nothing to do except loll on the beach all day dreaming of his father. And he would go to the camp, and see his father in the nude, and run with his father and dream with -his father of the life they both wanted to build together.

Driven mad by the imperatives of love, Michael became sure his father wanted the same thing.

As they started the run, Dad slapped Michael’s butt. He looked at Michael in the shower and said, ‘Man, what do you call that thing? Is that a dick? It looks like it belongs on a horse, man!’ His father walked on the pier with an arm on Michael’s shoulder. He hugged him as they watched television.


You don’t want someone real, you don’t want someone made up. Well, love, there’s nothing in between.

So what do you want, Michael?

Love. Again, that’s what I want. Love.

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Specimen Days – Michael Cunningham

sd2(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Three stories, past, present and future, depict three central, semi-consistent character-types: a young boy, a man, and a woman. Walt Whitman’s poetry is also a common thread in each of the three stories, and the title is from Whitman’s own prose works.

In the Machine“, set in mid-to-late 19th Century New York, begins in the aftermath of a wake. Simon, a young man working in a factory had been accidentally sucked into a factory machine which crushed him to death. Due to the poverty present in the lower classes during the Industrial Revolution, Simon’s family sends Lucas, Simon’s disfigured younger brother, to work at the factory in Simon’s place.

Lucas has a strange affliction in which he intermittently and uncontrollably spouts the poetry of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ (Lucas’ favourite book). Walt Whitman was a contemporary of the time and Lucas meets him during the course of the story. Lucas is also concerned Simon has become a ghost and inhabits not only the machine that killed him but all the machines that are becoming commonplace in the city as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

This concern leads Lucas to fear for the life of Catherine, Simon’s bereaved girlfriend. Lucas believes Simon’s ghost may try to inhabit the machines at the factory where Catherine works as a seamstress with a view to take Catherine to the afterlife by killing her through the machine’s function. Lucas embarks on a mission to save Catherine by preventing her from going to work. .

Lucas’ fear of Simon’s ghost is, at the same time, a fear of the Machine and, on a larger scale, the Industrial Revolution in New York City itself. The machines replace humans, even kill them, and the industrial revolution has demeaned the importance of each human individual with its positioning of people as cogs in its own giant machine. In this light, Lucas’ fears and Whitman’s transcendental poetry represent the affirmation of humanity and each individual’s importance.

“The Children’s Crusade” takes place in post-9/11 Manhattan, where Cat, a hardboiled police psychologist who deals with cranks and wannabe assassins, is horrified to discover a secret “family” of pre-teen suicide-bombers. The children blow up their victims at random, using Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as their rationale. When Cat bonds with a 12-year-old bomber who reminds her of her own lost son, Luke, her shallow relationship with futures trader Simon is undermined by yearnings for a pre-industrial utopia.

“Like Beauty” takes place in a post-nuclear future, when New York has been turned into a tawdry theme park. Simon, an android whose programming makes him recite Whitman whenever he’s in danger of feeling human emotion, goes on the run with Catareen, a reptilian alien. Teamed up with Luke, a 12-year-old street kid, they are finally offered escape to a paradisal new planet, but Simon risks losing his place in the spaceship to stay with the woman – or lizard – he loves.

Certain themes recur in each of the three stories in “Specimen Days”: class differences, the difficulty of feeling authentically, quasi-Buddhist notions of rebirth and the afterlife, the exhilarating nightmare of New York City, the dream of escaping New York City.

DonaldTrump is mentioned  – this was written in 2005 before most of us had ever heard of him.


Fear not O Muse! truly new ways and days receive, surround you,

I candidly confess a queer, queer race, of novel fashion,

And yet the same old human race, the same within, without,

Faces and hearts the same, feelings the same, yearning the same,

The same old love, beauty and use the same. —Walt Whitman

“Only at these subdued moments could you truly comprehend that this glittering, blighted city was part of a slumbering continent; a vastness where headlights answered the constellations; a fertile black roll of field and woods dotted by the arctic brightness of gas stations and all-night diners, town after shuttered town strung with streetlights, sparsely attended by the members of the night shifts, the wanderers who scavenged in the dark, the insomniacs with their reading lights, the mothers trying to console colicky babies, the waitresses and gas-pump guys, the bakers and the lunatics.”

“I feel like there’s something terrible and wonderful and amazing that’s just beyond my grasp. I have dreams about it. I do dream, by the way. It hovers over me at odd moments. And then it’s gone. I feel like I’m always on the brink of something that never arrives. I want to either have it or be free of it.”

“He wanted to tell her that he was inspired and vigilant and recklessly alone, that his body contained his unsteady heart and something else, something he felt but could not describe: porous and spiky, shifting with flecks of thought, with urge and memory; salted with brightness, flickerings of white and green and pale gold; something that loved stars because it was made of the same substance.”
“She’s had a long life. Now she’s going to the Lord.”
“Frankly it creeps me out a little when you say things like that,” Simon said.
“It shouldn’t. If you don’t like ‘Lord,’ pick another word. She’s going home. She’s going back to the party. Whatever you like.”
“I suppose you have some definite ideas about an afterlife.”
“Sure. We get reabsorbed into the earthly and celestial mechanism.”
“No heaven?”
“That’s heaven.”
“What about realms of glory? What about walking around in golden slippers?”
“We abandon consciousness as if we were waking from a bad dream. We throw it off like clothes that never fit us right. It’s an ecstatic release we’re physically unable to apprehend while we’re in our bodies. Orgasm is our best hint, but it’s crude and minor by comparison.”
sd-3“Catherine thought Simon was in the locket, and in heaven, and with them still. Lucas hoped she didn’t expect him to be happy about having so many Simons to contend with.”
“A sensation rose in him, a high tingling of his blood. There came a wave, a wind that recognized him, that did not love him or hate him. He felt what he knew as the rising of his self, the shifting innerness that yearned and feared, that was more familiar to him than anything could ever be. He knew that an answering substance gathered around him, emanating from the trees and the stars.

He stood staring at the constellations. Walt had sent him here, to find this, and he understood. He thought he understood. This was his heaven. It was not Broadway or the horse on wheels. It was grass and silence; it was a field of stars. It was what the book told him, night after night. When he died he would leave his defective body and turn into grass. He would be here like this, forever. There was no reason to fear it, because it was part of him. What he’d thought of as his emptiness, his absence of soul, was only a yearning for this.”
“I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end. But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.”
“In heaven, Lucas would be beautiful. He’d speak a language everyone understood.”
“She’d never been religious. She hadn’t allowed grief to send her crawling to the church.”

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The Confessions of AUBREY BEARDSLEY: A Novel by DONALD S. OLSON

tcab2(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

How self-indulgent. If I was his priest I’d insist ion a maximum of one side of A4.

I liked the idea hat he took up drawing as it was subversive his aunt’s puritanism.

But did they have polytechnics in those days?


Mother is merciless. ‘You gave up a headmistress-ship at the Polytechnic ?????

…was our time for fanciful reverie; finally we would see the red-tiled spire of our beloved church high on the hill, and sometimes would even run there.

Yes, there was something slightly illicit about the Annunciation, which of course only added to its charm. Though it was very High Anglican, it reverberated with that quite peculiar and almost aristocratic sympathy one associates with English Roman Catholics.

One felt almost an outlaw going there — an impression heightened by the situation of the church: it was built into a road of small brick and flint houses, and one entered directly from the street, without the hallowing prelude of a porch. The noticeboard outside had for me the glamour of a theatre bill; it listed all the mysterious ceremonies that took place within — nones, compline, confessions.

A sense of renegade superiority reigned within. The church was not old, but the steady chant of an ancient liturgy made it seem so. Architecturally it was eccentric, with a heavy wooden roof like an inverted ship’s hull, and exposed beams and plastered walls that betrayed affinities with the Aesthetic Movement of the sixties and seventies. We loved it, I’m sure, for its beauty — or what we saw as beauty then. The Pre-Raphaelites had left the artistic stamp of their respectability in the east window, where a dusky blue panel of the Annunciation by Rossetti was flanked by a couple of Burne-Jones designs executed by William Morris. I would direct my gaze towards those panels with their lead outlines and stare until I seemed to merge myself with them. Father Chapman considered the windows as ‘necessary luxuries’, splendid examples of Art serving the greater glory of God.

Father George Chapman, now deceased, was the Annunciation’s priest-in-charge, and there was some quality in him that drew people to the confessional like bees to honey. He was a tall gaunt man, who looked as though he were being consumed by his own spiritual fervour; his pale eyes had the feverish sparkle of a confirmed  …, and one believed him to be party to those secrets whispered only between the dying man and his God.

Mabel and I longed to go to confession. It was too tantalizing, the sight of all those people entering a mysterious cupboard where the sins of the world were whispered, revealed and absolved. I’d watch, fascinated, as the sweetest-looking people in Brighton made their way to that dark closet of repentance. What had they done that was wrong? Why did they feel compelled to confess? I wonder if there may not be something in the determinedly bluff and unemotional English character that secretly craves the luxurious darkness of a confessional, and the voluptuous comfort that comes from admitting guilt and casting off an accumulated load of sin.

You may not have known, Father, that Brighton was the home of the Catholic Revival in England. Yes, in churches throughout the town the oath of Royal Supremacy was being questioned and gorgeous Eucharistic vestments flaunted. The more daring churches even adopted the Eastward Position. Low churches, such as Aunt Pitt attended, were appalled, indignant and intolerant of anything that even suggested that Scarlet Whore, Rome, with all her pomp and finery. The converts to Catholicism were called perverts. Fierce words and fulminations on the subject of Popery were hurled from many a pulpit. But there in the Annunciation we would sit, Mabel and I, for hours on end, morning and evening, intoxicated by the solemn mystical odour of frankincense, the chanted refrains of ancient Latin texts, the intricate rituals of the Mass, and Father Chapman himself, who was publicly dying.

Aunt Pitt, as I have already mentioned, did not permit reading unless it was edifying or instructional. Novels and poetry were incomprehensible to her; for us, they were life, and we were aghast to think that from now on we would be without them. Of course, she was perfectly furious when she discovered that I was hiding a novel that Father Chapman had given me to read, and I had a lot to do to convince her of the story’s elevated moral tone

tcoabthat area between the Strand and Regent sing Soho, St James’s and Whitehall, that most at of our dear British Empire, was in fact nothing more than a walking whorehouse. Men, women, children: everyone was openly for sale.

The strange thing about it was not that it existed, but that it was never. talked about, never written about, and never shown in modern pictures. It did not conform to the Official Version of English Life as seen on the walls of the Royal Academy, and so it was ignored as the material of art. Yet there it was, not so far from the sacred portals of the RA itself: filthy, glamorous, lewd, pestilential, flea-bitten, pox-ridden, utterly criminal; an unseen obscene London that set my pulse hammering and my cock throbbing in nervous sympathetic excitement.

Those teeming London pavements, filled with their sweet, stink­ing, garish assortment of human characters, all going about the business of making money and spending it — all of us living in what Shelley called ‘the dream of life’! Those filthy streets, churned to mud by the incessant crush of omnibuses, drays, cabriolets, broughams, landaus, hansom cabs, fire wagons, funeral carriages; whose crossings were swept by wretched ragged children; whose edges were so variously crowded with men wearing shiny top-hats and costermongers hawking their wares; with rich elegant women unable to dress themselves without a servant’s help sweeping past shivering penniless flower-girls; where clergymen encased in starch and broadcloth rubbed shoulders with ruffians wearing moleskin waistcoats! How I loved the stew of London!

My eyes would meet other eyes — those of a smiling child-minx, no more than ten, yet powdered and rouged like a seasoned whore

— ‘Wanting a bit of company, sir?’; those of a drunken gap-toothed harridan, whispering that she’d lift her skirts in a nearby alley for a glass of gin; those of a half-starved seamstress, whose feverish orbs hopelessly cried out, ‘Save me!’; those of a clever unscrupulous maid, searching restlessly for a male conspirator.

I looked, but never bought, storing up memories to fuel my nocturnal cock-chafings. Yes, there in Pimlico, too, urged on by my friend the Fever, surrounded by my family, I continued my copious outpouring of seed; visions of whores and pretty girls from the halls danced in my head as I pounded my insatiable organ to the spurting froth of its inevitable conclusion.

We chose St Barnabas as our church in Pimlico, not because of its convenience, but because it was the most ritualistic and fashion­able Anglo-Catholic church in the metropolis. St Barnabas, where the ethereal tones of ancient Gregorian chants were heard through a fragrant cloud of incense, provided Mother with a tie to Brighton in the person of the Reverend Alfred Gurney, a former curate at one of her favourite churches there.

I suspect Mother was a little bit in love with Alfred Gurney, the vicar of St Barnabas, but who could blame her? He had a long cleft beard, tender blue eyes, and was immensely rich. He was a man of strong and sudden contrasts, a scholar in church ritual who wore riding breeches under his cassock so that he could take a quick canter in the park whenever the mood struck. He was a spiritualist, an occasional poet, a collector of drawings, and a music-lover who could describe a Wagner concert conducted by Richter with the kind of enthusiastic passion that women found irresistible. He also had the great grace to include us — Mother, Mabel and me — as guests at his sumptuous Sunday luncheon-parties. The Reverend Alfred Gurney’s luncheons were far more inspiring, I must say, than his sermons.

These feasts were held in the Clergy House next door to the church after the late service, and provided us with our first entree into London society. The other guests, all relatives or artistic friends of Mr Gurney, might include his brother Willie, his sister-in-law, his niece, the textile Halifaxes, the Reverend Gerald Sampson and his younger brother Julian, an art dilettante. Since these were all potential patrons, I began to carry with me a portfolio of my latest drawings.

One afternoon the talk at the luncheon-table turned to Rossetti, a collection of whose drawings Mr Gurney owned and proudly displayed on his walls. In years gone by, the Reverend had come to know the Pre-Raphaelite artist and his poetic sister; and that afternoon he began to tell us stories of Rossetti’s last hours — how Rossetti’s lifelong fear of being alone, for instance, was exacerbated in his final illness to the point where he would keep a friend with HIm all through the night, begging him not to leave until dawn, when finally he would be able to sleep; and how even in his last days, unable to rise from his couch, he would feebly stretch out his brush and touch a canvas with it. The luncheon guests reverentially murmured ‘How beautiful!’ to every anecdote, but my secret response was quite different. None of it sounded the least bit beautiful to me; awful, rather, pathetic and terrifying. Where healthy people get the idea that death is beautiful and ennobling, I shall never know.

Afterwards Julian Sampson sidled up to me and asked if I would show him the contents of my portfolio. ‘With pleasure,’ I said, and we found a spot some way off from the others.

Recently I heard rumours that Julian Sampson has fallen prey to one of the many devilish cults that seem to be springing up, as the century wanes, like fetid fungi on the trunk of a decaying tree; even then, eight years ago, he evinced a fascinated interest in a sub rosa world that one could only whisper about at Gurneyesque luncheon-parties. A middle-sized man of great elegance, Julian would have been remarkably good-looking were it not for the slightly degenerate Hanoverian cast to his features. The pampered son of a rich colonel and the grandson of the Comte de Meric de St-Martin, his life had been dedicated to useless pleasures of all sorts. He had studied art, and occasionally wrote on the subject, so I was honoured when he directed his gaze at my drawings.

Thanks to Mr Gurney’s collection of Rossettis, my drawings at that time showed signs of incipient Pre-Raphaelitism, and were mostly concerned with beatific subjects — at least, those drawings that I brought with me to the Clergy House. Other subjects, such as the courtesan Manon Lescaut, and the adulteress Emma Bovary, culled from my secret reading, never accompanied me.

`You have a clever hand,’ said Julian, as he examined my various celestial beings strumming lutes and bearing lilies. ‘I wonder . . He pursed his lips thoughtfully. ‘I wonder if you would be interested in a small commission from me — to do a drawing — but not of any heavenly creature.’ He laughed softly at some private joke. ‘Heavens, no, not heavenly — classical, rather.’

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La Symphonie Pastorale and Isabelle – Andre Gide

lsp(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

A country priest takes into his home a blind orphan with the purpose of educating her, but develops a deep love for her.

The title refers to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (also known as the Pastoral Symphony) which the pastor takes Gertrude to hear. It also refers to the pastor’s own symphony with Gertrude. His wife, Amélie, resents Gertrude because the pastor dedicates more attention to Gertrude than to their five children. She tries to prompt him to a recognition of the true nature of his feelings for the young woman in his care. Her ability to “see” is contrasted with the “blindness” of the pastor in this regard and the reader is invited to judge him on his intellectual dishonesty. The pastor takes the Bible very seriously and tries to preserve Gertrude’s innocence by protecting her from the concept of sin.

Because the pastor is really the main character in Gertrude’s limited world, she feels herself to be in love with him and to some extent he has similar feelings toward her. When his eldest son Jacques, who is about the same age as Gertrude, asks to marry her the pastor becomes jealous and refuses despite the fact that Jacques is obviously in love with her.

Gertrude eventually gets an operation to repair her eyesight and, having gained the ability to see, realizes that she loves Jacques and not the pastor. However, Jacques has renounced his love for her, converted to Catholicism and become a monk. She attempts suicide by jumping into a river, but is rescued and contracts pneumonia. She realizes that the pastor is an old man, and the man she pictured when she was blind was Jacques. She tells the pastor this shortly before her death.

lsp-2Isabelle is the tale of a young man whose studies take him to the remote country home of an eccentric family, where he falls in love with a portrait of their absent daughter. As he unravels the mystery of her absence, he is forced to abandon his passionate ideal.

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Engleby by Sebastian Faulks

eng(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

This is a ‘whydunntti’ rather than a whodunnit.

 Do we really have free will?

The public school bullying is true to life, including the boy who simply masturbates down the back of the protagonist. No wonder he and some others wonder if he is gay.

He talks about teleology a lot – does life have any meaning other that what we make it?

 Themes: education, class, politics

I was at uni. at the same time as these people and, like them, wrote long letters home every Sunday afternoon – no emails and few phones back  then.

Unreliable narration: from the perspective of Engleby himself, who often obscures and misrepresents the events around him. This is most noticeable in the disappearance of Jennifer, to which he gives no indication of his involvement until the very end of the novel.

psychosis. mental illness: Engleby suffers from numerous panic attacks throughout the course of the novel and takes medication to prevent symptoms of anxiety. He occasionally alludes to feeling isolated, but rejects the idea that he suffers from depression.

Treatment of women: Engleby objectifies Jennifer throughout the novel. He stalks her by following her into lectures and attending her societies. He is frustrated when she attempts to leave the car after he gives her a lift home and murders her for being scared of him when he drives her off into a secluded area. Both he and his friend Stellings consider women to be inferior, and dismiss demands for sexual equality as ‘flak from grumpy feminists’, calling ideas of female equality ‘lies’.


Was it a deliberate mistake to say that ‘Pitchfork’ was a cleared of murder on DNA evidence? He was convicted.


Once I saw a mother in a supermarket in Paddington — an obese, poor woman with bare legs and a small child who was making a noise. She swore at him and slapped him in the face, which only made him howl more. It wasn’t her fault really; she was clearly exhausted, broke and stretched to snapping point. But I knew that when she got the child home she ‘d beat him more, and if there was a father (a bit unlikely) he too would hit him.

And that child would slowly ascend towards full awareness in a world whose sky was violence and whose horizons were fear. And however resourceful he was, however patient and fortunate in the events of his life that followed, he was like a creature in a nest of imprisoning boxes who could never really break free. That was his world and any attempt to persuade him that it was merely a `subjective’ or ‘individual’ experience could never convince him.

And all of us, I think, are like him. We may think as we grow older that we know more, but in truth no one has an overarching view, no one can see in the round. We are like cards in a pack, and the king of spades is a better thing to be than the two of diamonds; but none of us is a dealer or a player with free will and power to dispose; none of us can see or understand the value of the entire deck, let alone the rules of the game in which it’s employed. Even the best of us is no more than an inert piece of card with some markings.

My name is Mike Engleby, and I’m in my second year at an ancient university,

‘I sometimes saw it as that evolutionary drawing of the crouched ape who by stages turns into an upright human.’

‘Something happened to this country, perhaps in the 1960s. We lost the past.’

“ ‘Late work.’ It’s just another way of saying feeble work. I hate it. Monet’s messy last waterlilies, for instance — though I suppose his eyesight was shot. ‘The Tempest’ only has about 12 good lines in it. Think about it. ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood.’ Hardly ‘Great Expectations,’ is it? Or Matisse’s paper cutouts, like something from the craft room at St. B’s. Donne’s sermons. Picasso’s ceramics. Give me strength.”

“I suppose all human ‘personalities’ are at some level makeshift or provisional”

“I suppose all human ‘personalities’ are at some level makeshift or provisional”

“I’d never chosen to be alone, but that was the way things had turned out, and I’d grown used to it.”

“Have you ever been lonely? No, neither have I. Solitary, yes. Alone, certainly. But lonely means minding about being on your own. I’ve never minded about it.”
“Inhale and hold the evening in your lungs.”
“One thing about London is that when you step out into the night, it swallows you.”
“The end-of-summer winds make people restless.”
“My direction? Anywhere. Because one is always nearer by not keeping still.”
“Lonely’s like any other organism; competitive and resourceful in the struggle to perpetuate itself.”
“And sometimes in life, I imagine, good things do happen. Most of the time, it’s the opposite, obviously. But I don’t think you should rule out the possibility that just occasionally chance might deal you a good card.”
“Gradually the feeling wears off, and I feel swamped again by the inexplicable pettiness of being alive.”
“One of the hardest things about being alive is being with other people.”
“Oh, the sweetness of giving in, of full surrender.”
“This is how most people live: alive, but not conscious; conscious but not aware; aware, but intermittently.”
“The thing about opium is that it makes pain or difficulty unimaginable.”
“The physical shock took away the pain of being.”
“We’re deaf men working as musicians; we play the music but we can’t hear it.”
“It was entirely silent and I tried to breathe its peace.”
“We all operate on different levels of awareness. Half the time I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“I never for a moment considered killing myself, because it wouldn’t have achieved anything.”
“Time makes us pointless.”
“Why take drugs specifically designed to send you insane?”
“It’s only after the change is fully formed that you can see what’s happened.”
“…at such moments of extreme panic and anguish you do manage that trick with time: you are at last free from the illusion that time is linear.

In panic, time stops: past, present and future exist as a single overwhelming force. You then, perversely, want time to appear to run forwards because the ‘future’ is the only place you can see an escape from this intolerable overload of feeling. But at such moments time doesn’t move. And if time isn’t running, then all events that we think of as past or future are actually happening simultaneously. That is the really terrifying thing. And you are subsumed. You’re buried, as beneath an avalanche, by the weight of simultaneous events.”
“They’re so attached to their patterns that they’ve forgotten rule number one of human behavior: there are no patterns. People just do things. There’s no such things as a coherent and fully integrated human personality, let alone consistent motivation.”
“Grief is a peculiar emotion.”
“That’s what opium does to suffering: makes it of hypothetical interest only.”
“A bit of the vagueness of music stops you going completely mad, I imagine.”
“We’re not really conscious of what we’re doing most of the time.”
“All reality about me now appeared to be in tatters, taken down and reduced to the civil war of its particles. I held on very, very tight indeed. Because in addition to that feeling, that disintegration, there was rage. I wanted to break something.”
“I wonder what it’s like to be dead.”
“You can’t recall someone whose name has worn away.”
“I breathed and breathed and did feel some calmness enter in, though it was, as always, shot with a sense of loss. Loss and fear.”
“I don’t find life unbearably grave. I find it almost intolerably frivolous.”
“The thunder of false modesty was deafening.”
“Heisenberg and Bohr and Einstein strike me as being like gifted retriever dogs. Off they go, not just for an afternoon, but for ten years; they come back exhausted and triumphant and drop at your feet… a vole. It’s a remarkable thing in its way, a vole—intricate, beautiful really, marvellous. But does it… Does it help? Does it move the matter on?

When you ask a question that you’d actually like to know the answer to—what was there before the Big Bang, for instance, or what lies beyond the expanding universe, why does life have this inbuilt absurdity, this non sequitur of death—they say that your question can’t be answered, because the terms in which you’ve put it are logically unsound. What you must do, you see, is ask vole questions. Vole is—as we have agreed—the answer; so it follows that your questions must therefore all be vole-related.”
“I want to be careful not to throw all this away. This is happiness. I think this is what happiness is. I haven’t got it yet, but I can sense it out there. I feel I’m close to it. Some days, I’m so close I can almost smell it.”
“I’d become more adept at being with other people; I’d lowered my expectations of them and learned to let my mind drift into neutral when they spoke.”
“I felt trapped in a world that I couldn’t mould to my own desires. Others were in sunlight; I was in darkness.”
“She was so beautiful I had to move away.”
“The past was suddenly rushing in on me in a way I found hard to fight.”
“The best thing is the combined effect of nicotine with alcohol, greater than the sum of the two parts.”
“My own diagnosis of my problem is a simpler one. It’s that I share 50 per cent of my genome with a banana and 98 per cent with a chimpanzee. Banana’s don’t do psychological consistency. And the tiny part of us that’s different – the special Homo sapiens bit – is faulty. It doesn’t work. Sorry about that.”
“But I can hardly remember what it felt like. It’s like everything that happens to you. It doesn’t feel real.”
“I don’t like being rumbled, I like to be invisible.”
“There was a pretty young woman I used to see pegging out sheets and I worried that she would grow old there and that no one would know how beautiful she was. And maybe she would die without ever having really lived.”
“I looked at him on the bed. He coughed once and a trail of brownish dead blood came out of his mouth and ran down the side of his chin. Then he stopped breathing. And I thought, I’ll make sure I never end up here, either.”
“Until we can navigate in time, I’m not sure that we can prove that what happened is real.”
“These are things that help me if not lose then leave behind, what else, my self.”
“How grand, to be a Doctor of whatever and to weigh up and decide people’s future.”
“What a pair of frauds.”
“He really was a prize ass.”
“With no blame there’s no shame. A human society can’t exist without shame. Shame is like handedness or walking upright. It’s a central human attribute. In fact, it’s the first human quality ever recorded.’


‘Genesis, Chapter Three. The covering of nakedness. The acquisition of shame was the first consequence of consciousness, of the speciating moment. Take shame from me and you are calling me pre-human.”
“All that once I’d known, I had forgotten.”
“If only I could have my time again.”
“The more you’re challenged, the more rigidly you assert your beliefs. You have nothing to lose because without your beliefs you’re nothing anyway: they make you what you are. It’s shit or bust.”
“The more I heard, the less I knew.”
“No, I want to take you out back and beat your fucking head on the floor.”
“All reality about me now appeared to be in tatters, taken down and reduced to the civil war of its particles. I held on very, very tight indeed.”
“To wake up and feel enlivened; to be in a hurry to get out of bed and into the day. To have friends you want to speak to, compare experiences with and be on the phone to…Well, to be honest, I’m still some way from that.”
“If you’re mad enough to have killed a dozen people you’re mad enough to be a fraction impatient. Surely?”

“That sense of happiness just out beyond my reach – I’m not sure I’d grasped that exactly, but I’d got something close to it, contentment maybe, or at least a functioning routine with regular rewards.”
“The thought of all that happiness was hard to bear. What’s the point of happiness when all it does is throw the facts of dying into clear relief?”
“I’m not going to miss all this, am I?”
“And in that history you’re trying to connect to something that once was yours – to something purer, better, something that you lost or something, maybe, that you never knew but that you feel you knew.”
“Busy is good, isn’t it? Busy means we’re hard at it, achieving our ends or “goals.” Haven’t had time to stop, or look around or think. That’s considered the sign of a life well lived. Although people complain of it – another year gone, where did that one go? – tacitly, they’re proud. Otherwise they wouldn’t do it: you put your time where your priority is.”
“And sometimes in life, I imagine, good things do happen. Most of the time, it’s the opposite, obviously. But I don’t think you should rule out the possibility that just occasionally chance might deal you a good card.”
Once I saw a mother in a supermarket in Paddington — an obese, poor woman with bare legs and a small child who was making a noise. She swore at him and slapped him in the face, which only made him howl more. It wasn’t her fault really; she was clearly exhausted, broke and stretched to snapping point. But I knew that when she got the child home she ‘d beat him more, and if there was a father (a bit unlikely) he too would hit him.

And that child would slowly ascend towards full awareness in a world whose sky was violence and whose horizons were fear. And however resourceful he was, however patient and fortunate in the events of his life that followed, he was like a creature in a nest of imprisoning boxes who could never really break free. That was his world and any attempt to persuade him that it was merely a `subjective’ or ‘individual’ experience could never convince him.

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The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell

tfl3(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Though no classic of “gay fiction” (although it will certainly appeal to gay readers. Spud and Lymie are physically affectionate, going so far as to spend almost their entire college life sleeping in the same bed.), “The Folded Leaf” tells about the intensely intimate, innocuously physical, yet almost entirely platonic relationship between two boys who don’t quite fit in with the crowd and who grow up to be very different men.

In the suburbs of Chicago in the 1920s, two boys initiate an unusual friendship: Lymie Peters, a skinny and somewhat clumsy boy who always gets good grades, and newcomer Spud Latham, a star athlete and mediocre student. Spud accepts Lymie’s devotion without questioning it, but once high school ends and the boys enter college, tensions begin to arise between them. Lymie is the first to meet Sally Forbes, but she will fall in love with Spud, and this will mark the beginning of the rift between them. But this rupture will be more than Lymie can bear. William Maxwell provides the reader with a moving portrayal of adolescence and the shift from youth into adulthood.

tflLymie Peters is the ectomorphic and studious introvert who meets Spud Latham, a dim yet muscular teenager who serves “as a kind of reminder of those ideal, almost abstract rules of proportion from which the human being, however faulty, is copied.” Latham is new in town–his father has lost his job, and he lives with his family in a cramped apartment–and he inexplicably gravitates towards Lymie. At first Lymie’s own feelings about Spud’s attentions are ambivalent: “He couldn’t help noticing the scales of fortune were tipped considerably in Spud’s favor, and resenting it.” What the boys have in common, though, is an undercurrent of barely suppressed fury that the people they know and the world around them aren’t the stuff of their daydreams.

tfl2Maxwell is compelling in his ability to transform what should be two excessive stereotypes into recognizable and believable flesh and blood. Even though Lymie almost sycophantically fawns over Spud (even serving as his towel boy at the gym), Spud in return offers emotional protection, social acceptance, and true friendship; in spite of Spud’s increasing popularity, it is a relationship of equals, and the pair is inseparable. Maxwell has re-created the ideal friendship, which many of us once had, if only briefly in our youth–or in our imaginations. Ultimately, however, as with any relationship this close, the snare of jealousy and the fear of being alone gradually introduce crises.

The crisis comes when a mutual acquaintance tells Lymie (and it’s never acknowledged as to whether it’s a true tale he tells) that Spud hates Lymie because of Sally’s friendship. Sensitive Lymie feels entirely betrayed and takes matters into his hands.


“But to live in the world at all is to be committed to some kind of a journey.”

“Very often, looking at Spud, he felt the desire which he sometimes had looking at statues–to put out his hand and touch some part of Spud, the intricate interlaced muscles of his side, or his shoulder blades, or his back, or his flat stomach, or the veins of his wrists, or his small pointed ears.

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The Visa Affair – Jake Arnott

tva(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)In 1965 Joe Orton visited the American Embassy in London to get a visa to attend the Broadway production of his outrageous West End hit ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’ and was caught up in a Kafkaesque world of oppression and paranoia. He was forced into absurd interrogations and accused of “moral turpitude.” In the mid-1960s Orton was one of the most talked about new playwrights of the decade – even attracting the attention of the Beatles to write them a new film.

Writer Jake Arnott has uncovered a previously unpublished story by Orton about his this encounter. This story becomes the heart of a new drama, in which Arnott also draws on letters, archive, newspaper reports and personal testimony to create a darkly comic drama revealing Orton’s life and the world that he lived in.

Orton’s first commission as a playwright was from Radio 3’s predecessor the Third Programme in 1964 and this new play is part of the station’s 70th season, celebrating seven decades of pioneering music and culture.

In ‘The Visa Affair’, Orton has just found success in the UK after years of obscurity, and Broadway beckons, but events in his past threaten his American dream. As embassy staff challenge him about his criminal record we follow a labyrinthine struggle as Joe is forced to defer to authority, deny his sexuality, and to look again at his subversive acts and how they affected his writing and work.

Throughout, Orton plays a game of hide and seek with bureaucracy – evading its surveillance whilst revealing its absurdity.

Leonie Orton-Barnett, the playwright’s younger sister who oversees his literary estate, suggested Mr Arnott adapt The Visa Affair for radio.

Orton’s own narrative voice forms the heart of this drama. It is a rich source of character, dialogue and unfolding plot. Writer Jake Arnott says: “Though his work often seems surreal, Orton always insisted that what he wrote was reality. This is real. What excites me about this project is the opportunity to dramatise a hidden work: Orton’s own encounter with the kind of absurd bureaucracy that he brilliantly depicts in his plays.”

Mr Arnott, whose novels include The Long Firm, intends to add more material from letters, personal testimony and archive documents to flesh out the story. It will be his first radio play and a “huge honour”, he said

The 20-page story follows Orton’s Kafkaesque visit to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square in 1965.

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