Archive for U-W

Wings by Mikhail Kuzmin

A key text in the history of gay literature, Wings was published in 1906 to the scandalized reaction of contemporary society and the generations which followed.

The novel deals with teenager Vanya Smurov’s attachment to his older, urbane mentor, Larion Stroop, a pederast who initiates him into the world of early Renaissance, Classical and Romantic art. At the close of the first part, Vanya is shocked to learn that the object of his admiration frequents a gay bathhouse. In order to sort out his feelings, Vanya withdraws into the Volga countryside, but his sickening experience with rural women, whose call on him to enjoy his youth turns out to be an awkward attempt at seduction, induces Vanya to accept his Classics teacher’s proposal and accompany him in a journey to Italy. In the last part of the novel, Vanya and Stroop, who is also in Italy, are seen enjoying the smiling climate and stunning artworks of Florence and Rome, while Prince Orsini mentors the delicate youth in the art of hedonism.

The novel, partly based on Kuzmin’s experience of travelling to Italy in 1897, is full of conversation in the Platonic vein; the title itself alludes to Phaedrus. Although the book was competently written in an elegant style all its own, its reputation has been dogged by scandal.

Kuzmin was one of the first writers in modern Europe to argue that homosexuality “was not immoral or ungodly, but morally distinctive, ethically sanctioned, and even at times spiritually superior, a matter not of decadent immoralism but the personal creation of values”.

The central theme of aestheticized sensuality has spawned comparisons of Wings with contemporary works by Oscar Wilde and André Gide.

Wings is in three parts, set respectively in St Petersburg, on the Volga and in Rome, and it is told in myriad episodic scenes of perhaps 2-3 pages in length: a curious and intriguing structure. In his Introduction, Hugh Aplin compares this structure to cinematic montage, which seems a fair approximation. These scenes, often thematically linked (e.g. death by suicide appears in parts 1 and 2, and the ‘death’ of an artist in part 3), are like dots that the reader must join together. It comes across as a series of brush strokes. Like Chekov, it addresses people by different versions of their name and you overhear seemingly isolated snatches of conversation.

“Wings”, is a metaphor threaded throughout the novel for a whole host of things: for the culture and friendships which allow us to soar, for what we acquire when we are open to beauty and courageous in our love, and as an allusion, in the final pages, to Icarus and his brothers.

Poignantly, many of the young men at the baths, including the one with the large penis, will soon be conscripted to war.

I found the “story” hard to follow. It is more allusive than narrative and is becalmed with philosophical soliloquies about love. Indeed, was the philosophising trying to justify homosexuality? Too didactic? Too much lecturing?

It’s misogynistic: ‘She’s only a vile female.’ (which may be inevitable from gay men of a certain type) and a callousness in their treatment. They are dismissed as worthless – relationships between men and women are portrayed as base and coarse.

Kuzmin was lucky to die of natural causes in 1936; just two years later other gay artists were rounded up with and shot.

Relevant today, given Putin’s current crackdown. In 1928, at the invitation of students of the Russian Institute of Literature, Kuzmin gave the final public reading of his life. He assumed the event would be poorly attended; the once-great writer had been largely silenced and, he worried, forgotten. The reading was not advertised to the public and only students with tickets were allowed entrance. The director of the Institute feared that any reading by Kuzmin would attract a large contingent of homosexuals and thus the attention of the authorities.

The director was right in his fear. On the night of the reading there came a crush at the doors, the ticket system broke down, and gays crowded in among the students. Kuzmin’s reading electrified the audience — no surprise, as he read his poem The Trout Breaks the Ice, a staggering work swirling with autobiography and cultural allusions that is also an ode to the triumph of desire, a poem that maintains its electricity through translation and time. An ovation followed the reading and the gays pushed to the front, showering Kuzmin with flowers, bouquet upon bouquet landing at his feet. The director and student organizers quaked — they knew they would be called before authorities to account for the scandal (they narrowly escaped punishment, pleading ignorance) — but Kuzmin beamed.

Nothing like Wings had ever been published; not in the West and not in Russia. As print runs sold out the book was immediately reissued. Also difficult to fathom is the relative ease with which gay artists were allowed to live their lives and envision their possibilities in prerevolutionary Russia. With the crumbling of the czarist empire, before Soviet repression took hold, we see a flowering of artistic daring and a measure of sexual freedom. But even so, Kuzmin’s daring humbles this writer, and ought to inspire us all.

He was in the Old Believer tradition – having spent some years in defiantly Old Believer guise, including cap, tight-fitting coat, boots and beard, he switched abruptly to the mannered dandyism of the Russian admirers of Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde

Old Believers are Eastern Orthodox Christians who maintain the liturgical and ritual practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church as they existed prior to the reforms of Patriarch Nikon of Moscow between 1652 and 1666. In 1652, Patriarch Nikon (1605–1681; Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church from 1652 to 1658) introduced a number of ritual and textual revisions with the aim of achieving uniformity between the practices of the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches. The main objectives of reformers in the 16th century, many from the secular “white” clergy, were to outlaw pagan rituals and beliefs and to standardise the liturgy throughout the Muscovite realm. Old Believers use two fingers while making the Sign of the Cross while new-style Orthodoxy uses three fingers for the sign of cross (three fingers (including the thumb). Is there a degree of sending up Tolstoy with his seeming primitism?

It is salutary to reflect that Wings was first published in Russia in 1906, when Kuzmin was in his thirties. He had at last come to terms with his homosexuality, as Vanya Smurov is beginning to do in the closing paragraph of the book. That he was openly gay in the final years of Tsarist rule and the opening decade_of Soviet Communism almost defies credibility, particularly when one thinks of the agonies of mind and body Tchaikovsky was forced to endure.

They are relatively little known outside their homeland

He was a eading figure of what was, arguably, Russia’s most brilliant and he began studying in 1891 at the St Petersburg Conservatory, where his tutors included Rimsky­Korsakov, but he remained there for only three years. None­theless, music was to continue to play a very significant role and enabled him to form ties

Wings brought about a genuine furore in Russia’s literary world, the success of ‘Alexandrian Songs’ enabled him to become closely involved with many of the most prominent figures of the then dominant Russian Symbolist movement but he had artistic independence and produced an -ism of his own, in Russian `klarizm’, from the Latin ‘clarus’, signifying clarity or transparency, and the ‘beautiful clarity’ that was its essential feature was one of 1 the abiding elements in all Kuzmin’s writing during his most successful, pre-revolutionary years

Our broad-=ranging discussion even mentioned the Bhagavad Gita.

Despite the glossary, I had to look up anacreontic = (of a poem) written in the style of the ancient Greek poet Anacreon, known for his celebrations of love and wine.


It does sometimes happen too, they say, that a woman loves a woman and a man a man … And it’s not hard to believe it, is it not possible for God to put that thorn too into the human heart, then? And it’s hard, Vanya, to go against what been put in, and perhaps it’s sinful too.

“Love, whatever its nature, can never be depraved except in the eyes of a cynic.” 

“I was in that kind of terribly stupid but not unpleasant situation, when you know that both of you know something, but are keeping silent. He stared straight at me, motionless, with a kind of mermaid look, not quite drunkenly, not quite insanely, almost terrifyingly, but when he began to wash me there was no room for doubt.”

Eroticism there had been aplenty in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts, and gender ques­tions, particularly the role of women in society, had been under discussion for more than half a century; but serious mainstream works with sex, let alone homosexuality, as their primary subject were almost unknown

The youthful hero, Vanya Smurov, is shown in three novel, unorthodox and increasingly exotic settings. Newly orphaned, he is vulnerable and susceptible as a series of mentors introduce him to various possible approaches to life, and other characters, through differing experiences or parallel situations, suggest the fates that potentially await him, depending on the decisions he makes.

It was considered stylistically careless ­’all over the place, awkward phrases written any old how,’ commented Andrei Bely — and the mosaic-like structure, which may be a positive attraction to the modern reader accustomed to the frequent cutting of cinematic montage, was not deemed a success. Inevitably, however, it was the thematic nature of the work that drew most attention

the sense of the words, thinking how his mother had died, how the whole house had suddenly filled with old women of some sort who had previously been strangers and who now became extraordinarily close, recalling the fuss, the offices for the dead, the funeral and, after all of that, the sudden emptiness and desolation

the rotten smell of sour cabbage soup… mothballs…Stroop’s scent

think, Vanya,.how odd it is, that here you have another person entirely, and his legs are different, and skin, and his eyes — and he’s completely yours, completely, , you can look at, kiss and touch all of him; every le mark on his body, wherever it might be, the little golden hairs that grow on his arms, every little furrow and hollow of the skin that is loved much too much. And you know every­thing, the way he walks, eats, sleeps, the way the wrinkles spread across his face when he smiles, the way he thinks, the way his body smells. And then it’s as if you cease to be yourself, and it’s as though you and he are one and the same: your flesh, your skin cleaves to him, and in love, Vanya, there’s no greater happiness on earth, whereas without love it’s unbearable, unbearable! And what I would say, Vanya, is that it’s easier not to have while loving, than to have without loving. Marriage, marriage: the secret isn’t about the priest giving his blessing and children coming — look at a cat, it’s carrying as many as four times a year — but about a soul getting a burning desire to give itself to another and to take him completely, if only for a week, if only for a day, and if both of their souls are burning, then that means God has united them. It’s a sin to make love with a cold heart or for gain, but anyone who’s touched by the fiery finger, whatever he does, he remains pure before the Lord. Anyone who’s touched by the flaming spirit of love, whatever he’s done, it’s all forgiven him, because he’s no longer his own, in the spirit, in the rapture…’

`How are you to understand? I’ll say this: a husband lives with his wife, and a bachelor gets mixed up with a woman; someone might say that it’s all the same, but there’s a big differ­ence. What is it, one asks?’

`I wouldn’t know,’ responded Sergei, all eyes.

`Imagination. The first thing,’ said Prokhor Nikitich, as though searching not only for words, but for ideas too, ‘the first thing is: the married man has dealings with one woman — that’s one thing: the next thing is — they live quietly, peacefully, they’re used to one another, and the husband loves his wife in just the same way as he eats his porridge or curses the bailiffs, but the ers have nonsense on their minds all the time, it’s all fun and es, there’s no constancy, no steadiness; and that’s why the thing is lawful, and the other — fornication. The sin isn’t in act but in the application, how the thing’s applied to what.’

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No Night Is Too Long by Barbara Vine

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

“My life is a dull one,” says Tim Cornish.

Set in Alaska and Suffolk, this story is written in three first-person narrations, the first and longest of which is the memoir-confession of Tim Cornish. Tim, a would-be novelist of twenty-four, has just received his master’s degree. He travels to Alaska for a nature-exploration cruise with his somewhat older male lover, Ivo, a paleontologist who will be lecturing during the cruise. Tim has been living with and supported by Ivo, but, since Ivo’s recent declaration of love, Tim has tired of him. Ashore in Juneau while Ivo is elsewhere, Tim meets Isabel, an unhappily married, somewhat older woman, with whom Tim immediately falls in love, and he promises to meet her in Seattle in ten days after breaking up with Ivo (who he pretends is a woman). When Tim tells Ivo their relationship is over, Ivo refuses to accept it. On an excursion to an uninhabited island, the two men tussle; Tim strikes Ivo, who then strikes his head against a tree and moves no more. Leaving Ivo for dead, Tim flees the island and rejoins the cruise, saying nothing of what has happened. He helps himself to the cash and credit card Ivo left behind and flies to Seattle, hoping to find Isabel, but his guilt causes him to abandon that plan and he returns to the UK, where he settles into an unchallenging job in his hometown and lives alone in his parents’ house. As there has been no word of a police inquiry, no report of the finding of Ivo’s body, Tim seems to have committed the perfect crime, though he is increasingly haunted by what he has done, believing he sees Ivo everywhere. Then he begins to receive a series of anonymous letters, each of which describes the island ordeal—and rescue—of a castaway. Someone knows what he did.

Isabel’s own brief memoir, in the form of a letter of sorts to Ivo, and a concluding letter to his wife by a schoolboy friend of Tim’s who becomes Tim’s solicitor, complete the book, which explores questions of sexual identity, fidelity, and guilt.

I had to look up half-hunter = pocket watch; geode = geological secondary structures which occur in certain sedimentary and volcanic rocks.

She uses the term ‘part of the gay scene’ oddly to mean a way of talking rather than places.

Ok, so the protagonist is going to creative writing classes but would anyone, ever, write: But I felt as Orpheus must have when pursued by Maenads?

There’s a vivid sense of place.

The twist towards the end takes a while before you put the pieces together.

What a superb form of revenge – to send so much material to a fax machine that it devours several rolls of paper.

It’s about obsession, with sexual passion supposedly its linchpin. Yet the characters are as chilly as the Alaskan seascape in which much of its action takes place. Rendell is not an author one associates with coyness, yet the sexual acts, straight and gay alike, are described through the standard evasions of women’s magazine fiction: ‘Her back arched and her body reached for me and she wasn’t silent any more, her gasps – or mine, they were indistinguishable – were as eloquent as the rushing water.’

It’s been accused of being homophobic: the true homosexual is murdererd which enables the bisexual boyfriend to live happy ever after with his girlfriend.


“Without me, without me,
Everyday’s misery.
But with me – am I wrong?
No night is too long!”
“Why do you always wear black?”
She delighted me with her answer, the correct, the only, answer. “I’m in mourning for my life. I’m unhappy.”
“Lean on me,” someone says in Jane Austen to a woman he scarcely knows, and there’s no question but that she will, that she takes it for granted.”
“Ivo had grown more and more like one of those characters in his books who are always groaning about their miserable fate in helplessly loving someone unworthy of their love. Maugham never says much about what that’s like for the poor old unworthy object. I could have told him. It’s not exactly uplifting for the self-image.”

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The Child’s Child – Barbara Vine


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

Homosexuality and illegitimacy were once taboos and it is strange how each party looked down on the other – I suppose an oppressed person has to find someone else who is lower down the food chain.

Life intervened and I had to out this book to one side for as few weeks but it was easy to take up again from where I had left off.

When their grandmother dies, Grace and Andrew Easton inherit her sprawling, book-filled London home, Dinmont House. Rather than sell it, the adult siblings move in together, splitting the numerous bedrooms and studies. The arrangement is unusual, but ideal for the affectionate pair — until the day Andrew brings home a new boyfriend. A devilishly handsome novelist, James Derain resembles Cary Grant, but his strident comments about Grace’s doctoral thesis soon puncture the house’s idyllic atmosphere. When he and Andrew witness their friend’s murder outside a London nightclub, James begins to unravel, and what happens next will change the lives of everyone in the house.

Just as turmoil sets in at Dinmont House, Grace escapes into reading a manuscript — a long-lost novel from 1951 called The Child’s Child — never published, owing to its frank depictions of an unwed mother and a homosexual relationship. The book is the story of two siblings born a few years after World War One. This brother and sister, John and Maud, mirror the present-day Andrew and Grace: a homosexual brother and a sister carrying an illegitimate child. Acts of violence and sex will reverberate through their stories.

The Child’s Child is an ingenious novel-within-a-novel about family, betrayal, and disgrace. A master of psychological suspense, Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, takes us where violence and social taboos collide. She shows how society’s treatment of those it once considered undesirable has changed — and how sometimes it hasn’t.

I found the present-day story less convincing than the story wrapped up in it.


“By the age I was then I ought to know the truism that things always look different in the morning. As the night comes on and the deeper it gets, the more mad we are, the more prone to dreadful fears and fantasies. In the morning, not when we first wake up but gradually, things begin to look unlike what they looked like at eleven, at midnight.”

Mrs Lillicrap said Hope must go to All Saints to be churched the first time she went out and Maud thought she would abandon Methodism and go at least once to the Church of England. All the Methodists had done for her was be unkind and punishing, so she might as well try another kind of God she no longer believed in

Maud thought, but didn’t know how else to put it, and he had behaved like God to her, a jealous god, punishing disproportion­ately. Reaping where he had not sown, she remembered from her churchgoing days, and gathering where he had not stored. ‘Mother could come here,’ she said, `if she misses me so much.’

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Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris – E. White

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

Edmund White moved to Paris in 1983, wanting to leave New York City in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Michel Foucault told him that he didn’t believe there was a disease that targeted gays – but he later died of it.

White was forty-three years old, couldn’t speak French, and only knew two people in the entire city. But in middle age, he discovered the new anxieties and pleasures of mastering a new culture. When he left fifteen years later to take a teaching position in the U.S., he was fluent enough to broadcast on French radio and TV, and in his work as a journalist, he’d made the acquaintance of everyone from Yves Saint Laurent to Catherine Deneuve, though he admits he didn’t recognise rock stars or models at a party of Elton John’s 50th birthday. Notwithstanding, he does a lot of name dropping.

He’d also developed a close friendship with an older woman, Marie-Claude, through which he’d come to understand French life and culture in a deeper way.

The title evokes the Parisian landscape in the eternal mists and the half-light, the serenity of the city compared to the New York White had known (and vividly recalled in City Boy). White fell in love with the city and its culture: both intoxicated and intellectually stimulated. He became the definitive biographer of Jean Genet, wrote lives of Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud and he received the French Order of Arts and Letters.

This book recounts gossip and enchantment. There is some stuff about paedophiles and I’m surprised there hasn’t been any legal action.

Proust gets mentioned a lot because White wrote a biography of him. There are moments, such as a sketch of the ancient Rothschilds “tottering forth for yet another dinner party – beautifully dressed, slender, on time, impeccable”, when the writing appears to be slipping into a parody of Proust.

Sex laces its way through the book, until the advent of Aids. He tells the story of his lovers who fall to the disease, two of them weirdly yoked together with him as their health rapidly declines. Though he – a “slow progressor” – remains healthy, they die. “Even though I’m an atheist, for a long time I lit candles in every church I visited.”

At the centre of the book is his friendship with the literary critic Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, who embodies much of what it is about the French that White loves, staying with her on the Île de Ré the epitome of French rural life. But like many of the relationships described in the book, it comes and goes rather fitfully. Promising character studies often just stop, pushed aside by someone else whose story is, for the present, more interesting.

I can’t see why he thinks that chicken cooked in peanut butter is some sort of culinary faux pas.

He gets things wrong: .When my born-again cousin Dorothy Jean came to Paris, I took her to a museum entirely devoted to the work of Gustave Moreau and pointed out a painting of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes. “It’s a biblical scene,” I said optimistically.

“That’s not in my Bible,” she scoffed.

And it isn’t in the protestant canon.

But there are many wonderful moments: the distinguished, discreetly gay homme de lettres Bernard Minoret meets une tante (an old queen, as White tells us), who asks “Do you know my nephew?” “Yes,” replies Minoret, “he was my nephew last year.” He begins to embrace the quintessentially French idea of the milieu, an attachment to the group rather than to individuals, and he knows which side he comes down on in the choice between “healthy but bland America, deep but diseased France”. On the other hand, perhaps, as he says, “I’m the kind of guy who’s always wanted to be elsewhere.”

We’ve learned to be wary of those who ‘teach writing’ and justifiably so:

  1. 97, ” . . . he’d sold another Hubert Robert painting so that for another six months he could invite his likable band of layabouts out to dinner for another month.” (What was it, six months or one month?)
    p. 112, “We were bitten alive by bedbugs . . . .” (Were you dead to start with? Were the bedbugs? What does this mean?)
    p. 112, ” . . . and Petra astonished us all.” (Not another word about Petra or how it astonished them.)
    p. 149, ” . . . like many oily-skinned Mediterraneans he had some interesting facial scars and the odd boil on his back.” (Yes, so many have that odd boil.)

 IAP 2Quotations:

“You are making no sense, Edmund. No one can understand anything you are saying.”

In the center of the village stood a church that had a bumpy, tapering steeple, half black and half white for maximum contrast and visibility for those at sea. Around the church were the post office, a newsstand, a cafe, and a snack bar. Down by the harbor were a couple of good restaurants and a shop selling expensive nautical wear and equipment (such as a brass circular compass and cut-glass liqueur bottles set in a mahogany caddy that would always right itself when the boat was severely listing to one side).

“For me a current lover has always been like whatever current book I’m writing – an obsessive project orienting all my thoughts.”

“Many French people were difficult conversationalists. Asking them not only where they were originally from but what they did in life was considered rude—I suppose because many of them did nothing (many Parisians are rentiers, people who live off the rents of their properties) or because they weren’t proud of their jobs, which simultaneously supported and interfered with their intellectual and artistic passions.”

I heard an aging French male author, Patrick Grainville, argue that all experience could be reduced to the symbol of the octopus (le pieuvre)­which in his 2010 novel, Le Baiser du pieuvre, embraces a Japanese woman and brings her down to his watery realm. He spoke with such fervor about the sea creature that he seemed to have hypnotized himself into believing what he was saying. As one French critic asked, “Is the octopus a projection of the female sex or should we see in its tentacles a phallic allusion? Definitely, this animal spitting ink—wouldn’t that be a fine metaphor for the writer?”

One day we’d eaten so heartily that I told Marie-Louise I thought I would skip the dessert. We were the only customers. The queen of England was nowhere in sight. Marie-Louise leaned slightly in my direction and whispered, “Then would you possibly be willing to order the dessert with the chocolate leaves ?”

“Sure. Of course. But why ?”

“You could leave it for me. I’ve never tasted it.”

“You’ve worked here how many years?”

“Twenty-five. Madame never lets the servants taste the desserts.”

Another day Marie-Louise had obviously been weeping. She wasn’t her usual brisk, tidy self wearing her fake pearl necklace and with her hair up. Her eyes were smaller and her voice subdued, and I said, “Is anything wrong, Marie-Louise?”

“My brother died yesterday and he’s to be buried tomorrow in Brittany. I asked Madame for the day off. I could make it there and back in a day by train but she said no. ‘Mademoiselle, je ne peux pas vous epargner.’ [I can’t spare you.] It was the first time in twenty-five years I’d asked for a day off. I’d even found a young man in the village to fill in for me.”

This asked me if I’d been “careful” and of course I said yes, though just the night before I’d slept with a young Spaniard who’d worked my nipples so hard they were still aflame and I winced whenever they were touched. But at that time, in the early eighties, there was no test for AIDS and no one knew exactly what caused it. We suspected it was caused by sex, but how? It seemed too unfair to us that a single expo­sure could infect someone; in our guilt-ridden way we wanted the disease to be the punishment for a long life of vice.

But even by those standards I’d been what the French called vicieux (a compliment in the world of gay French small advertisements). I’d slept with some three thousand men, I figured, and big-city gay men of my generation asked, “Why so few?” My figures were based on the rate of three a week for twenty years, between the ages of twenty-two and forty-two in New York, but many of my coevals “turned” two or three “tricks” a night, using the whore’s slang of the period (a “trick” was a once-only encounter, a word I had to explain recently to gay grad students). Truth be told, I would often go to the sauna, where I’d meet a dozen men a night. But to This I pretended to be far more innocent. He was reassured and thought of me as a sort of responsible gay leader thanks to my work with Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

I wasn’t ready to change my ways. I was so used to undressing mentally almost every man I met (and often went on to do so literally) that promiscuity was my first response to the least sign of reciprocity. I loved sex, but I never experienced it in its “pure” state; to me, it was always blended with at least some shred of romantic fantasy.

Neil (Bartlett) also became one of England’s finest writers. He wrote a land­mark book, Who Was That Man?, about Oscar Wilde and fin de siecle gay London. His novels Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, Mr. Clive and Mr. Page, and Skin Lane all had their historical dimensions. He might have dedicated himself just to fiction, but he was also attracted to directing theater pieces of an extravagant, stylized, somewhat campy variety, such as Balzac’s Sarrasine, Racine’s Berenice and Neil’s own adaptation of Camille. A Vision of Love Revealed was based on Simeon Solomon’s 1871 prose poem, and Neil himself performed it in the nude in a warehouse. He did adaptations and translations of plays by Moliere and Racine and farces by Labiche, as well as the English-language premiere of Genet’s posthumous gangster play, Splendid’s, which I had told him about during my research for Genet.

Neil found a lover, James Gardiner, a collector of vintage postcards who produced a book of letters and photographs called A Class Apart that documented an Edwardian affair between an amateur gentleman photographer and his well-hung “butler” who was willing to indulge his employer’s taste for uniforms; the butler wrote touching, misspelled love letters to him when he went off to fight in the First World War. Neil and James bought a bijou residence in Brighton where they entertained me more than once.

When Neil got hepatitis, he had a liver transplant, but at first the new liver refused to kick in. Neil never succumbed to convalescence completely, and even when he seemed close to death kept busy and artistically active—until miraculously, at seemingly the last possible minute, the liver began to function. I’ve often thought of Neil’s courage in facing these travails during my own health scares and emergencies.

Once Neil, when he was still in his twenties, came to visit me in Paris. Because his plane was delayed (this was before the Eurostar Chunnel train running under the English Channel), I told him to take a taxi directly from the airport to MC’s. She had also invited to dinner Yannick Guillou, an elegant, uptight (or guinde, as the French say in reference to spats) Gallimard editor, who played the harpsichord for half an hour each morning before going to work, and who owned a castle in Normandy.

Neil arrived in a black leather biker jacket and jeans with the whole seat torn out and no underwear. Yannick was astonished by this vesti­mentary oddity but charmed by Neil’s Oxford accent, education, and exquisite manners. Neil’s personality was both outrageous and decorous.

Equally odd were the clothes of the gay English writer and critic Adam Mars-Jones, who wore striped military pants and an officer’s tunic. Because in France there was no youth culture, these costumes looked particularly strange to Parisians. But Adam also spoke beautiful French, was tall and slim, wonderfully polite and sortable (meaning you could take him anywhere). He met some of my ladies, such as Didi d’Anglejan, an American who’d married an aristocrat and gained a title. I’d told my ladies that Adam’s father was a judge and a lord—that worked wonders. Nor did it hurt that he’d attended Westminster and Cambridge.

IAP 3 Nigella Lawson has become such a symbol of glamour, the domestic goddess of television, that it feels presumptuous to claim friendship with her. When I met her, she worked as an editor for the Spectator. I was enough older than her and her friends that I played the role of an eccentric uncle. Nigella was very extravagant. I always stayed in Durrants Hotel behind the Wallace Collection off Marylebone High Street, and Nigella (who was named after her father, Nigel Lawson, Mrs. Thatcher’s chancellor of the exchequer) once filled my room at Durrants with a giant bouquet of blue nigellas, a flower sometimes called “love in a mist.”

Later she was the deputy literary editor of the Sunday Times. I remember writing a review for her comparing Joe Orton to Oscar Wilde, both of them living out their homosexuality in North Africa. Of course I recognized there were differences—Orton was working class and Wilde, I said, was upper class. Nigella called me in Paris and asked if I’d change upper class to upper middle class. I’d forgotten that these nuances meant so much to Brits.

Her mother, a famous beauty, divorced her father and married the philosopher A. J. Ayer, the popular author of Language, Truth and Logic. He had been married previously to a woman called Dee Wells, someone I met once at a dinner party given by Natasha Spender, shortly after Stephen Spender’s death. After the early death from cancer of Nigella’s mother, Ayer remarried Dee Wells.

Nigella has sold hundreds of thousands of cookbooks, which contain her airy, lighthearted remarks. She has always rejected the term “professional cook.” She’s had her share of tragedy. Her mother died in her forties, her sister, Thomasina, died in her thirties of breast cancer, and her husband, John Diamond, a journalist, died of throat cancer. I can remember eating with them in Nobu in New York. His meal had to be ground into a liquid he could ingest through his tracheotomy. Nigella said that given the amount of cancer in her family, she was virtually placing a curse on her two children. Once John, who was reduced to writing everything he wanted to say in conversation, heard a maddening voice chattering away on the radio—and he realized it was his own voice in a rebroadcast of an old program. Now he said he regretted the years of what he called wasting his words. Nigella once invited my partner Michael and me over for a lamb roast in her kitchen, where the star guests were Stephen Fry and Salman Rushdie. Before publishing his second novel, Midnight’s Children, Salman had worked in advertising at Ogilvy & Mather as a copywriter and he told us that his great triumph at the firm had been a slogan for a cream cake: “Naughty but Nice.”

Nigella was my date for the dinner, and her father had resigned from Thatcher’s Tory government that very day. Nigella had earlier created a scandal by revealing she voted Socialist.

Alan’s friend and former TLS colleague Alan Hollinghurst was another person who’d once negatively reviewed my work before we met, which didn’t keep me from reviewing his first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, in the Sunday Times, calling it the best gay book yet written by an Englishman.

When I finally met Alan, he struck me as someone rather dignified, but with a slyly frivolous side. Alan’s favorite writer was and is Ronald Firbank, a taste we share. Alan had written his Oxford thesis on Firbank.

Alan knows everything about architecture, one of his specialties at the TLS, and he’s one of the few people I know who thinks London is more beautiful than Paris—it certainly has more varied extant archi­tecture from more different periods. It’s true that what gives Paris its unity—the uniform look of Haussmann’s apartment buildings, the orientation of streets radiating out from monuments like the Arc de Triomphe, and the repetition of its street furniture and Wallace foun­tains—can make it dull to the historical connoisseur. As anyone who’s read his novels knows, Alan has a Proustian fascination with titles and stately homes, although, like Proust, he is also critical of snobbism. I envy him his flat in Hampstead; everything in it peaceful, beautiful, and neatly organized. Now the definition of the professional novelist (especially since he won the Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty), he’s arranged his life so that he has to do nothing but write his next perfectly phrased and carefully considered narrative—usually over the course of five or six years. Perhaps he’s the most consistently polished writer in the UK today. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t travel much.

Bruce Chatwin would come through Paris, suffering from a mysterious “wasting” syndrome, though he never named it. He said it was a rare disease you got either from eating whale meat or from being around Chinese peasants in Fukien. Bruce couldn’t bear to be afflicted with an ordinary disease that was killing everyone around him. He always wanted to be rare, exotic, unique. Robert Mapplethorpe had first sent him to me in New York and we’d had sex immediately, standing by the front door, half undressed. That was what people did in the late seventies in New York. I’d been impressed by Bruce’s odorless body, constant laughter, and jewel-bright eyes, but we never slept together again. Every time I saw Bruce after that, usually while we were dining in an expensive Paris restaurant, I’d recall us that first time sniffing each other’s genitals like dogs—and he’d be regaling the table with his latest anecdote, sounding out and working up a version of the novel he was working Black Hill and The Songlines, his Australian novel. Interestingly, or tellingly, the real-life stories he told me were much gayer in the original than those ending up in the book.

Bruce was a relentless raconteur; you felt that his audience didn’t matter as much to him as his need to polish and reshape the same story at a different table the following evening. He lived in London in a tiny flat on the top floor of an Eaton Square mansion. He was more concerned with the address than with the actual living space.

One evening he had what I took to be a peroxided rent boy with him, but later, I realized was Jasper Conran, the wildly successful cloth­ing designer, son of the famous designer Sir Terence Conran, and favorite of Princess Diana. Bruce and Jasper were lovers, it seemed, for a long time, though ultimately Bruce went back to his wife, who nursed him until he died. Since he was a connoisseur as much as he was a compulsive raconteur and writer, and since he had worked as an auctioneer at Christie’s, he had an almost pharaonic urge to pile up goods to be used in the afterlife; his wife would have to return the extravagant daily purchases.

John Purcell, when he was still my roommate, couldn’t bear Bruce’s monologues, which demanded too much respectful silence and close listening. John wanted to drink and be casually merry with an older man who would ask him questions about himself, and he hated Bruce’s long involved narratives about Australian aboriginals, which amounted to drafts of his next book. His art seemed to be entirely oral, a form of performance art. I assured John that Bruce kept crowned heads mesmerized with his soliloquies. John’s only reply was a spat-out “They can have him.”

Paulin took the novel to task for its “sexual boasts,” and Greer described a sexual scene I hadn’t written. A few years before, A. S. Byatt and Germaine Greer, also on TV, had condemned the erotic pursuits of the narrator of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Folding Star. And now Greer described a moment of “anal jackhammering” on an elevator in The Farewell Symphony that I’d never even imagined, much less rendered. More recently, Greer attacked my Rimbaud biography for its supposed advocacy of anal sex, which she for one was categorically opposed to.

She was worried about being unmasked as a fraud. When she failed to pick up on how blasphemous The Satanic Verses would be consid­ered, she tormented herself endlessly about this lapse in judgment, and yet I doubt if many or even any literary scouts like her around the globe had foreseen this horrible development. Certainly Salman himself hadn’t, but MC took the fatwa as a very public exposure of her incom­petence. I assured her that no one could blame her for not anticipating the evil whims of some flea-bitten cleric in Iran, but at the same I wondered whether or not she might have been more sensitive to cultural clashes if she’d come from a religious melting pot like America instead of the completely secularized France.

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A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

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


Masculinity – The sheer animal force of antagonist Stanley Kowalski is partly responsible for the fame of A Streetcar Named Desire. In this play, masculinity means aggression, control, physical dominance, and even violence. Accompanying these traits are a general lack of refinement, manners, and sensitivity. One point of view expressed in the play is that this sort of brute masculinity is primitive and sub-human; another is that it is attractive and sexually appealing.

Marriage – The central marriage in A Streetcar Named Desire operates on a tumultuous combination of hero-worship, aggression, sexual attraction, and a difficult class difference between husband and wife. Despite the challenges, we never doubt for a moment the intensity of love these two feel for each other.

There’s something primitive or almost animal in the ferocity of their interactions – both fighting and love-making – that makes their relationship difficult for some other characters to understand. In this marriage, we definitely see traditional gender roles of a dominant husband who brings home the money and pays the bills; and the doting housewife who is responsible for making dinner, cleaning up, and raising a child.

Society and class – A Streetcar Named Desire deals with class differences in New Orleans during the 1940s. One point of view is that of a fading Southern belle, with outdated ideals about the socially elite and those she considers “beneath” her social rank—like second or third-generation immigrants. Contrast this with the opposing, more modern (at the time) point of view that Americans are Americans, and that immigrants are a foundation of the U.S.

Fantasy’s inability to overcome reality – Alcohol is used as a means of escape in A Streetcar Named Desire. Main character Blanche DuBois uses booze to distract herself from reality and to retreat further into a world of fantasy and cleverly contrived artifice. Habitual drinking isn’t ideal for a woman’s reputation in the 1940’s, so the habit is often hidden or disguised. For the male gender, alcohol is very much tied to physical aggression and plays a part in the play’s worst violence.

the relationship between sex and death – Sex is essentially a destructive force in A Streetcar Named Desire, though this destruction takes a variety of forms, including literal death, physical violence, mental degradation, the sullying of a good reputation, and even financial ruin. It’s very much tied to physical aggression, both in the sexual relations between husband and wife, but also in the play’s rape scene. Death features prominently and is very much connected to lust. Sex seems to be responsible for much of the death—literal and figurative—that we see in the play.

Oddly enough, characters also turn to sex to comfort themselves in times of loss, which only leads to… more destruction. Death comes in all varieties in this play: the loss of reputation, sanity, physical well-being, relationships, and youth.

Appearances – For main character and fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois, appearances are important. They’re also generally fake. Consumed with the need to appear younger and more innocent than she actually is, every personal interaction is a series of machinations and contrivances designed to reveal the truth, regarding both looks and reputation.

Madness – A Streetcar Named Desire features a gradual descent into madness, brought about by loss, depression, financial ruin, and the cruelty of others. At first, this so-called “madness” is just an attempted escape from reality—an altered self-image and a polished persona that doesn’t accurately reflect the character below.

As the play progresses, however, this self-deception intensifies and deviates further and further from reality. By the play’s conclusion, the main character can no longer distinguish between her fantasies and the world around her. “I don’t think I ever seen you in the light. That’s a fact! [..] You never want to go out in the afternoon. […] You never want to go out till after six and then it’s always some place that’s not lighted much. […] What it means is I’ve never had a real good look at you.”

We get another layer of meaning to this lights business when Blanche discusses her former husband, Allan. She describes falling in love as though “you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow, that’s how it struck the world for me” (6.120). When she caught him with another man, later confronted him, and discovered his suicide, she claims that “the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light that’s stronger than this—kitchen—candle…”

lanche also uses light imagery to describe the benefits of poetry, music, and art – in contrast to what she considers to be Stanley’s primitive nature. She tells Stella, “There has been some progress since then! Such things as art—as poetry and music—such kinds of new light have come into the world since then! […] In this dark march […] don’t — don’t hang back with the brutes!”

dependence on men

motifs  · Light – Blanche makes a big deal out of never being seen in direct light—if she’s out in the daylight, she’d glow all sparkly-like, because she’s actually a vampire.

bathing; drunkenness

symbols  · Shadows and cries; the Varsouviana polka (Music used throughout scenes nine through eleven); “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (Ella Fitzgerald); meat

Much of the pathos found in Williams’s drama was mined from the playwright’s own life. Alcoholism, depression, thwarted desire, loneliness, and insanity were all part of Williams’s world. His experience as a known homosexual in an era unfriendly to homosexuality also informed his work. Williams’s most memorable characters, many of them female, contain recognizable elements of their author, Edwina, and Rose. His vulgar, irresponsible male characters, such as Stanley Kowalski, were likely modeled on Williams’s own father and other males who tormented Williams during his childhood.

The characters are trying to rebuild their lives in postwar America: Stanley and Mitch served in the military, while Blanche had affairs with young soldiers based near her home.

ASND 2The title is taken from a Hart Crane poem titled “The Broken Tower.”:

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)

But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
Crane was one of Williams’ icons. His use of this quotation is apt, as Crane himself often employed epigraphs from his own icons, including Melville, Whitman, Dickinson, and Blake. Williams felt a personal affinity with Crane, who, like himself, had a bitter relationship with his parents and suffered from bouts of violent alcoholism. Most important, Williams identified with Crane as a homosexual writer trying to find a means of self-expression in a heterosexual world.

Williams was influenced by Crane’s imagery and by his unusual attention to metaphor. The epigraph’s description of love as only an “instant” and as a force that precipitates “each desperate choice” brings to mind Williams’character Blanche DuBois. Crane’s speaker’s line, “I know not whither [love’s voice is] hurled,” also suggests Blanche. With increasing desperation, Blanche “hurls” her continually denied love out into the world, only to have that love revisit her in the form of suffering.

As its title indicates, A Streetcar Named Desire explores the destinations to which desire leads.

Blanche DuBois, a schoolteacher from Laurel, Mississippi, arrives at the New Orleans apartment of her sister, Stella Kowalski. Despite the fact that Blanche seems to have fallen out of close contact with Stella, she intends to stay at Stella’s apartment for an unspecified but likely lengthy period of time, given the large trunk she has with her. Blanche tells Stella that she lost Belle Reve, their ancestral home, following the death of all their remaining relatives. She also mentions that she has been given a leave of absence from her teaching position because of her bad nerves.

Though Blanche does not seem to have enough money to afford a hotel, she is disdainful of the cramped quarters of the Kowalskis’ two-room apartment and of the apartment’s location in a noisy, diverse, working-class neighbourhood. Blanche’s social condescension wins her the instant dislike of Stella’s husband of Polish descent named Stanley Kowalski who deals in an auto-parts supply. It is clear that Stella was happy to leave behind her the social pretensions of her background in exchange for the sexual gratification she gets from her husband; she even is pregnant with his baby. Stanley immediately distrusts Blanche to the extent that he suspects her of having cheated Stella out of her share of the family inheritance. In the process of defending herself to Stanley, Blanche reveals that Belle Reve was lost due to a foreclosed mortgage, a disclosure that signifies the dire nature of Blanche’s financial circumstances. Blanche’s heavy drinking, which she attempts to conceal from her sister and brother-in-law, is another sign that all is not well with Blanche.

The unhappiness that accompanies the animal magnetism of Stella and Stanley’s marriage reveals itself when Stanley hosts a drunken poker game with his male friends at the apartment. Blanche gets under Stanley’s skin, especially when she starts to win the affections of his close friend Mitch. After Mitch has been absent for a while, speaking with Blanche in the bedroom, Stanley erupts, storms into the bedroom, and throws the radio out of the window. When Stella yells at Stanley and defends Blanche, Stanley beats her. The men pull him off, the poker game breaks up, and Blanche and Stella escape to their upstairs neighbour Eunice’s apartment. A short while later, Stanley is remorseful and cries up to Stella to forgive him. To Blanche’s alarm, Stella returns to Stanley and embraces him passionately. Mitch meets Blanche outside of the Kowalski flat and comforts her in her distress.

The next day, Blanche tries to convince Stella to leave Stanley for a better man whose social status equals Stella’s. Blanche suggests that she and Stella contact a millionaire named Shep Huntleigh for help escaping from New Orleans; when Stella laughs at her, Blanche reveals that she is completely broke. Stanley walks in as Blanche is making fun of him and secretly overhears Blanche and Stella’s conversation. Later, he threatens Blanche with hints that he has heard rumours of her disreputable past. She is visibly dismayed.

While Blanche is alone in the apartment one evening, waiting for Mitch to pick her up for a date, a teenage boy comes by to collect money for the newspaper. Blanche doesn’t have any money for him, but she hits on him and gives him a lustful kiss. Soon after the boy departs, Mitch arrives, and they go on their date. When Blanche returns, she is exhausted and clearly has been uneasy for the entire night about the rumours Stanley mentioned earlier. In a surprisingly sincere heart-to-heart discussion with Mitch, Blanche reveals the greatest tragedy of her past. Years ago, her young husband committed suicide after she discovered and chastised him for his homosexuality (the term ‘degenerate’ is used in the script). Mitch describes his own loss of a former love, and he tells Blanche that they need each other.

When the next scene begins, it’s a month later and Blanche’s birthday. Stella is preparing a dinner for Blanche, Mitch, Stanley, and herself, when Stanley comes in to tell her that he has learned news of Blanche’s sordid past. He says that after losing the DuBois mansion, Blanche moved into a fleabag motel from which she was eventually evicted because of her numerous sexual liaisons. Also, she was fired from her job as a schoolteacher because the principal discovered that she was having an affair with a teenage student. Stella is horrified to learn that Stanley has told Mitch these stories about Blanche.

The birthday dinner comes and goes, but Mitch never arrives. Stanley indicates to Blanche that he is aware of her past. For a birthday present, he gives her a one-way bus ticket back to Laurel. Stanley’s cruelty so disturbs Stella that it appears the Kowalski household is about to break up, but the onset of Stella’s labour prevents the imminent fight.

Several hours later, Blanche, drunk, sits alone in the apartment. Mitch, also drunk, arrives and repeats all he’s learned from Stanley. Eventually Blanche confesses that the stories are true, but she also reveals the need for human affection she felt after her husband’s death. Mitch tells Blanche that he can never marry her, saying she isn’t fit to live in the same house as his mother. Having learned that Blanche is not the chaste lady she pretended to be, Mitch tries to have sex with Blanche, but she forces him to leave by yelling “Fire!” to attract the attention of passers-by outside.

Later, Stanley returns from the hospital to find Blanche even more drunk. She tells him that she will soon be leaving New Orleans with her former suitor Shep Huntleigh, who is now a millionaire. Stanley knows that Blanche’s story is entirely in her imagination, but he is so happy about his baby that he proposes they each celebrate their good fortune. Blanche spurns Stanley, and things grow contentious. When she tries to step past him, he refuses to move out of her way. Blanche becomes terrified to the point that she smashes a bottle on the table and threatens to smash Stanley in the face. Stanley grabs her arm and says that it’s time for the “date” they’ve had set up since Blanche’s arrival. Blanche resists, but Stanley uses his physical strength to overcome her, and he carries her to bed. The pulsing music indicates that Stanley rapes Blanche.

The next scene takes place weeks later, as Stella and her neighbour Eunice pack Blanche’s bags. Blanche is in the bath, and Stanley plays poker with his buddies in the front room. A doctor will arrive soon to take Blanche to an insane asylum, but Blanche believes she is leaving to join her millionaire. Stella confesses to Eunice that she simply cannot allow herself to believe Blanche’s assertion that Stanley raped her. When Blanche emerges from the bathroom, her deluded talk makes it clear that she has lost her grip on reality.

The doctor arrives with a nurse, and Blanche initially panics and struggles against them when they try to take her away. Stanley and his friends fight to subdue Blanche, while Eunice holds Stella back to keep her from interfering. Mitch begins to cry. Finally, the doctor approaches Blanche in a gentle manner and convinces her to leave with him. She allows him to lead her away and does not look back or say goodbye as she goes. Stella sobs with her child in her arms, and Stanley comforts her with loving words and caresses.

ASND 6Blanche is a loquacious and fragile woman around the age of thirty.  Though she has strong sexual urges and has had many lovers, she puts on the airs of a woman who has never known indignity. She avoids reality, preferring to live in her own imagination.

Stanley is the epitome of vital force. He is loyal to his friends, passionate to his wife, and heartlessly cruel to Blanche. With his Polish ancestry, he represents the new, heterogeneous America. He sees himself as a social leveller, and wishes to destroy Blanche’s social pretensions.

Mitch is more sensitive and more gentlemanly than Stanley and his other friends, perhaps because he lives with his mother, who is slowly dying.

Allan Grey is the young man with poetic aspirations with whom Blanche fell in love and married as a teenager. One afternoon, she discovered Allan in bed with an older male friend. That evening at a ball, after she announced her disgust at his homosexuality, he ran outside and shot himself in the head.

A Young Collector  is ateenager who comes to the Kowalskis’ door to collect for the newspaper when Blanche is home alone. The boy leaves bewildered after Blanche gives him a passionate farewell kiss. He embodies Blanche’s obsession with youth and presumably reminds her of her teenage love, the young poet Allan Grey.

Elysian Fields, the Kowalskis’ street, is named for the land of the dead in Greek mythology. The journey that Blanche describes making from the train station to the Kowalski apartment is an allegorical version of her life up to this point in time.

Blanche makes derogatory and ignorant remarks about Stanley’s Polish ethnicity throughout the play, implying that it makes him stupid and coarse. In Scene Eight, Stanley finally snaps, correcting Blanche’s many misapprehensions and forcefully exposing her as an uninformed bigot. His declaration of being a proud American carries great thematic weight, for Stanley does indeed represent the new American society, which is composed of upwardly mobile immigrants. Blanche is a relic in the new America. The Southern landed aristocracy from which she assumes her sense of superiority no longer has a viable presence in the American economy, so Blanche is disenfranchised monetarily and socially.

Blanche’s dependence “on the kindness of strangers” rather than on herself is the reason why she has not fared well in life. In truth, strangers have been kind only in exchange for sex.

See scene anaylysis

ASND 3Quotations:

…] a peculiarly tender blue, almost a turquoise, which invests the scene with a kind of lyricism and gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay. […] In this part of New Orleans, you are practically always just around the corner […] from a tinny piano being played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers. […] New Orleans is a cosmopolitan city where there is a relatively warm and easy intermingling of races

Stanley carries his bowling jacket and a red-stained package from a butcher’s.

You see, under the Napoleonic code – a man has to take an interest in his wife’s affairs – especially now that she’s going to have a baby. [Blanche opens her eyes. The “blue piano” sounds louder.]
BLANCHE Stella? Stella going to have a baby? I didn’t know she was going to have a baby!

The gaudy seed-bearer, […] he sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he looks at them.

STELLA It’s a drive that he has.

BLANCHE On the contrary, I saw him at his best! What such a man has to offer is animal force and he gave a wonderful exhibition of that! But the only way to live with such a man is to – go to bed with him! And that’s your job – not mine!

STANLEY [bellowing] Hey there! Stella, Baby!

STELLA Can I come watch?

STELLA Yes. A different species.
BLANCHE In what way; what’s he like?
STELLA Oh, you can’t describe someone you’re in love with!

STELLA I can hardly stand it when he is away for a night…
[…] STELLA When he’s away for a week I nearly go wild!
[…] STELLA And when he comes back I cry on his lap like a baby…

STELLA…You come out with me while Blanche is getting dressed.
STANLEY Since when do you give me orders?

STELLA No. Stanley’s the only one of his crowd that’s likely to get anywhere.
[…] STELLA It isn’t on his forehead and it isn’t genius.
It’s a drive that he has.

BLANCHE I’m terrified!
MITCH Ho-ho! There’s nothing to be scared of. They’re crazy about each other.

STELLA Stanley doesn’t give me a regular allowance, he likes to pay bills himself.

Stella has embraced him with both arms, fiercely, and full in the view of Blanche. He laughs and clasps her head to him. Over her head he grins through the curtains at Blanche.

STELLA Blanche, do you want him?
BLANCHE I want to rest! I want to breathe quietly again! Yes – I want Mitch… very badly! Just think! If it happens! I can leave here and not be anyone’s problem…

BLANCHE What you are talking about is brutal desire—just—Desire! The name of that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another…
STELLA Haven’t you ever ridden on that street-car?

BLANCHE It brought me here.

They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!

Her appearance is incongruous to the setting. She is daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and earrings of pearl, white gloves and hat, looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party in the garden district.

EUNICE A great big place with white columns.

BLANCHE …I let the place go? Where were you! In bed with your – Polack!

BLANCHE Please don’t get up.
STANLEY Nobody’s going to get up, so don’t be worried.

BLANCHE That one seems – superior to the others.
STELLA Yes, he is.
BLANCHE I thought he had a sort of sensitive look.

BLANCHE It’s a French name.
[…] MITCH You’re French?
BLANCHE We are French by extraction. Our first American ancestors were French Huguenots.

BLANCHE Stop it. Let go of that broom. I won’t have you cleaning up for him!
STELLA Then who’s going to do it? Are you?
STELLA No, I didn’t think so

STANLEY That’s how I’ll clear the table! [He seizes her arm.] Don’t ever talk that way to me! “Pig – Polack – disgusting – vulgar – greasy!” – them kind of words have been on your tongue and your sister’s too much around here! What do you think you two are? A pair of queens? Remember what Huey Long said – “Every Man is a King!” And I am the King around here, so don’t forget it!

STANLEY You showed me the snapshot of the place with the columns and how you loved it.

… but contains a folding bed to be used by Blanche. The room beyond is a bedroom.

Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens. […] He sizes women up with a glance, with sexual clarifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them.

STANLEY My clothes are stickin’ to me. Do you mind if I make myself comfortable? [He starts to remove his shirt.] Be comfortable is my motto.

Blanche moves back into the streak of light. She raises her arms and stretches, as she moves indolently back to the chair.

Blanche waltzes to the music with romantic gestures. Mitch is delighted and moves in awkward imitation like a dancing bear.

ASND 7STANLEY [with heaven-splitting violence] STELL-LAHHHHH!
[The low-tone clarinet moans. The door upstairs opens again. Stella slips down the rickety stairs in her robe. Her eyes are glistening with tears and her hair loose about her throat and shoulders. They stare at each other. Then they come together with low, animal moans. He falls to his knees on the steps and presses his face to her belly, curving a little with maternity. Her eyes go blind with tenderness as she catches his head and raises him level with her. He snatches the screen door open and lifts her off her feet and bears her into the dark flat.]

STELLA Why on our wedding night – soon as we came in here – he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light-bulbs with it.
[…] BLANCHE And you – you let him? Didn’t run, didn’t scream?
STELLA I was – sort of – thrilled by it

STELLA But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark – that sort of make everything else seem – unimportant. [Pause]
BLANCHE What you are talking about is brutal desire – just – Desire! – the name of that rattle-trap street-car that bans through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another…

BLANCHE Well you do, honey lamb! Come here. I want to kiss you, just once, softly and sweetly on your mouth!

She springs up and crosses to it, and removes a whiskey bottle. She pours a half tumbler of whiskey and tosses it down. She carefully replaces the bottle and washes out the tumbler at the sink.

BLANCHE …Now don’t get worried, your sister hasn’t turned into a drunkard, she’s just all shaken up and hot and tired and dirty! (

BLANCHE No, one’s my limit.

BLANCHE …I’ll show you shuperficial – Listen to me! My tongue is a little – thick! You boys are responsible for it. The show let out at eleven and we couldn’t come home on account of the poker game so we had to go somewhere and drink. I’m not accustomed to having more than one drink. Two is the limit – and three! [She laughs] Tonight I had three.

The rapid feverish polka tune, the “Varsouviana,” is heard. The music is in her mind; she is drinking to escape.

BLANCHE [She rushes about frantically, hiding the bottle in a closet, crouching at the mirror and dabbing her face with cologne and powder.]

MITCH I told you already I don’t want none of his liquor and I mean it. You ought to lay off his liquor. He says you been lapping it up all summer like a wild-cat.

Blanche has been drinking fairly steadily since Mitch left. […] As the drinking and packing went on, a mood of hysterical exhilaration came into her and she has decked herself out in a somewhat soiled and crumpled white satin evening gown and a pair of scuffed silver slippers with brilliants set in their heels.

BLANCHE And turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare!

BLANCHE …You know I haven’t put on one ounce in ten years, Stella? I weigh what I weighed the summer you left Belle Reve. The summer Dad died and you left us…

STELLA And admire her dress and tell her she’s looking wonderful That’s important with Blanche. Her little weakness!

STANLEY Compliments to women about their looks. I never met a woman that didn’t know if she was good-looking or not without being told, and some of them give themselves credit for more than they’ve got. I once went out with a doll who said to me, “I am the glamorous type, I am the glamorous type!” I said. “So what?” (

BLANCHE …After all, a woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion…

STANLEY Well this somebody named Shaw is under the impression he met you in Laurel, but I figure he must have got you mixed up with some other party because this other party is someone he met at a hotel called the Flamingo.
[…] BLANCHE I’m afraid he does have me mixed up with this “other party.” The Hotel Flamingo is not the sort of establishment I would dare to be seen in!

BLANCHE It isn’t enough to be soft. You’ve got to be soft and attractive. And I – I’m fading now! I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick.

STELLA She is. She was. You didn’t know Blanche as a girl. Nobody, nobody was as tender and trusting as she was. But people like you abused her, and forced her to change.

BLANCHE A cultivated woman, a woman of intelligence and breeding can enrich a man’s life – immeasurably! I have those things to offer, and this doesn’t take them away. Physical beauty is passing. A transitory possession. But beauty of the mind and richness of the spirit and tenderness of the heart – and I have all of those things. […] But I have been foolish – casting my pearls before swine!

BLANCHE …I want to be near you, got to be with somebody, I can’t be alone! Because – as you must have noticed – I’m – not very well… [Her voice drops and her look is frightened.]

BLANCHE I, I, I took the blows in my face and body! All of those deaths! The long parade to the graveyard! Father, mother! Margaret, that dreadful way! So big with it, it couldn’t be put in a coffin! But had to be burned like rubbish! You just came home in time for the funerals, Stella. And funerals are pretty compared to deaths. Funerals are quiet, but deaths—not always. Sometimes their breathing is hoarse, and sometimes it rattles, and sometimes they even cry out to you, “Don’t let me go!”

BLANCHE The four-letter word deprived us of our plantation, till finally all that was left — and Stella can verify that! — was the house itself and about twenty acres of ground, including a graveyard, to which now all but Stella and I have retreated.

STELLA You are as fresh as a daisy.
BLANCHE One that’s been picked a few days.

BLANCHE The first time I laid eyes on [Stanley] I thought to myself, that man is my executioner! That man will destroy me.

BLANCHE Yes, that’s where I brought my victims. […] Yes, I had many intimacies with strangers. After the death of Allan — intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty hearty with

BLANCHE Yes. [During the pause she looks up at the sky.] There’s so much – so much confusion in the world… [He coughs diffidently.]Thank you for being so kind! I need kindness now.

BLANCHE Young man! Young, young, young man! Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Prince out of the Arabian Nights! [The Young Man laughs uncomfortably and stands like a bashful kid. Blanche speaks softly to him.]

BLANCHE I guess it is just that I have – old-fashioned ideals! [She rolls her eyes, knowing he cannot see her face.]

BLANCHE I don’t want realism. I want magic! [Mitch laughs] Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – Don’t turn the light on!

BLANCHE Never inside, I didn’t lie in my heart…

STELLA I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley.

BLANCHE You know what I shall die of? I shall die of eating an unwashed grape one day out on the ocean. I will die – with my hand in the hand of some nice-looking ship’s doctor, a very young one with a small blond mustache and a big silver watch. […] And I’ll be buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard – at noon – in the blaze of summer – and into an ocean as blue as my first lover’s eyes!

BLANCHE I was on the verge of — lunacy, almost! So Mr. Graves—Mr. Graves is the high school superintendent — he suggested I take a leave of absence.

There are thousands of papers, stretching back over hundreds of years, affecting Belle Reve as, piece by piece, our improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications—to put it plainly! . . . The four-letter word deprived us of our plantation, till finally all that was left—and Stella can verify that!—was the house itself and about twenty acres of ground, including a graveyard, to which now all but Stella and I have retreated.

Oh, I guess he’s just not the type that goes for jasmine perfume, but maybe he’s what we need to mix with our blood now that we’ve lost Belle Reve.

I am not a Polack. People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks. But what I am is a one hundred percent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it, so don’t ever call me a Polack.

Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

BLANCHE (singing) Say, it’s only a paper moon, Sailing over a cardboard sea—But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me! […]  It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, Just as phony as it can be— But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me! […] Without your love, It’s a honky-tonk parade! Without your love, It’s a melody played in a Penny arcade… […] It’s only a paper moon, Just as phony as it can be— But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me! […] It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, Just as phony as it can be

BLANCHE Death—I used to sit here and she used to sit over there and death was as closer as you are… We didn’t even admit we had ever heard of it.
MEXICAN WOMAN Flores para los muertos, flores—flores…
BLANCHE The opposite is desire.

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Gypsy Boy on the Run – Mikey Walsh


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

I had been looking forward to the sequel of his first book and was not disappointed, though the first forty pages recap what I had already read, though this will mean that the book can stand alone for those who didn’t read the previous book.

The new material starts when Mikey undergoes an almost ritualistic stripping off of his former life with a hair cut, new clothes and jewellery discarded.

The story is vivid: my imagination did not have to work hard and I could envisage most of the scenes he wrote about, though I know some of the places he writes about in Leeds and Manchester.

Those who crave excitement have a dramatic car chase and lots of violence.

Those of us who are romantics appreciate the sacrifices made for love, the kindness of strangers and that someone believed in the author and gave him self-confidence.

Those who believe that people who grew in dysfunctional families go on to be attracted to dysfunctional people should read this book. The relationships Mikey gets into are far more complex than this simplistic truism.

That Mikey still loves and has tried to understand his violent father shows depth of character for someone so young. *

Having just finished this book, I feel the same sense of bereavement as I did on finishing the previous one. I lived the story as I read it and want to know more.

There are some loose ends: who was the gay author who used Mikey to flesh out a character in his own book? Will Mikey find lasting love? What happened to Caleb? Maybe a third book will tell us.

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

My father did his very best to beat it out of me for many years. And no matter how much he tried to, or what he did to kill it, he failed. And I failed him for not being able to change. When I was 15, I left home and I never returned. I still find life on the outside very strange. It’s odd to be a part of a race and then have it suddenly chopped away from you. Kinda like the Little Mermaid getting her legs, but being really shit at walking.

A lot of years have passed since I left and I’m very lucky to have a relationship with my family again. At least through odd phone calls and my annual pre-Christmas visit.

My mother always worries about my calling, in case she’s not there to grab the phone from my father when he answers. It’s very clear that she tries her best to keep my chats with him short and sweet. But this time she wasn’t around to grab the phone. I’ve never felt the need to come out to my father. Firstly, because, he knew I was gay before I did. And secondly, because I know how much it hurts him. Not because he’s ashamed of it, but because in his old way of thinking, he thinks the way he treated me turned me this way.

`How’s my grandson?’ he says with a throaty chuckle. He calls my dog, Brian, his grandson.

`He’s really well ta, how’re you?’

‘I’m good,’ he said. `Don’t worry about me. Listen, your mum’s not here, but I just want to tell you… I love you. You wont forget that will you?’

It seems that without the death scene and ritual burning, me and my father have actually had our fair share of Luke and Vader moments. Believe me, I never thought it would ever end up this way.

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The Beautiful Room Is Empty – Edmund White

TBRIE 3(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

The title comes from a letter by Franz Kafka about the inability of two like-minded people to make contact.

Semi-autobiographical, following “A Boy’s Own Story”, it’s the 1950s, and America is “a big gray country of families on drowsy holiday.” That country has no room for a scholarly teenager with guilty but insatiable stirrings toward other men. Moving from a Midwestern college to the Stonewall Tavern on the night of the first gay uprising and populated by eloquent queens, butch poseurs, and a fearfully incompetent shrink. Throughout most of his story, he has gone to one therapist or another to ”cure” himself of homosexuality.

Moving from the Midwest to New York, he leads a life that revolves around the pursuit of sexual obsession and his burgeoning intellectual relationships: with Maria, a painter and political activist whose bohemianism shields an ambiguous sexuality; and Lou, addict, advertising copywriter, and compelling guru of sensuality. Student life, journalism, literature, art, the oppression of psychoanalysis, and the birth of gay liberation all contribute to this relentlessly paced and poetically imagined testament to an epoch of change.

This book conflates the acts of coming out and coming of age.

TBRIE 2Quotations:

‘It felt, at least to me, like a big gray country of families on drowsy holiday, all stuffed in one oversized car and discussing the mileage they were getting and the next restroom stop they’d be making, a country where no one else was like me – or worse, where there was no question of talking about the self and its discontent, isolation, self-hatred, and burning ambition for sex and power.”

“Because a novel  is a shared experience, a clumsy but sometimes funny conversation between two people in which one of them is doing all the talking, it will always be tighter and more luminous than that object called living. There is something so insipid about living that to do it at all requires heroism or stupidity, probably both. Living is all those days and years, the rushes; memory edits them; this page is the final print, music added. But for an instant imagine the process reversed, go with me back through the years, then be me, me all alone as I submit to the weight, the atomospheric pressure of youth, for when I was young I was exhausted by always bumping up against this big lummox I didn’t really know, myself.”

“Until now I’d never had any anxiety about performance [in bed] because I hadn’t realized I was on stage.”

“It didn’t occur to me that this shockingly intense pleasure could be sought after.”

“A gay restaurant? The suggestion that gay men might want to enjoy one another’s company astounded me.”

TBRIE “Knowledge and intelligence” are not the same. “I wasn’t worldly enough to understand that a friendship can flourish only if watered by tact and pruned by diplomatic silences. With a friend we recognize bounds but within those bounds respond with candour.”

”We maintained, of course, the premise that we were sick, that our experience was limited, that we were missing out on the good things of life, and that our old age would be lonely.”

“Sometimes I have the feeling that we’re in one room with two opposite doors and each of us holds the handle of one door, one of us flicks an eyelash and the other is already behind his door, and now the first one has but to utter a word ad immediately the second one has closed his door behind him and can no longer be seen. He’s sure to open the door again for it’s a room which perhaps one cannot leave. If only the first one were not precisely like the second, if he were calm, if he would only pretend not to look at the other, if he slowly set the room in order as though it were a room like any other; but instead he does exactly the same as the other at his door, sometimes even both are behind the doors and the beautiful room is empty.” Franz Kafka (in a letter to Milena Jesenska)”

“Suffering does make us more sensitive until it crushes us completely.”

“And William laughed with his special blend of mischief, compounded of humour, spite, and sadness in a ratio even he wasn’t sure of but that he mixed by feel.”

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