Archive for Book Reviews (by title)

Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith and Family by Garrard Conley

The only child of a car salesman and soon-to-be Baptist pastor, Conley was “terrified and conflicted about his sexuality”. At nineteen, while in college, he was outed as gay to his parents and given the choice of being disowned or being subjected to gay conversion therapy that promised to cure his homosexuality. The timing came as his father was about to be ordained as a Baptist minister. Conley was enrolled in a Love in Action ex-gay program, and recounts the harm he was subjected to there in the name of curing his sexuality. The Bay Area Reporter noted, “Conley’s memoir oscillates between his revelations, good and bad, during time spent in the fold of the ex-gay ministry during his two-week stint in the ‘Source’ trial program, and his personal and familial history [that led up to] induction in the program.” He recounts the months of counselling he underwent followed by a two-week intensive intervention.

The book opens in June of 2004. Garrard Conley was 19 years old, homosexual, and living in the American South. His parent assigned him up for a sexual reorientation program at a fundamentalist Christian institution called Love in Action (LIA). The director of LIA, John Smid, preached the rejection of all secular pleasures in favor of religious devotion. Thus, when Conley arrived at LIA, the staff confiscated all of Conley’s belongings. Just like in the community of Conley’s hometown, the LIA program preached that homosexuality was sinful and unnatural.

The book then shifts back about one year. As a teenager, Conley developed a deep love of reading and writing, but his father and community viewed these interests as undesirable and effeminate. Conley’s father was a car salesman who was training to be a fundamentalist Christian pastor. In high school, Conley dated a girl named Chloe. Their relationship was chaste and they enjoyed spending time together. However, when they were 18 years old, Chloe wanted to have sex. Conley was unable to go through with the act, and so they ended their relationship.

In his teenage years, Conley worried that he would not be able to follow in his father’s path, both in terms of professional and religious pursuits. Conley felt this especially keenly after failing to perform satisfactorily during a morning Bible study. Conley enjoyed playing video games, as they were a type of escape from his daily life. As a teenager, he began fantasizing about men, and he felt fear and self-hatred due to these fantasies. Conley and Chloe began dating in high school, although their relationship was quite chaste. At work, the other dealership employees sometimes pressed Conley on questions of politics and romance, and Conley did his best to avoid these questions. Conley’s father advised Conley and all of the employees to preach religion to customers when possible, but Conley never had the will to do so.

The book then returns to Conley’s time at LIA. He became friends with a male patient called “J,” whom Conley found charismatic and intelligent. Conley also began to develop romantic feelings for J. As part of therapy at LIA, the patients were required to share all of their homosexual experiences and declare that these experiences were sinful and morally wrong. Conley’s sense of self-hatred grew as this process progressed.

The book then shifts backward to Conley’s arrival at college. He had lost a substantial amount of weight following his breakup with Chloe, because as a form of penance, he began to eat as little as possible and exercise as much as possible. At college, Conley befriended David, a fellow freshman. David was a highly devout Pentecostal Christian. They spent much time together. One day, David raped Conley by forcing Conley to fellate him. In a panic, David then called Conley’s parents and told them that Conley was homosexual. Conley’s parents threatened to stop funding Conley’s education if Conley did not agree to try to change his sexuality. At his parents’ behest, Conley began to attend sexual reorientation therapy every weekend. Conley’s emotional turmoil and self-hatred grew, and he contemplated suicide. He also contemplated leaving to live somewhere on his own, but he did not want to leave his parents.

Conley’s mother took Conley to a doctor to have his hormone levels tested, as Conley’s parents believed that a medical issue might have been causing Conley’s homosexuality. The doctor advised Conley that he should not feel ashamed about being homosexual, but Conley did not heed this advice. The book then shifts focus back to Conley’s time at LIA. A little over a week after he arrived at LIA, he could no longer bear the emotional destructiveness of the program, so he left. His parents continued to fund his education, and they gradually accepted his sexuality.

Conley’s father decided to take Conley on a ministerial trip to a local county jail as a means of strengthening Conley’s religious devotion. Conley’s father said that, for the moment, they could not speak about Conley’s homosexuality. Conley lived in constant fear of coincidentally encountering David on the street, as David was originally from a nearby town. Conley also worried about his relationship with his father. He worried that from then on, his relationship with his father would be forever strained and never fully genuine. Conley avoided talking about his college friends and professors with his father, as he worried that his father would disapprove of the particulars of college life. Conley and his father arrived at the county jail. Conley’s father gave Conley candy and religious tracts and instructed him to give candy to any prisoner that could recite a verse from the Bible.

At a small liberal arts college in Arkansas, freed from small-town bigotries, Conley found himself caught between the tug of his upbringing, on the one hand, and his new freedoms on the other. He withdrew from church, wore a Radiohead T-shirt, read Dostoevsky and Gertrude Stein and defended evolution in conversations with a fellow student, whom he calls David, while fantasising about how their bodies might feel curled into one another. Instead, David raped Conley in his dorm room later that day. “I’d been unable to move from the bed where he had placed me afterwards – I believed that God was punishing me physically for my mental transgressions,” writes Conley. A few weeks later, David called Conley’s mother and outed her son. “David had trumped me. The knowledge of my homosexuality would seem more shocking than the knowledge of my rape; or, worse, it would seem as though one act had inevitably followed the other, as though I’d had it coming to me.”

He also includes other participants’ accounts and a “Timeline of the Ex-Gay Movement”. Conley’s hope is that his story will expose ex-gay groups and gay conversion therapy programs as lacking in compassion and more likely to cause harm than cure anything, especially when participants are told, as he was, that they are “unfixable and disgusting over and over again”.

 Through an institutionalized Twelve-Step Program heavy on Bible study, he was supposed to emerge heterosexual, ex-gay, cleansed of impure urges and stronger in his faith in God for his brush with sin. Instead, even when faced with a harrowing and brutal journey, Garrard found the strength and understanding to break out in search of his true self and forgiveness.

By confronting his buried past and the burden of a life lived in shadow, Garrard traces the complex relationships among family, faith, and community.

During winter break, Conley went to a church service at his parents’ church to watch his father become an ordained minister. While there, Conley contemplated the general repressive atmosphere of the church and its doctrines, and he pondered the things that many of its congregants were likely repressing in themselves. In conversation with Conley, several congregants seemed to comment upon the idea of college education as strange, foreign, and useless. One part of the ordination ceremony was that Conley’s father had to state that he unequivocally viewed homosexuality as a sin. The narrative then shifts forward a few months. Conley returned to college, but his parents planned to place him in LIA as soon as possible. On weekends, Conley had to attend gay conversion therapy sessions. Two of Conley’s friends were Dominique and Charles, who were liberal, African-American students.

One night, Conley asked his mother about his father’s father, who was a violent, abusive alcoholic. The question was for his family genogram project at LIA. He explained that, according to LIA, his homosexuality was caused by childhood trauma. Conley wondered about the ways in which the revelation of his sexuality had thrown his parents’ lives into turmoil and worry. Conley states that, according to John Smid’s testimony of Smid’s own life, he used to be homosexual but had overcome his homosexuality. Conley began to frequently consider the ways in which LIA was functioning to strip him of all forms of fulfillment and self-expression, which he began to realize would only increase the risk of suicide. One night, Conley and his mother went out to eat, and they were able to relax and forget about religion and LIA.

Garrard Conley discusses both his struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality and his parents’ attempt to return him to heterosexuality through Love in Action (LIA), which was renamed Restoration Path in 2012. According to the program’s website, “Restoration Path is a Christian discipleship ministry that exists to restore those trapped in sexual and relational sin through the power of Jesus Christ.” It further states that “Restoration Path is passionately committed to helping people discover the truth about God and about who they really are in his son Jesus. In the safety and strength of God’s love men and women of all ages have found the courage to step out of destructive and life-dominating patterns of sexual and relational sin.”

Conley talks about his LIA therapy with John Smid, the program director. During his time there, Conley never fully embraced the “ex-gay” or “reparative” approach LIA promoted. In addition to the program not being effective for Conley, he indicates in his epilogue that his experience was counterproductive in that it negatively affected his relationship with his parents and God. He writes, “My ex-gay therapists took Him [God] away from me, and no matter how many different churches I attend, I will feel the same dead weight in my chest. I will feel the pang of a deep love now absent from my life.”

Much of Conley’s later anger is directed at John Smid, for whom LIA’s purpose also apparently failed. In 1990 when Smid became director of LIA, he was living his life as an ex-gay who eventually married a woman. According to a Huffington Post article from November 19, 2014, Smid resigned from LIA in 2008 and divorced his wife that same year. In 2014, he married his partner, Larry McQueen.

Smid would later acknowledge that homosexuality was a part of his life. He now runs Grace Rivers, “a ministry with the gay community that reveals the message of an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ and genuine community with His followers – because every person deserves to know that Jesus loves them.”

Smid has done an about-face in regards to the principles of LIA’s teachings. It is also important to note that founding member, John Evans, changed his mind as well after his friend committed suicide because he could not change his sexual orientation. Evans spent the rest of his life as an ex ex-gay and dedicated himself to speaking out against these kinds of reparative programs.

These two men made it out of LIA apparently safe and sound. But for some of its former participants, like Garrard Conley, the damage has already been done. Their lives have been forever impacted by their experiences there.

Like getting into a prison, he had to surrender the morning he arrived at the Love in Action facility in Memphis, Tennessee in 2004: his phone, his wallet, his driving licence and a Moleskine journal in which he wrote his short stories. A blond boy confiscated the journal and yanked a bunch of pages free from the binding. “And he said, in a voice free of emotion: ‘False Image’,”

“False Image”, a key tenet of Love in Action (LIA), referred to anything and everything suggestive of Conley’s homosexuality. Detecting and destroying FIs was how you got the gay out. “The concept is stolen from Alcoholics Anonymous, except AA doesn’t just have you stay in a place all day, monitored.”

When Conley handed over his notebook that day, it was part of a series of rules and prohibitions designed to maximise LIA’s mind control over patients during their treatment and beyond. Other rules included restrictions on where residents could travel within Memphis, on their dressing and grooming (no “muscle shirts”; no sideburns “below the top of the ear”) and on how they engaged with the secular world (no listening to Beethoven or Bach, or entering “non-Christian bookshops”, for example). Women were forbidden to wear “mannish/boyish” clothes, whatever that might mean, and men had to avoid “campy” behaviour.

Conley recounts a story in which a 19-year-old “defector” was forced to submit to a mock funeral, as other members read out his obituary, describing his slow decline into HIV and then Aids.

A Baptist deacon, Brother Nielson, wants to nuke Middle East.

The father is an interesting character but is never drawn out. The mother could turn out top be a fag hag.

It’s repetitive and dull in places. Where is the anger? The epilogue tells you all you need to know.

Peanut butter will never taste the same again.

The author:

Andrea Arnold: Anyone would find it difficult to be forthright in a book about his or her early sexual experiences and yours were heartbreaking and traumatic. As someone who also writes fiction, why did you choose to write Boy Erased as a memoir instead of a novel, where an author can hide behind fictional characters?

Garrard Conley: I started writing the first essay for the book in a nonfiction class at UNC-Wilmington. The professor asked all of us what part of our lives we would be writing about in his class. Before that moment I had never considered writing about ‘ex-gay’ therapy or my childhood, but I blurted out some details of my life and everyone in the room leaned forward to listen. The interest was palpable. One girl said, “How is it even possible that this still happens in 2004?” Her words were my first indication that the story might be more important as a memoir than as a novel.

I worried that as a piece of fiction the story might seem exaggerated. In fiction you can get away with covering up the nasty parts of an autobiographical story or making the prose subtle. In nonfiction, however, you have the chance be explicit and say, ‘This stuff actually happened to me.’

The other indication that this might turn out as nonfiction came from a conversation I had at a café with friends at Columbia University in New York. I was visiting a friend, and someone asked about Arkansas, so I told the group a bit about my childhood. People at the table leaned forward just as they had at UNCW, and one person asked, “How can a parent do that to a child?” That question has followed me throughout the entire process of writing the book. My mom has also been asked this question many times, and she almost always cries and says something along the lines of, “I don’t know how we did this to you.” But the truth is, almost everyone in the church thought sending me to ‘ex-gay’ therapy was the right thing to do. Love in Action came highly recommended. And the more I started focusing on the question, this totally reasonable question of how it could happen and how any parent could do this to his or her child, I began to see that only memoir could begin to address the question.

AA: You were nineteen-years-old in 2004 when your parents encouraged you to go to ‘ex-gay’ therapy. Has the church changed or become more sympathetic about members coming out since then?

GC: The church changed right after I left. But you have to keep in mind that when we talk about ‘the church’ we are really talking about a lot of different dominations in the area I grew up in. There was the Assembly of God and the Church of Christ, which I honestly don’t know that much about, but my Missionary Baptist church was very plugged into the ‘ex-gay’ movement at the time. Church leaders considered it the best option if your kid turned out to be gay. But right after my experience in 2004, this sixteen-year-old kid Zack Stark posted all the rules of ‘ex-gay’ therapy at Love In Action on his blog, and this act caused a huge protest. There’s also a This American Life piece about it featuring John Smid, the former director of Love In Action, that explains why Smid decided to put an end to the facility. The documentarian Morgan John Fox even made a documentary about Love In Action called “This Is What Love In Action Looks Like,” which talks about how those protests raised awareness and caused even the ‘ex-gay’ counselors to reconsider their stance.

AA: Do you have a relationship with God today?

GC: My relationship with God is highly in flux. Like I said in the memoir, prayer for me was really a place of comfort. Like I could just speak into my head and order the world in some way. Even when I thought I was speaking to God, I was really speaking into my head and making a litany of the important things of the day or the things I wished would happen in my life. I sometimes still pray, but I wouldn’t say that I have a direct relationship with a knowable god.

AA: What about your parents? Do they?

GC: Yes. My father is still a preacher. His congregation is growing. He has a soup kitchen now and it’s pretty successful. And my mom is still a preacher’s wife, but she is very much in support of me. She’s stuck in the middle.

AA: It seemed like those recorded conversations highlighted in Part Two of Boy Erased were very difficult to have with your mother and that she was overwhelmed with guilt.

GC: It’s getting a little easier now, but we almost can’t go a full conversation without apologies and crying.

AA: The end made me cry openly like a baby. I think a lot of people can relate to having a parent who wants him or her to be something else. What is your relationship with your father like today? Has he read the manuscript?

GC: My dad was really worried about his congregation finding out about the book. As you know from reading it, there’s an idea in the church that says that the sins of the father are passed down to the son, or that whatever is reflected in the son’s behavior must be some fault of the parents. Because of this idea, my dad was worried that the church would turn against him and vote him out. His church has to be a self-sufficient by next year. Up until this year the Baptist Missionary Association has funded his church, but this funding will be cut off next year when his church becomes a fully-functioning, self-sufficient organization.

My father and I had this fruitful phone call about his fear. I said, “I know you don’t want to talk about the book, and ‘ex-gay’ therapy is not something we have talked about much in the past, but I want you to know that I didn’t write any of this to make you feel bad or to paint you as a villain.” I said, “I tried to make you into a three-dimensional human being.” He didn’t really respond this, but my mom said he went into his office, closed the door, and cried for about an hour. That night, he got behind the pulpit and said, “My son has this book coming out that’s about gay stuff. If you need to leave the church I’ll understand, but I’m staying here.” That was a really big deal in our family because he had not yet acknowledged the book, though there were certainly plenty of rumors.

Recently, some weirdo at my dad’s church saw my Twitter account and told my dad that he really needed to read what was going on. My dad got on there. I think he might’ve read the Virginia Quarterly Review excerpt. I think he read more of what the book was about, and my mom said he was really upset and wondering if I was going to Hell again. Even so, we just talked right before this interview and he seems to be okay. We’re no longer at a stalemate. I would say we’re just at a really awkward phase.

AA: What happened to the girl that you call “Chloe,” your high school girlfriend? Does she know about the book?

GC: I contacted her on Facebook right before I was about to write about her, because I didn’t want her to be mad at me. She was nice for a couple of days and then she blocked me! I guess my posts were too gay! [Laughs] But her brother, “Brandon” in the book, is openly gay and lives in California somewhere. He’s always posting these cute drinking pictures with his gay friends. She’s also cut him off a little bit. She’s married to a guy who in every photo on Facebook has camo on and her two children are carrying guns. So that’s a lost cause. [Laughs]

AA: You also wrote about how literature saved your life. What were your favorite books and authors growing up?

GC: The electric ‘ah-ha’ moment for me was when I read The Scarlet Letter for the first time. It was both the literal and metaphorical value of that scarlet letter that made me think: Okay, people hate her based on what she looks like and who she is, and everyone in this town is wrong! It was amazing: Someone took the time to craft this narrative that lets me know that everyone in a town can be wrong about an issue. Also, Hawthorne is obsessed with his family history, as I am. In the beginning of The Scarlet Letter he talks about how he discovered an embroidered scarlet letter in the file room where he was working this government job. He learned that his family was part of the Salem Witch Trials. Their family name was actually Hathorne but he changed his name to Hawthorne so he wouldn’t be associated with the Hathornes, who were some of the people that killed all those women. He felt like he had a moral duty to write about what his family had done and what people like that can do. I only found this info out later when I became obsessed with the book, but there’s also a more literal connection to the genogram. Hester Prynne had an A on her chest for adultery, and they (Love In Action) made me write an A on my family tree as part of a “Moral Inventory.” It’s really obvious why I would love that book, though at the time it just came as a shock of recognition.

AA: You got your masters from Auburn and then went to University of North Carolina — Wilmington for an MFA. You could have attended grad school in a liberal city like New York or Los Angeles. Why did you choose to stay in the South?

GC: One reason is that Auburn paid for everything [Laughs]. The other is that the South is what I have always known. I guess in some ways it’s easier to exist in a liminal space. I’ve since lived in Ukraine and Bulgaria, both of which are not progressive in terms of civil rights. The South is familiar to me, and I feel like I know my purpose there. Part of my upcoming book tour is with Garth Greenwell, and we’re booked for three different dates in North Carolina back to back. Bruce Springsteen recently canceled a concert in protest of the North Carolina Anti-LGBT Bill, but Garth and I are both Southern boys and we both feel like our best work will be to go to the places that hate us and shove it in their faces. [Laughs] We actually agreed to book two more dates together in North Carolina after the law passed. Publisher’s Weekly recently published an article about how the laws are harming bookstores. There are people living in North Carolina who aren’t privileged and mobile, who can’t leave the state, so we decided, Fuck it! Let’s go!

AA: Why did you move to Sofia, Bulgaria?

GC: I moved to Bulgaria because I fell in love with a Bulgarian man. We met at a writer’s conference called the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. She wrote The Historian, which was a big book about seven years ago. She uses her money to fund five English-speaking writers and five Bulgarian writers to go to the Black Sea and do a workshop. While I was there I met my boyfriend, but then we lived apart for a year while I was at UNCW. After I sold my book and it was under contract that first year, I moved to Sofia to be with him while writing the book and teaching English.

AA: I read your Acknowledgments page. You said that you sold your memoir before you had even written it. What was the publishing process like for you?

GC: That was so crazy. The publishing process for this book is something that infuriates people if I just tell it to them while they’re in the process of trying to publish something. I try not to talk about it often. It was one of those fairy tale stories. I was at AWP in Boston and had been invited to this dinner by a great short story writer named Kathy Flann. This was during the mini-blizzard, and we were getting snowed in. Some guy was holding court at the head of the table, mansplaining something, and I turned to the woman next to me and said, “What is with this guy?” She said, “Thanks for saying that!” She turned out to be Maud Newton, who writes these great book reviews and has a book on ancestry coming out soon and has a blog that’s been very popular. She has so many connections. She asked me what I was writing, and I told her about my essay. Then she asked me if I would like to go to an agent party with her to meet Julie Barer. I was like sure! I drank too much because it was open bar. Julie spoke to me, and very soon afterwards I sent one of the agents at Barer Literary a query letter, not knowing at all what I was doing. They asked to see more. I had like eighteen pages. I said I had everything basically written but I just needed to revise. [Laughs] I spent the next two weeks at UNCW not sleeping and writing what became the second chapter, The Plain Dealers, on their computers, sort of stealing my way into the computer building at night. I sent the chapter in, and right after that I signed with Julie. I wrote a proposal that summer on one hundred pages, which was then rejected by every house except Riverhead. It was sent to like thirty people!

AA: Do you think they were just afraid of it? I mean, I see this as a big deal book.

GC: I don’t know. Several big name editors like Lee Boudreaux were interested, but I guess they couldn’t sell it to the whole house. I have a different editor at Riverhead now, the fantastic Laura Perciasepe, but the editor who called was Megan Lynch. She’s great! She bought it on the proposal and two chapters, along with an experimental part, which is now Part Two, with my mom in it. I feel like I’m still very lucky!

AA: I was raised without a formal religion. My mother grew up Catholic, my father Jewish. We didn’t go to services regularly and holidays were for fun. Before I read Boy Erased, the concept of ‘ex-gay’ therapy was almost unfathomable. Why do readers like me need to buy your book and read it?

GC: There are two points I would like to make about that. I was thinking about why people should read my book when Riverhead was picking up the proposal, because I was worried that an editor might want to sand off the edges and make my story more palatable to readers. I wanted this memoir to be an odd document of that particular period of time in that particular version of America, an America that I believed was out to get me and the rest of the world. I thought that if this ‘ex-gay’ experience happened to me then the event wasn’t necessarily an isolated one. You can see this in current politics. Look at the North Carolina bill that just passed. Look at Tennessee. Look at Mississippi. This stuff is coming back. One of the things I say to my students when I’m teaching about civil rights issues is that it’s never a straight line of progression. In fact, these bizarre happenings are an essential part of our culture. It wasn’t so long ago that we had George W. Bush. It feels like it but it wasn’t. Even today crazy thinking controls a lot of legislature that gets passed in our country. I don’t want to sound inflated, but firstly I wanted my memoir to be a true document and secondly that if anyone found it ten or twenty years from now hopefully they would say, “What the fuck were they thinking?” [Laughs]

I started teaching The Crucible while I was writing the second half of Boy Erased, and I believe we’re still interested in that story and obsessed with witch trials because this is a strand of American history that’s still alive. What I didn’t want was for my book to become a trauma narrative or a healing narrative that would be touted as merely a testament to love. It’s not meant to be only an uplifting and inspirational piece of literature. I’m tired of the type of memoir that just shows you its scars and wants you to feel sympathy for it. This is not that kind of memoir. I wanted it to be a little scary

John Smid: One cannot repent of something that is unchangeable. I have gone through a tremendous amount of grief over the many years that I spoke of change, repentance, reorientation and such, when, barring some kind of miracle, none of this can occur with homosexuality. The article today is a great example of how we as Christians pervert the gospel as it relates to homosexuality as though homosexuals aren’t welcome in the kingdom unless they repent (which many interpret to change). But since homosexuality is not “repentable” then we put homosexuals into an impossible bind.

Surely, indiscriminate sexual behavior, stealing, gossip, and other “behaviors” are things that need to be considered when we speak of walking in the kingdom of God. God desires to transform us into His image more and more each day.

After Jack McIntyre, a friend of co-founder John Evans, committed suicide out of despair about his inability to change, Evans left Love in Action and denounced it as dangerous. He was quoted by the Wall Street Journal (April 21, 1993) as saying: “They’re destroying people’s lives. If you don’t do their thing, you’re not of God, you’ll go to hell. They’re living in a fantasy world.”

John Smid recounts becoming a Christian in 1982. He found that his religious conviction was incompatible with his homosexual lifestyle. He entered into a relationship with a woman and married. In 1986 he joined the leadership of Love In Action, eventually becoming executive director. Smid left LIA in 2008. In 2011, on his website, he stated that homosexuality is an intrinsic part of one’s being, and that “change, repentance, reorientation and such” cannot occur, and noted that he had “never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual”. On November 16 2014, John Smid married his same-sex partner, Larry McQuee

Department of Children’s Services dispatched its special investigations unit to the facility, and after conducting a full investigation, determined that the child abuse allegations were unfounded,” Rob Johnson, an agency spokesman, told the Associated Press. On September 12, 2005, the Tennessee-based Love in Action facility was determined by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health to have been operating two “unlicensed mental health supportive living facilities”. LIA stopped accepting the mentally ill and dispensing medications and, in February 2006, the state of Tennessee ceased legal action.

Tommy Corman, in 2005 the spokesman for Love In Action, said the facility did not need to be licensed because it was “not doing anything therapeutic”.

In June 2007, LIA discontinued the Refuge program.

Quotations:

John Smid stood tall, square shouldered, beaming behind thin wire-rimmed glasses and wearing the khaki slacks and striped button-down that have become standard fatigues for evangelical men across the country. The rest of us sat in a semicircle facing him, all dressed according to the dress code outlined in our 274-page handbooks. Men: Shirts worn at all times, including periods of sleep. T-shirts without sleeves not permitted, whether worn as outer- or undergarments, including‘muscle shirts’ or other tank tops. Facial hair removed seven days weekly. Sideburns never below top of ear. Women: Bras worn at all times, exceptions during sleep. Skirts must fall at the knee or below. Tank tops allowed only if worn with a blouse. Legs and underarms shaved at least twice weekly. ‘The first thing you have to do is recognise how you’ve become dependent on sex, on things that are not from God,’ Smid said. We were learning Step One of Love in Action’s 12-Step programme, a set of principles equating the sins of infidelity, bestiality, paedophilia and homosexuality to addictive behavior such as alcoholism or gambling: a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for what counsellors referred to as our ‘sexual deviance’.

An orange sun was climbing its way up the back of the hazy white-washed buildings in the distance. I waited for the sunlight to spill over, but the longer I watched, the longer it seemed to take. I wondered if this was how time was going to work in this place: minutes as hours, hours as days, days as weeks. ‘Once you enter the group, you’ll be well on your way to recovery,’ Smid said. ‘The important thing to remember is to keep an open mind.’ I was here by my own choice, despite my growing scepticism, despite my secret wish to run away from the shame I’d felt since my parents found out I was gay. I had too much invested in my current life to leave it behind: in my family and in the increasingly blurry God I’d known since I was a toddler. God, I prayed, making my way down the narrow hallway to the main room, the fluorescents ticking in their metal grids, I don’t know who You are any more, but please give me the wisdom to survive this.

You’re using sexual sin to fill a God-shaped void in your life.

“What my mother didn’t yet know about being gay in the South was that you never ran out of material, that being secretly gay your whole life, averting your eyes every time you saw a handsome man, praying on your knees every time a sexual thought entered your mind or every time you’d acted even remotely feminine—this gave you an embarrassment of sins for which you constantly felt the need to apologize, repent, beg forgiveness.”

“With each passing day at the facility, it seemed as though becoming straight was simply a matter of good lighting, of ignoring what you didn’t want to see.”

“There is a mystery in this, a minor apocalypse somewhere between what these two men once knew of themselves- a holding on to something that, in turn, refused to let them go- and I long to know it, like the old prophets.”

“Cutting away my roots and the people I loved would transform me into a shell of the person I once was, an automaton stripped of all its gears.”

As I grew older and discovered my love of literature, I externalized the markings, wrote them down in my Moleskine, kept my notebook close – so much so that when the LIA counselors took away my notebook years later, they took away much of this protection. But they didn’t take all of it. The empty pages still carried ghosts.”

“What did it feel like to not have to think about your every move, to not be scrutinized for everything you did, to not have to lie every day?”

“Masculine meant strong. Masculine meant straight. If we could only learn the essence of what it meant to be masculine, then we could learn the rest.”

“It seemed one talisman had activated the other: Mark’s number taught me that there were secret loves crouched and waiting in the last place you would likely go searching for them. What was Jesus’s compassion anyway but some well-crafted graffiti on the corridors of history, an invitation to follow Him into the most unlikely places? Love could come to you even in a room that seemed drained of it.”

“Sometimes it was what you left unsaid or undone that drew you into a state of wonder.”

“Love, over time, could either blossom or wither, become a source of wonder or a remembered ache.”

“You cut out what was once dear to you, ignore the ache in the back of your throat, erase the details you want to forget.”

“But love was always moving, always pushing us forward—always in action—and we often had no choice but to submit to where it lead us.”

“The chorus of voices will grow each year, revealing decades of pain, decades lost, families torn apart, relationships ruined because people outside the ex-gay world can never understand what we patients went through”

“LIA was telling me on a daily basis that a loss of self meant a gain in virtue, and a gain in virtue meant I was drawing closer to God and therefore closer to my true heavenly self. But the means to that end—self-loathing, suicidal ideation, years of false starts—could make you feel lonelier, and less like yourself, than you’d ever felt in your life.”

I had heard my father preach against Pentecostal church against this “relaxed” attitude. “We don’t do any of that flailing around here,” he would say. “God doesn’t want to us crawling up and down the aisles, acting like fools.”

.One moment I was terrified that my ancestors were all sit­ting up in Heaven and judging my same-sex attractions, and the next I would judge them for what I assumed they’d done to black bodies. Less than a year later at LIA, I would wonder why sour genogram keys didn’t feature the sins of slavery or racism, /why it seemed so much of history had been left out.

“Even then I knew that logo was strange,” she will later tell me. “The heart was cut away, like that was all it took.”

photos of our family standing next to the foyer’s fake plastic plants, all of us beaming for the camera.

WHEN I WAS BORN, after my mother and fatd me and just before the nurse took me away to the nursery, my father had used the sharp point of his hunting knife to gently etch a small zigzag in the bottom of my left foot, a tiny scar that would prove I was his, a symbol to ensure that the nurses hadn’t mixed me up with some other baby. He was paranoid. He had just witnessed a miracle. He didn’t want to lose his son the way he’d lost the other one.

After my parents told me this, when I was eight or nine, I’d scanned my foot for this zigzag, tried to read the faint wrinkles for a sign of his penmanship, though, of course, it had faded within a few days of my father’s etching. It had filled me with pleasure, thinking about this special mark, and though I couldn’t read it in the bottom of my foot, I felt it there, the way one feels love in a certain room without necessarily identifying its source. When I first read the Harry Potter books and learned about the lightning bolt scar on Harry’s forehead, I thought, Of course. Of course love worked that way. Of course it left its mark on the beloved. This secret mark protected you, kept you safe from harm, reminded you of who you were. All it took was the small­est symbol and you were safe.

 

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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.

Quotations:

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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The Friendly Ones by Philip Hensher

It’s a novel of reflections, also a novel for our times: In a Brexit world of increasingly closed boarders and fear of new arrivals, it emphasises the benefits and enrichment that our society has gained from those who come from outside (albeit posh, skilled ones).

Hensher states that he took his story from “The Winter’s Tale” and “Eugene Onegin” Though we did know these well, iy seemed that the unjust death of young prince Mamillius corresponds with the presumed death of Sharif’s brother taken away from the family home by the Pakistani military forces. This would haunt the family for generations to come. From Eugene Onegin, Tatyana’s love letter to Onegin baring her soul is also replicated and her letter is received and rejected in a similarly dismissive manner in Hensher’s novel. From both stories, long time-lapses and people trapped in the mores of their times.

Who are the friendly ones? The Bangladeshi freedom fighters, the ‘hosts’ to immigrants? Collaborators with the Pakistani regime in these evil days called themselves, like the Eumenides, ‘the Friendly Ones’.

That one character became an ‘extremist’ is topical but was it necessary?

I liked it where young Leo became randy aged between ages 15 – 19 – a dwarf claiming to be big

p. 89 all get prizes – the first newspaper article | read by him was obsessed by the seeming lack of competition in schools so he writes here, glowingly, of sports teams and youth orchestras.

He also writes about CUs but Oxbridge has OIKU and CICCUI instead.

I would have liked a map of Sheffield – as in ‘The Northern Clemency’.

One member read it twice and found it ‘superb’.

‘It does go on a bit. Needs editing’.

It started as a cohesive narrative but became ‘straggly’.

The Bangladeshis return home frequently to see their family whereas the British rarely undertake the smaller journey to do so. Some hardly ever go home.

The various mothers come across badly.

Scenes from Early Life was remarkable partly because it used the same method to bring 1970s Dhaka vividly to life, plunging the reader deeply into the quiddity of the objects that made up that world. When The Friendly Ones moves its action to “Bangla Desh” – the original name for the country – in the second half of the novel, the Dhanmondi home of Sharif and Nazia in the time leading up to independence felt familiar to those who’d read Hensher’s earlier book.

There is, at one level, something scattershot about the narrative structure. In the

I started to get bored about three-quarters of the way through when the action abruptly changes to Dacca.

p. 439 has a good description of children encountering and marvelling at aeroplane food for the first time.

There’s an odd masochism scene with Josh towards the end – out of the blue unless I’ve missed something.

Though it is symmetrical, starting and ending with a perty, it peters out

Do gluttons explode? cause one’s stomach to rupture, which has very unpleasant consequences. In real life chances of survival are 50-50, but in a fictional work it’s usually portrayed as being lethal.

I had to look up khitmatgar  = A male servant, with responsibility for waiting at table.

also ‘haslet’ or acelet +  a pork meatloaf with herbs, originally from Lincolnshire. The word is derived from the Old French hastilles meaning entrails.

also ‘moue’ = a pouting expression used to convey annoyance or distaste.

Quotations:

“A bird was singing in the elm tree, a loud, plangent, lovely note, as if asking a question of the garden”

“the lawn, the red box of the barbecue, the white-shirted help”.

“He would not know how to begin to forgive Sharif for being Sharif, for being humorous and singing about the place, an old Tagore song, a funny old song he had just heard.”

“A woman passing a remark and walking away… the gaze and the hidden opinion”.

‘very supercilious and angry’.

‘Short men,’ she adds dismissively, ‘… very difficult in my view.’

“This is my wife’s country. This is where we will live and where we will go on living. The sea, the houses, the shops, the English sky: this is part of our country, and we will walk through it.”

If I lived in a cave and you were my only visitor,
what would I tell you that the walls had told me?
That people are unfinished and are made between
each other …JACK UNDERWOOD,`Second’

`Why don’t you put in for Oxbridge?’ Leo said once, in the pub where they thought they could-get away with it. Pete was untidy, scowling, pugnacious, and he kept his hair in a short­back-and-sides: he didn’t hold with sideburns and big hair and anything that would come and go. It made him look older than he was, though not always old enough to get a drink. He could have been in employment, even.

‘I’d love to,’ Pete said. ‘But it’s not for me.’

`I don’t see that,’ Leo said. It’d be for you if you got in.’

`There’s no hills,’ Pete said. ‘I couldn’t be doing with no hills. Oxford – no hills. Cambridge – definitely no hills. It’s Leeds for me. That’ll suit me all right.’

‘I thought you said you needed to test yourself in life,’ Leo said.

`I’ve tested myself,’ Pete said. ‘I don’t need to test myself until I fail and then understand that I’ve failed. There’s a world out there. They’re just men and women, writing their tests and seeing if you’re going to fit in. You and Tom Dick.’

‘He’s all right, that Tom Dick,’ Leo said bravely.

The next Wednesday he drove into the car park with a firm idea in his mind. The children from Gower were there. He made a small performance of shyness as he got out of the car. They would not shout if they thought he was likely to turn round.

`There’s that fooking Paki,’ one cried out. Was it the same one every time? ‘Paki! You fooking Pala in your fooking shirt and tie! Fooking look at the little Paki!’

Sharif turned. His expression was forcibly mild. He walked up to the fence. The children stood- exactly where they were, not moving and not quailing. They had the right to this land: that was what was in their minds. He had not looked at them closely before now. There were seven of them. The one who, he thought, had shouted was short and sharp-featured, with very dark hair. that stuck up at the back and paper-white skin. They all wore shorts and T-shirts; one or two wore those drapes of wool around the ankle called legwarmers.

`Did you call me a Paid?’ he said.

Tald’s come over,’ the boy shouted, with something like affected glee. The others were less sure.

Did you call me a Paid?’ Sharif said again. ‘I am not a Paki. I am certainly not a Paid. If anything, I am a Bangi.’

`You’re a Paid,’ the boy said, but not shouting now, speaking with derisory contempt to Sharif on the other side of the fence. `Look at you in your shirt and tie.’

`That is because I teach at the university here,’ Sharif said. `And I am not a Paid. If I were. Pakistani, I could understand your shouting “Paki” at me. I would not like it, but I would understand it. Do you know what I am? My country was Bangladesh. I have more reasons to hate the Pakistanis than you They ruled my country for twenty-four years. They robbed . They forbade us to speak our own language. When we voted or one of us to run the country, they annulled the election. They murdered people I knew and loved, and they murdered my brother. How old are you?’

Taki’s asking how old we are,’ the sharp-featured boy said. He was intelligent-looking. He could have done well. The other children were dull in their faces. They had no spark,or interest; they could not even walk away through self-awareness. Towards them was coming a larger person, a grown man.

`It was only ten years ago,’ Sharifsaid. ‘You weren’t born then.’ Took off,’ the boy said, and some of his friends started to laugh. ‘I’m fooking fourteen, I am.’

‘I’m fifteen,’ another boy said, his hair almost white, his jaw square, like- a hero’s, his eyes empty of anything.

`There was a war,’ Sharif said. ‘I had a brother two years older than you. You would have called him a Paid too. But he wasn’t a Palti. He was fighting the Pakistanis and they took him away. We never saw him again. My mother never knew what had happened to him.’

`Ay, but if he were in war, fighting as soldier, like,’ a boy offered from the back.

-`They tortured him,’ Sharif said. ‘The Pakistanis tortured him and they killed him and he was much the same age as you are. So I am not a Paki. You can shout out at me and call me a Bangi. But do not call me a Paki. Do not call me a Paki.’

The man was here. He was brisk and ginger and thirtyish; he looked as empty as the boys. His head was -shaved around -the back and sides and his shoulders bulged from the sleeveless T-shirt he wore. Are you talking to my boys?’ he said. ‘What do you want with them?’

`I am not talking to your boys, as you- call them,’ Sharif said. `They shouted inaccurate abuse at me and I was correcting their inaccurate misapprehension.’ –

`You little bastards,’ the man said, but affectionately. ‘What they bin shouting?’

`They called me a Paid; Sharif said. ‘I am not going to be insulted when I am parking my car at my place of work, and your boys —’

`They called you a Paki? It’s not exactly wrong, though, is it?’ the man said. Are you Pakistani? I don’t see there’s much wrong with —’

`I was explaining precisely what is wrong with what they were shouting,’ Sharif said.

‘If you called me a Brit —’

`I don’t care to be called what they called me,’ Sharif said, with a level gaze. If you are in charge here, you will see it doesn’t happen again.’

`I’ll see they don’t indulge their animal spirits in your direc­tion again,’ the man said un-seriously. ‘They’re good lads. This is our first team. They’ll be looking at trials for clubs in two years.’

`You should teach them how to read,’ Sharif said, walking away. He was not quite sure what the man meant. He understood that it was a world of no significance that he spoke about, in which his boys would in any case fail. ‘That,’ he turned his head, ‘would be of more benefit to them than the ball in the net.’

`Hey!’ the man was shouting, but Sharif went on walking, into the faculty. He walked with a certain buoyancy in his stride. Those children would dream of football and kick balls around until they could kick balls into nets six or seven times out of ten. Then they would fail in their dreamt endeavour and

would have to be sent off to learn how to read. Sharif knew that they could not read, or not much. No person who could read looked like that, so animal in the gaze, either docile or blankly raging. They didn’t know what they were here on earth to do. That was the future for the English.

There was ten minutes before his first student, and he could hear the shouting and whistling from the pitch behind the building. He picked up the telephone and dialled an internal number. In four minutes he had extracted a commitment from the registry that they would speak to the headmaster of Gower

I and extract a number of commitments in turn, before school was allowed to use the university facilities again. ‘f put the telephone down. He had ruined a child’s life – mewhere, one of those sharp-featured boys in the crowd had talent with the unlettered ball and an instinctive understand‑

of the spatial dimensions of a trajectory that needed no arks on paper. A dog could catch a thrown ball, after all. The brilliant moron, somewhere in that crowd, would have to do without the support of the university’s facilities, and he would fail in life because of it. Sharif was glad. And in a moment Mr Wentworth and Mr Tan knocked on his door, and he welcomed them in and began to explain, yet again, about ductile fracture equations.

There had been a note in his pigeon hole from Mr Ghosh, the manager of the hospice, asking if he would- come to see hi at the end of his shift. At first, long ago, these notes had ma him nervous. For along time now, however, they had appe when Mr Ghosh needed Leo’s help in a difficult matter. He worked there much longer than anyone else.

 

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Gay Life Stories by Robert Aldrich

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

This book gives a voice to more than eighty people from every major continent and from all walks of life and it includes poets and philosophers, rulers and spies, activists and artists. Alongside such celebrated figures as Michelangelo, Frederick the Great and Harvey Milk are lesser-known but no less surprising individuals: Dong Xian and the Chinese emperor Ai, whose passion flourished in the 1st century BC; the unfortunate Robert de Péronne, first to be burned at the stake for sodomy; Katharine Philips, writing proto-lesbian poetry in 17th-century England; and ‘Aimée’ and ‘Jaguar’, whose love defied the death camps of wartime Germany. With many striking illustrations – including paintings, drawings, photographs and archival documents – Gay Life Stories will entertain, give pause for thought, and ultimately celebrate the diversity of human history.

It takes an eclectic, multinational view of the subject which introduced many figures I had not heard of. It includes the female as well as male experience of gay life too. Some times the essays were just a little too condensed, leaving one wanting more

You can dip into this book anywhere – there are interesting thematic chapter divisions – but I found myself reading it cover to cover as if it was a cultural survey, and that’s testament to its sheer readability. Lovely book, brilliantly written, great illustrations, quality production values: a book to treasure.

Most gays live obscure, unreported lives: those which have been documented are exceptional. Nor should it surprise anyone that figures who have written about their sexuality predominate.

There is even room for the deeply unpleasant Ronnie Kray, a London gangster who could hardly be said to be a LGBT role model. Nonetheless, Kray’s story reveal something about “gay” life in London in the 1960s and Kray’s dealings with the decidedly dodgy Tory grandee Bob Boothby who stood uo for homosexual law reform).

I hope that when reading the book, readers take away several things. First of all, “we are everywhere,” to quote the gay liberation slogan. Though individuals and their societies have lived out their same-sex yearnings in very different ways, the ancestors of today’s gay men and lesbians were omnipresent. This doesn’t mean that antiquity’s “pederasts,” the early modern age’s “sodomites,” and today’s “homosexuals,” “gays,” and “queers” are all the same — far from it. And in the non-Western world, the profile of those with same-sex orientation is different again. I hope readers will learn about the diversity of gay lives.

Particularly interesting were:

Alair Gomes – the construction of this photographic world aimed to “transcend his personality,” creating a “proto-religious” state.

Image for The Genius of Donald Friend. Drawings from the Diaries 1942-1989Donald Friend – Born in Sydney, Friend grew up in the artistic circle of his bohemian mother and showed early talent both as an artist and a writer. Friend did not mince words about his sexual preferences, depicting himself as “a middle-aged pederast who’s going to seed” in his journal. His relationships were mostly with adolescent boys. For example, in the 1960s Friend wrote in his diary of a 10 year old boy: “[He] spent the night with me. I hope life will continue forever to offer me delicious surprises … and that I will always be delighted and surprised. He goes about the act of love with a charmingly self-possessed grace: gaily, affectionately, and enthusiastically. And in these matters he’s very inventive and not at all sentimental for all the caresses.” A few boys became his lifelong friends, particularly Attilio Guarracino, whom he met when Guarracino was 19 years old, however, in interviews with Kerry Negara, some of Friend’s former victims report being ashamed and traumatised by their childhood sexual experiences with him.

Especially interesting were:

Magnus Enckell – symbolist painter. “His love affairs with men have not been denied … Enckell’s naked men and boys are openly erotic and sensual.”

Eugene Jansson – a Swedish painter known for his night-time land- and cityscapes dominated by shades of blue. Towards the end of his life, from about 1904, he mainly painted male nudes. The earlier of these phases has caused him to sometimes be referred to as blåmålaren, “the blue-painter”.

Tannis Tsarouchis – filled his canvases with images of vulnerable men and (to a much lesser extent) strong women

Tamtsu Yatu  – Japanese photographer and occasional actor responsible for pioneering Japanese homoerotic photography and creating iconic black-and-white images of the Japanese male. He was a friend and collaborator of the writer Yukio Mishima

Lionel Wendt – a Ceylon pianist, photographer, literature collector, critic, and cinematographer.

”In some ways, a sex act is in most senses over and done with rather quickly. It may be public or private, it may be repeated or it may be casual. But it doesn’t so much undermine society as the idea of a continuing emotional relationship because that sort of relationship – love, if you like, or even a long-term partnership – tends to undermine the idea that homosexuality is a deviance, that it is something that is relegated to dark rooms and back streets.

”That then imposes questions, as we see today with discussions about gay marriage, about the normality of standard relationships … It also makes it more difficult for people to close their eyes to it.”

”As a historian, I’m fascinated at how, in a place like Colombo in the 1930s, there could be someone like him, whose sexuality was an open secret that didn’t seem to cause any problem.’And his artistic works combined many of these elements of Western and Eastern traditions in what we would today call cultural hybridity.”

”Even in our own liberal Western countries, we know there are lots of acts of violence against homosexuals; comments by political figures on the right wing about homosexuality,’

‘Some were ‘out and proud’ but some wouldn’t have known what that meant,’. Most of them have left some traces of their sexuality – those traces are in their art, writing, memoirs, and sometimes in the court records that are available, because they were arrested and tried for various crimes.””would no doubt have had sexual liaisons with young men” and, even in old age, was said to chase young fellows because Athenian mores ”not only tolerated but applauded emotional and sexual intercourse between men, though with certain caveats”.

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Murmur by Will Eaves

One said that it felt like a film. All agreed that it was well written.
Many enjoyed the science and realised that the author had done a lot of research (it took him seven years to write) while others found it baffling. Turing was prescient when he wondered about the existence of parallel universes.
The author experienced his grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s. Did this lead to his interests in the working of the mind?
I don’t agree where he says: The Church says: ‘People come in search of meaning, and to have their fears and anxieties allayed.’ But to think you can be finally satisfied on these points, or to imagine you can satisfy others, is the source of the misgiving. Churches, like Jesus, are supposed to respond to questions by asking further questions, going deeper.
I had to look up: truckle bed = a low bed on wheels that can be stored under a larger bed; volutes = a spiral or twisting turn, whorl; scrying = peeping
Are the phones in the canteen an anachronism or is he imagining the future?
It definitely would benefit from re-reading
Quotations:
Do I need to set down the circumstances? The results are in the papers, and for once in my life I am disinclined to “show my working”. It is strangely more instructive, for me, to imagine other conditions, other lives. But here they are, so that my friends, when they come to these few thoughts, may do likewise.
I had just finished a paper and decided to award myself a pick-up. I met the boy, Cyril, on the fairground. He seemed undernourished and shifty but not unengaging; living, he said, in a hostel, working casually. I bought him pie and chips on the grounds and invited him home for the weekend. He didn’t turn up, so I went back to Brooker’s, waited for the fair to close that night, and took him home soon after. He
was not unintelligent, I found – he’d liked the boys’ camp in the war, did some arithmetic there, and knew about Puzzles and Diversions. Cyril was, I’d say, the product of natural sensitivity, working-class starvation and nervous debility. He wouldn’t kiss. We treated ourselves to baths and listened to the late repeat of the Brains Trust programme on learning machines, with Julius Trentham opining, notimplausibly in my view, that the human ability to learn is determined by “appetites, desires, drives, instincts” and that a learning machine would require “something corresponding to a set of appetites”. And I said something like, “You see, what I find interesting about that is Julius’s suggestion that all these feelings and appetites, as he calls them, are causal, and programmable. Even these things, which we’re so sure, so instinctively certain, must be the preserve of freely choosing and desiring humans, may be isolated. They can be caused, and they have a cause.” And Cyril was fascinated. He was listening and nodding. I felt so happy and so peculiarly awful. We went to bed and in the morning I unthinkingly offered him some money. He was offended and left in a mood. I then discovered £3 missing from my wallet – he could have taken it at any time, I put nothing away – and I wrote to him at the hostel, calling things off. He turned up on the doorstep the next day, very indignant, making obscure threats which I did not take seriously. He mentioned an unlikely sounding suit hire debt, for £3 of course, and some other outstanding sums and then ended up asking for another £7, which I reluctantly gave him.“welter of connectedness, the phones and messages, commuters trailing wires, staring past bodies into space, the sound-image of ghostly callers in your head wherever you may be, whatever time it is”.

“The thirty lives in this cold room, seen from some distant vantage point, are like the hopeful lanterns of a struggling ferry.”

Fear of homosexuals is never far from the surface. The few people who have supported me after my conviction must be very strong-minded. I do not think most people are equipped to associate with pariahs. They have a shadowy sense of how frail they themselves would be in the face of institutional opposition and stigmatisation, how utterly cast down if they lost their jobs, if people they knew stopped serving them in shops or looked past them in the street. It is not hatred that turns the majority against the minority, but intuitive shame.

The King died in the early hours of the day on which two very kind police officers paid me a visit. Seven weeks after my arrest, I was found guilty of gross indecency with a male person and sentenced to receive a course of organo-therapy — hormone injections — to be delivered at the Royal Infirmary.

The world is not atomistic or random but made of forms that interlock and are always interlocking, like the elderly couple in Ovid who become trees.

Living on your own makes you more tolerant of people who say strange things.

You know your social life is in trouble when you spend the ‘ evening reading an -article on puzzles called ‘Recreational Topology’.

Dr Stallbrook encourages me to write. It is like making a will, he says — eminently sensible. If you’ve signed your papers and made a will, you know there will be an end.
You have already witnessed it, so to speak. And people who make this definite accommodation with their end, with the prospect of death — who get it in writing — live longer. He says this with a matter-of-factness I can’t help liking.
a process such as simple addition has human ‘meaning’ only because I am there to observe it and call it ‘addition’. And yet it certainly happens. Perhaps the larger process, too, is unmeaningful. If life works, it works. The character of physical law as it extends to biological material is that it should underpin the way cells and systems operate, and that is all.
‘I just don’t think you’d benefit from reading my notes. My job is to help you
encounter yourself.’
The observer is a participant, as the great revolution in quantum physics has taught us. Consider now that I am the set of notes that you wish to read. I might as well ask: how are you to benefit from reading me? Shall we condemn ourselves to solipsistic balance? The two sides of an equation must meet if they are to balance
nurse who injects me does it with a good will, because she has been told that it is her job. She doubtless thinks of herself as a freely choosing agent. She likes to think she does her job well, but at the same time she is just doing her job. (One hears this a lot.)
I said that I liked to trust people, which I do. Lying there, I seemed to float outside my
body and look down at us both.
feeling that marriage by and large has the most deplorably erosive effect on one’s
ability to think.
The ones that work, the marriages, are based on such tolerance, such frank distance, that one is bound to ask the point of them in the first place. The world’s opinion, I suppose, and maybe that’s a good enough reason.
Sex is a salve, partly mechanical, to join what can’t be joined.
Why are the intelligence services paranoid? Because they know you can’t force someone to conform, or learn the error of their ways. You can’t reach the inner life. I can’t be a model citizen — though, heaven knows, I’ve tried — because the menace lingers inside. You can’t simply change people, in other words, or double them, because you can’t know they’ve changed. Only they can know that. Only they know
what it’s like to be copied.
It is the evil of a certain social class, into which I was born, that its children are forever being told there are more valuable qualities which they do not have, and which, despite the expense and discomfort of their education, they must not imagine they could ever possess. That would be ‘getting ideas above one’s station’. Trentham is ambition, to Stallbrook’s cautionary counsel, d’you see? In any case, my response is:
getting ideas of any stripe would be a start. And in fact, what I honestly think, where children are concerned, is that they should be told that they are fine as they are,whatever that is or turns out to be.
Famously I have not had a child. But I have thought more about how I might bring one to some awareness of its value than many people who have.
Because child-rearing is a sympathetic calculation. If I arrange things in this fashion, the sum goes, my child will be clothed, fed and secure. The last element is the tricky one. It is the fairy tale of human existence, seen in my colleagues’ professional ambitions, in the ordinary person’s relationship to money, and especially in a parent’s hopes for his or her children: if I make a certain quantity of effort, a certain quality of life must result. But it will not. Actions have results and reactions, yes, but those
reactions repeat themselves and gain momentum in the stellar array of forces and contingencies beyond anything we might have conceived.
My own predicament — a mathematician and homosexual who has done serviceable work in logic and computational theory but who has run foul of an illogical system of justice — seems very unremarkable. Yes, there is distress. When I work back from it to the cause — a harmless exercise of sexual instinct by two male adults — my situation seems extraordinary, even to me. A walk down the same road five minutes later would have saved me. But that I should be surprised by a turn of events does not
in itself surprise me greatly.
I am sorrier for others. I feel sorry for my mother, who wanted success for me and cannot quite bring herself to believe in my fall, because it is evidence of her lack of control over her child’s future; of how nothing is guaranteed by education; nothing is assured; of how I am, and always was, alone, as she is. She, too, may find it interesting that she cares more about someone else’s aloneness than about her own.
I wonder, June, if you have ever experienced the following: sometimes, when I am doing a long and difficult calculation, which, after much tribulation, comes out right, I feel a sort of glow binding me to the work, in the calculation, in the latter stages when I can see things falling into place. The figures and symbols are so right that they seem to take on some of the self-conscious wonder of the person manipulating them.
They move towards their own awareness. They, and not I, seem to say: oh, but now I see. And when that happens it is like seeing a mind arise from matter to discover that it cannot go back to its former childlike state. It is matter transformed. It is responsible now.
We speak of realising something without seeing what that means. We are making something abstract real, an equation, say, and sending it out into the world. Our sum becomes a creation and it goes its own hectic way. It is a small thing, like a child, with untellable consequences. We can’t control it any more.
It should be a source of hope, this lack of control. It proves not that there is no influence over events or no free will but, rather, that influence — the sheer, startling happeningness of life — is promiscuous. We are both responsible and absolutely unable to make our responsibility stay the way it should.
June, dear friend, you can’t protect me. I can no longer protect you.
I think we are both making a long and difficult calculation. Mine is different from yours. But for both of us the light is coming — bleeding upwards from the horizon.There is no justice in the world and we are alone. The depressed are onto something.What they are apt to miss, thereby, is the spontaneous feeling that dawns all over the place — the aptness of a bird on just that branch and not another, the miniaturised sunin the drop of water on that leaf. Who could have foreseen them?
Misery is the broad river, but there are tributaries of joy and consolation. Writing to you has been one of them, and imagining that you write back another.
Ever,
Alec
Or a bit of a shock. When I heard that voice asking why I’d done whatever it is I’m supposed to have done, I had a strong memory of asking the fortune-teller if I would ever meet Christopher again, and she said yes, we are all made of the same materials, we are atoms, bits of Morse, and you are breathing him in even now. Her shawl smelled maternal — a hint of bergamot and talc — but her eyes were like
Indra’s net, inhumanly compound, and after that I must have passed out.
I came back from the station via the deep shelter, at the edge of the common’s south side, where I sometimes fancy the murmur has gone into hiding, along with the machines. They are down there, at the bottom of the spiral staircase, stuck in a loop, possessors of all the information they need to find out about the universe, but unable to sift any of it. Doubtless they find it unacceptable.
In the light of these winter afternoons, the eastern half of the entrance to the shelter stays white and frosty. The western section, caught by the sun, is like one of those bronze cauldrons the early Britons buried, not in fear of death, but to extend the feast of life. I had an impulse to go over and put my ear to the door.
There I stood, rattling the padlock like a madman. Stallbrook says that analysis is a little like the voyage of a shaman who goes down into middle earth to bring back the buried parts of a sick man’s soul, but I don’t know about that. One can have too much talk, which in any case tends to drive people away. It is better to listen. The machines are in council, down there, wherever they are, because they cannot decide on anything. That is why they suffer from a sense of persecution and abstraction. They
need a connection to something beyond themselves, which it may not be easy for them to achieve, or admit, given their prowess, but I’ve decided I’m willing to lend an ear. Before speech there was listening, and the dead rise with the love of it.
Time is the plane that reveals this interlocking, though time is not discrete. You cannot pin it down. Very often you cannot see the point at which things start to come together, the point at which cause generates effect, and this is a variant of the measurement problem. It must also be akin to asking at what point we begin to lose consciousness when we are given an anaesthetic, or at what point unconscious
material becomes conscious. Where does one cross over into the other? If the tessellation of forms is perfect, do they divide? Or are they one?
These are notes to pass the time, because I am in a certain amount of discomfort. I suppose it is fear, and keeping a partial journal distracts me. But I am also drawn to the pulse of that fear, a beat, an elevated heart rate – and something more than that, which comes through the thinking and is a sort of rhythmic description of my state of mind, like someone speaking quickly and urgently on the other side of a door.
I know that Pythagoras is said to have delivered his lectures from behind a screen. The separation of a voice from its origin gave him a wonder-inducing authority, apparently. Perhaps he was shy. Or ugly. Anyway, I’ve never had this experience before. This morning I could hear the inner murmuring accompanying trivial actions:
‘I’m up early, it’s dark outside, the path I laid haphazardly with my own hands is now

a frosted curve. I put some crumbs down for the blackbird singing on my neighbour’s chimney pot. Beyond my garden gate a road, beyond that fields speeding away towards the tree-lined hills and crocus light. I wait beside a bare rowan, its berries taken by the blackbird and her brood, the wood pigeons and jays.’ And then again, moments later, when I caught myself looking back at the garden through the doorway: ‘He passes through the silent streets, across wet roofs and closed faces, deserted parks. He moves among the trees and waiting fairground furniture.’

The error is supposed to be ‘looking back’, isn’t it? Poor Orpheus, etc.

Of course, it has occurred to me that the balance of my mind is disturbed, just as it has occurred to me that I am reckoning with a deliberate retreat from the world, a passing out of sight into, well, invisibility. What lesson might that passage have for me? It is an extension of my preference for anonymity, I suppose. It is commonly said, or felt if it is not said, that people respect others of importance who have achieved things or held office; but it is a curious fact that self-respect is often found to exist in inverse proportion to public status. It has learned to pass nights alone. It does not seek approval because it knows that estimation has nothing to do with achievement.

The problem with disguising or encrypting is that the original still exists. One has doubled the information, not made it less sensitive. Something has happened to it, but the semantic loaf persists behind a mask, a veil, a foreign accent, new papers, breasts etc., and really the only thing to do about that, if you’re still anxious, is to remove both bits of information – the original and the encryption- altogether.

It strikes me that a mirror reflects, but that, geometrically speaking it transforms rather than translates. One is turned back on oneself and in the process one sees a second person, a new person who one does not fully recognise. Always uncanny, this about-facing, and not unrelated to the common fair of automation, which people assume to be a sort of coming doom. The fear of robots, I take it, is like the fear of prophecy, the essence of which is repetition: of you can be repeated, you can be replaced.

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The Sparsholt Affair -Alan Hollinghurst

I enjoyed this more than his previous books: maybe because it isn’t full of Tory ‘toffs’, though one in our group said it felt empty, pointless and though he’s a very good writer there are too many characters. Many chapters start with ‘HJe’ but uit can take you up to two pages to find out who ‘he’ is.

Maybe it’s because it’s the anniversary of the 1967 Act that he was asked to write something pan-generational, though he’s light on the 1960s (covered by The Line of Duty?)

There is a sense of movement from darkness (the blackouts etc.) to light – but is it a critique, rather than an endorsement, or 21st Century gay life?

Many thought that it was about one hundred pages too long: the middle section drugged. There was ‘testosterone coming out of every page for the first 150.’

He writes about death and bereavement very well.. The frame-making is beautifully described.

One member read of three times because some parts weren’t clear.

A young man looks at a red chalk drawing of a muscly torso, made years before. He registers the residual heat of homoerotic longing in this ‘ancient pornography’, but has no idea he’s looking at his own father’s flesh, captured in youth. Johnny Sparsholt is the gay son of a closeted father, David. He is growing up into relative freedom whereas his father was mired in a corruption scandal with a Tory MP and rent boys. The incident reverberates through other lives but Hollinghurst chooses not to bring this into clear focus, instead keeping it a matter of oblique glimpses and somewhat cryptic allusions.

How we view the past, and what we find in it, are questions at the heart of Alan Hollinghurst’s sixth novel; an evocation of time, loss and change, the social and sexual revolutions of the last 70 years.

Two generations of gay men in 5 interlinked sections:

section 1: about stunningly handsome, closeted David Sparsholt in 1942 WWII Oxford, England. ‘A New Man’, takes the form of a plummily written literary memoir by an Oxford contemporary of Sparsholt’s, Freddie Green, recording the young sportsman’s dazzling first appearance half-naked in a window just before blackout time, and the flutter of rivalrous longings set off in the various onlookers ogling him from Green’s rooms across the quad. Great use is made of these wartime blackouts, with much of the action occurring in a beautifully evoked pitch-black Oxford where submerged lusts bloom into furtive touches and brushes.

Sparsholt has a fiancee, Connie, and is already in trouble for the “rhythmical creaking” overheard while she was visiting. But his apparent heterosexuality only adds to his allure, especially when it transpires that he isn’t above being flattered by the admiring attentions of Green’s friends. It’s a variation on the classic erotic farce formula of virginal innocence besieged by cynical experience. Not that Sparsholt’s ultimate seducer, a sensitive aesthete named Evert Dax, is cynical in himself (he’s too ardent for that), but his success has as much to do with the awakening of mercenary tendencies in Sparsholt as it does with the gratifying of homoerotic ones, which doesn’t bode well for Sparsholt’s future.

The immediate fun of this section is largely in its reviving of a particular style of fine writing, in which the euphemism and indirectness about sexual matters still had a certain currency. It isn’t  quite pastiche, more a sort of dead-on rendition of how an old-school literatteur who also happens to be an old-school repressed homosexual (so repressed he remains comically unaware of his own infatuation with Sparsholt) might have written at that time; Henry James via Ronald Firbank, with a gravitation towards words such as “moue” and “tendresse”, lots of double entendres (“Where do you like to take her?”). There is also some complicated snobbish satire, much of it at the expense of Dax’s father, a famous but evidently awful novelist who embodies the vice that Hollinghurst’s own novels seem to despise above all others: bad art. (One enters his books nervous of being found guilty of some appalling error of taste; woe betide any admirer of Strauss reading The Line of Beauty, or of Chagall reading this one.)

sections 2-5: his gay son Johnny, living in his father’s notoriously “scandalous” shadow 1951-2012

In part two, set in 1965, Sparsholt, now a war hero and successful industrialist, has married Connie and the two have brought their son Johnny, an aspiring artist, on holiday to Cornwall (encroaching on Patrick Gale territory?) , along with his French exchange partner, Bastien. Johnny is besotted with Bastien, but the sexually precocious French boy has discovered girls  and Johnny spends his days in rebuffed longing. Another couple, the Haxbys, are also in Cornwall, and it becomes steadily apparent that a clandestine affair is going on. The section reformulates the pattern of pursuers and pursued from the first part, with Johnny in the lovelorn Dax’s role, Bastien reprising the role of freshly arrived young Adonis, a small yacht furnishing the same sexually charged atmosphere as the Oxford darkness, and so on.

Continuing this pattern of repetition with variation, part three brings back Dax, now the gay eminence of a bohemian household in the comparatively liberated London of 1974. Chance brings Johnny, at this point earning his living as an apprentice art restorer, into the household, where he duly assumes the role of flattered ingenu (“I like your trousers”). He is eager to be initiated into the mysteries of gay London but unaware of the connection between Dax and his father, and of the less than straightforward motives the men around him might have for taking him to bed. The three-day week, with its intermittent darknesses, nicely echoes the blackouts of the first part.

There is a layering of similar situations on top of each other like a series of transparencies that cumulatively portray a culture as it exists in time as well as in space, revolving the same constellation of longings and confusions, with the gradual relaxing of attitudes around sexuality operating as the principle of change.

In the 90s we get a lesbian couple’s invitation to “do a baby for us”  on into the present era of selfies, makeover TV and internet porn. Johnny, by now a successful portrait painter, carries the novel at this point. He’s a warmly sympathetic character to keep company with, whether he’s musing on portraiture, attending a funeral, suffering the indignities of a vegetarian in a carnivorous world, painting the arriviste (and viciously named) Miserden family, or finding new love at a club in autumnal middle age. An amazing amount of the passion and folly of the human comedy is woven into his modest life, all of it beautifully observed and memorably articulated.

The author:

“I wanted to create in the reader that sense of half-remembered details,”

“If you think about the Poulson scandal in the early 1970s [a property and corruption case that resulted in the resignation of the home secretary, Reginald Maudling] … the Profumo affair people remember a bit better, but actually, if we tested each other on it now, we’d probably be a bit rocky, and that was a very, very prominent scandal.”

“I can see that I keep going back to the periods when things were more difficult and clandestine, because they seem from a fictional point of view to be more rewarding.”

“It’s a funny thing; when you could openly have gay clubs after 1967, but they had all these complicated licensing laws, and one thing was that they had to serve a meal. You had to be a member, so you paid; I can remember when I first went to London gay clubs in the late 70s having to become a member, this ridiculous thing, and write down your address. And then you got this fucking salad!” (There is an additional twist of humour: Johnny’s salad includes a revolting knob of sweaty, gristly ham; he later becomes, like Hollinghurst, a committed vegetarian.)

“passing through a door, going down a staircase, into this magical other place where your desires can be made fresh”

“I did have that sense that I was very fortunate in a way, coming along just as gay lit as a genre was really coming into its own, and finding there was this whole fascinating, unexplored world to write about. But then of course that was in the wake of gay liberation and various social and political changes; and then of course the great crisis of Aids was the second stage of that – it gave gay writing a new, unanticipated subject.”

And what about now? “The distinctive purpose of gay writing, its political purpose or its novelty or its urgency have gone, and the gay world, as it changes, is perhaps not so stimulating to a fiction writer like me,” he says – although he’s careful to make clear he’s talking about his own writing rather than issuing blanket statements. “It doesn’t mean it can’t be written about.”

But Hollinghurst has never seen himself or wanted to be seen as a chronicler of gay life or “to claim to be a responsible historian of it; but of course I’m deeply interested in it and its effects on people’s lives, and the way that one’s telling a story that’s not over; it’s not a fixed thing that one’s writing about, but something that’s constantly changing.”

“I was once asked to contribute to a book of essays by writers about being only children, and actually I thought, I don’t want to examine too closely this thing which I just knew was actually rather fundamental to my psychology, to my whole being as a writer. That double sense of being an outsider, wanting to penetrate a world, but also having a sort of self-reliance that I think only children have. They’re very happy to be by themselves and quite a lot of their interesting life is happening when they’re by themselves.”

The business of ageing, he notices, has also led him to feel that in writing, “I’m constantly opening up a forgotten room in my past, as it were”. 

Portraits do interest me. I must say, when I’ve had some spare cash, I’ve found myself collecting them. Since I don’t have much space at home, they are rather small ones, and they tend to be of people I don’t know anything about, so everything is conjecture, really.

BOLLEN: You actually go to auction houses and hunt around the sales?

HOLLINGHURST: Well, I became really addicted about ten years ago, when I discovered that auction houses put all their catalogs online. People get addicted to various things online. My addiction is relatively harmless.

I usually end up giving just a few little physical details, which encourage the reader to make up the character themselves. You could have a sort of Dickensian approach, where you get almost grotesquely detailed with an exaggerated sense of someone’s physical appearance. But I think for a lot of the great fictional characters, you might only know roughly how tall they are or what color their hair is, or perhaps their eyes might be rather significant. Oddly, I think it’s the lesser characters that you might describe more vividly because they only get one moment in the spotlight. But I build a lot of characters more out of what they say and perhaps the way that they say it—the mannerisms and gestures associated with speech, as well as the tones. I’ve always been interested in analyzing the way people say things and what they’re not saying or trying to conceal.

I didn’t want to write an idealized version of Oxford, like a terrible, hackneyed kind of Brideshead Revisited. Those years seemed a fascinating moment when people of different backgrounds might have just been thrust together there in a new way.

BOLLEN: Especially when you’re facing possible doom for the first time. The idea that the world is blowing up and there might not be a future could perhaps symbolize everyone’s college years, but for these characters, they can actually see the bombs dropping on the horizon.

HOLLINGHURST: Normally, as an undergraduate at Oxford, you have this sense of three or four years of a leisurely stretch ahead of you, but back then most people knew they were going to go up for probably only a year before they were going to be drafted and sent to who knew where.

“in a way [scandals] make it possible to talk about things that we wouldn’t otherwise talk about – that was one of the things about the Wilde scandal I suppose, wasn’t it? That it made a shockingly public, unambiguous statement about this thing that was otherwise not talked about in polite society.”

Quotations:

“rhythmical shadow” leaping and shrinking “across the distant ceiling”

“It was that brief time between sunset and the blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms.”

“a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights”.

“indiscriminate darkness”

“no place for polite indecision”

“claiming the full heterosexual allowance to carry on in public”

“It is hard to do justice to old pleasures that cannot be revived—we seem half to disown our youthful selves, who loved and treasured them.”

Evert’s stroke had had two main consequences — his short-term memory was impaired, leaving him sometimes at sea in the midst of a conversation started with a clear sense of purpose and subject. He said he saw soft white squares, where facts in the form of images, or images of words, should be, pale blanks that floated on his mind’s eye like the shape of a bright window. The other effect, somehow doubly surprising, was release from worry — not only the worry that pervaded decisions and plans, but the worry that was caused by not being able to remember. This felt like a blessing, but was also, Ivan felt, a bit worrying in itself.

There was a rather oppressive need to keep him focused — on day-to-day matters, and on the looming plans for the house. Victor was tidied up now, really for good. And all the things that had been put off until he was tidied up loomed much larger. The advance for the biography was £10,000, a much smaller figure when the book was delivered than it had been when the contract was signed. The work on the house might cost ten times as much. Besides which, Evert needed a new project. A proper memoir was the obvious idea; but it could be another art book, portraits of artists he had known over fifty years. Other­wise he was going to spend every day forgetting what he’d gone out for and picking up strangers in Marks and Spencer’s.

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Release –Patrick Ness

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

Inspired by Judy Blume’s Forever, Release is one day in the life of Adam Thorn, 17. It’s a big day. . It’s a day of confrontation, running, sex, love, heartbreak, and maybe,  hope. Things go wrong.

Preacher’s son – gay, coming out.

In the interleaved story, an otherworldly Queen becomes entwined with the soul of a murdered girl, and moves through our reality, seeking answers and revenge, with a naked 7ft faun as her companion. These interwoven stories seem to be part of his style. In A Monster Calls, it was integral. Here, it doesn’t seem to be and is hard to understand, easy to skate past and ignore – for some, they will impart a sense of the extraordinary forces that might underlie the everyday; for others, they will distract from the “real” story of Adam.

Adam, nearly 18, lives in Frome, Washington. His dad is a minister and Adam considers himself completely under his dad’s Yoke while he still lives at home. Having homophobic, conservative parents means that Adam hides most of his true self from them. He’s gay and feels about one second away from them sending him to a conversion camp at any given point in time. But he has Angela, his very best friend, and Linus, his boyfriend whom he is trying really, really hard to give himself fully to (if only he could get over his lingering love for Enzo, his crappy ex-boyfriend). He also has a boss who sexually harasses him, a seemingly perfect older brother who is about to drop a shocking revelation on the family, and doesn’t know today is also the day he learns a secret from Angela that will throw him for a loop.

All of this is happening while the ghost of a local girl recently murdered by her meth-addicted boyfriend is carrying out her own part of the story, one that involves a giant fawn, visits to familiar places, confrontations, and an unexpected path to release. In anyone else’s hands, I would probably be left thinking, Um, okay, what is this doing here? But it’s Ness. He’s brilliant. He makes these dual but mostly unrelated narratives both work exceptionally well.

‘Different than’ should be ‘different from’

Quotations:

“Adam would have to get the flowers himself.”

“Blanched blond, tall, bulky in a way that might be handsome”

“You have no idea how hard I work to love you.”

“the funnest, funniest thing two people could do together”

“And two, I know what it is to be in love, Marty.”
“No, you don’t. Teenage love isn’t love. Especially if it’s…” He stopped.
“Especially if it’s what?” Adam leaned into the truck, raised his voice. “Especially if it’s what?”

He was different than Adam, is what Adam always told himself. Adam used words. Enzo used affection, didn’t he? And he had been affectionate. If he hadn’t said the words out loud much, he’d said them over and over again with a touch, with a kiss, with sex that was hardly just going in one direction.
“Why do we have to label it?” Enzo had asked, all along, it was true. “Why can’t we just be?”
And Adam had said, “Okay.” He’d said, “Okay.” He hadn’t even tried the it’s-not-a-label-it’s-a-map thing he’d sold to Angela. Why not? Why hadn’t he? Why the hell did he just take whatever Enzo offered? Without argument or demand. Without even apparent self-respect

 

“They’re your parents. They’re meant to love you because. Never in spite.”

“Maybe hearts don’t ever stop breaking once broken.”

“It was so much easier to be loved than to have to do any of the desperate work of loving.”

“Death is not the end.”

“Never pass up the chance to be kissing someone. It’s the worst kind of regret.”

“Blame is a human concept, one of its blackest and most selfish and self-binding.”

“Little girls aren’t naturally lost,” Karen said, frowning as she scanned saucepans. “Someone makes them that way.”

“It may cost you, my Queen. It may cost you dear.”
“All the best journeys do, faun.”

“Blame is something that is shared and denied in equal measures.”

“Marty: Dad’s right about you. You got lost on your journey somewhere.
Adam: That’s what everyone says who never bothered to go on a journey in the first place.”

“If you can’t pray it away, it’s not a real problem.”

“And there. The power of a word. The power of one word. That’s where it all changes.”

“Tread carefully, Marty. I mean it. The world has completely changed around you while you weren’t looking.”

“People with really stiff morals are easier to tip over.”

“Maybe there didn’t have to be any other reasons. Maybe love made you stupid. Maybe loneliness did.”

“Raising his eyes to look directly into Linus’s face was maybe the scariest thing he’d had to do all day long, but it was only the free-falling terror that always accompanied hope.”

“Every gay has to have their years in a huge coastal city. It’s like a law.”

“They’re your parents. They’re meant to love you because. Never in spite.”

“Upset isn’t the same as the world falling apart.”

“Adam’s stomach was tumbling with how much Linus knew and how he’d found it all out (it would turn out he knew as much as nearly everyone else in the school, which was a lot, but it also turned out that – in that unreachable, possible world – most of them actually liked Adam or at least didn’t actively wish him harm, so they’d given his sorrow some space; when Adam thought about it now, it still made his head swim, still made him blush, still made him wish he could crawl under a blanket and die there forever) – but looking at Linus, he saw no malice, no gossip, saw instead someone who might actually know.”

“She can smell him now, a smudge of unwashed skin, poverty, extreme loneliness. She takes the can, still holding his hand, unrolling it, running a finger across its weathered palm.”

“Why did everyone no longer a teenager automatically dismiss any feeling you had then? Who cared if he’d grow out of it? That didn’t make it any less true in those painful and euphoric days when it was happening.”

“If she needed him, he’d be there instantly, no questions asked, and he knew she’d do the same. She was here now. They had their bulgogi. This is what a family was. Or should be.”

“But here, now, again, this was more than the body, or the mind, or the personality. It wasn’t holy, that was a whole other mess, but it was something that could be touched only here.”

“But then she thinks, feels, reaches out, and knowing exactly what blame is – a human construct, one of its blackest and more selfish and self-blinding – she can find further strands of it, emanating in all directions, for blame is something that is shared but denied in equal measure.”

“an act that didn’t feel like penetration, but like combination”

“He had loved Enzo. Loved him. And who cared if it was the love of a fifteen – and then a sixteen-year-old. Why did that make any less? They were older than those two idiots in Romeo and Juliet. Why did everyone no longer a teenager automatically dismiss any feeling you had then? Who cared if he’d grow out of it? That didn’t make it any less true in those painful and euphoric days when it was happening. The truth was always now, even if you were young. Especially if you were young.”

“Physical beauty, of all the curses, was obviously the best you could get. It was still a curse though.”

“Well, Adam thought. I’ve had my mouth on his bare skin. That seemed to be effective.”

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