Archive for A-D

Death In Venice And Other Stories – Thomas Mann

DIV 2Some found it depressing, its style tiresome – why can’t it get to the point without all this long-winded Greek stuff? Or is the Greek stuff a justification for the lust?

Others, however, found it contemplative.

In the film, Visconti loses the philosophical content of the Thomas Mann work.

This book reflects many of the most vital ideas discussed in literature during the time of its composition. At the turn of the century, many European writers expressed a biting awareness of cultural and personal decadence, and social and moral decline

Literature of the era also focused to a large extent on issues of homoeroticism: like Death in Venice, Dorian Gray uses a fictional character to serve as a mask for its own homosexual author; Andre Gide’s novel The Immoralist (1902) represents the extreme identity crisis experienced by many European homosexual artists of the time.

Largely inspired by actual events in the life of its author. Mann had been on an island near Venice in 1905 during a cholera outbreak, and he later traveled to the city in May 1911, because, like his character Gustav von Aschenbach, he was exhausted by a difficult stage in his writing and felt the need for escape. On May 18 of 1911, Mann read the obituary for composer Gustav Mahler, who had died at the age of fifty; Mann based Aschenbach’s facial features on Mahler’s. Like Aschenbach, Mann was also homosexual: Although he was married and had six children, his wife is reported to have said that she married simply to have a family, and the publication of Mann’s diaries in recent years have illuminated his many homosexual relationships. Moreover, in 1965, it came to light that the story owed even more to fact than previously suspected: A Polish baron named Wladyslaw Moes identified himself as the boy whom Mann fictionalized as Tadzio. Upon reading the Polish translation of the book in 1923, Moes recognized himself in the portrayal of the boy: Moes’ family had gone to Venice for the sake of his health, and he must have appeared quite sickly; like Tadzio, Moes had slept late and engaged in carefully monitored exercise; Moes’ striped linen suit, red tie, and blue jacket with gold buttons are faithfully rendered in the novella; Moes had played with a rowdy boy nicknamed “Jasio,” echoing Mann’s Jashu. Moes even remembers seeing an older man staring at him raptly in the hotel elevator. Moes waited to publicize his story until after Mann’s death.

A storm begins to brew, and the writer turns homeward; he passes through empty streets past the stonemasons’ yards, where the headstones for sale constitute a sort of graveyard, and stops to read the gilt lettering on a Byzantine mortuary chapel referring to the afterlife.

The descriptions of the dire political situation, the storm, and the menacing-looking stranger (his red hair suggesting the devil) foretell impending dangers. Specifically, the gravestones and mortuary introduce thoughts of death. The Byzantine architecture with its Greek lettering introduces the motif of the classical world, which will pervade the novella. Mann is famous for his economical writing: It is important to realize that there is hardly a wasted word in his text

Mann based the character of Tadzio on a real boy he saw while staying in Lido (Venice) at the Grand Hotel des Bains, where Aschenbach also stays in Death in Venice. The boy was the Baron Wladyslaw Moes, who went by the nickname “Adzio.”

He was a sickly child, kept off school

Gustav Aschenbach, is a combination of two artists’ names from Mann’s time.  Gustav Mahler was a composer who died on the 18th of May in 1911 while Mann was on his vacation in Venice.  The name Aschenbach comes from Andreas Aschenbach, an inventive painter of the time who broke from the popular trend of painting romantic landscapes.  This last name also has a great significance in that “Aschenbach” translates to “ash creek,” and is a reference to both death and the canals of Venice.

He led a life of duty. While Aschenbach was headstrong and intellectually radical as a youth, he now considers his greatest achievement to be his attainment of dignity.

According to Freud, whose works Mann had read, repressed psychological drives soon rise to the surface; we can safely assume that it will not be long before Aschenbach must face the rearing head of his own reigned in nature. Nietzsche explained what he saw as being wrong with late 19th-century Germany: He believed that the Germans were too “Apollonian,” too stiff, too restrained, too cerebral to create truly great art. He predicted that the Dionysian forces would soon erupt if held in check too long and that the result could be devastating. Aschenbach’s psychological repression stands as a symbol for bourgeois Europe’s repression; his overly Apollonian characteristics correspond to an excessive privileging of control and cold formality in the European sensibility. The parallel also extends to the fates of both the writer and his culture: Aschenbach’s death will serve as a prediction of the death of the old hierarchy in the coming war.

So is the old man trying to reconcile his id With his super-ego?

And is tHe comment about Venice being best entered by water some sort of allusion to rebirthing?

He liked Sebastian in art and he wrote a story about a wife who leaves her husband for a youth.

“You will pay” is exceedingly ominous. The journey in the gondola also suggests the voyage to the Underworld taken by many classical heroes, such as Odysseus, Theseus, and Hercules: These heroes entered the realm of the dead by crossing the River Styx at the hands of the skeletal boatman Charon. The episode is only one of a multitude of references to Greek myth, and, as with many of these references, it functions as parody: while the classical heroes’ crossings were proof of their strength and determination,

Although in previous trips to the city he has always been greeted by sun, Aschenbach finds the sky over Venice to be heavy with clouds, making it appear to him a “different Venice” than before.

The city of Venice can be seen as a symbol for Aschenbach himself: Venice is unique for its daring construction; it is a city built in the middle of a lagoon, built and maintained by sheer will over the forces of nature. Similarly, Aschenbach considers true art to be the victory of the will over physical needs and natural impulses, and he considers himself to have accomplished such victories. Yet it is also well known that despite its mask of glory, Venice is gradually sinking, literally rotting from within; again, the same might be said of Aschenbach.

Venice much like we might describe Aschenbach toward the novella’s end: Someone whose days of artistic glory are over, but who longs for a vision of pure beauty even when it has become polluted by age, sickness, and depravity

The black boat is likened to a coffin and linked with death, “the last journey.” Seating himself, however, Aschenbach feels not a sense of dread, but rather one of lulling luxury; he yields to a drowsy languor.

Is Tadzio a symbol of the carefree youth that he never had?

Aschenbach’s initial interest in the boy Tadzio is something he himself does not understand. From the very beginning, Tadzio represents pure artistic beauty. At first, Aschenbach believes that he can admire this beauty dispassionately, from a purely intellectual, aesthetic standpoint. Later, he will try to convince himself that he desires the boy only as an inspiration for more of his principled, dignified writing. By the end of the novella, however, Aschenbach will admit to himself that beauty and art, as represented by Tadzio, are corrupting: Tadzio will lead Aschenbach to abandon all morals and dignity, to surrender himself to decadent passion, as the gesture of “calm acceptance” here foretells.

In the dialogue Phaedrus, Plato imagines Socrates and a beautiful boy named Phaedrus sitting under a tree discussing what the most ideal form of love. They conclude that love is necessary for mankind, and the most pure love can only exist between a man and a boy.

A vision comes to him of Socrates wooing Phaedrus beneath a tree in Athens, teaching him about desire and virtue. In the vision, the elderly, ugly Socrates tells the young and beautiful Phaedrus that Beauty is the only form of the spiritual that may be perceived by the senses, and is, thus, the lover’s path to the spirit. Having this access to the spirit renders the lover even more divine than the beautiful beloved, Socrates slyly explains.

In Greek myth, Hyacinthus is a handsome Spartan youth loved by Apollo, the god of the sun, and Zephyrus, the god of the west wind. According to differing versions, he was either killed accidentally by Apollo or deliberately by Zephyrus, who was jealous of the boy’s love for Apollo. The comparison between Tadzio and Hyacinthus hints that Aschenbach’s love for Tadzio may be ill-fated and harmful to the boy, especially since, according to Nietzche’s philosophy, Aschenbach could be described as overly Apollonion. Aschenbach’s likening of Tadzio to Narcissus has the same effect: Narcissus is a mythic character whose great beauty attracted the nymph Echo; when Narcissus cruelly rejected her, she died from grief, leaving behind only her voice. To punish Narcissus, the gods made him fall in love with his own reflection in a pool, and he pined away on the shore. Thus, the allusion to Narcissus again hints at an ill-fated love, this time more harmful to the lover than the beloved: will Aschenbach die of his love for Tadzio and, like Echo, leave behind only his writings, his voice?

Chlorotic teeth (leaves produce insufficient chlorophyll. As chlorophyll is responsible for the green color of leaves, chlorotic leaves are pale, yellow, or yellow-white, insufficient iron); A form of primary anemia affecting mostly girls at the period of puberty or early womanhood, and characterized by a marked deficiency of hemoglobin in the red corpuscles. The disease is confined almost entirely to females. Noorden, Eichorst, Jurgensen, Hayem, Luzet, and Liebermeister hold that chlorosis never occurs in the male. There seems to be a close relationship between tuberculosis and chlorosis

The spreading sickness in Venice, while important to the story’s plot, is also symbolic of the sickness of passion overtaking Aschenbach. The fact that the Italians deny the severity of the health hazard augments Mann’s portrayal of Venice as a place of artifice, deceit, and corruption.

The pomegranate juice that Aschenbach sips during the performance is symbolic: its red color, the standard color of passion, links it to the strawberries Aschenbach eats upon first seeing Tadzio and to the possibly infected strawberries he will eat closer to his death; so, too, are the recurring devil-like figures characterized by red hair (the musician here is one of these), and when Aschenbach dresses up for Tadzio at the end of the novella, he will wear a red tie. Red comes to symbolize not only passion but also depravity. The pomegranate also has mythical significance: in Greek myth, Persephone is abducted by the god of the Underworld. While in the underworld she unthinkingly eats a seed of a pomegranate, which is known as the food of the dead, and which binds her to spend at least half the year in Hades. Aschenbach’s journey to Venice could also be seen as a journey to the Underworld

The disease is also directly referred to as the cause of moral debauchery: The authorities’ attempts to deal with it have been immoral, and that immorality has reaped further immorality. Immorality itself is here shown to be not only an isolated sin but also a self-propagating entity: Immorality breeds immorality. For a society, or a person, unused to dealing with passion, when that passion escapes it is here portrayed as escalating out of control. Aschenbach has entered a state out of which there is no escape; his initial unrestrained taste of passion has proven inescapable, his own personal pomegranate seed.

The dream sequence definitively links Aschenbach’s descent into passion with the worship of Dionysus. And whereas Aschenbach originally worshipped Tadzio, as a sort of Apollonion statuesque symbol of intellectual beauty and art, he is now the “god” that Aschenbach worships. Tadzio is Dionysian in the way he is feverishly, wantonly, uncontrollably worshipped by Aschenbach. The shift from Apollonion to Dionysian is entirely the progression of Aschenbach. Tadzio himself remains a kid who likes playing on the beach.

In dressing up and wearing makeup, Aschenbach becomes the very image of the grotesque old man he saw on the boat in Chapter 3. The barber’s remark again evokes the question of truth vs. artifice; despite what the barber says, it is clearly the rouge, face powder, and lipstick that are artificial. They represent the vain and deceitful side of art, art intended to conceal truth and seduce others.

The scene in which Aschenbach loses his way in the city streets is representative of the state of his soul; the garbage and overgrown weeds symbolize decay. The strawberries are also symbolic; although Aschenbach has heard the warnings not to eat fruits or vegetables, as they may be infected, he gives into his overwhelming thirst and indulges anyway. Thus, the berries are the “forbidden fruit,” like the taboo love for Tadzio in which Aschenbach indulges in order to satisfy a “thirst” but against his better judgment.

The speech by Socrates in this chapter voices a concern central to much of Mann’s work, that art corrupts morality. Clearly, because Mann was a writer, an artist with words, he must also have felt that art had redeeming qualities. However, Mann uses his novella to show the dangers that art’s sensual side poses, even while the artist must be awake to sensuality in order to achieve true art.

The final passages are extremely mythically imbued. The tussle between Tadzio and Jashu symbolizes the struggle of opposites that takes place throughout the novella; Tadzio is blonde while Jashu is dark-haired (see Chapter 3), Tadzio is delicate while Jashu is sturdy. Jashu has long held a subservient position to Tadzio, just as Aschenbach’s instincts had previously been repressed by his conscious will, just as the Dionysian had been repressed by the Apollonian forces. The novella traces how those forces that are always kept down eventually rise up and break free; this has been the source of Aschenbach’s tragedy. Standing out on the sandbar, having been almost suffocated by the suddenly violent and powerful Jashu, Tadzio appears as the messenger of death, beckoning Aschenbach toward the afterlife.

Ceath’s head or Grim Reaper figure – A death’s head is a human skull or a more subtle representation of death. The death’s head is the dominant leitmotif in this novella, with different representations of the same ominous man appearing in closer and closer proximity to von Aschenbach. First, while in the graveyard, he spots a strange foreigner who bares his teeth ferociously. Next, the frightening gondolier in Venice (who steers a boat that reminds von Aschenbach of a coffin) shares many of the same characteristics as the teeth-baring stranger, including a distinctive hat, reddish hair, and prominent teeth. The gondolier is physically closer to von Aschenbach than the stranger had been, but is still unavailable for conversation. The final appearance of the death’s head occurs symbolically in von Aschenbach’s hotel garden in the form of a singer. The singer again has similar characteristics to the other two symbolic men, including red hair and an important hat, and he pays special attention to von Aschenbach.

His allusions to the composers Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler, the musicians in the gondola and the street, and Tadzio’s name, which sounds like a musical description (adagio means “slowly”), all suggest that art can arouse dangerous emotions. The demonic tempters and messengers of death all have the same physical features and bad teeth; the black gondola, blackened corpses, and snapping black cloth of the camera symbolize death.

Day after day now the god with the flaming cheeks soared upward naked, driving his team of four fire-breathing horses through heaven’s acres, his yellow ringlets fluttering wild in the gale of the east wind.

It’s emphasized that the “god” is “naked,” and that his “yellow ringlets” are “fluttering wild.” Does that remind us of anyone? Well, Tadzio is also described as having a face “ringed by honey-colored hair.” (3.40). And while Tadzio might not appear naked in the novella, certainly this erotic image is in line with Aschenbach’s motives.

In Plato’s Republic, one of the most famous works of ancient Greek philosophy, the sun appears as a symbol for Truth and the Good. The metaphorical “light” of Truth gives form and meaning to all things, just as the sun reveals the shapes and forms of earthly things. But there’s a catch: Like the sun, looking right at the Truth can blind you, so sometimes the best way to access Truth is by considering its many reflections in beautiful forms.

Tadzio, in addition to appearing like the sun god Helios, is described as Aschenbach’s “effigy and mirror” (4.8), perhaps suggesting that his physical beauty, in the Platonic sense, reflects and embodies some philosophical Truth or Higher Good. The question then is whether Tadzio reflects too much of the Truth, becoming, in fact, a mirror in which Aschenbach confronts his own dark, lustful, and self-destructive impulses.

He too had served; he too, like so many of them, had been soldier and warrior, for art was war, a grueling struggle that people these days were not up to for long. A life of self-domination, of “despites,” a grim, dogged, abstemious life he had shaped into the emblem of a frail heroism for the times—might he not call it manly, might he not call it brave? Besides, he had the feeling that the eros which had taken possession of him was in a way singularly appropriate and suited to such a life. Had it not been held in particular esteem amongst the bravest of nations?

“bravest of nations: ” among them is Ancient Greece. Greeks condoned relationships between older men and young boys, something that scholars call pederasty to distinguish it from paedophilia, which is the crime as we know it today. Pederasty plays a role in Homer’s Iliad and in Plato’s Phaedrus, for instance. However, Tadzio’s 14 but doesn’t yet have armpit hair so can’t be ‘excused’ as being a young man; just a child.

Aschenbach makes sense of his attraction to Tadzio by imagining himself metaphorically as a Greek “soldier and warrior,” who leads a disciplined, “abstemious” existence, struggling to make art in an age when “people […] were not up to [it] for long.” Those warriors practiced pederasty, so why can’t he? Right? Right? Or so Aschenbach insists, anyway.

Death in Venice is not celebrating paedophilia. Here, as elsewhere, the novella is using the example of the ancient Greek ideal in order to reveal its apparent perversity. As with Mann’s use of mythological imagery (read up on that elsewhere in this “Symbols” section), ancient Greek imagery enters into Death in Venice ironically, showing the way its idealism conceals some pretty disturbing things. So Aschenbach can call his desire pederasty all he wants—Mann makes sure we know what it truly is.

Death in Venice could very well be a headline in a newspaper bannering across the front page? Newspapers and news play a pretty important role in Death in Venice. News of the epidemic is alternately disseminated and covered up in the international papers Aschenbach reads in his hotel. For the most part, death is exactly what is not being reported on in Venice. And in the final line of the novella, it’s not just Aschenbach’s death that we read about; it’s the fact that his death is news for the “world” that knew him

Tonio Krögerison the same theme but the man here is almost he opposite of the one in Death in Venire as he is not obsessed with duty.

DIV 3Quotations:

personally speaking too, art heightens life. She gives deeper joy, she consumes more swiftly. She engraves adventures of the spirit and the mind in the faces of her vota­ries; let them lead outwardly a life of the most cloistered calm, she will in the end produce in them a fastidiousness, an over­refinement, a nervous, fever and exhaustion, such as a career of extravagant passions and pleasures can hardly show.

he asked his own sober, weary east if a new enthusiasm, a new preoccupation, some late adventure of she feelings could still be in store for the idle traveller.

a solitary, unused to speaking of what he sees and feels,_, mental experiences which are at once more intense and articulate than those of a gregarious man.

“This was Venice, the flattering and suspect beauty–this city, half fairy tale and half tourist trap, in whose insalubrious air the arts once rankly and voluptuously blossomed, where composers have been inspired to lulling tones of somniferous eroticism.”

“passion paralyzes discrimination.”

Such was Venice, the wheedling, shady beauty, a city half fairy tale, half tourist trap, in whose foul air the arts had once flourished luxuriantly and which had inspired musicians with undulating, lullingly licentious harmonies. The adventurer felt his eyes drinking in its voluptuousness, his ears being wooed by its melodies; he recalled, too, that the city was diseased and as concealing it out of cupidity, and the look with which he peered out after the gondola floating ahead of him grew more wanton.

He too had served; he too, like so many of them, had been soldier and warrior, for art was war, a grueling struggle that people these days were not up to for long. A life of self-domination, of “despites,” a grim, dogged, abstemious life he had shaped into the emblem of a frail heroism for the times—might he not call it manly, might he not call it brave? Besides, he had the feeling that the eros which had taken possession of him was in a way singularly appropriate and suited to such a life. Had it not been held in particular esteem amongst the bravest of nations?

For several years now Indian cholera had displayed a growing tendency to spread and migrate. Emanating from the humid marshes of the Ganges Delta, rising with the mephitic exhalations of that lush, uninhabitable, primordial island jungle shunned by man, where tigers crouch in bamboo thickets, the epidemic had long raged with unwonted virulence through Hindustan, then moved eastward to China, westward to Afghanistan and Persia, and, following the main caravan routes, borne its horrors as far as Astrakhan and even Moscow. But while Europe quaked at the thought of the specter invading from there by land, it had been transported by sea in the ships of Syrian merchants and shown up in several Mediterranean ports simultaneously.

Day after day now the god with the flaming cheeks soared upward naked, driving his team of four fire-breathing horses through heaven’s acres, his yellow ringlets fluttering wild in the gale of the east wind.

 There he sat, the master, the eminently dignified artist, the author of “A Wretched Figure,” who had rejected bohemian excess and the murky depths in a form of exemplary purity, who had renounced all sympathy for the abyss and reprehended the reprehensible, climbed the heights, and, having transcended his erudition and outgrown all irony, accepted the obligations that come with mass approbation, a man whose fame was official, whose name had been made noble, and whose style schoolboys were exhorted to emulate—there he sat, his eyes closed, with only an occasional, rapidly disappearing sidelong glance, scornful and sheepish, slipping out from under them and a few isolated words issuing from his slack, cosmetically embellished lips, the result of the curious dream logic of his half-slumbering brain.

 Never had he experienced the pleasure of the word to be sweeter

 The way he stood in the belted white suit he sometimes donned for dinner, inexorably, innately graceful—his left forearm on the parapet, his feet crossed, his right hand on his hip—looking down at the minstrels with an expression that was not so much a smile as an indication of aloof curiosity, of courteous acknowledgment. From time to time he drew himself up and, puffing out his chest, pulled the white blouse down through the leather belt with an elegant tug of both hands. But there were also times when—as the aging traveler noted triumphantly, his mind reeling, yet terrified as well—he turned his head over his left shoulder—now wavering and cautious, now fast and impetuous, as if to catch him off guard—to the place where his admirer was seated.

 “an intellectual, adolescent conception of manliness”?

“For beauty, Phaedrus, mark thou well, beauty and beauty alone is at once divine and visible”?

“Observing all this and much more of a like nature, one might well wonder whether the only possible heroism was the heroism of the weak”?

“His steps followed the dictates of the demon whose delight it is to trample human reason and dignity underfoot.”

“It was the smile of Narcissus bending over the water mirror, the deep protracted smile with which he stretched out his arms to the reflection of his own beauty […].”

 “Nothing is stranger or more ticklish than a relationship between people who know each other only by sight, who meet and observe each other daily – no hourly – and are nevertheless compelled to keep up the pose of an indifferent stranger, neither greeting nor addressing each other, whether out of etiquette or their own whim.”

“The observations and encounters of a solitary, taciturn man are vaguer and at the same times more intense than those of a sociable man; his thoughts are deeper, odder and never without a touch of sadness. Images and perceptions that could be dismissed with a glance, a laugh, an exchange of opinions, occupy him unduly, become more intense in the silence, become significant, become an experience, an adventure, an emotion. Solitude produces originality, bold and astonishing beauty, poetry. But solitude also produces perverseness, the disproportionate, the absurd and the forbidden.”
“A lonely, quiet person has observations and experiences that are at once both more indistinct and more penetrating than those of one more gregarious; his thoughts are weightier, stranger, and never without a tinge of sadness. . . . Loneliness fosters that which is original, daringly and bewilderingly beautiful, poetic. But loneliness also fosters that which is perverse, incongruous, absurd, forbidden.”
“Solitude produces originality, bold & astonishing beauty, poetry. But solitude also produces perverseness, the disproportionate, the absurd, and the forbidden.”
“It is as well that the world knows only a fine piece of work and not also its origins, the conditions under which it came into being; for knowledge of the sources of an artist’s inspiration would often confuse readers and shock them, and the excellence of the writing would be of no avail.”
“(…) nearly all the great things that exist owe their existence to a defiant despite: it is despite grief and anguish, despite poverty, loneliness, bodily weakness, vice and passion and a thousand inhibitions, that they have come into being at all.”
“The observations and encounters of a devotee of solitude and silence are at once less distinct and more penetrating than those of the sociable man; his thoughts are weightier, stranger, and never without a tinge of sadness. Images and perceptions which might otherwise be easily dispelled by a glance, a laugh, an exchange of comments, concern him unduly, they sink into mute depths, take on significance, become experiences, adventures, emotions.”
“Because man loves and honors man as long as he is not able to judge him, and desire is a product of lacking knowledge.”
“The observations and encounters of a man of solitude and few words are at once more nebulous and more intense than those of a gregarious man, his thoughts more ponderable, more bizarre and never without a hint of sadness. Images and perceptions that might easily be dismissed with a glance, a laugh, an exchange of opinions occupy him unduly; they are heightened in the silence, gain in significance, turn into experience, adventure, emotion. Solitude begets originality, bold and disconcerting beauty, poetry. But solitude can also beget perversity, disparity, the absurd and the forbidden.”
“For an important intellectual product to be immediately weighty, a deep relationship or concordance has to exist between the life of its creator and the general lives of the people. These people are generally unaware why exactly they praise a certain work of art. Far from being truly knowledgeable, they perceive it to have a hundred different benefits to justify their adulation; but the real underlying reason for their behavior cannot be measured, is sympathy.”
“This yearning for new and distant scenes, this craving for freedom, release, forgetfulness — they were he admitted to himself, an impulse towards flight, flight from the spot which was the daily theatre of a rigid, cold, and passionate service.”
“Because passion, like crime, does not like everyday order and well-being and every slight undoing of the bourgeois system, every confusion and infestation of the world is welcome to it, because it can unconditionally expect to find its advantage in it.”
DIV 4“His love of the sea had profound roots: the hardworking artist’s desire to rest, his longing to get away from the demanding diversity of phenomena and take shelter in the bosom of simplicity and immensity; a forbidden penchant that was entirely antithetical to his mission and, for that very reason, seductive-a proclivity for the unorganized, the immeasurable, the eternal: for nothingness.”
“To find peace in the presence of the faultless is the desire of the one who seeks excellence; and is not nothingness a form of perfection?”
“It is probably better that the world knows only the result, not the conditions under which it was achieved; because knowledge of the artist’s sources of inspiration might bewilder them, drive them away and in that way nullify the effect of the excellent work.”
“you must know that we poets cannot take the path of Beauty unless Eros joins us and sets himself up as our guide; indeed, though we may be heroes after our fashion and virtuous warriors, we are nevertheless like women, for passion is our exaltation, and our longing must remain love-that is our bless and our shame.”
“…which seemed to hover in a limbo between creation and decay…”
“His yearning for new and faraway places, his desire for freedom, relief and oblivion was as he admitted to himself, an urge to flee-an urge to get away from his work, from the everyday site of a cold, rigid, and passionate servitude.”
“The happiness of writers is the thought that can be entirely emotion and the emotion that can be entirely thought.”
“his steps were dictated by the demon who delights in destroying manfs reason and dignity.”
“…nearly everything great owes its existence to “despites”: despite misery and affliction, poverty, desolation, physical debility, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstacles.”
“Nothing is more curious and awkward than the relationship of two people who only know each other with their eyes who meet and observe each other daily, even hourly and who keep up the impression of disinterest either because of morals or because of a mental abnormality. Between them there is listlessness and pent-up curiosity, the hysteria of an unsatisfied, unnaturally suppressed need for communion and also a kind of tense respect. Because man loves and honors man as long as he is not able to judge him, and desire is a product of lacking knowledge.”
“Like any lover, he desired to please; suffered agonies at the thought of failure.”
“He loved the sea for deep-seated reasons: the hardworking artist’s need for repose, the desire to take shelter from the demanding diversity of phenomena in the bosom of boundless simplicity, a propensity—proscribed and diametrically opposed to his mission in life and for that very reason seductive—a propensity for the unarticulated, the immoderate, the eternal, for nothingness. To repose in perfection is the desire of all those who strive for excellence, and is not nothingness a form of perfection?”
“a noble and active mind blunts itself against nothing so quickly as the sharp and bitter irritant of knowledge. And certain it is that the youth’s constancy of purpose, no matter how painfully conscientious, was shallow beside the mature resolution of the master of his craft, who made a right-about-face, turned his back on the realm of knowledge, and passed it by with averted face, lest it lame his will or power of action, paralyse his feelings or his passions, deprive any of these of their conviction or utility.”
“Only incorrigible bohemians find it boring or laughable when a man of talent outgrows the libertine chrysalis stage and begins to perceive and express the dignity of the intellect, adopting the courtly ways of a solitude replete with bitter suffering and inner battles though eventually gaining a position of power and honor among men.”
“Some minutes passed before anyone hastened to the aid of the elderly man sitting there collapsed in his chair. They bore him to his room. And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease.”
“It is as well that the world knows only a fine piece of work and not also its origins, the conditions under which it came into being.”
“Solitude favors the original, the daringly and otherworldly beautiful, the poem. But it also favors the wrongful, the extreme, the absurd, and the forbidden.—Thus”
“Greatness! Extraordinariness! Conquest of the world and immortality of the name! What good was all the happiness of people eternally unknown compared with this goal?”
“Who can understand the deeply bonded alloy of order and intemperance that is its foundation?”
“He loved the ocean for deep-seated reasons: because of that yearning for rest, when the hard-pressed artist hungers to shut out the exacting multiplicities of experience and hide himself on the breast of the simple, the vast; and because of a forbidden hankering—seductive, by virtue of its being directly opposed to his obligations—after the incommunicable, the incommensurate, the eternal, the non-existent. To be at rest in the face of perfection is the hunger of every one who is aiming at excellence; and what is the nonexistent but a form of perfection?”
“He had…regarded travel as a hygienic necessity, which had to be observed against will and inclination.”
“That was one of the advantages of his age, that he could be sure of his mastery in every moment.”
“He was young and had been rough with time, listening to its bad advice he had made mistakes, had compromised himself, had trespassed against good behavior and prudence, both in his words and works.”
“He sat there, the master, the artist who had achieved his dignity, the author of “A Wretched Man,” who, employing a form of exemplary purity, had renounced bohemianism and the dismal chasm, had broken with the abyss and reviled all vileness. He had risen high, transcending his knowledge and outgrowing all irony, he had adjusted his responsibilities toward the public and its trust in him-he, whose fame was official, whose name was ennobled, and whose style was a model for schoolboys.”
“The power of the word, with which the cast away is cast away, pronounces the turning away from all moral uncertainty, from every sympathy with the abyss, the reneging of that phrase of compassion, that “to understand all is to forgive all”, and what was beginning here was that “wonder of the reborn impartiality”, which was briefly mentioned in one of the author’s dialogues with not a little mystery. What strange coherence!”
“But he immediately felt he did not really want to take that step. It would lead him back, give his soul back to himself; but when one is frantic, the last thing one desires is to be oneself again.”
“Jewelry, a hot bath, and rest have often made a difference.”
“Nothing gladdens a writer more than a thought that can become pure feeling and a feeling that can become pure thought.”
“Aschenbach stated outright that nearly everything great owes its existence to “despites”: despite misery”
“Because beauty, Phaedo, is the only thing that is divine and visible at the
same time, and so it is the way of the artist to the soul. But do you believe, my
dear Phaedo, that the one who reaches the intellectual through the senses can ever achieve wisdom and human dignity? Or do you believe (and I am leaving this to you) that it is a lovely but dangerous road that leads nowhere? Because you have to realize that we artists cannot take the path of beauty without Eros joining us and becoming our leader; we may be heroes in our own way, but we are still like women, because passion is what elevates us, and our desire is love — that is our lust and our disgrace. Do you see that poets can be neither sage nor dignified? That we always stray, adventurer in our emotions? The appearance of mastery in our style is a lie and foolishness, our fame a falsehood, the trust the public places in us is highly ridiculous, education of the young through art something that should be forbidden. Because how can someone be a good teacher when he has an inborn drive towards the abyss? We may deny it and gain dignity, but it still attracts us. We do not like final knowledge, because knowledge, Phaedo, has no dignity or severity: it knows, understands, forgives, without attitude; it is sympathetic to the
abyss, it is the abyss. Therefore we deny it and instead seek beauty, simplicity,
greatness and severity, of objectivity and form. But form and objectivity, Phaedo, lead the noble one to intoxication and desire, to horrible emotional transgressions rejected by his beautiful severity, lead to the abyss. Us poets, I say, it leads there, for we are unable to elevate ourselves, instead we can only transgress.”

“Aschenbach stated outright that nearly everything great owes its existence to “despites”: despite misery and affliction, poverty, desolation, physical debility, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstacles.”

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‘The Disappearance Boy’, by Neil Bartlett

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

This novel gives us a detailed insight into the world of the theatrical illusionist. With a background in theatre, and having done his research, the author seems to know exactly what he’s writing about. The concrete detail with which everything – the act, the theatre backstage, the immediate environs of Brighton and Hove – is visualised and described, giving us a vivid sense of place,.

The central character is Reggie, an orphan, brought up in a children’s home near Brighton, given a limp by childhood polio (c.f. Maughan’s ‘Of Human Bondage’), in his early twenties, gay, with little experience of sex or love, solitary and rather odd. Having lost his mother when young, he ‘talks’ to a gravestone that he’s selected as being hers – a sad metaphor for his desperately lonely self and sense of abandonment. But Reggie is a good-hearted, self-sufficient, quietly attractive character.

He is a resilient young man, without self-pity. In many ways a typical product of the 1950s, he instinctively espouses a “make do and mend” attitude. But Reggie is tired of such restraint. Early on, we gather that his stumbling gait means he risks collisions with others – in fact he welcomes them. Though keen to achieve intimacy of any kind, as a gay man in an age less tolerant than ours he needs to be furtive as he explores his desires.

When Mr. Brookes gets a new slot at the down-at-the-heel Brighton Grand, Reggie finds himself in a strange town, one full of dark and unexplored corners. And it is the arrival of Pamela Rose, a beautiful new assistant, that truly turns his life upside down. As the Grand’s spectacular Coronation show nears, Reggie begins to wonder how much of his own life has been an act—and sets out to find somebody who disappeared from his life long ago.

The story takes place in Brighton, in 1953, against the backdrop of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Brookes, Reggie, and Pam, the latest in a long line of glamorous assistants, develop a new act to celebrate the coronation. Pam and Reggie instantly understand each other and quickly form a strong bond.

As with “Skin Lane”, this book drips with atmosphere. Again, Neil Bartlett must have rigorously researched this book.

Quotations:

 “As you can see, the Lady is indeed missing.”

“How hard can being made to disappear be?”

A Mr Bridges, who in the calm, sunlit autumn of 1939 was living alone in the cottage which then stood next to the tracks at Bishopstone Halt (an unmanned concrete platform on the Hastings to Lewes branch line which had recently been constructed in case it should ever be necessary to get troops to the beach in a hurry), has spotted the tiny figure through his kitchen window. Fortunately, Mr Bridges has a clock above his sink, and he doesn’t need to waste any time calcu­lating in order to know that the next train is due past his window in less than three minutes; they run so close that they rattle his china, and their noise divides his solitary day into such regular parcels of time that he always knows when the next one is on its way. He also knows that this particular train isn’t scheduled to slow down or stop. First he shouts and bangs on his kitchen window; then he wipes his hands on his dishcloth and runs out of his front door, shouting as he goes.

The little boy doesn’t move. He doesn’t even seem to hear.

As Mr Bridges runs, the oncoming train is still so far away from the two of them that it doesn’t seem to be moving at all – east of Bishopstone Halt, the track runs dead straight towards Seaford for nearly a mile, and the distant blurred dot of the engine is barely visible at the vanishing point of the converging rails. It seems to shake slightly, even to hover in the distance, but not to be getting any closer. Mr Bridges knows that this is just an illusion. He knows that pretty soon the rails will begin to sing, the dot to swell, and before you know where you are it will be upon them. That’s why he keeps shouting as -he runs, calling out at the top of his voice and cursing his middle-aged legs for not moving as fast as he needs them to in this emergency. The spacing of the tarred sleepers forces him to clip his stride, which makes him swear even more — they are placed just too close together to let him break into a full run, and he knows that if he misses one and hits the clinker then a turned ankle will more than likely bring him down. Best as he can, he half lopes and half hobbles towards the boy, and, of course, straight towards the train. The dot hovers, and shakes, and begins to swell.

And now, right on cue, the rails begin their dreadful song; that strange, silvered, high-pitched music that can seem sinis­ter at the best of times, and which now makes Mr Bridges want to vomit as he hears it change key and grow louder. He sees that the little boy — still thirty sleepers away,- and with his legs still locked and spread — can also apparently hear or sense this change of key, because as the train approaches the child stretches his tiny arms out to make himself into its target, and his fists seem- to clench themselves into even tighter balls. The pain is starting to tear at Mr Bridges’s sides now His breath is drowned out by the rails. And now comes the whistle ‑

Cut.

Standing on a plinth just outside the entrance to the shop is a dummy made of painted and varnished papier mache, and although Reggie has made the best job he can of ignoring the sight of this unpleasant object for several mornings in a row recently, on this particular morning he suddenly finds himself unable to keep up the effort any longer. The dummy depicts a four-foot-high little boy His hair is an unlikely yellow, his lips a cheery cherry red, and the whites of his turned-up eyes look like they’ve been slicked on straight from the tin. Dressed in just a pair of shorts and a neat blue jumper, he’s wearing a leg-brace – complete with carefully painted-on brown leather- straps – and has a crutch jammed into his left armpit. With his right hand – and this is the point of his whole existence – he is holding out a bright red loaf-sized collecting box whose slot is just the right size for a copper – or even, more optimistically, for a fat half-crown. If you’re a passer-by then this little boy’s blind stare is meant to make you smile sadly and fish in your bag for some change, but that’s not the effect it has on-Reggie. In fact, if he thought he could get away with it, Reggie would have picked up a brick from a bomb site one morning this week and cheer­fully smashed the face off the thing. Yesterday, he’d caught a shopper in the act of dropping her coin and then patting the boy’s head with her gloved hand as if it belonged to a dog or well-behaved pony, murmuring a few well-chosen words of approval. This morning, there is no lady – thank God, other­wise I think there might have been some kind of a scene – but there are some raindrops caught in the boy’s painted hair

In the decade of Reg’s childhood the accepted treatment of infant paralysis was something called casting – the immobi­lising of the afflicted limbs in heavy moulds of plaster of Paris. The process was, thought to encourage recuperation, but often had the effect of wasting the very muscles it was meant to salvage, and sometimes even ended up condemning the child to life in a wheelchair. Reggie was spared this entomb­ment by a simple accident of circumstance. He’d spent the first two years of his life in a ward on the third floor of the London County Council’s National Children’s Home up at Highbury Barn, and as luck would have it, it became official LCC policy at the end of that second year to farm out any child considered unlikely to ever become a suitable candidate for fostering to an independent charity. The now-twisted Reggie fell heavily into that class of unfortunates, and once he was out of immediate danger he was simply sent away. He’d already been given his new name – Reggie because by law every abandoned child the Home received on its wards had to be christened, and because Reginald was a popular

The windows of the church were full of coloured glass, and on sunny days watching their colours come go on the stone floor reminded him of the cellophane wrappers from his favourite sweets. One window was more tly coloured than all the others, and he would always try sit where he could see it. Just like your name, Reg, one of nurses whispered, seeing him staring up at it. He grinned at her, lips closed, and looked back up. Sunday by- Sunday, our by colour, this window taught Reggie a lesson that sn’t directly stored in his body, but which nonetheless was planted so deep inside him that no surgeon’s knife could ever have reached it.

He couldn’t remember when the nurses had told him his mother was dead, but he was quite sure he had always known it as a fact. It never occurred to him to worry about the lack of detail in their story — the why and where and how — but instead he latched on to the good news in the tale, which was that she was now watching over him, and during his seventh summer, when every Sunday morning seemed to be sunny, and his favourite _window always bright, this idea of being continually spied on and cared for began to take a very concrete form in Reggie’s mind. The window featured a pair of bare-armed creatures swooping down from on high on outspread wings, all indigo and violet and parrot yellow — the source of the colours on the floor — and it was in exactly this gaudy and muscular shape that Reggie began to imagine his absent mother. The creatures in the window were smiling as they gazed down at the world, and as he stared up at them Sunday after Sunday it occurred to him that that was what she must be doing too. Admiring their muscular arms, he concluded that -she would be well capable of turning up and carrying him away at a- moment’s notice should a dramatic rescue ever be required

 He recalled in detail the last time when things d gone a bit further, which had been in Bradford last year during the run at the Alhambra; he’d spent forty-five minutes m a thin-walled boarding-house bedroom with somebody who the next morning had let his- eyes slide off Reggie’s face like a knife off a- plate. He wanted to know when one thing was finally going to lead to another, and he was going to actually spend a whole night with someone – spend the night with someone special, as his mother always put it. He wanted to know when he was going to kiss the same person goodnight when the lights went out and then hello again the next morn­ing when the sun came up. He wanted to know how he was ever going to make that happen.

 There were lots of other things that Reg didn’t mention, course – as I’m sure you’ve noticed. He didn’t mention the with the black hair that he had stared at yesterday morn-on North Road – it was the chef from his breakfast cafe, it happened, the Italian one – or talk about what his feel-were now that he was going to be heading back to London pretty soon, back to another single bed in a top-floor room. In other words, he didn’t talk about himself at all. Mothers can do that.

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Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in.
What Tom has observed among the Sioux is that men can choose to dress as squaws at home but, in battle, still be warriors. This thought becomes his guide. He feels at home in a dress but, as a soldier, follows orders even when they are treacherous, learning that there are good men and bad on any side.

Tom, John and Winona survive battlefields and atrocities, trek across America’s great plains into the agonised, villainous aftermath of the war between the states. Barry makes us understand how. Grief may freeze the heart, the body be tested to extremes, but where there’s life there’s hope, and love is what makes life worth living, a sentiment that, we are told in other reviews, links Barry’s novels across all their times and places.

There are vast open spaces and extreme weather

The world is seemingly indifferent yet the love for each other gives it some meaning.

Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with” – is later amplified by the nightmarish tale he hears from a fellow Irishman whose passage to the New World ends with corpses floating in the bilges, immured and abandoned. “That’s why no one will talk,” reflects Thomas, feeling that what has happened is simply not accounted as a subject. “That’s because we were thought worthless. Nothing people. I guess that’s what it was. That thinking just burns through your brain for a while. Nothing but scum.”

They appear merely as two teenage soldier boys until this sentence is casually dropped in: And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.

The image of a country populated by spectral figures, devastated by conflicts that leave men “making the noises of ill-butchered cattle”, their limbs hanging by a thread, their bodies emaciated and withered, is in sharp contrast with the landscape that inspires awe in both Thomas and Barry, and which seems to demand an equal grandeur in the observer: “A vicious ruined class of man could cry at such scenes because it seems to tell him that his life is not approved.”

The descriptions are very visual- you can almost imagine it as a film.

The language is beautiful.

The book is full of questions about identity. The Indians who fight like savages one day leave food for starving soldiers the next. The kindly major leads a vicious assault on an Indian village out of revenge.

The war is reminiscent of the Old Testament command to out everything under the ban – everyone and every crop to be destroyed.

One of our members said: Having childhood memories of playing cowboys and Indians I’ve now come to see how the conquest of the American west with the dispossession of the native peoples was a crime. So I couldn’t get into the book despite its acclaim in many reviews as a good gay book read.

Another got fed up with the violence and nearly gave up three times but accepted that the violence wasn’t gratuitous.

Barry lives in County Wicklow with his wife, Alison, and their three children, Coral, Merlin and Toby. Barry has stated that Toby coming out as gay was important to the writing of Barry’s book Days Without End, and that Toby’s experiences informed the gay relationship in that book

McNulty is gay – not that the word would have meant anything in 19th-century America. That, says Barry, is one reason why the book is short: his narrator did not have the words or the notions to make it longer. McNulty falls in love with a young American man, cross-dresses and marries him. They adopt an orphaned Native American girl and build an unlikely family in Tennessee – a paradise created after the hell McNulty and his lover experience when they join the army.

Days Without End is dedicated to Barry’s son Toby – and McNulty’s sexuality is also a tribute to the teenager. “Three years ago, when he was 16 and I was doing the reading for this book, Toby was very unhappy, and when a young man is unhappy we must take note. I was desperately trying to find out what was wrong, but you can’t ask him directly. You have to be a sleuth, a kind of Sherlock Holmes of his unhappiness.”

At the time of the 2015 referendum in Ireland on same-sex marriage, Barry wrote an open letter – with his son’s permission – in support of a yes vote. “I felt I had to do something,” he says, “so I wrote to the Irish Times, which is the default action of the middle-aged Irish Catholic. I showed the letter to Toby and he just wept, which is unusual because he is a very mensch-like person.”

Later Toby was threatened on a train after kissing his boyfriend goodbye on the platform. “He was very frightened by that and it led to more unhappiness, so I thought we’re on a bit of a war footing here.” Toby discussed drag with Barry and how gay men from tough backgrounds sometimes used it as a form of empowerment. Those ideas seeped into the book, though not, Barry is at pains to point out, as a manifesto.

The character of McNulty grew out of a reference his grandfather Jack O’Hara made to a great uncle who emigrated to America to escape the famine. O’Hara, who fell out with the author over the literary airing of family secrets, is himself the mainspring of another Barry work, The Temporary Gentleman.

Barry has described his childhood as a “singular mess”. He says he and his three siblings were farmed out to relatives, which is how Barry heard the stories about the first world war, the Easter Rising and the civil war in Ireland that he has used to such effect in his novels. This obsessive winnowing of family secrets suggests a search for certainty after a childhood that had little.

 Quotations:

I am thinking of the days without end of my life…’

 “It was a mad world but a lucky one too, now and then”

We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world

“The whole town was perishing like stray cats.”

“We were nothing. No one wanted us. Canada was a-feared of us. We were a plague. We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.”

“time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending.

We washed our shirts and trews and when we went out to get them off the bushes, they were as stiff as corpses in the cold. Some poor cows froze where they were standing like they had peered into the face of old Medusa. Men lost the wages of three years hence at cards. They bet their boots and then pled for the pity of the winner. The piss froze as it left our peckers and woe betide the man with an obstruction or hesita­tion to their shit, because soon they had a brown icicle on their arse. The whiskey continued its work of eating our livers. It was as good a life as most of us had ever knowed.

When all the bodies were in, we covered over the pits with the soil we had left, like we were putting pastry tops on two enormous pies.

John Cole’s long face, long stride. The moonlight not able to flatter him because he was ready beautiful.

we respectfully drop the men into their holes and then we cover them up with a bedding of earth and every man in due course has a mound of the same earth over him like eiderdowns in a fancy hotel.

“Hunger is a sort of fire, a furnace. I loved my father when I was a human person formerly. Then he died and I was hungry and then the ship. Then nothing. Then America. Then John Cole. John Cole was my love, all my love.”

You can rise up out of your saddle and sort of look down on yourself riding, it’s as if the stern and relentless monotony makes you die, come back to life, and die again.

“Oftentimes in America you could go stark mad from the ugliness of things. But now in the far distance we see a land begin to be suggested as if maybe a man was out there painting it with a huge brush.”

We would gladly put our hands over our ears but our muskets are raised and trained along the line of the wig­wams. We are watching for the rat-run of the survivors. There is a stretch of time as long as creation and I can hear the whizzing of the shell, a spinning piercing sound, and then it makes its familiar thud-thud and pulls at the belly of heaven and spreads its mayhem around it, the sides of wigwams torn off like faces, the violent wind of the blast toppling others flat, revealing people in various poses of surprise and horror.

Then they are pulling knives from their waists and hollering and -there is a sort of mad joyous desper­ation in it that kindles a crazy fire in the heart. We are not lovers rushing to embrace but there is a sense of terri­fying union none the less, as if courage yearns to join with courage. I cannot say otherwise. No fighter on earth as brave as a Sioux brave. They have their squaws and kindred sheltered and now at the last desperate moment they must risk all to defend them. But the shells have done terrible damage in the camp. Now I can see plain the broken bodies and the blood and the horrible butch­er shop of carnage that those bursting metal flowers have manufactured. Young girls are strewn about like the vic­tims of a terminous dance. It is as if we have stopped the human clock of the village, that’s what I were thinking.

“We worked back and forth through the milling bodies and tried to kill everything that moved in the murk,” he says. “Two, three, four fell to my thrusts, and I was astonished not to be fired on, astonished at the speed and the horror of the task, and the exhilaration of it, my heart now not racing but burning in my breast like a huge coal. I stabbed and I stabbed.”

“South don’t got uniforms, grits, or oftentimes shoes. Half of these fierce-looking bastards in bare feet. Could be denizens of a Sligo slum-house. God damn it, probably are, some of them.”

“John Cole says he loves me more than any man since the apes roamed.”

There’s a half-blind preacher in a temple called Bar-tram House and I don my best dress and me and John Cole go there and we tie the knot. Rev. Hindle he says the lovely words and John Cole kiss the bride and then it’s done and who to know. Maybe you could read it in their holy book, John Cole and Thomasina McNulty wed this day of our Lord Dec. 7th 1866. In the euphoria of war’s end we reckon a craziness is desired. God don’t mind we know because that day of deep winter is clement, clear and bright. Then as if a token of God’s favour we get a letter from Lige Magan. We been sending missives back and forth while we putting meat back on-our bones. He’s struggling with his farm. The men that his pa freed been killed by militia long since but two. His whole country ruined by war and like a waste of ghosts. The coming year lies heavy on his mind and how he to burn the land alone in January? Been set in grass six years and now it ripe for baccy. If we not otherwise engaged could we come and help him in his hour of need? He says all his cold district is a swamp of mistrust and he trusts me and John. Going to be hard years but maybe we could fed there were something to win. He got no kin but us.

“Don’t tell me a Irish is an example of civilised humanity. He may be an angel in the clothes of a devil or a devil in the clothes of an angel but either way you’re talking to two when you talk to one Irishman.”

Kill them all. Leave nothing alive. Everything was killed. Nothing left to tell the tale. Four hundred and seventy. And when the men were done killing they started to cut. They cut out the cunts of the women and stretched them on their hats. They took the little ball sacks of the boys to be dried into baccy pouches.

Let’s say my ward, my care, the product of some strange instinct deep within that does rob from injustice a shard of love. The palms of her hands like two maps of home, the lines leading homeward like old trails. Her beautiful soft hands with tapering fingers. Her touches like true words. A daughter not a daughter but who I mother best I can.

“a whole corpse gathered up into one tight fist of fear and fright.”

“no one wants to do it and everyone does it.”

“no such item as a virtuous people”

“Everything gets shot at in America, and everything good too.”

“a little kingdom…pitched up against the darkness”

“God in his farmer’s apron, scattering the great seeds of yellow brightness.”

“Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever…”

riding like ghosts through the spectral lands.”

“In the euphoria of war’s end we reckon a craziness is desired.”

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The Child’s Child – Barbara Vine

tcc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tcc2Quotations:

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

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

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

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A Life like other People’s – Alan Bennett

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

A sardonic portrait of his parents’ marriage and his Leeds childhood, Christmases with Grandma Peel, and the lives, loves and deaths of aunties Kathleen and Myra. Originally released in 2005 in the compilation `Untold Stories’ it was released on it own in 2009.

The petty, lower-middle-class worries over what was common or not common; the aspiration to hold cocktail parties; the horror of putting oneself forward: these were the things that dominated Bennett’s early life, expressed as they were by his shy, unsure mother.She imagines that other families – those that weren’t common – enjoyed cooked breakfasts and hosted cocktail parties, this last a constant obsession. “What my parents never really understood,” says Bennett, “was that most families just rubbed along anyhow.”

Bennett blames his mother’s timidity on his aunties, Kathleen and Myra, who bullied and shamed her with their more dazzling lives. But their ends were not dazzling, nor was his mother’s, and this memoir, dominated by the women in his life, is Bennett’s cry against the worst that age and illness do.

Within their own family, however, there are those who are different. Bennett’s two aunties, his mother’s sisters Myra and Kathleen, are regarded as “sisters of subversion”.

When war comes Aunty Myra joins up as a WAAF and is posted to the Far East, where she has servants, returning after the war with various exotic souvenirs and an intimidating (to Dad’s thinking) collection of photographs. She marries an RAF warrant officer, while Aunty Kathleen marries an Australian widower.

Later there is a family rift when Myra, staying with Dad and Mam, takes it upon herself to dismantle and clean their Belling gas oven, an act charged with social ramifications, both intentional and misconstrued. Kathleen is mocked for buying a Utility armchair with compartments for cocktail paraphernalia and reading matter.

Mam thinks it common, Dad sees it as impractical and therefore pretentious, being the opposite of its purported utility. “Splother”, says Bennett, was his Dad’s invented word “for the preening and fuss invariably attendant upon the presence of aunties”, but it also serves to describe anything pretentious and showy.

In 1966, when Bennett’s Dad retired from his job as a butcher, he and Mam moved out of “mucky Leeds” and settled in a cottage with a back garden in a village in the Yorkshire Dales. There, in a supposedly idyllic setting, Mam descended into semi-madness as Dad became “both nurse and gaoler”.

Over the next years she was in and out of institutions, where Dad would visit every day, even when it meant a 50-mile trip. But Mam’s mental illness is unfailingly “modest” and unassuming: “She might be ill, disturbed, mad even, but she still knew her place.” It’s called ‘depression’ but sounds more like paranoid schizophrenia.

Questions about his mother’s mental illness open the 242-page book and remain central to the story. Popular in the 60s/70s were psychiatrists R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, known as “radical therapists.”

Laing advocated “an anarchy of experience” and thought family dynamics created mental instability. Szasz focused on love and loss within families as the spark that ignites the fuse of illness. Both themes — anarchy, and love and loss — inform Bennett’s memoir.

I know most of the places and churches he talks about. I can hear Bennett’s flat Leeds’ vowels and steady, homely drone throughout the narrative.

Psalm 91 ‘Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day’ at Compline simply wasn’t true.

I had to look up ‘kist’ = a chest used for storing clothes and linen.

Quotations:

“Frank died last week, haven’t we been having some weather.”

“Seldom can a comma have borne such a burden.”

So while she rests at the undertaker’s my brother and I consult our diaries and decide on a mutually acceptable date for the funeral, and I take the train to Weston-super­Mare for what I hope will be the last time now, though get­ting off at Nallsea, which is handier for the crematorium. It’s a low-key affair, the congregation scarcely bigger than the only other public occasion in my mother’s life, the wed­ding she had shrunk from more than sixty years before.

Of the four or five funerals in this book, only my father’s is held in a proper church; the rest, though scattered across England, might all have been in the same place, so uniform is the setting of the municipal crematorium.

The building will be long and low, put up in the sixties, probably, when death begins to go secular. Set in country that is not quite country it looks like the reception area of a tasteful factory or the departure lounge of a small provin­cial airport confined to domestic flights. The style is con­temporary but not eye-catchingly so; this is decorum-led architecture which does not draw attention even to its own merits. The long windows have a stylistic hint of tracery, denomination here a matter of hints, the plain statement of any sort of conviction very much to be avoided.

Related settings might be the waiting area of a motor showroom, the foyer of a small private hospital or a section of a department store selling modern furniture of inoffen­sive design: dead places. This is the architecture of reluc­tance, the furnishings of the functionally ill at ease, decor for a place you do not want to be.

It is neat with the neatness ill-omened; clutter means hope and there is none here, no children’s drawings, no silly notices. There are flowers, yes, but never a Christmas tree and nothing that seems untidy. The whole function of the place, after all, is to do with tidying something away.

In the long low table a shallow well holds pot plants, African violets predominating, tended weekly by a firm that numbers among its clients a design consultancy, an Aids hospice, the boardroom of the local football club and a museum of industrial archaeology.

In the unechoing interior of the chapel soft music plays and grief too is muted, kept modest by the blond wood and oatmeal walls, the setting soft enough to make something so raw as grief seem out of place. It’s harder to weep when there’s a fitted carpet; at the altar (or furnace) end more blond wood, a table flanked by fins of some tawny-coloured hardwood set in a curved wall covered in blueish-greenish material, softly lit from below. No one lingers in these wings or makes an entrance through them, the priest presiding from a lectern or reading desk on the front of which is a (detachable) cross. A little more spectacular and it could be the setting for a TV game show. Above it all is a chandelier with many sprays of shaded lights which will dim when the coffin begins its journey.

Before that, though, there will be the faint dribble of a hymn, which is for the most part unsung by the men and only falteringly by the women. The deceased is unknown to the vicar, who in turn is a stranger to the mourners, the only participant on intimate terms with all concerned, the corpse included, being the undertaker. Unsolemn, hygienic and somehow retail, the service is so scant as to be scarcely a ceremony at all, and is not so much simple as inadequate. These clipboard send-offs have no swell to them, no tide, there is no launching for the soul, flung like Excalibur over the dark waters. How few lives now end full-throated to hymns soaring or bells pealing from the tower. How few escape a pinched suburban send-off, the last of a life some half-known relatives strolling thankfully back to the car. Behind the boundary of dead rattling beech careful flower beds shelter from the wind, the pruned stumps of roses protruding from a bed of wood-chips,

My mother’s funeral is all this, and her sisters’ too; grue­some occasions, shamefaced even and followed by an unconvivial meal. Drink would help but our family has never been good at that, tea the most we ever run to with the best cups put out. Still, Mam’s life does have a nice postscript when en secondes funebres she is brought togeth­er with my father and her ashes put in his grave.

Sometimes as I’m standing by their grave I try and get a picture of my parents, Dad in his waistcoat arid shirtsleeves, Mam in her blue coat and shiny straw hat. I even try and say a word or two in prayer, though what and to what I’d find it hard to say.

`Now then’ is about all it amounts to. Or ‘Very good, very good, which is what old men say when a transaction is completed.

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Children of the sun by Max Schaefer

COTS2(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

1970: Fourteen-year-old Tony becomes seduced by Britain’s neo-Nazi movement, sucked into a world of brutal racist violence and bizarre ritual. It’s an environment in which he must hide his sexuality, in which every encounter is potentially deadly.

2003: James is a young writer, living with his boyfriend. In search of a subject, he begins looking into the Far Right in Britain and its secret gay membership. He becomes particularly fascinated by Nicky Crane, one of the leaders of the neo-Nazi movement who came out in 1992 before dying a year later of AIDS.

The two narrative threads of this extraordinarily assured and ambitious first novel follow Tony through the seventies, eighties, and nineties, as the nationalist movement splinters and weakens; and James through a year in which he becomes dangerously immersed in his research. After risky flirtations with individuals on far right websites, he starts receiving threatening phone calls—the first in a series of unexpected events that ultimately cause the lives of these two very different men to unforgettably intersect.
I had never understood the Hindu nationalism if the BJP in India until I read of the belief in the Four Yugas being used as a justification. There’s also a pagan interpretation – the rolling hills of ye olde English countryside.

Plus loads of violence and racist jokes: ‘Bloke walks into a pub with a crocodile, goes up to the bar and says, “Do you serve niggers in here?”‘

To the blacks’ almost dutiful sounds of outrage, Steve climbs inside with his mates following.

`Governor goes, “Course we do, we’re not racist.” So the bloke says, “I’ll have a pint of lager and a nigger for the crocodile.”‘

COTSQuotations:

….sees himself repeated in every direction like a hall of mirrors, and  understands that this will not wreck him, he is not distinct from it and floating fragile on its surface, but rather it is him, of him and he is part of it, the shouts, the salutes, the sieg heils coming from within and around him alike. With one force, one voice, he fills the courtyard.

(a skin is) able to walk anywhere, his passport the astonishment of the sharp mind in the brainless stereotype…

…This animal’s only secondary sexual characteristics are his braces, worn up to exaggerate the width of his shoulders, down to emphasise the curve of his bum.

“This whole sub-skin thing. You get your rocks off by dressing on the ne plus ultra of the lumpenproletariat and pretending you’re powerless. It’s classic English guilt.”

“Tony wraps his legs around the bundled sheets and murmurs to them in the dark, as if they were Chris, staying.”

She leans back her head, closes her eyes, and recites: ‘When justice is crushed, when evil reigns supreme, then I come. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the evil-doers, for the sake of firmly establishing righteousness, I am born, age after age.’

She tells him of the cycle of ages, the Yugas, as laid down in the great epics of the Aryans, which repeats through all eternity. She traces the inexorable decline from the Krita Yuga, the Age of Truth — the Golden Age, whose memory all cultures, from the Greeks and Japanese to the Sumerians and Romans, some­how preserve — to the current, fourth, Dark Age, the Kali Y uga, the Era of Gloom, in which human selfishness and con­ceit allows man to overrun the planet while its once-thick mantle of forest declines. Whole species of proud wild crea­tures are killed off, replaced by an obnoxious and expanding stream of dreary, vulgar, worthless two-legged mammals, and everything is done to encourage that mad increase in number and loss in quality. Everything is done to keep the sickly, the crippled, the freaks of nature, unfit to work and unfit to live, from dying. Thousands of innocent, healthy animals are tor­tured in search of ‘new treatments’, so that deficient men, whom Nature has anyhow condemned to death, might last a few more months. The healthy are made unhealthy through joyless work, overcrowded homes, lack of privacy, unnatural food, their brains softened by advertising and propaganda. Lies are called truth and truth falsehood, and the speakers of truth, the God-like men, are defeated, their followers humbled, their memory slandered, while the masters of lies are hailed as saviours.

And she tells him of Kalki, the last One, the Destroyer, des­tined to clear the ground for the building of a new age of truth. It was Kalki of whom, with that unfailing cosmic intuition, the Fiihrer said, ‘I know that Somebody must come forth and meet our situation. I have sought, and found him nowhere; and therefore I have taken upon myself to do the preparatory work; only the most urgent preparatory work.’ She tells him that Kalki, unlike Hitler, will act with unprecedented ruthlessness. He will spare not one enemy of the divine cause: not one out­spoken opponent, nor even one of the heretical, the racially bastardized, the unhealthy, hesitating, all-too-human: not a single one of those who, in body or in character or in mind, bear the stamp of the fallen Ages.

`And we like to hope,’ she says, ‘that the memory of the One-before-the-last — of Adolf Hitler — will survive, at least in songs and symbols, in that long Age of earthly Perfection which Kalki, the last One, is to open. We like to hope that the Lords of the new Time-Cycle, men of his own blood and faith, will render him divine honours, through rites full of meaning and potency, in the cool shade of the endless regrown forests, on the beaches, or on inviolate mountain peaks, facing the rising sun.’

`Everything’s fucking connected. We know that by now, surely? Chaos theory: you have a wank and there’s an earth­quake off Sumatra. Doesn’t tell us anything, apart from maybe you should wank less. I think I’m drunk. Come on, darling,’ he said to Tom. ‘Let’s go.’

The houses lining the road had gone; it led now between wild grass and trees. I had the intense feeling that I was walk­ing back through history and might never see a town again, before I realized this was Hampstead Heath. The sun made occasional low winks through the trees to my left, and shone off the bodies of passing cars, which I took as confirmation that I was still in the same time after all. There was a strange, mounting silence, less an absence of noise than a thing itself, swelling thickly into space. I could feel its substance as I stepped into it: it shivered, as if living. I felt the need to get away from the road; I thought that way I might longer pre­serve my grasp on this palpable silence-thing, and somehow examine it. I stepped off the path into grass and mud, lurched a little as I remembered to attend to where I walked. What I saw ahead could have been the entrance to a forest: it was not a London park of level surfaces and formal plans; it was barely London at all. As I stepped between the trees I had the vague idea of news reports, the bodies of lone ramblers, victims of malefic rituals or damaged minds, and wondered if now was the best time to be doing this; but if there was a threat I could not feel it. Yellow light rippled across me in patterns; the bark of trees was damp and scarred; my boots churned the mud, where water glinted in tiny pools. The land rose sharply and took effort to climb. The sun came through gaps, heating patches of air like puffs of breath warm on my face. I passed over whole dioramas of labouring insects, with their vast appalling discipline, and there was a scent building, rich, sweet and heavy, as if it were summer and this a field of flowers. Ahead of me, on the crest of the rise, the sun glowed through bare branches so vividly they thinned into absence before it; as I walked they moved across its surface, and it pulsed. I didn’t have the vocabulary to tell myself what I saw; I had never paid attention to the garden at home, didn’t even know what trees these were. I grasped at names: oak, elm, hazel, ash; fern and ivy; peonies, dandelions, daffodils. What did you call these bright yellow autumn flowers? The silence was unbroken and yet also filled with the manifold hum of bees — was this even the time of year for bees? I felt them anyway, an impromptu retinue, rustling the air at my neck. The sun that waited at the top of the slope was full in my face and gave off an unexpected heat. Dark green needles of grass wove vivid carpets on the higher ground. So this was how it felt, revelation: shimmering light on the beckoning crest of a hill, the colours of things sat­urating, a fine accruing surface detail, as if looking close at a familiar painting and seeing for the first time the texture of the oils. That inner intensity you knew as a boy and had since for­gotten spilling and flooding into the physical world, into warmth and colour, the vibrant thrum of awoken nature. I stumbled up, found the summit, swayed in place as the sun­light pounded me. The land fell away ahead, and all across it I could see meadows unfurling in emerald and gold, thick mantles of trees, their dense canopies merged, falling and rising over distant hills. A vast flock of birds swirled in the sky; a squirrel nudged my feet without fear; a pair of dogs, their fur thick and black, and the size, it seemed, of donkeys, lumbered from nowhere up the path towards me, smelled something on the wind, gave a laughing bark, were gone, plunging through waist-high stalks like the waves of the sea: I walked forward in their wake; the ground dipped and rose; I bobbed in the tall grass. I knew what vision I had been granted: Imperium, the new dawn, the Satanic aeon; the return of the golden age long lost to algebra, industry, abstract thought, foolish insistence on the pre-eminence and commonality of man. The dogs were wolves, the wolves what men could be, and they chased the power to conquer galaxies.

Nicky Crane was alive, and before me, now, the city burned: I had reached another crest and there it was, far below and tiny, its dull anaemic greys glistening with the reflected red of the flames consuming it, the air, even here, thick with the caramel taste of burning flesh. And through its smoke, the risen sun. The old age never died; it was in retreat; it slept, while all the time its ancient guardians, LOKI OKKULT GESELLSCHAFT, LUPINE OPERIE GERULI, LEGATI ORDINIS GALAXICI, tended it with secret rites, sacrifice magnified by powerful relics passed on in unwritten rituals of initiation

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Beijing Comrades by Bei Tong

bcThis is the second book, in as any months, that our group has read that has a powerful mother. The context of the book is more interesting than the content – the lovers don’t do very much and the insensitive lead character is surely a stereotype. If Lan Yu was the main character it would have been psychologically more interesting. One of our members has a Chinese husband who read it online in China at the time of ‘publication’.  He thinks that the introduction in this book is worth reading because it gives some background as to the context in which it was written and how it was intended to be received by the reader.  At the time of it being put online the internet had taken off in China and gay networks established themselves across China and at that time people could express themselves in relative anonymity. Many novel length stories (built up in episodes) appeared in the chatrooms. It enabled fictional characters to act out many of the issues facing gay people at the time whilst the general population (including the emerging middle class) remained largely ignorant of the concept of ‘gay’ as opposed to ‘homosexual’. It also became an expectation that these stories would have a sexual content to them, indeed, to the Chinese gay man on the net, this was often the main hook into the story; the sexual exploration. Indeed, to many men with homosexual inclinations, the main aspect of their sexuality was one of play and pleasure and so this exploration of a doomed love affair and conflict with Chinese family values would have possibly stood out. Sean has quite a few friends who themselves wrote semi autobiographical series onto the net with varying levels of skill. But even the poorest of stories may have been read or at least clicked on by many thousands of people.  He liked the flawed nature of the ‘I’ character: he was honest and confused and not that nice in comparison to the noble savage from the countryside. The pace of the story was good too.  Many Chinese gay men looked for ‘love’ abroad partly not to end up in one of these relationships where they are just the man on the side, a pleasurable add-on to the normal family structure. Whether that was out of the frying pan and into the fire in many cases is up for debate! It reminded him a little of thoughts of Victorian England in this sense.

The translator was criticised for not improving the banality of some of the text, its prosaic descriptions –  but is it the job of a translator to make a purse out of a sow’s ear?

Do we get cliff-hangers because it was serialised?

The importance of reciprocity is strongly evident.

It’s quite erotic but it’s really about love, not sex.

It ends in a church with statements about God being all-loving and the question as to why he doesn’t love gays.

I had to look up ‘myrmidons’ = a follower or subordinate of a powerful person, typically one who is unscrupulous or carries out orders unquestioningly.

Was the writer a woman? Surely, if so, she would have concentrated on the characters rather than their context.

Myers (the translator):

“It defined a generation.  For many gay men in China, reading Beijing Comrades was a powerful experience because it was one of a small number of texts in which they could see themselves reflected.”

While the plot isn’t groundbreaking — cold and affectless Handong initially sees Lan Yu as a cheap fuck, he falls for him, and then life inevitably intervenes — the story was hugely influential.

“Most of the fictional works from late-1990s China are tragedies, and this perhaps reflects the feeling of the hopelessness of gay relationships, that gay relationships were something that could not last,” says Myers. In the book, Handong never fully embraces his homosexuality. He marries a woman, the beautiful and ambitious Lin Ping, but he spends the entire marriage fantasizing about Lan Yu. Within 18 months, he is divorced and alone. As Handong says, “I didn’t completely stop sleeping with women. I went to bed with them not because of physiological need, nor even because I liked them, but because of a need that was psychological: I wanted to prove to myself that I was a normal man.”

“Normality” is culturally defined, and though it ceased to be considered a mental illness, homosexuality still exists in a gray area in China. Official government policy is typified by the three nos — no support, no opposition, no promotion — which is loosely analogous to the now-defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” of the U.S. military. Clinics offering cures for homosexuality still exist, though they are under increasing pressure from activists and are being forced to temper some of their more extreme practices.

In cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the LGBT community, while far from receiving the visibility and legal recognition common in the West, is vibrant. This year Shanghai Pride, though parade-less because of government regulations forbidding mass gatherings, took place across a series of venues. It included a fun run, lectures, and a queer film festival. LGBT activists are agitating for greater rights and have seen some small legislative victories — Chen Qiuyan, a student, won a case in August over the description of homosexuality in textbooks. While not ending in victories, other cases, such as the one brought by the activist Xiang Xiaohan after he was unable to register his LGBT charity, are notable for being heard at all.

China is still not an easy place to be out, and many choose not to come out to families or colleagues. In a recent survey by China-based NGO WorkForLGBT, which asked nearly 19,000 LGBT people whether they were out, only 3% of men and 6% of women identified as completely out. However, half the men and three-quarters of the women said they had come out to friends. This shows that private tolerance exists and that people are able to carve out spaces in their lives where they can live freely.

Handong narrates the book, and thus controls how we see him. He is a man accustomed to carefully managing his relationships and everything else he touches. He lets us see his control begin to crack, when his love for Lan Yu surprises and even frightens him, and our understanding of his panic catches us off guard. Unlike most control freaks in literature, he earns our empathy. – See more at:

One blog said:

China is, to me, a very contradicting country. Apart from Korea, I can’t think of many countries that have changed so much over such a short time period, yet stayed the same in other aspects. Family is China’s cornerstone. It seems there is nothing quite as important. Coming from a Confucian background, it is moreover expected from the children to honour and please their parents. The highest goals are to marry, have children, take care of the parents, and have a good job and reputation.

You probably already see the problem with that. Now bring into account China’s (now abandoned) 1-child policy and you can imagine how much more pressure lies on the only-child.

 Handong’s and Lan Yu’s love story is as beautiful as it is ugly, as hopeful as it is hopeless

In comparison to Western culture, it seems that ethics like honesty, faithfulness, and integrity are of lesser importance. It is way more important how things look like than how they really are, and help is taken in any form possible. It’s a constant bargaining in favours and being connected to important people is an advantage that is used for personal gain and protection.

Quotations:

Beijing Comrades is among mainland China’s earliest, best known, and most influential contemporary gay novels. It is also a pathbreaking work of what may be called tongzhi or gay fiction from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It came into being when a young Chinese person living in New York City—absorbed by the world of the Internet, lacking direc­tion in life, and bored by the titillating but artistically vapid Chinese-language gay erotica available at the time—decided she would try and write her own homoerotic fiction

The author’s choice of pen name, Beijing Tongzhi (liter­ally, Beijing Comrade),8 may have been an auspicious one, for it likely helped to attract an intended audience while escaping notice of those who would wish to impede the novel’s circu­lation. Consisting of the Chinese characters for tong (same) and zhi (will, aspiration, or ideal), the word tongzhi was widely used in the socialist era (and earlier’) as a signifier of revolu­tionary camaraderie,” equivalent to the English word comrade or Russian word tovarisch.

Hastily executed and with no shortage of typos, this sexually graphic e-novel bursts with an exuberant and spirited amateurism that, far from blem­ishing the novel, is precisely a part of what makes it a pleasure to read.

Even the urban topography of China’s capital city is hazy and elusive; an underground gay quanzi (circle) is hinted at but never directly shown. Indeed, most of the place names in Beijing Comrades are fictitious,

Eventually we broke up. From then on I had a different girl on my arm every week and the inventory of notches on my bedpost grew. I quickly learned that there was nothing partic­ ularly difficult about getting girls. The hard part was getting rid of them.

“I’m not a girl,” he said, putting down his drink and standing up to leave. Somehow that impressed me, but I was also annoyed that he was leaving so early. Whatever. The whole night had been a waste of time.

Lan Yu smiled with a kind of calm resignation. “You businessmen don’t know a thing about friendship.”

“Wake up, Lan Yu! Business isn’t about friendship, it’s about profits.”

“What if it’s someone from outside the business world? What if it’s a friend?”

For the first time in my life I didn’t have an answer. Lan Yu must have sensed this because he kept going.

every time I had sex with my wife, I thought only of him. My hands caressed her soft white skin, her thick, heavy thighs and breasts. She was so gorgeous, so loving, but none of her beauty provoked my desire, and when I closed my eyes, it was Lan Yu I saw. There were times when I almost managed to trick myself into believing it was him I was touching: dark and firm, a radi­ant sheath covering a strong back and two broad shoulders. Only then would I slowly start to get hard.

There were some things I wouldn’t let myself think about: the touch of my tongue against his neck, the euphoric excite­ment he showed when I kissed him. These thoughts were off limits, outside the scope of the fantasy world I allowed myself to create during sex with my wife. I couldn’t do those things with Lin Ping, and trying them would have caused nothing but disappointment and grief. She wasn’t Lan Yu. She would never be Lan Yu.

I forced myself to have sex with her, but it was nearly impossible for me to come. Each time, I had to close my eyes and think about having sex with Lan Yu or, sometimes, with other men I had seen on the street that day, usually with Lin Ping on my arm. Only then was I able to climax. Pretty soon I started asking Lin Ping to let me fuck her on her hands and knees like I used to fuck Hao Mei. It worked at first, but in time even that wasn’t enough. More and more, I found myself jerking off when she wasn’t around, fantasizing about the men I wanted to be with.

It was one of those rare mornings when Lan Yu and I awoke in the same bed. We were at Tivoli. He had told me the previous night that he was looking forward to sleeping in late because he didn’t have to be at work until eleven. I woke up before him and got out of bed to look out the window at the beautiful fall scenery. Then I turned back toward the bed to look at Lan Yu, who was still asleep on his stomach. He loved that position. Right cheek pushed up against the bedsheet-covered mattress, a tiny pool of spit quivered in the lower corner of his mouth. He rolled onto his back, using his foot to push the blanket down to the base of the bed, and I noticed that the underwear he’d put on before going to sleep had somehow disappeared. He was naked now except for the calm serenity that enveloped him after the untamed frenzy of our lovemaking the night before. For a long time I stood there by the window, scrutinizing him and wondering if I was really going to do what I thought I was going to do. Quietly I stepped across the floor back to the side of the bed and gently pulled the blanket up to his chin.

Thoughts raced through my mind as I looked down at him. Did I really want nothing more from him than his body? Was I with him for no other reason than to satisfy my sexual desires? If I ended our relationship, would I be losing anything?

Well, let me tell you something,” he continued. “It’s not worth it, okay? A man only gets so many chances in this life­time to get serious in a relationship. And when he does, he damn well better be sure there’s a future in it. It has to lead to some bigger picture. Family. Kids.” He lit a cigarette. “But you know what? With this kind of thing, there is no bigger picture. This is it! You can’t even tell people about it without ruining yourself.”

“We had nothing. No recognition from the outside world. None of the pressures keeping couples together, but all of the ones keeping them apart.”
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