Archive for E-H

Falconer by John Cheever

Falc 3There is no emotional involvement – is he deliberately detached? Or is this like a dream because of the methadone?

It can be grotesque yet funny at the same time.

There is an obsession with physical attraction.

There is denial of homosexuality yet he misses Jody. We don’t even hear about Jody until half way through – is this an example of the closet case withholding information?

The author has spent his life in institutions: the army, the Church, marriage, prison.

The prison seems better than today’s US prisons –rooms rather than cages.

Those who have read it twice say that it’s definitely worth re-reading.

Some say that “Falconer” is a prison novel only in the sense that Falconer is a metaphor for the life of a closeted homosexual. Others think of it as the Great American Novel, with all the ambiguities of American life – attention to the surface nor what lies underneath, pleading innocence, ‘saving the world’ rather than imperialism (after all, it was written at the end of Vietnam), alienation, coming down from the high of the Summer of Love.

Cheever was a lifelong Episcopalian, so it it about fall and redemption, the tension between flesh and spirit, and the movement from suffering to joy?

 The management of the prison behaves like any that of any other institution. The inmates relate to the warders much like pupils to teachers.

The Latin on  pp. 118-9 is not that of the Mass. Nor would communicants receive the wine (p. 131).

Prison is one of those places for going mad or getting philosophical; occupations which are not always mutually exclusive.  It’s an institution where brutal, Darwinian order reigns and the embodied nature of existence asserts itself relentlessly as an inescapable truth. In amongst this malodorous, piss-filled world, sexual drives continue unabated and are in fact heightened – assuming a primary value as a commodity to trade and as a means of control and release. This dictatorship of the flesh and of regimen has of course knock-on effects in the minds of its inhabitants, giving flight to fantastical imaginings, postcard memories and studied delusions – all of which feature prominently in Falconer.

The story goes that John Cheever started his days by dressing for work; putting on his good suit, his felt hat and taking the elevator down with all the other men of a certain class on their way to the office. But from the lobby of his New York apartment building he would take the stairs to a windowless storage room in the basement. He would hang up his hat take off the suit and sit, in his underwear, typing until lunch time when he’d get dressed again and rise to the surface.

It was written after the author spent a month getting sober at the infamous Smithers Treatment Center in New York City, a facility that Truman Capote once described as Devil’s Island.  In her family memoir Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever writes of her father when he was sober, saying that it was like having back the man she remembered from her childhood, humorous, tender, engaged. After his time at Smithers, Cheever never drank again.

Falconer’s protagonist is Ezekiel Farragut; a college professor and heroin addict who is sentenced to prison at the Falconer State Penitentiary for killing his brother Eben. Ezekiel is married to Marcia with whom he shares a child, Peter.  To say the marriage is strained is an understatement, but not simply because of the position Ezekiel’s fratricidal outburst has put his wife in. As Cheever makes clear early on when flashing back to their pre-prison relationship, Marcia has frustrated lesbian interests while Ezekiel has a latent, bisexual inclination and as such their marriage has become largely asexual. Outside the significant sexual issues, Marcia also blames Ezekiel for her failed artistic career and sub-par material surrounds, all of which manifest in her adopting a maudlin, pernickety disposition.

 One review makes exaggerated claims regarding redemption for Ezekiel from his unhappy marriage based on an affair he will have with a fellow prisoner, Jody, but in fact this affair is an episodic event, not the fulcrum of the novel.  While the affair lasts, it lasts, but when Ezekiel’s lover Jody escapes in a daring enterprise involving a cardinal and a helicopter, Ezekiel doesn’t pine for long.

 When Ezekiel dreams in jail about his family, despite the fact they are well-to-do and engaged in philanthropic projects, he always envisions them in his dreams as highly-strung, petulant, never finishing things, always leaving somewhere in indignation. The Farragut family donate skinny chickens to poor people in tenements and read George Eliot to blind, snoring octogenarians – foisting their benevolence on a needy that don’t need – but at home, in their private moments rather than in their public displays, it’s misery. The father goes to the local amusement park “pretending to drink from an empty bottle” and making very public suicidal gestures before being bought home by a teenage Ezekiel. Eben is an alcoholic who is involved in an intense and miserable marriage, with a son in jail for anti-war protests and a daughter who has attempted suicide multiple times.  Ezekiel’s mother is cavalier about her broken relationship with her husband, an open family fact about which there is no attempt at concealment or resolution. Things are broken in the Farragut family but no decisions are made, no-one exercises their agency and things roll along with missing wheels and broken spokes into a black oblivion into which everyone is dragged. Instead of that common motif in literature of individuals suffering as a result of their isolation, each member of the Farragut family draws other members into their pathologies, and so Ezekiel’s alienation is inseparable from and a result of being enmeshed with others (family, prison inmates) to which he has no connection other than the geographical and physical.

Its beginnings lie in the writing class that Cheever taught at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the early ’70s. (As Cheever biographer Blake Bailey notes: “Almost every set piece in Falconer—almost every detail—appears somewhere in Cheever’s journal entries about Sing Sing.”)  At a meeting with the inmates there, one said, “You told a lot of the stories of this place in your book,” he said. “You told the story of the C.O., Tiny, who went crazy, pissed off, and killed all of the cats we had around here. You got that one right,” he added. “We all know that one. But what about what you got wrong? You wrote that scene—that scene about jerking off? Mr. Cheever, you wrote a group jerkoff in the urinals. If that scene was the truth, we’d all be animals,” he said. “We’d be dogs, not human beings. You know what I mean? We’d be eating dog food out of bowls.”

Cheever finally looked up. His jauntiness was gone. He spoke slowly. “I’m sorry. I wish I had never written that scene,” he said. “I would change it if I could.”

Escape and freedom are recurrent themes in the novel. Ezekiel – reflecting perhaps the views of Cheever who felt himself somewhat sequestered in a heterosexual marriage and addiction to alcohol – pursues a sort of negative rather than positive liberty; a freedom from rather than a freedom to. The heroin addiction acts as a sort of bridgehead from misery to…anywhere else.

We learn that Ezekiel started receiving a ‘yellow cough syrup’ in the war, which allowed men to enter into battle at peace. From there he graduated to Benzedrine and beer and from Benzedrine to heroin. Yet there’s no sense here of a tragic fall, Cheever states quite clearly that heroin gave Ezekiel a broader view of the human condition. “

Cheever depicts Ezekiel’s addiction in its full scope, convulsions in jail as he goes through a methadone program, but also the attractions. He would shoot up before lectures and marvel at the post war world; bridges he drove across like ‘mechanical Holy Ghosts’, the planes he flew on which ‘arced luxuriously’ across rarefied air. Ezekiel saw his addiction as elevating, indeed “a life without drugs seemed in fact and in spirit a remote and despicable point in his past.”

Tiny asks, “Why is you an addict?” It is precisely that basic question that Ezekiel spends the novel trying to answer. At the end, he is redeemed from his literal drug addiction even as he is redeemed within himself from the disgust and destruction that he had both caused and accepted for himself.

Fairly frequently in this novel, Cheever extends the terms of tradition and heritage far beyond the simplistic child-psychology talk that is used to explain the way some of the characters behave. Ezekiel’s aristocratic New England background is mirrored in the age of the prison, whose name has been changed several times over many years, reflecting the shifts in penological and judicial fashions.

Cats are important to the prisoners, as are plants. Even Tiny, who tears off the head of one cat, keeps plants as an antidote to loneliness. The portrayal of the Falconer prisoners tends toward tolerance, to see these people as worthy of tolerant love, of dignity, even though they are hopelessly fallen. That effect is partly accomplished by Cheever’s not lingering over the well-documented sorts of violence, racism, and terror that pervade prisons.

Although Ezekiel does not express regret or remorse about his homosexuality, he often speaks of his penis as an uncontrollable, separate entity, an independent member of some community with him only part of it: “What he saw, what he felt, was the utter poverty of erotic reasonableness.”.

The (sparing) detail of Ezekiel murdering his brother Eben does not feature until the end of the novel but not in order to give us some clarifying motive. After a fight in which Eben states that their father organised a doctor to have Ezekiel aborted, Ezekiel strikes his brother with a fire iron and kills him. However the effect of this abortion ‘revelation’ is muted, tired – not some critical piece of information which stirs Ezekiel’s passions. The abortion story is a known fact in the family and to Ezekiel and the reader already and thus the murder is described in sparse, cursory detail.

Time has marked the prison guards’ faces more severely than the captives, The world of the prison is evidently not a place of redemption, it’s a terminus from which Ezekiel’s lover Jody, and eventually Ezekiel himself, escapes and it houses the occasional petty tyrants you’d expect to inhabit such a place.

‘But they look so nice,’ someone says… as the newly arrived felons march quickstep across the yard of Falconer Prison, which was recently and briefly renamed Daybreak House. Throughout the author artfully plays the comic and tragic off each other, relieving the burden of his true depth with a laugh.

At the end of Chapter One, Chicken Number Two, a fellow prisoner, tells Farragut, ‘There has to be something good at the end of every journey’ and that he will have thousands of visitors, including his wife, ‘She’ll have to come and visit you. She ain’t going to be able to divorce you unless you sign the papers and she’ll have to bring them here herself. So all I wanted to tell you, is what you already knew—it’s all a big mistake, a terrible mistake.’

Cheever is acknowledging the divide, the deeply dangerous gap between a man’s public self, his projected image versus his true self, how he is experienced or experiences himself from the inside out. Appearances mean everything to Cheever; his men want to be read as successful, they want to have the right wives, children, careers, they are terrified of their impulses, their rage, the prospect of age, of literally and figuratively losing their hard-on for life, for slipping in one way or another and yet they are human—all too human. While in solitary confinement, Farragut crafts letters to his governor, his bishop and his girl, a stiff starched sheet with a stolen pen. These letters are incredibly eloquent, lush, graceful, filled with a heady heightened prose that hovers on the precipice of the hallucinatory.

Cheever takes the mythic, the biblical, the Cain and Abel of it all, and weaves a story of how one brother, Ezekiel (Farragut), was pushed to murder the other, Eben. It was in fact Eben who always wanted Farragut dead and who goes so far as to remind Farragut that their father called the abortionist to come and get rid of him before he ever came to life, and who in a subtle attempt to kill his brother, encourages him to swim in unsafe waters.

Falc 2Quotations:

The main entrance to Falconer — the only entrance for convicts, their visitors and the staff — was crowned by an esutcheon representing Liberty, Justice and, between the two, the soverieng power of government. Liberty wore a mobcap and carried a pike. Government was the federal Eagle holding an olive branch and armed with hunting arrows. Justice was conventional; blinded, vaguely erotic in her clinging robes and armed with a headsman’s sword

[On arrival, he is escorted to cellblock F.] “F,” said Tiny the warden, “stands for … freaks, fools, fruits, first-timers, fat-asses like me, phantoms, funnies, fanatics, feebies, fences and farts. There’s more, but I forget it. The guy who made it up is dead.”

Falc3“The bars had been enameled white many years ago, but the enamel had been worn back to iron at the chest level, where men instinctively held them.”

The accident or what they called the murder had taken place, Farragut thought, because of the fact that whenever he remembered or dreamed about his family he always saw them from the back. They were always stamping indignantly out of concert halls, theaters, sports arenas and restaurants, and he, as the youngest, was always in the rear. “If Koussevitzky thinks I’ll listen to that . . .” “That umpire is crooked.” “This play is degenerate.” “I don’t like the way that waiter looked at me.” “That clerk was impudent.” And so on. They saw almost nothing to its completion, and that’s the way he remembered them, heading, for some reason in wet raincoats, for the exit. It had occurred to him that they may have suffered terribly from claustrophobia and disguised this weakness as moral indignation.

Farragut was a drug addict and felt that the consciousness of the opium eater was much broader, more vast and representative of the human condition than the consciousness of someone who had never experienced addiction.

Your sentence would be lighter were you a less fortunate man,” said the judge, “but society has lavished and wasted her riches upon you and utterly failed to provoke in you that conscience that is the stamp of an educated and civilized human being and a useful member of society.

She had an authenticated beauty. Several photographers had asked her to model, although her breasts, marvelous for nursing and love, were a little too big for that line of work…”You know,” [Farragut’s] son had said, “I can’t talk to Mummy when there’s a mirror in the room. She’s really balmy about her looks.” Narcissus was a man and he couldn’t make the switch, but she had, maybe twelve or fourteen times, stood in front of the full-length mirror in their bedroom and asked him, “Is there another woman of my age in this country who is as beautiful as I?” She had been naked, overwhelmingly so, and he had thought this an invitation, but when he touched her she said, “Stop fussing with my breasts. I’m beautiful.”

‘And I remember when we first met, and I am today and will be forever astonished at the perspicacity with which a man can, in a glimpse, judge the scope and beauty of a woman’s memory, her tastes in color, food, climate and language, the precise clinical dimensions of her visceral, cranial and reproductive tracts, the condition of her teeth, hair, skin, toenails, eyesight and bronchial tree, that he can, in a second, exalted by the diagnostics of love, seize on the fact that she is meant for him….I can remember this and I can remember the sailboat race too, but it is getting dark here now, it is too dark for me to write anymore.’

Marcia walked down the hall to their bedroom and slammed the door. The sound was like an explosion to him. In case he had missed this, she opened the door and slammed it again. He became faint and in the distance heard Marcia ask: “Is there anything I can get you?” Her tone was murderous.

“Some sort of kindness,” he had said. “A little kindness.”

“Kindness?” she asked. “Do you expect kindness from me at a time like this? What have you ever done to deserve kindness? What have you ever given me? Drudgery. Dust. Cobwebs. Cars and cigarette lighters that don’t work. Bathtub rings, unflushed toilets, clinical alcoholism, drug addiction … and now a massive attack of heart failure. That’s what you have given me to live with, and you expect kindness.”

We have either missed the train or there is no train or the train is late. I don’t remember… All I really remember is a sense of your company and a sense of physical contentment.

FalcHe had desired and pursued women who charmed him with their lies and enchanted him with their absolute irresponsibility. When he bought diamond earrings he had deliberately judged the sexual mileage he could expect from these jewels.

Yesterday was the day of anxiety, the age of the fish and today, his day, his morning, was the mysterious and adventurous age of the needle.”

But each day Farragut must wake and must search for the image, whether it be a man in prison grays feeding bread crusts to a dozen pigeons or whether it be the actions of visitors to Falconer .

And indeed how unappreciative of freedom these people were – the visitors.

They were free free to run, jump … drink, book a seat on the Tokyo plane. They were free and yet they moved so casually through this precious element that it seemed wasted on them.

As the last of the visitors departs, he feels like crying and howling for he is among the living dead. Even a simple activity like jogging gives him an illusion of freedom. So he jogs to the mess hall, to the bath house and around the yard.

“Sometime in April, twelve years ago, I was diag­nosed as a chronic drug addict by Drs. Lemuel Brown, Rodney Coburn and Henry Mills. These men were graduates of Cornell, the Albany Medical School and Harvard University, respectively. Their position as healers was established by the state and the federal governments and the organizations of their colleagues. Surely, when they spoke, their expressed medical opin­ion was the voice of the commonwealth. On Thursday, the eighteenth of July, this unassailable opinion was contravened by Deputy Warden Chisholm. I have checked on Chisholm’s background. Chisholm dropped out of high school in his junior year, bought the an­swers to a civil service test for correctional employees for twelve dollars and was given a position by the De­partment of Correction with monarchal dominion over my constitutional rights. At 9 A.M. on the morning of the eighteenth, Chisholm capriciously chose to over­throw the laws of the state, the federal government and the ethics of the medical profession, a profession that is surely a critical part of our social keystone. Chisholm decided to deny me the healing medicine had determined was my right. Is this no treachery, is this not high treason when the Constitution are overthrown at the whim of one single, uneducated man? Is this not an offense punishable by death—or in some states by life imprisonment? Is this not more far-reaching in its destructive pecedents than some miscarried assassination attempt? Does it not strike more murderously at the heart of our hard-earned and ancient philosophy of than rape or homicide?

“The rightness of the doctors’ diagnosis was, of course, proven. The pain I suffered upon withdrawal of that medicine granted to me by authority in the land was mortal. When Deputy Warden Chisholm saw me attempt to leave my cell to go to the infirmary he tried to kill me with a chair twenty-two sutures in my skull and I will be crippled for life. Are our institutions of penology, correction and rehabilitation to be excluded from the laws kind has considered to be just and urgently to the continuation of life on this continent a this planet? You may wonder what I am prison and I will be very happy to inform thought it my duty to first inform you of the criminal treason that eats at the heart of your administration.”

“As Your Grace well knows, the most universal image of mankind is not love or death; it is Judgment

Day. One sees this in the cave paintings in the Dor­dogne, in the tombs of Egypt, in the temples of Asia and Byzantium, in Renaissance Europe, England, Rus­sia and the Golden Horn. Here the Divinity sifts out the souls of men, granting to the truly pure infinite serenity and sentencing the sinners to fire, ice and sometimes piss and shit. Social custom is never in force where one finds this vision, and one finds it everywhere. Even in Egypt the candidates for immortality include souls who could be bought and sold in the world of the living. The Divinity is the flame, the heart of this vision. A queue approaches the Divinity, always from the right; it doesn’t matter what country, age or century from which the vision is reported. On the left, then, one sees the forfeits and the rewards. Forfeiture and torment are, even in the earliest reports, much more passion­ately painted than eternal peace. Men thirsted, burned and took it up the ass with much more force and passion than they played their harps and flew. The presence of God binds the world together. His force, His essence, is Judgment.

“Everyone knows that the only sacraments are bread and water. The hymeneal veil and the golden ring came in only yesterday, and as an incarnation of the vision of love, Holy Matrimony is only a taste of the hellish consequences involved in claiming that a vision can be represented by thought, word and deed. Here, in my cell, is what one sees in the caves, the tombs of the kings, the temples and churches all over the planet being performed by men, by any kind of men the last century might have bred. Stars, dumbbells, hacks and boobs—it is they who have constructed these caverns of hell and, with a familiar diminishment of passion, the fields of paradise on the other side of the wall. This is the obscenity, this is the unspeakable obscenity, this stupid pageantry of judgment that, finer than air or gas, fills these cells with the reek of men slaughtering one another for no real reason to speak of. Denounce this cardinal blasphemy, Your Grace, from the back of your broad-winged eagle.”

“an escutcheon representing Liberty, Justice and, between the two, the sovereign power of government.”

“And I never got laid free, never once. I paid anywhere from fifty cents to fifty dollars, but I never once shot a lump for free … I just wish I had it free, once.”

“Long ago when they first invented the atomic bomb people used to worry about its going off and killing everybody, but they didn’t know that mankind has enough dynamite right in his guts to tear the fucking planet to pieces. Me, I know.”

‘I’m so glad you ain’t homosexual,’ Jody kept saying when he caressed Farragut’s hair.”

“He promised to wait for me.”

“The day was shit.”

Considering the fact that the cock is the most criti­cal link in our chain of survival, the variety of shapes, colors, sizes, characteristics, dispositions and responses found in this rudimentary tool are much greater than those shown by any other organ of the body. They were black, white, red, yellow, lavender, brown, warty, wrinkled, comely and silken, and they seemed, like any crowd of men on a street at closing time, to represent youth, age, victory, disaster, laughter and tears. There were the frenzied and compulsive pumpers, the long-timers who caressed themselves for half an hour, there were the groaners and the ones who sighed, and most of the men, when their trigger was pulled and the fusillade began, would shake, buck, catch their breath and make weeping sounds, sounds of grief, of joy, and sometimes death rattles. There was some rightness in having the images of the lovers around them opaque. They were universal, they were phantoms, and any skin sores, or signs of cruelty, ugliness, stupidity or beauty, could not be seen. Farragut went here regularly after Jody was gone.

When Farragut arced or pumped his rocks into the trough he endured no true sadness—mostly some slight disenchantment at having spilled his energy onto iron. Walking away from the trough, he felt that he had missed the train, the plane, the boat. He had missed it. He experienced some marked physical relief or improvement: the shots cleared his brain. Shame and remorse had nothing to do with what he felt, walking away from the trough. What he felt, what he saw as the utter poverty of erotic reasonableness. That as how he missed the target and the target was the mysteriousness of the bonded spirit and the flesh. He knew it well. Fitness and beauty had a rim. Fitness and beauty had a dimension, had a floor, even as the oceans haye a floor, and he had committed a trespass. It was unforgivable—a venal trespass—but he was reproa­ched by the majesty of the realm. It was majestic; in prison he knew the world to be majestic. He had taken a pebble out of his shoe in the middle of mass. He remembered the panic he had experienced as boy when he found his trousers, his hands and his coattails soaked with crystallizing gism. He had learned from the Boy Scout Handbook that his prick would grow as long and thin as a shoelace, and that the juice that had poured out of his crack was the cream of his brain power. This miserable wetness proved that he would fail his College Board exams and have to attend a broken-down agricultural college somewhere in the Middle West. . .

Marshack…was very useful. He was indispensable at greasing machinery and splicing BX cables and he would be a courageous and fierce mercenary in some border skirmish if someone more sophisticated gave the order to attack. There would be some universal goodness in the man – he would give you a match for your cigarette and save you a seat at the movies – but there was no universality to his lack of intelligence. Marshack might respond to the sovereignty of love, but he could not master geometry and he should not be asked to. Farragut put him down as a killer.

Farragut walked to the front of the bus and got off at the next stop. Stepping onto the street he saw he had lost his fear of falling (he had forgotten how to walk as a free man). He held his head high, his back straight and walk along nicely. Rejoice, he thought. Rejoice.

“Who would want to riot in order to get out of a nice place like this? In the paper now you read there’s unemployment everywhere. That’s why the lieutenant governor is in here. He can’t get no job outside. Even famous movie stars with formerly millions is standing in line with their coat collars turned up around their necks waiting for a handout, waiting for a bowl of that watery bean soup that don’t keep you from feeling hungry and makes you fart. Out in the street everybody’s poor, everybody’s out of work and it rains all the time. They mug one another for a crust of bread. You have to stand in line for a week just to be told you ain’t got no job. We stand in line three times a day to get our nice minimal-nutritional hot meal, but out in the street they stand in line for eight hours, twenty-four hours, some­times they stand in line for a lifetime. Who wants to get out of a nice place like this and stand in line in the rain? And when they ain’t standing in line in the rain they worry about atomic war. Sometimes they do both. I mean they stand in line in the rain and worry about atomic war because if there’s an atomic war they’ll all be killed and find themselves standing in line at the gates of hell. That’s not for us, men. In case of an atomic war we’ll be the first to be saved. They got bomb shelters for us criminals all over the world. They don’t want us loose in the community. I mean they’ll let the community burn before they’ll set us free, and that will be our salvation, friends. They’d rather burn than have us running around the streets, because everybody knows that we eat babies, fuck old women up the ass and burn down hospitals full of helpless cripples. Who would ever want to get out of a nice place like this?”

the Cuckold cleared his throat and said, “If you was to ask my advice about marriage, I would advise you not to put too much attention on fucking. I guess I married her because she was a great fuck—I mean she was my size, she came at the right time, it was great there for years. But then when she started fucking everybody, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t get any advice from the church and all I could get out of the law was that I should divorce her, but what about the kids? They didn’t want me to go, even when they knew what she was doing. She even talked with me about it. When I complained about her screwing everybody, she gave me this lecture about how it wasn’t an easy life. She said sucking every cock on the street was a very lonely and dangerous way to live. She told me it took courage. She did, really. She gave me this lecture. She said that in the movies and in the books you read it’s a very nice and easy thing, but she’d had to face all sorts of problems. She told me about this time when I was on the road and she went to this bar and restaurant for dinner with some friends. In North Dakota we have these food divorcement laws where you eat in one place and drink in another, and she had moved from the drinking place to the eating place. But at the bar there was this very, very beautiful man. She gave him the horny eye through the doorway and he gave it right back to her. You know what I mean. The horny eye?

“So then she told me that she told her friends, very loudly, that she wasn’t going to have any dessert, that she was going to drive home to her empty house and read a book. She said all this so he could hear her and would know that there wasn’t going to be any husband or kids around. She knew the bartender and the bar­tender would give him her address. So she went home and put on a wrapper and then the doorbell rang and there he was. So right in the hallway he began to kiss her and put her hand on his cock and drop his pants, right in the front hallway, and at about discovered that while he was very beat also very dirty. She told me that he could bath in a month. As soon as she got a whiff of him she cooled off and began to figure out how him into a shower. So he went on kissing her and getting out of his clothes and smelling worse and then she suggested that maybe he bath. So then he suddenly got angry and said that he was looking for a cunt, not a mother, that his mother told him when he needed a bath, that around looking for sluts in saloons in or when he needed a bath and when to get and when to brush his teeth. So he got went away and she told me this to illustrate how a round heels takes all kinds of courage.

“But I did lousy things too. When I road once I said hello and went upstairs to take a crap and while I was sitting there I noticed this big pile of hunting and fishing magazines besides the toilet. So then I finished and pulled and came out shouting about this constipated man she was fucking. I yelled and yelled. I said it was just her speed to pick up with a boob who a fly or take a shit. I said I could imagine him sitting  there, his face all red, reading about catching the gamy  muskallonge in stormy northern waters. I just what she deserved, that just by lool could tell it was her destiny to get ream those pimply gas pumpers who do they magazines and can’t cut a turd. So she cried and about an hour later I remembered that I had subscribed to all these hunting and fishing magazines and when I said that I was sorry she really didn’t care and I felt shitty.” Farragut said nothing—he seldom said anything to the Cuckold—and the Cuckold went back to his cell and turned up his radio.

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The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

(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.)

Crime readers are on such friendly terms that they conflate books from Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland under the banner of “Scandi”. The author gained some fame in the UK with his TV series London Spy.

Daniel believed that his parents were enjoying a peaceful retirement on a remote farm in Sweden, the country of his mother’s birth. But with a single phone call, everything changes.

Your mother… she’s not well, his father tells him. She’s been imagining things – terrible, terrible things.In fact, she has been committed to a mental hospital.

Before Daniel can board a plane to Sweden, his mother calls: Everything that man has told you is a lie. I’m not mad… I need the police… Meet me at Heathrow.

Presented with a horrific crime, a conspiracy that implicates his own father, Daniel must examine the evidence and decide: who is telling the truth, his mother or his father? And he has secrets of his own that for too long he has kept hidden…

The picturesque but boring village ringed by isolated farms; a district dominated by a strong but taciturn patriarch; the disappearance of a vulnerable young woman, which is uncovered by an unreliable female investigator; the veneer of respectability that readers soon begin to suspect masks something rotten in the state of Scandi. But Smith, whose mother is Swedish, is playing a long game. The world he has created may initially appear full of enjoyably restful conventions, but any cliches in The Farm exist to wrongfoot us. This is a neatly plotted book full of stories within stories, which gradually unravel to confound our expectations.

The great bulk of the book is a two-hander between Daniel and Tilde as she sets out the evidence for her claims. It becomes a sort of therapy session: Daniel listens patiently as his mother brings forth notes and exhibits to back up her claims.

We hear very little about Dan’s partner.

In real life: Smith’s parents had retired from their careers as antique dealers in London to live on a farm in Sweden. As far as Smith knew, all was going well until the day his father phoned to tell him he suspected his mum was mentally ill. Hours later, she arrived in Britain.

‘She was slightly more animated than usual,’ recalls Smith, ‘but she would have been if she really had gone through a terrible conspiracy as she claimed. Otherwise she seemed normal. I was bewildered.’

Quotations:

I’m sure your father has spoken to you. Everything that man has told you is a lie. I’m not mad. I don’t need a doctor. I need the police. I’m about to board a flight to London. Meet me at Heathrow.

 

“In the service station …I washed my face with a dollop of pungent pink soap from the dispenser, straightening my hair, taming the wild strands.”.

 

“I was seated next to Mark, who was seated beside my dad, seated beside Anders, the four of us side-by-side…

If you refuse to believe me, I will no longer consider you my son…

“You mistrust that word?

Villain.

You think it sounds unreal?

Villains are real. They walk among us. … ”

“Here’s the crucial point. As the fact of isolation sinks into our consciousness we change, not at first but slowly, gradually, until we accept it as the norm. … It alters our notions of how we should behave, of what is acceptable, and most important of all, what we can get away with.”

 

“It was increasingly apparent that the way in which I listened to her story changed the story itself, and I reaffirmed my intention to present a neutral front, giving little away.”

 

“Do I even know my parents? My fondness for them had drifted into a form of neglect.”

 

“…Except when I was alone. I’d hate myself. It’s how we feel about ourselves when we’re alone that must guide our decisions.”
“Let me quickly remind you that the allegation of being mentally incapable is a tried and tested method of silencing women dating back hundreds of years, a weapon to discredit us when we fought against abuses and stood up to authority.”
“Standing at the point where these photographs were taken, you’re immersed in the most unbelievable quiet. It’s like being at the bottom of the sea except instead of a rusted shipwreck there’s an ancient farmhouse. Even the thoughts in my head sounded loud, and sometimes I found my heart beating hard for no reason except as a reaction against the silence.”
“I’d mistaken familiarity for insight and equated hours spent together as a measure of understanding.”
“cycling down the road. Her movements were erratic, almost out of control, pedaling at alarming speed as though she were being chased. As she passed the gate, I caught sight of her face. She’d been”
“You crave security, Daniel. You always have. Let me tell you. There is none. A great friendship can be swept aside in an evening, a lover changed into an enemy with a single admission.”
Children rot when they’re indulged in too much love.

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The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince – Ridley, Jane

THA(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.)

I got this book because I was doing research into the Cleveland Street scandal so most of it is incidental to my purpose but interesting nevertheless. Eddie, who was suspected of involvement ion this, was ‘a delicate child, quiet, apathetic and a slow developer.’ Supposedly, he ‘dawdled’ when dressing in the morning, was ‘a good boy at heart’ and reminded his father (who kept his portrait over his bed after he died) of his own younger self.

Where the author mentions homosexuality, she either dismisses it or moralises about it.

It is well-researched, with 99 pages of footnotes.

King Edward the VII, affectionately called Bertie, was fifty-nine when he took the throne in 1901, upon the death of his mother Queen Victoria. To everyone’s great surprise, this playboy prince sobered up and became an extremely effective leader and the founder of England’s modern monarchy.

Then again, his mother had become such a recluse, in her obsessive mourning for Albert, that anything could have been an improvement.

 You’ve heard of ‘Edward the Confessor’. Here’s ‘Edward  the Caresser.’

The royal world into which Prince Albert Edward was born in 1841 was one still scarred by the mad, bad Hanoverians of the 18th century. Their legacy of illegitimate offspring, inherited insanity and vicious familial power struggles haunted both Queen Victoria and her cousin and consort, Prince Albert — a fascinating, domineering figure in Ridley’s telling, who was raised in a decadent minor German court and became obsessed with purifying the palace. Albert invented the phrase and concept of the “the royal family,” grasping presciently the power that the new house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha could hold as a “beacon of bourgeois domesticity” rather than as a byword for debauchery.

Unfortunately for his children, this meant a stringent policing of behaviour and a rigorous program of private education, under which Bertie — who never willingly read a book — stumbled and suffered. His bride, the Danish princess Alexandra, known as Alix, was chosen for him before he was 20 in a match masterminded by his older sister Vicky, newly married to the future German Emperor Frederick III. Theirs was still a Europe governed by dynastic alliances and insistent upon the (outward) sexual purity of royal children at the time of marriage. Although Bertie protested that he was too young, his parents made haste, knowing that the pretense that the union was “a love match” rather than an arranged, political marriage “depended upon keeping him in a state of pent-up sexual frustration so that he fell madly in love at first sight.”

One can’t help feeling sorry for ‘Bertie’. Thick and lazy he may have been but to have his mother breathing down his neck like that.

And one can feel sorry for royalty as a whole, trapped in a life of duty in the public gaze that they didn’t ask for but which is merely an accident of birth.

Victoria didn’t like to confuse monarchy with religion – didn’t she know she was supreme governor of the established church?

Bertie was one of the few of the aristocracy not to be anti-semitic.

I didn’t realise that many customs emanate from him, e.g. leaving a waistcoat’s bottom undone was his practice after putting on weight.  So too rolling up trouser legs. Group photos started at Sandringham.

And very few readers will have known what Catherine of Aragon’s closet is. I was lucky to have a guided tour.

I had to look up ‘camarilla’ = a group of courtiers or favourites who surround a king or ruler. Usually, they do not hold any office or have any official authority at the royal court but influence their ruler behind the scenes.

And find out who Dorothy Hodgkin was = advanced the technique of X-ray.

Quotations:

Exiles from the imperial court were royally entertained at Marlbor­ough House. Among them was Blanche, the half-American Duchess of Caracciolo, who scandalized London society that winter, going out shooting in a kilt and smoking cigarettes. Her ailing husband was cru­elly teased by a prankster who dressed up as a doctor and told him he was dying, while his valet disguised himself as a priest and heard his last confession. Soon the duchess was pregnant, and she gave birth to a daughter named Alberta Olga, in honor of Bertie, who was the ba­by’s godfather and rumored—probably falsely—to be her father, too.

For a man as sexually rampant as Bertie, a celibate marriage might seem a cruel mockery. But, as the dean perceived, Bertie was “deeply attached to the Princess, despite all the flattering distractions that beset him in society”; he genuinely wanted to “be more careful about her.” At first, the death of their baby son strengthened the marriage. “What my angelic blessed Bertie was to me all this time no words can de­scribe, a true angel!” wrote Alix. “If anything could have bound us closer together, it is this, our first great sorrow.”

Ever since the Mordaunt case, the rad­ical Reynolds’s Newspaper had voiced a strident republicanism. The paper was the publication of G. W. M. Reynolds, an ex-Chartist dedicated to fighting the class war and exposing royalty as an undeserving burden on the taxpayer. It cruelly recorded the death of the baby Prince John thus:

We have much satisfaction in announcing that the newly born child of the Prince and Princess of Wales died shortly after its birth, thus relieving the working men of England from having to support hereafter another addition to the long roll of State beggars they at present maintain.

“Many of the women with whom he began relationships …refused to go quietly. Blackmail, pregnancy, even a court case were to return to haunt him. There was no such thing as a relationship without consequences.”

“King Edward, who “smoke cigars, was addicted to and entente cordials, married a Sea King’s daughter and invented appendicitis,” pursued a policy of peace that “was very successful and culminated in the Great War to End War.”
“which his Holiness recently received me in Rome.” Wyndham noticed”

“A 1970 survey of dreams about Queen Elizabeth II found that people continued to dream about Queen Victoria seventy years after her death, so deeply was her narrative encrypted in the subconscious of the British people. (Brian Masters, Dreams About the Queen, Blond and Briggs, 1972, pp. 83–84.)”

“Money and sexual scandal have been the twin demons of the monarchy since the 20th century….as Bertie’s successors were to discover, projecting monarchy as a ‘family firm” placed an unreasonable pressure on its members to lead exemplary lives.”

The chain-smoking Eddy was aimless and lackadaisical and distress­ingly prone to put his foot in it. He was remarkably sweet-natured, however, and Alix’s favorite. Bertie, though, was infuriated, and teased him for his dandified clothes and the tall “masher” collars he wore to hide his abnormally long neck (“Eddy-Collar-and-Cuffs”). To stiffen his son and keep him out of trouble, he resolved to send Eddy on a six-month tour of India.

Bertie had a meeting with his equerry Lord Arthur Somerset, the superintendent of his stables, and instructed him to see that Eddy was properly equipped with saddlery for his Indian tour, arranging for him to meet the prince on 30 September 1889. At the last minute, Somer­set wired to excuse himself from the meeting, as he was obliged to leave “on urgent private affairs” for Dieppe.

Lord Arthur Somerset was the third son of the Duke of Beaufort. Known as “Podge,” he was a major in the Royal Horse Guards (the Blues), a tall bachelor with luxuriant ginger facial hair. “He was in­clined to fat; his small eyes were on the watch.” No one would have guessed that he was in the habit of visiting a homosexual brothel on Cleveland Street. Podge’s vice had come to the attention of the au­thorities in July 1889, when a postboy apprehended for theft had been found with the princely sum of eighteen shillings in his pocket. Ques­tioned by police, the boy confessed that he and two others had re­ceived the money as payment for “indecent acts” with men at number 19, Cleveland Street, near Fitzroy Square. Under Section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, “gross indecency” between two men, whether public or private, was a criminal offense. Policemen kept watch on the house in Cleveland Street and spotted Lord Arthur, who was identified by the postboys and then interviewed by detectives.

Podge waited uneasily during the summer, as the case against two men who had procured the boys came to court. He attempted to bribe a young male prostitute, a waiter from the Marlborough Club, but this led him straight into a police trap. By the end of September, the case against him was complete, but the government hesitated to issue a warrant. A homosexual scandal at Marlborough House was the last thisig Lord Salisbury wanted.

Lord Arthur Somerset’s movements and conversations are docu­mented in the letters he wrote to his friend Reginald (Regy) Brett, later

Lord Esher, a married man and closet homosexual. Brett preserved these letters and bound them into a volume he entitled “The Case of Lord Arthur Somerset.” This forms one of the chief sources for the tangled events that ensued.

In London on 5 October, Lord Arthur saw his commanding officer, Oliver Montagu. They agreed that the prince must be told, and Podge wrote a letter confessing his sins. Montagu undertook to go to Fre­densborg, where Bertie was on holiday with Alix’s extended family, to see the prince, “so as he may hear the right story first.”

“I don’t believe it,” Bertie told Dighton Probyn, the eccentrically bearded comptroller and treasurer of his household. “I won’t believe it any more than if they had accused the Archbishop of Canterbury.’

From Fredensborg, Bertie ordered Probyn in London to clear up Lord Arthur’s case. “Go and see Monro [the police commissioner], go to the Treasury, see Lord Salisbury if necessary.”81 On the evening of 18 October, Probyn saw Lord Salisbury for a few minutes on King’s Cross station before he caught the 7:30 train home to Hatfield. On the same night, Lord Arthur Somerset fled the country.

Later, in the House of Commons debate on 28 February 1890, Salis­bury was accused of entering into a criminal conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. The case against him turned on the fact that Arthur Somerset escaped to France on the same night as the King’s Cross meeting. Salisbury denied the charge, but doubts have always lin­gered. Might Probyn have hurried around to the Marlborough Club, where Somerset was staying, and tipped him off? Salisbury’s biogra­pher considers that the prime minister felt justified in warning Somer­set, out of a sense of class loyalty to his father the Duke of Beaufort.”

Bertie wrote to the PM to say how glad he was to learn that “no warrant is likely to be issued against the ‘unfortunate Lunatic’ (I can call him nothing else) as, for the sake of the Family and Society, the less one hears of such a filthy scandal the better.”85 On 12 November, how­ever, the warrant was issued at last, charging Lord Arthur Somerset with “gross indecency” with other male persons contrary to the Crim­inal Law Amendment Act. By then, he was living in a villa in Monaco. He never returned to face charges.

Lord Arthur Somerset always maintained that his refusal to stand trial was more than a mere matter of saving his own skin. His real rea­son he explained in the letters he wrote from abroad to Brett. These documents reveal a sensational story: that Arthur Somerset was a scapegoat who went into exile in order to shield the name of Prince Eddy, who had also visited the Cleveland Street brothel.

Soon the rumors about Eddy’s involvement in the scandal were cir­culating in London, and an article in The New York Times (10 November 1889) actually mentioned him by name. This caused a “great pother” in the Prince of Wales’s household, and when Bertie returned to Lon­don in mid-November, Marlborough House swung into action to sup­press the gossip. Oliver Montagu implored Lord Arthur Sotherset to return and stand trial in order to clear Prince Eddy’s name.86 Somerset refused. Nor did he make any attempt to protest the prince’s inno­cence. He explained his predicament in a letter to Brett:

I cannot see what good I could do P[rin]ce E[ddy] if I went into court. I might do harm because if I was asked if I had ever heard anything against him—whom from?—was any person men­tioned with whom he went there etc?—the questions would be very awkward. I have never mentioned the boy’s name except to Probyn, Montagu and Knollys when they were acting for me and I thought they ought to know. Had they been wise, hearing what I knew and therefore what others knew, they ought to have hushed the matter up, instead of stirring it up, as they did, with all the authorities. I have never . . . ever told any one with whom P[rin]ce E[ddy] was supposed to have gone there. I did not think it fair as I could not prove it & it must have been his ruin. I can quite understand the P[rince] of W[ales] being much annoyed at his son’s name being coupled with this thing but . . . it had no more to do with me than the fact that we (that is P[rin]ce and I) must both perform bodily functions which we cannot do for each other. . . . If I went into Court and told all I know no one who called himself a man would ever speak to me again. Hence my infernal position.

Bertie was furious with Arthur Somerset. He wrote to Carrington on 2 January 1890: “I hardly like to allude any more to the subject of AS as it is really a too painful one to write about—and his subsequent conduct makes me wish that he had never existed.”

It’s possible, as one account suggests, that the rumors about Eddy visiting the Cleveland Street brothel caused such consternation to Marlborough House “not because they were false but because they were true.” An alternative scenario suggests that the rumors about Eddy and Cleveland Street were slanders that were deliberately spread and embroidered by Lord Arthur Somerset. In his letter to Brett, quoted above, Somerset concedes that he cannot prove the rumors about Eddy visiting Cleveland Street. After his ignominious flight, he needed to vindicate himself and show he was a man of honor. What better way than to claim that he had voluntarily gone into exile in a chivalrous bid to throw his cloak over the young prince?

Whether or not Prince Eddy did, in fact, frequent Cleveland Street—or whether he was gay or, more likely, bisexual—is perhaps not the issue. The real point is that Eddy had become the story, and that made him a liability.

Lord Arthur Somerset was exceptionally well placed to damage Eddy because of his family connections. His sister, Blanche, with whom he kept in close contact throughout the drama, was married to the Marquess of Waterford, older brother of Lord Charles Beresford. In his attempt to damp down the scandal, Oliver Montagu wrote to Blanche Waterford complaining that some female members of her family had been “insinuating things about Prince Eddy.” The woman he had in mind was her sister-in-law: Mina Beresford. Mina had given Daisy Brooke’s incriminating letter to Lord Waterford for safekeeping. She must have known about the Lord Arthur Somerset/Eddy story, and she had every motive to spread damaging rumors. The Cleveland Street scandal was intimately linked to the Beresford affair. Both were fueled by the fury of Mina Beresford.

No doubt Bertie was unaware, but Archbishop Benson was an unfortunate example to choose; his wife, Mary Benson, was a lesbian, and his three sons were homosexuals.

Knollys was accused of leaking against Salisbury. During the debate on 28 February 1890, the Liberal MP Henry Labouchere, the editor of Truth, was challenged to supply the name of his informant for the allegation that Salis­bury had tipped off Probyn about the warrant for Lord Arthur Somerset’s arrest. He theatrically wrote a name on a piece of paper, and then tore it up into tiny pieces. Afterward, an MP picked up the pieces, and revealed that the name was Sir Francis Knollys. This prompted Knollys to give an explanation to the PM in an interview with Schomberg McDonnell. According to Mc­Donnell’s memo, Knollys admitted that he had seen Labouchere in Novem­ber, but claimed he had told him only one thing: that Lord Arthur had fled on the same day as the King’s Cross meeting. “Sir Francis Knollys assures me that with the exception of the above remark he said literally nothing,” noted McDonnell.

A memo by Schomberg McDonnell, Salisbury’s pri­vate secretary, appears to vindicate Salisbury. It records an interview with a certain General Marshall, who claimed to have been alerted by Colonel Pear­son, the assistant commissioner of police, about the damning evidence against Lord Arthur Somerset. Marshall told Pearson to warn Probyn. This memo is minuted by Salisbury in red ink: “If General Marshall’s impression is accurate Probyn played me an ugly trick for he did his best to make me as­sent to a letter which would have implied that he had obtained his informa­tion from my conversation. He told me that he had no communication with Somerset for several weeks before the flight.”

Bertie had at last concluded that Eddy’s army career was “simply a waste of time.” Eddy was worryingly lacking in energy and self-esteem. Carrington watched him visit Wycombe and make a speech: “When he sat down he turned round and said to me, ‘I have made a rare ass of myself.’ It is pathetic to see how little confidence he has in himself.” Bertie suggested three alternatives. Plan number one was to send Eddy on a long sea voyage to the colonies, out of reach of temptation. Queen Victoria put her foot down. Eddy, she said, had been “dosed” with the Colonies. She urged Bertie’s option two: a Eu­ropean tour.

He has been . . . nowhere but to Denmark in Europe. He is only able to speak French badly and German equally so. He has never, like every other Prince . . . been in contact with any other court but Berlin or seen fine works of Art . . . [He ought] not merely go to young colonies, with no history, no art and nothing but middle class English speaking people . . . If the Prince of Wales is afraid of his making a mesalliance which the Queen is not afraid of, Australia, Canada etc. would be worse in its dangers in this respect.

Bertie, however, was concerned not with Eddy’s education, or lack of it, but with his dissipated behavior, a subject he dared not mention to his mother, as Knollys explained in a note to Salisbury: “Unfortu­nately [the Queen’s] views on certain social subjects are so strong that the Prince of Wales does not like to tell her the real reasons for sending Prince Eddy away, which is intended as a punishment and as a means of keeping him out of harm’s way, and I am afraid that neither of these objects will be attained by his simply travelling about Europe.”

Bertie’s third option was a surprise: to marry Eddy off to Princess May of Teck. Princess May was the daughter of Queen Victoria’s first cousin Mary, the Duchess of Teck, known to many as Fat Mary. The Duke of Teck was the son of Duke Alexander of Wurttemberg, who made a morganatic marriage to a Hungarian countess. The blight of “commoner’s” blood meant that, instead of succeeding to the throne of Wurttemberg, the Duke of Teck was reduced to “vegetating incon­spicuously in England, pruning roses.” Incapable of living within their means, the Tecks ran up large debts; they were pursued by their creditors, and, after the humiliation of auctioning their possessions in 1883, spent two years in exile in Florence.

Perhaps Bertie knew too much about Rosebery. In August 1893, at Homburg, he had helped to rescue him from the mad Marquess of Queensberry. The homophobic marquess, who was the father of Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), the lover of Oscar Wilde, was convinced that his eldest son, Lord Drumlanrig, private secretary to Rosebery, was having a homosexual affair with Rosebery. He arrived in Homburg de­termined to “out” “that boy pimp and boy lover Rosebery.” He was met by the police and interviewed by the Prince of Wales, who told him, “We are quiet people at Homburg and don’t like disturbance.” The scandal took another turn in October 1894, when Drumlanrig was found dead during a shoot. The official verdict was accidental death, but dark rumors circulated of suicide and homosexual cover-up, and Rosebery lived in terror that the vicious marquess would denounce him.

When Rosebery offered himself as a suitor for Princess Victoria, he was sharply rebuffed by Alix. Toria, as she was known, was intelligent—not as pretty as Maud, but very “light in hand” according to Car­rington. Years later, as an old lady, Anita Leslie recalled Toria reflecting that “there had been someone perfect for her but they would no’t let her marry him—And we could have been so happy— The man, Anita later discovered, was Rosebery.65 At the time, the millionaire widower prime minister seemed far from ideal. Not only did his involvement in politics rule him out,66 but he was nineteen years older than Toria, painfully insomniac, and dogged by damaging rumors of homosexual­ity. And the fact was that Alix did not want her daughters to marry.

Daisy’s son was born on 21 March 1898. The child was christened with only one name, Maynard, which was Daisy’s maiden name, and the godfathers were Cecil Rhodes and Lord Rosebery, both sexually ambivalent men rumored to be homosexuals. The child was passed off as Lord Warwick’s, but plenty of clues pointed to another father of this baby born after a gap of thirteen years. Bertie’s name was some­times mentioned, and the “D” symbol does indeed cluster around the Diamond Jubilee in June 1897, when the baby was presumably con­ceived. Bertie took an interest in the “Diamond Jubilee” baby, as he called it in the letters he wrote to Daisy, but this need not imply pater­nity. Daisy herself was in no doubt that the father was Joe Laycock.” Having a child by another man was the exit route that Lillie Langtry had chosen from her relationship with the prince, and in Daisy’s case, as with Lillie, Bertie behaved generously, showing no sexual jealousy. Daisy by now had three children by three different men. No wonder that she made a virtue of sexual freedom, telling Lord Rosebery, who she fruitlessly pursued, that “Far too much fuss, in my opinion, is ma by women about personal morality which, after all, is entirely a ma for the individual.” Of the damage done to her children or other people’s marriages, Daisy seemed unaware.

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The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis

TEOESet in Hallencourt in the Somme, a small and isolated factory town of 1,300 people where Louis grew up, the book is a stark tale of his life below the poverty line, punctuated by his father’s drunken violence – the rage of the humiliated working-class male: racism, homophobia and casual daily brutality.

Eddy Bellegueule (Louis’s real name, which means “beautiful face” in French) is an effeminate child; as a “faggot”, “queer”, “poof”, as he is regularly reminded, he is even worse than an “Arab”, “Jew” or “black”.

Another oft-repeated phrase – “just who do you think you are?” – serves to remind him who he is, where he comes from and where everyone assumes he is going. Instead, Bellegueule forges a new path, via a scholarship and one of France’s elite university schools, writes everything down and changes his name.

Its unemotional style is similar to Zola’s work, though the author claims not to have read him.

It’s non-stop misery, like Gypsy Boy. It’s vidid, powerful. The writing is violent and there is no escape for the reader. There’s no humour, c.f. Oranges are not the Only Fruit.

He suffers not for doing something but for being something and looking like something.

The shed scene is unbelievable: not because boys don’t get up to this but for the seeming enjoyment of a ten-year-old, getting an erection whilst being raped. However, he seems to have wanted this to happen. On p., 130 he speaks of repressed desire, relishes the smell of the older boys and leaps at the chance of wearing women’s clothes and jewellery.

We wondered why he didn’t avoid the bullies. Well, on p. 25 he says that he didn’t want others to see him being beaten up because they’d then know he was gay. On p. 136 he speaks of fear of retaliation.

It jumps about in time a bit. Then again, people with a traumatic past get confused about chronology.

The only black person in a racist village is seen as OK because different.

There’s a vivid and memorable description of his first orgasm.

Were they really that poor in the 1990s? More like the 1950s. And homophobia was much less marked in British schools then.

Is it novel or autobiography? Was it written too son after the event? Not enough perspective?

One chapter title quotes the King James Bible ‘Stait is the gate’. A postgrad student, of English no less, though this was about sexuality.

Who is Tristan at the end? Is he a positive to balance the book’s negative beginning?

The French title has a different nuance: Doing Away with Eddy.

TEOE2Quotations:

‘Before I had a chance to rebel against the world of my childhood, that world rebelled against me. In truth, confronting my parents, my social class, its poverty, racism and brutality came second. From early on I provoked shame and even disgust from my family and others around me. The only option I had was to get away somehow. This book is an effort to understand all that.’

From my childhood I have no happy memories. I don’t mean to say that I never, in all those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming.”

“from my eye towards my lips, ready to enter my mouth”

“As far back as I can remember I can see my drunk father fighting with other drunk men leaving the café, breaking noses and teeth,”

“into a plastic supermarket bag” and swinging it against some cement edge “until the bag was filled with blood and the meowing had ceased”.

“the still-warm blood” “it’s the best, the blood you get from an animal right when it dies”.

“Every day I came back, as if we had an appointment, an unspoken contact . . . There was just one idea I held to: here, no one would see us, no one would know. I had to avoid being hit elsewhere, in the playground, in front of the others.”

[S]he was already standing frozen, unable to make the slightest sound or the smallest gesture . . . Her gaze never left mine; I don’t remember what that gaze held. Disgust perhaps, or anguish – I can no longer say.”

“Don’t you ever do that again . . . ”

“Wasting petrol for this theatre shit of yours, really why should I?” Yet he does drive him.

TEOE 3“On the day when the amount of the allowance at the start of the school year was raised, my father, with a joy we rarely saw because he usually played at being the man of the house who could not show his feelings, shouted: ‘Sunday, we’re going to the seaside.’ And indeed we went, six of us in a car big enough for five. I rode in the boot.

It dont make sense, when he says we should kill all the ragheads but then when he lived in the Midi his best mate was a raghead.”

He wasn’t embarrassed, he didn’t feel the violence the prosecutor was exercising, the class violence that had excluded him from the world of education, the violence that had, in the end, led him to the courtroom where he now stood. In fact he must have thought that the prosecutor was ridiculous. That he spoke like a faggot.

There’s a revealing interview with the author here.

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The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale – Gerard Reve

TEGerard Reve (1923-2006) is considered one of the greatest post-war Dutch authors, and was also the first openly gay writer in the country’s history. His 1947 debut The Evenings was chosen as one of the nation’s 10 favourite books by readers of a leading Dutch newspaper while the Society of Dutch Literature ranked it as the Netherlands’ best novel of all time. It’s been dubbed ‘one of the finest studies of youthful malaise ever written’

Twenty-three-year-old Frits – office worker, daydreamer, teller of inappropriate jokes – finds life absurd and inexplicable. There is a lack of much to do after the War. Meeting friends, going to the cinema and dancing are the only options, if you have enough money. Otherwise there is sitting at home and listening to the radio. He lives with his parents, who drive him mad. He has terrible, disturbing dreams of death and destruction. Sometimes he talks to a toy rabbit.

This is the story of ten evenings in Frits’s life at the end of December, as he drinks, smokes, sees friends, aimlessly wanders the gloomy city streets and tries to make sense of the minutes, hours and days that stretch before him.

Some of our group found it quite boring –  but that’s the point! How do you write a book about boredom that isn’t boring? It was a page-turner because people wanted to see if the protagonist did something daring, like kill someone. Was his adolescence (he’s annoyed with and rude to his parents) delayed by war and occupation? Is the obsession with food a result of previous starvation and rationing?

It’s well-written. The descriptions of the weather are vivid. One person found it quite hypnotic.

Is his teasing s form of flirtation?

That the gay author is the same age as the protagonist and this being his first book, is there a suppressed gay element? For example., the bar upstairs where you have to ring a bell to get in – one assumes it is a casino but there’s dancing but only two women. Is it a clandestine gay bar?

He is obsessed with baldness.

Although not a churchgoer, he knows and quotes his bible.

The cover and feel of the book are pleasing.

All in all, people were pleased that they’d read it though one gave up half way through.

Maybe he should join a book group!

Quotations:

“I work in an office. I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is all”

This afternoon is perhaps worse than others,” he thought. “I have four hours to go till evening.”

“It is,” he thought, “only a quarter to three, but still this day will fill itself like any other.”

“If no one else says anything,” he thought, “I have no choice but to keep talking.”

“I work in an office. I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is all”

“‘All is lost,’” he thought, ‘everything is ruined. It’s ten past three.’”

“will be a day well spent.   This will be no wasted and profitless Sunday.”

Oh but you are becoming quite bald,” he tells one man. Listen Joop, without meaning to be nasty your scalp is really almost bare. It will not be long before you can count your hairs on the fingers of one hand… Do you count the hairs in your comb each morning? If you did you would see that there are more of them each day. Slowly but surely. I would be horrified to know that I was going bald. I would lose all desire to live. But please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t mean to discourage you.

A loss,” he mumbled softly, “a dead loss.  How can it be?  A day squandered in its entirety.  Hallelujah.

A pity that I have to leave.”  “But where are you going?” his mother asked.  “Well,” he said, “we shall see.”  “So you don’t know where you’re going yet?” she asked, “but you say that you have to leave.”  “The one does not necessarily rule out the other,” Frits said.  “One may need to leave without having to go anywhere.  Those are the cases in which one must go away from somewhere.”  “Stay and have a nice cup of tea,” she said.

“What is the weather like?”  his mother asked.  “Normal,” Frits said, “not so very cold.  “When it’s cold like this,” she said, “I don’t much feel like leaving the house; father and I were planning to go out this evening to Annetje in Haarlem.”  “That’s true,” Frits said, “you told me this morning.”  “What’s it like outside now?” she asked, “is the wind very cold?”  “It’s blowing, but it’s not a cold wind,” Frits said.  “But what do you call cold?” she asked, “is it that humid cold?”  The air is moist,” Frits said, “but the wind is actually quite sultry.”
“Let’s go anyway,” his father said.

“‘The empty hours,’ he murmured, turning away”

“‘I just sit here and don’t do anything,’ he thought”.

Gritting his teeth he watched as the man speared three potatoes from the platter with his own fork. “That is unclean,” he thought, “a violation of every precept. But we stand powerless.”

I’m only waiting for them to hang themselves or beat each other to death. Or set the house on fire. For God’s sake, let it be that. So why hasn’t it happened yet ? But let us not despair. All things come to those who wait.

“The devil take me,” said Frits, “it is a delight to me each and every time. Those reports like: child killed by exploding grenade. Glorious. Deferred suffering from the war. That is always a joy. They always start of so cosily, those reports,” “the seven-year-old son,” he said in an impassive voice, “of the Karels family, agriculturalists in Breda, attempted on Wednesday afternoon to dismantle a small anti-aircraft shell with a claw hammer.”

“What an evening,” he thought, “what an evening. When is it going to end ?”

“There is no going back,” Frits thought. “Let us adopt an impassive or, if need be, even cheerful expression.”

Things take place around us. Yet we barely notice them. We have ears, but we hear not, eyes but do not see.

“I just wish I could figure out when you’re being serious”.

“‘Don’t pay him any mind,’ his father said, ‘he’s only blathering'”.

“‘And now the moment for tears has arrived,’ he thought. His eyes grew moist.” — breaking the hard shell of indifference he tries to maintain

“All in all, it is dreary,” he thought, “most dreary.”

“It is no disaster to be unhappy,” Frits thought, “but how discouraging must it be to know that there is nothing to pin the blame on, outside oneself ?”

“Help us, O eternal one, our God. See us in our distress. From the depths we call to you. Hideous.””

“Deliver me from baldness,” he said, pushing back his hair and examining the hairline. “It is a gruesome infliction.”

The Year is no more, I am alive, I breathe, and I move, so I live… whatever ordeals are yet to come, I am alive.

‘I just sit here and sit here and don’t do a thing,’ he thought. ‘The day’s half over.’ It was a quarter past twelve.

‘Why do I think that way?’ he thought then. ‘What right do I have to be so blasé?’

‘This day was empty,’ Frits thought, ‘I realize that.’

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Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave

HTMPeople who like coming of age novels will love this book – and it was written a lot later than most books of this genre.

It’s really a eulogy to John and, as such, an idealised portrait. It oozes sentimentality.  Love came easily but the pleasant description made the ending all that more impacting.

One member of our group thought that the first chapter was incredibly badly written but most agreed that the book was readable on the whole.

The slang is of its time and place but it is easy to get the drift of what the words and phrases mean. Yet he’s writing about youngsters 15 younger than him self.

The protagonist doesn’t kid himself that it’s a phase.

He tells mother about his first wet dream – that seem very modern to me.

A smoking room at school – 1977–  such a thing happened in England around that time too.

Title from football, though not spelt out

He doesn’t pray even when John is injured. Nor is there any dramatic rejection of religion either, which you might expect, given the circumstances.

Many of us thought that Tim was callous in his putting aside of John when he wanted an open relationship and, later, when he moved away.

The advent of AIDs was distressing, the medical procedures close to the knuckle of those who have experienced them and the last rights was moving. I usually avoid any books with AIDs in them.

Someone who knows the people portrayed says that people have a misunderstanding of what the Caleos are like, based on how Tim painted them in the novel.

“But the Caleos aren’t actually like that … They were just middle class, salt-of-the-earth Australians, trapped in a time. At the end of the day they were there, with John Caleo, right at the end, supporting their son and loving their son.

“Yes, they didn’t get along with Tim Conigrave, but a lot of people didn’t get along with Tim Conigrave. He was hard work, and his friends would say that. As much as they loved him, sometimes he was hard work.”

The lovers have a 2 hour phone call – am I sexist in thinking of teenage girls as best friends?

HTM bkQuotations:

We sat cuddling over the phone.

I felt used

‘I reached out and touched his hair. He turned and kissed my hand. I moved closer until we were standing against each other. He smelt like soap and clean clothes. Gentle. Just holding and kissing gently. If this had been it, if I had died then, I would have said it was enough’

“You are a hole in my life, a black hole. Anything I place there cannot be returned. I miss you terribly. Ci vedremo lassu, angelo.”

“I guess the hardest thing is having so much love for you and it somehow not being returned. I develop crushes all the time, but that is just misdirected need for you. You are a hole in my life, a black hole. Anything I place there cannot be returned.”

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HOLDING THE MAN – Tommy Murphy, adapted from the book by Tim Conigrave

 

HTM3The original production, directed by David Berthold, is one of the most successful Australian stage productions in recent years, playing in most Australian capital cities and London’s West End.

Murphy also wrote the script for the 2015 film adaptation, directed by Neil Armfield.

It’s nowhere near as absorbing as the novel.

 The action is made up of multiple episodes, some little more than snapshots, inhabited by people with no back-story. The parents of both boys are reduced to little more than stereotypes and yet how they must have suffered, as must Tim’s partner, John, whose character is also thinly written.

 Act 2 makes many demands on the actors, reflecting the bonding exercises mentioned in the novel.

Murphy has created a flawed play from a flawed book

HTM 4A foot(y)note: The phrase ‘holding the man’ is not explained in the memoir or the play. It is not just that it comes from John’s sport. In Australian Rules Football, ‘holding the man’ is an offence that incurs a penalty; in his case, a cruel and undeserved one.

(There’s plenty of scenes in this film of male bodies colliding with athletic vigour, though also with the kind of tenderness which may seem foreign to the blokey physicality that comes with contact sports. It’s a smart joke about a society that fiercely regulates the nature of romantic relationships, but it’s also the funniest thing about this otherwise very straightforward gay love story.)

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