Archive for I-L

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (In Search of Lost Time Vol. 2) – Marcel Proust

ITSOYGIF 2The narrator’s memories of Paris and the Normandy seaside, at the heart of the story lie his relationships with his grandmother and with the Swann family. A meditation on different forms of love.

Proust was the first person to coin the term involuntary memory, in his novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past). Proust did not have any psychological background, and worked primarily as a writer. He viewed involuntary memory as containing the “essence of the past”, claiming that it was lacking from voluntary memory. In his novel, he describes an incident where he was eating tea soaked cake, and a childhood memory of eating tea soaked cake with his aunt was “revealed” to him. From this memory, he then proceeded to be reminded of the childhood home he was in, and even the town itself. This becomes a theme throughout In Search of Lost Time, with sensations reminding Proust of previous experiences. He dubbed these “involuntary memories”.

This insight has implications for the way we remember our past- it may be inaccurate, it also effects national memory – history, wars, religious beliefs (the Eucharist ‘in remembrance of…’) Once we create a memory, we, as it were, delete all other versions of an event.

Some members of our group found it ‘a lot of effort’ and not all finished it.

Yet one found it ‘sillier than expected…hilariously snobbish…a lot of energy.

Is the narrator neurotic?

The Narrator’s parents are inviting M. de Norpois, a diplomat colleague of the Narrator’s father, to dinner. With Norpois’s intervention, the Narrator is finally allowed to go see Berma perform in a play, but is disappointed by her acting. Afterwards, at dinner, he watches Norpois, who is extremely diplomatic and correct at all times, expound on society and art. The Narrator gives him a draft of his writing, but Norpois gently indicates it is not good. The Narrator continues to go to the Champs-Élysées and play with Gilberte. Her parents distrust him, so he writes to them in protest. He and Gilberte wrestle and he has an orgasm. Gilberte invites him to tea, and he becomes a regular at her house. He observes Mme Swann’s inferior social status, Swann’s lowered standards and indifference towards his wife, and Gilberte’s affection for her father. The Narrator contemplates how he has attained his wish to know the Swanns, and savours their unique style. At one of their parties he meets and befriends Bergotte, who gives his impressions of society figures and artists. But the Narrator is still unable to start writing seriously. His friend Bloch takes him to a brothel, where there is a Jewish prostitute named Rachel. He showers Mme Swann with flowers, being almost on better terms with her than with Gilberte. One day, he and Gilberte quarrel and he decides never to see her again. However, he continues to visit Mme Swann, who has become a popular hostess, with her guests including Mme Bontemps, who has a niece named Albertine. The Narrator hopes for a letter from Gilberte repairing their friendship, but gradually feels himself losing interest. He breaks down and plans to reconcile with her, but spies from afar someone resembling her walking with a boy and gives her up for good. He stops visiting her mother also, who is now a celebrated beauty admired by passersby, and years later he can recall the glamour she displayed then.

Two years later, the Narrator, his grandmother, and Françoise set out for the seaside town of Balbec. The Narrator is almost totally indifferent to Gilberte now. During the train ride, his grandmother, who only believes in proper books, lends him her favorite: the Letters of Mme de Sevigne. At Balbec, the Narrator is disappointed with the church and uncomfortable in his unfamiliar hotel room, but his grandmother comforts him. He admires the seascape, and learns about the colourful staff and customers around the hotel: Aime, the discreet headwaiter; the lift operator; M. de Stermaria and his beautiful young daughter; and M. de Cambremer and his wife, Legrandin’s sister. His grandmother encounters an old friend, the blue-blooded Mme de Villeparisis, and they renew their friendship. The three of them go for rides in the country, openly discussing art and politics. The Narrator longs for the country girls he sees alongside the roads, and has a strange feeling of unexplained memory while admiring a row of three trees. Mme de Villeparisis is joined by her glamorous great-nephew Robert de Saint-Loup, who is involved with an unsuitable woman. Despite initial awkwardness, the Narrator and his grandmother become good friends with him. Bloch, the childhood friend from Combray, turns up with his family, and acts in typically inappropriate fashion. Saint-Loup’s ultra-aristocratic and extremely rude uncle the Baron de Charlus arrives. The Narrator discovers Mme de Villeparisis, her nephew M. de Charlus, and his nephew Saint-Loup are all of the Guermantes family. Charlus ignores the Narrator, but later visits him in his room and lends him a book. The next day, the Baron speaks shockingly informally to him, then demands the book back. The Narrator ponders Saint-Loup’s attitude towards his aristocratic roots, and his relationship with his mistress, a mere actress whose recital bombed horribly with his family. One day, the Narrator sees a “little band” of teenage girls strolling beside the sea, and becomes infatuated with them, along with an unseen hotel guest named Mlle Simonet. He joins Saint-Loup for dinner and reflects on how drunkenness affects his perceptions. Later they meet the painter Elstir, and the Narrator visits his studio. The Narrator marvels at Elstir’s method of renewing impressions of ordinary things, as well as his connections with the Verdurins (he is “M. Biche”) and Mme Swann. He discovers the painter knows the teenage girls, particularly one dark-haired beauty who is Albertine Simonet. Elstir arranges an introduction, and the Narrator becomes friends with her, as well as her friends Andrée, Rosemonde, and Gisele. The group goes for picnics and tours the countryside, as well as playing games, while the Narrator reflects on the nature of love as he becomes attracted to Albertine. Despite her rejection, they become close, although he still feels attracted to the whole group. At summer’s end, the town closes up, and the Narrator is left with his image of first seeing the girls walking beside the sea.

Proust introduces some of his comic inventions, from the dull M. de Norpois to the enchanting Robert de Saint-Loup. It is memorable as well for the first appearance of the two figures who are to dominate the narrator’s life—the Baron de Charlus and the mysterious Albertine.

He is more concerned for the furniture than for the girls in a brothel.

Marcel makes quick work of Gilberte Swann. As with Swann before him, the more desperately he loves the girl, the less interest she displays in return. So he decides to put his love on ice, while maintaining his friendship with her parents.

Then, two years later, it’s off to Balbec. Marcel is now sixteen and still dependent on his mother and grandmother. He spends a seemingly endless summer at a grand hotel on the Normandy coast, watching strange places and people become familiar to him. He becomes a close friend of the Guermantes aristocrat, Robert de Saint-Loup, and of the painter Elstir (whom we met as a foolish young man belonging to Madame Verdurin’s “little clan” in Swann’s Way). He also meets the Baron de Charlus, who deigns to make a move on him, an overture which only mystifies Marcel.

More important than any of these is his acquaintance with the “little band” of girls whom he describes as adolescent, and who sometimes behave that way, but who surely are older. Indeed, two of them seem to be sitting for the bac or high-school leaving exam, which Proust passed — in economics and mathematics — just as he turned eighteen. (There is also the matter of the book’s title: some argue that “en fleur” is a reference to the menarche, which in 1900 was about fourteen for European and North American girls. Indeed, according to his grand-niece and biographer, that’s why Scott Moncrieff chose to bowdlerize Proust’s title for the book.)

Marcel focuses his adoration, first on one, then on another of these young women, but it is obvious to everyone except him that Albertine Simonet will be the love of his life.

One of Proust’s great themes and talents is showing character and how it may change over time. In this second volume he deals with friendship, including the curious sort of friendship that is carnal love. How do we bridge the gap between the stranger and the dear person he or she will become, as friend or lover? First,Gilberte Swann, whom Marcel first adores and then, after considerable pain, trains himself to ignore. Then there’s Robert de Saint-Loup then there is Albertine, the obsession toward which Marcel has been working all this time.

He is equally adept with the pretentious and social-climbing Bloch, whom we met in Swann’s Way  as a “precious youth,” greatly admired by the narrator. That admiration has now been qualified. Just as the homosexual Proust is often harsh in his treatment of “inverts,” so does he, the son of a Jewish mother, verge on anti-semitism in his ridicule of Bloch’s family, especially the uncle, Nissim Bernard. (Bloch’s first name is Albert, though I confess I had to look it up. Nor does he have much in the way of physical characteristics. He’s a year or two older than Marcel, though they were schoolmates at one time.)

As the title suggests, memory is a major theme of In Search of Lost Time. The author’s understanding of memory is clearly stated in this second volume, in the words of James Grieve for the Penguin Proust:

[T]he greater part of our memory lies outside us, in a dampish breeze, in the musty air of a bedroom or the smell of autumn’s first fires, things through which we can retrieve … last vestige of the past, the best of it, the part which, after all our tears have dried, can make us weep again. Outside us? Inside us, more like, but stored away…. It is only because we have forgotten that we can now and then return to the person we once were, envisage things as that person did, be hurt again, because we are not ourselves anymore, but someone else, who once loved something that we no longer care about.

Cf. translations: Scott Moncrieff “Whoever she is,” he went on, “hearty congratulations; you can’t have been bored with her. I picked her up a few days before that on the Zone railway, where, speaking of zones, she was so kind as to undo hers for the benefit of your humble servant….”

Grieve: “Well, anyway,” he said, “you deserve to be congratulated—she must have given you a nice time. I had just met her a few days before, you see, riding on the suburban line. She had no objection to yours truly, and so a nice ride was had by one and all….”

For  “ I had her pinned between my legs as though she was the bole of a little tree I was trying to climb. In the middle of my exertions, without my breathing being quickened much more than it already was by muscular exercise and the heat of the playful moment, like a few drops of sweat produced by the effort, I shed my pleasure…” (p.69) one of our members simply observed that “He came in his pants wrestling with that girl.”

When Marcel first enters the grand seaside hotel at Balbec, where he’ll meet those young girls in flower, he is awed by the majesty of the elevator boy. He tries to placate him with chatter, but “il ne me répondit pas.” Scott Moncrieff rendered this as “he vouchsafed no answer,” phrasing which appears unchanged in today’s Modern Library edition. Mr. Carter is more straightforward: “he did not answer me.” Just so!

He wrote this aged 48. Most sentences are over long.

Is there a double entendre in the scene with the lift boy: as he went on pushing and pulling the knobs and stops of his instrument.?

Like any extended summer holiday of youth, nothing really happens but it happens intensely. At first the narrator is unhappy and homesick. Later he makes a new friend and reencounters an older one, Bloch.

Bloch is a beautifully observed character. He is more worldly than the narrator (Bloch takes him to his first whorehouse, where the narrator loses his virginity), but less socially adept. Bloch is a good friend, but not a flawless one.

Bloch is Jewish. The narrator is not. The narrator thinks nothing of this difference, but others do and through their reactions and comments Proust makes apparent the casual and widespread anti-Semitism running through French life of this period. It’s a theme I understand the next book develops further.

The narrator falls in love with every girl he sees. The less he sees of her in fact, the more he falls in love. A glimpse of a woman from a moving carriage lets him fill in what he can’t see with imagination.

Although many of Proust’s close family and friends suspected that he was homosexual, Proust never admitted this. It was only after his death that André Gide, in his publication of correspondence with Proust, made public Proust’s homosexuality. In response to Gide’s criticism that he hid his actual sexuality within his novel, Proust told Gide that “one can say anything so long as one does not say ‘I’.”

In 1949, the critic Justin O’Brien published an article called “Albertine the Ambiguous: Notes on Proust’s Transposition of Sexes” which proposed that some female characters are best understood as actually referring to young men. Strip off the feminine ending of the names of the Narrator’s lovers—Albertine, Gilberte, Andrée—and one has their masculine counterpart. This theory has become known as the “transposition of sexes theory” in Proust criticism, which in turn has been challenged in Epistemology of the Closet (1990) by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and in “Proust’s Lesbianism” (1999) by Elisabeth Ladenson. Feminized forms of masculine names were and are commonplace in French.

The author does say, however, that love is more important than who you love. (p. 343)

I had to look up zoophytic (p. 436) = An invertebrate animal, such as a sea anemone or a sponge, that superficially resembles a plant; and vetiver (p. 529) = heavy, earthy fragrance similar to patchouli

ITSOYGIF 7Quotations:

From the Translator’s  (Grieve) Introduction

To win the Goncourt prize seldom requires literary genius. Cronyism, Parisian faddery and petty intrigue usually weigh more.

Inclined to see this volume as a ‘listless interlude’, Proust was surprised that ‘everyone is reading it’.’

From the narrator’s encounters with these great enigmas and temptations, Proust distils his lengthy meditations, variations on some of the most structural themes of his novel: the disparities between cognition and thing, theory and practice, desire and discovery, appearance and truth, imagination and reality. For the narrator is now coming to an awareness of life as mystery, full of passions that baffle, appearances that conceal, illusions that seem to promise, impressions that tantalize.  He has inklings of  the sheer unpredictability of beauty, the inability of words and names to capture the essences of things, the contradictions with which life replaces expectations, the discrepancy between impression and memory, his own sentimental fatalism.

that impressions, our only access to these, are inadequate to their conscious capture, that they are individual, irreplaceable by any generality, untranslatable in any word, accessible only by a freak of memory or through art.

Proust was intermittently unsure whether he was writing an essay or a novel.

His composition was often not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even. He can make heavy weather of simple movements: characters get stood roughly into position so that

the next demonstration may take place; action must be performed perfunctorily, so that protracted analysis of it may ensue

The Dreyfus Affair is made much of by some commentators on In Search of Lost Time. In fact, Proust deals with it hardly at all (in the whole novel, the name of Dreyfus occurs less often than the head waiter’s, a very minor character) and then only in its most trivial repercussions in fashionable society, such as those reflected on p. 92. More important to the novel than Dreyfus is the virulence of the anti-Semitic prejudice generally shared by the fashionable characters, of the sort satirized on p. 344 in a speech by Charlus (and perceptible, if less virulent, in Proust’s own ambivalence towards the Blochs).

ITSOYGIFFrom the text:

 He strode rapidly across the whole width of the hotel, seeming to be in pursuit of his monocle, which kept darting away in front of him like a butterfly.

As to the pretty girls who went past, from the day on which I had first known that their cheeks could be kissed. I became curious about their souls. And the universe became more interesting.

When Swann married Odette, he did not go through a process of renunciation of his former social ambitions — she had long since brought him to a state of detachment from them, in the spiritual sense of the word. And had he not been detached from them, it would have been all the more to his credit. In general, marriages which degrade one of the partners are the worthiest of all, because they entail the sacrifice of a more or less flattering situation to a purely private satisfaction — and, of course, marrying for money must be excluded from the notion of a degrading match, as no couple of whom one partner has been sold to the other has ever failed to be admitted in the end to good society, given the weight of tradition, the done thing and the need to avoid having double standards. In any case, the idea of engaging in one of those cross-breedings common to Mendelian experiments and Greek mythology, and of joining with a creature of a different race, an archduchess or a good-time girl, someone of blue blood or no blood at all, might well have titillated the artist, if not the pervert, in Swann. On the occasions when it occurred to him that he might one day marry Odette, there was only one person in society whose opinion he would have cared for, the Duchesse de Guermantes, and snobbery had nothing to do with this. Odette herself was all but indifferent to the Duchesse de Guermantes, thinking only of the people who were immediately above her, rather than of those who inhabited such a remote and exalted sphere. But at moments when Swann sat day-dreaming about what it might be like to be the husband of Odette, he always saw the moment when he would introduce her, and especially their daughter, to the Princesse des Laumes, or the Duchesse de Guermantes as she had become upon the death of her father-in-law. He had no desire to present them to anyone else; but as he imagined the Duchesse talking about him to Odette and Odette talking to Mme de Guermantes, and the tenderness the latter would show to Gilberte, making much of her, making him proud of his daughter, he could be so moved that he spoke aloud the words they would say.

My mother did not seem very happy that my father had given up all thought of a diplomatic career for me. I think she lived in the hope of seeing my nervous susceptibility subjected to the discipline of an ordered way of life, and that her real regret was not so much that I was abandoning diplomacy as that I was taking up literature. ‘Oh, look, give over,’ my father exclaimed. ‘The main thing is to enjoy what one does in life. He’s not a child any more, he knows what he likes, he’s probably not going to change, he’s old enough to know what’ll make him happy in life.’ These words of my father’s, though they granted me the freedom to be happy or not in life, made me very unhappy that evening. At each one of his unexpected moments of indulgence towards me, I had always wanted to kiss him on his florid cheeks, just above the beard-line; and the only thing that ever restrained me was the fear of annoying him. On this occasion, rather as an author, to whom his own conceptions seem to have little value, because he cannot think of them as separate from himself, may be alarmed at seeing his publishers putting themselves to the trouble of selecting an appropriate paper for them and setting them in a type-face which he may think too fine, I began to doubt whether my desire to write was a thing of sufficient importance for my father to lavish such kindness upon it. But it was especially what he said about my likings probably changing, and what would make me happy in life, that planted dreadful suspicions in my mind. The first was that, though I met new day with the thought that I was now on the threshold of life, still lay before me all unlived and was about to start the very day, not only had my life in fact begun, but the years to come and not be very different from the years already elapsed. The second, which was really only a variant of the first, was that I did not outside Time but was subject to its laws, as completely as the seasonal characters whose lives, for that very reason, had made me feel so sad when I read of them at Combray, sitting inside my wickerwork shelter. Theoretically we are aware that the earth is spinning, but in reality we do not notice it: the ground we walk on seems to be stationary and gives no cause for alarm. The same happens with Time. To make its passing perceptible, novelists, have to turn the hands of the clock at dizzying speed, to make the reader live through ten, twenty, thirty years in two minutes. At the top of a page, we have been with a lover full of hope; at the foot of the following one, we see him again, already an octogenarian, hobbling his painful daily way round the courtyard of an old people’s home, barely acknowledging greetings, remembering nothing of his past. When my father said, `He’s not a child any more, he’s not going to change his mind, etc.,’ he suddenly showed me myself living inside Time; and he filled me with sadness, as though I was not quite the senile inmate of the poorhouse, but one of those heroes dismissed by the writer in the final chapter with a turn of phrase that is cruel in its indifference: ‘He has taken to absenting himself less and less from the countryside. He has eventually settled down there for good, etc.’

My father, in an attempt to forestall any criticism we might have to make about his guest, said to my mother:

`I must say old Norpois was rather “old hat”, as you two say. When he said it would “not have been seemly” to ask a question of the Comte de Paris, I was afraid you might burst out laughing.

— Not at all, my mother replied. I’m full of admiration for a man of his calibre and his age who hasn’t lost that simple touch. All it shows is a fundamental honesty and good breeding.

In fact, his wife had married him, against much opposition from within her family, because he was a ‘charmer’. The general effect of this person of superlative refinement may be judged from the fact that he had a silky fair beard, a pretty face, an adenoidal pronunciation, bad breath and a glass eye.

ITSOYG 4It must be supposed in many marriages, such subservience of the outstanding to the is the rule, for one need only think of the opposite case, that of “fled wives who smilingly defer to their crass boor of a husband crushes their nicest conceits, then gush with loving indulgence inept buffoonery which he thinks is humour.

I also went on telling myself that Gilberte did not love me, that I had known this for ages, that I could see her whenever I liked and that, if I preferred not to see her, I would eventually forget her. But these thoughts, like a medication which has no effect on certain disorders, were quite ineffectual against what came intermittently to my mind: those two close silhouettes of Gilberte and that young man, stepping slowly along -the avenue des Champs-Elysées. This was a new pain, but one which would eventually fade and disappear in its turn

she probably lived in ignorance of all the regrets I invented for her to feel, and thought not only much less about me than I about her, but much less than I pretended she thought about me in my moments of private communion with the fictitious Gilberte, when I longed to know her real intentions towards me and pictured her as spending her days doting on me.

in accordance with her pious expertise in the rites and liturgy of such things, Mme Swain’s ways of dressing were linked to the season and the time of day by a bond that was necessary and unique) the flowers on her soft straw hat and the little bows on her frock seemed a more natural product of May than any flowers cultivated in beds or growing wild in the woods; and to witness the thrilling onset of the new season, I needed to lift my eyes no higher than Mme Swann’s sunshade, opened now and stretched above me like a nearer, more temperate sky, full of its constantly changing blue. Though subordinate to none, these rites were honour-bound, as was consequently Mme Swann herself, to defer to the morning, the springtime and the sunshine, none of which I ever thought seemed flattered enough that such an elegant woman should make a point of respecting them, of choosing for their pleasure a frock in a brighter or lighter material, its lower neckline and looser sleeves suggesting the moist warmth of the throat and the wrists, that she should treat them as a great lady treats the common people whose invitation to visit them in the country she has cheerfully condescended to accept, and for whose special occasion,

if she unbuttoned or even took off and asked me to carry the jacket that she had originally meant to keep buttoned, I discovered in the blouse she wore under it a host of details of handiwork which might well never have been noticed, after the manner of those orchestral parts which the composer has worked with exquisite care, although no ears among the audience will ever hear them; or else in the sleeves folded over my arm I picked out and studied, for the pleasure of looking at them or for the pleasure of being pleasant, this or that tiny detail, a strip of cloth of a delightful shade, or a mauve satinet normally unseen by any eye, but just as delicately finished as any of the outer parts of the garment, like the fine Gothic stonework hidden eighty feet up a cathedral, on the inner face of a balustrade, just as perfectly executed as the low-relief statues in the main doorway, but which no one had ever set eyes on until an artist on a chance visit to the city asked to be allowed to climb up there, walk about at sky-level and survey a whole townscape from between the twin steeples.

ITSOYGIF 3The wife of an elderly banker, after hesitating between various possible exposures for her husband, had settled him in a deck-chair facing the esplanade, sheltered from wind and sun by the bandstand. Having seen him comfortably installed there, she had gone to buy a newspaper which she would read aloud to him by way of diversion, one of her little absences which she never prolonged for more than five minutes, which seemed to her quite long enough but which she repeated at fairly frequent intervals so that this old husband on whom she lavished an attention that she took care to conceal should have the impression that he was still quite alive and like other people and was in no need of protection.

… whenever society is momentarily stationary, the people who live in it imagine that no further change will occur, just as, in spite of having witnessed the birth of the telephone, they decline to believe in the aeroplane. Meanwhile the philosophers of journalism are at work castigating the preceding epoch, and not only the kind of pleasures in which it indulged, which seem to them to be the last word in corruption, but even the work of its artists and philosophers, which have no longer the least value in their eyes, as though they were indissolubly linked to the successive moods of fashionable frivolity. The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been “great changes.”

Let but a single flash of reality – the glimpse of a woman from afar or from behind – enable us to project the image of Beauty before our eyes, and we imagine that we have recognised it, our hearts beat, and we will always remain half-persuaded that it was She, provided that the woman has vanished: it is only if we manage to overtake her that we realise our mistake.

… the interplay of their eyes, animated with self-assurance and the spirit of comradeship and lit up from one moment to the next either by the interest or the insolent indifference which shone from each of them according to whether her glance was directed at her friends or at passers-by, together with the consciousness of knowing one another intimately enough always to go about together in an exclusive “gang,” established between their independent and separate bodies, as they slowly advanced, an invisible but harmonious bond, like a single warm shadow, a single atmosphere, making of them a whole as homogenous in its parts as it was different from the crowd through which their procession gradually wound.

Our virtues themselves are not free and floating qualities over which we retain a permanent control and power of disposal; they come to be so closely linked in our minds with the actions in conjunction with which we make it our duty to practise them that if we come to engage in an activity of a different kind, it catches us off guard and without the slightest awareness that it might involve the application of those very same virtues.

The idea that one has long held of a person is apt to stop one’s eyes and ears; my mother, for three whole years, had no more noticed the rouge with which one of her nieces used to paint her lips than if it had been wholly and invisibly dissolved in some liquid; until one day a streak too much, or possibly something else, brought about the phenomenon known as super-saturation; all the paint that had hitherto passed unperceived was now crystallized.

Fashions change, being themselves begotten of the desire for change.

Finally, if I went to see Berma in a new play, it would not be easy for me to assess her art and her diction, since I should not be able to differentiate between a text which was not already familiar and what she added to it by her intonations and gestures, an addition which would seem to me to be embodied in the play itself; whereas the old plays, the classics which I knew by heart, presented themselves to me as vast and empty walls, reserved and made ready for my inspection, on which I should be able to appreciate without restriction the devices by which Berma would cover them, as with frescoes, with the perpetually fresh treasures of her inspiration.

The doctor … advised my parents not to let me go to the theatre. … The fear of this might have availed to stop me, if what I had anticipated from such a spectacle had been only a pleasure which a subsequent pain could offset and annul. But what I demanded from this performance—as from the visit to Balbec and the visit to Venice for which I had so intensely longed—was something quite different from pleasure: verities pertaining to a world more real than that in which I lived, which, once acquired, could never be taken from me again by any trivial incident—even though it were to cause me bodily suffering—of my otiose existence. At most, the pleasure which I was to feel during the performance appeared to me as the perhaps necessary form of the perception of these truths.

Whereas I had hated them for their cruelty, their consent made them now so dear to me that the thought of causing them pain stabbed me also with a pain through which the purpose of life appears to me as the pursuit not of truth but of loving-kindness, and life itself seemed good or evil only as my parents were happy or sad.

Believing the language to be less rich in words than it is, and her own ears less trustworthy, the first time that she heard anyone mention York ham she had thought, no doubt,—feeling it to be hardly conceivable that the dictionary could be so prodigal as to include at once a ‘York’ and a ‘New York’—that she had misheard what was said, and that the ham was really called by the name already familiar to her.

All that I grasped was that to repeat what everybody else was thinking was, in politics, the mark not of an inferior but of a superior mind.

If one has lost sight for a score of years of all the people on whose account one would have liked to be elected to the Jockey Club or the Institute, the prospect of becoming a member of one or other of those corporations will have ceased to tempt one. Now fully as much as retirement, ill-health or religious conversion, protracted relations with a woman will substitute fresh visions for the old. There was not on Swann’s part, when he married Odette, any renunciation of his social ambitions, for from these ambitions Odette had long ago, in the spiritual sense of the word, detached him.

It is because they imply the sacrifice of a more or less advantageous position to a purely private happiness that, as a general rule, ‘impossible’ marriages are the happiest of all.

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Larchfield by Polly Clark

LFThis novel about loneliness, unacceptance, survival, outsiders and creativity was inspired by the author’s own plight when she moved to Helensburgh in Scotland and found a connection with Auden that was to change her life. It evokes a small community as claustrophobic and inhibiting as the characters themselves. Helensburgh, (“the Wimbledon of the north”, according to Cecil Day-Lewis), is portrayed as a town where curtains twitch and ‘outsiders’ are treated with suspicion.

Post natal depression is described well.

Child abuse lurks.

The relationship with difficult neighbours was vividly described and many could relate to that from their own experience.

Helensburgh is not as self-contained as the novel suggests: many commute to Glasgow. The local paper opined: The sad thing is that there is some decent writing here. A novel solely about a premature child and post-natal depression in a strange West Coast town might have been fine. A non-fiction book about a curious period in the life of Auden would have been interesting. Together, they are not. There is also a sour undercurrent. Dora’s dastardly neighbours are, of course, churchgoers. They are, of course, hypocrites. This presumption that the Kirk is a crucible of sourness is, in my experience, neither true nor fair. I doubt very much indeed if she would have written this novel with the nasty upstairs neighbours being of Islamic or Jewish faith.

A good read, well-written, said members. Beautiful language.

She took a risk when merging the two different times and characters.

One member said that the breakdown scene was so vivid that he had to stop reading.

“You seem awfully nice in person” Wystan is told at one party, “and I’m sure your next book will be much better”). There are moments of escape, and we follow him there too – to brief holidays with his Christopher Isherwood where he makes the most of the soon-to-vanish freedom of Berlin’s gay clubs, and into a love affair with a working-class lad back in Scotland.

 According to one critic: Barely a page goes by without some stale and threadbare language. Shocking is usually “deeply”; people hiss instead of whisper, the baby perpetually gurgles, cuts are always deep. Nobody speaks like a human being, not even the kind of human beings that inhabit soi-disant and pseudo-literary novels – “Jamie! Thank you ! I mustn’t be stung by a wasp. Dr Boyce said it could make me very ill indeed.” This is twinned with a kind of needless poeticism: “a nest of wire and tubes” referring to a complicated cot; “one creature-combination of mother and baby” to describe the simple act of holding a child. It also must be the winner of my novel of the year to overuse italics.

The author:

Clark is the literature director of Cove Park, a writer’s retreat near Helensburgh, where she has lived for the last four years, as well as in the surrounding area for a further seven. Ever since she arrived – like Dora and Auden, from Oxford, where she had worked for a publisher –  she had known about Helensburgh’s Auden connection, that the poet had taught at Larchfield for a couple of years and that his first major collection, The Orators, was written while he taught there. Her daughter is a pupil at Lomond School, which is on the site of Larchfield. “Although the building in which Auden lived while he was there has been converted to flats, the façade is exactly the same, and in the photographs I’ve got of him with the boys, the background hasn’t changed. Helensburgh hasn’t altered too much either. I really didn’t need that much imagination.”

“This was such a formative time in his life,” she says, “yet nobody has really written about him in Helensburgh. But I didn’t want to write a biography, so for years I didn’t have any kind of hook on which to hang my knowledge of him. I used to wish it had been a completely different poet, someone I could relate to more – like Ted Hughes, say – because I didn’t think I had anything in common with Auden. He’s posh, he’s gay, I didn’t like his work so much – though I do now. I just didn’t see any connection.”

“Then I realised we had everything in common. We were both outsiders. Neither of us could be ourselves any more, we were both hiding who we are.”  Or, as she explains on the proof (though not the finished) copy of the novel: “I seemed to ignite anti-English feeling wherever I went. I couldn’t drive and became very isolated. When I had a baby, my ruin was complete. That’s when I first read Auden’s The Orators. And its poems changed my life.”

 Quotations:

“His arms are huge, the arms of an ape, and he’s lighting a cigarette as he gets settled for the journey from Oxford to Glasgow. ……His left ear sticks out, the remains of the schoolboy. The impression made is one of pale, large fragility. It isn’t until he looks up that his attractiveness becomes apparent.”

“He does not know that he will be more alone than he has ever been, that he will love more deeply than he ever thought possible – and he will long for the consolations that poetry cannot give, at least not to the writer.”
“hammering the piano, her broad shoulders moving volubly beneath her navy jacket”

“His mother needed a quite different sort of partner, a Latin Lothario who would have dominated her and treated her badly but ravishingly; his father needed someone simple and happy, who could be satisfied.”

“Ma should have married a robust Italian who was very sexy … Pa should have married someone weaker than he and utterly devoted to him. But of course, if they had, I shouldn’t be here.”

“‘Do you know about poetry, Mr Wallace?’
‘I know enough to know that rugby is more important.'”
“A hotel? [the nurse] repeated, almost wonderingly, looking at Dora anew, as if perhaps she were Oliver Twist and had said, Please sir, can I have some more?”

“The mothers lining the walls raised their drooping heads like desiccated flowers suddenly given a drink. Dora hauled herself across the room, just a step ahead of the silence cresting behind her.”
“Dora suspected she had probably never belonged anywhere […] while many thought her shy and brainy to the point of passionlessness, they were wrong. There had been love affairs […] These had always fallen apart at the point where she was expected somehow to change, to accommodate them in some profound way. She never wanted to, enough, and they certainly seemed to have no notion of accommodating her, and her need to scribble and read.”

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Infidels by Abdellah Taïa

Taïa, a Moroccan expat living in Paris since 1998, has published eight novels in French, and has adapted one of these, Salvation Army, for the screen. As one of only a few openly gay Arab writers, Taïa occupies a unique cultural and political perspective. While Taïa embraces the secular values of France, values that have allowed him to live freely, legally, as a gay Muslim man, his writing expresses a critical relationship to both his adopted land and his original home.

Set primarily in Morocco at the tail end of the twentieth century, Infidels follows Jallal, the gay son of a prostitute, Silma, from his childhood to his death. Silma is the daughter of Saâdia Tadlauoi, an introductrice––a woman who assists couples having sex on their wedding night. Saâdia makes sure that blood appears on the sheet of a newlywed couple, no matter what. The social curse of Saâdia’s profession, her public association with sex, follows Silma and Jallal throughout their lives.  It starts with the boy spitting – a memorable opening chapter

Silma works as a prostitute and Jallal himself is forced into sex work, raped by men in the public baths. Silma has a gift with men, passed on from Saâdia, an understanding of desire and intimacy that is foreign to most. Jallal shares in her secrets, and together they also share a love of movies. For the young man, watching television offers a way of seeing the world outside of the oppressive confines of his life.

The most brutal passage of the book comes when Silma is imprisoned by the Government’s secret police. She is tortured horribly and her sexualized punishments mirror the social discrimination and dehumanization she faced for the crime of her intimate knowledge. After her release, she flees the country, but her experiences sharpen her disdain for nationalism. Silma’s final story, of love before death and finding peace in her relationship with God, feels both satisfying and incomplete.

After Silma’s death, Jallal moves to Belgium where, lonely and disconnected from his new surroundings, he meets Mahmoud. Their relationship is positioned as a love affair, though it is never consummated, confined by the blossoming of Jallal’s growing religious devotion. His haphazard shift to extremism at the close of the novel is complicated, a product of his search for love, companionship, and acceptance. His journey reflects a crisis of identity.

We were already familiar with his writing style that uses short and oftentimes simple sentences. The clarity of its written style is like blank verse.

This book is variously travel narrative, poetry and fiction, built as a series of monologues by Jallal’s mother, his grandmother, his stepfather and Marilyn Monroe. Sometimes it’s confusing – who is speaking?

One member of our group found it tedious.

Issues include Islamic fundamentalism, the West’s relationship with its Muslim immigrants, and secularism versus faith.

Physically, the book is beautifully produced. The Sufism, the 99 names of God and the spinning were lyrical – but would a Sufi be an Islamist?

The comparison of explosions to heartbeats was good.

The author: The moment of inspiration for the story dates back to 2000, said Taia, when he accompanied a cousin of his in Brussels to visit a friend who had been hospitalized following an accident. The friend was a Belgian who had converted to Islam, and at the time, said Taia, “we all fell in love with him, he projected a rare form of beauty, of someone who truly has spiritual faith.”

One day, he told himself, he would write about that moment. He created the characters of Slima, the mother, and her son Jallal, in order to be able to describe that moment, back in 2000, when he encountered a moment of purity, in contrast to the confusion about Islam in the West, the growth of religious fundamentalism in Moslem countries, and dogmatic secularism in France that had been developing over the years. Taia said when he created the character of Slima, he had the 8th century Arab Sufi poet and saint, Rabia Al-Adawiya, in mind because of the “inner purity” of both women. Infidels is a complex and multi-layered work that is written a little like poetry, but reading between the lines important questions are asked and contrasts are posed: sociological and political violence (as in Morocco) versus submission, religious freedom versus secularism (in France), Muslim faith versus Islamic terrorism, and violence towards women and feminism.

When he wrote the book, said Taia, it was “as if religious freedom could not exist in France.” With the book he wanted to make a space for his fictitious Islamist who, in most respects would be “against him”, but with whom he also has a few aspects in common. As Taia said in a recent interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Our monsters are like us.”

At twelve years old in Salé, Morocco, Abdellah Taïa touched a high-voltage generator and lay dead for an hour before surprising everyone and breathing again. He defied death and would have to keep doing it: as a lone effeminate youth in his neighborhood, he was a target of sexual violence every day. On one occasion Taïa cites as a turning point, grown men on the street yelled in the night to wake him, threatening rape, and though he lay sandwiched between his mother and seven siblings in a shared bed, no one sheltered him. He is an artist intimate with vulnerability and he is unafraid.

My aunt Massaouda, an ex-prostitute, who used to tell us scary stories in the night. The muezzin calling for the Muslim prayer five times a day, that’s something I always find beautiful, inspiring, and crazy: a human voice so loud five times in the world. The whispering of naked men’s bodies in the public hammam, a place for marvelous transformations. My silent tears, during many many years, when Morocco wanted to kill me at the age of thirteen by deciding to make me a sexual object for horny men in the neighborhood. I had to save myself and only cinema was my shelter and my tenderness.

No sooner had I finished this book when I read, in the newspaper The Week: The only surviving suspect from the Paris terror attacks of 13 November 2015 — in which 130 people were killed — has gone on trial in Belgium over the shoot-out with police in Brussels, four months later, that culminated in his arrest. Salah Abdeslam (pictured), 28, a Belgium-born French national of Moroccan descent, refused to answer any questions in court this week, but did give a brief speech in which he insisted that his silence didn’t mean he was guilty. “What I see is that Muslims are treated in the worst possible way,” he said. “There is no presumption of innocence. Judge me, do what you want with me… I am not afraid of you… I put my trust in Allah.”

 Quotations:

I’m perverse. The perverse old woman everyone needs. A bit of a witch. A bit of a doctor. A bit of a whore. The sex specialist. They all came to me for help and they all turned their backs on me. That’s how it goes.

I watched television. That was where I learned to see things more clearly. The connections between people. Evil. Good. Masks. Languages. Illusions.

I change realities, really and truly enter fiction, cross the border, take on other colors.

When you’re old, I’ll still be there for you, though everyone, all the others have cast you out. I’ll talk to God, He will forgive us. God already accepts us as we are. He made us this way. In this condition. In this situation. We accept His decisions. We listen to His voice. You hear Him too, don’t you? Every night, he tells me to watch over you.

Every night, God loves us a little more.

The others crush us, prevent us from seeing the light; more and more, they shut us into a hell they first invented for them­selves. But He, God, Allah, is not them, isn’t like the image they made of Him.

God is in me. He’s also in you. You’re the one who gave me God. I know you also give Him to others, the men who come to our house, sleep at our house, eat with us, get undressed and dressed again at our house.

You see, I’m like you. In misfortune and in power. Divine and orphaned. I’m made of the same stuff as you. I’m in you. In every body. Every night. Every dream . . . I’m human. Extraterrestrial. Everywhere. Nowhere. Man. Woman. Neither one or the other. Beyond all borders. All languages.

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In Love and War – Alex Preston

(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.)INAW

Esmond Lowndes has been sent down from his Cambridge college after being caught in bed with another man. His father, a senior blackshirt, has found him a job establishing a fascist radio station in Italy. If the idea is to keep Esmond’s mind off hanky-panky, it doesn’t work. After walking in on his maid’s daughter naked, he ends up having nightly threesomes with her and her sometime boyfriend Gerald.

Goad’s speech with frequent ‘Humm’ is infuriating.

I well remember the paintings in the Uffizi which he mentions.

The Anglican chaplaincy is unusually high church (though St. Mar’s Florence does advertise high mass nowadays) and mention of ‘The Peace’ is anachronistic. (Similar to his attempts in ‘The Revelations’)

And why would a Roman Catholic cardinal give an Anglican chaplain a role?

I had to look up ‘pelf’ = money, especially when gained in a dishonest or dishonourable way; puttees = strips of cloth, which were worn wrapped around the lower leg in a spiral pattern, from the ankle up to below the knee. They provide ankle support and prevent debris and water from entering the boots or pants; kepis = a French military cap with a horizontal peak.

Torture is graphically described – I don’t think I would have lasted hong.

The author: I did a lot of skinny dipping when researching In Love and War. There’s some skinny dipping in the novel but I probably did more than I needed to.

Quotations:

`I never show my work to anyone; Douglas says. Writing’s like shitting. If someone’s cheering you on, it’s hard to get going, but give it time and space and it’ll come. And by the way, if you don’t eat well, you won’t shit well: He pauses. ‘Did you love this chap?’

Esmond turns to look out over the river. It is past eleven. A gentle breeze is blowing, stirring the hillside and making tight waves on the surface of the water.

historian in The Spectator who has identified only twenty-nine years since the Roman Empire when a war wasn’t being fought somewhere in the world. We lurch from crisis to crisis and we learn nothing from history.

By the end of 1940, all Europe will be German, soon after, all of the globe will fly the Glorious Swastika. I burnt your degenerate books, your limp-wristed writing because I knew the risk they’d pose for you in the coming years. (I suggest you burn this letter, too.) We – the British Union, those of us who have remained faithful to the cause – will be at the forefront of Nazi Britain and we can’t have bad eggs amongst us. I hope you see that, Esmond.

Douglas was right: Fascism is just a refuge from the powerlessness of love.

The talk at the Berensons’ was all of the war, of how Italy won’t be ready for combat for at least another three years. No auto­motive industry, an agricultural economy. They’ll have to sit it out with the tea and oranges, as pa would say, as the north falls apart. It looks to be a lengthy thing, none of that Panglossian “It’ll be over by Christmas” stuff this time.

He said it was the writer’s duty to speak for those who couldn’t speak, who were trapped or overlooked or oppressed. He said, in times like these, novels should be written with broken fingers, and all poets’ eyes should – be black.

I have always loved beauty and the gender of those I love matters to me as little as their shoe size. It seems odd to me that so many humans limit themselves, slavishly. For now, it is Ada.

We only know ourselves, he’d said, in crisis. Character is theoretical until we act. I think today, Esmond, you beheld yourself Not quite the hero your father was, eh?

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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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Jeremy Thorpe by Michael Bloch

jtAre we to believe that if it wasn’t for Norman Scott, Thorpe would have formed a coalition with Heath and there’d have been no Thatcher?

To some of us, 600 pages seemed a bit daunting at first, especially since the subject doesn’t interest some very much and one member had never heard of the subject, but it was so well-written that I on wanting to know what happened next.

It was long suppressed by the subject – until his death, said I was ‘a fair cop.’ A fortnight after Jeremy Thorpe’s death in December 2014, Michael Bloch’s long-suppressed biography of the former Liberal party leader was finally released. Bloch began his research over twenty years ago, conducted hundreds of interviews in 1992-94 with Thorpe’s contemporaries, colleagues and lovers, and had surprisingly amicable discussions with the man himself.

It begins by seemingly dismantling a character for whom the author clearly had a high regard.

His family had coat of arms from namesake but unrelated family. This fed his fantasies at many low points of his life.

He had Irish low church (Anglo-Catholics were a thing of horror to them) forebears, one a policeman, another ordained without a degree but with the gift of the gab, with poor health and who was a windbag in parliament.

Thorpe took advantage of friends and then discarded them

Born in 1929, he was from boyhood an incorrigible show-off. He got a kick out of misbehaving and evading detection; and on the rare occasions when he was caught, perfected the trick of stout denials of his guilt.

He was accomplished at getting out of games at school, then national service

He was not a committee man but brilliant working on his own

Homosexual acts were illegal when Thorpe was coming to prominence and gay politicians ran the triple risk of blackmail, nasty criminal penalties and career ruin. Even when the law was repealed, many more years had to pass before any politician could come out as gay and hope to survive. Yet it was one of the hypocrisies of that era that so long as they were reasonably “discreet” about it, gay politicians could enjoy a successful career, even a glittering one. An influential figure on the Labour benches was the prodigiously promiscuous Tom Driberg. The Tory ranks included the bisexual Bob Boothby who pursued liaisons with characters from the criminal underworld at the same time as having an affair with the wife of the prime minister, Harold Macmillan.

When Thorpe became leader of his party at the precocious age of 37 his secret was already widely known at Westminster because he was far from careful. He was compulsively promiscuous and all classes were represented in his choice of partners “from heirs to peerages to rough proletarian youths”. He boasted to friends that he had seduced TV cameramen, footmen at Buckingham Palace receptions, even policemen on duty at the House of Commons. He played with fire by sending compromising letters, often on House of Commons stationery. At the time of Princess Margaret’s wedding to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Thorpe sent a friend a postcard: “What a pity about HRH. I rather hoped to marry the one and seduce the other.” His main taste was for men younger than himself and from less privileged backgrounds whom he might dominate in the guise of playing a protective role. When he became leader, he promised anxious colleagues that he would curb himself and get a wife. He did get a wife, cynically telling his press secretary that he thought it would boost the party’s poll rating, but he did not curb himself. During his engagement, he bragged of having sex with “a New York street boy he had picked up in Times Square and taken back to the Waldorf Astoria”. Even Driberg, whose recklessness was legendary, urged Thorpe to take care after hearing gossip about the Liberal leader from rent boys that they both used. Michael Bloch indulges in some psychological speculation about why Thorpe had such a “craving for dangerous adventure” and conjectures that he had “a subconscious longing to be caught and punished”.

Some of Bloch’s new revelations concern the Dorian Gray figure in Thorpe’s youth, Henry Upton. Upton was the sadistic heir to a peerage, with a string of homosexual convictions and tabloid exposures, who disappeared from a boat off the Sussex coast in 1957. An eminent art historian claimed that Upton was killed at Thorpe’s instigation in order to cover up thefts of money. (Bloch is careful to say that the claim was unsubstantiated.)

We thought that the author would blacken Scott’s name but Scott does this all by himself – writing a 17 page letter to Thorpe’s mother ostensibly about lost luggage.

The judge at Thorpe’s trial termed Scott “a neurotic, spineless creature, addicted to hysteria and self-advertisement…. He is a crook. He is a fraud, he is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite.”

It was thought that a wife should stand by husband with homosexual tendencies

The author’s Thorpe is not all black: credit is given to his political achievements where it is due. He helped found Amnesty International. He was a passionate voice against Ian Smith’s racist minority rule in Rhodesia and the apartheid regime in South Africa. He supported the abolition of the vicious laws against gays, so he wasn’t a hypocrite in that respect. His most significant contribution to history was to help Ted Heath pass the legislation taking Britain into the Common Market. Without Liberal votes, it would have been lost. Bloch also makes a persuasive case that Thorpe, an inventive electioneer, was a pioneer of modern campaigning. For a period before he was ruined, he swept his party off its feet and charmed a fair bit of the country, presiding over a Liberal revival which took the party to a level of popularity it had not seen for half a century.

Hypocrite Cyril Smith refuses to share a stage with Thorpe.

The judge at the Old Bailey showed how the establishment protects its own.

Not for the first time, you wonder what it is, exactly, that the Liberal Party stands for. Chamelions?

Thorpe’s reference to the insularity of the UK is even more relevant now in the light of Brexit.

Empire Jack’s sword means little compared to the sword from the Peterloo massacre carried about by Ramesy McDonald, as recounted in Fame Is The Spur by HowardSpring

Thorpe using money to build a bridge over a duck pond seems like an omen of later expenses scandals.

The book is ingeniously constructed but repetitive – that overbearing mother appears too often and some judicious editing wouldn’t go amiss.

Quotations:

In Ursula’s drawing room there was a table draped with a large damask cloth under which two small boys could disappear and not be seen: Jeremy called this his ‘secret house’ and would sometimes lure a friend there, where they would engage in such intimacies as small boys are capable of. On at least one occasion this happened while a fashionable and unsuspecting tea party hosted by his mother was taking place in the room beyond. Thus from earliest childhood Jeremy experienced the thrill of forbidden pleasure in reckless proximity to a conventional world, with the risk of exposure and disgrace adding to the excitement.

but always aimed to know just enough — an assessment which might apply to the whole of his career.

Nor was he much of a reader, usually preferring to ask a friend what was in a book than look at it himself.

At this critical stage of his emotional development, he fell entirely under the powerful influence of his mother, who drummed into him that he was the most important person in the world, that he could do no wrong, that he should exploit every opportunity to advance his career and that he must succeed at all costs. In years to come, he would often rebel against her pos­sessiveness; but the egotism, ambition and ruthlessness she had implanted would never be far away.

In so far as he exhibited any serious romantic feel­s, it was towards older women such as Megan Lloyd George ther than his contemporaries. If he ever seemed to be getting close to a female undergraduate, as he did to Ann Chesney when they were both involved in the OULC, the relationship was likely to arouse the destructive attention of the one who was long to remain the principal woman in his life — his mother.

for at least some of its aficionados at the time, homosexuality also represented an exciting and conspir­atorial world. The idea of operating clandestinely outside the normal scheme of things lent a bohemian spice to life, and there was an element of thrill inherent in the risks involved, ‘like feasting with panthers’. Homosexual circles, obsessed as they were by secrecy, loyalty and code language, had something of a masonic air. Homosexuality could also overcome barriers between classes: gentlemen traditionally sought pleasure with working-class youths such as guardsmen, often to the benefit of both parties.

(It must, however, be noted that Jeremy was always sympa­thetic to the campaign to change the law on homosexuality in which, as will be seen, he became active after his election to Parliament

At the time of Princess Margaret’s wedding to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Thorpe sent a friend a postcard: “What a pity about HRH. I rather hoped to marry the one and seduce the other.”

such a “craving for dangerous adventure” and conjectures that he had “a subconscious longing to be caught and punished”. Or maybe he just liked a lot of sex.

In the autumn of 1966, a young man called Bill Shannon was loitering outside an antique shop on the King’s Road when he noticed a tall, saturnine figure in a dark suit. “Looking for anything in particular?” the stranger said. They went back to the man’s flat in the heart of Westminster and had sex. The man then got out a camp-bed and invited Shannon to spend the night, and the next morning handed him £3. A few nights later the man picked him up again. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. “A very nice gentleman,” Shannon replied. The man pointed to the mantelpiece, decorated with photos of himself and various eminent political figures. He was, he explained, an MP. A few months later, he was elected leader of the Liberal party.

Like Jeremy, Bessell was a showman and extrovert, witty and imaginative, an elegant charmer with a theatrical touch who enjoyed intrigue and danger. He indulged in a promiscuous heterosexuality hardly less dan­gerous in terms of career and reputation (particularly among the God-fearing Cornish) than Jeremy’s homosexuality: he kept a wife and family in Cornwall and mistress in London, and was a compulsive and accomplished seducer of women. He was a fan­tasist and in this respect went further than Jeremy: he developed a habit of telling everyone what they most wanted to hear, caus­ing many to regard him as a liar, hypocrite and mischief-maker. As a lay preacher who practised little of what he preached but had a power to hold audiences, he was also seen, by those who knew the truth about him, as a crook of the Elmer Gantry variety. His sense of fantasy was particularly marked when it came to his busi­ness career: he was not without talent, and set up a number of successful small enterprises (including the felt-tip pen and vend­ing-machine companies of which Jeremy became a director), but he overreached himself by launching a series of wildly ambitious transatlantic schemes which he hoped would make him rich but merely landed him in debt. The fact that he managed to hold off his creditors for so long was a tribute to his persuasive powers. (He looked to his political career to help rescue him from his business troubles, writing to a creditor that `the letters MP are worth more than stocks and shares …’)

If you are in public life you are more vulnerable and must not put yourself in a position where you can be subject to blackmail or other pressures. Peccadilloes which might be acceptable for a pri­vate citizen can become a great danger to security with a person in public life.

That day I gave birth to this vice that lies latent in every man.

“Bunnies can (and will) go to France. Yours affectionately, Jeremy. I miss you.”

Had he not done any of these risky things, it is unlikely that Scott could have done him much harm. Jeremy turned the affair into a drama because, consciously or unconsciously, he wanted a drama. It was almost as if he had a psychological need to sustain a threat to his career, which provided him with a challenge and gave him a thrill of fear.

Between (Heath) and Jeremy there had long existed the mutual mistrust of the dedicated plodder and the brilliant lightweight, the repressed introvert and the flamboyant extrovert.

This country has been in retreat since the war — retreat from over­seas possessions, overseas commitments and many of the responsibilities it accepted abroad. There are some who would wish to go further and turn this island into one with a siege economy. The time has come to end that retreat, to reverse it, to advance into Europe.

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Kiss of the Spider Woman (film)

kotsw-filmIncluded among the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”, edited by Steven Schneider.

Having read the novel, we realized very little was omitted from the movie, though some say that it’s “not like the book.” It lacks the tenderness between the two men which occurs in the book. However, the camp and stylised ending is such as Molina would have loved.

We wondered if the movie was ‘real’. I wasn’t but was made for inserting into this film, as the age of its actors testify.

The film begins, not unlike Un Chant d’Amour (Jean Genet’s classic, homoerotic, 1950 prison short), with the camera fixed on the wall of their jailhouse cell. We hear Molina’s voice, rapturously describing the star of his movie. “She’s not a woman like all the others,” he utters, along with the assertion that she is waiting for a “real man” like none she has ever met before. A circular camera pan slowly reveals the setting; we see the prison bars, a clothesline with feminine garments, pictures of glamorous movie stars on the wall, and finally Molina – wrapping a towel around his head to suggest a turban. He is dressed in a kimono, his feet, lady-like, step gracefully across the floor as he mimes the heroine stepping into her bath. Molina is exotic and sensual, and completely out of place in the grim prison setting.

The film version is, in many ways, more accessible than the original novel. The film is more tightly constructed because Molina tells the stories of several different movies in the book, beginning with Val Lewton’s classic 1942 Cat People. Only one of these films was emphasized in the movie and that was the Nazi film, whose central theme of betrayal mirrors Molina and Valentin’s situation, making Spider Woman a model of effective film adaptation. It’s easy to lose interest in Molina’s long monologues when reading the book; in the film his monologues come to life when illustrated by those campy clips.

Hector Babenco agonized all through rehearsals over how William Hurt would ever find the gay character in himself. To help Hurt tackle the part, and because author Manuel Puig was not available, Babenco put him with Patricio Bisso, who was set to play the small role of Molina’s friend Greta and design the film’s costumes. Bisso is gay, had been in jail himself, and was close to his mother, like Molina in many ways. Hurt toured Sao Paulo with him, often visiting gay cinemas, looking for clues to the character. Bisso got fed up translating the films for him and started making up the stories instead. Bisso later said Hurt used him as a “sacrificial lamb” for his process, playing cat and mouse games with him to get a sense of how Molina would react in similar circumstances. During one such session, Hurt took Bisso to a nice restaurant, but Bisso couldn’t eat because Hurt’s prodding and game-playing had made him cry.

Vito Russo was very critical of Kiss Of The Spider Woman in The Celluloid Closet and so were many other queer reviewers. Most of their criticisms however aren’t valid unless, like them, you refuse to see the film as anything but just another portrayal of a stereotypical screaming queen who dies in the last reel. Yes, Molina does die at the end, in much the same way as the heroine of the Nazi film, but it is all too probable that he won’t be alone and that Valentin will share the same fate. For that reason, it’s unfair to lump Spider Woman in the same category as an overblown, homophobic melodrama like Reflections In A Golden Eye. Besides, don’t most of Shakespeare’s leading men bite the dust in the last act too?

Kiss Of The Spider Woman was a radical, almost subversive, film on its first release as it explored concepts of gender roles and the question of what it ultimately means to be a man during a time when Rambo was the established norm of hyper-masculinity on the silver screen. Ponder too what it was like to watch two men kiss – not a common sight in a mainstream film during the 1980s. Kiss Of The Spider Woman broke much new ground and it still holds up today as one queer cinema’s milestones.

The movie Kiss of the Spider Woman deviates from Manuel Puig’s book in some very important ways that change the entire feel of the story.  Firstly, in the movie it is initially obvious what the setting and the characters are because the viewer can see the jail cell and see Molina and Valentin talking.  There are even scenes outside the cell and also scenes where Molina and Valentin see other prisoners.  The book takes a far more subtle approach opening with a description of a movie, but the reader does not even know what is being described.  Nothing is outright said in the book until chapter eight when the format deviates from Molina and Valentin’s dialogue to prisoner descriptions.  Knowing and understanding what is going on from the outset in the movie changes the mystery and confusion and ultimately does not allow the viewer to understand Molina and Valentin’s emotions and motivations in the same way.

Another important deviation is that in the movie version Molina only tells one film to Valentin — the Nazi propaganda one.  In the book he tells Valentin around five.  The story of political violence seemed to strike a chord with Valentin which may explain why that story was the one told, but cutting out the panther woman story negatively affected Molina’s characterization.  The panther woman, and his identification with her, helps the reader understand who Molina is and without that his character development in the movie lacked.

The cell block scenes were filmed in a prison that had been shut down. Scenes outside the prison were filmed on location in Sao Paulo.

kotsw-film-2Luis Molina: The nicest thing about feeling happy is that you think you’ll never be unhappy again.

[first lines] Luis Molina: She’s… well, she’s something a little strange. That’s what she noticed, that she’s not a woman like all the others. She seems all wrapped up in herself. Lost in a world she carries deep inside her.

[last lines]  Valentin Arregui: I love you so much. That’s the one thing I never said to you, because I was afraid of losing you forever.

Marta: That can never happen now. This dream is short, but this dream is happy.

Luis Molina: No matter how lonely she may be she keeps men at a distance.

Valentin Arregui: She’s probably got bad breath or something.

Valentine Arregui: You only know the reality that was stuck up your ass!

Luis Molina: Why should I think about reality in this stink hole? That’s like “Why should I get more depressed that I already am?”.

Valentine Arregui: You’re worse than I thought! Do you use these movies to jerk yourself off?

Luis Molina: [Crying] If you don’t stop, I will never speak to you again!

Valentin Arregui: Stop crying! You sound just like an old woman!

Luis Molina: [Whimpering] It’s what I am! It’s what I am!

Valentin Arregui: [Forcing Molina’s legs apart] What’s this between your legs, huh? Tell me, “lady”!

Luis Molina: It’s an accident. If I had the courage, I’d cut it off.

Valentin Arregui: You’d still be a man! A MAN! A MAN IN PRISON! JUST LIKE THE FAGGOTS THE NAZIS SHOVED IN THE OVENS!

Luis Molina: This girl’s finished.

Valentin Arregui: What girl?

Luis Molina: Me, stupid!

Valentin Arregui: Molina, you would never understand.

Luis Molina: What I understand is me offering you a bit of my lovely avocado and you throw it back in my face.

Valentin Arregui: Don’t talk like that! You’re just like a…

Luis Molina: A what? Go on, say it. [Arregui pauses]

Valentin Arregui: [to Molina] Shaddap! You damn faggot!

Valentin: ”Your life is as trivial as your movies”

Molina: ”Unless you have the keys to that door, I will escape in my own way, thank you.”

Valentin: ”I can’t afford to get spoiled.”

Molina: ”What kind of a cause is that, a cause that won’t let you eat an avocado?”-

You’re not cold taking your clothes off?

– How good you look . . .

– Ah . . .

– Molina . . .

– What?

– Nothing . . . I’m not hurting you?

– No . . . Ow yes, that way, yes.

Secret Policeman: [to Molina] You faggot piece of shit! You fell in love with that bastard?

Valentin Arregui: [Violently separating Molina’s legs] What’s this between your legs, eh? Tell me, “lady”!

Luis Molina: It’s an accident. If I had the courage I’d cut it off.

Valentin Arregui: You’d still be a man. A MAN! A man in prison! Just like the faggots the Nazis shoved in the ovens!

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