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Breaking the Code, Hugh Whitemore

The member who chose the book did so having not read the play; he had however seen the play on it’s original run in 1986. He noted that this was in a grim period of time for theatre, and pretty much everything else, due to the onset of the AIDS epidemic, adding that the play was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise conservative time. Having read the play, he felt it was a very sympathetic portrait of Turing at a very poignant moment (I presume for both Turing and the time when the play came out).
The group agreed that the play ‘stands up’ still, with one member commenting that it scores on three levels: portraying Turing as a strange, but attractive character; providing an interesting and, as one other member added, accessible presentation of electro-mechanical facts, and how tragic the outcome of Turing’s life was.
A member who found the play to be enjoyable, emotional and funny compared it to the recent film, The Imitation Game; feeling that there was less focus on the war in the play, but that it discussed the real life impact of Turing’s work, which the film focused less on.
The naivety of Turing’s character, when in discussion with the police officer, was highlighted and his admission was thought of as unnecessary.  However; the member who raised this had read the play twice and, on second reading, considered the feelings he had himself towards the police when he was younger, which was implicit trust . He therefore sympathised with Turing’s naivety. The same member humourously referred to Turing as the ‘classic’ engineer; excellent with hands-on work, but incapable of managing an engineering department.
There was interest in how faithful the play was to Turing’s life, with one member stating that, whilst they appreciated the artistry of the play, they would have liked to have got to the facts of the matter, rather than any potential fiction. The member who chose the book pointed out that the play had been based on a novel, which some expressed interest in reading.
In addition to these points, how the character of Turing was presented was of significant interest, with people feeling he was personable, flirty on occasions, although exhibiting a touch of Asperger’s; especially with regard to his confession of his supposed crime to the police officer.
One member felt that the way in which the character was presented was very much as an expression of Turing’s work and theories; in opposition, almost. Where as the character is at times blunt, ordered and controlled (chaining his mug to the radiator being a prime example), like numbers (which he calls his friends), he is also rebellious (being unashamedly recognised as homosexual in his work place), questioning and disregarding of traditional rules (for example, when he bypasses the usual hierarchical steps and writes to Churchill directly to request the equipment needed for his work).  Turing challenged mathematical order and laws using a similarly anarchic approach.
This led on to a conversation about Turing’s mechanical brain and how it could learn from the results of innumerable binary computations; how essential electronics was to the advancement of mechanics and how this mechanical device could potentially write sonnets and compose symphonies with all the feeling of a human being. Before long, however, the discussion had branched off in to the realms of chaos theory…
Although Turing was the clear focus of the play, the other characters were not overlooked. Particular sympathy was voiced over Pat, who appeared at various times as an esteemed colleague, potential paramour and career-up-the-spout wife and mother, with particular emphasis on Turing’s imaginings of how his life would have panned out had he married Pat; there appears to be no question that Pat would have consented to such a proposal.
The exchanges between Turing and the policeman were, as one member pointed out, reminiscent of Orton and appeared farcical at times. Another member likened the policeman to the character of Truscott from Loot.
Turing’s mother divided the group, with some considering her reaction to the announcement of his homosexuality as liberal and accepting and others feeling it was dismissed as a nonsensical eccentricity. Similarly, her explanation of his death was considered both brushed under the carpet, due the shame she felt about his homosexuality, and dismissed out of hand as an accident resulting from his harebrained experimenting. Regardless, the parallel between the supposed cause of Turing’s death and Snow White’s momentary demise was duly noted.
Knox’s numerous references to his failing memory interested one member, who felt it was in reference to the superiority of the mechanical brain over the human brain; whereas the human mind grows old and withers, the mechanical brain, in theory, is not subject to such limitations and continues to learn and amass knowledge exponentially.
Despite being but a hundred pages of dialogue, the play provoked a hearty and interesting discussion which we came close to cutting short (there were M&S mini beef Wellingtons to be had…)

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History of Violence – Édouard Louis

A History of Violence by Edouard Louis

  1. His previous book was a 2017 favourite of the bookgroup.
  2. As before there was some discussion/dislike of the form of Louis writing (autofiction) and whether one could believe in the veracity of his narrative. Moreover, there was some questioning over the value, and certainly the pleasure of a narrative so unrelentingly bleak.
  3. Some questions over the meaning of the title.
  4. Some readers found the narrative structure (Louis listening to his sister recount the story of his rape to her husband) to be unrealistic and the voices of these characters to be impossible to distinguish. Other readers did not agree with this assertion and found the sister to have a distinct voice, and that her provincial view on her brother’s assimilation into Paris provided one of the few parts of humour in the novel.  It was argued that this narrative device was perhaps necessary in order for the author to transmute the trauma of his experience into a narrative: a way for him to view the experience from the outside.  It was also felt that the gaps between the sister’s narration and the narrator/author’s recollection of it was a dramatic device to highlight the fallacy of memory.
  5. Some readers felt that the book was a political discourse and that it engaged with Foucault and Baudrillard in trying to ‘voice the margins’. Perhaps what the novel is concerned with is power and the abuses of it.
  6. It was felt that the scenes with the police were moving and that one could imagine the character’s suffering and humiliation at having to relive the experience.
  7. It was noted that the physicality of Reda is not really delineated although there were no real conclusions as to why this was so.
  8. Overall, many readers felt it was ‘unrelentingly claustrophobic’, humourless and self-obsessed and most readers said they would not choose to read it again.

As we know from The End of Eddy, Édouard has criminal elements in his own impoverished family; he feels both frightened by and sympathetic towards Reda, with a deep ambivalence towards the man who nearly murdered him.

It is about the tension between desire and danger, between passion and destruction, and about how individuals heal from trauma without allowing themselves to remain perpetual victims.

The opening is very visceral.

We get the usual long paragraphs, e.g. 4 pages at the end of chapter 6.

Quotations:

On days when I felt calmer I would imagine myself picking out someone I didn’t know in some public place, on the sidewalk or in the aisle of a supermarket, and telling them my whole story, everything that had happened. In these visions, I would walk up to this unknown person, who would shrink back, and I would just start talking, as casually and routinely as if we had known each other forever, without telling them my name, and what I would say to this person was so horrible that there was nothing they could do but stand there and listen until I was done; they’d listen and I would watch their face. I’d spend my time fantasizing about scenes in which I’d do this. I didn’t tell Clara, but this fantasy of shamelessness and self-display kept me going for weeks.

The fact is that I was unable to stop talking about it. I had told what had happened to most of my friends during the week after Christmas, but not only to them; I had also told people to whom I was much less close, acquaintances, or people I had only ever spoken to once or twice, sometimes only on Facebook. I would become annoyed when people tried to respond, when they would show too much empathy or offer some kind of analysis of what had happened, as when Didier and Geoffroy speculated that Reda wasn’t really his name. I wanted everyone to know but I wanted to be the only one among them who could see the truth of it, and the more times I spoke about it, the more I said, the stronger my feeling was that I was the only one who really knew, I was unique, in stark contrast to what I considered to be the laughable naïveté of everyone else. It didn’t matter what the conversation was about, I would find a way to bring Reda into it, to have him appear, to bring it all back to him, as if any topic of conversation had logically to lead back to my memory of him.

The first week of February—barely a month after Christmas—I went out to meet an author who had written to me and proposed that we have lunch together. I didn’t know him, but I said yes, and I knew why I had done that. He wanted me to write a piece for a special issue of a literary journal he was editing (a few days later, I sent him a really poorly written text, for obvious reasons), and I behaved in exactly the same way with him. This was a period in which I really wasn’t in touch with the words I spoke. The author arrived at the restaurant where I was waiting for him, where I was already quivering in my seat obsessively playing with the eraser on the pencil that happened to be in my pocket; he sat down, he took off his flannel jacket, he shook my hand and was barely settling into his seat, yet already my lips were burning to speak to him about Christmas. I thought to myself: No, you can’t speak about that right now. Wait a bit. Not right away. Be polite. Wait a bit. At least pretend to talk about something else. The reflection of the gray-blue sky outside could be seen on the walls of the buildings, something I remember not because the sky interests me, but because I wasn’t listening and instead gazed out the window, distracted and uninterested, whenever I wasn’t the one who was talking.

“This was something else I went on apologizing for, why I had told him everything, why him, someone I barely knew, how could I have behaved so inappropriately, as I knew I had, how could I have been so rude.”

We had exchanged a few sentences and for about ten minutes I held my breath, barely able to contain myself; I could feel Reda’s name on my lips. I held back, pretended to engage in the usual kind of conversation for a meeting like this, I played my role, got him to talk about his work, his books, his projects, but I didn’t listen to anything he said. I replied to his questions on the same topics but I no more listened to my answers than to his; making myself stay calm was all the more difficult in that everything he said and everything he got me to say with his questions, any observations he made, felt like an indirect invitation to speak about Christmas. What I mean is that I found connections everywhere, that everything I perceived and therefore my entire view of reality was conditioned by Reda. So I spoke fearing that the words Reda or Christmas might slip out, too early, against my will.

Then I did speak. It felt to me that the time had come, and I thought Now I’ve held back for long enough, now you’ve earned the right to speak and I did what I’d been waiting to do since he arrived at the restaurant: I monopolized the conversation, only I spoke for the rest of our lunch, and he barely got in a few brief comments between two mouthfuls of food: “That’s terrible, how horrible, oh my God, etc.,” which only added to my exultation. At the end of the meal I begged him not to repeat anything I’d said; on top of all that I couldn’t figure out why, and I said I was sorry for this too, this was something else I went on apologizing for, why I had told him everything, why him, someone I barely knew, how could I have behaved so inappropriately, as I knew I had, how could I have been so rude. It’s along those lines that I existed, that I spoke, that I acted during the weeks that followed the assault.

This mad flood of speech had begun at the hospital. It was only an hour or two after Reda had left, and I had run to the emergency room close to where I live to get a postexposure prophylaxis against HIV. The hospital was nearly empty on Christmas morning; a homeless man was walking up and down in the waiting room. He wasn’t waiting but simply wanted to be inside out of the cold. He said, “A very Merry Christmas to you” when I sat down a few feet away. That A very Merry Christmas to you, so odd, so improbable in these surroundings and after what had just happened, made me laugh. An uncontrollable burst of laughter took hold of me, a laugh that was loud and full and that resonated in the empty waiting room, as I remember it, a horrible laugh that bounced off the walls, as I bent forward, holding my stomach with both hands, unable to breathe, and replied between two bursts of laughing, all out of breath, “Thanks very much, thanks, and a very Merry Christmas to you too.”

I waited. No one appeared. I went on sitting there. I had the feeling I was playing a role in a story that wasn’t my own. I applied myself relentlessly to remembering in order to stop myself from thinking, not that nothing had happened—how could I have thought that?—but that it had happened to someone else, to a different person, and that I had watched it all from the outside; I thought to myself: That’s where your obsession comes from. That’s why you are always obsessively asking yourself what the child you used to be would have thought of the adult that you’ve become. I thought: Because you’ve always felt like this, that your life is taking place outside yourself, in spite of yourself, that you’ve watched from the sidelines as it’s been constructed and that it’s not at all suited to you. Today’s not the first time. When you were little and your parents took you to the supermarket you would watch the people go by with their shopping carts. You’d stare at them, a strange habit you’d acquired from who knows where. You’d take in their clothes, their way of walking, and you’d say to yourself: I hope I end up like that, I hope I don’t end up like that. And you’d never have imagined becoming what you are today. Never. You’d never even have thought of not wanting to turn out this way.

If you don’t cry he won’t believe you, I thought to myself, you need to cry.

I craned my neck to try to see through the little windows all around the waiting room; it was a way of passing the time. Time slowed to a snail’s pace. I was waiting for one of the security doors to open, I was waiting for a doctor to appear, I coughed, sniffed, I pressed the red button of a little buzzer that was on the reception desk, and a nurse arrived, twenty or thirty minutes later. That’s when the torrent of words began. Its first manifestation, let’s say. I had already had to restrain myself from talking to the homeless man, who was obviously drunk, once he had said Merry Christmas, from replying to him that what he had said to me seemed a bit ironic given that here it was December 25, and I was at the hospital, which is to say at a moment when I should have been somewhere else, just like him, I had to restrain myself from beginning to tell him everything that had led up to my being there, in the emergency room. But this time I didn’t hold back, and so I told everything to the nurse, who only wanted to know which department to send me to—although thinking about it, he probably wasn’t a nurse, but maybe an attendant, or a receptionist, or a switchboard operator. I didn’t hold back my tears. I didn’t even try to hold them back, since I was convinced that if I didn’t cry he wouldn’t believe me. My tears weren’t fake; the pain was real. But I knew that I had to play the role well if I wanted anyone to believe me.

Obviously, all this anxiety only went on getting worse in the days that followed. Later, in a different hospital, despite my determination to move the doctor so that he would understand and believe me, my voice remained stuck in a metallic monotone, I spoke coldly and with distance, my eyes stayed dry. I had cried too much already, I had no tears left to offer. If you don’t cry he won’t believe you, I thought to myself, you need to cry. But my eyes seemed now to belong to a stranger. I made a huge effort. I tried to force the tears to come, concentrating on images of Reda, his face, the gun, so that the tears would flow, but there was nothing to be done, the tears wouldn’t come, my efforts were all to no avail, no tears welled up at the corners of my eyes, my eyes stayed resolutely dry, I was still as calm as I had been when I first arrived and the doctor nodded his head behind his glasses, which were slipping down his nose.

I turned to other scenes from my life for help. I brought back to mind other painful memories, the saddest and most painful I had, in order to produce some tears. I thought back to hearing the news of Dimitri’s death.

Didier had phoned me in the middle of the night to tell me Dimitri had died, on a night when I was out walking, alone in the dark night when the telephone first buzzed and vibrated in my pocket. It was Didier sending me a text asking: “Can I call you?”; and I feared the worst since normally he didn’t ask if he could call before calling, I was afraid something serious might have happened to Geoffroy, I was imagining an accident of some kind. I forbade myself to think of his body lying on a stretcher, but the image still appeared, and I wrote back: “Of course,” already trembling, my fingers unsteady on the screen.

My cell phone rang for a second time, and I hesitated, and then Didier announced, in a voice that was both controlled and shaking, shaking precisely with a calmness that was too overdone, too artificial, that Dimitri, who had been traveling for an important meeting far from Paris, and to whom I had spoken a few hours earlier on the phone, was dead.

I was doing my best to provoke a bout of crying so I could convince the doctor of what I was saying, but it was too far in the past, it didn’t affect me any longer. I was compelling myself to cry and he, on his side of things, was holding on to his skepticism, and I felt that these two opposing forces meeting in the same moment could allow us to establish or rather to reestablish the truth of the matter, that the truth was to be found in this meeting, and that it would be born out of this tension. I did everything I could to cry but I didn’t succeed.

So there I was standing in front of the nurse in the first hospital, and on that night I was crying with no problem at all. He was trying to reassure me: “Someone will come take care of you, there’s not much I can do personally,” and it was all I could do not to scream: “I don’t think you understand.” In the end a nurse arrived. When she came up to me and asked me why I was here, I spoke, and went on speaking and speaking.

I am hidden on the other side of the door, I listen, and she says that several hours after what the copy of the report I keep twice-folded in my drawer calls the attempted homicide, and which I call the same thing for lack of a better word, since no other term is more appropriate for what happened, which means I always have the anxious nagging feeling that my story, whether told by me or whomever else, begins with a falsehood, I left my apartment and went downstairs.”

“[H]e wanted to be the image of freedom at its most spectacular. It wasn’t a matter of responding to some kind of conflict. He would make the conflict himself, he would produce it, he would invent it.”

I met Reda on Christmas Eve 2012. I was going home after a meal with friends, at around four in the morning. He approached me in the street, and finally I invited him up to my apartment. He told me the story of his childhood and how his father had come to France, having fled Algeria.

“I never read, my parents wished I was good at school, but it wasn’t my thing, I was always clowning around.”

“one of the sentences around which I tried, later, to imagine Reda’s life, to construct meaning and explanations where there was only silence.”

We spent the rest of the night together, talking, laughing. At around 6 o’clock, he pulled out a gun and said he was going to kill me. He insulted me, strangled and raped me. The next day, the medical and legal proceedings began.

“I did what I could to muffle any groans of actual pain, letting him hear only the groans I faked…I struggled harder to give him pleasure, more pleasure, and so to end it sooner. I controlled everything, I measured everything—at least that’s what I wanted, and what I told myself to do.”

“That night I simply ignored anything that seemed bad about Reda…only later did it strike me how much reality I set aside in order to keep what I liked”

“injected fear into his body”

“The individual I had become … dressed as badly as he could, thinking, I want to look the way I feel, I want to be as repulsive as the thing that happened to me.”

“my pillow was Reda, the pitch darkness was Reda, the sheets were Reda”.

“Reda would find me after he got out of prison…he would hunt me down and take revenge.”

“He’s not a murderer. You don’t just run into murderers on the street. Murderers aren’t skinny Kabyles. They’re menacing and you don’t just happen to meet them by chance.”

“made me describe my night with Reda differently than I’d have chosen, and in the form that they imposed on my account, I no longer recognized the outlines of my own experience.”

You’ve also stayed away because you’ve discovered how easy it is to cut her loose, how little you actually miss her, and sometimes you rub her face in it because you want her help, because you want her to help you leave. Now she knows. She knows how cold you can be and you’re ashamed. Even if there’s no reason to be ashamed, even if you have every right to leave her, still you’re ashamed. You know that coming to see her means facing your own cruelty.

“A medical team at the FEU could tell precisely whether I had been the victim of an attack or of attempted murder when I was being strangled, which would change everything . . . as for the forced penetration, they said that, too, would have to be proven: scientifically ….”

I see you’ve come for this medication once before.” It was true. I had taken a preventive medication for AIDS two years before. The moment after she said it, she winced, “There’s nothing wrong with that, of course”—and her nothing wrong with that meant that something was indeed wrong with me.

“They say we can never leave language behind; they say language is the essence of being human and that it conditions everything…they say we don’t think first and then organize our thoughts into language later on, for language is what allows us to think… but if language is the essence of being human, then for those fifty seconds when he was killing me, I don’t know what was…”

“That’s what saved me—my ability to deny the facts”

I told Clara, giving in to my weakness for grandiosity — is both the best and the worst news for humanity, since it means all you have to change is the world and then people will change themselves, or at least most people, and (Clara wasn’t listening) there’s no need to change them person by person, which would take forever; people adapt, they don’t endure, they adapt.

 

He was on top of me, but he materialised in everything around me; I gather this is a recurring motif in accounts of rape: everything became an extension of Reda, my pillow was Reda, the pitch darkness was Reda, the sheets were Reda.

now I realised that the doctor had been there from the very beginning; since the moment I stepped into that phantom hospital she’d been sitting here in this office, across the hallway from the room with the graffiti, just a few metres away; she was playing solitaire on her computer while, inside my body, with every passing second, the AIDS was prob­ably germinating and had begun to wreak its pitiless destruction on my immune cells.

Arendt writes: `In other words, the deliberate denial of factual truth ­the ability to lie — and the capacity to change facts — the ability to act — are interconnected; they owe their exist­ence to the same source: imagination. It is by no means a matter of course that we can say, “The sun shines,” when it actually is raining . . . ; rather, it indicates that while we are well equipped for the world, sensually as well as mentally, we are not fitted or embedded into it as one of its inalienable parts. We are free to change the world and to start something new in it.’ That’s what saved me — my ability to deny the facts.

I had become racist. Suddenly I was full of racism ­the one thing I had always considered most alien, most `other’ to my mind. Now I became one of those others. I became exactly the thing I had always rejected becoming — because you don’t become anything with­out excluding other possibilities, and now one of those possibilities had reared up from my past.

A second person took over my body; he thought for me, he spoke for me, he trembled for me, he was afraid for me, he inflicted his fear on me, he made me tremble over terrors of his own. On the bus or the metro I lowered my eyes if a man who was black or Arab or pos­sibly Kabyle came anywhere near me — because it was always men, and this was another absurd feature of the racist fantasy that colonised my being: the danger always came in the shape of a man. I would lower my eyes or turn my head and silently beg, Don’t attack me, don’t attack me. I never bowed my head if the man was blond or red-headed, or if he had very pale skin.

It turned out that I don’t write in order to seek pleasure; on the contrary, it turned out that by writing I am seeking pain, the most acute possible, well-nigh intolerable pain, most likely because pain is truth, and as to what constitutes truth, I wrote, the answer is so simple: truth is what consumes you, I wrote. Imre Kertesz, Kaddish for an Unborn Child

 

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Wings by Mikhail Kuzmin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are relatively little known outside their homeland

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

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

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

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

Quotations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Happy Prince

(Some of us went to this, but at different times.)

I’ve always thought that Rupert Everrett is vacuous but this film has made me change my mind.

Rupert Everett – who writes, directs and stars in this magnificent drama – was born to play Oscar Wilde, and this, Everett’s “11th-hour masterpiece” (The Times) focuses on Wilde’s final years following his notorious trial and imprisonment for “gross indecency”.

Once one of the most famous men in England, the great man of letters is now living in a kind of exile around Europe (from Normandy to Naples to Paris) after being released following his convinction for his indiscreet affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Lying on his death bed, his eventful life comes flooding back via expertly interspersed flashbacks featuring his glory days and the beginning of his downfall. Now, he must draw upon the last of his reserves to face the end of his life – and the wreckage of his public self – with immense courage…

Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde’s grandson:  “He’s a better Christ figure than Christ, if you see what I mean,” he says. “He has the godly side, the extraordinary vein of genius, and then he has his human side. His human qualities are ones we all suffer from — the snobbery, greed, ego — and for him he was completely undone by them. Most of us get away with it.”

“In the Cadogan Hotel [where Wilde was arrested after losing a libel case to the Marquess of Queensberry, his lover’s father, who had left him a note calling him a “somdomitel, when he has the chance, he could have avoided his fate, and for some reason he chose not to. It’s his 40 days in the wilderness — when Christ was tempted by the devil.” Everett may have rejected his Catholicism in which he was raised, but he still knows his scripture. “Wilde decides then that survival would only come through Crucifixion.”

Except we don’t know about Wilde’s resurrection, I say. “But we do know!” Everett says. “He was very much resurrected afterwards. He was resurrected as a writer and resurrected as the founder of a movement. Because the liberation of gays very much dates from the Oscar Wilde scandal. He saw Uranism, or whatever he called it, as a struggle against society. He wouldn’t have seen it as a problem with the Catholic church. But he did say that the road [to equality] was going to be “smeared with the blood of martyrs”. I think it was an identity for him… separate from a married man having a bit of fun.”

So was Wilde’s marriage to Constance a sham? “No, I think he was in love with her, right up until their son Cyril was born, and turned right off her after that…. One of the things about Oscar was that he wasn’t always very nice.”

Actually, says Everett, Oscar rather liked that he had married money — and in those days you took possession of your wife’s property. He also very much liked the fact that Lord Alfred Douglas was the son of a marquess. This wasn’t, says Everett, the great love of his life; rather, “an act of snobbery”.

Wilde’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism — he was received into the church by a Passionist priest that his friend Robbie Ross found in Paris — is, in a way, pivotal to this drama. Wilde, he points out, believed “the pope cured him” of a persistent, perhaps syphilitic, rash during a papal audience. Everett himself loves Pope Francis although he detests the Church” — but admits he’ll always be Catholic. That’s what an education with the monks at Ampleforth does for you.

The priest was right to wear a biretta while hearing his confession but wrong to wear a chasuble for the funeral – unless it had been immediately preceded by a requiem mass..

This is a new treatment of Wilde – no Stephen Fry-style floppy-haired hagiography with Oscar dropping lilies and epigrams as he mooches towards death. Here, ravaged and dissolute, Wilde tumbles headlong into his downfall, dying destitute in St Germain De Pres at the age of 46 having ripped his life apart heedlessly, determinedly, and poignantly in a series of rash decisions. The Happy Prince sees Wilde alone and drunk in Paris, cadging money from former friends, almost willing himself to death. His soul is irreparably damaged after two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol for gross indecency and he wants to see his children, yet reunites with Bosie knowing what that will mean. “I am my own Judas,” he says.

Out of prison, Wilde had horrified his friends by resuming the destructive relationship with the exquisite, duplicitous Bosie (Colin Morgan), which causes the termination of the tiny allowance from his humiliated ex-wife Constance (Emily Watson) and endangers Bosie’s own income, leaving them nothing to live on. It’s the beginning of the end. Oscar treats his loyal allies Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) with ungrateful negligence, but Everett imagines him, in extremis, befriending a young Paris rent boy and his tough kid brother and whimsically holding them spellbound with his fairytale The Happy Prince. In happier times, he would recite to his equally entranced sons this story of a statue who allows a swallow to denude him of all his gold to feed the poor. In Everett’s hands, the tale becomes an ambiguous parable for Wilde’s passion and (possible) redemption, the unhappy prince who makes a lonely discovery that love is the only thing worth worshipping.

Everett likes to give us the famous lines from The Ballad of Reading Gaol in voiceover: “Each man kills the thing he loves …” But Everett takes us through the moment-by-moment horror of humiliation and poverty, which Wilde brazens out with gallows humour and wit as best he can. He vomits in agony on his deathbed before declaiming: “Encore du champagne!” Everett has clearly been influenced by David Hare’s 1998 stage play The Judas Kiss, in which Everett played Wilde, and also perhaps by Peter Ackroyd’s 1983 novel The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde.

Oscar bursts into tears on being reunited with Bosie – and when he is recognised in France by a bunch of British rowdies who are hateful and homophobic (although that second concept is not something that anyone present would have recognised, perhaps not even Wilde himself). The hooligans chase Oscar, Robbie and Reggie into a church where Oscar faces them down by yelling: “The natural habitat of the hypocrite is England! Go there and leave me in peace!” Hypocrisy is the key. Polite society was prepared to turn a blind eye to homosexual assignations if they were conducted within a proper carapace of secrecy and shame. There was no immediate objection to casual sex with the lower orders, who could be bought and bought off. A flaunted connection with the Queensberry family was a class transgression. Shrewdly, Everett shows Wilde with a portrait of Queen Victoria by his deathbed. He died one year before her, and the film hints that Wilde’s vindictive treatment was part of the ugly sense of shame and mortification at Romantic and aesthetic indulgence which the manly slaughter of the first world war was supposed to redeem.

Using vignettes and flashback, we learn about his few loyal friends, his relationship with his wife and sons, which was devoted if impossible, and how he allowed Bosie to continue to destroy him. This occasionally slips into cheap sentiment, but there are some stand-out scenes — Wilde singing ‘The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery’, for instance — and, of course, there are some terrific lines. ‘I am dying beyond my means,’ he will complain on his deathbed. As for Everett, he is terrific. His Wilde is not hagiographic. His Wilde is brilliant but also foolhardy, exploited but also wilfully self-destructive, funny but also pathetic. A sad film, but ravishingly so.

Wilde’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism, no big deal now but something pretty jazzy at the time, is carefully dramatised. Everett has clearly done his homework — sometimes to a fault, as his Wilde spends so long dying you can imagine the real Wilde sitting next to you urging him to hurry up so he can pop along for an absinthe.

Oscar, as a kind of decaying monument, drifts in and out of raucous Parisian nightclubs, extravagant dinners for which he foots the bill on dwindling funds, quiet French seaside retreats or exuberant all-male frolics to keep Bosie entertained in Naples, despite the thrill of lust having soured for him. “I am my own Judas,” he moans at one point, but there’s little poignancy in his self-destructive behaviour, even as the great man’s dignity, and ultimately his life, slip away from him.

Everett returns several times in flashback, the dandy is shown in his convict’s garb on the platform at Clapham Junction.

As he waits to be transferred to Reading Gaol, passersby gather round him, taunt him and finally begin to spit on him

He talks about being “shrouded in the symphony of adjacent copulation.” Late on, when he is sitting outside a cafe as the rain lashes down on him and can’t afford to go inside to settle his bill, he seems remarkably sanguine. At moments like these, he lives up to one of his most famous lines: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

He is suddenly recognised by an old “friend”, Mrs Arbuthnot (Anna Chancellor), who knew him in his glory days and pursues him.

“Surely you remember me?” she implores him. His response is to sponge £5 off her. Her husband catches them up and warns Wilde, whom he once admired, that if he ever speaks to her again, he will kill him.

“Dear Prince, I must leave you, but I will never forget you, and next spring I will bring you back two beautiful jewels in place of those you have given away. The ruby shall be redder than a red rose, and the sapphire shall be as blue as the great sea.”

 

“Surely Love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor is it set forth in the marketplace. It may not be purchased of the merchants, for can it be weighed out in the balance for gold.”

 

“There is no good talking to him,” said a Dragon-fly, who was sitting on the top of a large brown bulrush; “no good at all, for he has gone away.”
“Well, that is his loss, not mine,” answered the Rocket. “I am not going to stop talking to him merely because he pays no attention. I like hearing myself talk. It is one of my greatest pleasures. I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”
“Then you should definitely lecture on Philosophy,” said the Dragon-fly.”

 

“Everyone quoted it, it was full of so many words that they could not understand.”

 

“In the square below,’ said the Happy Prince, ‘there stands a little match-girl. She has let her matches fall in the gutter, and they are all spoiled. Her father will beat her if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying. She has no shoes or stockings, and her little head is bare. Pluck out my other eye, and give it to her, and her father will not beat her.’

‘I will stay with you one night longer,’ said the Swallow, ‘but I cannot pluck out your eye. You would be quite blind then.’

‘Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,’ said the Prince, ‘do as I command you.’

So he plucked out the Prince’s other eye, and darted down with it. He swooped past the match-girl, and slipped the jewel into the palm of her hand. ‘What a lovely bit of glass,’ cried the little girl; and she ran home, laughing.

Then the Swallow came back to the Prince. ‘You are blind now,’ he said, ‘so I will stay with you always.”

 

“The living always think that gold can make them happy”

 

“There is no Mystery so great as Misery.”

 

“Who are you?” he said.

“I am the Happy Prince.”

“Why are you weeping then?” asked the swallow; “you have quite drenched me.”

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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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The Bell – Iris Murdoch

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

This was all the rage when I was an undergraduate. A gay Christian was highly unusual then. Now, it’s almost compulsory.

This is a 1958 novel about a lay community sheltering in the grounds of a country estate.

Ex-teacher Michael Meade sets up a secular-religious enclave at his house, Imber Court in Gloucestershire, whose assorted inhabitants seek a “refuge from modernity”, which “with its hurried pace and its mechanical and technical structure” offers “no home to these unhappy souls”. The book depicts the portentous arrival of two visitors: a schoolboy, Toby, “greatly attracted by the idea of living and working, for a while at least, with a group of holy people who had given up the world”; and Dora, the errant wife of a scholar who is returning penitently but reluctantly to her stultifying marriage. Imber is in turn set against a convent of Benedictine nuns across the lake, a “buffer state” between the abbey and the real world in which Murdoch stages a clash of ideals: religious yearning, sexual passion, and the role of spirituality in a materialist era.

Consider, this novel was written in 1958 when homosexuals were whispered about, and called ‘pansies’ or ‘queers’.  Murdoch does not write of Michaels feelings towards Nick or Toby as dirty or twisted but just as a different kind of love.  It was beautifully handled.

In The Bell, Murdoch presents homosexuality through the context of several different characters. Firstly, there is the firsthand perspective of Michael Meade. Michael is inherently, though limitedly, affected by society’s perception of his sexuality, “Michael Meade at twenty-five had already known for some while that he was what the world called perverted”. Despite this understanding, Michael is acutely aware of his inability to separate his sexuality from the rest of his being, especially his religion, “It scarcely occurred to him that his religion could establish any quarrel with his sexual habits. Indeed, in some curious way the emotion which fed both arose deeply from the same source”. Murdoch provides the common societal attitude toward homosexuality through the character of James Tayper Pace. In describing his feelings towards Nick Fawley, James is nothing short of homophobic, displaying stereotypical attitudes reflective of 1950s English society, “‘He looks to me like a pansy,’….‘They’re always trouble-makers, believe me. I’ve seen plenty of that type. There’s something destructive in them, a sort of grudge against society’” . As yet another perspective on homosexuality, Murdoch provides the character of Toby with a more enlightened (though still not accepting) attitude, “In so far as he had up to now reflected on this propensity at all he had regarded it as a strange sickness or perversion, with mysterious and disgusting refinements, from which a small number of unfortunate persons suffered”.

In many ways, Murdoch’s representation of the homosexual experience is a direct reflection of common attitudes during the 1950s in England, “The Bell, Murdoch’s first fictional work that depicts the daily life of a male homosexual in detail, was published only months later in 1958 and accurately illustrates the legal dilemmas facing homosexual men during this era” . Murdoch’s examination of homosexuality during this time period should be considered especially courageous, “Murdoch often portrayed homosexuality in her fiction at times when it was not necessarily in vogue to do so, particularly during sensitive periods of change of legislative control over homosexuality in Great Britain”. In fact, during the 1950s “homosexual acts were still considered by law to be criminal offences” (“Cabinet Papers”). According to the Lesbian & Gay foundation, sodomy “was punishable by life imprisonment, though before 1861 it was a capital crime” (“Lesbian & Gay Foundation”). During the time period just before publication of Murdoch’s The Bell, prosecution against homosexuals was actually on the rise, “Between 1945 and 1955 the number of annual prosecutions for homosexual behaviour rose from 800 to 2,500, of whom 1,000 received custodial sentences” (“Lesbian & Gay Foundation”). As an alternative to imprisonment, some so-called “offenders” opted for a “cure” to avoid jail time, “In the 1950s and 1960s, behavioural therapy was used to try to “cure” gay men. Men convicted of homosexual acts were routinely given electric shock treatment, hallucinogenic drugs and subjected to brainwashing techniques” (Wheeler). According to Brian Wheeler of BBC News, “The most common form of treatment was aversion therapy, of the kind seen in Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange” (Wheeler). This treatment of homosexuality as a disease is reflective of Toby’s attitude in the novel, “He also knew, and differed here from his father, that it was more proper to regard these persons as subjects for the doctor than as subjects for the police”. While medical treatment would be far more desirable than criminalization, this is still a far cry from the attitudes towards homosexuality in England today.

In 1954, in response to increased controversy and media coverage, the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution in Great Britain was formed to reassess the criminalization of homosexuality. Just before publication of The Bell, “The Wolfenden Report was published in 1957. It concluded that the criminalisation of homosexuality was an impingement on civil liberty. While the law should prevent abuse and protect the young and other vulnerable individuals, it should not intrude into matters of personal morality” (“Cabinet Papers”). Another revelation of the Wolfenden Report, was the vocational tendencies of criminalized homosexuals to seek refuge through clerical and teaching positions. Murdoch represents this tendency through Michael’s character. He is not only a teacher in his early career, but also a religious leader, who has dreams of one day becoming a priest. According to Grimshaw, “The guilt and fears some homosexual men experienced also stemmed from the social and moral responsibilities inherent in their vocations. Perhaps choosing such vocations to quell their fears and desires, homosexuals found that these fears paradoxically heightened when they could not suppress their sexual desires through their work”. Essentially, criminalization was driving homosexuals into these kinds of vocations where they attempted to escape themselves, but sometimes failed to do so, inevitably increasing the risk of harm to the young.

It could be said that Murdoch’s treatment of the social question of homosexuality certainly wasn’t undertaken in the search for popularity. It is very much the work of an activist, exploiting social issues through artistic literary means. During this time period, Murdoch also took the stance of activist in her contributions to the publication Man and Society, “Writing for the journal in 1964, Murdoch speaks out against members of society who “simply…make unfounded assumption about what it is to be homosexual,” adding that “the law and social prejudice” create difficulties for homosexual men”. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, homosexuality continued to be a topic of derision and judgment in popular media, “The infamous Sunday Pictorial feature of 1963, ‘How to spot a Homo’, [pictured above] might be less a subject of interest today.  Much use was made of stereotypes of mincing queens and child molesters or corrupters which bore at best marginal resemblance to the generality of gay men, then as now, but were nonetheless often believed”  (“Lesbian & Gay Foundation”). Homosexuality was not decriminalized in England until almost 10 years after the publication of Murdoch’s The Bell. According to the National Archives, “The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised male homosexuality between consenting adults above the age of twenty-one” (“Cabinet Papers”).

Toby finds the lost medieval abbey bell while diving in the lake, where it was supposedly cast centuries earlier as a curse after a nun had an affair with a man; Dora suggests they secretly swap it for the abbey’s new bell, due to be delivered shortly, as a lark. Needless to say, things don’t go to plan, with consequences that are by turns slapstick and deadly serious.

In The Bell the mechanics by which the adolescent engineer Toby sets about getting an ancient submerged bell out of a lake – a tractor, a rope, an incline, then a makeshift crane and much leverage – are all worked out in such detail that one could imagine Murdoch having made drawings of the whole thing.

Everyone at Imber is trying to figure out how to lead a meaningful life amid the disintegrating ethical certainties of a secular society. But you can’t escape yourself.

The lay community doesn’t survive the scandal of the bell’s resurrection but the abbey remains at the novel’s end – its legacy secured, in fact, by Michael’s leasing of the house and its grounds to the nuns indefinitely.

Her novels often include upper-middle-class male intellectuals caught in moral dilemmas, gay characters, refugees, Anglo-Catholics with crises of faith, empathetic pets, curiously “knowing” children and sometimes a powerful and almost demonic male “enchanter” who imposes his will on the other characters—a type of man Murdoch is said to have modelled on her lover, the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti.

 TB 2Quotations:

[…] since, somewhere, something good existed, it might be that her problems would be solved after all. There was a connexion; obscurely she felt, without yet understanding it, she must hang onto that idea: there was a connexion. She bought a sandwich and took a taxi back to Paddington.

“like a bird out of the tower and fell into the lake.”

“potty communities are good for a feature”

“The bell is subject to the force of gravity.  The swing that takes it down must also take it up.  So we too must learn to understand the mechanism of our spiritual energy, and find out where, for us, are the hiding places of our strength.”

TB 3“I know how much you grieve over those who are under your care: those you try to help and fail, those you cannot help. Have faith in God and remember that He will is His own way and in His own time complete what we so poorly attempt. Often we do not achieve for others the good that we intend but achieve something, something that goes on from our effort. Good is an overflow. Where we generously and sincerely intend it, we are engaged in a work of creation which may be mysterious even to ourselves – and because it is mysterious we may be afraid of it. But this should not make us draw back. God can always show us, if we will, a higher and a better way; and we can only learn to love by loving. Remember that all our failures are ultimately failures in love. Imperfect love must not be condemned and rejected but made perfect. The way is always forward, never back.”
“Those who hope, by retiring from the world, to earn a holiday from human frailty, in themselves and others, are usually disappointed.”
“Our actions are like ships which we may watch set out to sea, and not know when or with what cargo they will return to port.”
“Violence is born of the desire to escape oneself.”
“The talk of lovers who have just declared their love is one of life’s most sweet delights. Each vies with the other in humility, in amazement at being so valued. The past is searched for the first signs and each one is in haste to declare all that he is so that no part of his being escapes the hallowing touch.”
“Toby had received, though not yet digested, one of the earliest lessons of adult life: that one is never secure. At any moment one can be removed from a state of guileless serenity and plunged into its opposite, without any intermediate condition, so high about us do the waters rise of our own and other people’s imperfection.”
“… he felt himself to be one of them, who can live neither in the world nor out of it. They are a kind of sick people, whose desire for God makes them unsatisfactory citizens of an ordinary life, but whose strength or temperament fails them to surrender the world completely; and present-day society, with its hurried pace and its mechanical and technical structure, offers no home to these unhappy souls.”
“The chief requirement of the good life’, said Michael, ‘is that one should have some conception of one’s capacities. One must know oneself sufficiently to know what is the next thing. One must study carefully how best to use such strength as one has. … One must perform the lower act which one can manage and sustain: not the higher act which one bungles.”
“But death is not easy, and life can win by simulating it.”
“Patchway had the enviable countryman’s capacity, which is shared only by great actors, of standing by and saying nothing, and yet existing, large, present, and at ease.”
“You don’t respect me,” said Dora, her voice trembling.

“Of course I don’t respect you,” said Paul. “Have I any reason to? I’m in love with you, unfortunately, that’s all.”

TB 4“Well, it’s unfortunate for me too,” said Dora, starting to cry.”
“Dora watched him for a while, nervously, and then returned to scanning the whole group. Seeing them all together like that she felt excluded and aggressive, and Noel’s exhortations came back to her. They had a secure complacent look about them: the spiritual ruling class; and she wished suddenly that she might grow as large and fierce as a gorilla and shake the flimsy doors off their hinges, drowning the repulsive music in a savage carnivorous yell.”
“Youth is a marvelous garment. How misplaced is the sympathy lavished on adolescents. There is a yet more difficult age which comes later, when one has less to hope for and less ability to change, when one has cast the die and has to settle into a chosen life without the consolations of habit or the wisdom of maturity, when, as in her own case, one ceases to be une jeune fille un peu folle, and becomes merely a woman, worst of all, a wife. The very young have their troubles, but they have at least a part to play, the part of being very young.”
“He went away, bent double with the pains of remorse and regret and the inward biting of a love which had now no means of expression. He remembered now when it was useless how the Abbess had told him that the way was always forward. Nick had needed love, and he ought to have given him what he had to offer, without fears about its imperfection. If he had had more faith he would have done so, not calculating either Nick’s faults or his own. Michael recalled too how, with Toby; he had acted with more daring, and had probably acted wrong. Yet no serious harm had come to Toby; besides he had not loved Toby as he loved Nick, was not responsible for Toby as he had been for Nick. So great a love must have contained some grain of good, something at least which might have attached Nick to this world, given him some glimpse of hope. Wretchedly Michael forced himself to remember the occasions on which Nick had appealed to him since he came to Imber, and how on every occasion Michael had denied him. Michael had concerned himself with keeping his own hands clean, his own future secure, when instead he should have opened his heart: should impetuously and devotedly and beyond all reason have broken the alabaster cruse of very costly ointment.”
“Toby had received, though not yet digested, one of the earliest lessons of adult life: that one is never secure. At any moment one can be removed from a state of guileless serenity and plunged into its opposite, without any intermediate condition, so high about us do the waters rise of our own and other people’s imperfection.”

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