Book Review: LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner

lolly-willowes-warner-nyrb-editionWarner’s prose sparkles and snaps like a gin and tonic in an elegant cut glass tumbler, her humor the slice of lime contributing the essential dash of sharp acidity. Warner proves to be a most devious hostess, however: seemingly invited to a pleasantly amusing afternoon garden party, it’s only as the sun begins to set that it suddenly begins to dawn—this is actually a Witch’s Sabbath! What a marvelously devious sleight of hand.

And perhaps more than ever 2017 is the time for stories about waking up from the drowsiness of lives cocooned by social expectations and respectability politics and be pointed toward modes of being that are idiosyncratically imagined and intentionally pursued. Part 1 is all charming, “quintessentially” English eccentricities—a broad assortment of kooky extended family members, whimsical family heirlooms hoarded in drawing rooms, teatime and other daily rituals, and the like; this is the life of one Laura Willowes, quietly sloughed into a life of genteel spinsterhood, and cloistered in the tiny spare room in a brother’s family home in London. She slowly transforms into docile “Aunt Lolly” after being christened as such by a baby niece—her identity is so nondescript that even she doesn’t quite register her very name is no longer her own.

NPG P183; Sylvia Townsend Warner by Cecil Beaton

Sylvia Townsend Warner by Cecil Beaton, 1930 (via National Portrait Gallery)

This all changes when an otherwise inauspicious guide book makes its way into Laura’s possession. Suddenly Part 2 sets off in an unforeseen direction as Laura announces she will be moving to the isolated rural village that is the subject of her book. Her family attempts all means at their disposal—including emotional blackmail and financial threats—to undermine her resolve; Laura nevertheless persists and promptly lets a room of her own, ready to begin a new life distinctly, if somewhat tentatively, her own.

If this was the story of Lolly Willowes, it would still be of note as a showcase for Warner’s remarkable facility with language and sinuous approach to syntax; it’s additionally exceptional as an early feminist fable making a persuasive and poignant case for female agency (Warner’s novel predates Woolf’s landmark A Room of One’s Own by several years). But the author envisions much, much more for her text and hurtles headlong into the utterly startling Part 3. While I suspect most readers will know, as I did, the general trajectory of the narrative, I think the less known the better so will leave it at that. What a lovely defense of demanding and then enacting a life lived fully and deliciously and—take the term in whatever sense you prefer—queerly too.

“Laura had brought her sensitive conscience into the country with her, just as she had brought her umbrella, though so far she had not remembered to use either.”

& even more scholarship

Unfortunately updates to this blog for the foreseeable future will (likely) be few and far between. But it’s for a good reason: work on my thesis has resumed!

It’s been slow going, and progress occurs more on some days than others, but I’ve been working hard to develop daily writing habits that finally seem to be paying off (key to this has been joining an online academic writing group, which I should write about here). And overall it has just felt great to note the expanding page count of an initial chapter draft. Also exciting is that a trip to do archival research is going to happen sometime next spring.

In the meantime, just wanted to note that I have posted another paper up on my academia.edu account. I’ve always been proud of this particular piece of scholarship, which was initially written for a seminar on American autobiographical writing, and then was slightly revised for submission to my graduate program’s annual peer-reviewed published journal.

The paper focuses on several texts by Samuel M. Steward (particularly the 1984 novel  Parisian Lives, the sociological study Understanding the Male Hustler, and the memoir Chapters from an Autobiography) and attempts to grapple with a number of thorny issues, including the nature of autobiography, what happens when autobiography is fictionalized, and the historical necessity for queer individuals to employ pseudonyms and falsify specific details regarding their identity even when dealing with life writing. And all of these issues become particularly fascinating within the context of Steward’s intentionally unorthodox oeuvre.

So if interested, here’s a direct link to The “Strange Mimesis” of Queer Autobiography: Subversive Pseudonyms in Samuel M. Steward’s Autobiographical Writing. (Yet another too-long title that now makes me cringe!)

Book Review: THE KISSING FISH by Monique Lange

cover of the kissing fish by monique langeUnjustly forgotten, or perhaps it just never managed to establish any kind of reputation in the first place in English translation. This is exactly the kind of text that would be ideal for New York Review Books to pluck out of obscurity: think of Bonjour Tristesse in style, brevity, and tone, only instead of wreaking havoc within her family, precocious, experience-hungry Cécile instead falls in with the queers—the “kissing fish” of the title.*

The novella came to my attention through an allusion to it made by the character of Max in Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony, who describes it as “a strange trifle” that features “a woman’s obsessional love for a homosexual.” Intrigued—this is the type of obscure citation that immediately pushes all my buttons—the reference brings everything full circle, as Lange’s book was translated by Richard Howard, the eminent man of letters White’s Max is clearly based on.

Monique Lange portrait Image by © Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

Lange in 1994, by Sophie Bassouls

When she passed away in 1996 Lange had established herself as a novelist, screenwriter, and editor of some renown in France (similar acclaim appears to have eluded her outside of her native country); giving an almost prophetic inflection to her first novel, she had an open marriage with noted Spanish author Juan Goytisolo, allowing him to take male lovers. Set in 1946, The Kissing Fish is related in the first person by Anne, an eighteen year old who becomes helplessly (and rather inexplicably) infatuated with melancholic Bernard. After some coaxing Bernard agrees to take Anne out one evening, but it immediately proves to be a disaster, leading to a funny, sad little exchange:

“Poor gypsy. And I was counting on your to cure me.”
“Cure you of what?”
“Cure me of the world. But I must have been crazy.” (19)

It doesn’t take much imagination to infer other registers of meaning as well, but Anne resolutely attributes Bernard’s romantic disinterest to her youthful naiveté and sexual inexperience (she is a virgin when they first meet). So she settles for a platonic mentoring relationship instead, musing how “he taught me everything. Paris, painting, flamenco music, Monteverdi, dancing, and trees. He taught me everything—except love” (21). (And this is where the reader lets out a little sigh and a rueful “oh girl.”)

If Lange’s breezy and elegantly spare literary style is clearly indebted to Françoise Sagan, then the character of Anne sometimes calls to mind the half-adventurous/half-passive heroines that populate the work of Marguerite Duras (particularly The Lover). Quickly she is zipping through a series of interesting events, with things particularly picking up once she befriends “the Boys,” a young intellectual couple named Eric and Guy. Her description of their relationship remains startling in its clear-eyed frankness:

 After a passionate love affair lasting two days, they slept together in an extremely narrow bed with affectionate complicity, cruising separately. Their relation was a strange one: Eric loved Guy, Guy loved Eric, but they didn’t love each other.” (28)

monique lange cover poissons chatsThe pair invites Anne to join them in Rome, which gives her occasion to describe their sexual behavior and promiscuous sex lives with similarly unflinching acuity (“Guy often brought home for a day or two some stupid little piece of trade who was imitating the James Dean of the moment” (28); her increasingly wry observations also provide a fascinating glimpse into the mechanisms and mores of gay life in the immediate post-war era. As Anne’s friendship with “The Boys” develops she becomes increasingly imbricated into “the secret universe of homosexuals” (28), the gay subcultures of Paris and other parts of Europe she visits. If this all seems like classic “fag hag” behavior it most certainly is; however, Anne also views this connection as fundamentally based on a deeper congruity when she straightforwardly admits that it is “a world I enjoyed because it was as sad as mine and much more desperate than the other one” (28). Even in its brevity—it’s not a dynamic Lange explores in depth—The Kissing Fish nonetheless provides one of the best representations I’ve yet encountered of the deep kinship that can spring up between straight women and gay men (cf. my disappointment with Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

Through it all Bernard continues to wander in and out of the narrative, the underlying impetus behind all of Anne’s behavior and questionable decisions. She is consistently disappointed, of course, for even after he invites her to move in with him she sleeps on the couch and above all is never allowed to enter his bedroom (oh girl). Mirroring the relationship between her and her “Boys,” a deep affection—or is it codependency?—springs up between the two even as sexual intimacy forever remains outside of the boundaries of their relationship.

In the end Anne comes home early and discovers the identity of Bernard’s “mistress,” and even as she is devastated she can admit “the wheel had come full circle” and that “it was a good ending to the story.” And it is: understated, undramatic—the stuff of the little, experience-based revelations of life that are often necessary to move us out of one phase of life and on to the next.

kissing fish kissing men

*A prefatory note explains that the breed of tropic fish known as “kissing fish” have “gained wide publicity from their kissing habits.” Among other things, they are known to”frequently change partners” before noting that “why they unite their lips is a mystery…” (ellipsis in the original).

Works Cited

Lange, Monique. The Kissing Fish. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Criterion, 1960.

White, Edmund. The Farewell Symphony. New York City: Vintage, 1998. Print.

Book Review: BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S by Truman Capote

Cover of Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman CapoteThe delicious little anecdote related by Christopher Bram in Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America that finally inspired me to pick this up in the first place:

“…he had taken the title from Lincoln Kirstein. Kirstein liked to tell a story of a how he picked up a Marine one night and offered to take the man someplace fancy for breakfast. The only fancy place the Marine knew in New York was Tiffany’s” (64).

I’ve seen the Blake Edwards-directed film multiple times over the years, and for me it’s one of those films that lingers cheerfully in the memory but is startlingly mediocre in the process of actually watching (Hepburn’s electric, iconic vivacity the unexpected trump card that manages to carry everything through long rough stretches). Bram isn’t very enthusiastic about the novella either—musing that “it became a classic and it’s hard to say why”—but I was sufficiently intrigued with his hypothesis that “much of its charm comes from something left half-said: it’s the story of a romantic friendship between a straight woman and a gay man,” and that “since their affection cannot end in sex or marriage, the two must explore other, less obvious ways to be intimate” (of course this is excised in the film, with Peppard’s character instead played as a hunky—and strappingly heterosexual—kept man. The necessity for Pat Neal’s arch-eyebrowed amusement is the sole compensation for such a dull modification).

George Peppard and Patricia Neal in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Fabulously beturbaned Patricia Neal provides some compensation for the de-gayification of George Peppard’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

Long story short, by turning to Capote what I was hoping to access a queer foundation that could begin clarifying this most celebrated fairy tale (pun intended, of course), and if lucky discover in the process the first Great Depiction of the archetypal straight gal/gay male BFF relationship. Alas, I didn’t really find anything of the sort: the dynamic is undeniably is there, but despite Bram’s assessment it’s not only not meaningfully explored on any level—it’s just not really touched upon at all. And so I was inevitably disappointed, though I fully realize that it’s not really fair to judge the text by my outside expectations.

As such, I suspect I’ll find myself wanting to return at some point, much like the film, with vague but pleasant memories overriding initial misgivings. Hoping for better luck next time.

And finally, for a convergence of the textual and cinematic, two photobooth photos, circa 1956, of Capote, Hepburn, and Hepburn’s then-husband Mel Ferrer. Frankly, I find them more disarmingly effervescent than the book and film combined:

Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn, and Mel Ferrer Photobooth Photo Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn, and Mel Ferrer Photobooth Photo

Duly Noted #3

overlooked underrated writers

While searching for something else entirely different, this morning stumbled across the Little Caesar Magazine website on Dennis Cooper’s Archives. I’ll be spending much more time exploring this (alas, limited) resource, but this caught my eye and thought I’d include it here for future reference. Can’t say that I recognize more than about a dozen of these names offhand, so more research is in order. Advocacy or any specific recommendations would be greatly appreciated!

Book Review: FRANNY, THE QUEEN OF PROVINCETOWN by John Preston

franny queen of provincetown “Franny is the history of the development of the gay community.” -John Preston

Now if I had come across this statement before I had embarked on reading this short novel, I might have been tempted to abandon ship immediately. Not that I’m inherently against such an impulse behind an author or artist’s creative process, but in my experience when art is explicitly described in such terms my immediate impulse is to put my guard up, to expect didacticism and pedantry and “lessons”–and it is difficult not to start resisting immediately. Intentions are usually good, I fully admit, but it also seems to signal, well, a certain sense of limitedness that I can never quite seem to shake (I suspect this is the source of my ongoing indifference to Tony Kushner’s work, for instance).

Thankfully, however, the line quoted above only appears in the “Epilogue” that concludes the Little Sister’s Classics edition of Franny, the Queen of Provincetown (1983), and by that time I had already been utterly charmed by Preston’s vibrant portrait of the novella’s eponymous queen and and the many ways that this so-called “funny-looking queen with a round body that looked like an oversized avocado” manages to deeply imbricate herself into the life narratives of a number of other, often younger gay men she crosses paths with (56). With a unique combination of deadpan wit and no-holds-barred honesty as well as a seemingly limitless capacity for empathy, Franny often nudges the men she befriends to begin accepting themselves in a hostile society that is just beginning to start to change in the wake of the Stonewall riots, and to recognize a potential in themselves that nobody else–let alone themselves–manage to see. All of these stories are conveyed in a loose, off-the-cuff style bursting with spontaneous-seeming speech intonations and endearing vernacular quirks, and if Preston indeed started with didactic intentions, the end product reads less a dutiful history lesson and more akin to thumbing through a series of snapshots that capture a particular moment and place in time with an almost documentary-like precision.

franny queen of provincetown original cover

Cover of the first edition (1983)

In the end, what I most liked about Franny–and was pleased to find Preston directly address this in several of the interviews that are included in the appendix to this edition–is how it celebrates the type of individuals who are the unlikely, and often unsung and/or forgotten pioneers of the modern LGBT/queer movement. Preston also notes in the Epilogue that drag queens “are usually portrayed as tragic figures in the gay world, but they were often its heroes… they are the ones who settled our first ghettos and were often the ones who brought people together” (83). He also notes that just as there was a sudden proliferation of “evil homosexuals” as villains in mainstream culture in the 1970’s and into the 80’s (something persuasively documented in, say, Vitto Russo’s The Celluloid Closet), there was also at that time “a spate of books… where it became almost mandatory for the gay male author to kill the drag queen” (122). The character of Franny was intended to directly counter this insidious situation, and the project to reclaim the marginalized figures–particularly those that don’t necessarily fit neatly into the linear and triumphant march toward full equality–that deeply resonates with me as a reader, a scholar, and perhaps most importantly, as a young queer man.

In his lengthy introduction, Michael Lowenthal writes that “Franny fits within a category of gay books that sought in some ways to create their own obsolescence–and I think this is precisely what makes it anything but obsolete, but rather earns its place in the gay canon” (21). He goes on to argue that Franny now “serves as a gauge of exactly how far we have come from a time when our literature had to imagine into being the very community it simultaneously hoped to portray” (21). Well yes, perhaps, but I can’t help but feel that unintentionally undersells Preston’s novella, for I often feel that the work of Preston’s contemporaries–White, Holleran, and other members of the Violet Quill Club, for instance–seem more and more like the time capsules evoking worlds that seems more and more remote with each passing year.

John Preston (1991) by Robert Giard

John Preston (1991) by Robert Giard

I don’t mean to imply that Franny somehow miraculously able to avoid this situation completely–there is certainly many elements that are very specifically of its own time–but perhaps what made Preston’s book particularly vibrant and alive for me is that I recognize glimpses of Franny in many figures I seek out here in San Francisco, particularly the drag queens of a certain age at Aunt Charlie’s or The Stud and other venues nestled far away from the polished, tourist-oriented glitter of today’s Castro distract, who still manage to bring down the house with a Judy Garland lip sync that is simply PERFECTION or a cheeky and knowing performance of a current Top 40 hit that manages to outshine the young queens with most of their skin on display and accompanying “dancing” that evokes go-go dancing more than drag. And yet, just like Franny, most of them also seem to radiate a sense of affection and protectiveness for the younger generations, even when they appreciation is not always reciprocated–at least not to quite the same extent (though, happily, there does often seem a genuine intergenerational warmth and camaraderie on display in these spaces).

Since Franny, the Queen of Provincetown is constituted of a series of first-person fragments of text arranged almost like dramatic monologues or even as a script for a theatrical play, I will close this “review” with some thoughts I jotted down in my own journal after Pride weekend last month, which I wrote just shortly before I had picked up Preston’s text. Now looking back over it, it also captures something that reminds me of Franny and seems to trace a subtle yet tangible line between what is being rather erroneously characterized as now-past but which in many ways still proliferates within the present.

Saturday night: Aunt Charlie’s with H, J, S, and D.

Bar empty/emptier than usual at the beginning of the show; but just before the show starts a rowdy bachelorette party wearing too-tight dresses and too-high heels stumbles in and sits down directly across from us. Insistent on making the evening (of all evenings!) about them–incessant refrains of  “I’m getting married, woooooooo!!!” –the queens can hardly get in a word edgewise. The first queen weakly acknowledges them (“yes, yes, congratulations”), but the next queen responds to the screeching “I’m getting maaarriiieeed!!!” with a dramatic side-eye and tart “I’m very sorry.” Instant silence. The group gets up and leaves within several minutes.

Probably the only moment of the entire weekend that genuinely evoked queer pride.

Now perhaps this response lacks the type of expansive generosity that tends to characterize Franny, but one of the climactic moments in the narrative constitutes Franny’s ingenious reclamation of a queer space for the benefit of the queer people who are suddenly finding themselves marginalized within it. The contexts, admittedly, might be substantially different, and yet something fundamental remains the same.

Long live Franny, and all her sisters still out there fighting the good fight even when nobody seems to be watching.

aunt charlies

aunt charlies group

[Snapshots of spending Pride at Aunt Charlie’s, San Francisco, June 29, 2014]

WORKS CITED

Lowenthal, Michael. “Introduction.” Franny, the Queen of Provincetown. By John Preston. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2005. 9 – 25. Print.

Preston, John. Franny, the Queen of Provincetown. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2005. Print.

Book Review: FLESH IS HEIR by Lincoln Kirstein

To say Lincoln Kirstein was a man of many talents is a massive understatement, but it seems pretty clear from his single published novel that creative fiction is not necessarily one of them. Flesh is Heir: an Historical Romance (1932) was written when Kirstein was in his twenties and draws heavily from his life experiences up until that point, and it is primarily of interest for what it reveals about its author than rather than functioning as a satisfying reading experience. The young author, gutted by the patronizingly lukewarm (at best) reaction the novel received upon its publication, gave up his aspirations to be a writer and decided instead to devote his considerable energies to the seemingly harebrained idea of establishing a ballet company in America to rival Europe and Russia’s best. 

And the rest, as they say, is history. He managed to woo George Balanchine to America and founded the Ballet Society, which ultimately become the legendary New York City Ballet, the first major institution of its kind here in America.  So maybe all good balletomanes, and fans of the vast amount of erudite scholarly writing on art Kirstein subsequently wrote, owe a debt of gratitude to this apparently “lost” and forgotten novel. Because without its failure, how long would it have taken for the young Kirstein to realize his talents lay elsewhere? 

Hound & Horn Title Page, 1929

Hound & Horn Title Page, 1929

As for the novel itself: quite frankly, it is deathly dull (or at least what I managed to get through was). The prose is often quite elegant but utterly lifeless—I dutifully plodded through the first chapter, an extended vignette set in an upper-class New England boarding school, and admitted defeat (afterwards I focused solely on several chapters pertinent to a topic I was researching). Really, the idea of this novel is more interesting than its actuality—it is fascinating to consider that its author, the brilliant upstart editor of the Harvard-based literary magazine Hound & Horn and considered to be at the forefront of literary modernism and all things new and avant-garde, would himself write a novel that could, at best, be charitably described as amiably antiquated. Really, it’s essentially of the quality that would have been expected of a bright, artistic but relatively unexceptional young man of a certain means during the second half of the 19th century. But in the 1930’s? This sad little book didn’t have a chance. 

Double Exposure of Lincoln Kirstein, 1930-1 Walker Evans

Double Exposure of Lincoln Kirstein, 1930-1, by Walker Evans

But it is ultimately, I admit, this dissonance that intrigues me, and it does serve as an early indication one of the great contradictions that would mark all of Kirstein’s subsequent work: here is a man whose taste in art and aesthetics were fundamentally aligned with the (neo)classic, and yet he still argued, adamantly and often brilliantly, the virtues of the modern, experimental, and the new to an often skeptical American public. As Flesh is Heir makes abundantly clear, when examined in a retrospective manner, this seemingly incongruous discrepancy can be discerned from the earliest moments of his artistic career.

And, truth be told, I do expect to return and read the whole thing someday. Only this time with properly adjusted expectations and a bountiful reserve of patience. 

[A version of this review was originally posted on Goodreads.]

kirstein flesh is heir newspaper

Works Cited

Kirstein, Lincoln. Flesh Is Heir: An Historical Romance. 1932. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP ; Feffer & Simons, 1975. Print.

 

Book Review: BETTER ANGEL by Richard Meeker

better angelI was only several pages into Richard Meeker’s sensitive queer coming-of-age novel when it occurred to me that what I was reading was the flipside to Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s The Young and Evil, the novel I am currently in the process of writing my M.A. thesis on. Both novels were published in 1933 and both are often considered among the handful of texts that received publication in the first years of the 1930’s as the so-called “Pansy Craze” swept New York City and “book publishers race[d] to satisfy the public’s growing interest in the gay scene” (Chauncey 324).

Despite a shared historical context, however, in many ways the two novels couldn’t be more different from each other. If the direct literary antecedents of Ford and Tyler’s exuberant, highly experimental depiction of the various sexual hijinks of several bohemian queers can be traced to the rather hermetic queer “high modernism” of Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein, then Better Angel, with its adherence to classical narrative conventions, forthright prose style, and candid appeal to a likely skeptical readership, is certainly within the tradition of Radclyffe Hall’s great queer populist classic The Well of Loneliness (1928).

Much like Hall’s novel, Better Angel reads like barely-concealed autobiography (something that it was eventually confirmed to be). The narrative begins when Kurt Gray is thirteen years old , an only child growing up in a rural small town. He is a shy, often lonely young boy, more inclined toward reading, music, and daydreaming than sports or the other activities the preoccupy his male peers. His is inevitably ostracized for this difference, which is a source of great anxiety and emotional trauma:

“…at last, hesitantly, perhaps in a flood of tears, he would admit that the boys at school had teased him about his fair skin: ‘Where’d ya buy yer paint, sissy? Sissy! Sissy!’–when, with a body shaking and hands clenched, eyes strangely dark in his white face, he would sob, ‘Why–Mom–why, why, why? Why can’t they leave me alone?’” (8)

Sadly, Kurt’s harrowing experiences don’t read today like a quaint situation from of a now long-distant past; instead, they will likely resonate deeply with many contemporary queer readers in regards to memories of merciless schoolyard bullying (it certainly did for this one). At his indignant mother’s suggestion, Kurt slowly begins to believe that his differences should not be regarded as a mark of shame but as a sign of his intellectual superiority–and as he ages the outer stoicism he has carefully developed begins to be perceived as scholarly excellence, and he begins to be regarded as an aspiring composer of great potential. His talent becomes his ticket for escaping his small town (first to university in New York) and eventually to Europe (on an academic scholarship), where he embarks on a journey of self-discovery, aided by a close friendship he develops with his classmate Chloe, his first tentative sexual experiences with her tempestuous brother Derry, and embarking on a relationship with the quietly intense David.

Torment (Better Angel) - Richard Meeker

In the 1950’s the novel was reissued on paperback under the title “Torment”

What is particularly notable is how Kurt manages to accomplish this outside of the usual narrative tropes and historical trajectories common in queer stories of this era: he moves to New York City but deliberately avoids both the Village’s bohemian queer underworld and the queer enclaves embedded within the city’s vast theatrical and entertainment industries. Indeed, when the much more experienced David informs him of the social and sexual networks available to him, Kurt viscerally recoils, and instead throws himself into a world of aesthetic and egalitarian idealism, based on Platonic and other classical value systems (indeed, the Greek myth of Herekles and his favored youth Hylas plays a significant part in both the opening and conclusion of the narrative).

And, to his great credit, Kurt manages to succeed at his aims. Through the sheer force of his quiet self-will and self-control, he manages to construct a space for himself–and his personal happiness–outside of the more familiar currents of urban pre-Stonewall queer life. By the end of the novel, Kurt is dreaming of bucolic domestic living, renovating a rural farm for him and David to occupy while he teaches music at a progressive boy’s school in Connecticut.

Torment Cover Detail - Richard Meeker

“Torment” Cover Detail

Kurt’s personal idealism and self-restraint (which, admittedly, sometimes seems to border on the unnecessarily repressive), however, might turn out to be the source of his narrative preservation. Better Angel has been proposed as the first American queer-themed novel where the protagonist does not end in tragedy, whether it is enforced isolation, a rebuke their sexual orientation and past behavior, or even death; significantly, even in the 1950’s The Mattachine Society characterized Kurt as “perhaps the healthiest homosexual in print” (quoted Slide 128).

If earlier I drew parallels between Better Angel and The Well of Loneliness’s seemingly implicit intentions to be accessible to a general readership in terms of content, style, and tone, the great difference between the two texts is that contra Hall’s tendency to make Well a grand apologia, Angel rarely indicates any aspiration to be more than an earnestly told tale with the more modest intention, expressed in the epilogue appended many years later that it would reach “a good many of those who… would understand an appreciate it” (Forman 286).

Image

Harry Burnett, Forman Brown, and Richard Brandon (l. to r.)

Like most of the “Pansy Craze” novels of the early 1930’s, Better Angel did not receive much attention in the press at the time of its initial publication, and it was reprinted in the 1950’s under the more dramatic but less appropriate title Torment (Slide 128). Happily, the author was later able to attest that from the beginning “the book did rather well, and to my delight, reached a good many of those who, as I hoped, would understand and appreciate it” (Brown 286). Richard Meeker, as it turns out, was the pseudonym for Forman Brown, who, along with Harry Burnett (who the character of Derry is based on) and Richard “Roddy” Brandon (David’s textual equivalent), established the Yale Puppeteers, a puppet theater group which become renowned for its collaborations with Elsa Lanchester (Slide 128-9). I plan to devote a future post to Brown and his rather remarkable reemergence and belated recognition as the author of Better Angel, but what is worth noting here is that the three men together formed a partnership–creatively and otherwise, from all indications–thus extending the narrative of Kurt, David, and Derry beyond the novel’s ambiguous concluding chapter.

According to Brown, many critics assumed that it was impossible for Kurt to enjoy a happy ending. However, the story his own life story, he insists, “demonstrate[s] how wrong a critic can be” (287). Such sentiments serve as a lovely–and unexpected–coda to this delicately rendered, still-underappreciated book.

Works Cited

Brown, Forman. “Epilogue (and Surprise Ending) for the New Edition.” Better Angel. 1933. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1987.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York City: Basic, 1994.

The Mattachine Society. “Mission Statement and Membership Pledge (1951).” We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics. Ed. Mark Blasius and Shane Phelan. New York: Routledge, 1997. 283-85.

Meeker, Richard. Better Angel. 1933. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1987.

Slide, Anthony. Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harrington Park, 2003.

GOING SOMEWHERE by Max Ewing

Title PageMax Ewing’s effervescent Going Somewhere (1933), as fizzy as the champagne that had been newly (re)legalized the year of its publication, is primarily remembered today as one of a handful of novels published in the publication industry’s efforts to capitalize on the “Pansy Craze” of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The placement of Ewing’s text within this category can considered something of a historical coincidence, however, as the text deals directly with queer subject matter only in several brief, ultimately fleeting passages, something in marked contrast to other “Pansy Craze” novels, almost all which uniformly foreground queer characters and/or experiences.

Rather, in style, content, and tone, the novel is much more in line with the type of breezy high-society romps that Carl Van Vechten specialized in throughout the 1920’s. Van Vechten’s novels are themselves endlessly queer affairs, of course, though more in regards to sensibility and milieu than in regards to any type of sustained reference or focus on queer individuals or behaviors. Going Somewhere employs a similar approach, which is no surprise since Van Vechten was Ewing’s mentor and close friend.

ewing - van vechten

Max Ewing by Carl Van Vechten (c. 1934)

Throughout Going Somewhere Ewing draws upon the subtle radicalness of Van Vechten’s ouevre in regards to the endlessly ingenious ways that discourses and social structures surrounding class, gender, and race are ultimately upended through humor, irony, and a sparkling camp sensibility. Under the guise of bohemian “eccentricity,” an endless variety of “subversive” behavior is paraded about and celebrated to the point that it becomes nothing less than the status quo. Of course, this accurately reflects actual historical realities, for as George Chauncey writes in Gay New York, “popular resistance to Prohibition seemed to undermine the respect for all forms of the law,” and this defiance in turn initiated a kind of domino effect where suddenly “many normally law-abiding citizens” began to question the moral authority of not only the law, but of social structures and conventions of all kinds (306-7). The liminal social and ethical spaces generated by the widespread rebellion against Prohibition in the 1920’s and into the early 1930’s is exactly the topsy-turvy–that is, rather queer–world that the narrative of Going Somewhere operates in.

Upon the introduction of Napier Knightsbridge into the narrative, Ewing’s novel suddenly seems poised to embark on the “life-narrative” type of narrative trajectory usually associated with queer novels of the era. Handsome, witty, artistic, urbane, and a self-professed aficionado of the Russian Ballet–all potential signifiers of male queerness in the early twentieth century–he makes a splash in British society by penning a ditty inspired by the “epidemic of sailor [costume] parties” sweeping the London social season that year. It quickly becomes a hit.

One doesn’t necessarily have to be aware of the prominent position that the matelot–British slang for “sailor”–has long held in gay iconography to sense the not-so-subtle queer sexual undertones to the song:

“I’m matelot-mad
To be matelot-had,
Though I’m dying to be good I guess I’m living to be bad,
‘cause I’ve got that matelot madness now;
I’m matelot-allured
I never get inured,
Thought it may be a disease, still I’m reluctant to be cured,
I’ve got that matelot-madness now!
I love to be around where lots of matelots abound,
So let me know if any ship of battle goes aground,
I rave about a matelot,
I crave a naval battle, oh
I’m absolutely matelot-mad!” (24-5, italics in the original)

Napier, who everyone affectionately calls “Naps,” continues his rather queer adventures when he decides to abandon Europe and try his luck in New York City. Travelling on the transatlantic ocean liner Lethargic, he eventually ends up sharing a cabin with a certain Victor Zukor, who receives a memorable entrance into the narrative: “on the floor of the stateroom sat a dark-haired young giant surrounded by magazines. He was stripped to the waist and as Napier came in he smiled in a friendly fashion. His smile was of the kind Napier had never seen except in tooth-paste advertisements” (42).

Napier is soon is informed that his cabinmate has recently been coronated “Mr. America” in a male beauty pageant, and has just concluded a tour of Europe at the expense of Muscle magazine. He blithely informs Napier that he caused “a frenzy” in Berlin, where he led a parade organized in his honor “wear a zebra-skin cache-sexe, a gift from the Berlin branch office of Muscle” (45). Once Napier adjusts to Victor’s habit of doing his early morning daily exercise regimen in the nude, they settle into an ambiguously cozy friendship that can be read as constantly fluctuating between the fraternal and the flirty–it’s impossible to know what exactly to make, for example, of Victor’s insistence that Napier “feel [his] gluteus minimus” let alone his remark that “the best way to develop that muscle is to get someone else and do a mutual” (47).

Later, after being taken up by the highest echelons of New York City society, Napier embarks on an even more ambiguously queer relationship. The Van Dongen twins, Anna and Annesley, “twenty-five years old, and heirs to one of the most staggering Fifth Avenue fortunes” causes one character to gasp and admit “she had never in all her life seen two such ravishingly beautiful people” (82). Sister and brother, their “handsome faces looked like reproductions of each other” (82).  Not long after Napier falls completely under their spell as well. In an aside very revealing about Napier’s sexual desires, the reader is told that as “the weeks went by [Napier] dreamed each night of the beautiful Van Dongen twins. In his waking hours he tried to decide which one of them he preferred. Sometimes he even thought it was Anna” (183). The implication being, of course, that the majority of the time his preference generally tended toward Annesley. This creates an uneasy romantic triangle–for it is constantly reiterated that the twins always want the same things, and Napier is no exception–which is only resolved when the king of Trans-Urania (queer paradise?) allows the trio to marry each other (thus “queering” the institution of marriage itself, making the 21st century fetishization of gay marriage seem positively retrograde). In a “brief bashful speech” the three jointly declare that they are the happiest couple in the world.

I cite these several incidents as evidence that Napier can be read as a queer character, not as a narrative synopsis. Though there always seems to be the potential that Napier will emerge as the story’s primary character, in the end his trajectory is only one of many threads braided into the overall narrative. He is just one small element of the larger, intricately wrought social ecosystem that Ewing meticulously constructs throughout Going Somewhere

ewing cocteau

Max Ewing Reading Cocteau

Going Somewhere is Ewing’s only novel, published, and, according to the brief overview provided on the description page for the Beineke Library’s Max Ewing Collection, the book “received positive reviews but did not gain him a reputation as a successful novelist.” An accomplished photographer, artist, and composer–he was certainly a multitalented man–while in college he had began corresponding with Van Vechten, and upon visiting New York City in 1923, he quickly established himself as a member of what the older author “had begun to call the jeunes gens assortis,” a “group of young handsome gay men whom he collected around him” for friendship, mentorship, and patronage (White 152). Tragically, Ewing would take his own life just a year after the publication of Going Somewhere.

Long out of print, for decades the only copies available of Going Somewhere remained its limited first edition from 1933 (this was the edition that I had access to). Anachronistic cover notwithstanding, in a happy turn of events Turtle Point Press has made this novel available to readers once again.

Works Cited

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York City: Basic, 1994.

Ewing, Max. Going Somewhere. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1933.

White, Edward. The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. New York City: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.