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.”

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Book Review: TWO SERIOUS LADIES by Jane Bowles

two serious ladies cover jane bowlesBy the time I felt like I was finally getting a handle on this bitter, black-hearted little novel, it was all over. As I quickly discovered, to make the acquaintance of these titular two ladies is to be initiated into a state of perpetual disorientation; I was not, I’ll frankly admit, adequately prepared, even if Bowles’s novel frequently brought to mind the work of her contemporaries Djuna Barnes and Flannery O’Connor, two favorites of mine.

All three authors have an uncanny ability to distill unsettling visions of the world into terrifying portraits of individuals who, by simply defying the “natural” order of things, unleash an aura of chaos and existential anarchy around everything they do. Yet turmoil is often the source of humor, and I’d say the work of all three is funny—albeit in bleak, dark ways. But where Barnes and O’Connor employ violence (both emotional and physical) and grotesquerie to elicit the kind of laugh that transforms into a horrified gasp before it manages to escape the throat, Bowles’s approach is more akin to screwball comedy, a comedy of manners where the main players have decided to redefine what “manners” entail, upending the world around them (ie “until recently [Miss Goering] had never followed too dangerously far in action any course which she had decided upon as being the morally correct one”). That said, these forms of comedies depend on a sense of order and decorum reestablishing itself by the resolution, typically with a romantic pairing reinstating the “unruly” female safely back into the social order. Not so with Two Serious Ladies: it’s instead a whirligig of despair whose last words offer no sense of solace. Instead it feels like a temporary stopgap in an inevitably continuing story destined for misery and destruction.

janes bowles by carl van vechten

Bowles portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1951

But also, in the meantime, a sense of escape, even freedom. Perhaps?

Aware of the general outline of Bowles’s biography (sadly, an infamously tragic one), one of the things I was curious was if she would be working in the grand queer tradition of taking up a certain term to signify covert lifestyles and behaviors, and there does seem to be some evidence to support such a reading. In the novel’s first few pages Miss Gamelon inexplicably moves in with Miss Goering—indeed, I assumed these would be the two “serious” ladies—and immediately entwine themselves into an incredibly intense codependent relationship; Mrs. Copperfield has a similar impulse toward Pacifica, noting that the Panamanian prostitute “takes everyone quite seriously” as she takes “Pacifica’s hand in her own.” I’ll be paying closer attention to this on inevitable (at some point) repeat readings, but whatever inflection one wants to read into them, it is undeniable that there are not only more than just two serious ladies populating Bowles’s novel, and, furthermore, all take their relationships with other ladies very, very seriously.

Jane Bowles, Truman Capote by Cecil Beaton, Marruecos, 1949

Jane Bowles & Truman Capote (Marruecos, 1949) by Cecil Beaton

Barnes’s rueful observation the she was “the most famous unknown in the world” also resonates with Bowles’s own legacy, having long been regarded as one of the great, undersung prose stylists of the twentieth century, inspiring an almost cult-like veneration from writers who achieved a much larger degree of fame than she ever managed to (Tennessee Williams’s proclamation that Two Serious Ladies is “his favorite book” and that he “can’t think of a modern novel that seems more likely to become a classic” continues to adorn current reprints of the novel; Truman Capote, John Ashbery, and Bowles’s own husband Paul were vocal supporters). Millicent Dillon has more recently described how “one soon begins to know the sound of a Jane Bowles sentence, its odd jumps, the way in which it continuously confounds expectations, the way in which secrets are withheld and as suddenly revealed.”

Perhaps Bowles does reveal some secrets throughout the tangled trajectories of the two serious ladies of Two Serious Ladies, but it seems more defined by its resolution to always remain something of an enigma, restless and on edge. And while I can’t say I actually much enjoyed the process of reading this novel, I nonetheless sense that it’s going to join the small cadre of texts I find myself returning to on occasion, almost inexplicably, trying to scratch some kind of deep itch it has created. To try and discover answers to some of the unnerving existential questions it poses—even if I never really expect to ever actually find them.

Works Cited

Bowles, Jane. Two Serious Ladies. 1943. New York City: Ecco, 2014.

Dillon, Millicent. “Jane Bowles: Experiment as Character.” Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction. Ed. Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989.

Further Reading

 

Book Review: PHALLOS by Samuel R. Delany

cover of phallos by samuel delany“A tale of a tale,” to cite Delany’s own characterization, thus situating his text within the tradition of self-reflexive literature associated so closely with Borges; declaring it a phallus-obsessed Ficciones is inevitably reductive but sketches out the general textual landscape. Just like the Argentinian master, Delany unapologetically takes it as a given that literary esoterica and other epistemological pursuits can be just as thrilling as an adventure yarn or mystery story. For Phallos is indeed a mystery at heart, albeit unconventionally so.

A brief opening note outlines the experience of a young potential reader who, after failing to track down a copy of an obscure erotic novel called “Phallos” by an anonymous author, is forced to resign himself instead a lengthy synopsis posted on the internet by an obscure academic residing in Moscow, Idaho. This summary is what constitutes the main text of Phallos.

Thus two different intertwined narrative strands immediately come into play. The first is story (re)constructed via the synopsis, revolving around a man named Neoptolomus and his relentless pursuit across the ancient Roman world in search of a sacred statue of a phallus stolen from a temple he happened to be visiting on business. As it turns out, his ensuing journeying has the happy bonus of creating endless sexual opportunity, and with each new area ventured to Neoptolomus quickly and without fail manages to fall into bed with one or more of the (male) locals.

Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany

But remember this all isn’t actually the story itself: it’s merely an approximation of another text, a framing device. Soon digressions, personal references, and especially footnotes soon begin appearing, the latter quickly taking on the life of their own as they record the feedback of two of the academic’s friends. Also fans and scholars of “Phallos,” they begin to describe what they think should be reported in the synopsis, and chide the author on what is omitted, which in turn relate additional micro-narratives… on and on, endlessly. Delightfully so, in my opinion.

Delany is celebrated for his extensive knowledge on a range of subjects, which he interjects into his writing. Phallos is no different, and operates as a clever dramatization of Lacan’s influential formulation of the phallus, where he located a differentiation between a (literal) penis and a symbol of power. What for the French psychoanalyst was psychological in nature, however, Delany renders tangible in the form of the phallic statue and all that it symbolizes for those who encounter it.

But if Lacan isn’t your thing—and in all honestly it’s not really mine either—no need to get tangled up in these aspects of the text, especially when there is so much else to savor and enjoy. For one, despite the fact that all of the explicit sexual material has been edited out (the author worries over issues of hosting sexually explicit material on a university website), I found much of Phallos to still be a surprisingly sexy read. Delany is masterful at conveying titillating solely through inference, and goes a long way in demonstrating how it’s not necessarily the explicitness of material that is inherently arousing, but all of the factors orbiting around it such as context, power dynamics, novelty, spontaneity, unexpectedness, and the particularities of a person, situation, etc, when encountered at a specific moment in time. I also ended up being quite touched by Neoptolomus’s constant discovery and affirmation of the polymorphous quality of love, sex, and desire: “with each of my adventures,” he muses at one point, “I had thought I’d learned a lesson about love, only to discover, with the next, I’d merely learned a lesson about a lover.” And to claims Neoptolomus as a democratic lover would be an understatement: his bedfellows encompass all races, ages, nationalities, and takes no mind of class status, level of education, sexual proclivities, or even orthodox standards of attractiveness.  It’s constantly a pleasure to encounter how our protagonist discovers beauty and sexual fulfillment simply by being open to their possibility.

 

attic red figure kylix greek pottery displaying gay erotic scenes

Red-figured kylix adorned with scenes featuring activities and configurations of the type alluded to and celebrated throughout “Phallos.”

I’m not sure if the novella of Phallos is republished here in its original form, or has been altered in this “enhanced and revised edition,” which is essentially a scholarly edition of the text. Addended at the end is an “Afterward” as well as three scholarly essays—they’re all very academic in nature (that is, highly theoretical and employ the terminology of the academy), and I found lots of interest while perusing them without getting too caught up in the intricacies of their arguments. I’m glad they’re included as they affirm that a text like Phallos merits such close scholarly attention, though I also think it would have been nice to also include at least one analysis immediately accessible to the casual reader.

In the end what I found so wonderful about Phallos is that it essentially invites the reader to embrace the text as a kind of sophisticated variation on the “choose your own adventure” formula. Delany seems to intentionally avoid ever dictating how the text should be read or understood, placing that control (literally) into the reader’s hands. Skip over the extensive footnotes, or dig into the minutiae. Ponder over the broad philosophical questions that are slyly invoked, or simply be entertained by a quick-paced erotic adventure tale. Admire the intricate narrative construction, or marvel at the meticulous historical detail. It’s up to you.

Works Cited

Delany, Samuel R. Phallos: Enhanced and Revised Edition. Ed. Robert Reid-Pharr. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2013. Print.

Book Review: LADIES ALMANACK by Djuna Barnes

[To continue celebrating Djuna Barnes this week and because I was thinking about it in light of a film adaptation currently in the works, I’ve decided to revisit and expand this review which was originally posted on Goodreads.]

“‘The Night-Life of Love,’ said Saint Musset, ‘burns I think me in the slightly muted Crevices of all Women who have been a little sprung with continual playing of the Spring Song, though I may be mistaken, for be it known, I have not yet made certain on this point.'”

Ladies Almanack cover Djuna Barnes illustration

Even after more than eight decades critics and scholars still squabble over what exactly Djuna Barnes was trying to accomplish with her Ladies Almanack. Is it an affectionate satire? An exuberant celebration? A sly denunciation? A parodic exercise in self-loathing?

Of course, this is Djuna Barnes we are talking about, so it’s probably all of these things, though perhaps “none of the above” gets even a bit closer to the heart of the matter. But these tensions touch upon exactly the thing that most compels me most about Barnes’s text—it somehow can manage to encompass nearly all interpretations one could possible pose, but stakes itself definitively to none of them. Which makes it a superlative example of one of my academic interests: the conveyance of queer content through “queered” form.

Djuna Barnes Natalie Barney

Photograph of Djuna Barnes and Natalie Clifford Barney, c. 1930.

The Almanack is deliberately constructed to work simultaneously on two different levels, with different sets of meaning available to different communities of readers. For the uninitiated the text can come off as a rather bewildering–perhaps even incomprehensible–take on medieval hagiography, with its mock-reverent depiction of Dame Evangeline Musset and her seemingly limitless benevolence toward young women in need.

Some readers, however, might also pick up that Dame Musset’s munificence is not purely altruistic in nature, but extends to a more sensual dimension that involves the women’s “Hinder Parts, and their Fore Parts, and in whatsoever Parts did suffer them most” (Barnes 6). But Barnes herself readily admitted that her Almanack was more than anything intended for “the private domaine” [sic], to be “distributed to a very special audience” (cited Lanser 164); that “special audience” was first and foremost Natalie Clifford Barney, as well as the many members of the lesbian-centric coterie that assembled around her in Paris. And not only was Barney & co. the audience that would be able to understand the layers of meaning shrouded within the narrative, they comprised of the subject matter themselves, as the text’s expansive cast of characters all had real-life counterparts that were being wittily caricatured (see below).

djuna barnes ladies almanack key

Key to the characters of Ladies Almanack I once made for a seminar presentation.

Privately printed and distributed, it’s interesting to consider how the Ladies Almanack was part of a spontaneous(?) flowering of literature published in 1928 that prominently featured same-sex desire–and sometimes dared even more–between women, including Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women, The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen, and, perhaps most importantly in a purely historical sense, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (for a good consideration of the importance of the year 1928 to feminist and/or lesbian texts I highly recommend Bonnie Kime Scott’s important 1995 study Refiguring Modernism, Volume I: The Women of 1928).

djuna barnes ladies almanack illustration

Original illustration by Djuna Barnes for Ladies Almanack

It is particularly enlightening to contrast Ladies Almanack to the latter of these novels, for not only does Hall, along with her longtime partner Una, Lady Troubridge, make appearances within Barnes’s text, but it throws into sharp relief Barnes’s own aim and approach in regards to both content and aesthetics. On the most obvious level, Barnes’s obscure, archaic utilization of language and form in the Almanack is a far cry from Hall’s unambiguously presented apologia-cum-petition. But unlike the wealthy Hall who could use her artistocratic lineage and social privilege to withstand public backlash, Susan Snaider Lanser writes that for Barnes, penniless and an American expatriate, it was “better to shroud [the overtly lesbian content] in obscurity, generating a prose whose meanings dissolve beneath a torrent of difficult words and sentences” (166).

As such, Ladies Almanack can’t just be considered an example of willful high modernist obfuscation; at the same time, its stylistic choices can’t just be solely marked up as a method for eluding censorship either. Rather, it’s something between, I’d argue, an alchemical concoction that attempts to avoid simply shoehorning queer–and intensely personal and private–topics and desires into traditional novelistic forms (The Well of Loneliness again, which can make for a rough reading experience today in its relentless proselytizing), with the purpose of beginning to articulate a new means of expression altogether. Barnes accomplishes this by queerly cherry-picking elements from a variety of sources both historical and modernist, which makes it a kind of anomaly, much like her much more well-known Nightwood, within high modernist literature, of which she was one of the most prominent (if perpetually undervalued) figures.

All these factors–and many others I’m necessarily sidestepping at present–lead to a text that is at once both outdated and undateable, and as playfully and deliberately enigmatic today as it must have been in 1928.

And hell, it’s just an awful lot of fun.

djuna barnes ladies almanack illustration 2

Djuna Barnes’s original illustration of Dame Musset’s funeral. Let’s just say it’s this is not the bleak scene you might assume it is…

WORKS CITED

Barnes, Djuna. Ladies Almanack. (1928). Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1992. Print.

Lanser, Susan Sniader. “Speaking in Tongues: Ladies Almanack and the Discourse of Desire.” Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Ed. Mary Lynn Broe. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1991. 156-68. Print.

Year in Review: Reading 2014

queer modernisms year of reading queerly

Here I find myself, perched upon the inaugural days of a brand new year that is as “fresh,” to quote one of the opening lines of Mrs. Dalloway, “as if issued to children on a beach.” Of course I’m inevitably forced to reckon with the unrealized intentions of what I intended Queer Modernisms to become over the course of 2014, almost none which ultimately came to pass. There are lots of reasons for this, most of which are exceedingly banal, but I’m relieved to report that current circumstances are undergoing a process of rapid change, and soon I’m going to have much more time–and, more importantly, the energy–to devote to this project which I still hold very dear and have many aspirations for.

The cycle of one year completing and another one beginning has always sparked in me the impulse to reflect and reevaluate. This quality is accentuated by the fact I derive an intense pleasure out of trying to discover and trace the patterns lurking unexpectedly within then past, and then attempting to make some kind of sense out of them. As such, for this first post of 2015 I intend to exactly that: go back and (re)consider my reading habits over the last year. In 2014 I watched less films than I probably ever have, but perhaps as a direct result I experienced what turned out to be an incredibly rich year in my reading, and I want to record–and celebrate–it.

I managed to write about and post several book reviews over the course of the year, but most others that I intended remain in draft form or simply as scribbled notes–if I even got that far in the process at all. I do have a list of books I still intend to go back at some point and give a a full consideration, but alas, I suspect for most the brief and rather scattershot musings presented below will have to suffice. But hey, it’s something, right?

Queer Modernisms Christopher and His KindThe first book that I picked up after completing the last course for my English M.A. program was one that had been hovering near the top of my to-read list for a long while: Christopher Isherwood’s elegant autumnal autobiography Christopher and His Kind. If I had realized how much of it is devoted to clarifying references contained within The Berlin Stories and other earlier texts–almost all of which I have not yet read–I might have held off, but it turns out prior knowledge is not at all necessary to enjoy Isherwood’s book. Rather, I was constantly drawn to the formal quality of “rewriting”–of Isherwood very consciously revisiting events that had found their way into his autobiographical writing over the years, and his attempt to later set the record “straight” about them. Wonderfully enough, being set “straight” in this situation entails being forthright about queer dimensions that had had to be necessarily encoded, deleted, or obscured. It’s a wonderful account of a great 20th century queer life, and the many figures and events that intersected it. In addition, with the careful differentiation between “Christopher” and “I” Isherwood perfectly captures the sensation I often experience when revisiting my own memories: of feeling at once both connected to and severed from them, as if they were observed but not actually experienced firsthand, and that it is only through the process of writing them down–and rewriting them again and perhaps even again–that makes them feel most “real.”

In addition, several books I read this last year emphasized once again how arbitrary it often seems that some texts, figures, and cultural artifacts manage to find a place within the historical consciousness while for some reason others simply do not. There actually exists an American novel from the Depression Era that not only openly represents gay desires and several criss-crossing male/male relationships, but actually allows space for a happy resolution? I didn’t really believe it either, and then I read Richard Meeker’s Better Angel. And yes, I can attest that such a novel indeed exists, and actually it’s a quite fine one at that. Not a literary masterpiece mind you, but an intelligently and sensitively written account of what is undoubtedly a story experienced by many men in the pre-Stonewall era. It has a stately beauty and wisdom in its plainspoken, often plaintive honesty that becomes particularly pronounced when compared to the hysterical tone taken by most contemporaneous texts that deal with similar subject matter. Meeker’s novel was one of the few books I did actually manage to do justice to and write a full analysis of, so I will direct all interested parties in that direction. It really is a really wonderful book, and unequivocally deserves a much more prominent spot within accounts of queer literature than it has been accorded to date.

Diana A Strange AutobiographyAnother novel in desperate need of further exploration and consideration both by myself and others is the singular Diana: A Strange Autobiography by Diana Frederics (a pseudonym, but that’s a whole separate, utterly fascinating story in and of itself!). Published in 1939 by the Citadel Press, just a glance through the chapter names listed in the table of contents announces its disarmingly forthright approach towards its so-called “strange” content: “Am I A Lesbian?,” “‘I Am A Lesbian!’,” “Leslie and I Become Lovers,” etc. Throughout The Well of Loneliness Radcylfe Hall cloaks her representation of lesbian desires and lives with elaborate–and ultimately deadening–metaphors and other explicit literary devices, and Diana opts for the opposite tack. Consider:

“With this acknowledgment of my homosexuality I discovered myself; now I had something to go on. It was like being born all over again, and the relief I felt astonished me. I had, so to speak, nothing left to be worried about. My fear were all confirmed… I was determined to respect myself for what I was, lesbianism be damned.”

Well yes, that final pronouncement doesn’t exactly jibe easily with our contemporary rhetoric of relentless pro-queer self affirmation, but I will attest that after reading so many books from this period–and let’s be frank, from all eras–where this same realization is accompanied by utter despair, followed by a quick and inevitably sad downward spiral, that the clear-eyed, no-nonsense attitude displayed by Diana’s eponymous subject had a lightening effect on me. With a rather spare, declarative style, it doesn’t take that long for Diana to pragmatically grasp evaluate the facts of her life and fearlessly set forth to make the best of things. And while there are inevitable complications along the way, she does manage to do pretty darn well for herself, and the fact that the concluding chapter of the novel is titled “Fulfillment” says quite lot. If this perspective came as a bit of a happy shock for me in 2014, I can only imagine its effect on a similarly sympathetic reader in 1939. That said, the few scholarly considerations I’ve been able to track down regarding Diana, most particularly Julie Abraham’s introduction to a 1995 reprinting by the NYU Press, take a surprisingly critical stance toward the novel, tending to focus on what the novel is not as opposed to the many things it is. One of my goals for this next year is to pen a few posts that begin to rectify this situation, as Diana was surely one of the great revelations of my reading year.

Stylistically, chronologically, and basically in all ways quite different from Diana but still quite wonderful exercise toward queer affirmation was Richard Amory’s groundbreaking erotic novel Song of the Loon. While at first glance it seems to be little more than an overripe sexual picaresque, very quickly the physical journey that structures the narrative begins taking on deep psychospiritual resonances as each handsome and hunky man the main character encounters helps him understand and embrace some part of his physical attraction to other men. The intentionally grandiose tone and mythic aspirations can seem rather overwrought and more than a bit silly when read today; perhaps even more difficult to tolerate is the representation of Native American culture and individuals, which is the stuff of “noble savage” archetypes. But by situating the world of Song of the Loon beyond any recognizable historical reality, it opens up a space of fantasy and electrifying possibility superseding the bounds of what in a historical sense would have been considered socially acceptable or approbatory in regards to depictions of male/male sexuality. It makes complete sense that Amory’s book became such a touchstone for an entire generations of gay men. To be quite honest, I kind of regret that my own generation hasn’t really been capable of retaining a space for this type of thing within our own (tenuously maintained) queer culture.

queer modernisms collected frank oharaQueer Modernisms Frank O'Hara Poem

I finally took The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara with the collage cover by Larry Rivers I’ve admired for so long off of the shelf and placed it instead on my nightstand. Picked up and perused over a period of several months during the summer, I found the poems themselves, so famously impressionistic in their itemized and/or offhand casualness and intimacy, to be perfectly suited for reading during “off moments:” say, in the minutes before drifting off to sleep, or as a way to delay for a few more minutes getting out of bed during weekends. As a naturally early riser I found myself returning constantly to the lovely “Getting Up Ahead of Someone (Sun),” and the concluding line “each day’s light has more significance these days” resonated with more than perhaps any other single line of writing I encountered this last year. I wouldn’t say that I’ve read this collection; rather, it remains is an entity I actively live and interact with, and I love that quality about it.

In one specific way Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding was the most explicitly “queer” book I read this last year. The term itself constantly, even obsessively reappears through McCullers’s short novel, slowly building into a kind of incantation that transforms material that could be potentially dull and unnoteworthy into something rich and vivid and almost oversaturated with potential meaning. In McCullers’s capable hands the nondescript rural Southern town in which the novel is set is revealed to be an almost unbearably evocative psychological landscape pulsating with an intense emotional charge. McCullers absolutely deserves her reputation as one of the great prose stylists of 20th century American literature, and with The Member of the Wedding she crafted a perhaps the great depiction of the archetypal queer childhood.

Confessions of a Mask Yukio MishimaMishima has long been one of the major blind spots in my ongoing exploration of queer lit, something rectified this year with my reading of Confessions of a Mask. Alas, I was left surprisingly… indifferent by the experience. I fully admit that I often struggle with texts where suicide and other kinds of violence–towards the self or otherwise–are afforded prominent thematic positions (something I also experienced with my reread this year of another novel by a queer(ish) author, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood), and I suspect this general disinclination was compounded by some fundamental problems with Meredith Weatherby’s lumpy translation, which also seemed to keep me forever at a distance. However, there was one great passage in the book that I still vividly remember read it one morning on the MUNI on my way to work: in two relatively short paragraphs Mishima managed to concisely explain how it is possible to have and maintain a split consciousness in regards to one’s sexuality, at once aware that the body is responding in a certain way and yet at the same time “never even dream[ing] that such desires… might have a significant connection with the realities of [his] ‘life.'” This one passage alone was enough for me to intuit that I should not write Mishima off completely, and so at the present I have filed both the author and his text under the category of “to return to someday.”

Queer Modernisms Beauty of Men

Similar things can be said to characterize my feelings toward Andrew Holleran’s The Beauty of Men, one of my few forays into contemporary(ish) gay fiction this year. Selected by my boyfriend after an argument where he accused me of never reading the books he recommends to me, I was disappointed that the entire reading experience made me feel like a passive witness, recognizing the undeniable literary brilliance, but only feeling it at a distant, cold remove. This was particularly disappointing considering this is one of his very favorite books. Rather than empathizing with the overwhelming despondency over the way the AIDs crisis, geographical isolation, personal circumstances, and unreciprocated desire has left the main character’s life in a state of utter ruin, I was surprised to find myself more wrapped up in–and ultimately moved by–the gut-wrenching sadness hovering over his mother’s debilitating health condition(s). I still find it a bit mystifying that I generally seem more capable of relating to the queer literary output of the pre-Stonewall era than the literature that blossomed under the advancement of the Gay Rights Movement, and while acknowledging its great accomplishment, literary skill and observational acuity, The Beauty of Men ultimately reaffirmed this situation yet again.

Queer Modernisms Gilda StoriesOn the other hand, one of the great literary pleasures of 2014 was Jewelle Gomez’s justifiably influential Gilda Stories. As I enthusiastically told friends how much I was reading and immensely enjoying this cycle of lesbian vampire stories, I would get vaguely patronizing smiles in response–I guess anything vampire-related gets that reaction these days–forcing me to trumpet all the more Gomez’s dazzling ability to intricately braid together the stuff of history, race, desire, time, and (im)mortality into a series of narratives that are not only compulsively entertaining to read, but poignant and thought provoking as well. While there was admittedly a slight sense of diminishing returns as Gilda’s life narrative progressed over its 200+ year trajectory, the central character of Gilda herself–fundamentally invariable as the distinctive contexts around her change like so many grade school dioramas–remains ceaselessly riveting.

It’s not uncommon for Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of Pointed Firs to be categorized as a lesbian (or more precisely, proto-lesbian) text: I’d personally say that judging strictly from what’s depicted within the narrative itself, such a characterization is more than a bit of a stretch. Instead, Country is an exquisite depiction of female homosociality in nineteenth century rural New England, its evocative vignettes masterfully capturing the interplay of nature and community in a society that has long since ceased to be. Along similar lines was W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, which isn’t explicitly queer in any way, but which is easy enough to read as queerly coded text if one is so inclined: interpretations can surely be made regarding Larry Darnell’s resolute eschewal of the heteronormative life he seemed destined for, and it’s not particularly difficult to understand what Eliott Templeton’s hyper-stylized Continental prissiness is really supposed to signify. I actually ended up not caring much for the novel itself overall–I sensed it would have resonated with me about ten years ago, but that moment has long since passed–but I was continually drawn to Maugham’s tremendous empathy for his characters both as an author and as the first person narrator within the novel itself. I found myself endlessly intrigued that he ultimately seems to have little interest in distinguishing “negative” and “positive” qualities of his various characters, opting instead to present them as intricate constellations of characteristics through which to appreciate, empathize, and ultimately understand them. In the end it struck me as a wonderful exercise in empathy by the outside observer who is almost undoubtedly queer.

Of course it should come as no surprise that the queer always eludes demarcations and supersedes boundaries, with the propensity to appear unexpectedly. This was something I was reminded of constantly during my reading, and a particularly poignant example that haunted me for a long time after was a brief but unforeseen disclosure toward the end of J.L. Carr’s charming and quietly profound novella A Month in the Country, which emphasized yet again that queer lives, histories, and desires are often palimpsestically present within spaces–textual and otherwise–where they might otherwise not be expected.

Of the several book reviews I wrote this last year, one was for a book I very much liked and admired (John Preston’s Franny, the Queen of Provincetown), and one I enjoyed reading but was ultimately held some reservations toward (Edmund White’s Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris).

Queer Modernisms Glenway Wescott Herve GuibertTwo books I enjoyed throughout the duration of 2014, and which I will continue reading into 2015: the respective journals of Glenway Wescott and of Hervé Guibert. As someone one who also avidly keeps a journals it is a literary form I particularly cherish. As such, I relished the time I spent perusing Continual Lessons: The Journals of Glenway Wescott, 1937 – 1955. Not only does Wescott capture his world–which is not only one that specifically fascinates me but which is of extreme relevance to this blog–with a charming and ultimately disarming blend of refinement and self-deprecating wit, I will fully admit that the daily struggles and insecurities recorded by this massively talented but temperamentally hesitant author was sometimes a source of solace for me as I too struggled with the restlessness and guilt of not accomplishing most of my own writing goals throughout last year.

On the other hand, for me time spent reading Hervé Guibert’s The Mausoleum of Lovers: Journals 1976 – 1991 often felt like temporarily wandering into an alien territory, affording me a glimpse into an interior landscape that I do not recognize in the least. Echoing my thoughts on Mishima, I often shrink from Guibert’s overt fascination with exploring and fantasizing over topics such as violence, cruelty, pain, death, and suicide, but every entry is crafted with razor-like incisiveness that always managed to keep me consistently riveted.

There are a few other texts I could write about, particularly theory and criticism, that I could record here, but I think this is as good a place as any to conclude.

And what am I reading at this moment? I’ve been enjoying wandering in and out of Melville’s incredibly strange, Pierre: or the Ambiguities in which I plan to read in conjunction with James Creech’s wonderful study Closet Writing/Gay Reading, and I began a collection of Wescott short stories just recently published for the first time, a thoughtful and much-appreciated gift from my partner for Christmas.

But there still remains so much to read, so now onward to 2015!

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: 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.