Posts Tagged ‘Gender’

Grand Tour #28 – Ireland. Days Without End / Sebastian Barry

December 15, 2017

To the end of my journey, and what a journey it’s been. Well, not really, it’s just been 28 books, and most of them have left me not much wiser about anything, let alone their countries of origin. But some of them (thinking particularly of those from Germany, Greece and the UK) have been treasures, and it’s always a good idea to read something out of one’s comfort zone, and to read books in translation.

Not that my final book is in translation, or obscure, or even set in its author’s own country; but it is a joy. It’s Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which won the Costa Book Award in 2016. It’s narrated by Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant, and relates his experiences in the America of the mid-19th century, fighting in the Indian Wars and later the Civil War, at the same time telling the story of his love affair with a fellow soldier, John Cole, and their establishment of an unconventional family unit.

The book is dedicated to Barry’s gay son Toby, and Barry has spoken in interviews about how his writing of the book was informed by Toby’s coming out. I raised an eyebrow slightly at this, dubious about the event’s momentousness. Is coming out such a big deal for a parent nowadays, does it change one’s view of things so profoundly? Well, perhaps so, and it’s not for me to say, and Barry is an earnest and amiable man (I just listened to his Private Passions), and if in some way the book represents a testament to his son’s sexuality then it’s one of the most beautiful tributes imaginable.

Not that you’d call it a gay novel, necessarily. Its focus for much of the time is fighting, not loving. The battle scenes can be brutal, and at the start they brought back memories of my foolhardy decision, aged 10 or so, to take an after-school class on the Wild West taught by my maths teacher, purely on the basis of my having loved Copland’s Billy the Kid. Goodness it was dull. It took me years to recognise the appeal of the Western as a genre (though I did, and couldn’t now write a list of my favourite films without at least Shane on it). Other things I was reminded of, to give a vague idea of the book: Cormac McCarthy, Huckleberry Finn, Brokeback Mountain, and The Oregon Trail (not that they get anywhere near Oregon), which we used to play on the school computers, giving each character an obscene name.

Only it’s not boring like Mr Hake’s (let’s call him) Wild West course, and the battles are immediate and even, to my surprise, given books rarely (i.e. never) have this effect on me, exciting.

Sergeant shouts draw sabres so he does and now we show our thirty swords to the sunlight and the sunlight ravishes every inch of them. Sergeant never has given that order in all our time because you might as well light a fire as draw a sabre in the brightness as far as signals go. But something has the wind up him. Suddenly an old sense of life we haven’t remembered floods back into us. The air of manhood fills our skins. Some can’t help hollering and the sergeant screams at us to keep the line. We wonder what he is thinking. Soon we are at the fringes of the tent town, we tear through in a second, like riders in an old storybook, sweeping in.

You can hear Thomas McNulty’s voice clearly here, conversational, informal, occasionally fragmentary, yet eloquent and poetic. I’m not always conscious of hearing someone speak when I read, but I frequently heard his voice, sometimes with an Irish accent, more often with an American one. His experience is that of the typical American soldier of the time, I imagine, only as a shrewd observer of humanity he’s better placed to chronicle it than most others.

Time passes in the book without your noticing it. Thomas and John effectively become the adoptive fathers of a young Sioux girl they call Winona; one blink and she has become a teenager, and yet the feeling is not of having jumped ahead but that time has flowed so organically as to be almost invisible, as time passes in our lives. How is it that this thing I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday actually happened 18 years ago? How is it that Thomas and John are in their thirties already, when only a moment ago they were teenagers earning money by dressing as girls for miners to dance with in Mr Noone’s saloon, ‘two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world’.

The matter of cross-dressing is treated with sensitivity and beauty. Over time Thomas finds he prefers wearing women’s clothes, emboldened perhaps by his encounters with berdache Indians, and this cross-dressing extends to gender fluidity. When dressed as a woman Thomas feels himself female, and goes by Thomasina, even going through a marriage ceremony with John in this persona. None of this feels remotely anachronistic, and I felt exhilarated at Thomas’s delight in his gender expression. (What did feel anachronistic to me sometimes was Thomas’s complete lack of racial prejudice, at any rate against the black characters, whose cause he champions; in this respect he seems a 21st-century man, but I suppose there had to be some forward-thinkers then for us to get where we are today.)

At the heart of the book is the love story, which I suspect is affecting precisely because of its being low-key and because neither Thomas nor John expresses emotion readily (hints of The Remains of the Day, perhaps, though thankfully there’s some consummation in this book). The first proof that they are lovers is a ‘We quietly fucked’ that is dropped in matter-of-factly but not dwelt upon. The story really caught my imagination at the point where, discharged from the army, they set up house together, the switch from military to domestic being more to my taste, and the intensity of war making civilian life seem all the sweeter.

In the darkness as we lie side by side John Cole’s left hand snakes over under the sheets and takes a hold of my right hand. We listen to the cries of the night revellers outside and hear the horses tramping along the ways. We’re holding hands then like lovers who have just met or how we imagine lovers might be in the unknown realm where lovers act as lovers without concealment.

The book (spoiler alert) ends on a happy note, and I’m pleased to end this project similarly. It’s brought some joy and some frustration, but mostly the former, and I suppose that’s what one hopes for in reading as in life. Thanks for reading, if you have been. The blog will now fall into its customary neglect but I’ll be back presently with the end-of-year/start-of-year posts I generally do.

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Grand Tour #13 – Slovenia. Games with Greta & Other Stories / Suzana Tratnik

June 17, 2017

I’m now done with the familiar countries until I get to Scandinavia. The Balkans and the Baltic beckon. Slovenia’s uncharted territory. I don’t know the first thing about it; even the football team’s a closed book. And the waters are only going to get murkier: Cyprus, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania…

Still, I thought I’d probably found a winner: a book of short stories by Suzana Tratnik, Games with Greta & Other Stories, translated by ‘Michael Biggins and others’ and published by the brilliant and enterprising Dalkey Archive Press. (The ‘others’ turn out to be the unpronounceables: Tamara Soban, Špela Bibič, Mojca Šoštarko and Elizabeta Žargi.) And Tratnik’s Wikipedia page was most encouraging: she’s translated Judith Butler into Slovene (!) and has been heavily involved in LGBT activism in Slovenia. Onward.

‘Games with Greta’ itself is a good place to start. It takes place at a family gathering, and is told by a girl who is forced together with Greta, the adopted child of relatives who have moved to England. The narrator snobbishly dislikes the parents, and decides to dislike Greta accordingly. Memories came flooding back of my own childhood, and of the handful of occasions when I was thrown together with distant cousins simply because we were roughly the same age. We had different temperaments and different ways of playing. They had a Scalextric (which I dare say I judged them for not being able to pronounce; they even called Tetris ‘Tertis’), and I had a dead tortoiseshell butterfly in a plastic box. (Actually I yearned for a Sega Master System II, but I assumed my parents would never buy it so I didn’t bother to ask.) We compromised on football.

The narrator (apologies for the unwieldiness of repeating this phrase, but Tratnik’s narrators are invariably unnamed; there is one story where she is referred to by her interlocutor as ‘Suzana’, which makes one wonder whether these stories are fictions after all, or rather thinly anonymised episodes from Tratnik’s own life) – where was I? – the narrator finds that Greta isn’t so bad after all, or at any rate that she isn’t an intolerable prospect as a playmate. This said, what evolves between them is a sort of power struggle with elements of the dangerous and the macabre. It can’t be a coincidence that Tratnik has translated Ian McEwan. This story is reminiscent of McEwan’s early writings, hinting at natural but somehow distasteful infantile sex play, and the pushing of boundaries, even the boundaries of some mystical netherworld. I thought it was really something.

More often the focus is adult relationships, particularly romantic relationships between women, and frequently relationships that are going through difficulties, either dying because of them or weathering them, and often because of geography and/or the passage of time. The elegiac ‘Trips Are Cheaper Now, Too’ sees two lovers, Jana and Vivi, reuniting for New Year, one of them still living in Slovenia, the other having moved to the Netherlands, and having problems adjusting to being around one another again. The excellent ‘Letters Without Envelopes’ has one character, living in Slovenia, acting as go-between for two lovers divided by war in Yugoslavia. One of my favourite stories, ‘The Subway’, is about a woman visiting a public model of Ljubljana’s proposed subway system, assembled by her former lover. The two women have contrasting personalities (hence the break-up), and it doesn’t take long for the old animosity to be rekindled.

‘Does this … subway of yours have burek stands?’ I asked Ines, since burek struck me as the only appropriate food for chewing your way through the street scene of Ljubljana.

‘No,’ she came to her project’s defense without batting an eye. There’d be no bureks. ‘No greasy food at all, don’t you see. We won’t be selling any bureks. And at all the larger stations – for instance Bavarian Court, Central Station, Clinical Center, Šiška Cineplex – there’ll only be stands with vegetarian fare. And fitness centers. I wouldn’t even sell Coca-Cola – and I’m not going to allow any Benetton shops or Müller products.’

‘Do you mean those German Müller puddings? Those are the only ones I buy anymore.’

‘Yes, but they support really awful right-wing politics.’

God knows what bureks support.

If a lot of these stories blur into a lesbian miasma (which is hardly a criticism), that has the effect of making the exceptions really stand out. The pick of those, I thought, was ‘Sewing the Princess’, a fable in which a child beaten by bullies enacts a kind of poetical revenge through the creation of a ‘princess dress’. Perhaps the sewing/suturing symbolism is overdone, but I loved the magic of the ending.

The raised roses on my princess dress reflect the light of the blazing sun and the reddish snow simultaneously. They look like streaks of blood on the snowy white dress. I just stand there.

You may be familiar with a Roald Dahl short story about bullying, ‘The Swan’, that is absolutely brutal. It baffles me that it appears in a collection for children, it’s so much more disturbing than his stories for adults. This story is a beautiful counterpoint to that one, and with a happier outcome. And a welcome hint of gender ambiguity at the end, too. I had to read the story twice and I’m still not sure I’ve read it right. It makes me curious about gender in the Slovene language, and of how to translate from non-gendered into gendered languages and vice versa. See posts on any number of linguistics blogs for more on that endlessly fascinating subject.

For a deeper, more perceptive and altogether better review of the book, do read this.

Ray Bourbon

December 15, 2016

I have a feeling drag’s rather unfashionable at present. With public awareness of transgender people increasing, the parody and pantomime of gender for entertainment are starting to look passé. Mind you, drag’s always made people uncomfortable. Today they feel uncomfortable because it may not be PC; fifty years ago they felt uncomfortable because of the subversion of gender norms that were deemed immutable. Which is where Ray Bourbon comes in.

I’ve been fond of Ray (or Rae) Bourbon for a couple of years now. His chequered history would make an interesting biopic: a pioneering drag artist from the 1920s onwards, he claimed in the mid ’50s (probably as a publicity stunt, capitalising on the fame of Christine Jorgensen) to have had a ‘sex change’ operation in Mexico (hence the public feminisation of his name from Ray to Rae, though he remained Ray in private), and died in prison just short of his 79th birthday following his implication in a murder. Colourful and all, but I don’t think I’d be as fascinated by Ray if it weren’t for the fact that so much of his act has been preserved in the albums he released of himself in cabaret, now available on the Internet Archive.

youre-stepping-on-my-eyelashes

Let’s have a look at Ray’s back catalogue. The records that survive were produced on his own Under the Counter record label and distributed at his shows. Because of the necessary circumvention of mainstream media (who would have taken him on?) he’s able to get away with much ruder material than you’d expect of the 1950s. Although there’s a smattering of songs, most of the numbers are comical poems or monologues spoken above a piano accompaniment. He must have had a regular pianist, as there are certain quirks, mainly involving second-inversion triads, that recur across several albums.

The title track of Let Me Tell You About My Operation is a good place to start, containing as it does many of his hallmarks. In fact it’s better put together than most, as Ray’s occasional excursions into song mean that the piano/voice relationship has to be tight and disciplined. There’s the sense of confidentiality and scandal, the risqué (coarse, you might say) content (‘For the change I went south of the border / It took me just days to pack / I arrived there with excess baggage / But I had a lot less coming back’), and a fine sample of his tremendous repertoire of laughs — the high-pitched hee-hee giggle, the hoot, the raucous bark. Most of all, though, his personality. Even when the material’s not up to much (as here), Ray’s vivacity saves the day.

Ray’s default persona is that of a gossipy queen, telling innuendo-laden stories with occasional asides to his/her friend — ‘When I caught him kissing Tab Hunter’s picture / That’s when I said no to Joe — and meant it, Mary’ — and many of the character pieces share common elements, like the simile that aspires to wit but doesn’t quite make it: ‘The Piano Teacher’ (‘it sounded like Paderewski on a binge’); or ‘Three Girls at a Matinee’ (‘Get the puss on that mess, it looks like an antiquated lesbian — what a face, good heavens’); or ‘The Neighbor’s Party’ (‘Walking around the house naked … you look like a broken-down eunuch … you may as well be one for the good it does me’). Actually this one’s rather good as it tells a story, albeit a simple one, with Ray as a nosy housewife who, bitter at not being invited to her neighbour’s wild party, phones the police to get it stopped (‘I hope they cave her skull in like a fedora hat’) and finds her own husband arrested for exposing himself at the bathroom window.

Also on the album Don’t Call Me Madam is a trio of monologues that rewards closer scrutiny, with Ray as the mother of a nuclear family. She’s pushy and overbearing (to the children: ‘Your father’s a jerk!’), her conversation mired in mundanity, but along the way she has a lot of fun queering the pitch. ‘Mrs Smith!’ she cries at the sight of an acquaintance; then, ‘Oh, it’s Mr Smith. You can’t tell who’s the wife in that family anymore.’ Later, she tells her children a bedtime story: ‘Jack and his Beanstalk, it’s a fairy tale … no dear, it’s not about your father.’ It’s not like any fairy story I’ve encountered before. Jack: ‘Just look at the size of my stalk: today I am a man.’

I find myself increasingly in love with ‘Toga Saga’, the opening track of One on the Aisle, Ray’s ‘intimate view of grand opera’, perhaps because it shows a different side of his personality — gentler, less raucous, and even, when he finishes with a charming song to Jason (in the persona of Medea), kittenish, tenderly pleading with him to ‘keep it gay’ and vowing ‘You’re the only Greek column I want.’ Although ostensibly an album about opera, the music of the operas is mostly ignored (which may be where Katherine Jenkins got the idea), but the altered reality of opera gives Ray licence to flout sexual convention. ‘In the opera you can seduce anybody and nobody really cares, as long as you sing about it,’ he observes. As a lesbian Brünnhilde: ‘That’s when I discovered my father was really my mother and the whole family was a fruity piece of juice.’ His version of Carmen (featuring a lover called Juan Dildo) is inspired by a man taken for a woman by the composer George Bassett: ‘They had ’em in Spain before they had ’em in Denmark.’

I’ve forgotten why I started to write this post, but it’s probably because, whether it’s to your personal taste or not, this is a part of our shared queer culture and deserves to be more widely known about and celebrated. Hooray for Ray! If you want to investigate further, there’s some marvellous biographical detail on this website.

The 1938 Club: Three Guineas / Virginia Woolf

April 11, 2016

The 1938 Club

I’m very glad to be taking part in the 1938 Club, curated by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. 1938 was a fascinating year for literature and also for the world in general. I’m a bit of an amateur historian, and I know that it’s the year before the Second World War started, so there’s that.

By 1938 war was very much on both the cards and the mind of Virginia Woolf, whose Three Guineas was published that year. In it she responds to three letters she has received: the first from a barrister who asks for her opinion on the best means to prevent war and for a donation to support his society; the second from the treasurer of a women’s college, asking for a donation towards its rebuilding fund; the third soliciting money for a society promoting the entry of women into the professions. These matters, superficially disparate, are in fact bound up together, and Woolf explores the common ground they share.

Three Guineas

Three Guineas is now thought of as a companion piece to Woolf’s brilliant extended essay A Room of One’s Own, which I read a couple of years ago. I was sitting engrossed in the book while waiting for a performance of Ibsen’s Ghosts to begin, and feeling more self-consciously studenty than ever before (though I hadn’t been a student for some years), when the respectable middle-aged lady beside me asked what I was reading. I showed her the cover, and I must have looked terribly earnest because she offered an encouraging ‘Nearly there.’ For a moment I was an honorary woman.

And yet Three Guineas feels like a poor relation, not nearly as widely read as its predecessor. Why? Morag Shiach, in her introduction to the Oxford edition I read, suggests it has something to do with the ‘radicalism’ of Woolf’s conclusion, which equates the oppression of women in Britain with the fascism she is being invited to combat in the first letter. She gives her correspondent the donation he asks for, but declines to join his society.

[Since] we are different, our help must be different … [The] answer to your question must be that we can best help you to prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new words and creating new methods. We can best help you to prevent war not by joining your society but by remaining outside your society but in cooperation with its aim.

Shiach:

From the very moment of its publication readers responded to the text as an aberration, and expressed disappointment that Woolf had apparently moved away from the ambiguity and fluidity which they so valued in her prose. Woolf was impatient of such criticisms, writing to Vita Sackville-West, ‘how sick I get of all this talk about “lovely prose” and charm when all I wanted was to state a very intricate case as plainly … as I could.’

It’s hard, though, to write about Woolf without observing the elegance of her writing and her thought, which seems as much in evidence here as in her other works. I don’t like to cherry-pick sentences here and there because shorn of context they don’t have the same effect, but I seem to be doing it anyway. Take her opening gambit:

But one does not like to leave so remarkable a letter as yours – a letter perhaps unique in the history of human correspondence, since when before has an educated man asked a woman how in her opinion war can be prevented? – unanswered.

A thing I really admire about Woolf’s tone, here and throughout, is its calmness, its detachment – its ‘disinterest’, to use a word that recurs in the book. You don’t have to do much reading between the lines to see how passionately Woolf feels about the cause of equality, but she invariably refers to women in the third person, remaining above the fray, gently anticipating and preempting the objections of her correspondents. If I were a polemicist, this is the approach I would adopt. Other books I have read recently – Julia Serano’s Excluded, for instance, and Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw – advise that the best way to effect change is to shun anger. Bornstein:

I think anger and activism mix about as well as drinking and driving. When I’m angry, I don’t have the judgment to select a correct target to hit out against. I do believe that anger is healthy, that it can lead to a recognition of the need for action, but activism itself is best accomplished by level heads who can help steer others’ anger toward correct targets.

Anger alienates your allies and gives your opponents ammunition to discredit you, and so nothing changes. Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim also comes to mind:

Speak softly, and carry a big stick.

Well, I don’t really approve of the stick, and in any case Woolf doesn’t have one, only a pen, but she understands the virtue of quietness, and treats her subject with a sort of moderate amusement, though she has a lot to get angry about. Cambridge, for example, supposedly a place of enlightened thought, where in 1921 undergraduates bashed down the gates of Newnham College following a vote about allowing female students to receive degrees (bringing back memories for me of this brilliant book). Or the shutting out of women from certain professions, notably the forces and the clergy.

They’ve caught up now, of course. A short fifty-six years after the publication of this book, the Church of England began ordaining women, one of whom was one of my childhood priests. I don’t recall what I felt at the time, aged ten or eleven. I suspect a certain bewilderment that her gender should be such a big deal, though clearly it was. The current vicar’s a Forward in Faith wingnut. It’s a good thing I moved.

Last month I rewatched a favourite film of mine, Anthony Asquith’s adaptation of Pygmalion starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. It came out in 1938, a few months after Three Guineas. Here’s Liza Doolittle:

You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.

Books of the Men-are-from-Mars type are so keen to fit people into boxes (I imagine; I’ve not read it) that they fail to notice that our similarities to people unlike ourselves are as striking as our differences from them. What Liza says applies to gender as well: the great difference between different genders may be not innate, but to do with social attitudes. This feels germane to Woolf’s arguments.

If this post has been rather sprawling, it’s probably the result of my not feeling I have anything of value to say about the book itself. What I’ve written above represents the meanderings of my mind after having read it. Apologies for the preponderance of quotations. Montaigne:

I quote others only in order the better to express myself.

At base, I suspect Three Guineas represents a meditation on how to live, something none of us has figured out. I recognised my own concerns in this paragraph, where Woolf addresses her first correspondent:

Let us concentrate upon the practical suggestions which you bring forward for our consideration. There are three of them. The first is to sign a letter to the newspapers; the second is to join a certain society; the third is to subscribe to its funds. Nothing on the face of it could sound simpler. To scribble a name on a sheet of paper is easy; to attend a meeting where pacific opinions are more or less rhetorically reiterated to people who already believe in them is also easy; and to write a cheque in support of those vaguely acceptable opinions, though not so easy, is a cheap way of quieting what may conveniently be called one’s conscience.

Not enough, though, is it? I want to change the world, I want to do something, I just don’t know what or how. Perhaps if I keep thinking about it, perhaps if I keep reading Virginia Woolf, something will occur to me.