Posts Tagged ‘Sexuality’

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 #16 – Cyprus. Immoral Tales / Andreas Karayan

July 7, 2017

To Cyprus. My choices were limited: either a book of short stories I had read an indifferent review of (£15) or an erotic memoir (£4). Naturally I went for the latter, thinking that if it wasn’t very good I might at least get an erection out of it. On that front, mission very much not accomplished. (Not that I’d tell you if it had been, my attitude being that I will take every opportunity to talk of erections in the abstract, but will decline to discuss my own under any circumstances.)

Where was I? Oh yes, I read a book. The ungainlily titled Immoral Tales: London – Alexandria: A Coming of Age Erotic Odyssey by Andreas Karayan, edited by Peter Archer and translated by Antoine Bohdjalian. Karayan writes in Greek, I believe, but is of Armenian extraction, as (judging by the name) might be his translator. The book, though, takes place in Greece and Cyprus and (mainly) London and Alexandria. A chronicle of a peripatetic existence.

From the title (and the cover, which I suspect is by Karayan himself, an artist by profession) you might expect a torrid, shameful trawl through illicit basement-room bonks I have known. Banish this image from your mind. It’s an altogether more circumspect and tender book than that.

The first part takes place mainly (to my delight) against the backdrop of cultural London in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where young Andreas and his wife Eleonora, a promising pianist, are living. She is studying with Rose Inlander-Gover, a grande dame of London pianism, and they encounter people like the young Kiri Te Kanawa, David Hockney and the like. Andreas is studying art and spends a lot of time in museums, and his method of storytelling has perhaps a parallel with something like Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnières’, one of the paintings he loves to contemplate in the National Gallery. The picture of his life is built up from pointillistic portraits of people, moments, disagreements, affairs. One friend, Martin:

I noticed him at the college – rather scruffy, slim and wiry. His chest showed beneath his unbuttoned shirt. With his dark blond hair, he looked like The Little Prince. We met one Friday and, after I found myself penniless and unable to get home, he immediately gave me all the change he had for his evening meals. He came from another world, the world of Public Schools, which we knew about only from television. His father was the Queen’s secretary and, as a boy, he went with his parents to tea parties at the Palace. Around him, people stood to attention in uniforms decorated with gold. Protocol dictated all.

Andreas and Eleonora grow gradually apart as he comes to accept his attraction to men. His witnessing of a kiss between James Laurenson and Ian McKellen as Gaveston and Edward in a BBC adaptation of Edward II is one of a number of significant moments in his ‘odyssey’ of self-discovery.

After a brief excursion into Germany and Cyprus, for part of which the author appears to assume the persona of his own lover, the second half of the book is devoted to Alexandria, a love letter to a changing city inspired partly by Karayan’s adoration of Lawrence Durrell and C.P. Cavafy (whose poems he has translated). This section reads as the work of a maturer writer than the first, the erotic episodes more assured, more taken for granted, though still full of wonder. I like the unfloridity of Karayan’s writing about sex. Not that sex is the point. Alexandria is the point, the place his life has been leading towards. Again, a picture of the place is built up through vignettes, some Karayan’s own, some the stories of his friend and/or lover Adham, told to Karayan and preserved here.

This book is a ragbag, incoherent and lacking structure. So far, so lifelike. There were a couple of things that impressed me particularly: one was the organic feeling of Karayan’s frequent allusions to art. Art is his passion, his obsession, and he sees it everywhere. Too often in other authors I see artistic, literary and musical allusions that feel tacked on, mere status symbols. (Michael Cunningham, I may be talking about you.) That’s not the case here. The other was the translation, which reads as naturally as if the book had been originally written in English. Antoine Bohdjalian, I salute you.

Grand Tour #15 – Greece. Kassandra and the Wolf / Margarita Karapanou

June 28, 2017

‘I’ll tell you the one about the Birdman,’ I said. ‘The Birdman lived on a high mountain and loved the Fishwoman very much. But they could never manage to meet each other, you see, because he couldn’t get in the water and she couldn’t fly. That’s why the Bird always flew over the sea, and the Fish always followed in the waves, until, finally, the Bird covered it and became its Shadow. Before that none of us had a Shadow. We walked about quite plain and we were cold too. But from that time on, the Shadow was born, and now we all have one to keep us company.’

I’ll be honest, I hadn’t been looking forward especially to this stretch of the journey. Just because modern Greek writers aren’t widely read down my way, I’d probably assumed the place had been a cultural wasteland for the past two and a half millennia. It turns out I was wrong: there is at least one book written in Greece during that period that is worth reading, and it is Margarita Karapanou’s Kassandra and the Wolf (Η Κασσάνδρα και ο Λύκος), which I read in the translation by N.C. Germanacos. I fell head over heels in love with it.

Karapanou’s book dates from 1974, when she was 28. It consists of a series of 56 short chapters, vignettes in the life of a six-year-old girl, Kassandra. A picture is built up of Kassandra’s life, which mainly takes place in Greece where she is cared for by her grandparents, her mother being in Paris and her father absent. It feels in some ways like a privileged childhood. ‘Grandmother strolls around the parlor, showing me the ancestors,’ says Kassandra. The servants and visiting grandees put me in mind of a favourite film of mine, Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos, also about a young girl’s interior life.

From a chapter about Christmas:

On Saturday nights, Miss Benbridge tells me the miracles in order. Last night it was the turn of the bread rolls and fish. Which is why I am now swallowing the bread and melting with sweetness. I make little girls and seat them around the table to keep me company. I put myself among them too, and we look at each other. I make compliments to them so that they’ll love me. We all stare at the snow together, our hair is freshly brushed and drawn back, we’re wearing pink ribbons, and we smell of soap.

Although the tone is always that of a child, the chapters vary widely in subject matter, ranging from the quotidian (a trip to the cinema to watch The Red Shoes, an elocution lesson to cure Kassandra’s silence) to the fantastical. A game of hide-and-seek with a boy, Zakoúlis, ends after three days when Zakoúlis is belatedly discovered, having shrunk to the size of an olive. Later, after being read The Turn of the Screw as a bedtime story, Kassandra is visited by its characters.

At night, Flora and Miles come to my room. Bending over, the Governess covers me with her wet hair. I’ve made friends with them.

It’s impossible to write about the book without at some point confronting its great darkness (Karapanou herself called it ‘a scary monster of a book’), and The Turn of the Screw may be a useful reference point, as another book with a menace whose precise nature is obscure. The main antagonist of Kassandra and the Wolf (as with The Turn of the Screw) is a Peter, in this case Kassandra’s grandmother’s servant. Peter is an unpindownable presence, at times a playmate of Kassandra, his gender fluidity the conduit for a game in which she plays at being a lady, at others a sexual threat. Sex is a frequent theme, occasionally as innocent sex play or as childish misunderstanding of sex (Kassandra finds Peter having sex with the maid Faní but doesn’t comprehend what she sees), but more often as something that can only be read as sexual abuse. As Miles identifies Peter Quint as the devil, so Kassandra identifies Peter to her uncle as the son of the Devil.

It is at the times she talks about sex that Kassandra relies most heavily on the language of metaphor and fantasy. That’s the way it has to be, perhaps: children’s ignorance of sex means they do not have the words to describe it. I remembered Claude Barras’s marvellous animated film My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de Courgette), which I saw a few weeks ago, in which the children’s incomplete concept of sex is manifested in their talk of exploding willies: ‘Tu t’es fait exploser le zizi!’

What is the wolf of the title? There are wolves in the book, but the wolf might just as easily be a metaphorical one, like the opoponax in Monique Wittig’s book of that name. Perhaps the wolf is a personification of sexuality. Although Kassandra is not so traumatised by her abuse that she cannot talk about it (however obliquely), it may be the root of her disturbing behaviour elsewhere. There is a chapter in which she looks after with great care a kitten she has been lent but, confronted with the prospect of losing it at the end of the week, she begins to torture it systematically, and finally kills it. I felt quite desolate on reading it. Could it be just another fantasy?

This morning I woke up in bed and ran off to Grandmother to tell her the nice dream I’d had, but then I remembered that Grandmother had forbidden me to dream the dreams I like, so I’m keeping it secret.

A disturbing book, then, but one whose blurring of fantasy and reality felt to me as accurate a representation of the non-representational nature of memory as anything I’ve read. It really blew my mind.

For those who have read and loved it, or for those whose interest is piqued by what I’ve written, I must recommend this fascinating round-table discussion of the book and of Karapanou’s work more widely. One of the panel is Nick Germanacos, the translator of this volume.

Grand Tour #12 – Malta. The Misfit / Oliver Friggieri

June 3, 2017

What do we know of Malta? It’s a small island nation in the Med, its people were awarded the George Cross for resisting the Nazis, and its footballers are called things like Mifsud and Carabott and Camilleri and Buttigieg. What about the language – they speak Italian, right? Well, no. There’s a fair amount of English and Italian spoken, but the primary language is Maltese, and it’s a language like none I’ve ever seen before. It resembles a mixture of Italian and Arabic with a dash of Albanian thrown in. The autobiography of Oliver Friggieri, whose 1980 novel The Misfit (L-Istramb) I have just read in a recent translation by Charles Briffa, is called Fjuri li ma Jinxfux. Let’s just pause to take that in.

Turning to the novel, the eponymous misfit is Baruch, a young man whose life lacks purpose. The novel opens with him running through the rain to a cemetery in order to visit the grave of the professor whose funeral he attended a week earlier. The death of this young professor, a man Baruch idolised but never dared to approach, is one factor in Baruch’s current crisis. The others: his loneliness, his remote relationship with his parents, a feeling of detachment from the world.

After some months of introspection, Baruch decides to enter a seminary to train for the priesthood. It’s not that he feels a religious vocation, but he does want something that will give his life purpose and make his heartbreak go away. The seminary is strictly run and Baruch is stifled. He kindles a tentative friendship with a like-minded young man, Anton, but this is stamped out by the authorities. And so on.

I won’t continue with this synopsis because it’s a short book and I’ve revealed most of the plot already, and anyway you can probably tell what kind of book it is and what’s likely to happen. The moments that pleased me most were those that fleetingly recalled books I have loved: Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, with its concept of people as satellites whose orbits occasionally cross; the totalitarianism of Antonia White’s Frost in May (I feared Baruch’s frank diary entries in the seminary would be discovered and lead to expulsion); Lindsay Anderson’s film If….

Existential crisis, anger, disillusionment, loneliness, angst, directionlessness, self-deception. I think if these are the primary concerns of your protagonist, you ought to add at least a sprinkling of jokes as a compromise. There’s certainly some comic mileage to be got out of Baruch’s hopeless parents, his mother fussy, his father uninterested.

His mother and father had two main principles: that their son was not like other young men and that the blame lay completely on him.

Not much beyond that, though. Does the novel offer psychological insight? Well, it rings true enough, and Baruch’s journey follows a trajectory that is credible to the point of predictability, but exactly why he’s fucked up isn’t clear. Maybe that’s the most impressive thing about it.

Given the depth of Baruch’s feelings for the professor, and his later relationship with Anton, I wondered if this might count as what some would call a ‘gay novel’ – and there is a nice passage where Baruch asks God to forgive him for transgressing the rules of the seminary but fails to find any feeling of guilt inside himself – but I think that would be overstating the importance of sex and sexuality here. Baruch’s sexual hang-ups, whatever they may be, are but one facet of his malaise.

What does this novel tell us about Malta? That misanthropy is not an exclusively British trait, which perhaps we already suspected.

As someone who can’t speak any language well enough to translate anything from it into anything else, I am loath to criticise any translation. I can only tell if a translation is good or not at the most basic level, i.e. are there mistakes in it? There are mistakes in this one, typos and tense shifts and infelicities, that might have been eliminated. A great shame to go to the trouble of making a translation and not to take the simple step of running it past a native English-speaking proof-reader. By way of example, a muddy sentence from the introduction:

The Misfit contains an internal perspective which shows that the story concentrates on the character through whose consciousness the narrative is presented.

I feel I’ve been mean to a novel that, thrill me though it didn’t, was basically fine; perhaps that’s the worst thing you can say about a book, though. If only it had been awful, I’d have had something to write about.