Monday, October 14, 2019

Self-portrait by Claude Buck

Self-portrait (1917) Claude Buck (American, 1890-1974) charcoal and crayon on paper mounted on paperboard 19.8 x 12.7 cm Smithsonian Museum of American Art
Self-portrait (1917)
Claude Buck (American, 1890-1974)
charcoal and crayon on paper mounted on paperboard
19.8 x 12.7 cm

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Master by Colm Toibin

The Master by Colm Toibin ; New York : Scribner, 2004
New York : Scribner, 2004
Henry James is known as the gay writer that never wrote anything gay. Certainly in recent decades there have been queer readings of his work, but overall his intent was to avoid gay stories or to obscure them so totally that they go unnoticed. Colm Toibin has brilliantly conveyed aspects of James' life, highlighting his fear of being found out and the struggle of not being able to live as ones true self. Myriad examples of what can happen when one does live authentically present themselves and remind James that it's not safe.

Opening in January 1895 with the premier of Guy Domville, Henry James' first play, The Master proceeds through the final five years of the nineteenth century. James is 52 at the start of the novel and the events of the ensuing five years recall key moments in his life—particularly the deaths of his parents, his sister and his close friend, the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson. These events highlight his struggle to maintain relationships throughout his life.

Writing short stories and novels, James has preferred to work in solitude, resulting in challenges in  relationships with both family and friends. His primary relationship is to his work so he avoids the opening of his play by attending another theater performance, an Oscar Wilde play (likely An Ideal Husband). After Guy Domville closes as a failure the night that it opens, The Importance of Being Earnest opens in its place, giving Wilde two plays in production at the same time.

Within a few months, Wilde's star has fallen and two friends (Jonathan Sturgess and Edmond Gosse) begin sharing weekly updates with James regarding the ensuing trial for gross indecency. James' reaction makes it clear that he believes it's too dangerous to live honestly and the trial only confirms his commitment to his writing and avoidance of romantic attachments.

References to more accepting countries in Europe are used to highlight the danger of being gay in England at this time. Rumors of Wilde's fleeing to France before he was ultimately imprisoned made sense given the permissive laws there. After Wilde's imprisonment, James continued to converse with Edmond Gosse and the subject of expatriate John Addington Symonds entered the conversation. Symnonds had lived in Italy because of its more accepting culture and had privately published A Problem of Greek Ethics, a defense of homosexuality and sent copies to friends in England who were horrified. Although not expressly stated, there is an implication that James was one of the recipients.
Henry James and Hendrik Anderson c.1907
Henry James and Hendrik Anderson

James walked a tightrope when it came to managing relationships in society. He needed the interaction, since that's where many of his storylines were borne, but how do you maintain relationships with men without inciting gossip, such as happened regarding his relationship to the young sculptor, Hendrik Christian Anderson, or with women without creating an expectation of something more. As Baroness von Rabe notes late in the novel,
“I remember you when you were young and all the ladies followed you, nay fought with each other to go riding with you. That Mrs. Sumner and young Miss Boott and young Miss Lowe. All the young ladies, and others not so young. We all liked you, and I suppose you liked us as well, but were too busy gathering material to like anyone too much. You were charming, of course, but you were like a young banker collecting our savings. Or a priest listening to our sins.” (p.265)
In order to survive, James had to keep his interior feelings quite separate from his outward interactions. When he occasionally softens that division, society provides a warning encouraging that wall to remain in place. When he's asked by his niece why Isabel returns to Osmond at the end of Portrait of a Lady, he says "It is easier to renounce bravery rather than to be brave over and over.” (p.325)

Friday, September 6, 2019

Bathing by Duncan Grant

Bathing (1911) Duncan Grant (1885-1978) Oil on canvas 228 x 306 cm. The Tate
Bathing (1911)
Duncan Grant (British, 1885-1978)
Oil on canvas
228 x 306 cm.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Horizon by Boleslaw Biegas

Horizon (circa 1912) Bolesław Biegas (Polish, 1877-1954) Oil on Canvas 97 x 130 cm.
Horizon (circa 1912)
Bolesław Biegas (Polish, 1877-1954)
Oil on Canvas
97 x 130 cm.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Leading Men by Christopher Castellani

Leading Men by Christopher Castellani ; New York : Viking, 2019
New York : Viking, 2019
Tennessee Williams notes in his diary that he was invited to a party in Portifino by Truman Capote in late July 1953. The following week lacks entries and there is no subsequent mention of whether he attended the party.

Christopher Castellani has created a fiction that supposes that he did attend that party and what might have happened. The result, primarily told from the point of view of Williams’ secretary and lover, Frank Merlo, includes a who’s who of American gay authors living abroad. John Horne Burns, the now largely forgotten author of The Gallery, is a significant character, while Capote and Paul Bowles appear in more limited roles. In addition the completely fictionalized actress, Anja Blomgren, is added to the mix.

Being told from the point of view of Frank Merlo, highlights the ways in which Williams and Burns struggle with the pressure of fame and its fleeting nature while also drawing attention to the extent to which these authors rely on their secretaries/lovers to manage their lives. Their dependence is clear to the reader, but it is unclear if the authors recognize it.

Williams used many of his life experiences, particularly with family in his plays and short stories. Knowing this, Castelllani cleverly creates a life story for the character of Anja that explains events in Williams’ work that doesn't obviously connect to what we know of his life. In a gutsy move, a previously unknown final play by Tennessee Williams is created by Castellani and connected to events in the later years of Williams’ life. His use of fictionalized characters and events woven into the work in much the same way Williams might have done results in an impressive novel which mostly doesn’t feel like a novel at all.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Houston Incident by Steve Allen

Fourteen for Tonight by Steve Allen ; New York : Henry Holt & Company, 1955
New York : Henry Holt & Company, 1955

"It's a long road that has no turning."

This Irish proverb is the opening line of Allen's short story, Houston Incident. Meaning "your luck will change," is it offered as a bit of encouragement, or wishful thinking on the part of its speaker?

On a Houston street, Mac, a 'boy' traveling from Chicago to the west coast is engaged by an unnamed fifty-ish man in a mismatched suit. After agreeing with the statement, Mac takes the man up on the subsequent invitation to join him for a cup of coffee. After he has had his fill of coffee and hot dogs, he agrees to the offer of a bath at his nearby hotel.

The use of the term boy to describe Mac is meant to emphasize his naiveté. While earlier in our history, adolescence was considered to continue for several years beyond age eighteen, this 'boy' is certainly above the age of consent.

What at first appears to be a typical story of the homosexual predator with a plan to corrupt an innocent youth is complicated by the youth himself using his appeal to get his needs met. In fact, the predator is reduced to the prey, drunkenly begging the young man to stay with him.

Houston Incident first appeared in Steve Allen's (yes, that Steve Allen) short story collection, Fourteen for Tonight and was later included in the 1990 collection, The Public Hating.

Bibliographies & Ratings: Cory (IV); Garde (OTP, c*); Mattachine Review (IV); Young (44)