Friday, May 29, 2020

Eustace Chisholm and the Works by James Purdy

Eustace Chisholm and the Works by James Purdy ; New York : Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967
New York : Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967
In a New Yorker piece from 2015, Jon Michaud suggests that Eustace Chisholm and the Works is "the peak of Purdy's career, the book of his to read if you’re only going to read one." Having only read Purdy's extraordinary short fiction, Eustace seemed to be the best place to begin an exploration of his longer form work. Purdy doesn't disappoint.

Set in mid 1930s depression era Chicago, Purdy's fifth novel gathers around Eustace Chisholm, a collection of Americans from small towns and rural areas who've come to the city in hopes of escaping financial hardship. Amos Ratcliffe, a student who loses his university fellowship and is too young to qualify for public aid is teaching Eustace basic Greek. Clayton Harms, an electric sign salesman moves in with Eustace when his wife Carla Chisholm goes on the run. Daniel Haws has a problem with sleepwalking and struggles with the impossibility of his feelings for young Amos. Maureen O'Dell is an artist who frequently finds herself in a family way.

Purdy's skill lies in his ability to create interpersonal tension among his characters. This is exemplified in the interactions between Amos and Daniel where they can't acknowledge what their relationship is or if there is a relationship at all. The already impossible situation between Amos and Daniel is made all the more impossible by Reuben Masterson, the heir to a family fortune who uses his money and position to lure Amos and Captain Stadger, a power hungry military officer, whose relentless attacks on Daniel eventually escalate to a soul-suffering defense of love.

The theme of the novel, in fact, is love; searching for love in a desperate world, accepting a love that may not appear in the form imagined, feeling worthy of that love, and enduring extraordinary pain in defense of that love. Purdy uses the mythologies of both ancient Greece and of Christianity to connect the characters lives to a larger moral story. Amos, a scholar of Greek, is described at one point as having feet like a goat (a reference to a satyr) and later as like the beautiful golden-locked Antinous. While modern literature is full of Freudian themes when it comes to explaining sexuality, Purdy uses a literal Oedipal moment to do so. Many of the characters' destinies seem out of their control and this idea of fate is introduced through a modern fortune teller; or what the Greeks would call an Oracle.

The larger story is couched in the Christian tradition. One can understand the gathering of characters as a pilgrimage of sorts where Eustace is the center of a group of disciples. Eustace in many ways acts as a confessor, the one with whom they can share their truths. Even when characters leave Chicago, letters to Eustace continue their stories. These epistles then become part of his grand poem written out on stacks of newspaper pages. Is his epic poem a Greek tragedy, scripture, or both?

Eustace Chisholm and the Works is story on a grand scale steeped in the traditions of myth. Purdy skillfully uses everyday lives to tell the larger story of humanity and elevates those lives that society would rather forget. One cannot help but be shaken by the power of this story and Purdy's writing.

Michaud, Jon (2015, July 21) The Strange, Unsettling Fiction of James Purdy : The New Yorker.

Bibliographies & Ratings: Young (3147*)

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Nijinsky in Narcisse by Georges Barbier

Nijinsky in Narcisse (1911)  Georges Barbier (French, 1882-1932)  Ink, gouache and silver on paper  25 x 15.3 cm.
Nijinsky in Narcisse (1911)
Georges Barbier (French, 1882-1932)
Ink, gouache and silver on paper
25 x 15.3 cm.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Revelation by Andre Birabeau

Revelation by Andre Birabeau ; New York : Viking, 1930
New York : Viking, 1930
Published in French as La Débauche in what was likely a limited edition in 1923 and followed by a 1924 edition from Flammarion, Revelation is a novel written in the modernist style. The familial and romantic relationships are presented through a Freudian lens, while the bulk of the novel is presented through the internal dialogue of its main character.

Madame Mathilde Casseneuil's husband Jean is a reporter who travels extensively and is rarely home in Paris. Mathilde's primary relationship then is with their son, Dominique. Dominique has recently taken a job with a motorcar company in Avignon and his mother has struggled with the distance now between them.

When Madame Casseneuil receives a telegram notifying her of Dominque's death in a car accident, she rushes to Avignon. She arrives at Dominique's apartment where the landlady and an unnamed gentleman recommend she not look at her son because of the damage from the car accident. The man takes her to a hotel where she can rest. The following day, while going through her son's rooms, she sees for the first time the things he surrounded himself with; a yellow silk kimono, a few pictures including a reproduction of a nude statue of Apollo, a cigarette holder. In his desk, she discovers a packet of love letters that she at first assumes are from a girl. Upon closer inspection, she realizes they are from a man and is horrified.

The remainder of the story largely takes place in Madame Casseneuil's mind as she remembers events in Dominique's life and tries to understand how her memories of him can be reconciled with what she now knows. She still thinks of her son as an innocent; not as a sexual being. Her sometimes lengthy internal dialogues are punctuated with intrusions of the present time emphasizing her sense of loss and her fumbling through the days trying to make sense of it all.

This English translation of La Debauche was performed by Lady Una Troubridge, a British sculptor and translator who is probably best known as the partner of Radclyffe Hall, author of the famous lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928).

While the UK edition of Revelation (London : Victor Gollancz, 1930) was issued with a serviceable binding and the yellow paper dustjacket typical of Gollancz publications, one must draw attention to the luxe presentation by Viking Press. The deco inspired dustjacket art and corresponding binding is paired with thick cotton-heavy pages. While Revelation is a fascinating early story of a mother coming to terms with her son's homosexuality, the book itself is also a beautiful literary object.

Bibliographies & Ratings: Cory (IV); Garde (P 38**); Mattachine Review (IV); Young (284*)

Monday, April 20, 2020

Portrait of Felix Mueller by Raoul Hausmann

Portrait of Felix Mueller (1920)
Raoul Hausmann (Austrian, 1886-1971)
38.8 x 34.3 cm.
Musée National d'Art Moderne - Centre Georges Pompidou

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Nature's Way by Herman Wouk

New York : Doubleday, 1958
Herman Wouk is most known for his military novels set during World War II; 1951's The Caine Mutiny, 1971's The Winds of War and 1978's War and Remembrance. While less remembered, he also published both plays and comic works.

Nature's Way is a comic play in two acts that premiered October 16, 1957 at the Coronet Theatre in New York.  Newlyweds Billy and Maggie Turk are living extravagantly off of the success of Billy's first musical and they are expecting their first child. Everyone seems to want a piece of their success. When their accountant announces a miscalculation in their taxes and that they will owe an additional $50,000, they don't know how they will pay it.

Vivian Voles, Billy's creative partner, suggests he and Billy spend a few months in Venice writing the next big show. With the right investors, Billy can get the money to pay off the tax debt. Maggie isn't a fan of Vivian, nor of his plan. It's clear that Maggie believes that Vivian is trying to break the couple apart. What isn't clear is whether she believes his motive is his own romantic interest in Billy.

Set in the theater world, there is both acknowledgement and a sense that we don't talk about Vivian's sexuality. The mild comments come from Maggie and her mother, Mrs. Fawcett, who aren't from that world. The humor in the play is even handed and doesn't make a clown of Vivian's character. In fact the humor is at everyones expense.

Bibliographies & Ratings: Cory (II); Garde (OTP b*); Mattachine Review (III); Young (4235)

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Manikins by Paul Cadmus

Manikins (1951)  Paul Cadmus (American, 1904-1999)  Egg tempera on paper  13 x 16 in.  Private Collection
Manikins (1951)
Paul Cadmus (American, 1904-1999)
Egg tempera on paper
13 x 16 in.
Private Collection

Monday, March 9, 2020

On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl

On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl ; New York : Riverhead Books, 2019
New York : Riverhead Books, 2019
Set in 1957, On Swift Horses tells the story of two people and the internal struggle between following society's expectations or following their hearts. Muriel, originally from Kansas but now in San Diego with her new husband Lee, struggles to maintain her marriage while also fulfilling her true desires. A new found talent for horse betting provides her more options. Julius who recently served in the navy during the Korean War with his brother Lee, also struggles to find his way. Being a gambler and hustler he must navigate the tough world of gambling establishments and also the complicated and dangerous gay world of the time.

Pufahl's achingly good prose draws the reader into an intensely emotional world where the characters must make difficult decisions in order to survive; often telling lies to those they love as well as to themselves. Taking place in the newly forming suburbs of San Diego, Las Vegas and Tijuana, the characters are running both toward and away from aspects of their lives while in search of their true selves.

References to cinema of the time, especially as it relates to sex and gender presentation (ie. the western, Shane and the Marlene Dietrich film Morocco), provide a movie-like quality where the reader truly feels the story. As well, the space race, particularly the successful launch of Sputnik, and general imagery of the stars is used to speak of the future and the impossibility of keeping secrets when satellites see all that we do. The beginnings of a surveillance state are upon us.

Although underplayed by the author, the massive social changes that occurred post World War II in the United States play a crucial part in the characters lived experience. During World War II, women were needed in the workforce for the war effort and a certain amount of freedom came from that. After the war ended, expectations changed. What women were supposed to want and the roles they played were in many ways not up for discussion. Muriel's mother was able to live a life of her own making. Her daughter now finds herself with fewer perceived choices than her mother had.

The McCarthy hearings brought significant attention to gay men as a social problem. One of the characters in the book actually says that without Joseph McCarthy, most Americans wouldn't know about fairies and reds. By the time the Korean War had ended, whatever freedom gay men and lesbians felt in their invisibility, they were now receiving substantial societal pushback; and everyone, not just those in big cities, were now aware of their existence. Julius was living a life both as a gambler and a gay man where he was always in physical danger as well as danger of societal judgement should he be discovered.