Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Charioteer by Mary Renault

The Charioteer by Mary Renault ; New York : Pantheon, 1959
New York : Pantheon, 1959
First published by Longman (London) in 1953, Mary Renault's US publisher at the time would not release The Charioteer due to its frank depiction of homosexuality and its message that gay men could have a life together. Finally released in 1959, the dustjacket labels it a 'contemporary novel' since her first two novels set in ancient Greece (The Last of the Wine and The King Must Die) had already been released in the US to great success.

At its core, The Charioteer is a coming of age novel in which gay men must find their way in the world  during World War II, a time when nothing seems sure. In particular it focuses on the transition from the school/university years—which have been interrupted by the war—to adult life with the world is falling apart and both everything and nothing seem possible. 

The opening chapter explains Laurie's early life with his mother while the second chapter places our characters in a classic boarding school with its expected overly close relationships and crushes. With this grounding, we come to the present time. Recuperating from his injuries at Dunkirk, Laurie is in hospital having had numerous surgeries to try to correct his leg injury. He knows that he is gay and more completely accepts his gayness inside his own head (or when high on pain mediation). Outwardly he is more guarded and flies under the radar. 

When a group of conscientious objectors are given duties at the hospital, Laurie immediately is drawn to, and befriends Andrew, a Quaker. They spend a lot of time together and develop real feelings for one another. The problem is that Laurie isn't sure Andrew understands the nature of these feelings. He keeps them to himself in order to protect what he perceives as Andrew's innocence and his chance to be 'normal.'

After meeting a fellow member of the military in town and realizing that they know someone in common, Laurie is invited to what amounts to a gay house party. The party is quite full of drama, but he does meet again after many years, Ralph, the boy he had a crush on in school and who was sent down after a sexual scandal. After a rocky reconnection, they begin forging a friendship and his feelings are rekindled. Laurie finds that he loves both Ralph and Andrew and doesn't really know how to reconcile his feelings or come to a conclusion about what is possible for his life as a gay man. 

Renault portrays gay life from an insider's perspective, being more frank and honest about the variety of gay men than would have been common at the time. While at the party, Laurie contemplates his feelings about the life he is witnessing. He struggles with wanting a real life, not a frivolous one as he perceives the ones around him. 
"After some years of muddled thinking on the subject, he suddenly saw quite clearly what it was he had been running away from; why he had refused Sandy's first invitation, and what the trouble had bee with Charles. It was also the trouble, he perceived, with nine-tenths of the people here tonight. They were specialists. They had not merely accepted their limitations, as Laurie was ready to accept his, loyal to his humanity if not to his sex, and bringing an extra humility to the hard study of human experience. They had identified themselves with their limitations; they were making a career of them. they had turned from all other reality, and curled up in them snugly, as in a womb." (p.132)

Later when Laurie contemplates how to live in this gay world, he identifies a break we still too often see today between effeminate gay men and those who pass. 

"There was a man at Oxford. ... He kept telling me I was queer, and I'd never heard it called that before and didn't like it. The word, I mean. Shutting you away, somehow; roping you off with a lot of people you don't feel much in common with, half of whom hate the other half anyway, and just keep together so that they can lean up against each other for support." (p.152-3)

 Renault has offered up a compelling coming of age novel which frankly addresses the realities and difficulties of forging a life as a gay man in England in the 1940s. 

Bibliographies & Ratings: Cory (IV); Garde (P, 117***); Mattachine Review (IV); Young (3259*)

Monday, December 28, 2020

Bereitschaft by Arno Breker

Bereitschaft = Readiness (1939) Arno Breker (German, 1900-1991) Bronze Kunstmuseum Nörvenich; Museum Arno Breker, Sammlung Europäische Kunst
Bereitschaft = Readiness (1939)
Arno Breker (German, 1900-1991)
Kunstmuseum Nörvenich; Museum Arno Breker, Sammlung Europäische Kunst

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Vanishing Sky by L. Annette Binder

The Vanishing Sky by L. Annette Binder ; London : New York : Bloomsbury, 2020
London : New York : Bloomsbury, 2020
Set in 1945, The Vanishing Sky tells the story of the Huber family and small town life in Germany during the waning years of the war. The story unfolds in alternating chapters from the perspective of the mother, Etta and the youngest son, Georg. 

Etta is determined to get her husband and both of her sons through the war at all costs—it is her sole focus. Her older son, Max, has just returned from the war and she recognizes that something isn't right with him, something that we would now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. While Max spends his days unsuccessfully running from the battlefield horrors that have imprinted on his mind, Joseph, his father, seems only encouraged by the dubious news stories of Germany's success. While struggling with signs of dementia, he still has a certain nostalgia for his own years fighting in the first world war and is determined to fight in this war now that the old and the young are being called upon to serve. 

Georg, an overweight bookish boy, is nearly 200 miles away at a Hitler Youth school. He is trying to hold on and avoid the inevitable day when he reaches the age of sixteen and will be sent to fight. He sees what happens to those who flee. While there he discovers he has feelings for one of the other boys, Müller. They become close friends but Georg knows that the reality of their relationship must be kept secret. 

An excellent writer can create psychological atmosphere—a way of projecting an emotion or feeling onto the reader related to the events of the novel and the internal dialogue and emotional state of the characters themselves. Binder's strength in this regard is her ability to convey the overwhelming sense of dread and the sense of inevitability among the characters in a small village in Germany near the end of World War II. That dread doesn't simply come from the reader's knowledge of how a novel set in this time and place is going to end. It comes from reading the lived experience and the inner dialogue of the characters that the author has created. It is compelling and creates a natural empathy for their plight.

Binder's Hitler Youth School and the Schools of Classic Boarding School Novels : Some Parallels

One would not normally think a novel such as this would have any relationship to classic English boarding school novels of the early twentieth century, but the parallels couldn't be more clear. The culture and activities at the Hitler Youth school are not so different than those of the schools in classic English boarding school novels of the time. There is a general veneration of those students who came before and went off to war, a focus on physical prowess—in this case in war games instead of cricket, and the classic close friendship.

The focus of the Hitler Youth school was not one of academics. One might not call it a school at all given that it served primarily as a military training camp for teens. The school in a traditional English boarding school novel would teach students Latin, Greek, math, etc.—subjects that Georg shows an unusual interest in. In an English boarding school, those who went to war were venerated because of the selfless act of choosing to go to war. The teens at the Hitler Youth school had little choice about attending the school and upon reaching the age of sixteen would be required to join the military ranks.

The traditional English boarding school activities such as football or rugby competitions have been transformed in the Hitler Youth school to weapons competitions, physical training, digging trenches and building defensive walls—basic skills needed to function in a world of war.

Maybe the most important aspect of the classic boarding school novel is the overly close relationship between two of the boys. It is suggested that Georg's closeness with Müller is not invisible to the other boys, but they know that it needs to remain hidden from the adults. The love between these two characters is presented in a similar way as the great loves of boarding school novels, really quite chaste in character, but certainly real in their own hearts.

Binder has done an amazing job of merging genres by mixing elements of the classic boarding school novel with an historical fiction that turns what we think of as a World War II story on its head. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The Mail Boat by Alexander Randolph

The Mail Boat by Alexander Randolph ; London : Heinemann, 1954
London : Heinemann, 1954

Told through a series of twenty-four letters, The Mail Boat is the story of Martha Baker and Oscar Tower's meeting in Rome at a bar catering to artistic people (read gay) on the Via Babuino, their relationship, and their subsequent time together on a tiny Tyrrhenian island where Oscar plans to work on his next novel. The mail boat that stops twice a week at the island anchors the activities of daily life.

Oscar corresponds with his friend Andrew (André) MaCloy, initially in Paris and later in Venice. Martha writes to her mother, Olga Baker and Janet Picard, a friend in New York, as well as Thomas Purdon, a former love interest and a professor at Yale. The recipient of the letter seems to determine the level of candor about the happenings on the island and Martha and Oscar's relationship.

Martha is deeply in love with Oscar and certainly has plans for their future. Oscar is much cooler and more casual about the relationship. He enjoys spending time with Martha but tends to ignore Martha when she suggests a more committed situation. Oscar is also distracted by a 13-year-old boy named Mario, the most beautiful of the local boys, with whom he would much rather spend his time. Martha is incensed at being ignored in favor of this street kid but also knows Oscar isn't really that way because he isn't effeminate at all. While Oscar won't admit it, even to himself, Martha is very clear in her understanding of Oscar's relationship with Mario, even going as far as telling Thomas in her letter that if Oscar would "just do something with the would be over in no time at all." (p.87)

Oscar's nature, although seemingly invisible to himself, is made clear by the author when friends visit from America, a literary agent and his 'esthetic' boy friend who plays tennis. In Martha's letter describing the visit and the dinner, she says, "They argued about a French poet who sounds like rainbow," (p.76) clearly a reference to Rimbaud. Later in passing, she also mentions that Oscar was wearing a black turtleneck sweater, which belonged to Martha.

Randolph is a bit coy in describing the island as Tyrrhenian. About half way through the book, when Martha is describing the day she and Oscar went to see the lighthouse, the description, while not a perfect match, comes very close to describing the Punta Carena Lighthouse on Capri. Given the long history of gay artists and authors on Capri and their relationships with the teenage locals, it seems fitting that Randolph would suggest this location. 

Bibliographies & Ratings: Cory (IV); Garde (OTP, c**); Mattachine Review (IV); Young (3197)

Friday, October 23, 2020

Deux Hommes dans une Chambre by Bernard Buffet

Deux Hommes dans une Chambre = Two Men in a Room (1947) Bernard Buffet (French, 1928-1999) Oil on canvas 61.75 x 74.5 in.
Deux Hommes dans une Chambre = Two Men in a Room (1947)
Bernard Buffet (French, 1928-1999)
Oil on canvas
61.75 x 74.5 in.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin ; New York : The Dial Press, 1956
New York : The Dial Press, 1956
When James Baldwin was asked about Giovanni's Room in a 1980 interview, he said that it was "not so much about homosexuality, it is what happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody." 

Giovanni's Room is, at its heart, a psychological novel whose focus is an analysis of masculinity through the lives of its characters. We are first introduced to our narrator, David, a young blond man from Brooklyn who is now living in Paris. By providing the story of his childhood—a mother who dies while David is young, a womanizing father, and an early gay experience after which David effectively ends the friendship—Baldwin sets up the psychological parameters within which David attempts to live.

Now living in Paris, David's girlfriend Hella has taken some time away from the relationship traveling through Spain. Being short on funds, David reaches out to Jacques, an older gay man who can surely afford to help David out. When they go to a gay bar owned by Guillaume, David's inner dialogue about those in the bar says a lot about how he relates to gayness and his own inner struggle with his masculinity and sexuality. There are the older men who take younger men under their wing, young men who are selling their wares, and those who dress and act in a more feminine manner. David struggles in his own mind to understand why a man who is interested in other men would be interested in an effeminate one. It becomes obvious that  Jacques has become very interested in the new bartender, Giovanni. As the night progresses, however, it is clear that Giovanni, on the other hand, is interested in David. David's internal dialogue continues, wondering what it says about his own masculinity that Giovanni is so masculine. Nonetheless, that night, David begins living in Giovanni's Room. 

As Hella's return to Paris grows closer, David does nothing to prepare Giovanni for what David sees as the end of their relationship. With Hella's return, David abandons Giovanni without a word, kicking off a cascade of events that will affect nearly everyone.

In his 2019 New York Times article, 'Giovanni's Room' Revisited, Hilton Als discusses the initial rejection of Giovanni's Room by the publisher Knopf. "In his letter, the esteemed editor Henry Carlisle ... said the company was turning down 'Giovanni’s Room' not because it lacked fine writing, but because it had so few credible characters and would do nothing to serve Baldwin’s reputation. And that the book’s failure had nothing to do with its subject matter."

Carlisle's inability to see the characters as credible says a lot about the lack of understanding of gay life in America. In addition, gay life in Europe, especially in a major city like Paris was quite different than anything in the U.S. and this is really in many ways at the center of the problems between David and Giovanni. In post-war Paris, homosexuality wasn't illegal, although it would have been considered a moral problem. The openness of the sexuality and the normalization of the various ways gay men got by financially would have been seen as very foreign, a bit vulgar, and maybe not believable from a U.S. editor's perspective. That's the beauty of what Baldwin's experience living in France brought to this story.

Bibliographies & Ratings: Cory (IV); Garde (P, 141***); Mattachine Review (IV); Young (158*)