Thursday, January 16, 2020

Pagan Light : Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri by Jamie James

Pagan Light : Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri by Jamie James ; New York : Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019
New York : Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019
Beginning with the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, Capri has a long history of accepting the eccentric and exiled from the less permissive parts of Europe. After establishing Capri's history in the Roman era, the author focuses primarily on the period from the Wilde trials through the mid 1930s during which time many sought artistic and sexual freedom there. The rise of the fascists, the focus of the final quarter of the book, brought significant change, not only to Capri, but to the world in general.

Pagan Light is a reference to maybe the most well known novel set in Capri, Norman Douglas' South Wind. Part travelogue, part literary and art history, James' book is difficult to define. It offers a series of vignettes of varying length connecting a veritable who's who of famous (and not-so-famous) literary and artistic expats. The minor players are offered as mere asides and provide a more complete sense of Capri's expat society. Pagan Light is anchored with biographical accounts of the little known novelist and poet, Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen and the artist Romain Brooks.

Adelswärd-Fersen flees Paris after his proclivities run afoul of the law. Interestingly it wasn't his sexual interest in teenage boys that was the problem, it was his use of them in his theatrical 'messes noires' (a supposed satanic ritual) to which he invited his friends. The details of this scandal would later be memorialized in his 1905 novel Messes Noires : Lord Lillian. An English translation of the novel, issued by Elysium Press, was published in 2005.

On Capri, Brooks was able to become an independent woman and present herself the way she was most comfortable. She cut her hair short and styled herself in trousers and jackets instead of dresses. She interacted within the society of lesbians of the time including Radclyffe Hall (author of the classic lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness), Lady Una Troubridge (Hall's longtime lesbian partner), and American poet, Natalie Barney (Brooks' great love). Brooks is known for her portraits of important women in this lesbian circle as well as an early portrait of Jean Cocteau.

Adelswärd-Fersen and Brooks make for interesting subjects in that what we know of their lives is largely based on less than reliable depictions of them in their own and others writing. Adelswärd-Fersen's story is mostly known through The Exile of Capri, a roman à clef by Roger Peyrefitte, while Brooks' story largely comes from her own unpublished memoir as well as Compton Mackenzie's novel Extraordinary Women.

Ricardo Esposito, who runs the Capriot small press Edizioni La Conchiglia, sums up the importance of Capri nicely when he says, "Capri was an international laboratory for the avant-garde, a place where ideas were born, a new artistic vision, and given to the world." (p.288)

Friday, January 3, 2020

Ercole e Lica by Antonio Canova

Ercole e Lica (1795-1815) Antonio Canova (Italian, 1757-1822) Marble  BACKGROUND: Spoglia d’oro su spine d’acacia (2002) Giuseppe Penone (Italian, 1947-    ) Acacia thorns and gold leaf on silk canvas  Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome Photo: E. Neagle, 23 October 2016
Ercole e Lica (1795-1815)
Antonio Canova (Italian, 1757-1822)

Spoglia d’oro su spine d’acacia2002)
Giuseppe Penone (Italian, 1947-    )
Acacia thorns and gold leaf on silk canvas

Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome
Photo: E. Neagle, 23 October 2016

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Christmas Tree by Isabel Bolton (Mary Britton Miller)

The Christmas Tree by Isabel Bolton ; New York : Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949
New York : Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949
As Christmas approaches, we often think about past holidays. Our memories usually begin with the good times, certainly our memories are of that perfect Christmas. But as we continue down this rabbit hole, thoughts of our family in general appear, quickly followed by memories of the myriad family disagreements and complications. It's easy to think that this is a new phenomenon—that Christmases of the past were perfect and everyone got along. The characters in Isabel Bolton's novel, The Christmas Tree suggest that families have always been difficult and tensions run high at this time of the year.

Opening in the days leading up to Christmas 1945, Bolton presents the members of a family who are scattered across the country. Each person's inner dialogue is unique but all conclude that this Christmas will be challenging, particularly if everyone shows up.

Mrs. Danforth, or Hilly, is in New York with her 6-year-old grandson, Henry. She plans to give Henry that perfect Christmas that she remembers from her own childhood, including a tree with real candles.

Henry's mother, Anne is in Reno obtaining a divorce from Hilly's son, Larry. In support of the divorce, Hilly supplied a deposition confirming her son's behavior in the marriage. While still in Reno, Anne immediately marries Captain George Fletcher, a pilot during the war. Due to heavy snow, Anne and George are to arrive by train from Santa Fe.

Larry is also in the military but served stateside during the war. He lives in Washington DC and is gay. Christmas at his mother's house seems to be just the excuse he needs to end his current relationship with Jerry. Larry arrives by train, but not alone.

Novels from the 1940s and 50s typically have a Freudian slant in their explanations of relationships in general and gayness in particular—overly close relationship with the mother, absent father, etc. The Christmas Tree is no different. However, in this case it's not subtext. It is couched in the specificity of Anne's experience with analysis and her doctor's explanation of who's to blame for Larry's gayness. The explanation provided is the glue that holds the family together, for better or worse.

Bibliographies & Ratings: Cory (IV); Garde (P78**); Mattachine Review (IV); Young (345*)

Friday, December 6, 2019

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Prince's Boy by Paul Bailey

New York: Bloomsbury, 2014
Written in form of a memoir in 1967, The Prince's Boy tells the story of Dinu Grigorescu's life of the past forty years in Bucharest, Paris and London.

Razvan Popescu, a Romanian peasant boy of 11 whose father is deceased and whose mother is struggling with many children, is adopted away from his difficult home situation by a Romanian prince around the turn of the 20th century. The prince hires the best tutors who educate Razvan in literature and the arts. When they relocate to Paris, this boy of peasant ancestry begins to operate in society and is known as the prince's boy. After the prince’s death, Razvan inherits an apartment but is forced to provide sexual favors for cash.

In 1927, Dinu Grigorescu is sent to Paris by his wealthy father to become a great author or poet—to experience la vie de Boheme, but mainly to help him move on from his mother’s death 5 years earlier. While there, he is drawn to the Bains du Ballon d'Alsace, a notorious establishment where men of a certain class can procure sexual services that are a bit more out of the ordinary. It is here that Dinu meets Honore (Razvan), who supplies these services. Immediately becoming something much more than sex worker and client, and feeling a strong connection through their mutual Romanian ancestry, they fall in love.

Covering the forty years after their initial meeting, Dinu relays the internal struggle to form a permanent relationship with Razvan against the backdrop of the beginnings of obvious anti-semitism in Romania, Romania's alliance with the Nazis, and all of the social changes that come with the horrors of World War II. As an aesthete, Dinu's life is more influenced by literature and the arts. The work of Marcel Proust plays an important role in his life and how he sees the world. His close relationship with his own mother meant he connected easily to Marcel's relationship with his. As well, the work of Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu is a major influence.

Told in very plain language, this is a melancholy work. Dinu describes himself as "Romanian by birth, French by choice, and English by accident."  He really seems to be a man out of time and place, a man heartbroken by the past and unable to move into the future.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Grievous by H. S. Cross

Grievous by H. S. Cross ; New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019
Taking place in 1931 at St. Stephen's Academy, five years after the events of Cross' 2015 novel, Wilberforce, Grievous is a sweeping novel with complex inter-related storylines. The central characters are Grieves, a Housemaster who finds his responsibility for disciplining students in opposition to his pacifist inclinations and Riding, a creative student who struggles more generally after the loss of his father.

As with Wilberforce, Cross pays homage to the classic boarding school novels and authors. Riding, who writes fantastic stories which, with the help of other students are acted out in secret, provides a connection to the lives of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Interestingly, while Wilberforce follows the classic form of focusing on games, they are only mentioned in passing in Grievous. The action here is focused more on choir, creative writing and acting.

A central theme of the novel is illness and death. Many characters have experienced the death of a parent or spouse and frankly none of them handle it well. Neither the students, nor the adults seem to be able to talk about their feelings, causing any number of misunderstandings and errors in judgement. Grieves' troubled personal life manifests in his impossible relationship with a married woman who is now ill and traveling with her daughter throughout Europe and America to find a cure.

Riding and Grieves are heavily involved in each others lives but this manifests itself almost exclusively in their relationships with others. Over the summer while Cordelia is traveling with her mother to find a cure, she is engaged in a one way correspondence with Riding about her days. As well, Riding's mother, a nurse, is corresponding with Grieves who is trying to help the woman he loves find a cure.

Riding, Volumes 1 & 2 by H. S. Cross ; New York : Fox Books, 2008
New York : Fox Books, 2008
Some have described this novel as less claustrophobic than Wilberforce since significant parts of the action take place outside the walls of St. Stephens. While there is the experience of life outside the school, the weight of life's challenges seem to follow the characters wherever they go. There's a certain melancholy and longing for connection that permeates the book in both the adult and adolescent characters. This creation of setting based on emotions or feelings as opposed to lengthy description of locations is one of the strongest elements of the novel.

Grievous is described as Cross' second novel, but it has its roots in a novel called Riding, published by Cross in 2008. Riding was issued in two volumes amounting to over 1000 pages. Following the same structure, Grievous has been tightened up and the writing generally improved. In Riding the bones are certainly there, while 10 years hence, Grievous is a much stronger work.  In a July 28, 2008 interview with Amande Green, Cross spoke about Riding and described her next work at the time as a prequel called Wilberforce.