Thursday, March 9, 2017

LIVE ALL YOU CAN. IT'S A MISTAKE NOT TO.


This is my 3rd reading of Mr. Henry James's THE AMBASSADORS. I tried it when I was 20 and failed (found it impenetrable), tried again at 30 and succeeded in getting through it, but felt baffled and somewhat defeated by it. Read it again at 40 and marvelled at what I had missed, fell in love with it, stood in awe of it -- a revelation! Now, having turned 50, I have read it once more and it has vaulted to the top of my list of favourite novels. Every nuance I may have missed before seems to have revealed itself to me like a flowering blossom. In part, this may be due to the fact that in the ensuing decade, I (an American) have been living abroad, first in Canada and then mostly in England. James himself was an 'expat' who felt increasingly divorced from his home country and in due course became a British citizen. The influence of his life abroad, in London, in Europe, colours his point of view in THE AMBASSADORS and skews it toward Europe in something of a rebuke to the provincial, Puritanical ways of the United States.

James is honoured with an enormous plaque in Westminster Abbey with a quote from THE AMBASSADORS: 'Live all you can. It's a mistake not to.' Which is spoken by the main character, Lambert Strether (55 years of age) to little Bilham, a young American in his twenties, although of all the personages in THE AMBASSADORS little Bilham is the least likely to require this bit of advice.... Strether has been sent to Paris from Woollett, Massachusetts, by the cold-thinking Mrs Newsome, on a mission to retrieve her son Chad from the horrors of his presumed corrupt lifestyle in the Old World, and to whisk Chad back home to assume the mantle of the family business and perhaps to marry the young Mamie Pocock (his mother's idea). (Woollett makes a certain household article that dares not speak its name throughout the entire novel.) Not inconsequently, our hero Strether, a widower who lost his wife and child many years ago, is a trusted family friend and is more or less now engaged to the magnificent Mrs Newsome. Until Strether himself sets foot in Paris, it seems that the eventual return to Woollett and union with the Newsome family is all he can look forward to. However, Paris opens up his eyes as they have also opened up Chad Newsome's, in ways unpredictable and, as James would say, 'wonderful.' ... But nothing further. No spoilers here. If you've never read it, you may find it baffling at first (unless I was merely dense when I first read it), but now, finally, as I've passed the half-century mark and started to approach the age of 'our friend' Lambert Strether, I simply cannot express the exquisite pleasure I received on my 3rd reading of THE AMBASSADORS. Only question left is, shall I read it again when I turn 55? Or wait till 60?
 

Monday, May 30, 2016

DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET, by Simon Raven


«««« DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET, by Simon Raven. This is a novel that is hard to review without revealing too many spoilers. The first cover to the left, from the UK first edition, scrupulously avoids any spoiler, and is the most attractive cover I've seen for this novel. The early US paperback from Avon Books comes pretty close to a spoiler without quite getting there, and offers the tantalizing teaser, "The terrifying story of a man destroyed by the most evil of all perversions." Whatever could that be??? That could be anything. Probably a good reason to pick up this book and read it. And only too true. Almost any other cover that's been done for this book over the years gives the game away far too literally. The late Karl Edward Wagner put this novel among his Top 13 horror novels of all time, which is high praise indeed considering Wagner was a true aficionado. But you know, it is also nearly a spoiler to reveal that this is a horror novel. I envy anyone who might have picked up the first edition without any inkling whatsoever of what's between the covers. I am lucky to have had something very near to that experience, in that I originally purchased this for my Kindle quite some time ago, and by the time I got around to reading it, I had quite forgotten my reasons for purchasing it, aside from the fact that I've heard a lot of great things about its author, Simon Raven, and I had previously purchased one of his other novels, THE FEATHERS OF DEATH, which I still have not yet read. So when I started reading DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET, on a whim, on my Kindle, I had no idea what I was getting myself in for. And that is the beauty of it. I cannot recommend this novel too highly, especially for anyone interested in well-written, psychologically astute excursions into the macabre. DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET has enjoyed numerous editions in the UK over the years, as Simon Raven is a quintessentially British author. But in a general sense, this can be considered to be a bit of a neglected novel of its kind. Raven was prolific and gave us many highly regarded literary works, but this elegant foray of his into horror fiction deserves to be read by anyone who appreciates the outrĂ©.



Saturday, January 16, 2016

THE FANCY DANCER, by Patricia Nell Warren

««««« THE FANCY DANCER, by Patricia Nell Warren. It's curious that it's taken me so many years to get around to reading THE FANCY DANCER by Patricia Nell Warren. It's set in a small town in Montana and concerns a young gay Catholic priest attempting to come to terms with himself after he falls hard for a troubled local half-Native American man of his own age. The setting, in the rural landscape of the Rocky Mountains, resonates with me since I grew up in Laramie, Wyoming. The book had a powerful impact on me even now, at age 48, though I've known I was gay since I was 11 years old. Despite the fact THE FANCY DANCER was published in the US Bicentennial Year of 1976, it's striking how relevant it remains to this day, especially with respect to America's debates on morality, so-called "family values," and the persistent stubborn opposition by the Catholic church to evolving societal views on homosexuality and especially same-sex marriage. So let's raise a toast to Patricia Nell Warren in this 40th anniversary year of THE FANCY DANCER ... a novel that anyone who's gay or sympathetic ought to read for its insight and its generous spirit. I truly loved it. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

RADCLIFFE, by David Storey

««««« RADCLIFFE, by David Storey. I've had this old Avon Books paperback lying around on my shelves for years and years, but never got around to reading it until now. It's a pre-Stonewall gay novel, about a destructive, mutually obsessive relationship between two young men who cannot stay away from each other. It was first published in 1963 and is set in a bleak 1950s Yorkshire, England ... yet the Avon Books cover depicts the two main actors in the story as if they are about to head out to a 1970s disco in Key West or something.... Never mind that. This is actually my favourite cover of RADCLIFFE of all the many editions that have been issued over the years (scroll to see others below). This artist's depiction of Leonard Radcliffe, the sleepy-eyed aristocratic hero with his perpetual look of consolation, is nearly perfect. On the other hand, the depiction of the heavily muscled and tanned Vic Tolson contrasts somewhat with my image of a well-built Yorkshire workman whose exposure to the fogs, mists, and rains of Yorkshire are not likely to yield this tanned beach-body Mykonos party ideal.... But never mind that as well. It remains a strong evocation of the two main characters and the imbalanced nature of their relationship. Leonard Radcliffe -- one of my favourite heroes in fiction -- is the weak, submissive aesthete, partnered with Tolson's tall, strong, charismatic, aggressive, and dominating personality. The theme, which switches the authority of ruling class versus working class, might seem reminiscent of Robin Maugham's THE SERVANT. But the Gothic atmosphere of RADCLIFFE is what sets it apart as a hothouse of intensity and excess quite unique in literature. David Storey is a remarkable writer, and this was published when he was only 30 years old. At the time of its publication, it was easily the most important Gothic novel to come along since Daphne du Maurier's REBECCA. And unless something has escaped me, I can't think of any other Gothic novel since RADCLIFFE that is any better. Putting Leonard Radcliffe in the central role normally taken by a young female helps make this a wholly original take on the genre. And of course that appeals to my gay sensibilities enormously. This is an overwhelming story, steeped in atmosphere, and depicted using only exteriors, as if we are the camera or the chorus witnessing all of the key details of the story without ever penetrating the interior thoughts of the characters. But of course, it is the external details of landscape, architecture, action, and mood that give us the clues to what is going on in the characters' heads. The point of view, though wholly external, remains intensely focused on Leonard Radcliffe and his experiences as a young man who falls under the spell of the muscular Vic Tolson. Radcliffe is pretty much the last in the line of a long lineage of Radcliffes dating back to before the War of the Roses. Their manor house, the Place, is in a state of perpetual decay, and indeed is now managed by a trust, with Radcliffe's father put in charge and essentially employed as a caretaker. The Place serves as a metaphor for the decline of the aristocracy's place in modern English life, as well as the lies that lie behind the foundations of our society. RADCLIFFE is packed with symbols and themes, stirring a heady brew of emotion and violence that propels the story forward in richly dripping prose. This was an intoxicating novel whose strong pulsating story of sexual obsession had me hooked. If I had read this when I was younger, I may have found it depressing as a story. However, as an older reader, I found it an incredible work of art. I am now going to read everything else by David Storey (eventually), although I realize none of his other work approaches the same type of story and themes as in RADCLIFFE. **NOTE: Although I read my old Avon paperback, the novel is currently available in a 50th Anniversary Edition trade paperback published in 2013 by Valancourt Books. See below, as well as a sampling of other past covers for RADCLIFFE**



Friday, June 12, 2015

CAPRI: ISLAND OF PLEASURE, by James Money


CAPRI: ISLAND OF PLEASURE, by James Money, was a delight from start to finish. I've never visited Capri, but it hardly matters. I'm sure the Capri of today bears little resemblance to the strange enclave of expat eccentrics that is portrayed in Money's marvelous history. It's especially interesting in documenting the ways in which these eccentrics chose to live their lives (while on Capri) and living freely in ways that were not permitted by the laws of their native countries. That gay men and women (for example) were happy to live their lives openly even in the late 19th century, as long as they were in an environment that enabled them to do so, shows they would easily have done the same back home if the social constraints were not in place. It also makes me wish to seek out a number of other books, mainly works of fiction, related to the same subject and written by the eyewitnesses who were there (but who fictionalized everything and everyone to avoid libel) -- VESTAL FIRE by Compton Mackenzie, EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN by Compton Mackenzie, and SOUTH WIND by Norman Douglas. Then perhaps someday, if I ever visit Capri, I can use my imagination to conjure up what it must have been like just over 100 years ago, before the wars and before the movie stars.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

TRAVELS OF THE DILETTANTES by Bulat Okudzhava

★★★★★ This is TRAVELS OF THE DILETTANTES by Bulat Okudzhava, translated into English by Antonina W. Bouis and published 1978. (I can only assume that the US publisher, Harper & Row, came up with the insipid title NOCTURNE.) The novel itself is one of my favourite reading experiences of all time. It was recommended to me ages ago by a Russian (during the decline of the Soviet Union) and it took me a few years to track it down, partly because I had only the Russian title. Finally found it, and then it sat on my shelves until this year, 2015, when I finally picked it up. I devoured it hungrily and read many passages over again for the sheer pleasure of it. This is a novel beloved by many Russians, and I can understand why. For this American who is keen on Russian history and Russian literature, reading TRAVELS OF THE DILETTANTES was a revelation. Although it is a modern novel in its knowingness and sensibilities, it plays with the conventions of the 19th century Russian novel in clever ways. It reflects our memories of Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, and Tolstoy. At its heart, it is a Romantic story of a man's search for meaning and for a lasting love. Yes, it's a love story. But it's far more than that. Love in a time of terror, love in an age when neighbours spy on one another and no one can be trusted. By presenting us a portrait of the repressive years under Tsar Nicholas I, Okudzhava actually holds up a scary mirror reflecting back the most repressive Soviet regimes, not to mention any repressive and paranoid tradition-bound society. This is, to my mind, an absolute classic novel that is a must-read for anyone with any interest in Russia. An unforgettable reading experience.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

TALES OF THE CITY by Armistead Maupin

I'm a latecomer to TALES OF THE CITY ... but it was such a lovely book. Like TAKING CARE OF MRS. CARROLL by Paul Monette, TALES OF THE CITY can be described as a novel without hangups. The free and easy, breezy culture of San Francisco in the 1970s makes me long for that more innocent, less reactionary age. The only slightly odd thing is that Armistead Maupin writes in a totally cinematic way ... by which I mean that he is nearly all surface and hardly ever dips into the psychological reality of his characters (except for what they reveal in dialogue). That is totally OK but sometimes he uses it to trick the reader Hitchcock-style by not fully revealing everything that our characters ought to know, until it emerges when they speak. I usually prefer more depth of character in novels but Maupin's cinematic technique works brilliantly for this story, so I wouldn't have it any other way. His dialogue is so incredibly brilliant that he deftly paints pictures of the characters that nearly make up for the lack of inner psych. TALES OF THE CITY now reads like a historical novel of the 1970s and I enjoyed all the pop culture references to TV commercial and the weird products that were so ubiquitous in that time (my childhood). I am looking forward to reading every other book in the series.