Sunday, July 27, 2014


I first read REDBURN: HIS FIRST VOYAGE by Herman Melville about 25 years ago. I had never read MOBY-DICK, and my strategy was to read REDBURN first before tackling the great white whale. Perhaps it was a good strategy, because I found REDBURN quite an intriguing and compelling read, and devoured it in just a few sittings. I had picked up this old paperback edition from Anchor Books, with a gorgeous cover by Edward Gorey. It was a most memorable read, although it was topped easily by my reading MOBY-DICK a year later (MOBY-DICK being my favourite book of all time, for sure). But I'm grateful to Edward Gorey for the sexy cover, which made me buy the book in the first place (probably at Avol's Books in Madison, Wisconsin) ... and grateful to myself for rationalizing it as part of my strategy to read MOBY-DICK without fear. I think it worked. It eliminated the intimidation factor, so that I sailed straight into MOBY-DICK with an open heart. Now, this weekend (ending 27 July 2014), I've just reread REDBURN for the second time, and it's amazing how it holds up just as well for me now as it did when I was younger. I absolutely adore this book, telling of a novice sailor's very first voyage, from New York to Liverpool (and with an exotic side journey to London) and back. Melville himself wrote it 'for the money' and rattled it off very quickly to help him feed his family; he considered it to be 'trash' and had very low regard for the finished product. Which only goes to show what poor judges authors can be of their own work. REDBURN is a real gem, totally unique (even among the annals of sailing literature), and is generous, open, and empathetic in its portraits of the sailors and others who young Wellingborough Redburn meets along the way. Even the evil sailor Jackson is drawn sympathetically, so that we understand as far as the narrator can what Jackson is about, even if we fail to comprehend why any human being could have such a foul nature. And there is the obvous gay subtext to Redburn's friendly relations with the effeminate dandy Harry Bolton, as well as his rapturous adoration of Carlo, the young Italian steerage passenger of exceeding beauty and charm. The realistic depictions of the horrors of an emigrant vessel, loaded to the brim with destitute Irish emigrants on the return voyage from Liverpool to New York, makes one realize that in the early 19th century, many emigrant vessels were barely more humane than a slave ship. For those of us whose Irish ancestors came over about this time (1830's or so), it's quite eye-opening to consider the extreme hardships of such a voyage. For lucky Wellingborough Redburn, the whole thing is an amazing adventure that helps usher him from boyhood to manhood and allows him to witness the very best and very worst of human nature in the microcosm of a humble merchant sailing vessel. REDBURN is a great novel, no matter what Melville thought. It's no MOBY-DICK, but then neither is anything else in this universe.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

THE GREEN CARNATION -- An infamous novel that is actually very good

Now I'm reading THE GREEN CARNATION by Robert Hichens. Published anonymously on its original publication in 1894, it contained highly fictionalized portraits of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. Around the time when Oscar Wilde ended up on trial for 'gross indecency,' Hichens withdrew the book from publication. But even though it was fiction, it was used against Wilde in his trial.

What's interesting is how good THE GREEN CARNATION really is. Hichens was only 30 years old when he wrote it, and it contains a great deal of a young man's unvarnished rebellion in showing up the various hypocrisies and superficialities of his Victorian compères. Hichens himself was gay, but quite different from Wilde, and although his portrait of 'Esmé Amarinth' is not very flattering, Hichens does give the character some sharp insights.

I'm 3/4 of the way through the book and was struck by this very insightful view of what today we would term 'the closet,' in the words of 'Esmé Amarinth'. It's actually still very true today -- in terms of ignorant public attitudes toward homosexuality, and in terms of what it means for any gay person who is still in the closet. Of course it's written in a bit of Victorian code, but a close reading of it is not challenging for us 21st-century types. Here is the passage:

[Esmé Amarinth:] "How I hate that word natural."

[Lady Locke:] "Why? I think it is one of the most beautiful of words."

[Esmé Amarinth:] "How strange! To me it means all that is middle-class, all that is of the essence of jingoism, all that is colourless, and without form, and void. It might be a beautiful word, but it is the most debased coin in the currency of language. Certain things are classed as natural, and certain things are classed as unnatural--for all the people born into the world. Individualism is not allowed to enter into the matter. A child is unnatural if it hates its mother. A mother is unnatural if she does not wish to have children. A man is unnatural if he never falls in love with a woman. A boy is unnatural if he prefers looking at pictures to playing cricket, or dreaming over the white naked beauty of a Greek statue to a game of football under Rugby rules. If our virtues are not cut on a pattern, they are unnatural. If our vices are not according to rule, they are unnatural. We must be good naturally. We must sin naturally. We must live naturally, and die naturally. Branwell Brontë died standing up, and the world has looked upon him as a blasphemer ever since. Why must we stand up to live, and lie down to die? Byron had a club foot in his mind, and so Byron is a by-word. Yet twisted minds are as natural to some people as twisted bodies. It is natural to one man to live like Charles Kingsley, to preach gentleness, and love sport; it is natural to another to dream away his life on the narrow couch of an opium den, with his head between a fellow-sinner's feet. I love what are called warped minds, and deformed natures, just as I love the long necks of Burne-Jones' women, and the faded rose-leaf beauty of Walter Pater's unnatural prose. Nature is generally purely vulgar, just as many women are vulgarly pure. There are only a few people in the world who dare to defy the grotesque code of rules that has been drawn up by that fashionable mother, Nature, and they defy--as many women drink, and many men are vicious--in secret, with the door locked and the key in their pockets. And what is life to them? They can always hear the footsteps of the detective in the street outside."

Sunday, May 18, 2014


I'm not at all delighted with the new film THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY, based on Patricia Highsmith's novel. Highsmith was a writer of suspense novels and she knew what she was doing. Unfortunately, the filmmakers of THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY haven't got a clue. The suspense in the novel derives from an ingenious scenario built around the complexities of the three main characters, none of whom are the least bit innocent. While reading the novel, you have no idea what to expect, because you aren't entirely sure how far each character is willing to go. Compare this with the movie ... in which all three main characters have been made to be as cuddly and sympathetic as possible (because filmmakers wrongly believe this is important) ... with the result that a formerly genius plot becomes muddled beyond belief, and all of the potential suspense of the scenario has been milked dry long before the movie can get off the ground. This is not the first time anyone has screwed up the adaptation of a Highsmith novel, and it won't be the last. But I'd like to send a message to the movie industry: Listen to Patricia Highsmith! Don't change her characters! Don't change her stories! When it comes to suspense, she knows what she is doing, and you don't! (But I heartily recommend that everyone read the book, so to the extent that the existence of the movie encourages new readers to discover Patricia Highsmith, it has done a service.)

Sunday, April 13, 2014


MRS. GOD by Peter Straub has been waiting for me for a long time. I bought HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS in the original Dutton hardcover when it came out in 1990, and was already aware of MRS. GOD anyway because it had previously been published in a limited edition by Donald M. Grant. But I don't ever like to read collections of short fiction all the way through in a gulp, and at some point I set aside HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS leaving MRS. GOD (the final tale) for a rainy day. That day finally came 24 years later, and I've thoroughly enjoyed myself. Some stories are best left for when we are older and better able to appreciate them. I'm not sure I would have praised MRS. GOD so highly if I'd read it when I was 23. Now, at 47, it hit me just right. By coincidence, I have recently been catching up as well with my Robert Aickman (who inspired MRS. GOD, according to Straub) and also with E. F. Benson's strange stories -- both of which I see strongly reflected/warped in the mirror here. Apparently, the Grant edition of MRS. GOD is longer and is rumoured by some to be the far superior incarnation. Perhaps I would like it even better, but I don't own the Grant edition, so unless I track down a copy I'm unlikely ever to find out. At any rate, I enjoyed the present version immensely. As a strange story it succeeds wickedly well. Echoes, as I've said, of Aickman and E. F. Benson, but also echoes of the oddness of Ramsey Campbell, and of course successful allusions to THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson and THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James. (Readers on Amazon or Goodreads who have rated this only one or two stars must be out of their minds.)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


STRANGERS by Graham Robb is a wonderful, scholarly exploration of 'Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century' by an acclaimed author of biographies of Hugo, Balzac, Rimbaud, and other works. The author deserves immense praise for bringing to light so much that has been hidden. The need for this book is quite apparent because of the nature of the subject itself -- so much of homosexual life and love was kept deliberately hidden by the men and women themselves, out of fear of persecution and misunderstanding. Indeed, much evidence is already lost to us because of gay men and women's self-censorship and the misguided censorship of publishers, editors, and heirs (burning of incriminating correspondence, etc). Even more daunting is trying to get at the life of gay men and women in ordinary, day-to-day life, as opposed to those who publicly expressed themselves through literature, art, music, or public speaking. Robb is exhaustive in his researches and yet packages his findings like a proper curator, peppering it with insight, opinion, wit, and the occasional provocation. He upends many assumptions not only of the heterosexual dictatorship under which we all live, but also of many gay historians, scholars, and theorists. For example, Robb deftly deflates Foucault's assertion that the 'homosexual' as a self-aware entity did not exist before 1870. Common sense might tell us that Foucault is obviously wrong, but Robb supports this with ample evidence and extraordinary examples from as many Western cultures as he can. And he admittedly doesn't even touch on Eastern cultures, which could provide even more evidence. It would be interesting to read a similar survey of homosexual love in the 19th and earlier centuries taking a specific look at Eastern societies. (Perhaps that book exists and I just haven't bothered to find it yet.)