Saturday, December 26, 2015
Friday, June 12, 2015
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 MaupinI'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.
Sunday, January 11, 2015
DIVING INTO 'THE SWIMMING-POOL LIBRARY'
Oh ... oh ... oh my God ... One of my best friends recommended THE SWIMMING-POOL LIBRARY by Alan Hollinghurst to me the year it was published. That was 1988. I was 21 years old. It's a British literary gay novel. Although I've always loved reading gay fiction, something about THE SWIMMING-POOL LIBRARY put me off at the time. Perhaps it was the title, which I couldn't fathom. But no, it was mainly the writing style, which was obviously too sophisticated for me when I was 21. But now I'm 47, and have spent several years in London, and have gained generally more life experiences than I had at 21. This was obviously the right time. I went back, picked it up, and was completely gobsmacked. What a novel! It's set in 1983, "the last summer of its kind there was ever to be" as Hollinghurst puts it. This is the single, only, veiled reference to AIDS in the entire book. The action of the novel, indeed, takes place during the summer of 1983 but in its incorrigible way manages to cast its net back over 60 years of hidden gay history. Most of gay history remains hidden, even in the modern age, except for those few who wish to dig it up. The hero of THE SWIMMING-POOL LIBRARY is a 25-year-old upper-class layabout whose quality time is spent swimming at his posh gentlemen's club, cruising for black young men and white young men, and fucking. A chance encounter with an elderly 83-year-old Lord leads to an intense friendship, and the Lord asks him to read his diaries and write a book about his life. Throughout the story, the hero swings back and forth between courting his young black love Arthur and his young white love Phil, while seeking anonymous encounters, improving himself in the pool, and getting to know the old Lord and trying to decide whether or not to write His Lordship's story. All of this doesn't really tell you anything about what goes on in the book. But that's the whole point. People have told me for years they thought THE SWIMMING-POOL LIBRARY was incredibly erotic, and they are absolutely right. But don't expect porn. Somehow, Hollinghurst was able to write a totally erotic, sexually charged narrative without ever offering much of a standard blow-by-blow. If you like well written, compelling, illuminating fiction and you enjoy sexy stories about gay men -- and if you're mature enough to appreciate it! -- then I recommend THE SWIMMING-POOL LIBRARY.