Books

The Lengths • Howard Hardiman

The-Lengths-Howard-Hardiman

The Lengths


Howard Hardiman
216 pages • Soaring Penguin Press • October 2013 [HB]
Paul Smith reviews
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Away from spandex and biceps, graphic novels in the UK and US have been exploring the wider possibilities of the medium and the diversity of the stories that can be told. Many writers and artists have turned their pages into a reflection of their own experiences, concerned with life and death issues, failed romances or relationships, and the personal impact of disability or illnesses. Equally, we’ve had characters such as Howard the Duck and Cerebus the Aardvark, who have been created either as anthropomorphic mouthpieces for satire, or for exploring wider issues such as Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’.

There have been a rainbow community of gay cartoonists such as Howard Cruse, Tim Barela, Roberta Gregory, and Alison Bechdel in the US to Britain’s Bill Ward, Oliver Frey and David Shenton, who have drawn a vibrant, frequently funny picture of queer life with characters we can laugh, love and cry with. However there have been surprisingly few graphic novels from gay authors or writers that address a real world. Howard Hardiman has now done that with The Lengths which takes us through the dark, often bleak world of former art student and rentboy Eddie and his close circle of friends. Or rather his pack since all the characters are represented by different breeds of dogs. Guess we could say this is a love story doggy-style.

London is the backdrop and in economical style, Hardiman sets the scene of each chapter with familiar landmarks around the South Bank and Soho before leading us into the complex world of casual sex and relationships centred around art student Eddie and his alter ego rentboy Ford, trying to find his place in life but compromising his relationship with Eddie, especially when he idolises Nelson, a mastiff of an escort, who has found it financially lucrative profession but at the expense of any emotional attachment. Fears of commitment, low self-esteem, drugs and AIDS swim around with the more positive values of friendship and love, plenty of bone-crunching issues for our mutts to gnaw on.

The-Lengths-Howard-HardimanThe-Lengths-Howard-Hardiman

(Click images to enlarge)

There’s a free-flowing feel to the story as images fragment with loose regard for framing or tight panel construction. Hardiman’s angle of perspective and dramatic composition changes like a film director’s eye for action. He plays around with white and black so that his characters seem to claw their way out of the page, defined by precise, economical lines but almost drenched in shadow or bleached whiteness. Likewise the dialogue has burst free of speech bubbles and hangs poignantly in the air

His scratchy outlines define each character through full expressive body language that is more human than animal. Eddie is defined and athletic, Nelson is muscle-bound and pumped-up whilst Dan is more a introverted cuddlesome shaggy terrier. All the other homo hounds have similarly unique identities as demonstrated in their amusing Trackr profiles.

Originally a project spawned from his MA course at Camberwell College of Art, it was originally as a presented as six-part comic, but this collected edition of The Lengths helps with a better appreciation of character development and story arc, but it also demonstrates Hardiman’s evolving skills as an artist. His draftsmanship grows in confidence from the slightly disjointed first chapter to explore a stronger, more coherent visual voice for his narrative in the proceeding chapters.

Whilst Hardiman has brought aspects of his own experience into the story, emotional ink to bleed into the page, he also undertook background research by interviewing a number of real escorts who add a frank and humorous texture to the story. These are the lengths he has taken to create a veracity to the story as well as identifying the lengths Eddie takes to hide his double life from Dan. At the end of the day, whether you like Eddie or not, self-absorbed and unfocussed, escaping into a world of sex and drugs, The Lengths is a dark, sobering but rewarding read. Howard Hardiman has marked his territory and will be a talent to watch grow into a pedigree storyteller.

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With A Zero At Its Heart • Charles Lambert

Charles-Lambert-With-A-Zero-At-Its-Heart

With A Zero At Its Heart


Charles Lambert
150 pages • The Friday Project • May 22, 2014 [PB]
Tim Bennett-Goodman reviews
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I favourably reviewed Charles Lambert’s Any Human Face for Polari Magazine back in 2012. His latest offering, With a Zero at its Heart, is an exquisitely-produced paperback volume which, though a very different proposition from his earlier novel, I read with equal pleasure. (Vaughan Oliver’s cover and text design made the book a pleasure to look at as well as read.)

With a Zero at its Heart comprises 24 themed chapters, each with 10 numbered paragraphs, each paragraph being composed of exactly 120 words (and, yes, I was particular enough to do a few trial counts to make absolutely certain!).

The 24 chapters, with headings such as Sex, Death and Money, but also, more elusively, Fear, Theft and Hunger, are fragmentary in nature, each 120-word section (or stanza?) acting like tessera completing an elegant mosaic. In fact, their likeness to poetry is striking; they are almost a kind of haiku, whose self-imposed rigidity of form frees both writer and reader to pursue all kinds of unstated, or merely hinted-at, possibilities.

Each heading has a sub-heading which is taken (I suspect not randomly) from one of the following 10 stanzas. So, for example, Nature is sub-titled ‘or, the purposes of Love’ and Correspondence, ‘or, coterminous with the cat’. Lambert’s love of words is apparent throughout and he confesses: “He loves big words, the way they snake and bend,” and later: “He’s ripe for structuralism when it arrives, in its knowing, double-edged way, like palindromes or mirror-writing…” (Small wonder Lambert chose to live and work in Italy from 1976 – England is no country for a self-confessed structuralist.)

The work charts the story of the life (and a life well-lived, I might add) of a man born, like Lambert (and, coincidentally, myself) in 1953. Whether the work is strictly auto-biographical is difficult to say and probably irrelevant anyway. Cumulatively the effect is searingly honest and, as a result, rings emotionally, intellectually and morally true. Indeed, I found it almost unnerving how many sequences mirrored my own life experiences, from boyhood to late middle-age – except, regrettably, Lambert’s living in Italy, which I frankly envy.

The narrator’s life is laid out in seemingly random snippets and the reader has to work to piece the life together in chronological order. But it is by no means hard work – in fact it is a delight. And throughout, one feels oneself in the safe hands of an honest artist and consummate storyteller. The final sentence of the Coda (which I won’t quote for fear of spoiling its effect on the reader) reduced me to tears with its poignancy, hinting at the Venerable Bede writing in the seventh century of the transitory nature of life : ‘The life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall…in through one window of the hall and out through another.’

Arctic Summer • Damon Galgut

Damon Galut, Arctic Summer,  review Polari Magazine

Arctic Summer


Damon Galgut
368 pages • Atlantic Books • March 06, 2014 [HB]
Christopher Bryant reviews
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In 1911, a year after the triumphant publication of Howards End, E.M. Forster started work on a novel called Arctic Summer. The troubled writing of this book saw Forster enter into a dark time in his life when he doubted himself both as an individual and a novelist. The success of Howards End forced him to reassess his life and his work, and his difficulties with Arctic Summer made him realise, as he wrote in his diary in June 1911, that he had a “weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat – the love of men for women and vice versa”. It was not until the publication of A Passage to India in 1924 that Forster resolved this tension. It is this period in Forster’s life that is the subject of Damon Galgut’s remarkable novel Arctic Summer.

Galgut’s Arctic Summer opens in October 1912, with Forster on a boat to India. He is drawn there by his love for Syed Ross Masood, an Indian man he tutored in Latin, and to whom he would dedicate A Passage to India. Galgut skilfully depicts the awkward, endlessly shifting Forster, as he struggles with the openness of the handsome military man Kenneth Searight, who is comfortable enough with his own sexuality that he shows Forster photographs of naked Indian men. At the age of 33 Forster was still a virgin, and his understanding of his homosexuality was couched safely in theoretical terms. “He could not refer to his condition, even in his own mind, with too direct a term; he spoke of it obliquely as being in a minority. He himself was a solitary.” His first journey to India, and the creative crisis that accompanied it, changed Forster irrevocably. His struggles would inform every word in A Passage to India. By opening his novel at this critical juncture, Galgut plunges the reader into that very moment, and when it is done he returns confidently to the point when the journey really began, to 1906, when Forster first met Masood.

Forster’s love for Masood, a love he eventually reveals only to be rebuffed, is the driving force behind Arctic Summer. It determines every move that Forster makes as he starts to write A Passage to India in 1913, then abandons it to work on his homosexual coming-of-age novel Maurice between 1913 and 1914. Galgut shows Forster’s inner life as he wrestles with his inability to finish the novel, and how this was followed by his years in Alexandria in World War I, where he meets Mohammed el Adl. His friendship with Mohammed is an uneven one in which their sexual contact is a barrier between them because it reinforces the distance between them both personally and socially. Galgut’s Forster deflects his energies from Masood to Mohammed, and also from his India novel to a guidebook about Alexandria. It is only when he returns to India as a private secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas State that Forster came to terms with India and himself, so much so that he is finally able to finish the novel.

The strength of Arctic Summer is in how Galgut reimagines the details of Forster’s life throughout this time from his writings and his letters as well as the biographies. His recreation of a Forster struggling with his experiences is vivid and convincing because it employs the exact same tensions woven throughout A Passage to India. The biographical facts are balanced with the philosophical and emotional truths at the heart of that great book. It is an extraordinary achievement, one so fluid that it holds together with an air of truth.

The triumph of A Passage to India, both as a novel in itself and as a work forged from years of conflict and turmoil, is an accomplishment that Galgut makes visceral. Forster was to continue writing essays, biographies, and short stories in the following years. He even revised the fragments of Arctic Summer and read from them at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1951. Yet although he lived another 46 years after the publication of A Passage to India, Forster would never write another novel. “I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more,” he recorded in his diary in 1961, “but sex has prevented the latter.” There is an element of tragedy to that statement, and yet there is an element of integrity. Forster knew when his great work had been completed, and the wonder in Galgut’s Arctic Summer is that it enables the reader to feel both the triumph as well as the pain at the heart of this conflict. It renders a convincing E.M. Forster, the writer who knew when his work was done and the man who continued to dream. “Writers should see ahead, not constantly be looking behind them, and his powers couldn’t keep pace with history,” Galgut has Forster muse. “There would be no more books like this one.”

The Bexhill Missile Crisis • David Gee

Bexhill Missile Crisis by David Gee, review Polari Magazine

The Bexhill Missile Crisis


David Gee
224 pages • Paradise Press • February 26, 2014 [PB]
Tim Bennett-Goodman reviews
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National Service was where he first entered the shadowy world of men who lived two lives: the uncouth camaraderie of the barracks and the furtive fraternity of off-duty encounters in parks and public toilets. Sexual frontiers were approached and briefly crossed, but of necessity everything had to be hurried, there was little satisfaction beyond release and relief. 

Set in that apocalyptic week in October 1962 known to history as the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’, The Bexhill Missile Crisis examines the far-reaching impact of that dangerous period when the Cold War became red hot. This was five years before male homosexuality in England was partially decriminalized, which made all male sexual encounters illicit and fraught with danger. At the start of the Swinging ‘60s, the strains began to show at every level of English society, though they had yet to burst out into open social unrest. All that came later.

Philip Larkin’s observed that “sexual intercourse began between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.” By Larkin’s reckoning this would make the earth-moving event 1963 but in his author’s note Gee thinks 1962 would be nearer the mark. I do rather wonder if Gee is suggesting that sex and death somehow became inextricably linked in the 1960s as a result of the Crisis. It had certainly been so during the Second World War and there must have been a strong incentive to party like there was no tomorrow if it seemed all too likely that there would be no tomorrow.

As with The Dropout, Gee’s previous novel, The Bexhill Missile Crisis is set on the south coast. The central relationship is that between Andrew Rutherford and Evelyn Hunter (a female Evelyn in this case), which starts out as platonic and ends up as something else. Andrew is twelve years younger than Evelyn, who is respectably married to a stolid London jeweller, Sidney. It is the untimely coincidence of Sidney’s absence in Amsterdam on a diamond-buying trip, and the looming Missile Crisis that leads Evelyn, increasingly panicked, to agree to accompanying Andrew on his visit to Laurence, a wealthy, urbane hotelier as well as Andrew’s former lover.

Laurence lives with his teenage daughter, Sarah, in a mock-Tudor mansion in Sussex. Country house parties have been the staple of English novels ever since Jane Austen. They provide a convenient literary device for introducing disparate characters who might never meet socially in any other context, and who are thrown together in a remote location affording no escape. Gee follows this time-honoured tradition and does so with considerable poise.

It is whilst driving down the narrow Sussex lanes in an increasingly agitated state that Evelyn runs into (literally and metaphorically) the two youngsters, Malcolm and Pilgrim, who will go on to wreak  havoc and upset the already fragile equilibrium around them. As Malcolm is taken into hospital and Pilgrim installed in the empty flat above the garage of Laurence’s house, one grows to wondering whether this was really an accident or in some strange way a premeditated collision on the part of the two boys. Certainly, Evelyn ends up referring to the enigmatically named Pilgrim as “The Horseman of the Apocalypse” – and not without good cause as it transpires.

The scene is thus set for a series of reunions, dalliances and misalliances in which teenage sexual experimentation and sexually ambiguous adult liaisons, new and renewed, end in an inflammatory denouement. The deus ex machina is the young duo, Pilgrim and Malcolm, who become the pivotal catalyst for a series of sexual awakenings in the other house guests.

I’m actually not quite sure what to make of this pair of misfits. As a plot device I can see they are perhaps meant to personify the rebellious, sexualised youth of a time in which the nascent ‘teenager’ of the post-War era finally came of age as a social phenomenon. Gee uses terms such as ‘devil’ and ‘disciple’, ‘demon’ and ‘acolyte’ to describe the uncouth, priapic Pilgrim and his younger, mute sidekick. Are we to take them as being emblematic of ‘feral’ youth, as forces of nature, or metaphysically as evil sprites? There are certainly scenes in which Pilgrim and Malcolm could be seen as succubus and incubus. Their impish unpredictability and unexplained appearance, disappearance and reappearance, seemingly always as harbingers of some catastrophic event, may be intended to make us seriously consider the latter possibility. It is their final disappearance as if into thin air that sets the seal on an almost magic-realist theme in the novel which, though intriguing, I found difficult to reconcile with the rest of the piece. Perhaps it would have benefitted from further development.

Be that as it may, Pilgrim, though too brutish and uncaring to be a Mellors, in his sexually predatory behaviour and raw, lower-class, elemental way, evokes something Lawrentian. This may be signalled in one of Gee’s leading protagonists being called Laurence. There was undoubtedly a revival of interest in DH Lawrence in the 1960s, culminating in the 1969 film Women in Love, so the female orgasm which Andrew discusses with Evelyn seems in tune with Mellors’ and Connie’s physical relationship. However, I’m not entirely convinced by the discussion about bisexuality that ensues between Andrew and his boyhood friend and lover, David, which strikes me as possibly belonging to a later era.

There is more than a nod to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but there are also scenes which come perilously close to Cold Comfort Farm, which I cannot think was Gee’s conscious intention. This makes for a rather disjointed read in places, lending the novel a slightly unfocused feel overall. Whilst certainly no Curate’s Egg (the parts are all perfectly good in themselves), the whole is somehow less satisfying than the parts. Though puzzling, this was not too distracting and very far from disappointing – I genuinely enjoyed the novel, with these few caveats.

In parenthesis, it is worth considering that at around the same time as The Bexhill Missile Crisis is set, a real-life country house drama was playing itself out at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, again with Cold War connotations. This scandalous saga of politicians, prostitutes, pimps and peers – with spies thrown in for added spice – became notorious as The Profumo Affair. Despite these elements amounting to ‘truth stranger than fiction’, it seems to me that it takes a fictionalisation to properly explore the underlying zeitgeist inherent in such events and this is what Gee sets out to do. But, then, as a fiction reviewer, I would say that, wouldn’t I? 

The Days of Anna Madrigal • Armistead Maupin

The Days of Anna Madrigal, Armistead Maupin, review Polari Magazine

The Days of Anna Madrigal


Armistead Maupin
288 pages • Doubleday • January 30, 2014 [HB]
Christopher Bryant reviews
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The Days of Anna Madrigal is the ninth and final of the Tales of the City novels. And on that note there is a collective gay tear because it is the most significant series in the literature of the post-liberation era, a lionhearted, optimistic ray of light that sees the world not only for its struggles but for its possibilities. It is, as the 92 year-old Mrs Madrigal says of her helpmeet Jake, “like a unicorn in a forest”. Whenever I read a Tales novel, I feel as if I am enveloped in a world that is warm and that protects. That is not because it is safe – there is no lack of danger or conflict – but because Maupin has the uncanny ability to the make the reader feel part of the family of characters at its heart.

Anna Madrigal is that hope and possibility incarnate. She presides over the series like a monarch and mother combined, and is quite simply the greatest trans character in the history of literature. This final book is her book, the story of her final days. “You could see them as a loss, or you could see them as a simplification,” she muses. “Anna chose to think of it as leaving like a lady.” In preparing for the end, she looks back to the beginning, and the event that made Andy Ramsey leave his home at the Blue Moon Lodge in Winnemucca to start on the journey that would lead him to his true self. In becoming Mrs Madrigal, “she married herself, in essence, so she would not be alone in her skin”. This final book leads toward the revelation of the catalyst that made this happen, as well as the real significance of the name Mrs Madrigal.

To help her complete her unfinished business, she returns to Winnemucca with Brian Hawkins, who is now 67, and his new wife. At the same time Jake Greenleaf, Brian’s daughter Shawna, Michael Tolliver and his husband Ben plan to go to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada Desert. Jake has built an “art car” for the Mutant Vehicles Parade, a pod designed for Mrs Madrigal in the shape of a Monarch butterfly – what else? – and that bears the words “Anna Madrigal – World’s Oldest Transgender Activist”. The Monarch, as Anna instructs Brian, only lives for two months, and the butterfly’s long migration is therefore achieved over many generations.

“They have two months,” said Anna. “That’s it. But some part of them must know that they’re part of this endless continuum, this … community after death. And even if they don’t know, we know, and that itself takes your breath away.”

It is a flawless metaphor for the character and also the activism that underlies the many stories Maupin has told over the course of the series. The journey has no end, it merely continues. It is our role to carry on and to maintain its progress.

There has always been a wealth of heart in Maupin’s writing, both in the Tales books and the equally wonderful Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener. The Days of Anna Madrigal is no exception. That said, I struggle with The New Generation, and find Ben and Shawna fairly uninteresting. There isn’t the same level of the internal conflict that makes the other characters engaging. Maupin knows that we are all capable of doing the wrong and the selfish thing, whether that is because we are protecting ourselves, or lashing out in a moment of anger. That is what the flashback to the youth of Andy Ramsey is all about. It’s what makes characters like Michael, Mary-Ann, Brian, and Anna Madrigal so real. The New Generation seem to lack that dimension. Also, Michael spends far too much time thinking he is lucky to have the younger, attractive Ben, when really it is the other way around. I find it hard to be interested in Shawna’s success as a sex blogger, and as the author of a novel told in the form of text messages. Perhaps the fault is mine, and it’s just a generational problem. Nevertheless, the transman Jake Greenleaf is the exception. He is the most interesting and engaging of The New Generation. His conflict, his questioning, and the peace that Anna brings him, make for a rounded character full of life.

The Days of Anna Madrigal is an ending, yes, but it also an opening out, a step toward the future that is told with heart, hope and compassion. It is the end of a series that we are lucky to have had told, and that will no doubt continue to entrance and provoke for generations.

The Pretty Gentleman • Max Fincher

The Pretty Gentlemen 
Max Fincher
370 pages • Max Fincher • 30 December, 2012 [PB]
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Set amongst the metropolitan circle of artists, collectors and cognoscenti of the early-19th century, The Pretty Gentleman is not only obviously well-researched (as shown by the lengthy bibliography) but it is also complex, intriguing and ingenious. There is, indeed, a hint of Peter Ackroyd in its unblinking exploration of the dark, secretive and seamy recesses of historic London. It is interesting, too, in the way in which it portrays the queer subculture and how, then as now, it transcends class barriers. Barrow boys and peers of the realm mingle, socially and sexually, without distinction – or only the distinction of their natural endowments.

In the case of The Pretty Gentleman this is heightened by the intimate mixing of art patrons, artists and their male models, the latter selected from the lower echelons of society for their handsomeness and muscularity. In this heady and hedonistic milieu, horny-handed sons of toil rub shoulders (and much more) with horny aristocrats.

The Pretty Gentleman, Max Fincher, Review

The chilling subtext here, however, is that whilst to live the gay life openly at that time was utterly impossible, to live it at all was highly dangerous. Because it was illegal it could so very easily lead to blackmail, disgrace, imprisonment and even the gallows. So-called ‘Greek Love’ was a world away from the simple lifestyle choice it is often (rightly or wrongly) portrayed as being today. There was also the notorious Society for the Suppression of Vice which led to raids on ‘Molly Houses’, the secret clubs where gay men, often working class, met for companionship and sex. Such raids led to the ruination, even the brutal ending, of many of their lives.

Against this backdrop of pitiless legal, societal and moral proscription, the lives and loves of Fincher’s gay characters, of all classes, are necessarily closeted, secretive and paranoiac. The consequent intensity of emotions engendered amongst this rarified demi-monde leads to a febrile atmosphere of suspicion, jealousy and betrayal which, in The Pretty Gentleman, ultimately, ends in murder and vengeance.

The Pretty Gentleman includes the stuff of nightmare, the torrid passions of the Gothic Novel being acted out in chilling reality, so it is surely no coincidence that Fincher includes the real-life artist, Henry Fuseli (he of the grotesque 1781 painting, The Nightmare) amongst his protagonists. From the author of the scholarly Queering Gothic Writing in the Romantic Age (Palgrave Macmillan 2007) this should come as no surprise.

But there is pity, redemption and a happy resolution at the end of this novel, which comes as a welcome relief after what is a rather bleak, if compelling, saga. Sadly, as Fincher points out in his Note at the end, historical truth is almost stranger than fiction. There were many actual causes célèbres of this kind in the Georgian and Regency period, which can only make one truly thankful to be living in the age we do.

Several of the novels I have reviewed for Polari Magazine recently have been self-published, which is, of course, a perfectly creditable way of bringing new fiction to the attention of the reading public. The advent of e-books in particular has largely broken down the prejudice against an undertaking formerly (and rather sniffily) referred to as ‘vanity’ publishing.

There can be one problematic consequence of this form of publishing and that is the lack of editorial mediation. It may seem paradoxical, but an author working alone is not inevitably best-placed to showcase his own talent to advantage. An intermediary between writer and public can be very beneficial, if not essential, in proofing and revising a manuscript. Self-publishing often circumvents this process, which is not necessarily of benefit to either the author or his work.

The Pretty Gentleman, an otherwise promising first novel, is such an example. On the very first page of the Prologue, there is a typo (lead instead of led). Many similar glitches – including the awkward sentence “I was floating down a river against whose current which it was fruitless to swim against” – are scattered throughout the book. Whilst these are not enough to spoil the reading experience, an able editor would have spared the reader by spotting and eradicating such infelicities. (Having said that, I should reiterate the point I have made before about the lamentable state of in-house proof-reading.)

The Pretty Gentleman would be much improved (and may yet be at a subsequent re-printing) by the input of a ‘critical friend’, not only in ironing out basic typographical errors but in ameliorating the text through tidying up, and tightening up, its structure. That said, I found Fincher’s gay historical thriller, set in Regency London, thoroughly entertaining – an emotionally and intellectually engaging read.

True Story • Helen Humphreys

True Story: The Life and Death of My Brother
Helen Humphreys
224 pages • Serpent’s Tail • 11 April, 2013 [PB]
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Sub-titled ‘The Life and Death of My Brother’, Canadian author and poet, Helen Humphreys, offers in True Story (originally published under the title ‘Nocturne’) a poignant memoir of her attempts to come to terms with her grief at the sudden and unexpected loss of her younger brother, Martin.

Addressing him directly, she writes of her intention in recording her feelings in this way: “… my grief is not that orderly, or that disciplined. It lopes ahead, stops short. I am not really able to contain it, merely follow where it leads. My only structural constraint is that I have decided on forty-five segments for this piece, one for every year you were alive.”

True Story, The Life and Death of My Brother, Helen Humphreys

Martin Humphreys was a precociously talented and celebrated pianist who made his debut at London’s Royal Festival Hall at the age of twenty but who died tragically young after losing his battle against pancreatic cancer. In the forty-five short sections marking out Martin’s short life, his sister charts her journey through grief. ‘True Story’ is a meditation on life, death and the human condition, and one handled with the utmost delicacy and dignity – as possibly only a poet could.

There is anger too, naturally enough, but an elegiac tone pervades this beautiful short book, the writing of which must have acted as a form of catharsis or closure for Helen Humphreys. But it also anatomises loss by focusing on the small, prosaic, trivial, even banal moments of a life, and by examining sibling and family relationships and shared memories – and the accuracy of those memories when tested objectively against information that so often only turns up after a person’s death, necessitating an unexpected, and not always welcome, reappraisal.

Anyone who has suffered such a loss will recognise the accuracy of Humphreys’ observations on the trajectory of mourning – the numbness and pain, the confusion and denial, the eventual acceptance and even reconcilement – and this gives her work not only a particularity but a universality which, whilst at times quite shockingly clear-eyed and unsentimental, is at the same time strangely comforting. In her unflinching honesty she achieves minutely-observed, almost forensic precision yet does so without being brutal.

Martin Humphreys was straight but his sister is gay and she writes movingly of the way in which her grief, by forcing her to slow down,  also opened up the possibility of falling in love again: “It saddens me you’ll never meet Nancy, and that my new life is so far removed from my old one. And it feels strange to me that your death is the hinge between those two worlds, the point at which everything changed.”

Helen Humphreys, like fellow Canadian poets, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, also writes beautiful prose but ‘True Story’ is, in truth, an elegy; a poetic lament for the dead and especially for a loved-one lost far too early.

Art & Queer Culture • Catherine Lord & Richard Meyer (eds.)

Art & Queer Culture   
Catherine Lord & Richard Meyer (eds.)
424 pages • Phaidon Press Ltd • 1 April, 2013 [HB]
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Recently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York put on a small exhibition entitled ‘Rauschenberg and Johns,’ using works from the 1950s in their permanent collection to explore the relationship between the two great American artists, describing them as being “in dialogue with each other”. What the show’s curator failed to mention was that the two men were lovers for over six years during this time, and MOMA was accused of attempting to put Johns and Rauschenberg back in the closet, even referring to them at one point as “friends”. I was reminded of this by reading Richard Meyer’s introductory essay in Art and Queer Culture, a beautifully produced and expertly written survey of the relationship between visual art and transgressive sexualities, published by Phaidon.

Art & Queer Culture, Lord Meyer, Phaidon

Meyer tells the story of the nineteenth-century American socialite and photographer Alice Austin, who took thousands of photos of herself and her women friends, sometimes in cross-dressing poses, sometimes embracing like male companions. Austin lived for over fifty years with Gertrude Tate, until financial hardship in old age forced them apart. The farmhouse where they lived was recently officially designated as Alice Austin House, a museum devoted to her life and work. According to Meyer, “The House has let it be known, however, that researchers interested in linking Austin to lesbian history are not welcome. Although the website for Alice Austin House includes a wealth of information about the photographer’s life and work, the name of ‘longtime friend’ Gertrude Tate is mentioned once – and then only in passing.”

In a nice piece of coincidental counterpoint, Art and Queer Culture places work by Johns and Rauschenberg on the same page and says this:

Johns and Rauschenberg were circumspect about their relationship – neither secretive nor ‘out’ in the post-Stonewall sense – and the importance of their relationship has been a contested area in art-historical circles. ‘I remember once’, said Johns to critic Calvin Tompkins, ‘I was reading Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas to him, reading it aloud in the studio, and Bob turned and said, “One day they’ll be writing about us like that.”’

Complicated as it may have been, at least it doesn’t go ignored here.

Cross Dressers, Art & Queer Culture

It’s these issues of visibility that Art and Queer Culture seeks to address, as well as giving us a historical perspective on the development of the queer in art. Meyer’s essay chronicles the period 1885 – 1979, during which time the scientific category of the homosexual was invented, studied and categorized (gay individuals became predominantly visible as criminals or sick), up to the Stonewall riots and the birth of the gay rights movement. The second introductory essay, Catherine Lord’s ‘Inside the Body Politic: 1980 – present’, deals with the start of the AIDS crisis and responses to it in art, as well as widening the debate to include such topics as genderqueers, geopolitics, and issues around race and national identity. Both essays are lucid, informed, thoughtful and thought provoking. They are not overloaded with theoretical language, nor do they alienate with any narrow political agenda beyond presenting and re-presenting a range of work that is implicitly or explicitly queer. Even that contentious term itself is up for debate in Lords’ essay:

Acknowledging, once again, the insufficiency of language and the sway of insult, particularly in relation to sexual dissidence, let us call a queer a queer …  like the other words with which we are tested, ‘queer’ comes loaded with meanings that are not entirely in our control. It surfaces – for instance in this volume – as a linguistic term for resistance to the norm. It signals the preposterous hope that one word might summarise the various subcultural permutations that function in opposition to a mainstream that is gendered as heterosexual and raced as white. But sex, sexuality and sexual practices are neither transcultural nor transhistorical. Meanings shift as sexual practices intersect with race, class and nationality – among other factors. To compound the difficulty, though the identities plausibly labeled ‘queer’ have multiplied with the flow of global capital and information, the word is not a transcultural signifier. An unwieldy piece of Anglophone baggage, ‘queer’ crops up in other languages as a loan word, stripped of the frisson of insult.

This is one of the best explorations of what it means to use that word – a word I have grown to love – that I’ve ever read.

Art & Queer Culture, Polari Magazine

The book’s main section is a catalogue of works that covers 1885 to the present day. Each artist is confined to one work only so as to be able to include as many artists as possible. Images are accompanied by short but informative texts that put works into context and give biographical details where appropriate. The almost exclusively figurative nature of the works featured confirms the notion that queer art tends to be written on the body. In those few works where the human figure doesn’t appear, words and text take its place. There is very little pure abstraction here, which raises an interesting question about what queer art is; abstraction can be there as a form of codification that usually still has the body as its reference point. There is so much to discover and enjoy in this part of the book that goes beyond the obvious or the well known to widen and deepen our knowledge and experience of queer art.

The final section of the book is inspired. Lord and Meyer have provided a compendium of documents and extracts from texts that are contemporary with the works selected. This not only contextualizes the art works but adds a whole extra dimension to the reader’s engagement with the relationships between queer art and wider political, social and personal issues. Whether it’s an extract from Derek Jarman’s diaries, the Riot Girl manifesto, or part of the transcript of Oscar Wilde’s testimony of his trial, these documents give us another historical survey that illustrate how far we’ve come and how much people have fought for rights and understanding.

Art and Queer Culture is an invaluable resource for anyone studying, or even just interested in, the history of transgressive sexualities and gender politics in the visual arts and Phaidon’s characteristically high quality production values make this a pleasure to read.

Sketches of Spain • Federico Garcia Lorca

Sketches of Spain   
Federico Garcia Lorca
224 pages • Serif • 31 May, 2012 [PB]
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When the great Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca was seventeen, he travelled around his homeland with fellow students and his beloved, inspirational teacher, Don Fernando de los Rios. The writing he produced during his travels was published as Impresiones y Paisajes (Impressions and Landscapes) when Lorca was just nineteen years old. The independent publisher, Serif, have translated and released, for the first time in the UK, Lorca’s youthful work as Sketches of Spain. The book has been translated by the award-winning Peter Bush and is illustrated throughout by drawings from the artist Julian Bell. Both the terms ‘sketches’ and ‘impressions,’ capture absolutely the style and form of the book. Its significance lies in the way that it’s possible to see and, most importantly in the case of Lorca, hear him finding his extraordinary voice.

In the short Prologue Lorca feels his way into some of the guiding principles that stayed with him and developed throughout his writing. He tells us, his “Friend and reader”, that we will “recognise a rather vague melancholy” in the book, and he’s not wrong. He’s searching, as he would do all his too brief life, for the poetic, the spiritual, the beautiful, the fantastic, to become past, present and future. “In order to interpret”, he says, “we must always pour our souls over things, see the spiritual where it doesn’t exist, and endow forms with the magical frisson we feel. We must catch a glimpse of the ancient souls who once walked the solitary squares we now tread; it is essential to be one and a thousand, to experience things in their myriad shades.”

In the Monastery Church, Silos, LorcaAlley in the Albaicín, Granada, Lorca

As in his poems, he switches from the meditative to the questioning, to the declamatory, sometimes in the same paragraph – as if observing the landscape or a town, searching for meaning in it, and then crying out into the air. He sometimes addresses cities, buildings and landscapes directly, as “you”, clearly feeling deeply connected to all of them, whilst at the same time troubled by them, or sustained by them, or both.

In all of Lorca’s work landscape is rendered deeply symbolic, laden with meaning beyond the purely physical. The writing here is often highly imagistic, almost stream-of-consciousness at times. You get a real sense of place but always filtered through the nascent poet’s brooding imagination:

The sky began to compose its symphony in the lower key of twilight. The orangey sky opened out its royal robes.
Shoots of melancholy sprang from the distant pines, opening hearts to the infinite music of the Angelus…
The golden earth is blinding. Far-off places dream of nightfall.

This really could be from one of his poems. At another point Lorca writes, “You could say every single object has a sound… that light, colour and shape make sounds.” This is a poet’s unique way of engaging with the world – a mixture of synesthesia and sensitivity that Lorca deploys in ways that are brilliantly evocative:

An irremediable, sorrowing grief spills over the houses in the Albaicín and the proud red-green slopes of the Alhambra and Generalife … the colour changes continuously and, with the colour, the sound. Pink, red, yellow sounds, impossible sounds of colour and sound. Followed by a great blue harmony … the night-time symphony of bells strikes up … Almost all ring languidly, summoning us to the rosary … The river erupts into song. Light flicker in the Albaicín’s narrow streets, making the black cypresses shiver in gold … The Watch Tower begins its historic chant … Tiny, timorous lights shine on bell-ringers in their chambers …
A train whistles in the distance.

Lorca’s particular vision does mean that, sometimes, the prose becomes weighted down with imagery, but the remedy to that (if you need one) is to read these sketches as they are written – bit-by-bit – rather than as a continuous narrative of a journey. These are impressions you can dip in and out of.

Renaissance Plaque, Burgos Cathedral, LorcaS. Juan Evangelista, Baeza, Lorca

As well as communing with the landscape and towns, Lorca is most concerned with religion. In the guise of monasteries, convents and churches, this often feels as if it has been imposed on the land and the people who dwell there. Lorca can sometimes see the beauty of these structures, but more often than not he feels them as deeply oppressive, as distinct and distant from the spiritual or the Christian in its ‘pure’ sense. When visiting an enclosed order of monks in La Cartuja, Lorca describes how disconnected he feels this form of religion is from people and the world, and he’s too much of a sensualist to ever approve of such a life:

These Carthusians are great cowards. They isolate themselves because they long to live near God … I wonder which God these Carthusians are seeking. It cannot be Jesus … No, no … If these men made unhappy by life’s hard knocks were inspired by Christ’s teaching, they would take to the path of charity, not of empty, selfish, ice-cold penitence. Nothing is gained through prayer, just as nothing is gained through mortification. In our prayers we ask for what can never be granted. We see or would like to see a distant star, but it erases what is external, what is all around. The only path is charity, love for one’s neighbour.

Lorca’s sexuality is not explored at all in Sketches in Spain, but that’s not surprising. It was a couple of years yet before that same beloved teacher, Don Fernando, would recommend to Lorca’s parents that he be sent to a progressive university in Madrid. There he would meet and befriend other great Spanish artists such as Dali, Bunuel and Da Falla, and have the confidence and freedom to begin love affairs with other men, though he was rarely happy in his sexuality. What you can see is Lorca observing young men and women meeting each other, but he remains at a distance. He is also emotionally distanced – as if to guard himself – from what he sees on his travels, while demonstrating an awareness of the sensual nature of the interactions that occur in the town squares and bars, rather than in those that take place at church. Lorca’s adolescent yearnings are sometimes over the top, but if you can’t be like that at seventeen, when can you? Peter Bush’s translation is brilliantly fluid and inhabits Lorca’s poetic spirit beautifully. Julian Bell’s drawings have something of the same impressionistic, hazy, tentative quality as the prose, and make the perfect travel companion.

Retuerta, on Silos Road, Lorca

Looking at tombs in the mountain town of Burgos, Lorca meditates on artistic endeavour, human vanity and time, “the slayer of all vanity”. Contemplating the empty tombs leads him to meditate on how human vanity has “been so punished and mocked by centuries of leveling” and how “ all this must come to an end because the world and eternity are also but an infinite dream”. His own murder by Nationalist gunmen during the Spanish Civil War at the age of 38 makes any reading of Lorca’s thoughts on death resonate with totemic force. His own body, never found or identified, has become part of the Spanish earth that he loved.

In the Prologue to Sketches of Spain, Lorca writes, “See everything, feel everything. In eternity we will be rewarded for never abiding by set horizons. Love and charity towards everyone, respect for everyone, will lead us into the kingdom of the ideal. We must dream. Wretched the man who doesn’t, because he shall never see the light.” Thankfully, for us, Lorca did.

Petite Mort • Beatrice Hitchman

Petite Mort
Beatrice Hitchman
329 pages • Serpent’s Tail • 7 March, 2013 [PB]
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“I imagine the spells I would need to transform myself into her. In my mind’s eye I see myself in a dress that shimmers like fish-scales, my face heart-shaped, all my gestures graceful, surrounded by people who love me.”

This intriguing Paris-set mystery begins in 1967 as news researcher, Juliette Blanc, follows up on the rediscovery of a silent movie shot in 1913, which was assumed lost in a fire at the Pathé film processing factory before it could be released. However, when the master copy turns up in a domestic basement in Vincennes it is found to have a missing scene which, it seems, no-one can explain.

Meeting Adèle Roux, the now-elderly lead actress of the film who is still living in Paris, Juliette is led through a complex maze until, by dogged detective work, she eventually uncovers the shocking truth.

This debut novel by Beatrice Hitchman is a dazzling tour-de-force in which the writing – by turns sensitive and coarse, gentle and brutal, beguiling and horrifying – leaves the reader alternately seduced and repelled. Despite the ominous tone set by the sinister childhood sequences of Adèle and her younger sister, Camille, in France and of André Durand, the lead male character (one can hardly describe him as the hero – though he is undoubtedly dashing) in Louisiana, the reader is lulled into a false sense of security as they embark on their adult lives in Paris.

Petite Mort, Beatrice Hitchman, Book Review

The curiously enervating scenes in the bayous of Grosse Tete, which introduce us to the orphaned André growing up the adopted son of a plantation owner and his wife, are very evocative and have that drowsy sense of Deep South lethargy, melancholia and neurosis so familiar from the works of Tennesee Williams.

The strong theme of callous betrayal emerges on André’s sixteenth birthday but it only becomes apparent as the leitmotif of the whole book as one reads on. By then it is too late, and the reader has been seduced by the author’s siren voice, only to end up shipwrecked on the emotional rocks.

It took me a few pages to adjust to Hitchman’s idiosyncratic style but by then I was hooked and found the book utterly compelling, with an ending (which reviewers have been asked not to reveal – as if we would be so mean-spirited!) that comes as a genuine surprise.

Hitchman’s style is delicately allusive, with some tenderly drawn sex scenes, and all the more powerful for employing gentle hints and subtle insinuations the better to emphasise the submerged horrors when they suddenly surface to shock us.

Petite Mort (or Little Death, which is a metaphor for orgasm, but can also imply mortification) is a work at once tender and tough, and this perhaps epitomises the Anglo-Saxon image of Parisians. Having lived in the French capital for a year, Hitchman ought to know whether or not the stereotype any longer holds true of modern-day Paris, but she paints an utterly believable picture of Belle Époque Parisian society on the eve of the First World War, with all the brittle snobbery, insincerity, hypocrisy and casual cruelty of la belle-monde.

Adèle is plucked from the Pathé costume department by André who, though independently wealthy, devises special effects for films, and taken to live with him and his wife, Luce, as her personal assistant. The aristocratic (and Sapphic) Luce has become a major film star but her marriage to André, which started so passionately, has descended into a tragic and troubled one and Adèle finds herself not only as André’s mistress but as Luce’s paramour too. This secretive ménage à trois, conducted in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Durand’s grand but isolated home in the Bois de Boulogne on the outskirts of Paris, becomes stifling and, ultimately, destructive.

There is redemption and humanity at the end of the novel which, coming in 1967, perhaps presages Les Evenements, the student riots of the following year, when all the old, complacent certainties and conventions of bourgeois French society were finally swept aside.