Authors and editors Peter Parker (Isherwood: A Life Revealed) and Richard Canning (50 Gay & Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read) talk about G.F. Green’s In the Making (1952) and Ronald Firbank’s Vainglory (1915), Inclinations (1916) and Caprice (1917), all recently reissued by Penguin Modern Classics.
What should a gay classic novel be, or do? Who is it for? What do we mean by the words “gay classic”? And what is the significance of the Penguin imprint, in suggesting the worth of historical gay fiction?
Expect to be introduced to two essential new titles by the editors who fought for these books, and who made re-publication happen. Hear of the laughs and tears involved in editing a Modern Classic.
In his time, G.F. Green (1911-77) attracted the praise of a formidable array of fellow writers, including E.M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, J.R. Ackerley, John Lehmann, and Alan Sillitoe, but his name is now largely unrecognized. Elizabeth Bowen rightly described him as “the most neglected writer of his generation”. He was the son of a Derbyshire foundry owner, and his richly imagined short stories of working-class life in the industrial North of England appeared in the leading periodicals and anthologies of the 1930s. They were eventually collected in Land Without Heroes (1948). During the war he served in what was then Ceylon in the commander-in-chief’s public-relations department, but in 1944 he was court-martialled, cashiered and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for homosexual offences. He suffered a breakdown after his release from Wakefield Prison, but recovered after becoming a patient of the celebrated lesbian psychiatrist Dr Charlotte Wolff, who had been recommended to him by his close friend Michael Redgrave. In 1950 he edited an anthology of stories on the theme of childhood, First View, which he dedicated to the memory of Denton Welch, and two years later published his masterpiece, In the Making, an intense, lyrical and beautifully written novel about first love. After a long silence, partly a result of heavy drinking, he published The Power of Sergeant Streater (1972), a triptych of novellas largely set in south-east Asia. The stories he was writing for a further volume when he died in 1977 were collected, along with extracts from his other books and the reminiscences of friends, in A Skilled Hand (1980).
Ronald Firbank (1886-1926) is a cult novelist who influenced Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley and Anthony Powell. His best-known works include Valmouth, The Flower Beneath the Foot and Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli. He has also been acclaimed by gay writers as diverse as W H Auden, Brigid Brophy, Edmund White, Patrick Gale and Alan Hollinghurst, who prepared an edition of Three Novels for Penguin in 2000, having also included Firbank as a fictional character in The Swimming-Pool Library. Comedian and author Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage) is another enthusiast. In his day, Firbank was known for his eccentric behaviour, ostentatious patterns of eating and drinking, his pursuit of young men and obsessive interest in Oscar Wilde, his friends and followers. He undertook relentless travels across Europe, the Caribbean and North Africa, but always stayed in close contact with his beloved mother, ‘Baba.’ Only one novel – Prancing Nigger, also known as Sorrow in Sunlight – sold well in his lifetime, but Firbank’s unnaturalistic fictional techniques (particularly his concision and treatment of dialogue) and embrace of many aspects of literary High Modernism have found echoes in hundreds of others’ works. A new life of Firbank is forthcoming from Canning, and there is every expectation of two further volumes of the novels, returning all of Firbank’s major works into print.
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