Christopher and His Kind

Christopher and His Kind
Christopher Isherwood
Difficulty: Medium
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In 1938, when he was only 34, Christopher Isherwood published his first autobiography, Lions and Shadows, about his schoolboy days at Cambridge with W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and other rising literary stars. I think that alone reveals quite a bit about his character, cocky, a little vain (I mean look at that title), writing a personal history before he’s even halfway through his 30s. Or maybe it tells us more about his method. Isherwood was an endlessly attentive and remarkably perceptive observer, and those he observed regularly found their way into his work, albeit by different names. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that someone so young might have so much to say about their life. But trust me, it’s also because he was cocky and vain if his depiction of himself in Christopher and His Kind is anything to go by.

Isherwood didn’t write Christopher and His Kind until his 70s, and it picks up more or less where Lions and Shadows leaves off, documenting his ten year emigration from England to California. In 1929 Isherwood had been living in Germany, enjoying the wild, sexually liberated nightlife he depicted so vividly in Goodbye to Berlin, but the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party forced him and his german boyfriend Heinz Neddermeyer to flee the country. Isherwood then spends the next decade bouncing around Europe, desperately trying to wrest Heinz from the legal clutches of his homeland. Isherwood depicts his journey with the help of his usual perspicacity and detailed journals from the time, writing about his younger self in the third person and giving his story a literary sheen not often associated with autobiography. 

The reason I started this post talking about Lions and Shadows is that Isherwood mentions it frequently in Christopher and His Kind, mostly with regret. What he regrets is his thorough erasure of any mention of homosexuality from a book purported to be autobiographical, and that’s part of his motivation to create this newer one. Isherwood’s young Isherwood is quite a character. An absolute diva, but in an endearing way, cocky, vain, and probably a genius. Faultlessly loyal to his friends, adventurous, highly emotional, and very privileged. His travels were exciting and unpredictable, it was rarely clear which exotic location he’d end up at next, and, not already being familiar with his history, I was never sure what the outcome of his odyssey might be. I don’t have much more to say about this one, an author of Isherwood’s caliber simply speaks for himself.

Also, I would like to formally apologize for using the word perspicacity, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

The Sins of the City on the Plains

The Sins of the City on the Plains
Anonymous
Difficulty: Medium
Project Gutenberg

The Sins of the City on the Plains was published in 1881, and is one of the first primarily homosexual works of pornography published in English. And it is porn, hardly different than the erotica we have available to us today. That’s what makes it such an interesting read. We usually imagine the Victorians as being socially rigid and highly moral, and while that’s true on the surface, the reality is that many Victorians adhered to those principles as little as we do today, and that fact is made abundantly clear in this text. The Sins of the City on the Plains is supposedly the memoirs of a male prostitute known pseudonymously as Jack Saul (a reference to the real-life prostitute John Saul, who was involved in multiple sex scandals at the time), though as the book was published anonymously, there is no way to know how ‘true’ it is. But whether or not the events of the book actually happened, it still offers us a window into Victorian-era homosexuality. Jack Saul recounts a variety of sexual experiences ranging from titillating to outright scandalous, featuring acts including but not limited to: rimming, sixty-nining, cross-dressing, mild-to-intense S&M, gangbangs, orgies, candlestick dildoes, and intercourse with a cow udder.

I don’t really know what I expected when I started reading this book, but it certainly wasn’t all of that. But why shouldn’t it be? Sexuality isn’t new, and there’s no reason to think that we’re particularly special in our own sexual practices. Though we fancy ourselves sexually liberated from the oppressive cultural regimes of the past, there’s actually quite a bit of evidence suggesting that isn’t true. Prior to the 1860’s, when intellectuals began categorizing sexualities, homosexual behavior wasn’t regarded as any more serious a sin than any other. Sodomites were looked down upon, but were viewed only as men incapable of controlling their impulses, not as a special class fundamentally flawed sinners. Foucault writes extensively about this in Volume One of his History of Sexuality, arguing that ‘homosexual’ did not exist before this impulse to categorize emerged, and it was the creation of this new category of people which formed the social framework that allowed them to be oppressed. Put another way, sodomy used to be something men did, not something men were. With that perspective in mind, it’s less surprising that the Victorians may have gotten up to such elaborate sexual hijinx.

The Sins of the City on the Plains was a fun, sometimes goofy, sometimes arousing read, but for anyone interested in checking it out themselves, I highly recommend reading the Project Gutenberg edition. The e-book version I originally acquired from Amazon features numerous revisions and additions that alter the tone and content of the book, and I’m very grateful to the Amazon reviewer who pointed this out. Some sexual descriptions are embellished to the point of comedy, and several of Jack’s heterosexual encounters are rewritten to feature men instead of women. Normally I wouldn’t complain about a book being made more gay, but since a significant part of its appeal stems from its historical authenticity, those changes make a difference.

Orlando

Orlando
by Virginia Woolf
Difficulty: Hard
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Here’s a summary of Orlando: a lonely young man with nice legs (very nice, we are repeatedly assured) gets dumped by a Russian princess after their ice river carnival was swept away in a sudden thaw. He’s sad for a while, and decides to go abroad as a royal ambassador. Then one night, in a flurry of trumpets and Spensarian theatrics, Orlando transforms into a woman for some reason (who still has nice legs). And everyone’s cool with, though she does need to go through a lengthy legal process to retain ownership of her property now that she’s a woman. So she returns to England, and spends time writing poetry and hosting famous poets at her estate. Eventually, Orlando wins her lawsuit for her property and decides to marry a sea captain named Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine (seriously). They then live happily ever after for at least several hundred years.

I love Orlando for how un-seriously it takes itself. There aren’t many ‘great English authors’ who were willing to let themselves have this much fun. Even when composing parodies or satires they’re always very serious about their art and their reputations, but perhaps Woolf cared less because she had other reasons for writing this novel. Orlando is sometimes called ‘the longest love-letter in literature’ because it was written for Woolf’s close friend and sometimes lover Vita Sackville-West, represented by the character Orlando. In Virginia’s eyes, Vita transcended the limitations of gender, time, and place, so Orlando does too (she must have had very nice legs too, if the pattern holds). I find it incredibly romantic that one of the most radical and celebrated novels of the 20th century sprung from such a relationship. What a monument to the lover!

While Orlando is one of Woolf’s most accessible novels, it’s still written in dense, high-modernist fashion and may prove a bit difficult at times. Goofy as the plot can be, it’s not really a laugh-out-loud comedy though it does have its moments. It’s a bit difficult to say how the character Orlando would be labelled in our current moment. The concept of transgender didn’t really exist at the time, and Orlando continued to dress as both man and woman as it suited them, suggesting that neither their male or female version is more correct than the other. The obvious term might be ‘genderfluid,’ but Woolf had some slightly different ideas about the relationship between the masculine and feminine. In A Room Of One’s Own, she muses upon the necessity for the artist to be “man-womanly” or “woman-manly” in order to consider all points of view and achieve lasting art. I find this interesting to consider in our era of names and labels. What if, fifty years from now, we discover we’ve had this whole gender thing wrong the whole time? Or some other aspect of sex and sexuality that we treat as fact today? Orlando helps us think about those questions, and so it remains one of the more important LGBT+ books yet written.

A Single Man

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A Single Man
by Christopher Isherwood
Difficulty: Easy
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Normally I write my own summaries for these posts, but I like blurb from the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition too much:

“Welcome to sunny suburban 1960s Southern California. George is a gay middle-aged English professor, adjusting to solitude after the tragic death of his young partner. He is determined to persist in the routines of his former life. A Single Man follows him over the course of an ordinary twenty-four hours. Behind his British reserve, tides of grief, rage, and loneliness surge―but what is revealed is a man who loves being alive despite all the everyday injustices.”

Christopher Isherwood is best known for his novel Goodbye to Berlin, which, through a series of adaptations, eventually became the famous musical Cabaret, but he is also, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and talented English writers of the 20th century. Isherwood seems to have known almost everyone who was anyone in the english literary world, and slept with half of them. He travelled extensively around Europe, barely escaping Germany before the start of WWII, before finally emigrating to the United States where he lived with his lover, Don Bachardy, until he died in 1986.

When it came to writing, Isherwood was an exacting craftsman, and A Single Man may very well be the most skillfully composed of all the books that have or will appear on this website. In fewer than 200 pages of accessible, insightful, and dignified prose, Isherwood depicts a day in a life, not of a gay man, but simply of a man. He does so with quiet pride, never apologizing to or asking forgiveness or even mercy from, a disapproving society. A Single Man is about age, grief, sexuality, culture, and time, but more than anything it is a contemplation of life as an outsider.

Fun fact: Isherwood and the poet W.H. Auden were lifelong besties and slept together on and off for pretty much their entire lives. They was bangin’, a lot.

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Isherwood (left) and Auden (right)

The Charioteer

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The Charioteer
by Mary Renault
Difficulty: Medium
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Though she’s better know for her rigorously historical fiction about Alexander the Great, Mary Renault’s The Charioteer was a very significant novel for the 1950’s. Historical fiction affords the author plausible deniability for their support of homosexuality, but The Charioteer was contemporary fiction, and one of a very, very small handful at the time positively depicting homosexual love.

Laurie Odell is a patient at an English veterans hospital recovering from an injury sustained at Dunkirk during WWII. He shortly becomes fast friends with Andrew, one of the orderlies and a conscientious objector, and soon their friendship evolves into something more. But Ralph, an old friend of Laurie’s from school, reappears and introduces him to a community of established, jaded gay men, and Laurie must choose between the physical and practical pleasures of Ralph’s world and the innocent and idyllic love of Andrew’s.

I’ve come to think of Renault’s The Charioteer as the gay Pride and Prejudice, not because the plots are particularly similar, but because she and Austen both approach romance with an earnest, honest, and literary pen. There is no love at first sight or perfect partner because loving another person is very difficult, and Renault is dedicated to exploring that process. It’s a slow burn, both for the plot and their relationships. A modern American reader might find some of the language or dialogue to be a little perplexing, though an English one will likely feel more comfortable.

Fun fact: Renault takes her title from Plato’s famous Chariot Allegory presented in the Phaedrus (which will someday appear on this blog). In it, Plato imagines a charioteer whose vehicle is drawn by two winged horses, one of which is noble and beautiful while the other is the opposite in every way, and their competing personalities make piloting the chariot very challenging. The first horse represents rational, positive passions such as morality, whereas the second symbolizes irrational ones like appetite or lust, and the charioteer must control both in order to guide the soul to truth.

The Swimming-Pool Library

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The Swimming Pool Library
by Alan Hollinghurst
Difficulty: Hard
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Alan Hollinghurst’s debut novel was considered by many to be a gay modern classic upon its publication in 1988, winning both the Somerset Maugham Award and the E. M. Forster Award. Though Hollinghurst has since outdone himself, winning the coveted Man Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty in 2004, The Swimming-Pool Library still retains a well-deserved place among the best of gay literature.

William Beckwith is an attractive, promiscuous, and exceptionally privileged young man. He is the grandson and heir of the very wealthy Viscount Beckwith, who has already bestowed much of his estate onto Will. As a result, Will does not need to work to sustain himself, and instead spends his time swimming at a prestigious club and cruising men in the locker room (and everywhere else). By chance, Will saves the life of an aging aristocrat, beginning a friendship between the two which ultimately leads to Will reassessing his perspective on the world.

To be entirely honest, I didn’t much care for this book when I first read it. Will is rather difficult to like, being an extravagantly wealthy, pre-AIDS fuckboy (still hot though), and the book has a narrative arc so shallow I didn’t even realize what it was about until I’d already finished it. By shallow arc, I mean that the events constituting the plot are not immediately obvious as being so. But over time the book grew on me. It is delightfully erotic, though rarely explicit, and modern, pre-AIDS stories are uncommon at best, and reveal an era before the intense sexual paranoia we are still recovering from today. It’s also, as you’ve probably already noticed, the place from which this blog takes its name, proving that it does have some staying power.