Our Lady of the Flowers

Our Lady of the Flowers
Jean Genet
Difficulty: Very Hard
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I said in my post on Genet’s The Thief’s Journal that I preferred it over Our Lady of the Flowers, and while that’s true, Our Lady definitely deserves some time in the spotlight too. Many of the themes present in the former will also be found in this book, most notably Genet’s inverted Christian value system, which is discussed at greater length in the post about The Thief’s Journal. But unlike Thief’s Journal, Our Lady has a bit more in the way of plot and story, and adopts an impressionistic, hallucinatory style to tell it. Genet himself appears frequently in it as the narrator, and sometimes even pauses the story to masturbate in his jail cell. Indeed, he begins his tale by explaining to the reader that these are the stories he tells himself to masturbate to when he’s bored. While Our Lady does have some explicit moments, much of the novel’s content isn’t what most of us would consider to be pornographic.

Our Lady of the Flowers opens with the death of its main character, Divine, a cross-dressing homosexual (usually referred to as ‘she’) formerly known as Culafroy. DIvine has died of tuberculosis, and Genet portrays her as a holy saint ascended to heaven and sets out to tell us about her life. Prior to her death, Divine lived in a cramped attic overlooking a graveyard with her true love, a pimp named Darling Daintyfoot. When Genet isn’t showing us Divine’s childhood (when she was still Culafroy), he’s following Divine and Darling through the Parisian underworld as they interact with all manner of social outcasts and criminals. One of these criminals is Our Lady of the Flowers, a small time dealer turned murderer, who temporarily forms a ménage a trois with Divine and Darling before being caught by the authorities and executed. As previously mentioned, Genet is heavily present as a narrator and is constantly breaking in on his own story, further fragmenting an already tenuous narrative. 

I’ve always found the story behind this novel’s creation and publication to be particularly fascinating. Before he became a writer, Genet was a career criminal, primarily a thief, prostitute, and most unforgivably, a homosexual. Our Lady of the Flowers was composed entirely during one of his many stints in prison, and actually had to be written twice after a guard discovered his first draft and burned it. After his release, he introduced himself and his work to Jean Cocteau, and several years later, when Genet was facing a life sentence for repeated convictions, Cocteau, Gide, and other French luminaries advocated for his release on account of his great artistic potential, using Our Lady as evidence. And the French government let him go. It’s such a wild thing for me to imagine. I suppose we do similar things here in America, with pop stars and football players, but I don’t think they’re quite the same. Ours is a court of public opinion in an age of information for relatively small-time offenders, whereas Genet’s case was taken up by a few intellectuals arguing, it seems to me, for the primacy of art over law and order and actually winning. No doubt there’s a cultural divide that muddles my understanding of it, but there it is.

The Motion of Light in Water

The Motion of Light in Water
Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Hard
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Oh boy it’s Delany again! My bias should be pretty clear by now, but I can’t help it if the man is responsible for so many essential texts in gay literature, and in so many different genres. This time around it’s a Hugo award-winning memoir covering portions of Delany’s childhood up through the early years of Delany’s extensive writing career. The book offers a fascinating window into both the author and his environment, a newly bohemian, pre-Stonewall East Village. Among the numerous experiences he recounts are his marriage to the lesbian poet, Marylin Hacker, his foray into folk music, a nervous breakdown, and brushes with famous personages such as Bob Dylan, W. H. Auden, and James Baldwin. And of course, descriptions of New York’s homosexual underworld (the memoir is subtitled Sex and Science Fiction Writing after all).

There are a lot of reasons to read this book. The obvious reason is, of course, to gain a greater insight into the mind of a popular science-fiction writer, but that’s only one dimension of it. Interracial marriage, open relationships, pre-Stonewall gay life, mental health, the writing process, civil rights, hitchiking, these are only some of the topics covered by Delany’s memoir. By the age of 21, Delany had already written and published three science-fiction novels and was an active participant in the city’s avant-garde art scene at the time. Perhaps the overflowing creative forces around him contributed to the nervous breakdown that serves as the centerpiece of the memoir. Delany is quite open and matter of fact about it, as he is about everything, from the reality of being a professional writer to the ins and outs of anonymous sex in the city. It’s this frankness which forms much of the book’s appeal.

Besides it’s subject matter, what sets The Motion of Light in Water apart from other memoirs is the intense open-minded gaze Delany brings to bear upon himself. He is unafraid to criticize himself, or to plumb the depths of unpleasant and even traumatic memories. And he does all this with the skill of a grandmaster storyteller. The events and people he depicts are every bit as vivid as those in his science-fiction and makes the memoir feel more like a novel. There are moments throughout the text where Delany descends (or ascends) into the abstract and philosophical, usually when discussing art, and these can feel a bit confusing. But I found that as I read more of Delany’s experiences, I gained a better understanding of what he was talking about. In sum, Delany’s deft depictions of complex and wide ranging issues during a time of significant social change makes The Motion of Light in Water a seminal and essential work for any reader interested not just in gay history, but in 20th-century American history as a whole.

Family of Lies: Sebastian

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Family of Lies: Sebastian
Sam Argent
Difficulty: Medium
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This is my guilty pleasure book. It’s like a concentrated shot of angst, humor, and romance in a fantasy setting with no frills and I love it. Sebastian Orwell is the youngest son of a disgraced noble family and he just wants to be left alone. But when he finally gets a break from his incorrigible relatives, he chances upon the wounded Prince Turrin and knows his vacation is doomed. He tries leaving the prince in a nearby inn, where he’ll be someone else’s problem, but of course the prince insists on tracking him down to thank him in person. Now Sebastian finds himself unwillingly involved in combating a conspiracy against the Turrin, made all the more frustrating by the prince’s relentless romantic designs on him. Somehow, Sebastian will need to handle all of this without revealing his own powers, or the true reason he hides his face

For me, the chief appeal of this book lies in its dialogue. Every line in it is dripping in wit, and each character seems to have their own special brand. Sebastian and his improbably dysfunctional family share some of the most blistering exchanges, and it quickly becomes apparent why the title is Family of Lies, and why he’s always eager to get away from his relatives. Although this is a fantasy book, Argent doesn’t devote much time to initial world-building. Instead, much like a science fiction novel, she gives the reader information on the go, usually revealing it through interactions and dialogue between characters. This helps set a brisk pace that I found very engaging, but I could see as being a bit bewildering for some readers.

I know that the dynamic between Sebastien and Turrin is not particularly realistic or maybe even healthy (you probably shouldn’t go racing from town to town after someone who treats you with contempt), but it sure is fun to think about. It’s a bit heartwarming to watch Sebastian thaw towards Turrin over the course of the story, and as we learn more about both of the characters (and their families) their respective behaviors and attitudes start to make a lot more sense. For me, Family of Lies pushes all the right buttons so I don’t have much bad to say about it, but it’s definitely not a traditional romance or a traditional fantasy, so be prepared for something a little different if you decide to give it a shot.

Greenwode

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Greenwode
J Tullos Hennig
Difficulty: Medium
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Blurb from the Amazon page:

“When an old druid foresees this harbinger of chaos, he also glimpses its future. A peasant from Loxley will wear the Hood and, with his sister, command a last, desperate bastion of Old Religion against New. Yet a devout nobleman’s son could well be their destruction-Gamelyn Boundys, whom Rob and Marion have befriended. Such acquaintance challenges both duty and destiny. The old druid warns that Rob and Gamelyn will be cast as sworn enemies, locked in timeless and symbolic struggle for the greenwode’s Maiden.

Instead, a defiant Rob dares his Horned God to reinterpret the ancient rites, allow Rob to take Gamelyn as lover instead of rival. But in the eyes of Gamelyn’s Church, sodomy is unthinkable… and the old pagan magics are an evil that must be vanquished.”

I love retellings of classic stories and fairytales, especially when they’re tweaked or expanded to focus on different types of people (especially when those people are like me!). But to call J Tullos Hennig’s Greenwode a simple retelling would not communicate the depth and substance of the book. Hennig’s version of the Robin Hood myth is much more like Stephen Lawhead’s than Disney’s: complex, meticulously researched, and vividly realized. The culture and conflicts of the middle age setting plays a major role in the plot, and Hennig devotes plenty of energy developing Gamelyn, Rob, Marian, and others into believable, sympathetic characters instead of leaving them as mere mythic archetypes.

It’s important to know up front that Greenwode is on the longer side and ends in a cliffhanger. The sequel, Shirewood, is worth reading regardless, but I understand why the necessity of reading a second book might be frustrating for some. I found Greenwode to be an enjoyable historical fantasy/coming of age story on its own, but definitely a bit grim. The spectre of religious conflict seemed always to be present and gave even happier or funnier scenes a darker tone and sense of foreboding, and hit a little too close to home for me. But maybe I’m just not cut out for forbidden romances. The prose is pleasant and easy to read, and though the phonetic accents sometimes gave me pause I think they helped flesh out the setting in a meaningful way. Recommended for fans of high fantasy, forbidden romance, and myths or fairy tales.

The Thief’s Journal

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The Thief’s Journal
Jean Genet
Difficulty: Very Hard
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When people hear the name of Jean Genet, they often think of his famous first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, which he wrote during one of his numerous stints in prison. But I’ve always found The Thief’s Journal to be much more interesting. While both works are semi-autobiographical, The Thief’s Journal delves much deeper into Genet’s philosophical, perhaps even religious drive to debase himself in the eyes of society. This book follows a portion of Genet’s life dedicated to theft, prostitution, and other such immoralities as he travels throughout Europe and evades the authorities. It is loosely chronological, and written in the same dramatic, poetic language his other works are.

What caught the attention of so many critics, including French philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte, was Genet’s inversion of traditional morality. Society’s greatest vices became Genet’s greatest virtues in an overtly Christian sense. To be homosexual is to be one of the ‘anointed,’ and theft becomes a ritual comparable to prayer. To Genet, nothing was more beautiful than an act of betrayal, his counterpart to the Christian virtue of sacrifice. This perspective fascinated philosophers and intellectuals because such a conception of morality raised countless questions about why society values what it does, and what it might mean of those values are arbitrarily constructed.

So what does The Thief’s Journal have to offer a contemporary reader? Well, it’s a window into the mind of a social outcast, one which demonstrates why a criminal or deviant might behave the way they do. There is a scene in the book where the narrator (as a young boy) is asked why he stole, and he answers that he did so because the other boys thought he was a thief. The stories we tell about certain types of people or behaviours can cause them to become a reality. If we treat a boy as though he were a thief, or a homosexual as though he were a sinner, why should they not become one in fact as well as name? And if they are doomed to this role, why should they not glory in it, as Genet did? But The Thief’s Journal is definitely not for everyone. The subject matter is dark and the prose is dense and often difficult. There is also little in the way of coherent plot, as much of the text is autobiographical. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in LGBT history, the history of gay fiction, or existential philosophy, but be prepared to work at it a bit.

Jack the Modernist

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Jack the Modernist
Robert Glück
Difficulty: Medium
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Blurb from the inside cover:

“Set in the early 1980’s, Robert Glück’s first novel, Jack the Modernist, has become a classic of postmodern gay fiction. Bob is excited and lonely. He meets and pursues the elusive Jack, a director who is able to transform others without altering himself. Bob goes to the baths, gossips on the phone, goes to a bar, thinks about werewolves, has an orgasm, and discovers a number of truths about Jack. A paean to love and obsession, Glück’s novel explores the everyday in a language that is both intimate and lush.”

This is probably one of the edgier novels on this website. Robert Glück was one of the founders of New Narrative, a 1970s literary movement that aimed to depict subjective experiences as honestly and candidly as possible. In the case of Jack the Modernist, that means a lot of graphic sex. I admit I’m deeply skeptical of New Narrative–‘honestly depicting subjective experiences’ doesn’t seem very unique to me–but I do find something interesting about Glück’s pornography (though he might resent that label). In a way we’ve been scared of sex since the AIDS crisis, and our literature reflects that fear through our unwillingness to depict it in detail. So where should people go for honest, authentic portrayals of the act? The modern porn industry isn’t exactly the best place to learn about it, so books like Glück’s definitely have a purpose to serve in the culture.

I had a pretty lukewarm response to the actual story. A fairly typical tale of unrequited love in a promiscuous, pre-AIDS gay community. Very reminiscent of other ‘halcyon era’ books like Dancer from the Dance. Glück’s prose is pleasant, and the book is full of little postmodern flourishes which keeps it fun and flexible (some conversations are carried out like plays, for example). It’s also fairly short, which is to its benefit as I can only read about shallow gay men fucking each other for so long before I start to get bored. I don’t usually comment on the actual physical book itself, but the copy I own (linked above) is a nice little piece. Great cover, french flaps, with full page (black and white) images that complement the story’s events. All in all, while Jack the Modernist probably isn’t going to blow your mind, it’s interesting enough to warrant a look, and it’s low-commitment enough to probably be worth the time.

What’s Left of the Night

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What’s Left of the Night
Ersi Sotiropoulos
Difficulty: Hard
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To be honest I’d never heard of Constantine Cavafy before reading this book, which I purchased on a whim because I liked the cover. For those who are as clueless as me, Cavafy was a 20th century Greek poet now considered to be one of the most important of the century. He published few poems during his lifetime, possibly due to the explicit homosexual themes in many of them, instead sharing them mostly with friends or small newspapers. I’ve read claims that his poetry loses much of its meaning in translation, though I can’t confirm how true that is. He was admired by English writers such as Auden and Forster, so that should count for something.

What’s Left of the Night follows a younger Cavafy during a trip to Paris, well before he has become the accomplished poet we know he will. It’s a formative time for Cavafy, and Sotiropoulos depicts, in expressive, lyrical prose, his struggle with his sexuality, his family’s poor standing, and the numerous events shaping Europe at the turn of the century. It’s a window into the mind of a developing writer, one full of extended meditations on art and frustrating, even torturous struggles against his nature.

For me, the chief appeal of this book lies in the beauty of its prose. I do enjoy long beautiful sentences, and both the author and translator ensured that there are plenty of them. I have mixed feelings about the actual content. Knowing very little about Cavafy and Greek culture, there were numerous scenes in which I felt I was not able to grasp the entirety of the narrator’s internal commentary. But at the same time, I was exposed to many ideas and perspectives I had not previously considered. I enjoyed the book all the way through, but I’d be hard-pressed to explain what specifically made it so enjoyable to me (besides pretty sentences).