The Immoralist

The Immoralist
André Gide
Difficulty: Hard
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Compare these descriptions of The Immoralist from two separate publishers:

Penguin Classics description:

“In The Immoralist, André Gide presents the confessional account of a man seeking the truth of his own nature. The story’s protagonist, Michel, knows nothing about love when he marries the gentle Marceline out of duty to his father. On the couple’s honeymoon to Tunisia, Michel becomes very ill, and during his recovery he meets a young Arab boy whose radiant health and beauty captivate him. An awakening for him both sexually and morally, Michel discovers a new freedom in seeking to live according to his own desires. But, as he also discovers, freedom can be a burden. A frank defense of homosexuality and a challenge to prevailing ethical concepts, The Immoralist is a literary landmark, marked by Gide’s masterful, pure, simple style.”

Vintage International description:

“First published in 1902 and immediately assailed for its themes of omnisexual abandon and perverse aestheticism, The Immoralist is the novel that launched André Gide’s reputation as one of France’s most audacious literary stylists, a groundbreaking work that opens the door onto a universe of unfettered impulse whose possibilities still seem exhilarating and shocking.

Gide’s protagonist is the frail, scholarly Michel, who shortly after his wedding nearly dies of tuberculosis. He recovers only through the ministrations of his wife, Marceline, and his sudden, ruthless determination to live a life unencumbered by God or values. What ensues is a wild flight into the realm of the senses that culminates in a remote outpost in the Sahara–where Michel’s hunger for new experiences at any cost bears lethal consequences. The Immoralist is a book with the power of an erotic fever dream–lush, prophetic, and eerily seductive.”

Notice how the second one makes practically no mention of homosexuality? This is actually a pretty common occurrence with this book; there is a large subset of readers who are absolutely adamant that The Immoralist is NOT about being gay. Homosexuality is only present, they would argue, it’s not the focus. In my opinion, that attitude is a product of that common problematic perception of sexuality as a purely physical trait or behavior. Gide’s book is not about the physical dimension of homosexuality, it’s about the psychological and ethical ones. Michel’s recognition of his true desires inspires a moral rebellion against the unspoken codes that govern our behavior. It awakens him to the realization that traditional morality often denies people the things they really want, and that very little stops us from shucking those chains and living as we like. I consider this book essential reading for queer men because we should be asking: If I am happier bucking the moral conventions of heterosexuality, what other moral standards should I question? Perhaps the answer is none, but the question should be asked anyways.

Be forewarned that The Immoralist’s transgressive themes are wrapped up tight in the coded language of the era and will require a little interpretation. It’s not a thriller or even a drama, it’s more a quiet, philosophical meditation on how one should live one’s life. Chances are many readers will have an intense dislike for Michel and his philosophy, which is an entirely valid position. In my experience, everyone seems to read this book a little differently. Some agree with Michel, some pity him, some revile him, but it is precisely because there is no consensus that it remains such a useful book after more than 100 years. It reminds me a bit of Lolita in that way, a cultural and moral flashpoint at which fundamental tenets of society are attacked and defended. And as I said, it’s not really about who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s about having the conversation at all. We become so used to the way things are that it’s easy to forget it’s not the way things need to be, and texts like The Immoralist remind us of that.

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 it, 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 often 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.

Cloudbusting

Cloudbusting
by Slade Roberson
Difficulty: Medium
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A common refrain I hear in the gay community is the desire for stories with gay characters “that aren’t about being gay.” I’ve always had mixed feelings about that line, because on the one hand, I understand what they mean and why they want it, but on the other, I’m not sure people agree on what that looks like. And that’s because the experience of being gay involves much more than romantic or sexual attraction to the same sex. Being in the closet, coming out, the scarcity of partners, the special attention to behavior, even just the relentless awareness of a fundamental difference between you and most of the people around you are all a part of being gay, though it’s experienced differently by different people. So the desire for a “normal” character who “just happens to be gay” sometimes seems to me to be a fallacy or an act of self-erasure. But occasionally I come across a story like Eric Slade’s Cloudbusting and it starts to make a lot more sense.

After his boyfriend unexpectedly left him for another man, college student Rusty Stewart finds himself alone and aimless one summer break in 1980s Georgia. But things become a little more interesting when his friend and drug dealer introduces him to Charlotte, an unusual woman who behaves like a southern belle and claims to control the weather, and thinks Rusty can too. Happy to have something to do, Rusty follows her lead and experiments with his dormant magic, when he’s not working or stumbling into awkward social situations that is. But as the summer wears on, it becomes increasingly unclear if Charlotte has Rusty’s best interests at heart.

Cloudbusting is an unusual book. It’s too short to be properly a novel and doesn’t fit into any marketable genre. The magical elements in the story are so subtle it’s ambiguous as to whether or not they’re even there at all, and while there is a plot, there isn’t much of a resolution. It’s like a smaller part of a larger story, and the feeling that there’s no beginning or end adds a lot to the sense of ennui and nostalgia that permeates it. As previously noted, Rusty is a complex, three-dimensional gay man, and while his experiences greatly inform his character, they don’t define it. Cloudbusting isn’t a romance, and I don’t even really think of it as a coming of age tale, it’s just a strange little novella I’m afraid few people will ever read because it’s hard to stumble upon something like this on accident in a digital marketplace where categorization is king. That’s partly why I started this blog to begin with, to curate overlooked books so that others don’t have to spend as much time sifting through the digital muck as I did. But even though I don’t really know how to define it, Cloudbusting has always stuck out to me as unique among the masses, and I hope it gets read.

Also, I greatly prefer the original ebook cover (featured above) to the print edition, which isn’t terrible, but does little to capture the feeling of the story.

Family of Lies: Sebastian

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Family of Lies: Sebastian
by 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.

The Thief’s Journal

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The Thief’s Journal
by 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.

City of Night

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City of Night
by John Rechy
Difficulty: Medium
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City of Night is the single most important book about American LGBT culture ever published. I cannot think of any other work which so honestly and lucidly depicts the many marginalized and underground communities that existed, and continue to exist, in American cities. It was published in 1963, well before the Stonewall Riots, and much of the events are based on Rechy’s own experiences, including the lesser known Cooper Do-nuts Riot in 1959 in which Rechy himself was arrested. Nearly every contemporary gay author praised the book, and it was enormously influential to the many upcoming gay writers yet to appear. Characters like Miss Destiny and Chi-Chi are permanently etched into my mind as the ancestors of every campy queen character to come after, and I have never stopped thinking about Sylvia and her endless wait or the protagonist’s decision in the final chapter. Obviously I can go on praising this book forever, but some more practical info is probably more useful.

City of Night is the story of an unnamed young man who has taken up hustling in various American cities. It’s split into numerous episodes focusing on one or another of the many people the narrator comes in contact with, and each episode is separated by reflections on America’s grand “city of night.” Sometimes these people are clients, other hustlers, or just members of underground communities, but all reveal important truths about what it means to live their lifestyles, and why so many people chose to. And it’s written in a Beatnik style, with lots of invented, mashed-up words that help to give the interactions an authentic, folksy feel.

There aren’t a lot of books that I would consider to be essential, but this is one of them. With City of Night, Rechy helped to usher in a new era of American gay literature, one in which writers proudly presented their worlds, warts and all, and made no apologies for them. But of course nothing is perfect. Some of City of Night’s episodes are much stronger than others. For example, Chuck and Skipper’s chapters have proven to be very forgettable, while the entirety of Part Four is now a permanent fixture in my mind. And if I recall correctly, there’s a notable lack of lesbians throughout the book. They’re present of course, but don’t get quite as much screen time. But I don’t think these issues do much to tarnish the book’s value. It still remains a towering literary landmark in the history of gay culture and I encourage everyone to at least give it a try.

Swordspoint

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Swordspoint
Ellen Kushner
Difficulty: Medium
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A blurb from Swordspoint’s Amazon page:

“On the treacherous streets of Riverside, a man lives and dies by the sword. Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes. Within this elite, dangerous world, Richard St. Vier is the undisputed master, as skilled as he is ruthless—until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead of awe, and the city discovers that the line between hero and villain can be altered in the blink of an eye.”

I confess I initially passed over this book several times because I thought the cover identified it as being from that strain of gay fiction in which beautiful men meet tragic fates (à la Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn), and I was and still am sick of those. So I felt pretty silly when I finally got around to reading it and it was nothing like that at all. Kushner identifies her book as being a “fantasy of manners,” a term she herself appears to have coined, meaning that it foregrounds high society and all its formalities and intrigue in place of traditional fantasy elements like magic or monsters. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it definitely worked for me.

The most interesting thing about Swordspoint to me is the overall structure of the narrative. The entire book feels like a small part of some other novel, one in which St. Vier and Alec are only minor characters. This other novel is a political thriller, a Game of Thrones-esque tale of courtly intrigue and treachery starring characters who enter and exit the scene while the reader watches mostly from St. Vier’s limited perspective. I found something calming in this temporary involvement in other people’s’ problems. Because St. Vier and Alec played little to no part in their creation, it’s easy to be wholly on the protagonists’ side although they of course possess their own flaws and foibles. Alec’s self-destructiveness and St. Vier’s cold efficiency make them a volatile pair, but that’s just one more way in which the book leaves me cheering for them.

I also want to mention that I find it remarkable that Swordspoint was published in 1987. I think the book has aged extremely well and should appeal to the Game of Thrones crowd, as alluded to above.