Friday, 21 October 2016

What I'm reading: 60-year old gay novel still shocks

Fritz Peters: FINISTERE


Another episode in my trawl through the gay ‘classics’.  Finist√®re was first published in 1951, three years after Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar. In many ways it’s a more daring novel. Matthew, our young hero, moves to France – the year is 1927 – with his mother following her divorce.  At boarding school he begins a relationship, more sexual than romantic (though nothing too explicit), with a fellow pupil. Then, aged fifteen, he falls in love with Michel, a thirty-something PE teacher. Their intense affair is explored from both viewpoints – and also from the viewpoint of the mother and stepfather. When Matthew’s stepmother enters the story, she and the stepfather begin the process of ‘outing’ Matthew and precipitate a terrible climax. Happy endings seem to have been ruled out in these early gay novels, although in all fiction a tragic finale tends to have more resonance.

The implicit element of pederasty – a slightly lesser ‘sin’ (or crime) than paedophilia – is largely overlooked by the author. He presents the relationship between the teenager and his teacher as if it’s entirely natural (which it is, obviously) and even normal, which it very clearly is not. This must have been a ‘shocking’ story in the 1950s. It’s fairly shocking today.

The writing is sometimes a bit precious, a bit ‘twee’. Perhaps because of the French setting there’s a Proustian attention to details of setting and moments of introspection. Rapid switches of viewpoint, much frowned on by writing schools, are always disconcerting for the reader. And of course it’s a bit dated, but the struggles of a teenager with his sexual identity are as relevant now as they were sixty years ago, and Matthew’s difficulties in coming to terms with divorce and step-parents are powerfully conveyed. Overall this is an elegant read and a story that engages the reader’s emotions.


Even in these liberal times of ours there are many places (not all of them in Muslim countries) where homosexuals face intolerance and often persecution. In the ultra-liberal West we face a growing threat from the forces of ultra-conservatism. We need to keep our guard up.

Friday, 27 May 2016

RIP: Helen Lambert Gee - a fine artiste, a true friend

RIP


Helen Lambert, who has just died at the age of 80, was one of my oldest and dearest friends. If you think you recognise her in the photo, it might be from BBCtv’s The League of Gentlemen where Helen ran a (poison!) pie stall during one and a half series in Royston Vasey. Or you might have seen her in one of her many TV commercials, most famously for Flash cleaning products.

I met Helen in the Nell Gwynne club in the crypt of St Martin’s in the Field when I was a 20-year student in 1962 and she was an out-of-work chorus girl. The following year she joined the touring cast of Joan Littlewood’s Cockney musical Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be; her dressing-room in the Devonshire Park Theatre when the show came to Eastbourne was the first dressing-room I’d ever been with – unless you count the vestry at Hailsham Methodist Church where I used to write/act/direct shows in my teens!

In Scotland in 1963, still with Fings, Helen had a fall onstage but carried on performing despite agonising back pain which was eventually diagnosed as a fractured spinal disc. Hospitalised for more than a year and told she might never walk again, Helen – typically and literally – did not take this lying down. After months of therapy she was back on her feet and by 1968 was dancing on stage with Harry Secombe in a musical version of The Four Musketeers; Helen understudied Elizabeth Larner in the lead and took over for many performances.

Helen had a fine coloratura soprano voice and could belt out a song as ‘powerfully’ as Ethel Merman; her comedic skill was at least as good as several other contemporary actresses and comediennes  (as we used to call ladies of the theatre in those days). But she never got that big break and had to rely on working as a guide for the British Council to supplement her sporadic earnings on stage and screen. As well as commercials and appearances with Dick Emery, the Two Ronnies and two series of ‘Uncle Jack’, she was in the chorus of the movie version of Oliver! and had a featured role in the 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes.

She was very active in Equity, the actors’ union, and served on the executive committee for many years. After retiring from The British Council, she became a magistrate in Camden. Her spinal injury was a recurring problem and required further surgery, but despite this and other health issues Helen carried on working, mostly in commercials, at home and abroad, into her seventies. After an unhappy first marriage (I gave her away at her first wedding) Helen found happiness and lasting companionship with Ray Gee (no relation to David Gee!), who this year has also suffered declining health.


Loyalty was Helen’s most notable characteristic. She was a pro-active friend to many people, in ‘the business’ and outside. She was a tireless supporter of my slow-burning writing career: I dedicated The Bexhill Missile Crisis to her in 2014, though she thought it was a bit too rude! Those of us who were privileged to know and love her at a personal level, will miss her hugely. She was a woman of substance with a substantial talent that did not get the recognition it deserved. 

Friday, 22 April 2016

What I'm reading: Gore Vidal - America's gay pioneer

 Gore Vidal: THE CITY AND THE PILLAR


Continuing my intermittent trawl through through the 'classics' of modern gay literature, I've just re-read this novel from 1948, which I think is the very first 'home-grown' gay novel in the US. The literary establishment - and the critics - were vicious in their condemnation of Vidal. He rewrote the book in 1965 with major changes and this version, still reprinting today, has sold millions. The revised ending is less melodramatic than the original (murder) but the hero's "hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-wronged-faggot" action seems equally out-of-character.

Vidal's writing, especially in the later volumes of his American History series, became verbose and flatulent, almost a parody of Henry James. The City and the Pillar, like many early novels from writers in the 40s and 50s (and still all too often today), shows clearly the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald: lean, finely-honed prose with a kind of muscular elegance, which works supremely well for this chronicle of the coming-of-age and the coming-out of a gay high-school senior during WW2 and its aftermath. Jim Willard's briefly reciprocated love for a fellow student casts a shadow over the next decade of his life as he becomes a sailor, then a tennis-coach (and kept boy) in Hollywood and New York.

Scenes in NY and LA offer early glimpses of the archness that were to characterise the author's public persona in later life and reach an apotheosis in Myra Breckinridge and Myron, the two-volume high-octane farce which for many readers is at once his best and his worst writing. Ronald Shaw, the closeted actor who keeps Jim for a while, an on-screen macho-man who is privately needy and insecure, calls Rock Hudson to mind although the time of the story means he's more likely to be based on Randolph Scott or perhaps another version of the author. Paul Sullivan, the writer Jim comes close to loving, doesn't suggest Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams, the 'obvious' candidates for a gay author, but again he may just be a twist on Gore, as Jim obviously is. In fact there are many moments that seem to demonstrate how a writer chops his own life into pieces to provide the basis for different characters, although in his autobiography Vidal insists his protagonists are not based on real people except for Bob Ford, Jim's lost love, and a woman 'inspired' by Anais Nin, whom Gore claims to have romanced. Many scenes - and many of the characters - could as well belong to New York or Los Angeles of today as to the 1940s. Except for some clunky conversations exploring the 'Nature Of Homosexuality' which must have seemed insightful as well as daring in 1948, this is a lot less dated than other gay novels of the era.

The sex scenes are almost as discreet as Mr Forster's - there's nothing as lurid or as dazzling as Gore would later concoct for Myra/Myron. But overall The City and the Pillar is not only an outstanding piece of gay fiction (better than many that were to come after Vidal opened the floodgates) but also one of the best novels of its era, different from but as exquisitely readable - still - as the early works of Capote and Carson McCullers.

In later life Gore overdid the bitchiness and bitterness, perhaps disappointed by his failure to make it as a realm presence in US politics, the role he most craved. But his output as novelist, historian and essayist was prodigious. Other writers may have left a bigger footprint (Roth, Mailer, Updike, Irving,), but Vidal deserves to admitted to the literary pantheon. He wouldn't thank me for this, but he is probably, as Somerset Maugham is supposed to have said of himself, "in the very front rank of the second-raters".

Saturday, 9 April 2016

RIP, Jackie: "tasteless and flashy" to the end!

Jackie Collins: THE SANTANGELOS


We're not supposed to speak ill of the dead - so here goes! I gave up on Jackie Collins many books back. Yes, her Hollywood novels are glamorous and gossipy, like the film and pop 'fanzines' whose style she writes in, but the formula became very repetitious. And this one is no exception. We're not told how old Lucky Santangelo now is, the ruthless hotel and film studio mogul who is also the insatiable wife of comedian Lennie Golden and matriarch to a brood of gorgeous but dysfunctional children, now grown, who variously model, act, sing or run nightclubs. As always, there's lots of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. One of her characters uses "amazeballs" as a superlative, an adjective I'd only previously heard on TV's Miranda show. Everyone else uses the f-word, of course, excessively. "Tasteless and flashy" is how one bitchy character describes Lucky to her husband. There's no arguing with that.

Again as before, there's a vengeful psycho stalking Lucky's family and friends. This one, topically, is the ruler of an imaginary Arab state called Akramshar. His name is King Emir Amin Jordan - shouldn't that be al-Jordan? And how did her editors let ludicrous King Emir get into print?

RIP Jackie: will she write from beyond the grave?
Ms Collins writes her own kind of prose, which almost defies criticism. An undercover cop "was Puerto Rican and verging on pretty, in a tough 'don't fuck with me' kind of way." The bar on this sort of writing has been lowered rather than raised by la Collins during her long reign as the Queen of Hollywood fiction. She was famous for her raunchy sex scenes, all written with sledgehammer subtlety in fifty shades of scarlet and often unintentionally (or intentionally?) comic: "Men got off on her nipples; in full bloom, they were quite spectacular."

Harold Robbins, without any grand aspirations, was a much better writer: The Carpetbaggers and The Adventurers had all the greed and gossip of a Collins novel, but his style had a kind of Mickey Spillane crispness and grandeur. Jackie Collins occasionally reaches for crisp but she cannot (couldn't) do grand.

Billed as 'The Final Chapter' in the life of Lucky Santegelo, this ninth instalment may not be the last. Harold Robbins carried on writing from beyond the grave, and so too may Jackie Collins. There's gold in them thar cemeteries.

The fabulous Collins sisters - only Joan is left now
Two weeks ago I reviewed a Southern Gothic thriller that was one of the best books I've read in the last few months. The Santangelos is far and away one of the worst: scrappily plotted, poorly written and under-edited. Total tosh, in fact, but - although I skimmed through chunks of it - I had to read through to the end! Jackie Collins had her own kind of magic: RIP.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Wot I'm reading: Another girl gone in this stunning thriller

John Hart: THE LAST CHILD


It's six months since I discovered John Hart, reading Iron House, his most recent novel (there's a new one out next month). Iron House blew me away. The Last Child is his previous book, similarly set in North Carolina. 13-year-old Johnny Merrimon's twin sister was abducted a year ago and never found. His father has disappeared; his grief-wrecked mother has taken up with a bullying property magnate. Johnny spends many hours scouring the area looking for clues to his sister's disappearance. Another abduction and an encounter with a black vagrant who seems to know something spur the boy on. One local detective also refuses to let the case go cold and tries to watch over Johnny and his mom.

This is not a new theme but John Hart gives the story a Southern Gothic twist that makes it feel fresh and exciting. His prose style is as rich as Stephen King's: one suspicious local man "was sixty-eight, with bristled hair, two loose teeth  and eyes like raw oysters."  There's a riverside cemetery scene with an atmosphere that calls Charles Dickens to mind. The suspense builds to a vivid, visceral climax that tears at your heart strings.

Hart is a real find. Thrillers don't come any better than this. I can't wait to read the next one.