I’d never heard of Goytisolo or his memoir of growing up gay in Franco’s Spain (Forbidden Territory, trans. Bush, 1989). But if it’s good enough for Colm Tóibín, it’s good enough for me. “What I loved when I first read this book,” writes Tóibín in the Guardian, “was its hushed tone, as though you alone were being told hard secrets and complex truths by a man whose gaze was fully sexual, and also sad and wise.”
A handful of CanLit faves in honor of the big birthday:
Margaret Atwood, Life Before Man. Pre-dystopian Atwood, back when she was still writing tartly about men and women. Also a great portrait of 1970s Toronto.
Rudy Wiebe, A Discovery of Strangers. Indigenous peoples encounter English explorers in a 19th century landscape riven with grandeur. Astonishing writing.
Matt Cohen, Elizabeth and After. A fabulous finish to Cohen’s long career.
Mavis Gallant, A Fairly Good Time. A piquant look at a Canadian abroad written by one of CanLit’s most trenchant observers.
Richard Teleky, Pack Up The Moon. It’s hard to think of a substantial gay Canadian novel, but Teleky’s second effort, while no masterpiece, is a worthy contender. Funny and generous, it’s a perceptive paen to friendship.
Qiu Miaojin, Notes of a Crocodile, New York Review Books. Qui’s second novel appears in English for the first time. A queer cult figure in the Chinese-speaking world, the Taiwanese author died young in 1995 and most of her work has been published posthumously. One of her translators considers her work here.
Peter Ackroyd, Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day, Chatto & Windus. The prolific British author chronicles 2,000 years of queer history.
Pajtim Statovci, My Cat Yugoslavia, Pantheon. A gay Muslim from Kosovo who grows up in Finland tries to make sense of his experience with the help of an immigrant-hating cat.
Édouard Louis, The End of Eddy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A working class boy grows up gay in a violent, troubled community in northern France. A big hit in France, where the setting is thought to clarify the rise of the far-right, it’s been translated into more than 20 languages.
Simon Goldhill, A Very Queer Family Indeed, University of Chicago Press. Most of the kids in the Benson family were queer and everyone in this prominent Victorian clan was interesting. Arthur (A.C.) Benson edited Queen Victoria’s letters. His brother Fred (E.F.) Benson wrote the cutely camp Mapp and Lucia novels. There’s a great review by Philip Hensher here.
Edward Burra, Soldiers at Rye, 1941, Tate, © Tate
Gay art’s all the rage at the major museums. First there was Hide/Seek at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in 2010, then Masculin / Masculin at the Musée d’Orsay in 2013, and now Queer British Art 1861-1967 at Tate Britain. A survey show covering more than a century of queer life, it’s as much history as art, and there are odd little things, like the calling card on which Bosie’s nasty dad called Wilde a “sodomite,” that are surely more the province of an archive than a gallery. But judging from the distant view afforded by the internet, there are still a lot of images that stand on their own, without much need of historical explanation. It’s a big show – eight rooms – and were I in a hurry, I think I’d skip the pre-Raphaelites – so sad and damp – and the Wilde memorabilia, maybe take a quick peak at the Bloomsburies (great portrait of Vita Sackville-West by William Strang) and then head straight to the mid-20th century. I’ve seen enough Bacon and Hockney to know that I like them both and I don’t need that view reinforced here. But I’m curious about John Craxton and Edward Burra, both of whom are new to me. Burra’s bird-mouthed Soldiers at Rye reminds me of Gore Vidal at his best – that same savage mix of sex and politics. With their sharp beaks and massive butts, Burra’s soldiers look like they could eat you alive.
David Comber, Tim Post in It’s All Tru. Photo by Seanna Kennedy.
Hot older guy falls for hot younger guy and all goes well until younger guy has a bit on the side and then – well, in any normal play there’d be jealousy and insecurity and all kinds of other regular-type emotions. But this is a Sky Gilbert play and there’s a message and the message, while compelling and important and beautifully dramatized, almost gets in the way not of the drama but of its pathos. The characters are nicely drawn and the actors – Tim Post, David Coomber, Caleb Olivieri – do a beautiful job of bringing them to life, so it’s a shame that they don’t get to develop a bit more. Older guy came out late and is doing his best, younger guy is a bit of a ditz, but a ditz with a conscience, while the cute catalyst at the other end of the triangle is touchingly if unreasonably romantic. But none of them really get to work through the implications of their own characters because they’re too busy pushing the message, most of which revolves around the issue of unprotected sex and who’s responsible for what. In the end, Sky makes his point, and makes it so forcefully that you’ll probably want to go home and brush up on the issues raised, but it comes at the cost of the characters, who are so likeable you’d like them to stick around and maybe end up in a situation that’s a tad less black and white. Good play, but frustrating. It’s All Tru continues until May 14th at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Catch it if you can.
It’s a shame Evelyn Waugh didn’t write more about the nitty-gritty of gay life. He certainly had the material. He destroyed some of the diaries covering his gay phase, but kept others. In December 1925 Waugh and a friend visited a gay brothel in Paris, a café on the Rue des Ourses. Waugh, who was then 22, chatted to a 19-year-old dressed as an Egyptian woman, his friend to a “peasant boy.” Waugh thought his new companion attractive and even arranged a tableau whereby the young man might be “enjoyed by a large negro,” but balked at the price and left without having consummated the acquaintance. “I think I do not regret it,” he wrote in his diary.
I wasn’t going to read Sky Gilbert’s latest novel, Sad Old Faggot, until a friend said, “It’s awful,” and giggled. I wasn’t disappointed. From the in-your-face title to the endless jibes at celebrities and gay culture, it’s a very funny book. Inspired by a raft of semi-autobiographical fiction (see Sheila Heti), a very lightly fictionalized Gilbert rabbits on about his super-sad life as a 62-year-old gay man. Being a slut has always been part of his identity and now, well now he’s not so sure. And so we get a lot of stuff about his cock and his ass and his very sad sex life, and it might easily be seen as a case of way too much information, except that it’s funny and cutting and anyone who has been out for more than a few seconds will recognize some of the highlights. Dirty assholes and Daddy worshippers, it’s all here, and all delivered in a garrulous, chatty style that’s blessedly free of literary angst.
Things get a little weird in the final third of the book when he goes off on an almost Hollywood-style quest to find his true gay father, not least because the childhood reminiscences the search occasions are almost too charming. After chapters of very satisfying, true-to-life whining, it’s a bit jarring. And then in the very final pages, he gets all defensive about his relationship and how real it is and solid and important, despite the fact that he’s already established this in an earlier chapter and I think most readers would just take his word for it. As usual, Gilbert’s greatest weakness seems to be a beleaguered defensiveness that can cause you to shake your head in amazement. The guy co-founded one of the first gay theatres in Canada and has written 30-odd plays, so why is he so insecure? Still, he’s got verve and energy and he’s a winning guide to the vagaries of gay life. Who else is going to tell an “old ugly guy” how to get laid? (Hint: persistence.) Buy it for the cringe-making revelations, stay for the laughs.
Sexy is not the word you’d usually use to describe a show on moral reform and regulation, but the library’s Vice & Virtue exhibit is a real looker. Warm red walls, fabulous black-and-white photos and some zippy charts show just how far we’ll go to keep pleasure at bay. Prohibition, censorship and some really virulent homophobia – when it comes to policing the id, we’ve done it all. There’s only one small cabinet and a chart devoted to gay history, but it’s a cool little show, and the central image – blown up at the entrance – is alone worth the price of admission. A wonderfully dark and gloomy shot of Yonge Street looking north from below College Street circa 1914, it shows Toronto in an earlier low-rise era, the streets clogged with streetcars, pedestrians and even the occasional horse-drawn cart. There’s a pre-prohibition liquor store in the foreground – hard to conceive in this LCBO era – and the tower of an old fire hall in the left rear background. What the exhibition won’t tell you is that the tower once marked the site of one of Toronto’s most famous homo hotspots. For generations of Torontonians, the St. Charles Tavern was the gay bar. Gay men gathered in the huge, U-shaped space and on Halloween, homophobes arrived to pelt the drag queens with eggs. The bar went gay in the mid-1960s and remained so until its demise in 1987. The small TD Gallery always has some interesting shows but this is one of the best, especially if you’re partial to Toronto history. It runs until April 30, 2017.
Fun interview with the always witty Fran Lebowitz in the New York Times. Highlights: She reads at every meal, owns 10,000 books and avoids Kindles. She likes Henry Green and Wyndham Lewis but not Faulkner. If she can be this witty in conversation, why isn’t she producing more essays? Martin Scorsese’s 2010 documentary about her, Public Speaking, provided some answers but not enough.