Two Gay Novels

An interest in the Paris scene drew me to Tristan Garcia’s Hate A Romance. It appeared in the UK in 2011 in a superb translation, after winning France’s Prix de Flore for its 27-year-old author in 2008.

Hate A RomanceThe mixture of mad politics, hatred and gay sex is not my usual reading, but if you want to know what AIDS did to hearts and minds in the 1980s this is your novel. Two feuding men, Doum and William, apparently based on real characters, fight out their differences in the press. One almost breaks the other’s skull in a park. Doum is sensible, William is Dionysian, and it’s William we’re invited to concentrate on. William’s life in the face of death is mad, exuberantly unreal, desperate and ugly. To fight and to hate are his only resources. He tells an interviewer, in his brief taste of scandalous fame: ‘You don’t see how boring the world is, you don’t see how everyone goes round pretending. It’s like there’s a big hypocritical condom over the entire planet. We’re all going to die in the end — I forget who said that. Now…they want queers to collaborate with society, to live, to survive…we didn’t become queer for that.’

arkhive7 vienna actionism

William could be a piece of art from Vienna Actionism c 1970. (See the Vienna Actionists at Tate Modern’s disappointing current exhibition, The Bigger Splash. See how they lacerate and degrade each other in thick red paint. For them it’s war and the guilt of being Austria that’s not such a distant memory.)

The war and guilt in Hate A Romance follows on from the invasion of AIDS. The blend of protest politics and gay self-assertion gets more and more demented, ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ get twisted like railings in a car smash. There’s a fleeting moment of calm and happiness when William, who clings on to the sudden realization he’s Jewish, visits The Promised Land.

The obvious comparison is with Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which also won its country’s top prize. (But Booker prizes, even back in 2004, were already becoming like Nobel  Peace and Literature prizes – you felt there was some non-artistic gesture behind them.) Hollinghurst is a highly cultivated practitioner and I hugely admired his first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library. It was both a clever literary read and a revolution in its explicitness. Alas, by the time I got a hundred pages in to The Line of Beauty sex seemed like too easy a way to move the plot on. Over and over again guess what they did next. Meanwhile the neo-classicism of the style was about as moving as the broken pediments on Marco Polo House, that postmodern Lego building they were putting up in the 1980s at the south end of Chelsea Bridge. Strange, trivial decade.

Marco Polo House

Against that Hollinghurst’s actual story, of a young gay man Nick Guest, excluded from the high society he aspired to, was deeply moving. For once the 2006 tv version did a wonderful and for me better job than the novel itself. It’s funny how many clever, ambitious people in the 1980s aspired to being upper-class. I know what it is. I know enough people who were like that. It’s a form of self-protection and a hankering after a certain superficial beautification of life. Hell, it may even have been a cover for self-disgust. Don’t ask me for names. Hollinghurst gave new, gay life to that longing for self-salvation. He suggested it could be done by becoming an aristocrat with nice manners and a good written style. You had a good start if you went to Oxbridge, even if you were gay. Somewhere in there must have been something like Garcia’s gut hatred of hypocrisy.

Both of these are novels about outsiderdom. Being cast out was a kind of virtue in the 1960s (think of Camus’s Outsider).

camus the strangerThe question was, where was deep social critique going to come from if not from outside the conventional round. But under huge commercial pressure the 1980s were all about a new kind of conformity under the name of inclusion. The market did half the work and political correctness did the rest. Gays were ok, up to a point. These novels respond retrospectively to the then new forms of hypocrisy. Hollinghurst’s hero may dance with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but the highest he rises in society is as a fag to the heartless rich. In the tv film they were always sending him out to buy The Evening Standard. He made a useful escort to the drug-addict daughter whose problems her posh family ignored. As Nick’s mother observed with an ambiguity that turned out to be tragic: her son was quite taken in. Nick Guest? Nick’s Guest? Old Nick is the Devil.

Of Garcia’s two gay figures, one ends up an establishment figure in slacks and a cardigan, with his politics middle-of-the-road; the other is a dying metropolitan reject, his latest ‘novel’ straight away binned by his publisher who has moved on to new sensations. William slopes back to the provinces to die, like an old dog still wearing the pink tutu his stupid one-time owner dressed him in. Except William owned his own body, didn’t he? That was his point. Garcia includes as his narrator another desolate figure: a self-consciously childless woman in her late thirties who has three men in her life: two dying homosexuals and a married lover losing interest in her.

I suppose the temptation for this straight reader is to see in both these novels gay identity as a metaphor for something much wider, including narrator Liz: the deep exclusion which can just happen to unconventional people, and which politics can’t, and shouldn’t, try to ‘solve’.  Better to avoid distinctions between the centre and the periphery in our understanding of what’s valuable about human beings.

But you may read these stories from the edge quite differently.

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