Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Look Down in Mercy

For a first novel, Look Down in Mercy is an extraordinary achievement. Like many fictional accounts of the Second World War, it is based on first-hand experience. Walter Baxter had taken part in the 1942 campaign against the Japanese in Burma, and had joined the subsequent retreat into India. The novel's version of these events is rendered psychologically plausible with a wealth of detail about physical and mental endurance, in a hostile climate, on the face of an unforgiving landscape, and at the mercy of an efficient and ruthless enemy. As a hardcore novel of warfare, it is persuasive and compelling.

But there is more to it than that. This is more than a pulp-fiction account of heroism and derring-do. Despite its depressing moments of racism about both the Japanese enemy and the Indian allies—moments which, like the book's similar evidence of routine sexism, are quite unremarkable for their era—the novel is no mere celebration of British strategic or moral superiority. Yes, it includes accounts of Japanese war crimes; but its British central character, Tony Kent, is all the more interesting for the fact that, in his personal relationships no less than his professional behaviour as a soldier, he is morally compromised throughout.

A further degree of complexity is added to an already sophisticated book by what we might call its 'gay theme', the intimate relationship that develops between Kent and his batman, Anson. So anguished is this relationship, on Kent's part at least (for Anson seems to accept it in good heart, with a docile equanimity that is often very moving), that it is perfectly in keeping with the context of the war. Like the retreat into India, on foot and in the extremes of illness and thirst, the love affair is no sentimental romance, but an epic of resistance and endurance. Even if the protagonists survive, it is hard to see how their love will.

Kent's attitudes to homosexuality are unquestioningly negative. Most of his moments of intimacy with Anson are compromised by guilt feelings and followed by attacks of self-loathing or, at best, of regret. Even at the decisive moment of their first embrace, while the narrative suggests the abandonment of scruples ('without considering the consequences'), nevertheless we are told that Kent puts his arms around Anson 'believing that what he was about to do was utterly disgraceful and criminal'. (Not until 1957 would the Wolfenden Report recommend the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts, and not until 1967 would those recommendations be enacted, if only in England and Wales; but this liberalisation would not apply to the armed services.) So deeply ingrained is Kent's disapproval that, even when disregarding the specific consequences of this particular embrace, at this exact moment, at this precise map reference, he cannot help being flooded with an awareness of the possibility of social scandal: informally, in any social milieu he knows, this sexual act must be judged 'disgraceful'; and formally, should it ever reach the courts, martial or otherwise, it must inevitably be judged 'criminal'. So much for the pleasure of the two men's first embrace.

In the morning, Kent feels 'misery and regret' over what they have done, even if 'he could almost feel love' for the man he is lying next to. In the hours that follow, he deliberately takes on a risky leadership role that he might normally have delegated to one of his non-commissioned officers, in part because 'he wanted to prove something to himself and to Anson, but what it was he did not know'. To have become the lover of another man—if only perhaps once, only perhaps in a moment of weakness, only perhaps for lack of the presence of women—is to run the risk of obliterating one's masculine identity, albeit while still wearing the uniform and insignia of membership of the armed services. To have spent a night in another man's arms is to call into doubt one's manly capabilities. Hence the test and the proof. In the hot light of day, 'something' needs proving, to the satisfaction of both parties. At this stage, it seems, Kent wants to prove that last night was an aberration and that he is still a real man.

Kent has read the British newspapers and he has seen, or heard of, the visible presence of homosexual men in Britain. In no respect does he identify with them, either as individuals or as a cause:

As for being a pervert (the word conjured up, for him, repelling images of furtive old men peering over the tops of public urinals, clergymen volunteering to undergo 'treatment' for six months to avoid prison, and effeminate shop-assistants talking like a music-hall comedian), last night was the first time that anything of that nature had happened to him.

He persuades himself that nothing of the sort would have happened if he had not been 'away from Celia for so long' (she being his wife); and that no such thing will happen again because he intends to track down 'that nice nurse' Helen Dean, with whom he spent a drunken night on the ship that was taking them to Rangoon. In other words, regardless of his fondness for Anson, he knows he does not belong to any of the limited range of homosexual types he is aware of—never having actively sought sexual contact with another man, never having been deemed a suitable case for either treatment or punishment, and not being effeminate (even if this needs proving to himself and Anson)—and he knows that, as soon as suitable circumstances can be arranged, his heterosexuality will prevail.
That is one step towards reassurance on the morning after. More difficult to achieve, because demanding a lack of witnesses, Anson's discretion, and continued vigilance, is that nobody else should ever become aware of the two men's relationship. After they first spend a night together in the security and comfort of a private bedroom and bed, Kent is again both ashamed and calculating: 'He had committed the unforgivable sin, and now there was nothing to be done except not to be found out'.

As we have seen, on the morning after their first encounter, Kent reassures himself that 'last night was the first time that anything of that nature had happened to him'. But, as it turns out, he has either forgotten his own schooldays or discounted them. There is a conversation between him and Anson, much later in the book, in which Kent explicitly claims never to have done 'anything like this' in his life. Anson, who presumably has, suggests that he must at least have 'known something about it … when you were a kid at school. Kent replies:

Yes, but that was different, utterly different. You must know what little beasts boys are. It was just dirty-mindedness, it didn't mean anything. Once, maybe twice, fooling around in the lavatories.

He adds, 'It wasn't anything like this.' This lack of meaning, as attributed to sexual encounters between schoolboys, clearly refers to the 'passing phase' theory of adolescent homosexuality, so useful to excuse the past indiscretions of men who had been through the English public (i.e. private) school system. Youthful experimentation, lack of female company, the hothouse atmosphere of a closed institution—these allowed for both romantic attachments and (as long as no one caught the miscreants) frictional release. But his and Anson's relationship is, as Kent says, 'utterly different'. It is, of course, more dangerous—running the risk of court martial and imprisonment or 'treatment'—and, as he has finally begun to realise, more meaningful. What he does with Anson is no mere 'dirty-mindedness'.

When the odious Goodwin arrives, 'venomous and sneering', to attempt to blackmail Kent, all of the latter's fears about the consequences of his 'criminal carelessness' prove justified. (The novel's opening chapter, in which Anson and Goodwin take a shower next to each other, proves to have been a mischievous diversionary tactic on the part of the author.) Imprisonment apart, blackmail was the main risk homosexual men faced during the era of criminality. It could be the outcome of any homosexual encounter with a stranger; and it could result from the negligence allowing a third party to witness a compromising encounter. Fear of blackmail kept many men celibate.

Walter Baxter exploits such fears for most of the novel, using Goodwin to embody the threat. The fact that we know he is a murderer eliminates any moral ambiguity about his repulsive personality. It is always going to be hard even for the homophobic reader to sympathise with him when he calls Kent 'nothing but a bloody nancy boy' and a 'gutless nancy', since he is such a manifestly nasty piece of work. Indeed, even the homosexual reader might understand how Kent, when faced with Goodwin's threats and insults, reflects that 'he would rather be suspected of murder than homosexuality' and picks up his revolver...

Goodwin is all bad, Anson all good. Both are rather two dimensional characters. But, as I have already suggested, the real power of this novel comes from Baxter's willingness to develop a central character who is morally ambiguous even to the extent of being thoroughly compromised. Kent is both a hero and a coward, a saver of lives and a killer, a homophobe and the lover of a man. He treats Anson as if he were disposable—and we can be sure that he would sacrifice Anson if his own safety were at stake. Anson knows this. And yet, in spite of all the negative aspects of his personality, Baxter still manages to use Kent as a positive representative of homosexuality: masculine, patriotic, mature and capable (in all these respects matching the less visible but steadier Anson).

Similarly ambivalent are both of the book's two endings, that of 1951 for the British market, and that of 1952 for the American (printed here as an appendix). One is unhappy and the other happy, but neither is definitive. I shall not go into detail about this, but Baxter clearly wanted to leave open the possibilities in each, not least in their moral implications. Compared with the heavy-handed alternative endings of Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948 and 1965), one involving murder and the other rape, these are—even if dramatic—subtle and suggestive in ways that, in both cases, appropriately round off a novel that consistently avoids resorting to the obvious.

Walter Baxter's second novel, The Image and the Search (1953), about a widow who takes several lovers in a quest to replace the image of her late husband, turned out to be far more controversial than Look Down in Mercy. In March 1954, Lord Beaverbrook used the pages of the Daily Express to put pressure on the publishers, Heinemann, to withdraw it. They did so, and also withheld it from Putnam's in the USA. In October of that year, publisher and author were charged under the Obscene Publications Act. They had to endure two trials before finally being acquitted. Anticipating by some sixteen years the absurdities of the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover, one of the prosecutors asked, 'Would anyone give this book as a present to his daughter or his typist?'

Like E.M. Forster before him, Baxter found the pressure not to write about the topics that interested him too much to bear, and he gave up writing. Instead, he eventually became a successful restaurateur. His greatest success was in running, jointly with his lover Fergus Provan, the Chanterelle in South Kensington. If at some point he makes an appearance in Christopher Isherwood's diaries as a self-pitying drunk, we can offer him the courtesy of our indulgence. After all, this was a man who had written two daring and accomplished novels, both of which raised the topic of homosexuality at a time when for a homosexual novelist to do so took some nerve. And, having been daring, he had been ordered not to dare.

[This essay was first published as the introduction to Walter Baxter, Look Down in Mercy (Richmond, Virginia: Valancourt Books, 2014), pp.v-x).]

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Brodsky in Exile

[Review of Brodsky Abroad: Empire, Tourism, Nostalgia, by Sanna Turoma (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 2010). This piece first appeared in Studies in Travel Writing.]

For some, exile is imprisonment, for others a liberation. The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky had both experiences, having been in the first instance sent into restrictive internal exile, with hard labour, and in the second released from the USSR altogether and thereby rendered free to travel the world. After the question of whether leaving the homeland was chosen (James Joyce) or forced (Ovid, Alexander Solzhenitsyn), the principal factor in how a writer copes with exile is language. There are degrees of exile, and one of the determining factors—as anyone who has lived in a ‘foreign’ culture knows—is whether you can easily have a conversation with the native speaker: exile to a place which speaks your own language is much less of a displacement than to be lost in the babble of an alien tongue. Exiled writers may stick to their own language as a means of clinging to their own culture and customs (Solzhenitsyn) and go on writing in it and developing it beyond the confines of everyday use (Joyce), or they could develop a fluency in the language of their place of exile and start writing in it as well as in their own (Samuel Beckett).
Once Joseph Brodsky had turned himself into what some reviewers were able to refer to as an American poet—by translating his Russian work into English and beginning to write directly in what can, at best, be called an idiosyncratic version of English—he effectively neutralised his expulsion from his homeland. Yet isn’t being a poet itself a kind of exile? When Rimbaud said Je est un autre, he was referring to his poetic persona. When we write or read out our poetry, as distinct from our prose (even prose fiction), we are ventriloquizing an alien voice, even if it is enacting a version of ourselves. That is why it is quite wrong to think of poetry as the most personal of the literary modes. Even when at his most reflective, Brodsky looked outward, as if from a peak in Darien.
In 1964 he was sent into internal exile in the Archangelsk region, sentenced to forced labour for his ‘social parasitism’. While there, he spent his evenings reading English and American poetry from an anthology he had taken with him. The sentence was commuted in 1965, but the parasitism continued to irritate the authorities until 1972, when he was expelled from the USSR. Put on a plane, he was completely unaware of where he was being sent. Only after landing in Vienna did he find out. One logical eventual destination might have been Israel; but the logic of his cultural interests—and the past trajectory of his master, W.H. Auden—led him to the United States, where he lived for the remaining twenty-five years of his life. He died in New York in 1996, aged only 55, but was buried in Venice.
There is a restlessness in Brodsky’s work that has something to do with the ambition to make major works. Even in his celebrated ‘Elegy for John Donne’ of 1963, which begins in the stillness of the inanimate objects around the poet’s death bed, Brodsky cannot resist drawing his focus back to take in the whole house, then the snow-filled streets around it, then the whole cityscape of London, then the island itself—all shrouded in silence—and, beyond it, the immensity of Donne’s importance and the consequentiality of his loss: ‘there are no more sounds in all the world’. By thus claiming universal significance on Donne’s behalf—especially when one considers that Brodsky had read virtually no Donne at the time of writing, apart from ‘No man is an island’, which he thought was from a poem—Brodsky incidentally does the same for his own reputation. A good deal of ambitious purpose is on show in the geographical mobility of his work, easily contrasted with the trivial, touristic postcard-poems that have become such a common feature of recent verse.
The date of his forced emigration from the USSR looms large, as a psychological border-crossing, in all the narratives of Brodsky’s life except his own: for he always played down the extent of the change, referring to the move to the USA as a spatial continuity. Yet in order to make this case, he had to downplay the clear fact that he had yearned for escape from the country of his birth to an extreme extent. This is evidenced by the fact that he and a friend planned to hijack a plane out of there, and they even bought tickets for the flight before Brodsky got moral cold feet.
Sanna Turoma says Brodsky was ‘not a travel writer, but he was a traveling writer’ (p.6). He did not set out accurately to record what he saw on his journeys for the sake of readers who did not know the places or peoples he was visiting. Instead, he allowed travel to set off whatever reflections occurred to him. No objective observer, he used the world he observed to make him think. And he was, of course, a poet. There is an argument—and it is worth according at least some respectful attention—that a poem can never be about a ‘real’ place. The transformative properties of verse—or, at least, those of verse that is intensively wrought and therefore manifestly not designed to do the job of prose—may leave behind the reporting function, the mimesis, of prosaic realism. Whereas the conventional travel writer may be attempting a reliable record of journeys taken, the poet will use those journeys as mere starting points.
There was a lot of intra-Soviet travel in Brodsky’s early verse, much of his reporting of it influenced by his reading of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and T.S. Eliot. Clearly, within his own mind, he was already lighting out for the territories and going West. It seems he already wanted to be an American writer. Valentina Polukhina has pointed out that ‘the image of a man in exile’ appeared in his verse ‘long before his exile’ (p.38). Displacement preoccupied him from the start. This is, in part, a matter of Modernist association with the solitary (male) individual who is never at home; partly a sense of himself as a Jew, ever the outsider, nomadic in intelligence even when not so in person.
In line with Modernist tradition he regarded exile as ‘a metaphysical condition’ (p.21), not a political one. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, he was happy to have escaped the USSR and thereby gave himself the luxury of ostentatiously ignoring the situation there. For Ovid, exile was a terrible cultural deprivation. Solzhenitsyn was like a baby torn from his mother’s breast. But, as I have said, for Brodsky enforced exile opened up a wealth of voluntary opportunities. As Turoma puts it: ‘The freedom to travel and to exploit non-native territories for literary purposes was granted to Brodsky by the coercion of exile, and it is the experience of exile and tourism—two major forms of displacement, often perceived as conflicting human conditions—that creates the crux of much of Brodsky’s post-1972 writing’ (p.10).
Although he lived in New York City for many years, he wrote hardly anything about it. Yet he was very much an urban writer, in both his verse and his prose. Turoma concentrates a large part of her study on Brodsky’s essays on Istanbul (‘Flight from Byzantium,’ 1985) and Venice (Watermark, 1992), triangulating his exilic consciousness between those cities and his birthplace, Leningrad, rather than with anywhere in the United States. Each of the three cities is a liminal site, perched on the edge of a culture and looking away from it while yet deriving power from its very marginality. Comparisons can be made between the re-namings (St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad, St. Petersburg; Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul), the topographical situation in such close contact with water and waterways (the Neva and the Gulf of Finland; the Bosporus and the Golden Horn; the Grand Canal, the lagoon and the Adriatic). They are cities in which the permanence of art is set up as if in defiance of the manifest impermanence of water; and yet, as any artist or architect who sought to create permanence out of such a location was aware, the restlessness of the seascape would ultimately prevail. Brodsky certainly knew this, acutely aware of the ephemerality of his assaults on eternity.
From a Western viewpoint, the USSR was eastern even at its westernmost and most Western point, Leningrad; yet to a native of that city, Leningrad was more Western, more European, more modern, than Moscow. Brodsky’s version of the USSR was a challenge to Edward Said’s Occident/Orient dichotomy, or complicated it at least. He was a fully signed-up Westerniser, by contrast with Slavophiles like Solzhenitsyn. When he wrote about Istanbul he seemed wholeheartedly to subscribe to Orientalist mythologies of the sort identified by Said. Although he knew the whole of the USSR was oriental to western Europeans, with whom he identified culturally, he still saw Turkey as more oriental than the distant outposts of Soviet-influenced Mongolia. For all that he was an exiled dissident, he subscribed to the values of ‘Leningradian Eurocentrism’ (p.143) when responding to voices in the east of the USSR asserting their cultural validity. Turoma attributes this awkward position to ‘a nostalgic attitude towards Russia’s and Europe’s common cultural heritage of imperial myths’ (p.228).
Turoma is good at associating Brodsky’s Venice within a context of Russian literary representations going back to Pushkin, as well as English ones going back to Shakespeare—and in her reading of Brodsky she rightly associates Pushkin’s ethnic marginality with Othello’s. But, although he anchored his work in European traditions, in the end he felt more at home in the history-light archipelago of American universities. It is no coincidence that one can sometimes hear, in his work in English, something of the tone of Vladimir Nabokov. Even so, Brodsky never stopped seeing the world in European terms. Indeed, in effect, Europe was his world because it had Europe’s cultural history. The New World was just that—new—so in Rio de Janeiro he dismissed his host city, and by implication all of Brazil, as being without history. He was loftily dismissive of the post-colonial leftism he encountered in Mexico. He seems not to have had the same problem, or not to have had it to the same extent, with the places he visited or lived in in the USA. Above all, he regarded movement and displacement as a condition of human existence. I am reminded of Zbigniew Herbert’s notion of ‘a true journey’ being one ‘from which you do not return’—the universal instance being the journey of life itself.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

John Barton, HYMN

A review of John Barton, HYMN (London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2009)

I have always been interested in the fact that the very people who issue gay works of art, having done so, then hold back from properly marketing them as such. This commercial ploy, or lack of one, is most conspicuous, I think, in the rear-cover blurbs of DVDs, which very rarely mention the gayness of films’ themes, plots or characters. It is as if, having funded the production of the gay work, publishing houses and production and distribution companies then want to recoup their losses by conning a wider audience into believing what they are about to buy is as wholesomely straight as Sarah Palin.
            I have observed the same tendency even in the blurbs of poetry collections, which, these days, are hardly likely to turn the heads of a mass market, no matter what is written on the back, or even the front, of the books. In the case of the present collection by the distinguished Canadian poet John Barton, the publisher’s website speaks of it as a ‘journey in search of love through the contemporary homoerotic male body’, adding that ‘Hymn stokes the fires of homoerotic romantic love with its polar extremes of intimacy and solitude’. Now, ‘homoerotic’ is, surely, not such a very controversial word, but it does not appear on the book itself—not even a book that, like this, has a picture of two, or perhaps three, men (almost) embracing on its front cover.
The pithiest thing about the book is the pun in its title, suggesting a hymn to him (whom?). The word also always brings ‘hymen’ to my mind—but perhaps, in this case, that is one distraction too far. In an interview on his publisher’s website, Barton says, ‘Hymn puts words to the music of disappointment and aspiration that gay men often feel in the pursuit of—and during the detours they take, consciously and unconsciously, on the way to and away from—love.’ This parenthesis, this detour on detours, is typical of Barton’s work at its best and worst—the individual reader can make this qualitative choice. There are times when it is the length and convolution of his sentences that absorbs one’s attention, rather than the argument itself.
Of course, when I suggest of a poet that he uses too many words, I feel like Joseph II: ‘Too many notes, my dear Mozart!’ And Barton is indeed prolix—but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The Canadians, too, have learned from the greatest bard of their southern neighbours, Walt Whitman, how to encompass an enormous land mass in verse that is both expansive and yet also, somehow, to the point. But the main technical dialectic with which Barton engages is Ezra Pound's. There is some purpose for any modern, Anglophone poet in countering the rules of Imagism as laid down before the First World War by Pound, or at least in straying from them when the mood strikes. There is no absolute reason why poetry should state things more briefly than prose would. Why should it not luxuriate in the flow of language for its own sake? Barton clearly knows that, as well as the Chinese and Japanese miniaturists, Pound also admired the profuse verbosity of Chaucer and Browning.
In a poem addressed to ‘Drella’ (Andy Warhol), Barton refers to his characteristic grammatical unit as ‘this kleptomaniac run-on sentence’, suggesting that the point of the thing, like that of Whitman’s lists, is accumulation rather than the ravelling of a complex argument. I am all for complex sentences—there are not enough of them in modern poetry. (A plague of parataxis in Britain has left most of our lyric poets incapable of stringing together a two-clause sentence without fucking up its grammar.) But I do not consistently feel the same confidence in Barton’s control of syntax, when he is digressing, that I do feel when going along with the grammatical arabesques of Marcel Proust or Henry James, when circumlocution and prolixity seem so tightly harnessed to the complexity of the thing being said and the meticulousness of the thought process. Those two great masters of digression never ramble. They never lose their concentration; and as a result, when reading them, neither do I.
Contrary to the publisher’s website, it is really only in the fourth of the book’s five sections that Barton explicitly dwells on many aspects of contemporary gay life and the ancient variants it seems to echo. His long poem ‘Days of 2004, Days of Cavafy’, about and addressed to Constantine Cavafy, speaks of the great Greek poet’s relationship with the classical world as a kind of mutual or reciprocal invagination: ‘the whole of an ancient world inside you / and you inside it’. Here, for the second time in the book, the lines are so long that the poem is printed at ninety degrees to the convention, so that one has to hold the book sideways, one page above the other. This cleverly discomfiting ploy subverts one's confidence and makes the very act of reading seem strange--'queer', if you must. Usually, one only holds a book this way up to look at certain kinds of illustration.
The poem is broad in its sweep as well as its line. Violating one of the sacred principles of Foucaultian queer theory, it claims connections between the sexual lives of men in different places and different times: ‘men who travel lives not too indifferent / to our own, travelling from Sparta to Thermopylae, from Sussex Drive to Albion Road’—the latter being streets in Ottawa. At first, ‘indifferent’ looks like a malapropism for ‘similar’; but one soon understands that each generation of man-loving men takes an interest in others both past and future, with an associative desire that is wishful and wistful, all the more powerful for the distances it manages to span.
By the end of the poem, it is clear that Barton is looking back to ancient Greeks, not merely from Cavafy’s modernity, nor even from his own post-modernity, but from some imagined future point, from which even our most cherished technological and verbal innovations (an earlier poem has invoked Cavafy in the abbreviations of text-speak) will seem primitive. When he addresses ‘men of the future looking backwards’ he inevitably echoes our position in relation to Cavafy, or Cavafy’s to Plato, and takes bodily possession of the words such men once addressed, and continue addressing, to posterity.
            Barton’s versions of gayness are full of paradoxes, not merely mimicking (as so much modern camp does badly) the wit of Oscar Wilde, but purposely convulsing our chronologies and complacencies by questioning what we take for granted as their logic. The poem ‘Fucking the Minotaur’ threads its way through the labyrinth of a gay bathhouse and the less convoluted maze of the metro journey home, interestingly concluding that the latter is by far the more erotic space. In another poem, Barton’s take on ‘Amnesia’, that condition so perfectly confuted in its own etymology, has gay men going about their business among the heritage sites of modern Athens, not only making (in Browning’s evocative phrase) ‘love among the ruins’ but reviving what entropy had once undone. It is as if the poet were to counter the pessimism of Eliot’s claim, ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’, not much less than a century later, with his own, these ruins I have shored against my fragments.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

A Room in Chelsea Square

A Room in Chelsea Square was first published anonymously in 1958. Its author was a charming but rather ineffectual young man called Michael Nelson (1921-1990). It is a book that excites very different responses. To some, it is a camp tour de force, full of wit and whimsy, a waspishly self-deprecating view of a certain type of homosexual circle from within its soulless heart or heartless soul. Some people find it very funny.
            To others, especially in the decade or so after first publication, it is a parade of negative representations of homosexual men, following many of the imposed, homophobic stereotypes of the age and ending with an obligatory, if somewhat peripheral, death. Falling into the hands of the isolated gay teenager, it was not likely to raise the spirits; it could not foster pride or solidarity. This is not a novel about what was then called the 'homosexual problem'. Nor is it about what so many publishers' blurbs used to refer to as 'the twilight world of the homosexual'.
            It contains no social defence of same-sex love. In that regard, it is not what one would happily call a 'gay novel' at all. It has not a single attractive and sympathetic character with whom the gay reader can identify. There is no plea for tolerance, let alone acceptance. If any of these characters are meant to be representative, the book can add nothing to an argument in favour of law reform. Although they seem never to be having sex with each other (that has to be assumed between the lines, where plausible), these are far from being the discreet, well-behaved, consenting-adults-in-private envisaged by the Wolfenden Report (which, in 1957, recommended reform of the laws on homosexual acts in England and Wales). They socialise in public places and behave with ostentatious sang froid. If hidden at all, they are, like Poe's purloined letter, hidden in plain sight.
            And yet, one might argue, it is the very lack of an affirmative or apologetic theme that is so impressive about it. Its main virtue is that it takes homosexuality completely for granted. There is anguish aplenty, but not about being gay. Most is about being unloved or unmoneyed. Perhaps that is the point: there are more important things to worry about—a poorly cooked meal, an ill-chosen tie—than the trivial matter of being queer.
            Other than by reading the publisher's blurb, how does the reader first learn that the book's central characters are gay? The narrator never says this of them. We do hear that Patrick was sent down from his Oxford college for calling the Warden 'an old-fashioned suppressed quean'; but not until later in the book—and then only by inference—shall we realise that this is also a pretty accurate description of Patrick himself.
            Only two words are ever used, throughout the book, to denote a homosexual man; and each is used only once. In the case just mentioned, Patrick uses 'quean' to insult an older man; and, much later, the newspaper editor Stuart Andrews refers to Ronnie Gras, mistakenly, as a 'pansy'. Never are any of the central homosexual characters explicitly referred to as such, either pejoratively or otherwise. Indeed, in the whole book, there is not a single explicitly positive reference to homosexuality at all.
            One other pejorative term does come up, if only by the implication of its opposite. When Patrick suspects Nicholas of having brought a woman back to the flat in his absence, he contemptuously refers to him, and to others of his ilk, as 'you normals'. He is wrong about this: for, as far as we can tell, Nicholas is as much of an abnormal as Patrick himself. This crude terminology is ultimately derived from a discourse that was especially powerful in the 1940s and 1950s, that of the mental health industry. It was an era when the skills of parenting were policed with constant references to the 'normal' and the 'abnormal' child. Despite his sense of his own superiority to popular culture, Patrick has internalised this discourse and is apparently happy to spit it out at one he supposedly loves.
            The date of publication (1958) places the book just after the Wolfenden Report (1957), recommended law reform (not to be achieved until a decade later). But this is misleading, since Nelson actually wrote it in the late 1940s. The early version was called A Room in Russell Square and its relationships were heterosexual (Patrick was an unlikely Patricia). One can see why it failed to find a publisher, lacking the unique selling point of its homosexual theme. The delay in publication also helps to explain why its few cultural references seem a bit out of date: W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, both of whom the character Christopher quotes, are more closely associated with the 1930s (at the end of which decade, Auden famously emigrated to the USA). A Rodin sculpture and a Picasso etching are mentioned—hardly the cutting edge of new art in contemporary London. This adds to a general impression that, notwithstanding their pretensions to cultural significance, these men are all marginal to London's real literary and artistic scenes. They are just a little bit out of touch.
            Popular culture is hardly visible at all. Nicholas does goes to the cinema, but we are not told what he sees. Only when his landlady has a few critical words to say about Diana Dors do we get the slightest whiff of what the majority of Londoners would have been consuming in their cultural lives. Only Christopher mentions anything that seems to have got into the book during its revision for publication in the late 1950s. At one point, he says 'I'm not an existentialist'. This is, characteristically, a statement not of philosophical principle but of incapacity—and, moreover, of incapacity for which he disclaims responsibility: 'No one has ever been able to explain it to me as a layman'. But at least he is aware of a trend.
            Christopher also says to Michael, who has served in the Royal Air Force, 'Living in the peaceful welfare state is terribly frustrating. You'll just have to join the ranks of the angry young men and suffer.' The birth-date of the British welfare state tends to be given as July 1948, when National Assistance, National Insurance and the National Health Service came into force. The writer Leslie Paul published an autobiography called Angry Young Man in 1951. His expression was then taken up to describe the characteristics, or the mood, of a generation. It became a particularly important epithet in reference to characters in contemporary drama. Christopher's remark seems to be guiding Michael towards the genuine  crucible of artistic activity in London, a long way further down the social scale than the snobbish Patrick.
            Common accounts of the immediate post-war period in Britain offer a diorama of unrelieved gloom: austerity, social conformity, surveillance, puritanism, Cold War paranoia, nuclear anxiety... But the characters in the book seem detached from this context: Patrick is rich enough to rise above it, and for as long as he enables them, his protégés follow him into a realm above income, almost above politics. What few political references there are might have been written in the original 1940s version or in the 1950s re-write. Lord Winterborn, whom Patrick regards as a 'mad socialist', is said to be still upset at not having been offered a Cabinet post by the 1945-1951 Labour Government of Clement Attlee. Stuart Andrews wonders if the government (but which government?) is going to call a general election—clearly, the sort of question an editor need to be asking himself. Patrick thinks Greece an unsuitable place to visit with his new protégé, presumably because of ongoing problems caused by British involvement in Cyprus.
            If it is satire, what is it satirising? There is too little identifiable social context for it to be a political commentary. Yet, for those in the know, it must have been a rather obvious roman à clef, based on the lives of easily identified, living members of the English literary scene. Michael Nelson had some experience of literary London, having worked as secretary to John Lehmann (1907-1987), a poet and the prominent editor of New Writing (later to be reincarnated as Penguin New Writing). It is clear that he had met enough of the literati to know how some of them operated, and it seems possible that he had been on the receiving end of enough of their disdain to have wanted to get his own back. How many readers will have been aware of it is open to question, but for certain insiders Ronnie Gras is based on Cyril Connolly (1903-1974), editor of the literary magazine Horizon. Patrick is based on Peter Watson (1908-1956), who had co-founded Horizon with Connolly, funded it and acted as its art editor. Christopher is based on the poet Stephen Spender (1909-1995), who also worked on the magazine. And Nicholas, fecklessly passive and lacking in initiative, is a rather unattractive (even if physically desirable) authorial self-portrait: a boy seeking an effortless entry to the world of the arts; or rather, to its upper stratum, where money is no object. (And, as we all know, that is not where any art of real quality is ever created.)
            The novel begins in a manner both outspoken and vague: 'He was very, very rich.' This is not exactly Jane Austen, whose opening paragraphs tend to locate her characters financially; but it does what it needs to. It tells us what people know about Patrick, why he is admired, and the source of his power over other men. He is the sort of man who returns to London because it is raining in Paris. He dislikes anything he cannot control. Nicholas is apparently closeted: 'I wish you wouldn't do that in public,' he says when Patrick tries to hand him some money in the bank; 'It makes me feel uncomfortable'. And yet, even while he is saying this, he has taken Patrick by the arm to lead him down the steps of the bank to his car. So it is not the mere fact of an intimate relationship that he is trying to hide, but a monetary arrangement. It is not that he fears being thought homosexual, but that he does not want to look like a kept boy. It is no accident, thinking of the inscription of identities, that the more tense moments in the incipient career of a semi-prostitute take shape around signatures: the counter-signing of a restaurant bill, the failure to sign a cheque... Patrick is probably better off with a working-class boy than with the likes of Nicholas. Thinking of himself as a Pygmalion-figure, an artist in the flesh, he needs someone he can manipulate, a male Galatea whose tastes and teeth he can re-shape to meet his own impossible standards.
            There is a rather chilling scene in which a valet attached to Patrick's apartment building intimidates Nicholas, clearly aware that he is just another in a line of younger men who have passed through Patrick's flat. Nicholas is so cowed by the insinuations of this man that he imagines he might say, at any moment, 'Come off it. Stop giving yourself airs. I know all about you. You're just another one-night stand. At least my job's steadier than yours.' Even without saying anything so impertinent, the valet exudes an air of menace, perhaps more of a threat to the absent Patrick than to Nicholas, whom he has identified as a mere transient and therefore of no consequence. Any man so patently in the know about Patrick's only flimsily discreet personal life is a potential blackmailer. The fact that this is not mentioned shows the extent to which Michael Nelson deliberately steps aside from the expected script about the position of the homosexual in society. Reading this scene in 1958, a homosexual reader would have shuddered of his own accord.

[This essay was written to serve as the introduction to the new Valancourt Press edition (2013) of Michael Nelson's novel.]