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The Lost Novelist

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The Galleria Umberto I in Naples, after which John Horne Burns’s novel The Gallery was named
I love to analyze the grime of Boston which silts up my windowpanes, and to savor the gentle and rather hilarious tempo of her society. And though it might sound pretentious, I’m aiming at a synthesis of naturalism and anthropomorphic ethics in the American novel. I will if I can, and I think I can.

Although Burns had always criticized expat writers, after the Lucifer disaster he moved to Florence. He lived in a villa in the hills and every evening stood at the bar at the Excelsior Hotel, virtually the only night life in the war-impoverished city. He fought with the translator Francis Steegmuller, befriended the young novelist and translator William Weaver, acquired a younger, handsome lover named Sandro—but mainly he drank himself blind. Patricia Highsmith observed Burns drinking himself to death.

He also managed to write another novel, A Cry of Children, so bad that his American and English publishers considered turning it down. It is about another sophisticated Burns surrogate, this time a handsome concert pianist, and his slatternly girlfriend. When the book came out, it was universally panned. Brendan Gill said in The New Yorker that the dialogue was “of sequoian woodenness.” Commonweal remarked, “It all seems like a waste of time: Burns’s writing it, Harper’s publishing it, the reader’s reading it.” Although critics had overlooked his sexuality in earlier books now they zeroed in on “the slime of neuroticism, homosexuality, and assorted perversions.” I remember that if critics liked a book back then they wouldn’t mention its homosexuality; only failures were singled out for the stigma of queerness.

Did Burns kill himself?

Despite the decades that have gone by, the lack of living witnesses, and the obscurity of his subject, Margolick has done a superb job researching this sad life. In the last weeks of his life, Burns went with his lover, Sandro Nencini, to Nencini’s family’s summer home south of Leghorn, in Marina de Cecina. It was, romantically enough, near the place where Shelley had drowned. On August 6, 1953, Burns went out sailing and got a terrible sunburn. He went to bed early but a few days later he was having seizures and had to be hospitalized. He was foaming at the mouth. He died on August 11, two months shy of thirty-seven. To have the body repatriated his family had to spend $950. At the funeral mass in Back Bay only four people attended.

When officials from the American consulate made an inventory of Burns’s belongings they found:

A tan leather Gladstone bag, worth $4.00. New shirts: $6.00. Worn ones: $3.00. Three pairs of pants—gray, flannel, gray denim, and blue denim: $6.50. A gray suit: $6.00. A gray tweed overcoat: $10.00. An Unda radio: $10.00. Eleven framed pictures: $5.00. Packages of typing and carbon paper: fifty cents apiece.

That was it. He had some more things of the sort. Not much.

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