Strangers—the word was once homosexual slang—is a glorious book packed with information and historical comedy, while the writing has a kind of sly and serious charm about it. Graham Robb’s study of nineteenth-century homosexual culture is largely about gay characters and themes in literature. The atmosphere is dense and rich, the references almost overwhelmingly cosmopolitan. That bisexual Tiresias, for instance, is far from being the only sexual oddity in Eliot’s The Waste Land. There is also Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant, who, as Robb points out, helps to keep both international trade going and a richly epicene literature alive. “Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants,” he
Asked me in demotic French
To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel
Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.
Nothing could sum up in a better or more businesslike way the nature, itself demotic, of male underground homosexuality in nineteenth- and early- twentieth-century Europe. And it is soon capped by another bizarre comparison pre-dating The Waste Land itself—that of Oscar Wilde and Conan Doyle’s Wilde-like alter ego, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
Doyle first met Oscar Wilde at a publisher’s dinner party in 1889, a dinner which led to the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, a work which Doyle felt to be on a “high moral plane,” and perhaps had an influence on The Sign of Four (1890), Holmes’s second appearance in print. Years later, Doyle remembered that “golden evening,” in which Wilde’s conversation, with its “curious precision of statement” and “delicate flavour of humour,” convinced him that he had been dining with Sherlock Holmes himself. In 1923, during what Graham Robb happily terms Doyle’s “ectoplasmic phase,” when the author was fascinated with the occult sciences, he claimed to have received a message from beyond the grave which he swore that no man “of real critical instinct” could doubt came from Oscar Wilde. It certainly possessed all Wilde’s (or Holmes’s) Irish humor. “Being dead,” it ran, “is the most boring experience in life, that is if one excepts being married or dining with a school-master!”
Art, aestheticism, and homosexuality made a rich trio in the nineteenth century, with mystery and detection as their friends and allies. “Like a true Decadent,” writes Robb, Holmes enjoys “introspective” German music and listens to it with “languid, dreamy eyes.” “‘Art for art’s sake’ is one of his mottoes—applied, not to poetry, but to the incongruously useful art of criminal detection.”
Unfortunately, in the post-Wilde era, criminal detection would come to be turned on the strangers—the homosexuals themselves. Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was prosecuted in England in 1928, even though Queen Victoria herself had stoutly denied that lesbianism existed at all. The novelist E.M. Forster was thrown into a great flurry on hearing that he might be asked to give evidence, or at least should make some sort of appeal. (He finally joined the campaign in defense of the book.)
Forster indeed was an interesting case of the new crypto, wholly “un-outed” homosexual; un-outed, that is, except to his closest friends and associates. After Lionel Trilling wrote his pioneering study of Forster’s novels he confessed that he had no idea at the time that Forster was a homosexual. I recall being asked for a review of a later book about Forster and making some mild remark about the homosexual themes that give hidden life and interest to his fiction. To my astonishment—but this was in 1960—I received an extremely irate letter written from Kings College, Cambridge, asking if I was unaware that homosexuality was a legal and punishable offense. I replied, rather disingenuously, that Dickens’s novels were full of murder, in which he displayed an almost suspiciously keen interest, but that did not mean he was himself an actual murderer. Forster’s reply to that was silky but soothing, as if, rather relievedly, addressed to some total innocent who could be safely ignored.
So the strange business went on until the abolition of the more uncompromising of the antihomosexuality laws in England soon afterward. But that did not wholly relax the tension, or calm down the morbidity of a general interest. The new aggressive “strangers” demanded to be called “gay,” annexing that word as a dictator might annex some harmless little foreign country. After reviewing Christopher Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind I got into trouble with angry correspondents who demanded to know why I had spoken of the “Queers’ Cafés” frequented by Isherwood and his friends. Today, it appears more acceptable to use the word “queer” again, while “gay” seems to have become old-fashioned; at any rate, distinctly uncool.
Robb’s admirably informative and always entertaining book enriches and civilizes the cultural pattern of a whole epoch. Insofar as his study has a general tendency, it is to show how the unconscious and the omnisexual pervade all of our cultural experience, from Beckford to Proust and onward, from Robin Hood to Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Roderick Random. In that book, Robb writes, the character Earl Strutwell gives a defense of sodomy that
may be ironic but it presents the principal arguments of the next two centuries with the concision and humour that are painfully lacking in later disquisitions: the wisdom and excellence of famous homosexual men, the global prevalence of a supposedly unnatural taste, its tendency to diminish the number of bastards and venereal degenerates, and—something that makes Smollett a more inspiring pioneer than either Bentham or Shelley—its “exquisite pleasure.”
Fantasy novels and some children’s stories lend themselves to gay readings, Robb tells us. Regrettably, perhaps, and certainly oddly, the best fantasies either desex females or use them wholly as decoration. Whether the Harry Potter series, say, will prove an exception is, I believe, yet to be seen. Certainly The Lord of the Rings, although supposedly an antique “northern” tale, is lacking in anything except the slightly absurd “Fair was she” formula—in great contrast to the powerful and equivocal role played by women in Icelandic sagas—while The Wind in the Willows rejects Womankind as such, except for the old washerwoman, and to appear in the guise of one of them is Toad’s chief nightmare.
The best of the many admirable qualities in Robb’s book is that its knack of informing while entertaining makes it as well suited to the bedside as to the study. The editing is impeccable, and the appendices and notes on works cited are of special interest.
The same is true of Queer Street’s production and editing, where we leave the world of queerness as historiography and plunge, as it were, into the real contemporary setting, the streets—the streets of New York, and of many another American city—themselves both background and inspiration.
McCourt begins by drawing a “canonical map” of an American Queer Street, describing an imaginary neighborhood made up of real-life streets and sites and cultural references that loom large in the gay imagination—“a sort of mix of New York, Los Angeles and the District of Columbia…all out of sequence and Oz-like willy-nilly.”
Queer Street is our Broadway, replete with impressions to which a clever boy responds with force…. The convergence of Queer Street—the intersection of whatever avenue and any of these cross streets—creates a little neighborhood of its own. Other streets terminate in circles, nine of them, rather than cutting all the way across the grid and others still (such as Moribund) are hardly more than a block long (like Gay Street in the real Village), curving like bent hooks and spilling into culs-de-sac of each other lanes (such as Memory). Finally there are little mews courts (corresponding to the real Sniffen and Patchin, Milligan Place and Pomander Walk) with names like Seclusion, Betrayal and Go-to-Hell.
The essays in the book, writes McCourt, “were brought to the point of completion years after their inceptions on strolls along Queer Street.”
McCourt’s allusive, stream-of-consciousness style is as strangely comely and insidious as it is, so to speak, habit-forming. In the way it is with many naturally deft writers, the reader finds himself becoming involuntarily a part of the writing. He calls the book a “non-fiction roman fleuve …echoes of years of overheard and vis-à-vis commentary.”
As recently underscored by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, “The stream of consciousness is what we all live in. The expression is now associated with a literary form in which a character’s inner monologue of thoughts and associations is presented accurately and is very different from the orderly outward forms of his life in the world. But the true stream of consciousness is far richer and far less verbal than anything described in Ulysses. Think about what happens to you during any two minutes spent walking on a city street—the flood of sensations, perceptions, and feelings that courses through you, most of them hardly drawing your attention. The multiplicity and density of detail is far greater than even the richest collection of verbalized thoughts or conversations with yourself that may have been going on at the same time. The process by which the world impinges on us at all times and the constantly shifting apprehension of our relation to it are too enormous for us to fully grasp.”
Reading McCourt’s book, I was reminded, bizarrely enough, of the moment in Wuthering Heights when Cathy speaks of the dreams that go through consciousness, “like wine through water,” and “alter the colour of my mind.” McCourt’s prose has the power to effect something similar, and until the reader ceases to dream he finds himself wholly and happily lost in the world that has been conjured into being in Queer Street.
To take another literary parallel, one can imagine Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe (Chandler, like many other sexually ambivalent writers, gets a friendly mention in passing) walking through and down these streets, lost in his endless ten-dollar-a-day cogitations and solutions, and sour, pondered, ambiguous wisecracks. McCourt is an immensely cultivated writer, but he has no trouble keeping his culture to himself.
What the reader gets is something between a rainbow and a potpourri in which he can lose himself, as if he were lost in his own territory—which in a sense the author intends him to be. He can then suddenly find himself in a very strange but very actual place—in one case, the New York nightclub Max’s Kansas City, where the author seems to be delivering a monologue about Jack Kerouac. “You don’t like Kerouac?” someone in the audience asks him. He answers:
Bent over and whimpering, I’d doubtless have liked him a lot. Enjoyed listening to The Lone Ranger with him and telling him how Kimo-sabe means “cocksucker” in Navajo. “Living to the blank tranced end of all innumerable riotous angelic particulars that had been lurking in our souls all our lives.”
If girls, like so many other beings and things, have their part to play in Queer Street, so do dogs. McCourt, having himself possessed (possibly not quite the right and unmisleading word) a dog called “Tiny,” has strong but divided feelings about what is surely the most gripping of all dog novels, J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, first published, as I recall, not much less than fifty years ago. Tulip was a queen Alsatian (Queenie was in fact the real name of Ackerley’s dog), and she was the apple of her owner’s eye. Himself queer, Ackerley was a friend of E.M. Forster and his friends, one and all of whom, however much they liked and admired Ackerley, detested Queenie. Jealousy? Perhaps. “Love me, love my dog” is not a saying often borne out by the facts of the case, although I remember at the age of ten adoring The Hound of the Baskervilles and feeling envious that the hound belonged not to me but to Conan Doyle.
Apart from their wit, humor, learning, and intelligence, the admirable thing about both these books is the way they help to dispel any surviving postures of gay and antigay, or queer and antiqueer. The day has almost come when nobody will care a farthing any more for who is who sex-wise, or what label should be worn, allotted, or imputed. Sex will, we hope, continue to be an ever-interesting topic, but only because we shall want to pay no further attention to who is getting it right or doing it wrong. Sex will be like the turn-up of the trousers or the length of a skirt. Like fashion itself, it will, or so one hopes, no longer decree, but only amuse.
March 25, 2004