…each was, for the other, the dwelling place that each had despaired of finding.
—James Baldwin, Another Country
…each was, for the other, the dwelling place that each had despaired of finding.
—James Baldwin, Another Country
I first read Call Me by Your Name as I flew to Rome in December 2009 to work on a translation for a friend. I was staying in an apartment a couple blocks from the Coliseum, the Forum wasn’t much further away, and I was excited. The work was intense though, and for three weeks I was indoors all day every day, going out only for coffee and sandwiches, both taken standing up in nearby cafes in the mid-afternoon. My Rome, like Elio’s, was the nighttime city we walked through to go to restaurants and bars.
The book has been on my mind again recently because Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, The Big Splash) has filmed a soon to be released adaptation that I’m eager to see. So when an old friend asked for some book recommendations, I suggested it to him. Once I had, I decided I wanted to go back and read it again myself.
Reading it was, thankfully, less overwhelming than it was the first time. I knew what I was in for, which meant I wasn’t dying inside every few pages. Yet the power of the book was undiminished. Aciman writes a story of desire that is narrated in terms of desire. Chronology is indistinct but the experience of time is palpable. Identity is indistinct and yet every detail of every scene testifies to the presence of a person.
What was most astounding to me though was the extent to which the various wild and roaming feelings sparked by and constituting desire and love are represented clearly and authentically by the narration. In my own memory of being young and in love, I retain my feelings whole. Aciman remembers the pieces constituting that whole and brings them back to life for me as I read. It’s intoxicating stuff.
A small film offering a convincing portrait of what life is like in a moment when what you knew and relied upon is failing you and falling apart but what comes next hasn’t taken shape yet and seems like it never will.
There are no easy options for the young protagonist, no quick jumps beyond the reach of his felt obligations, beyond the limits of his situation. And the film ends with a meaningful question that, after a lot of thought, I am still not sure I know the answer to (or even if there is one).
I really liked this movie.
This film is no exception, and I find my reaction to it an inexplicable jumble of engagement and disregard.
Kudos though to Daniel Radcliffe for caring enough about the project to put his knees where his ears are, which is pretty amazing to see. A popular star in his position doesn’t have to take the career risk a gay sex scene this blunt entails. That he does and that, as a result, so many different types of people will see it is no small thing.
When I was doing my BA, a friend told me a story about her younger brother. As I remember it, while growing up, her brother loved Bette Midler and Patsy Cline despite the fact that they were performers from and for another generation. He’d collect photos, news stories, anything else he found, and paste them into elaborately decorated and carefully maintained scrapbooks. He was extremely proud of these books and showed them off to friends and family, who took them as signs of his creativity and individuality.
Eventually when he was older, the brother realized he was attracted to men, came out as gay, and it is at this point that the story of the scrapbooks takes a tragic turn.
Once out, the brother began to meet other gay men, and it wasn’t long before he realized that Bette and Patsy were common gay obsessions, both of them campy as hell. Learning this, he understood that his scrapbooks weren’t simply testaments to his creativity. They were billboards advertising his emerging sexuality to anyone with the sense to read the signs. He was in other words the the object of a painful irony, his scrapbooks were now embarrassments, and as I remember the story, he threw them out, although I’m less certain of that than the rest.
I thought of this story reading Halperin’s book because his object of study is precisely these odd, recognizably gay cultural obsessions. The book is wordy and overlong and, in chapter after chapter, Halperin finds reasons to discuss at length Joan Crawford, his own camp obsession. But despite the weakness of the writing and the seemingly impossible scope of his project, Halperin’s descriptions of experiences like those of my friend’s brother often ring true and his attempts to explain how they work are thoughtful and thought provoking.
Todd Haynes’s Carol offers so careful and so powerful a reading of Highsmith’s The Price of Salt that it acted as a screen between me and the novel, directing my attention and shaping my responses. And so for me, Carol and Therese are as glamorous, sophisticated and brave in the book as they are in the film.
I wonder though: if I hadn’t seen the adaptation, would the attention to gloves and furs and scarves and purses and all the other recurring details of dress that I read as glamour, would they instead have seemed fetishistic? Would the silences and hesitations of the women as they test their sense of what’s possible between them have seemed so romantic? Would the brutality of the men’s rejection of their relationship have upset me more than it did?
Whatever the case, my movie-addled sense of the novel is that Carol and Therese are enjoying a slow-moving game of cat and mouse in which both of them are cats and both of them are playing mouse.
This is the second in Edmund White’s series of quasi-autobiographical novels and like the first, it follows a precocious and uncannily mature youth as he grows into adulthood.
Two threads of story stood out for me as I read. The first is the portrait of a youth as a budding artist. The youth knows he is a writer, an author. What he doesn’t yet know is what to do in order to author a story. He writes endlessly night after night, but he can’t figure out how to make something of it.
The second thread is a tale of sexual discovery. In it the youth has no idea who he is. What he knows is where to find men to have sex with. He trolls toilets endlessly, yet he is in turmoil because, although he recognizes a kinship with the men he meets, he doesn’t recognize himself in what he sees and defines himself against them. This leaves him incredibly alone.
These two threads of story mirror each other. In the first, the youth knows who he wishes to be but he isn’t sure what to do or how to act. In the second, he knows what do to, has the confidence to act, but suffers wondering what kind of person he is.
These two threads come together in the final pages of the book when the youth, now living in New York and playing out his efforts at sexual and artistic self-discovery in apartments in Greenwich Village and on the beaches of Fire Island, finds himself caught up in the Stonewall riots. These are iconic and historic events: in those nights of protest, a public queer community emerges onto the streets.
In the novel’s account of the riots the youth’s long search for voice and identity transforms into something transcendent. Without losing any of it’s specificity, the youth’s struggles take on the sheen of allegory. His discovery of public voice tracks the community’s, and the community’s, his.
By the time I was done reading, I felt those traces of past life—cutting a wobbly track across the surface of four or five pages before digging a hole straight through a dozen more and then turning and cutting a bit more track in a new direction before coming to an abrupt end—I felt those traces were an apt image of Isherwood’s style in this book. Spare and sharply defined, but also wandering and seemingly aimless.
When the book ends, it doesn’t so much conclude as stop. Reading the final pages, it seemed to me that Edmund White does something like what Isherwood does but with an artistry and a sense of structure and a density that suit my tastes more.
I was reading this book as the election came to a close, and the sense of dread that builds off-stage as the narrator, Christoph, notices the Nazi’s rise to power and the war that ensues, notices it from Greece, from England, and finally from Hollywood, notices it but invariably, repeatedly looks away, well, it all felt uncomfortably topical in those early, gloomy days after the election results were announced. I walked away from the book with a new understanding of how even terrible, earth-shattering events leave vast swaths of people merely inconvenienced, leave them free to do other things.
I suppose this is a cause for hope—things go on, people survive—but if so, it’s a bleak kind of hope.
This is the gay spy thriller the BBC put out last year and that has finally come to Netflix in Quebec. For celebrity obsession reasons, I liked it, but it is a dark and strange show.
The key early moment comes when Ben Whishaw speaks with his dead lover’s mother and she feeds him a very credible lie. Whishaw responds that “I haven’t read a lot of books or seen a lot of places, but I’ve fucked a lot of people.” He then exposes her lie and figures out a bit more of the puzzle.
In this moment, the series announces what I take to be an important but implicit project: to reimagine Sherlock Holmes in such a way that sexual experience supplants rationality and knowledge as the object and tool of deduction. As absurd as it sounds, Whishaw will peel back the lies and secrets hiding an MI6 plot simply by refusing to let go of his memories of the sex he had with his lover (and with those who came before) and by listening to the feelings these memories provoke. Because it’s Ben Whishaw suffering his way through this ordeal of emotional detection, I was on-board, but I wonder if that would be the case otherwise?
What was perhaps most shocking to me though was the image the series paints of government. This story operates in a world where agencies we don’t see or control are willing to discredit a critic by having a doctor purposely infect them with HIV. These same people kill a man by locking him into a luggage trunk and then leave him there to rot. They kill a different man and disguise his murder as a suicide, lighting the tableau in ways that remind me of a scene from The Silence of the Lambs.
The narrative does not however treat this brutality or the people who perpetrate it as if they were exceptional or fantastic or required explanation. In this London, the sun rises, the Thames flows downstream, and high-level government employees are psychopathic. Yes, Whishaw sees this and resists, but the very fact that he is so alone as he fights and that the others he meets are so oblivious to (or accepting of) what’s going on suggests that it is his sense of the world and not theirs that is the problem.
I’m guessing this paranoid world view is simply part of the spy genre, but by the end, the darkness of it was oppressive, and I’d had all I could take.
One final note: although the show is very well done, I think it missteps badly when it identifies the contents of the USB key that Whishaw finds in the first episode. The specifics of the contents are unimportant and when spelled out sound silly. In my opinion, let the MacGuffin be a MacGuffin.
Nearly a year after reading it for the first time, this short book remains one that, when I’m sitting in my reading chair and glancing at my shelves, I find myself picking up, flipping through and reading a page here or a page there. Or if I don’t actually pick it up, I end up remembering bits and thinking about them as I sit.
Wilde’s confidence in the power of art and imagination is inspiring and his appropriation of history and the Christ narrative as a queer antecedent is wonderfully and deeply audacious. And the story of the love and the failures that brought him to prison reads like a novel. (The father’s persecution of Wilde reminds me of the diabolical officer in Billy Budd.)
There’s earned wisdom poured into this book, and, coming to Wilde as I did from the popular image that persists today on mugs and shopping bags, its seriousness was unexpected and a happy discovery.