Truman Capote had to be in the list somewhere, but when I started thinking which of his full-length works to pick I realised with mounting horror that he was going to come much lower than I expected. I love the shorter stuff like A Beautiful Child and A Christmas Memory – but as this is a list of novels I can’t really include them. So it was a toss-up between Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. I picked the latter because it’s just such a big, important American novel, even though it’s basically non-fiction. It’s got all the things I love about Capote – beautiful prose, an ear for voices and an eye for detail and that underlying caustic wit – but it’s also dealing with huge issues about crime and morality that were usually way outside TC’s range. The crime aspect of the novel is gripping, and the psychological journey of both Capote and the killers is amazingly profound. What I love most is that many other more serious, heavyweight, macho writers have tried to do what Capote did, and fallen dismally short. The tragedy of Capote’s life, of course, was that he never wrote another decent book, but what a glorious way to go. I highly recommend Gerald Clarke’s Capote: A Biography, one of my favourite lit biogs – even if it amounts to an extended ‘don’t do this’ list.
Monthly Archives: May 2012
This was another big book in my early 20s. Readers of my age will remember that Penguin Modern Classics series with the pale green spines and fantastic covers, which seemed to form a parallel canon to the stuff we were taught at school and university. Arcane, slightly queer novels like this opened up an exciting new world to those of us raised on Dickens and Austen – and reading Hesse in London in the early 80s was very much in keeping with the vogue for all things European, especially German. Narziss and Goldmund is set in the Middle Ages and concerns two monks, one a wandering pleasure-seeker, the other an intellectual recluse, and in the course of various adventures Hesse contemplates the pros and cons of those different approaches to life. There’s a lot of sex, some excellent Black Death stuff and (I thought at the time) a sort of spiritual argument for homosexuality running through it. I seem to remember thinking, at the age of 21, that the contemplative, Apollonian life was the one for me, but this was largely because I was a shy little virgin who hadn’t yet had the chance to go Dionysian. I have a distinct memory of sitting in a gay pub reading this book, desperately hoping that a nice gentleman would buy me a drink. Possibly not the most successful cruising strategy of all time.
Bringing together two of my favourite subjects – French literature and nuns – this was always going to feature in my top 100. It’s not my number one nun book – that would be The Nun of Monza by Mario Mazzucchelli, which is non-fiction – but it is a fascinating, hilarious and moving literary oddity. Diderot wrote it, apparently, as a joke – a series of letters from a young girl unhappily incarcerated in a convent, begging for help – and it was only published posthumously. In part, it’s little more than a heavy-handed attack on the church, with a certain amount of gleeful sado-masochism chucked in for good measure. But I always had the impression that Diderot got much more involved with la pauvre Suzanne than he intended to, and once you’ve got past the scandalous stuff it’s a very moving and persuasive account of youth destroyed by age, innocence corrupted and Christian morality undermined by sexual perversion. I don’t think I’ve ever seen La Religieuse in any lists of early LGBT fiction, which is a bit weird, because the main emotional and sexual relationships in the book are entirely between women – and Diderot doesn’t hold back.
Definitely one to shelve under ‘youthful enthusiasms’, À rebours (translated as Against Nature) was one of the books to have sticking out of your Oxfam overcoat pocket when I was a pale young thing. (Oh, those Penguin Classics…) It pushes the boundaries of what I’m prepared to consider as a novel, edging as it does into the nauseating realms of ‘prose poetry’, but despite all its ludicrous pomp and pretence (or probably because of those qualities) it made a big impact in my late teens/early 20s. À rebours narrates the peculiar life of Jean Des Esseintes, a misanthropic aesthete who retires from Paris to live a life of the senses in a country house. He spends most of the book in futile but decorative pastimes eg cultivating a garden of poisonous flowers, inventing perfumes and torturing tortoises. The scene that I most loved involves a banquet Des Esseintes organises to mourn the loss of his virility, in which all the food and drink is black, served on black plates by black waiters; I attempted a disastrous homage to it in my north London bedsit days, which sent my guests home with blue tongues. À rebours isn’t the sort of thing I enjoy any more, but, like Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror and the works of Genet it reminds me of a happy time when, perhaps, I was more open to artiness.
Terry Southern is a hard writer to pin down. Among other things he gave us the screenplays of Barbarella, Easy Rider and Dr Strangelove, he was at the epicentre of 60s counterculture and he knew absolutely everybody. His books are a bit hit and miss, which is hardly surprising if you look at his over-refreshed life story, but there are a couple of essential highlights. Blue Movie (1970) is a fantastic film industry satire, which greatly inspired a couple of my earlier books. But Candy (partly a collaboration with Mason Hoffenberg) is the masterpiece. Basically it’s a groovy rewrite of Voltaire’s Candide, this time with a voluptuous, naive heroine who skips from one insane sexual encounter to the next, never losing her cheery faith in human nature despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It’s hilariously funny and absolutely filthy, and almost certainly wins the prize for the most politically incorrect book on this list. What I really love about it (apart from the filth, natch) is that behind the tits & ass there’s a Swiftian ‘savage indignation’ at work, tearing at the prudery of 50s America and ushering in the sexual revolution of the 60s. Candy has a lot to say about the position (all puns intended) of women in that ambiguous decade: in Candy’s case, flat on her back while some tiresome man spouts philosophical claptrap to get into her knickers.
I never feel like I love Mary Renault quite as much as I ought to. I mean, she’s got so much going for her: mid-century pioneering lesbian author of lavish historical epics, really interesting life story embracing war work and anti-apartheid stuff in South Africa, knew everyone. Her books were knocking around the house when I grew up, but for some reason I couldn’t get into them. I’ve read quite a few in more recent years, though, and this is my favourite. It’s pretty straightforward: the life of the mythological Greek hero Theseus from childhood to kinghood, with lots of fantastical episodes along the way. Somehow Renault manages to make the story both physically and psychologically plausible, and breathes life into what might otherwise have been an academic exercise with a lush sense of carnality. It’s not one of her queerer books – that comes elsewhere – but it’s a good solid bit of storytelling that knocks most historical fiction into a cocked hat. Generally speaking, it’s a genre I avoid. Am I missing out?
I don’t understand why Now and Then isn’t better known. It’s got so much going for it: a big sexy love story, beautiful clear prose, a clever central narrative device and an exquisite understanding of ageing and regret. Oh – wait a minute, that’ll be because it’s about gay people, and therefore probably didn’t get taken seriously on publication and has been shoved into niches while dreary celeb authors get the prizes and the sales. Bitter, me? William Corlett was an incredibly accomplished writer across several fields – he wrote loads of excellent stuff for TV, and if you see his name in the credits (eg The Agatha Christie Hour) you know you’re in for a treat. Now and Then is something really special – the story of an unhappy middle-aged man, Christopher, rediscovering the memory of an adolescent love affair that scarred him for life. Anyone who’s suffered unrequited love will ‘get’ this book, and even though it’s very melancholy it’s so beautifully written that the reading experience is exhilarating. I’m eternally grateful to David Hoyle for bringing this book to my attention.