dimanche 24 février 2008

Born lucky or unlucky...

This past week I read an unpretentious but very entertaining coming-of-age novel from a lucky author, which brings out significant aspects of the journey to becoming gay (The Sixth Form, Tom Dolby, Kensington Books, 2008). It's the story of two adolescent boys during their high school senior year in a prestigious New England boarding school, Berkley Academy. Ethan Whitley is the son of a couple of Californian teachers. His mother is dying from cancer and his parents have decided to send him to the East Coast to somehow preserve him. He is a good student, lonely, introvert, with low self-confidence, and very limited experience with girls. Todd Eldon is a confident looking outgoing boy who has had many girlfriends. His mother is a bestseller author living on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. His father has left the family and tries to make a living in real estate in Florida. Ethan and Todd become friends during the first weeks of the new school year. The novel's backbone is the unusual relationship which progressively develops between them - specially Ethan - and an English teacher, Hannah McClellan, an attractive woman in her thirties with a mysterious past who lives by herself in a seclusive house on the campus. The resulting tension makes you turn the pages almost as in a thriller.
At the start of the novel Todd is dating Alex, a pretty girl also at Berkley, and they are having sex most nights, although lately Todd has been doing it almost automatically, as a kind of obligation. He soon breaks up with her. He has become attracted to Ethan. The attraction is part physical (he becomes hard the first time he sees his naked body under the shower) and part sentimental: "He wanted Ethan to become his friend, to draw him into his life, to fill that gap that had been empty for so long." One night (they have both been drinking, it's Halloween evening) Todd kisses Ethan on a bench in the graveyard near Berkley's campus. After the kiss, Ethan runs back to his room. When he is back in his own room Todd cannot sleep. He feels shame. But Todd is clever and does not make the mistake many young gays do: "The kiss was such a revelation that he felt conflicted. He wanted more, but he also wanted to run away: to get back together with Alex, to reconcile with her, to acknowledge that this was all a mistake. Maybe he was attracted to girls and guys, destined to be one of those chameleons who refuse to be labeled. He considered the possibility as he threw on a pair of pyjama bottoms. Going back to Alex would be safe and secure, but stifling, a prison. Going in the other direction, whatever that might be, was the only option."
As the novel advances, Ethan's relationship with Hannah becomes more and more complex and consuming, and he drifts away from Todd, while the latter has to come to grips with his gayness. He does not identify with gay boys at school, "little faggots like Jeremy, scrawny, lisping queens - kids who had been kicked out of their homes, kids who were beaten up at school". He feels the need to talk to someone, but doesn't know who to turn to, torn between Ben, a gay masculine writer 10 years his senior who lives in Soho, Nick, his mother's agent, and his effete boyfriend Eduardo, Kyle, Alex's older brother who, he discovers, has recently come out ("It had never occurred to him that Kyle Roth might be gay. How could a family like the Roths (rich, successful, conservative) produce a gay son?"). He wonders how his mother ("It would thrill her, he couldn't bear it."), his brother would react to his own coming out...
Tom Dolby's novel provides powerful insights into the life of young gay men, seen from their perspective. Many gay men will remember things they felt when they were going through the same journey as Todd. What it is like to kiss a man: "But he didn't want a girl's kiss, sweet like fruit. There was no mystery in her, no deep caverns to explore. He recalled his kisses with Ben, his kiss with Ethan. It was different, a guy's kiss, skin rough and scratchy like sandpaper, teeth harder, larger, tongue more firmly pressed against lips." What it is about having sex for the first time with a man: "It was happening so quickly, so easily. Was this what sex was like between men? Were they even about to have sex? Would Ben just stick it in him, or would it happen the other way around? Was that something people did on a first date? Was this even a date?" He knows he is gay, but he does not want to be perceived as such, and he is still full of prejudices.
The Sixth Form is also an insider's account of the life in the privileged prep schools in America. It is also about the divide between generations, and, besides generations, between people. Most characters in the book go on with their lives, without even their closest relatives or friends suspecting what is going on. When Ethan opens a book he grabs from his mother's nightstand, during an afternoon he is spending at her bedside, a sentence stands out, underlined by a light pencil: We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. It is from a book by Virginia Wolff (On Being Ill) and it provides a good sense of what Dolby's novel is about.

I had just finished reading
The Sixth Form and writing this post when I came across a report in the New York Times. Lawrence King, an unlucky 15-year-old Californian boy, was shot to death last week in Oxnard, a small beach community just north of Malibu. Having started wearing mascara, lipstick and jewelry to school, he said publicly in the recent weeks that he was gay. The 14-year-old classmate who shot him has been charged with murder as a premeditated hate crime...


dimanche 17 février 2008

Parmigianino's Antea, an androgynous vision?

If you are in New York City between now and April 27 visit the Frick Collection.
Not to see the art treasures amassed by Henry Clay Frick, one of New York's most ruthless robber barons, in his former mansion on Fifth Avenue, in front of Central Park, "a superb assembly of works, and as good a glimpse as you'll find of the sumptuous life enjoyed by New York's early industrialists", according to
The Rough Guide to New York City, the best mainstream guide of the city today.
But to admire Parmigianino's
Antea, one of the most enigmatic portraits of the Renaissance, lent by the Museo di Capodimonti in Naples. The large canvass is displayed on a stand in the Oval Room, facing the central courtyard, from the other side of which you can spot it when you enter the museum. Antea stares at you.
"Christina Neilson, an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow and curator of the exhibition, spent the last year researching the painting, whose subject has puzzled art historians for centuries," wrote Carol Vogel in the
New York Times last October, "The portrait depicts a woman clad in a sumptuous yellow dress, wearing rubies and pearls, with a fur throw over one shoulder. Antea stares directly, almost eerily, at the viewer. Yet no one knows who she is or what the message Parmigianino wanted to convey." This is the topic of Ms Neilson's fascinating catalog for this one-painting temporary exhibition, which reads as a whodunit (Parmigianino's Antea: A Beautiful Artifice, The Frick Collection, 2008):
"Parmigianino depicted his young subject set against a green-brown background, facing frontally, gazing out at the viewer with surprising frankness. Her perfectly oval head rests on an improbably ample body, with wide shoulders and hips and a hint of her left breast. She appears to be around sixteen years old, no longer a child but not yet a woman, and the artist plays with this uncertain state by contrasting her childlike head and womanly body and by creating an ambiguous facial expression, which suggests both naïve curiosity (her eyes are opened so wide that the whites appear beneath her irises) and knowingness. One scholar has interpreted her expression as bearing malice, while another has described it as melancholic. With her bare left hand she fingers a gold chain that hangs around her upper body and points to her heart, while her gloved right hand grasps a chain attached to the marten fur that is draped over her right shoulder.
Antea wears an extravagant yellow dress, probably satin, embellished with horizontal appliquéd passementerie bands in silver and a golden partlet that covers her chest. Her white apron and the cuffs of her underdress, visible at her writs, are decorated with delicate blackwork embroidery. She wears a leather glove on her right hand and holds the other. The marten fur hanging over her shoulder was an accessory believed to possess magical properties that aided fertility. Jewels supplement her luxurious costume: she wears a ruby and pearl head-brooch attached to her braided hair with a black ribbon ending in gold bands, earrings with pendant pearls, a filigree (open-work) chain with contrasting gold and black enamel links, and a ruby ring. All of these were items owned by only the wealthiest women.
Who is the enchanting young woman that Parmigianino depicted in his enigmatic
Antea? For centuries scholars have tried to identify her."
After exploring the traditional hypothesis: Parmigianino's beloved or mistress, the artist daughter (but he had no daughter), a servant, a bride, a niece of Francesco Baiardi his aristocratic protector in Parma, Ms Neilson concludes "that the painter has placed the viewer in the position of lover, with
Antea an idealized invention. She calls the painting 'a beautiful artifice'. We know that the artist read Petrarch, whose poems elevated art above the flesh-and-blood woman, whose absence made her all the more desirable. Antea may be an amalgam of beauty and desire - a visual sonnet," as writes Amy Finnerty in her review for the Wall Street Journal.
Antea's features are shared by an angel in the Madonna of the Long Neck, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, and more extraordinary, by a garzone, or workshop assistant, pictured in a recently discovered pen-and-ink drawing, A Head of a Young Man, both painted in the same period. The similarities of the latter with the Antea "serves to suggest," ads Ms Neilson, "that the artist's aesthetics was androgynous, as was the taste of his patron Baiardi (who owned several works depicting androgynous figures by Parmigianino), and that Parmigianino was interested in creating not only an ideal of female beauty, but of male beauty too. It supports also the theory that the woman in his Antea was an ideal. Her beauty, though possibly derived from a model, was refined in the artist's imagination. The repetition of the figure's features indicates that Parmigianino created a type that could be either male or female and therefore whose identity was of no importance to the appreciation of the work by Renaissance audience."
Maybe. We will never know for sure. In the long last chapter of her monograph,
The Renaissance Economy of Desire, Ms Neilson provides a few leads.
Parmigianino was born in Parma in 1503 and died in Casalmaggiore in 1540 at the age of 37. Not very much of his life is known, and the most extensive account of it is contained in the second edition of Giorgio Vasari's
Lives (1568). At the end of his short life he became obsessed by alchemy, and started neglecting his art. According to Ms Neilson's study Antea was painted between 1531 and 1535 for Francesco Baiardi, as was a picture he undertook "for the Cavaliere Baiardo, a gentleman of Parma, who was one of his intimate friends. This is a Cupid, occupied in preparing himself a bow: at his feet are two boys seated, the one is taking the other by an arm, and laughingly endeavours to make him touch Cupid with his finger; but he who is thus exhorted, refuses and weeps, as one who fears to be scorched by the fires of Love." (Vasari)
I fancy to imagine that the
garzone is not totally invented, and maybe had something to do with the painter...
"But Francesco [Parmigianino], still having his thoughts filled with that alchemy, as happens to all those who have once given themselves to running after its phantoms; and having changed from the delicate, amiable, and elegant person that he was, to a bearded, long-haired, neglected, and almost savage, or wild man, became at length strange and melancholy, thus constantly falling from bad to worse. In this condition he was attacked by a malignant fever, which caused him in a very few days to pass to a better life; and so it was that Francesco found an end to the troubles of this world, which had never been known to him but as a place full of cares and pains." (Vasari)


dimanche 10 février 2008

Gay Power

Recently a New York appellate court ruled that valid out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples must be legally recognized in New York, just as are those of heterosexual couples, although gay couples may not legally marry in the state. The decision was hailed by a New York Times editorial comment.
It is difficult today to realise what being gay was like only 50 years ago. Gays were portrayed as effete homosexuals and predatory deviants, they were caricatured with mincing gaits and sex addictions. Being gay was labeled a sickness, a perversion, along with pedophilia, transvestitism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, sadism, and masochism. It was considered a sin. Sodomy was considered a crime. No wonder most gays would remain closeted. As long as they did not act like the silly pop of the insane 'pervert', they were straight in the eye of their coworkers and maybe their wives, says David Eidenbach in
Gay Power: An American Revolution (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2006). "Negative characterization of homosexuals were so common in the media that it was impossible for even the most self-confident and successful gays and lesbians to completely escape feelings of inferiority."
The way gays are considered today is mainly the result of the gay civil rights movements which rose in the US in the mid 50s. It started with a book published in 1951, which had a profound influence on a new generation of young gays.
The Homosexual in America, written by Edward Sagarin under the pseudonym Donald Webster Cory, "questioned the barrage of antigay stereotypes, police practices, and laws that pounded American homosexuals" and "offered an analysis of the condition of homosexuals from the point of view not of of psychiatrist or a criminologist but of a gay man. For the first time, a nonfiction book was not demonizing, diagnosing, or patronizing the homosexual. Instead, Cory celebrated him for his unique perspectives and talents and assigned him a central role in the defense of America's liberty."
Gay Power is the fascinating story of the gay movements which transformed the way society looks at homosexuals. In 300 pages David Eisenbach, a professor of History and Literature at Columbia University, provides a very convincing account of the three decades which saw the gays become a recognised minority, the homosexual stereotypes falter, and homosexuality stop being considered a sickness. It did not happen by chance. It was the result of a fierce fight by a handful of men, progressively joined by more and more individuals.
Of course one can smile, have a contemptuous view of these events, consider that homosexuality is a private matter - and it is. But read Eisenbach's book. You will realize why the gay rights movement matters, why the mainstream view of homosexuality is so important for the future of young gays. When kids or teens come to realize that they are gay, their surroundings are the first influence on how they will accept it: parents, friends, teachers. Their family is not the natural heaven where they will find the support and positive feedback that other minorities find. Society as a whole had to evolve in order for young gays, in particular, to feel acceptance in their own family and close relationships. Despite the progress made, we are not yet there!
The 'gay liberation movement' produced a reaction in the late 70s and 80s, which through the Reagan years, became very much politicized. Republicans understood that they could use the gay issues to gain votes from a large fraction of American democrats. The last line of defence against a wide acceptance of homosexuality became the preservation of the American family. The AIDS epidemics in the 80s fueled the attacks from the traditional right but at the same time it led an unprecedented number of gays to come out, forced them to alter their sexual practices, and "sparked the revolutionary movement to gain legal recognition for gay marriage."
Gay Power.
"Heroes of this history of the gay rights movement - Bob Martin, Marty Robinson, Jim Owles, Morty Manford, Bruce Voeller, Lenny Matlovich, and Randy Shilts - were all lost to AIDS. The dream that these men shared, however, was not lost. In 1951 Donald Webster Cory suggested that the way to secure equal rights for gays and lesbians was for homosexuals to be recognized as a minority, for American liberals to embrace their cause, and for the conspiracy of silence to be broken by serious media coverage of homosexuality. Thirty years later, the gay rights movement had achieved these goals and transformed America into a country where most homosexuals could confidently abandon the closet and identify themselves proudly as gay men to their families, friends, and co-workers. As Cory predicted, all Americans have benefited from the gay power revolution. By establishing a media presence, the gay rights movement was able to reeducate and liberate a majority of Americans. Numerous television programs and news reports showed straights that homosexuals were not threats to society. Parents were not longer told to be embarrassed by their 'deviant' children but were encouraged to form loving, honest relationships with them. Employers no longer feared the impact of homosexual workers on office morale but were free to exploit the talents of all their employees. A majority of Americans were freed from the pervasive homophobia that kept generations of gays and straights from becoming friends. The number of people who reported having a gay friend or close acquaintance doubled from 1985 to 1994 (form 22 to 43 percent) and rose to 56 percent by 2000. Having a gay friend of family member was predictive of liberal sentiments toward homosexual and gay rights. (...) While significant portions of the population, most notably televangelists, opportunistic politicians, and government agencies, have continued to resist granting equal rights to homosexuals, a majority of the American population has made great strides toward the day when all citizens can live openly and contribute their talents freely to the wealth and strength of the nation."


dimanche 3 février 2008

Romans noirs

From a quick trip to Paris to see my daughters I came back with a small unpretentious book I warmly recommend. I missed it when it was published last September. Its title is Mort d'une drag-queen (Actes Sud, collection Babel Noir, 2007) - A Drag-Queen's Death. Its author, Hervé Claude, is a French journalist and writer born in 1945. He was the maverick news anchor for French Television daily evening news for many years. He now works for Arte and shares his time between France and Australia.
Mort d'une drag-queen is the third of a series of romans noirs set in Australia within the gay world. The story is told by Ashe, a middle aged French former insurance investigator who lives in Perth, one of the ends of the world. After a drag-queen is found dead on a gay beach in Perth, Ange Cattrioni, the local police officer, asks his gay friend Ashe to investigate because he is convinced that the Federal Agency which has taken over the case will not very actively pursue it, in a mainly conservative and homophobic Australia. The plot brings Ashe to Sydney and its fashionable gay scenes, around Oxford Street and Newton, reminiscent of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the Australian cult movie of 1996. To the spectacular wild 'bush' region west of Sydney, around Wagga-Wagga. To Adelaide and finally to Auckland, another end of the world, and the black beach of Kare Kare, "ce paysage brut, sans trace de civilisation, aux collines abruptes et anarchiques couvertes d'une végétation très dense, qui reçoivent toutes les tempêtes d'ouest" ("that raw landscape, without trace of civilization, with its steep and cluttered hills covered by a very dense vegetation which endure all the storms coming from the west"), made famous by the emblematic movie, The Piano Lesson. Along the way he is confronted to the secret event which destroyed the lives of four young rugby players, and to an improbable love affair, as he is himself deeply moved by a young transvestite. The novel is a page turner.

Among other books, I also bought Philippe Besson's last novel,
Un homme accidentel (Julliard, 2007) - A Fortuitous Man - which has just been published. Besson's first two books made him famous. En l'absence des hommes (Julliard, 2001) includes Marcel Proust as a central character, while Son frère (Juillard, 2001) was adapted for cinema by Patrice Chéreau in 2003. Both have been translated into English. Un homme accidentel, his eighth novel, is ostentatious and very disappointing. In the early 90s a Los Angeles young police officer is investigating the death of a male prostitute in Beverly Hills. He is happily married and his wife is expecting a baby. When he meets Jack Bell, to question him as a potential suspect, his life is changed forever. Jack Bell is a 24 year-old handsome Hollywood movie star. And guess what? They fall in love!
Besson seems impressed by LA, "ville mythique" but his depiction of the city is extremely dull (p. 15). In addition the story is full of small details which do not fit with California: "Un café serré, pris au coin de la rue", "Une concierge portoricaine", "J'ai pris une poignée de carambars..." They are so obvious to anyone having visited the US that one wonders if they have a purpose... But they are still exasperating. As are some of the episodes which are clearly inspired from
Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's famous movie of 2005.