Gay authors gone wild
by Roberto Friedman
Three new biographies examine the lives of important 20th-century authors who were homosexual – or, in one case, struggled with "homosexual tendencies." Out There loves to read books about the writing life, and then write about them. It's so "meta" it makes our postmodern head spin!
Marcel Proust: A Life, by estimable gay man of letters Edmund White , was first published in 1999, but is now getting a Penguin paperback release. It's the first bio of the great French novelist to explore his closeted homosexuality and how that informed his magnum opus, Remembrance of Things Past. Proust never acknowledged his homosexuality in print, nor did he portray gay life in a positive way in his fiction, but as White shows, gay sexuality, including lesbianism, was central to his great novel of Parisian society and manners. In his private life, Marcel was what we would now call "on the down-low." White writes:
"At the same time that Proust was eager to make love to other young men, he was equally determined to avoid the label 'homosexual.' Years later he would tell Andre Gide that one could write about homosexuality even at great length, so long as one did not ascribe it to oneself. This bit of literary advice is coherent with Proust's general closetedness – a secretiveness that was all the more absurd since everyone near him knew he was gay." Gide accused Proust of having committed "an offense against the truth."
Proust's masterwork A la Recherche du temps perdu (now more often literally translated as In Search of Lost Time) fills seven volumes, but White's bio comes in at a snappy 165 pages. This stands in contrast to his large, sprawling biography of the great poet, novelist and playwright of the French underclass, Jean Genet. But there's a connection, as White makes clear: "Genet was in prison, and he arrived late in the exercise yard for the weekly book exchange; as a result, he was forced to take the one book all the other prisoners had rejected." It was Proust's Within a Budding Grove, part of A la Recherche, inspiring Genet to begin his own great first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers.
Secondly, in the new book James Baldwin 's Turkish Decade (Duke), African-American literature professor Magdalena J. Zaborowska describes how the great black gay American author came to reside in Istanbul, and what his expatriation there meant for his writing. Baldwin evidently found freedom from both racial prejudice and homophobia
However did Jimmy Baldwin wind up halfway around the world, in cosmopolitan but exotic ex-Constantinople? Back in New York, he had adapted Giovanni's Room into a play for the Actors Studio, hoping to take it to Broadway. It never transcended its workshop roots, but produced a lifelong friendship for Baldwin with the young Turkish actor Engin Cezzar, whom he had cast as Giovanni. It was Cezzar's open invitation of a place to stay in Istanbul that brought Baldwin to Turkey. Zaborowska takes it from there.
Finally, the literary biography Cheever: A Life (Knopf) by Blake Bailey is a no-holds-barred dissection of the life of novelist John Cheever , described as "a secret bisexual who struggled with his longings and his fierce homophobia in a revolving door of self-loathing and hedonism." So we learn of a boyfriend who enchanted Cheever because he "had none of the attributes of a sexual irregular"; "what he'd always wanted, after all, was somebody who was literary, intelligent, attractive and manly, but gay on a technicality in a way."
Or: "What I seem to want," Bailey quotes Cheever as saying, "is a means of getting my rocks off with the least inconvenience, a degree of sentimentality and some decent jokes." Notes the biographer: "Indeed, it was the larky, laughing, casual aspect of male sex that seemed to appeal most."
The writer's daughter Susan Cheever has written movingly and revealingly about her father's struggles with alcoholism, and in an interview for Newsweek, she asked him point-blank, "Have you ever had a homosexual experience?"
"My answer to that is, well, I have had many, Susie, all tremendously gratifying – and all between the ages of 9 and 11." A last-minute cop-out tacked onto a potentially liberating admission: what a literary device.