In recent years, gay fiction has finally started to reach out to a broader audience here in the UK. Such is the quality of Alan Hollinghurst’s beautifully polished prose in his 2004 Booker winning novel The Line of Beauty
that, even with its overtly homosexual narrative, the book has enjoyed widespread appeal amongst the British reading public. The text is not without its stereotypes, however, the characters holding steadfast to shallow values promoted by meaningless sex and preoccupation with physical beauty. Nevertheless, something laudable has been achieved here.
Oscar Wilde’s description of homosexual desire as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ reflects pertinently on any of the so-called ‘gay fiction’ produced during the repressive pre-war era in America and Britain. In some ways, however, the voice of homosexuality did begin to emanate from the closet during this period. In light of this ambiguity, when we engage with a text like Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Death in Venice
we are faced with multiple possibilities for interpretation. On the one hand, we may read the artist-protagonist’s feelings for the young boy he encounters while holidaying in Venice purely as an expression of artistic appreciation. On the other, high art may be viewed here as a mere mask for underlying sexual desire. The publication of Mann’s private diaries some years later seems to support the latter reading.
An important example of early post-war gay literature can be found in Truman Capote’s novella Other Voices, Other Rooms
. The book tells the tale of a young man, Joel, who is sent away to stay with his strange stepmother Amy, and his even stranger cousin Randolph, a character who appears to display homosexual and transvestite tendencies. The biographical similarities between the protagonist and his author – himself openly homosexual – may encourage further speculation over Joel’s sexuality, but, ultimately, any explicitly gay voice remains locked away in the partially metaphorical other room of the text.
A second and far more overt example from this period is Gore Vidal’s The City and The Pillar
. Never afraid to speak his mind, Vidal set out to write the first explicitly gay novel of the century. The text follows the all-American Jim as he plunges headfirst into a debauched underworld, struggling to find a replacement for his childhood friend Bob, with whom he shared a formative homosexual encounter. Vidal is clear and brave in his depiction and admirably avoids the stereotype of the effeminate homosexual male. The narrative, however, is not a happy one, the novel a prime candidate for what Gregory Woods terms, in his book A History of Gay Literature
, ‘Post-War Tragic Fiction’.
James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room
is another slightly later work worth consideration. Set in Paris, the book follows a character named David as he struggles to come to terms with a homosexual encounter with an Italian barman, Giovanni, whom he later rejects. As in Vidal’s novel, we are forced into an underworld of abuse and manipulation and, once more, events end in tragedy with the scorned Giovanni taking his revenge.
The decriminalization of homosexuality in the 1960s changed the game for writers producing work in the years that followed. Novels of the 1970s and 1980s portrayed homosexuality at its most hedonistic and liberated. In Dancer from the Dance
by American author Andrew Holleran, free and easy sex is represented as a form of equality amongst gay men. Stereotypes continue to abound here, however, with youth and beauty presented as pre-requisites for a homosexual existence.
A celebrated British example of this sort of hedonistic fiction is Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library
, a novel that may be said to serve as the blueprint for the highly nostalgic The Line of Beauty
. Again, the beautiful and (with the prospect of HIV and AIDS lurking silently in the background) doomed young men of London’s 80s gay scene enjoy one final sexual blast. One question remains however: why should Hollinghurst wish to re-hash this novel of superficial stereotypes for a new century? It is this that marks the need for a long-awaited turning point in contemporary fiction, the need for homosexuality to be presented as something normal, even conventional, as well as something other.