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Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar
Colm Tóibín
London: Picador, 2002.
£16.99, 284 pages, ISBN 0-330-49137-7.

James Friel
Liverpool John Moores University

In 1993 the Irish novelist, Colm Tóibín, refused a commission from the London Review of Books to write 'a long and serious...personal and polemical' pamphlet about his own homosexuality:

It was a matter, I said, which I did not think that I could write about. And there were so many others who could easily do so. I had, when we spoke, written the first chapter of my novel, The Story of the Night, in which I dealt with homosexuality directly for the first time, but it was set in another country and it was not autobiographical, or not obviously so. My sexuality, like Richard's in that novel, was something about which part of me remained uneasy, timid and melancholy [...] I had nothing polemical and personal, or even long and serious to say on the subject.

It is worth noticing not only the honesty and self-deprecating tone of this confession but also that triplet of adjectives, uneasy, timid and melancholy, which seemingly indicate weaknesses, but they were, and remain, disguised and complicated, Tóibín's great strengths.

At one point in this collection of reviews Tóibín defends Oscar Wilde against Yeats's criticism that Wilde's use of the word melancholy (rather than sad) was an example of 'the vague impressiveness' that spoiled Wilde as a writer. Yeats was wrong, Tóibín argues:

[...] because melancholy has four syllables and sad just one, and because of the sound those four syllables make, there is something open and suggestive about the word placed at the end of the sentence, a word which could have influence, rather than a word which stops dead.

Tóibín is a far more dour, more spare writer than Wilde was ever interested in being. There is nothing 'vague' about Tóibín's prose but, in its extraordinary precision and composure, it is just as concerned with the 'open and the suggestive', in sentences that resonate, that promote thought and not mere opinion. He is not a breezily confident or playful writer but, rather, one who is quietly assured. It is his tentativeness as a thinker, his delicacy as an observer and his fearless interest in sadness and loss that most rewards attention.

At the time Tóibín was approached to write that pamphlet he had written two poised if rather static novels, The South and The Heather Blazing, and non-fiction work such as Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border and Signs of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe in which the perplexities of race and religion were presented with an insightful and even-tempered thoughtfulness. He has also shown himself to be a generous and discerning anthologist of contemporary Irish writing, but Tóibín's sexuality was evidently more problematic. If the subject of his homosexuality troubles him still, then he has grown bolder and considered it in such a way as to produce works which transcend his early fine achievements. In the past decade, however, he has produced not only The Story of the Night but also the searing and compelling The Blackwater Lightship and, most recently, this themed collection of reviews of books on gay lives.

This collection of reviews stands in place of the pamphlet and is a more oblique approach to the topic. Subtitled Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar, it begins with 'Roaming the Greenwood' a review of Greg Woods's A History of Gay Literature and then travels through the century to comment upon, in turn, the lives and works of Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement, Thomas Mann, Elizabeth Bishop, James Baldwin, Thom Gunn, Pedro Almodóvar and Mark Doty.

Tóibín was born in Ireland in 1955 and that matters a great deal, I think. He is a member of one of the last generations in Western Europe who were allowed to grow up without any positive notion of homosexuality, boys whose role models were, in fact, warnings: deviants, sissies and those dark gods of art adolescent homosexuals discovered by accident or as if by some cultural gaydar.

The writers, I suspect, who mattered to the young Tóibín are, some of them, represented here. Other gay men of his age and type could make up a similar list of Tennessee Williams, Patrick White, Truman Capote, André Gide, D.H. Lawrence or Jean Cocteau, writers who displayed—what seems now a curiously old-fashioned phrase—a gay sensibility. They would write most often of female characters or as female characters and in styles that were allusive, decorative, dandified. Homosexual characters haunted the margins of their work—Blanche's boy husband in A Streetcar Named Desire—or took centre stage as in Giovanni's Room but, whatever the space allotted them, their assigned fate was death (suicide or murder), disease or an arid, bitter loneliness: the Tragic Queer.

Such writers often disguised their homosexuality but the gay reader found a way to identify it and to identify themselves. The gay reader could 'move among texts which deal with forbidden subjects, secrecy, fear' and so it isn't quite true to say that gay people grew up 'entirely alone' as Tóibín has it or that, in Adrienne Rich's phrase, 'you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.' There were mirrors but one had to search for them and when they were found what they reflected was not heartening and it was this that intensified one's loneliness.

Henry James lived 'a life of pure coldness', Franz Kafka in fearful concealment and Oscar Wilde ended in ignominy and shame. Aschenbach in Death in Venice dies absurdly in clownish make-up, the victim of a plague and an obsession that degrades his life's achievements while his creator, Thomas Mann, felt compelled his whole life long to save 'his desire, his secret sexuality for his work'. James Baldwin's art and life was blighted by the public pressures of being black and gay; in exile, his later work is 'rambling and undisciplined.'

Had [Francis Bacon] died in 1953, say, he would be the romantic hero of twentieth-century British art, self-destructive rather than dangerous, a strange genius who had burned with a gem-like flame for less than a decade and then burned out. He would fulfil the classic narrative of the tragic queer. He could paint, it might have been said, but he could not love, and so he died.

So Bacon was fortunate enough to survive into a more temperate times. The closet door is open. The climate is more kind. Nowadays silence equals death. The gay man or woman is compelled to speak. As has been said before, the love that dare not speak its name now won't shut up—nor should it—but silence was once a form of cunning, a necessary strategy. Not outspokenness but discretion was once the homosexual's main imperative—and they were clever at it, too. In 1944, Tóibín observes, Lionel Trilling could write an entire book on Forster without realizing he was homosexual. Such innocence—or ignorance—is not possible nowadays: ‘The gay past in writing is sometimes explicit and sometimes hidden, while the gay present is, for the most part, only explicit.’

Contemporary gay writing seeks to broaden the inherited vision of the homosexual life as being one of tragedy and appalling lack. It is not uninterested in shame but it is concerned with overcoming it and, even, disowning it. What contemporary gay writing delights in, Tóibín suggests, is 'desire, positive, artful, playful and almost light'—the desire represented in the first 126 Sonnets—'the positive light of Shakespeare and Twelfth Night in particular. The work of Edmund White, Michael Cunningham, Alan Hollinghurst, David Leavitt, Jeanette Winterson or Emma Donoghue—while not without sadness (nor is Twelfth Night) —exemplify this tendency and Tóibín praises their bravery and honesty but deals with it too fleetingly.

Love in a Dark Time is a collection of reviews and so miscellaneous in nature. It need not pursue a coherent argument. The collection is themed and structured by an intention to trace how gay lives have been represented. There is a line of argument in the book but Tóibín need not follow it to the end nor unravel every knot and fray, but it is frustrating that he does not deal with writers as Edmund White or Michael Cunningham at any length or in any significant detail, or consider lives that might disprove his assertions such as Ginsberg or Isherwood, or refer to writers who are far more aggressive and truculent in expressing gay sexuality such as Genet or Dennis Cooper. What he has to say about such writers he says by implication (and this is perhaps from a lingering timidity on his part) but what he implies is worth greater elaboration. These writers are role models: they are doing what gay writers ought to be doing—or so a gay writer not doing what they do might feel: they are showing the lives of gay men and women need not be ones of misery, deceit and need but they interest Tóibín less than those:

[...] who have suffered for their homosexuality (Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement) or had remained uneasy [sic] and secretive about it (Thomas Mann, Elizabeth Bishop), who had allowed it to nourish rather than dominate their work (James Baldwin) who had thrived in adverse conditions (Francis Bacon, Pedro Almodóvar), and who had written the elegies and memoirs during the AIDS catastrophe (Thom Gunn, Mark Doty).

That Tóibín does not enquire more deeply into the work of, say, Edmund White (who could earn a place in each of these categories) is what makes this book finally unsatisfying as polemic. White's autobiographical novels (A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty) indicate at least a level of suffering and do depict the adverse conditions in which he and others came of age. The Farewell Symphony is no small commentary on the experience of AIDS and White’s homosexuality 'nourishes rather than dominates' the less admired but still far from negligible novels, Forgetting Elena and Caracole. Also, like Tóibín but more consistently, coherently and at greater length, White has been interested in the gay tradition as his writings on Jean Genet and Marcel Proust and others testify. What White seldom is—significantly—is 'uneasy, timid and melancholy' on the subject. The novels of Michael Cunningham are also less light, more problematic than this fleeting mention allows and it would have been interesting to have Tóibín discuss the work of his countryman and contemporary, the Gaelic poet, Cathal O Searcaigh, Irish, Catholic and gay—the 'Donegal Cavafy'—who comes from a society where 'we were too poor to have closets'.

There is something to be said against the propagandising tendency of contemporary gay writing and Tóibín says it somewhat out of the side of his mouth and it is a pity that he does not say more directly. What he identifies—and it needs to be identified and critically appraised—is the burden that post-Stonewall gay writing carries, a burden that can compromise it as art, that it is, perhaps, less intent on pursuing a complex and contrary vision of life but, rather, that it settles for being an advertisement for a lifestyle.

Tóibín would seem to prefer not the Shakespearean lightness of desire but the 'much darker' version of homosexual love to be found in Marlowe: 'A modern version of Edward II would have had Lightborn handing Edward a box of Quality Street or a bottle of Calvin Klein after shave at the end of the play' and not a red-hot poker up the arse.

While Tóibín admits that a refusal to enforce the myth of the tragic queer is 'admirable...somehow it isn't satisfying.' Happy endings are 'heartening and hopeful and politically correct' but do they 'fulfil another truth which has nothing to do with hope or politics’? In truth it is here that Tóibín's book begins to fudge. As he notes of Thom Gunn and Mark Doty, the best contemporary gay writing is still—if not finally—elegiac in tone. He praises the work of Thom Gunn for several reasons but also 'because they satisfy in me an urge to have gay lives represented as tragic, an urge which I know I should suppress'
. This is as close as Tóibín comes to saying—and it is not altogether surprising if he does not say it outright—that the closet was a terrible prison for the individual but an exquisite place for the making of an art: its dark was light enough.

There is no sense in which he wishes for a return to the closet but his emphasis does suggest he is not unattracted by its confines or, rather, by work written from inside it or in its shadow. The closet, it is seldom admitted, could be a fine and private place and, also—it is less than fully acknowledged—an uncountable number of people still live in it, men and women who remain in it out of fear and shame or simple distaste, homosexuals who would never call themselves gay, are more alienated by what they think being gay means than by the straight world in which they are fellow-travellers (and gay is, after all, not a sexual term but an economic one).

A variety of pressures may keep the homosexual in the closet but while there he does learn to be devious about his deviancy: to transmute his desires, to channel them and transcend them. It is indeed a prison—and nowadays the lock is on the inside—but it is also, and this might be what keeps so many in there still, a playground.

If James could have spoken clear and plain about his desires he might have had no need to create those labyrinthine sentences but what would we have lost? If Wilde had been 'out and proud' then there would have been no need to parade his paradoxes and bamboozle his public, to shock and to subvert. The closet provided a vantage point from which he could look at social behaviour with the ironist's sharp eye. One suffers in the closet but irony, as Musil observed, must contain an element of suffering, 'otherwise it is the attitude of a know-it-all.'

Flannery O'Connor said that she loved the rule that corrects; it is not liberty that makes an artist but imprisonment: there must always be something to overcome. The closet made the homosexual artist resourceful. It challenged him to tell truths more cunningly. It taught that it is grit that makes the pearl, that beauty grows out of discomfort, that truth is many layered, complex and contradictory, that how we are in public can differ and give the lie to how we are alone. The closeted man can holiday from that public self—he can Bunbury—and he knows that if he is not always telling the truth then neither is anyone else. There is power in this and the closeted man enjoys it; this secret knowledge is his reward. The closet breeds terrible anxieties but also, for an artist, a heartless confidence that only looks like uneasiness, timidity and melancholy.

And writing the above paragraphs has made me feel uneasy, timid and melancholy: expressing nostalgia for the closet seems reckless and incorrect and that, for me, charts how much gay lives have changed. I feel treacherous, ungrateful, reactionary. I feel, as Tóibín does about wanting to have gay lives presented as tragic; that it is 'an urge I must suppress.'

The first review, 'Roaming the Greenwood', concludes by considering Henry James. James has become something of a whipping boy for academics and readers in search of gay subtexts and especially when he is compared—as writer and as man—with Oscar Wilde. Wilde is Saint Oscar, the gay martyr: James is a closet queen and traitor, his work riddled with and explained by shame, his fiction and his life blighted, 'frozen' by sexual cowardice. Tóibín doesn't entirely dissent from this view of James as a sexual coward and it is true that the two late works in which he believes James's sexuality appears to be most evident can be considered among his weakest and least satisfying.

Tóibín reflects on 'The Author of Beltraffio' and 'The Pupil': in the first Mark Ambient's wife fears the influence her husband's writing will have on their son and in the second a young man, Pemberton, comes to tutor a sickly and precocious boy and stays on without pay, so fascinated is he by the child and his condition. Both stories would seem patiently to allow gay interpretations but it is their plots that seem almost to demand it and not, as Tóibín acknowledges, the texts. Tóibín rightly believes James could have confirmed such a reading:

[...] by adding a few sentences, or even a few words. But then he would have had to start again. By choosing not to add these words, he left himself with no opportunity to dramatize the scene he imagined since he could not make it clear. He was, in his life and in his work, so deliberate, so careful to control, that he could have left anything he chose from his fiction. 'The Author of Beltraffio' and 'The Pupil' are interesting in that he came close to losing that control, but lost the stories instead.

This is nicely put and it is further true that it does seem that in both stories a gay subtext is 'hinted at and then withdrawn'. The 'hints about Rome and Greece and Florence' might make it possible for a reader to think Ambient writes on gay themes and, for a contemporary reader, paedophilia is an obvious factor in Pemberton's relationship with the young Moreen but when the reader is hungry for a definite truth and the writer is Henry James then the hunger will go unsatisfied for James has little interest in the easy way to truth. The reader might want things dragged out of the closet and into the light but James keeps us in the dark. Just as we might suspect the closeted man of being gay but we cannot prove it until he gives himself away James is reticent. He made an art out of reticence. He is reticent because he is more sophisticated than we allow, and more generous.

In 'The Author of Beltraffio' Ambient's wife may fear the homosexuality that is—or is not—implicit in Ambient’s work or she may object to decadence in general and her husband's work as an example of it. Thomas Hardy's wife felt similarly about Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure and was far more vocal—indeed public—in her objections to her husband's late work than the wife in 'Beltraffio' who fears her son will be corrupted by reading its father’s work. The son is an infant and unlikely to be reading it for quite some time and the story's premise is not well-wrought and that is it's weakness.

Tóibín relates the genesis of the story to James's visit to 'the morally alienated wife' of John Addington Symonds whereas Frank Kermode editing and introducing the story in The Figure in the Carpet and Other Stories (Penguin 1986) also relates it to James's essay 'The Art of Fiction', written in the same year, and sees it as a creative restatement of the same topic: 'a narrow public morality as the enemy of art'. It might be a story about homosexuality and, again, it might not. Equally true is that there are also many gay readings of 'The Pupil' but one of the best reflections upon that story demolishes any gay reading of it1

Both stories present—or rather suggest they present—something that is unutterable and shaming: it is their unutterability that preoccupies James as an as artist. Mr. Croy in The Wings of the Dove is often re-presented as the most explicit portrait of a homosexual man in James's fiction and certainly it is possible to read into what we are told of his downfall and the perilous and damnable nature of his 'crime' something of Oscar Wilde's ordeal after his trial and imprisonment. That said, the recent film version directed by Ian Softley effectively depicted Croy not as a homosexual but as an opium addict. The film felt it had to name Croy’s vice but it is not the vice but the shame that accrues to it that is important to the story.

I wouldn't argue that both stories are James at his best but if they fail to satisfy it is not because the closet restricted James and refused him the elbow room to write honestly, nor do I want to dismiss a gay reading of either story, but I do not want one imposed at the risk of damaging what James throughout his career, and especially in his latter years, sought to achieve: work that reveals a tentativeness that is really an openness to the many-sided nature of human conduct; an uneasiness that is, in fact, a bold acceptance of how darkly and ambiguously we are motivated; and a melancholy that acknowledges that this darkness and ambiguity is what we must finally accept rather than the comfort of definite truths and clear explanations. Hence his subject matter and his labyrinthine style. He did not pounce on truths but walked about them, knowing that they existed and could be observed but never captured.

'The Author of Beltraffio' and 'The Pupil' do not satisfy in the way of James's best works not because of sexual cowardice nor because of his personal coldness: his letters suggest a delight in human relationships, even a greed for them and he had many loyal friendships that were rich and rewarding. And anyway, to argue that his work fails because he fails in life is silly and untrue—as if it were possible that had he been a 'better' man then he would have been a better writer: when is this ever true? These two stories fail for the reason why other stories—any story—might fail: either the weird and incalculable alchemy that makes a story 'happen' failed to occur or the stories lack control and depth for a more practical reason: James wrote them too quickly. As Kermode observes of James's writing method:


Sometimes what was planned first as a short story grew in treatment and became a novel. James always felt the difficulty of keeping things short and he had a particular affection for the intermediate length of the novella or nouvelle. But circumstances often required him to write short stories and the formal conditions of these were very different from those governing other forms. It is noticeable that many of the stories [...] were written quickly, and very shortly after the reception of their donnée; their development terminated very early. They lack the elaborate exfoliation we associate with the longer works of the mature James, and are more obviously schematic, anecdotal and pointed.

Kermode exempts 'The Author of Beltraffio' from these charges whereas I do not and the two stories for me betray these weaknesses but some imagined re-drafting by a less harried James would not have produced a greater transparency of intention nor a sharper focus on the characters’ motivation but, rather, a further muddying.

Tóibín also refers to more successful James stories, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Beast in the Jungle’. In both gay readings are possiblemore satisfying ones, toobut they are not the only readings possible. As Tóibín puts it:


[...] several possibilities are allowed to breathe fully in the story. In ‘The Turn of the Screw’; the narrator may be mad, utterly unreliable or Peter Quint may have truly and even sexually corrupted Miles, or both.

In 'The Beast in the Jungle' it might be the case that the 'secret' that keeps John Marcher from truly living his life (and loving May Bartram) might be his latent homosexuality and she might apprehend that possibility sooner and more certainly than he does—and, again, it might not. The story is about how hard it is to know oneself and what might be the cost of this ignorance. It is a great story about failure not because, as Tóibín and others suggest, James himself failed in life but because he succeeded here in his intention: to convey what it is, what it must be to fail in life, and to convey that failure in a story that doesn't itself fail.

These stories date from the 1890s when James did become more open—considerably so—in expressing affection for a series of young men. Lyndall Gordon believes it was in part 'a hunger for response in the wake of commercial failure' but also that his 'insatiate desire' for them was not the love that dares not speak its name but 'a love that has no name because it has no name even now.'2

These young men stirred him. In particular Moreton Fullerton eroticised him ('as he,' she adds 'seems to have eroticised everyone he met') and Gordon quotes from the same letter to Moreton Fullerton that Tóibín quotes to show how strong was James's attraction:

'You are dazzling, my dear Fullerton; you are beautiful; you are tenderly, magically tactile, but you're not kind. There it is. You are not kind.'

Tóibín leaves the quotation there but Gordon quotes further to prove that what James wanted was 'not sex, but self':

[...] you tell me [...] not a pitiful syllable about yourself. That's your inhumanity [...] "What," you might say, "you want, insatiate writer, that also?" Yes, I want that also. I want fire—you see there's method in my madness—little common, kind, correct words that will hang somehow together as a Light on your Life. I can't help it if that's the way I'm made.

In the dark of his closet James wanted light not to warm himself but to illuminate his work. Ultimately, continues Gordon:

[...] it's not much to do with gender: sensuality is merely a route to the appropriation of a "Life". Women, too, provide a Light on their Lives. They were to surrender their Light, as Minny (Temple) did when she told him "loads." [...] When intimates obliged him this way, he would become "possessed" of them—one of those words that resonates in the James vocabulary. He was not "possessed" of Gaillard Lapsley, a young American don at Trinity College, Cambridge, and invited him down to Lamb House to remedy this—to assume this was a sexual invitation would be to underrate the strange nature of the James desire. its cover was a playful benevolence, but behind it lay a terrible will to possess the souls of certain people he had marked for “use”.3

If James was homosexual—and I hope he was—then the closet complicated that sexuality, as it does and as it must. He was a user but then the closeted gay man is also a user. He uses women as 'beards' and he uses other men's bodies to relieve himself and then he slips back under cover. James stole not bodies but souls. It isn't a flattering attribute—it is not admirable or honourable—but look at what it produced. If James hid his true nature—and who encouraged him to reveal it and how could he have done in that time and at that place and still worked as he wished to work?—then the subterfuges to which he resorted led to the best works of art his repressive century witnessed. Write The Wings of the Dove or march under a rainbow banner on a Mardi Gras: that wasn't even a choice he had but if he had been given it, the choice he would have made is easy to determine. For James, the dark was light enough.

To read Tóibín on Oscar Wilde is to imagine that if Wilde were given a similar choice, Wilde would have joined that Mardi Gras parade—but he might not have led it with any true flourish.

Tóibín's own interest in love and loss, in the darker, Marlovian notion of homosexual desire, is most evident in his review of The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde and The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Volume I. Poetry and Poems in Prose. The longest piece in the book, it becomes, in effect, a brief life, eloquent and neatly turned, offering a portrait of Wilde not as subversive and ludic dandy but of a sadder, more penitent and engaged and engaging artist. This is achieved by foregrounding, praising (and valuing more highly than they merit) Wilde's post-trial works such as De Profundis at the expense of the comedies that made his name. Tóibín quotes Gide:

What more tragic life is there than his! If only he were more careful—if he were capable of being careful—he would be a genius, a great genius. But as he says himself, and knows: "I have put my genius into my life; I have put only my talent into my works. I know it and that is the great tragedy of my life."

Gide's prescience is remarkable for this was written only weeks before Wilde's fall from grace but it reminds us that Henry James was capable of just that carefulness that Gide here commends and it is seems almost formulaic to say that if living was Wilde's tragedy, James's was in not living. It is only when Wilde falls that Tóibín truly admires him. It is his contention that Wilde's disgrace was the making of him as an artist:

Just as the sombre, urgent tone of De Profundis was light years from the flippant and amusing tone of The Decay of Lying [...] The Ballad of Reading Gaol did everything the earlier poetry refused to do. "The only beautiful things are the things that do not concern us." Wilde discovered desperately that no aspect of this sentence was true. For good reason, he ceased to care about beautiful things and he developed a serious need to deal precisely with what concerned him. And since De Profundis was his best prose and The Ballad of Reading Gaol his best poetry, the story of his downfall is not interesting simply for its own drama but for what it did to him as an artist, how it forced him to abandon everything he believed to find a new tone [...] prison and disgrace hurt him into a new style, direct and confessional, serious and emotional. His words now were arrows rather than feathers.

The revelation of Wilde's homosexuality, his 'outing' was a painful affair. He was dragged from the closet only to discover in his work not greater light but a deeper darkness, an idea of love as pained, frustrating, insatiate and more paradoxical than any of the witty inversions that glitter his plays. As he wrote of Douglas: 'He has ruined my life, so I can’t help loving him—it is the only thing to do.' This is what Tóibín means by 'love in a dark time': it is not 'the love of domesticity, or mutual kindness and respect' or 'desire, positive, artful, playful and almost light' but the recognition that 'Hate was always stronger than Love.'

I wonder about this. It is not that I disbelieve Tóibín's description of a sadder and wiser Wilde but was he a greater artist than the writer of The Importance of Being Earnest, the closeted artist who took pleasure in lying, in playful teasing, the slippery and 'terrible man' who so frightened (and transformed) the young Gide?

As readers we can express a preference but we need not make a choice between either Wildes. What is clear is that, inside or outside the closet, speaking sideways or directly, Wilde remains unclubbable. In his enforced honesty he found the way to express more difficult truths but in the plays he says more damming things and in such a way that the audience 'would not notice the poisoned arrows buried in the feathers'

It is the sadness of the later Wilde that attracts Tóibín but, to return again to James, their vision of love was remarkably similar and James expressed his earlier, more consistently and problematically throughout his career. Take those words of Wilde: 'He has ruined my life, so I can’t help loving himit is the only thing to do.' This could be Isabel at the end of A Portrait of a Lady and the same words adapted: 'I have ruined her life, so I can’t help loving herit is the only thing to do' could be given to Densher at the end of The Wings of the Doveexcept, in neither case would James have been so unsubtle as to declare them outright. What Wilde and James sharedand what distinguishes them from contemporary gay writingis a tragic vision.

It is true that Wilde and James make an interesting comparative study—both immigrants, novelists, literary theorists (to some degree), playwrights and lovers of young men—but they came from different countries, differed radically in their ambitions as writers and loved significantly different men and for significantly different reasons, and expressed that love in significantly different ways.

There was, in James, undoubtedly a professional jealousy of Wilde: His play, Guy Domville, failed disastrously only to be succeeded in the same theatre by Wilde's greatest success. This would be galling for anyone but more so if the writer was an example of everything one wanted not to do oneself.

On the opening night of Guy Domville James escaped into another theatre and watched An Ideal Husband:

[...] and saw it played with every appearance [...] of success and that gave me the most fearful apprehension. The thing seemed to me so helpless, so crude, so bad, so clumsy, feeble and vulgar.

As a judgment of Wilde's work this more accurately serves to reveal why, by James's standards—hard earned and life-long defended and developed—Wilde's writing was an anathema to him. James' take on Wilde was not a personal one—although no love was lost between the two—but an aesthetic one and for James—more so than for Wilde - aesthetics mattered. Never once did James dismiss his own art—although Wilde did and did so often. For Wilde, James wrote fiction as 'if it were a painful duty', and for James, in a real sense, it was.

James did not come to Wilde's defence before or after the trial and again this—while we may regret it in our sentimental desire to see the two boys friends—is explicable. He did not sign the petition for the mitigation of Wilde's sentence for the reasons that 'the petition would not have the slightest effect on the authorities [...] and that the document would only exist as a manifesto of personal loyalty to Oscar Wilde by his friends, of which [James] was never one.'

Wilde as man, as writer, as sexual being was at variance with James's own notions and behaviour. James did not name himself but nor did he encourage others to name him easily, but in the early 1890s James was 'devoured with curiosity' as to the work and life of John Addington Symonds whose Problem in Modern Ethics argued the case for homosexuality on the basis of 'its moral acceptability and aesthetic values.' Symonds's discriminating, learned and earnest argument for homosexuality was more personally appealing than the flamboyant street theatre he took to be Wilde's behaviour. He was moved to write on Symonds but failed to do so: 'I can't: but I should like to.' That he did not write on Symonds is a loss but it serves to reveal that for James there were other forms of male desire he found not only more palatable but wiser and of more use. The possibility of living ethically as a homosexual man was not open to him—or to anyone else at that time (even and especially after the post-trial Wilde)—and so James bided his time: what else was there to do and still be true to his work?

Not all the pieces in this collection earn their place; the article on Almodóvar seems to belong to some other book, some other writer, and the inclusion of Elizabeth Bishop seems obligatory somehow, and its comparative paleness is a surprise because, of all the writers he discusses, in her precision, sobriety and grace her own prose is most similar to Tóibín's.

Elsewhere Tóibín’s book continues fitfully to trace a line between those speaking in code from within the closet to those uttering darkly from outside it. As the essays progress from Thomas Mann to Francis Bacon—the pivotal essay and another excellently written brief life—to the poetry of Thom Gunn and Mark Doty, Tóibín envisions an art and a life in which sexuality is secondary or, rather, as one more aspect of the individual. He says this most clearly in his review of Thom Gunn's critical essays and his Collected Poems:

Gunn's homosexuality has clearly guided his work; despite our urge as gay readers to ask his poems to touch our hidden spirit [...] we must acknowledge that his talent, his seriousness, his intelligence and his generosity, if they can be separated from it, have been as important as his homosexuality in the making of his poems.

It is, in fact, a request for greater freedom than simply liberation from the closet, a request that, 'living in a less dark time' we live those lives freely but also that the work of artists we cherish should be allowed to be both other and more than expressions of their sexuality. And also that light is nothing without darkness. Gay artists must claim a great deal of ground that has been denied them through the centuries but they must not sacrifice tragedy, a form which they have practiced peerlessly. We have the right—and the necessity still—to be tragic queers.

1 Philip Horne in Henry James: The Master and the Queer Affair of 'The Pupil' Critical Quarterly xxxvii:3 Autumn 1995 75-92
2 Lyndall Gordon A Private Life of Henry James: Two women and His Art Chatto & Windus 1998
3 Ditto

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