Monday, April 30, 2012
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
PISSING DOWN IN LISSINGDOWN
Okay. You’re homosexual, you’re living in a society that doesn’t tolerate that sort of thing, and you’re bursting to write. But you can’t write about the thing that most directly concerns you, unless you want your books banned or confined to a covert under-the-counter readership. You could go all coy and not mention your sexuality at all (like Osbert Sitwell in his voluminous memoirs). You could write an openly homosexual novel but leave it unpublished (like E.M.Forster’s Maurice). But really, you do want to write about intimate relationships and you do want a mass audience to read your work.
So what do you do when you write for the general public?
You write in code. Or you write evasively. Or you devise cunning ways of dealing with personal pronouns, sometimes leaving them indeterminate so that a mass readership will assume you mean “she” when you know you mean “he”.
Of course sophisticates can see through your stratagems. Yes of course they smile knowingly at the way the main (male) character just happens to be “visiting” the horrible Mr Norris all the time in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains. Yes of course they twig that Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is more likely to have been based on a male pick-up that on a fey gamine. Yes of course they recognise what sort of man Blanche DuBois is really talking about when she reminisces in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Yes, they can see that the “straight” couple in Brigid Brophy’s King of a Rainy Country isn’t really straight at all. And, by George yes, they notice what’s really going on in all that mateship stuff in Frank Sargeson’s short stories.
But on the whole the great unwashed doesn’t notice. They take all these stories at their apparent and face value, as stories of heterosexuals having peculiar experiences.
What has been created is the language of camp, and for the authors and sophisticates a heady sense of superiority.
They (nudge and wink) know something that the great unwashed don’t know. It may have begun as a necessary survival strategy for its times, but it’s delightful to have put something over the masses like this. And delightful to feel you’re part of a special in-group.
The historical value of camp literary language is obvious. It tells us about a certain time when frankness was not permitted. But does it serve any purpose now, when gays can be as loud and proud as they like and when any sort of verbal expression of sexuality is permissible?
When I read old camp books of the sort I mention above, I feel impatience more than anything else. So Frank Sargeson’s novella That Summer has a guy not realizing that a “woman” is in fact a transvestite, and it’s supposed to be a big revelation when at last it’s made plain. Forgive me if I stifle a yawn. I feel as unedified as I am by the weaker detective stories in which information is concealed solely to make the conclusion look ingenious. Okay, it was a big deal in the 1940s when it was written. Okay, E.M.Forster praised it. But what, if anything, does it say to us now? That people were sexually less knowing then? Or that the story’s main character is particularly naïve? Is there really any enduring human value here? Or is it of historical interest only?
I suppose you can enjoy yourself reconstructing the time in which it was written, and imagining how challenging it would once have been. But this quickly becomes as sterile a game as finding all the “naughty” bits in Hollywood movies from the 1930s to the 1950s, that covertly bucked the old censorship codes. (Look! Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep is really talking about sex when he’s pretending to talk about horse-racing. Wow! Weren’t we sophisticated to notice!).
It also means a lot of time is spent “talking up” things that are fairly trite.
Recently, I looked up Roger Ebert’s review of Douglas Sirk’s glossy 1950s soap-opera Written on the Wind. Ebert remarked – quite truly – that this is the sort of film that appealed to high-brows and to low-brows, but not to middle-brows. The low-brows thought it was serious drama. The high-brows picked up all the covert camp references and realized how much piss-take was involved. And the middle-brows? Well, they just saw it as trashy soap-opera and moved on.
I’m not sure which category I fit into. I readily recognize all the camp nudges and winks, but in a matter of minutes I’m over them. Soap-opera is still soap-opera, even if it’s dressed up in this way. The camp stuff is just an irritating stylistic ornament.
What’s the killer image I’m looking for here?
Years ago, Ronnie Barker on The Two Ronnies had a sketch in which he read the weather forecast. It went: “It will be dull in Hull, cool in Goule, dry in Rye, choking in Woking and the people living in Lissingdown are advised to carry an umbrella.” Gales of laughter at the expected, but unspoken, rhyme.
A few years later another English comedy show (it may have been the Monty Python boys, but I think it was Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones ) deflated the sketch simply by reciting it thus: “It will be dull in Hull, cool in Goule, dry in Rye, choking in Woking and pissing down in Lissingdowe.” No laughter because (as intended) when actually spoken, the naughty words were painfully unfunny. The bluff of nudge-and-wink innuendo had been called.
Literary camp is nudge-and-wink innuendo, and really serves no purpose now. When stated plainly, the things that were hinted at in old camp works are things that are commonplace. They no longer have to be dug out from a code which was mistaken for subtlety or regarded as clever subtext.
So some people are gay? Jolly good. I’m interested in reading about them if the writing is good. It is good, for example, in the works of the current English out-and-open gay writer Philip Hensher. He says what he means, and doesn’t patronise readers with nudge and wink. So we get clearly gay and straight characters, some nice, some nasty, some sympathetic, some bloody awful, but clearly identified as who and what they are. The reader is respected.
It’s pissing down in Lissingdown.