Monday, November 20, 2017

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Recently, I read Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Sparsholt Affair in order to review it for a newspaper.  It is not my intention to review the novel here, but I will say a few things just to orient you to the context.

Alan Hollinghurst is an out-and-open English gay writer whose novels focus on the lives of homosexual men. The Sparsholt Affair is a generational novel moving from the 1940s to the present day and charting changes in the English gay sub-culture. Obviously there is absolutely nothing homophobic in such a novel written by such an author. But there is one moment in which the main character, a rather earnest gay painter called Jonathan, gets tired of the witless chatter of the very camp Mark, a man he knows in the art world. Jonathan reflects: “The patter, it had always been a thing about Mark, everything bounced into a joke of a kind, innuendo so endless you checked what you were about to say, with a longing, after days of it, for talk as dull and unequivocal as could be.” (p.349)

In this case, the author is skewering a certain sort of camp chatter, where every innocent word is interpreted as a smutty joke, double entendre and sly references rule and one is always made aware that this is really a code designed for an in-group.

Please note one very obvious thing here. There are gay men who are camp, but “gay”(= homosexual) and “camp” (= prissy, theatrical, self-dramatising and affected) are not interchangeable terms. I have met heterosexual men who are camp, and homosexual men who are stolid and blokey. 

What interests me here is how Jonathan (and by extension the author) is exasperated by a language that does not say clearly what it means and relies on nudge and wink.

Jonathan’s (Hollinghurst’s) reaction to Mark’s conversation is very much my reaction to many novels that come my way. Talking round about a subject without directly addressing it was once subterfuge when gay writers were still closeted. Henry James was a master at not saying what he meant, and many have imitated him since. Now, the style has become a plague in what are loosely called “literary novels”.

Pardon me, but there are times as a reviewer when I am tempted to pick up a new novel, curse its circumlocutions and evasions, and hurl it at the wall, shouting “SAY WHAT YOU BLOODY WELL MEAN!”

Sorry for the brevity of this week’s rant, but there is nothing more to say on the subject.

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