Show me the books he loves and I shall know the man far better than through mortal friends - Silas Weir MitchellMore or less four years ago, when this LiveJournal page didn't exist and I was blogging in an Italian romance blog, at the very beginning of my experience with the Gay Romance genre, I stumbled upon this title, Gaywyck, and a name, Vincent Virga. Both, title and name, were intriguing, they had a fashionable and charming sound, and I wanted to read it. Pity that the book was out of stock, and since I live in Italy, it was not easy to find it. So you can imagine how happy I was to discover that not only Vincent Virga decided to re-print the novel, but he is also planning to release two other books in the same series. Of course, I had to contact him, but I was really not expecting an answer, even less for Vincent Virga to agree to be an Inside Reader. You can easily understand how glad I'm to host him today: as you will read, someone told him that writing a list of your favorite books is like writing an autobiography, and so it was for Mr Virga, who filled this list with his life and love (the piece on Maurice? it's like a little story just like that, I can really see Mr Virga taking the book from the shelf and loosing himself in happy memories). Please welcome Vincent Virga and enjoy his list, I sure did.
A TOP TEN OF MY FAVORITE GAY NOVELS
I was thrilled when the esteemed Greg Herren chose my “Gaywyck” as one of his favorite gay novels and equally thrilled when Elisa asked me to make my own list. When I told Andrew Holleran of the honor, he said: "Oh, that's hard! It's like writing your autobiography." Well, as Ethel Barrymore says at the end of “Portrait of Jenny”, "How very wise you are, my dear." (Before I start I need to confess how much I love long reads, a habit I developed long, long ago when I fell in love with 18th-century, Victorian, and Russian novels. In High School I actually read them under the covers with a flashlight through the night. So, for me trilogies are a single work. I'm now working on the third volume of my Gaywyck trilogy called “Children of Paradise”--the second volume is “Vadriel Vail”. I think of those books as one tale.) Okay, here goes:
1) MARCEL PROUST: Remembrance of Things Past. Yup, I'm one of Those. The only masterpiece of this book's scale that I reread and reread is Murasaki's “Tale of Genji”. The Shining Prince has only ONE gay encounter with the brother of a woman who refuses to spend the night with our hero...one night of same-sex bliss does not a "gay" novel make, alas. M. Proust may have changed Albert to Albertine; and, like so many French writers and film makers, will (maddeningly) confuse obsession with love; and, as Beckett says: "The Proustian equation is never simple." However, his work is sublime and never ceases to inspire me. It is also a gold mine of phrases worth stealing....
Paperback: 280 pages
Publisher: ReadHowYouWant; EasyRead Edition edition (December 1, 2006)
Amazon: Remembrance of Things Past
The initial part of the story focuses on the romantic life of a middle aged man named Swann. Proust has used poetic style of words to describe the nature and environment of France. His sentence structure is impressive and filled with searing, insightful, and humorous criticisms of French society.
2) JAMES McCOURT: Time Remaining. (Okay, also time for full disclosure: This year Genji is 1000 years old and Jimmy and I are together 45 years, which in terms of human relationships seems a neat equivalent.) If Jimmy's classic “Mawrdew Czgowchwz” encapsulates the "divine frenzy" (in Richard Howard's description) of “divadienst”, then “Time Remaining” captures the grief and the defiantly hilarious time in our lives during the age of the devastating AIDS epidemic. And as one elderly gentleman of our persuasion said to Jimmy after a packed-out reading (during a wild snowstorm) of “Queer Street” in the now-defunct Barnes & Noble on Sixth Avenue and 22nd Street: "We really did talk that way, you know! You haven't made anything up, you know! But, of course you know! Why else would I have dragged my ass out into this demented blizzard if you didn't know?"
Hardcover: 273 pages
Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (May 4, 1993)
Amazon: Time Remaining
A collection of short stories by the author of Kaye Wayfaring in ""Avenged"" features the tale of fifty years of gay life in the flamboyant cultural wilds of New York City and a semi-retired transvestite ballerina.
3) JACK DICKSON: The Jas Anderson Trilogy = Free Form + Banged Up + Some Kind of Love. I discovered “Banged Up” in a second-hand bookstore in Ireland where Jimmy and I have spent our summers for two decades now. (We needed a beautiful inexpensive place away from the scorching heat of Manhattan after East Hampton became a heinous zoo.) I was so utterly captivated by Jas with his wonderfully transcribed Glaswegian accent, his struggle for a truthful life against all odds, his hot sex life, his fascinating (and scary) adventures, that he entered my dreams! I went in search of the other two volumes and when I found them (one in Dublin, one on Amazon), I read them all in sequence. I found his other books on Amazon, too. Of those, “Oddfellows” is my favorite. I haven't enjoyed reading "murder mysteries" as much since the last time I reread one of Raymond Chandler's masterpieces.
Paperback: 220 pages
Publisher: GMP (December 1999)
Amazon: Banged Up
Detective-Sergeant Jas Anderson, the violent anti-hero of FreeForm, ended that story being expelled from the Glasgow police force. Banged Up starts with Jas being framed by his ex-colleagues, and remanded to Barlinnie prison. Soon he is forced to share a cell with Steve McStay, sentenced for aggravated assault on two gay men. In this all-male environment, inmates don't divide into gay and straight, but into who fucks and who gets fucked. But resilient as ever, Jas forms an unlikely partnership with Steve in his fight for survival.
4) YUKIO MISHIMA: Forbidden Colors (“Kinjiki” in Japanese: the word “kinjiki” is not only a euphemism for homosexual but also means "forbidden colors," those colors permitted only to various ranks in the Heian royal court described by Murasaki, whose pen name means violet or purple, the color of secret passions.) This book kicked off my Mishima Period, which was a natural outgrowth of my fascination with Japanese literature (and movies), a fascination I shared with my sorely-missed friend Susan Sontag--" the godmother of “Mawrdew”; it's a long story!--who often brought me a new Japanese novel to add to my collection when she came to dinner. It was thrilling to read about the universality of my love of men, as well as to meet characters bravely accepting--not without great struggle--living outside the social norm, for this was pre-Stonewall. Also, the central character, Yuichi, is a great beauty who battles against his desires. Years later, while working in publishing, I read some modern romantic gothic novel--a form my mother loved and which I supplied her by the dozens--where the Jane-Eyre secret was not a crazy wife in the attic but--GASP!--a queer husband!! (There was actually a spate of these.) So, “Gaywyck” was born in 1977 as a way of proving that genres have no genders and romantic love is democratic realm not a het's kingdom. (The book was rejected by over 30 publishers and the editor who eventually bought it had to be convinced that gay people wanted romance: "If they want romance why hasn't anyone ever written a gay romance?" she asked me.) Like Yuichi, my Robert Gaylord is exquisitely gorgeous but has NO crisis when he falls in love with Donough Gaylord whose secrets in the attic generate enough grief for anybody. Their love is not the issue for Robert. He is only concerned with their happiness, not easily won but lasting forever after...as in all fairy tales.
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Vintage; 1st VintageInternatonal Ed edition (February 22, 1999)
Publisher Link: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375705168
Amazon: Forbidden Colors
Published in the United States during the 1960s but written years earlier, this Mishima trio, while vastly different in plot, all sport the common theme of idealism destroyed by reality. Nearly three decades after his death, Mishima continues to be a compelling novelist.
5) PAT BARKER: The Regeneration Trilogy = Regeneration + The Eye in the Door + The Ghost Road. I resisted reading these because one of them won the Booker Prize and most of the Booker winners are unreadable, dead things to me. I ventured into “Regeneration” only after I discovered how great a part homosexuality plays in it. Ever on the hunt for a good "gay read" (and for a good gay movie), I was stunned by how quickly a book about the heinous First World War could grab me by the throat and twist my guts. They are, of course, historical novels, which I adore, and their central characters are mostly real-life figures I greatly admire, such as Sassoon, Owen, Rivers, while a fictional bi-sexual, working-class fellow, Billy Prior, is tormented by the horrors of trench warfare just as I would have been (and still am by the very thought of it). Yes, they are "war novels" set in-part in a hospital with "shell shock" a major event. I generally avoid this genre, though the Vietnam novels by O'Brien, Caputo, and Heinemann did knock me for a loop, straight as they may be, alas; but Barker is straight, too. Don't let that stop you, folks.
Paperback: 251 pages
Publisher: Plume (July 1, 1993)
Publisher Link: http://us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780452270077,00.html?strSrchSql=0452270073/Regeneration_Pat_Barker
In 1917 Siegfried Sasson, noted poet and decorated war hero, publicly refused to continue serving as a British officer in World War I. His reason: the war was a senseless slaughter. He was officially classified "mentally unsound" and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital. There a brilliant phsychiatrist, Dr. William Rivers, set about restoring Sassoon's "sanity" and sending him back to the trenches. This novel tells what happened as only a novel can. It is a war saga in which not a shot is fired. It is a story of a battle for a man's mind in which only the reader can decide who is the victor, who the vanquished, and who the victim. It is one of the most amazing feats of fiction of our time.
6) E. M. FORSTER: “Maurice”. Jimmy gave me this novel as a 7th anniversary gift, Memorial Day 1972. (I just showed the inscribed edition to him; he exclaimed: "How sweet! Now don't cry! Don't burst into tears!" Why do I write romantic novels?!) I love this book so much that its two central characters, Maurice Hall and the heavenly Alec Scudder are currently frequent guests at Gaywyck and are the greatest pals with Robert Gaylord in “Children of Paradise”. And why not? I love them! Forster thinks they "still roam the greenwood." He may have written one of favorite novels, “Howard's End”, but he can be very silly. They needed to "connect" with their brothers in this our life. So I've given them the community Forster never had while he was alive. "A happy ending was imperative," he writes in the novel's "Terminal Notes, even though Maurice says: "All the world's against us." Forster was right and helped inspire me to act accordingly with “Gaywyck”. (If I had a happy "ending" why couldn't they?) Meanwhile, my heart swells every time Alec says to Maurice: "And now we shan't be parted no more, and that's finished."
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (December 17, 2005)
Publisher Link: http://books.wwnorton.com/books/detail.aspx?ID=12811
"The work of an exceptional artist working close to the peak of his powers." Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times. Set in the elegant Edwardian world of Cambridge undergraduate life, this story by a master novelist introduces us to Maurice Hall when he is fourteen. We follow him through public school and Cambridge, and on into his father's firm, Hill and Hall, Stock Brokers. In a highly structured society, Maurice is a conventional young man in almost every way, "stepping into the niche that England had prepared for him": except that his is homosexual. Written during 1913 and 1914, immediately after Howards End, and not published until 1971, Maurice was ahead of its time in its theme and in its affirmation that love between men can be happy. "Happiness," Forster wrote, "is its keynote. In Maurice I tried to create a character who was completely unlike myself or what I supposed myself to be: someone handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, not a bad businessman and rather a snob. Into this mixture I dropped an ingredient that puzzles him, wakes him up, torments him and finally saves him."
7) MARY RENAULT: The Charioteer. In this our life, Renault fell in love with Julie Mullard and lived with her happily ever after in Australia. Not that this lovely tale has anything to do with the fact that her beautifully crafted historical novels set in Ancient Greece mean the world to me. All eight of them. However, it is this World War Two novel--Gads, another war novel set in a UK military hospital?-- that gave me the gift of Mary Renault's treasure chest. Laurie Odell falls in love with one Andrew Raynes. There are complication, natch, before the two are united. The title takes us to the heart of the matter. It refers to Plato's “Phaedrus” in which Socrates divides the soul into three parts, "two of them having the forms of horses and the third that of a charioteer" who, when "he holds the vision of love" has to deal with those two horses; one is a loyal prince of guy (Andrew) and the other a rebel (Ralph) who "prances away and gives all manner of trouble to his companion and to the charioteer who urges them on toward the beloved and reminds them of the joys of love." There's the plot in a Plato nutshell. (Of course, both horses reside in us, our soul.) Laurie has to choose between the rebel or the swell Quaker pacifist. The most sublime thing about Renault's great books is she lived the dream of Socrates: to "cultivate and make music." It is my dream, too. The cynical Ralph insists the charioteer's desire to abide by true love is foolish because it "doesn't exist anywhere in real life, so don't let it give you illusions. It's just a nice idea." No wonder he loses out to Andrew and for me, to the music of Mahler who knew how to describe the variations on love better than anybody.
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Vintage (May 13, 2003)
Publisher Link: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375714184
Amazon: The Charioteer
After enduring an injury at Dunkirk during World War II, Laurie Odell is sent to a rural veterans’ hospital in England to convalesce. There he befriends the young, bright Andrew, a conscientious objector serving as an orderly. As they find solace and companionship together in the idyllic surroundings of the hospital, their friendship blooms into a discreet, chaste romance. Then one day, Ralph Lanyon, a mentor from Laurie’s schoolboy days, suddenly reappears in Laurie’s life, and draws him into a tight-knit social circle of world-weary gay men. Laurie is forced to choose between the sweet ideals of innocence and the distinct pleasures of experience. Originally published in the United States in 1959, The Charioteer is a bold, unapologetic portrayal of male homosexuality during World War II that stands with Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories as a monumental work in gay literature.
8) CHARLES JACKSON: The Lost Weekend. A self-proclaimed alcoholic, Jackson's novel is a heart breaker about Don Biman, a gay man on a five-day binge who is constitutionally incapable of honesty and succumbs to the deadly disease. (Disclosure: my second novel, “A Comfortable Corner”, is about a gay man living with an active alcoholic who successfully enters a recovery program at the end.) Jackson's scorching, unforgettable novel was praised deservedly to the sky when it was published in 1944 and was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 1945--when Oscar was no laughing matter--by Billy Wilder with Ray Milland and the divine Jane Wyman playing Helen, Don's patient friend in the book transformed into his love-object in a fine movie stripped of Don's gay soul. I just reread this masterpiece recently and was moved to tears yet again at its terrifying end when Don crawls into bed wondering, "Why did they make such a fuss?" Oy!
Paperback: 244 pages
Publisher: Syracuse University Press (August 1996)
Amazon: The Lost Weekend
Don Birnam is a sensitive, charming and well-read man who spends a long weekend overcome by his weakness for alcohol, evaluating his life and its meaning.
9) TRUMAN CAPOTE: Other Voices, Other Rooms. I was honored when I discovered Truman and his lover (Jack Dunphy) read “Gaywyck” aloud to one another at Christmas. True, there is a long Christmas-shopping sequence in it, but I think what amused them most was the echoes (more like shouts!) in it of Truman's first novel, which I add to my list here because when I read it in my youth I was blissed out by Joel Harrison Knox, its 13-year-old hero, and his great spiritual awakening of self-acceptance at the end: "I am me," he exclaims. "I am Joel, we are the same people." For me this is a stunning (and “Gaywyc” inspiring) reference to Emily Bronte's Catherine Earnshaw exclaiming in “Wuthering Heights” --another of my favorite books! --"Heathcliffe and I are the same person," which is the great rallying cry for dementia in romantic literature and novels by obsessives like M. Proust and in all those popular love songs I adore. Then add a vast Southern gothic mansion, a cousin Randolph in Mardi Gras drag waving as a "queer lady" in a window, and see just how much I love "homages" (as opposed to stealing?) from books I revere. And, oh, how that Truman could write! When was the last time you read “Breakfast at Tiffany's”? I recently lent a copy of “In Cold Blood” to a young friend who passed it on to SIX others in a state of shock over its (and Truman's) greatness. Yes, indeed, a genius talent for our side....
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Vintage (February 1, 1994)
Publisher Link: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780679745648
Amazon: Other Voices, Other Rooms
Published when Truman Capote was only twenty-three years old, Other Voices, Other Rooms is a literary touchstone of the mid-twentieth century. In this semiautobiographical coming-of-age novel, thirteen-year-old Joel Knox, after losing his mother, is sent from New Orleans to live with the father who abandoned him at birth. But when Joel arrives at Skully’s Landing, the decaying mansion in rural Alabama, his father is nowhere to be found. Instead, Joel meets his morose stepmother, Amy, eccentric cousin Randolph, and a defiant little girl named Idabel, who soon offers Joel the love and approval he seeks. Fueled by a world-weariness that belied Capote’s tender age, this novel tempers its themes of waylaid hopes and lost innocence with an appreciation for small pleasures and the colorful language of its time and place. This new edition, featuring an enlightening Introduction by John Berendt, offers readers a fresh look at Capote’s emerging brilliance as a writer of protean power and effortless grace.
10) ANDREW HOLLERAN: The Beauty of Men. Like many others, I find Andrew's “Dancer from the Dance” a doozy of a book. His ear for dialogue matches Jimmy McCourt's in my humble estimation. However, this book touches upon the same themes of aging, loneliness, and death that make “Time Remainin”g so precious to me as I enter more deeply into my Golden Years. (I call myself an elderly gentleman these days, too.) Andrew's Mr. Lark--and this is indeed a song of a lark--is "needy" to the point of madness. We leave him sitting alone in a car with newly tinted windows hoping to get a glance of a handsome security guard at a boat ramp. It's come to that after a not-so-long (he's only nearing fifty, for God's sake!), yet unfulfilling life. This is a truly audacious book. It dares to go where no other gay writer has ever gone in the way it confronts the loss of youth both in the mirror and in the bed in our youth-obsessed culture. It distresses me that so many find Mr. Lark "depressing" instead of seeing his last moments with us as an act of hope, an act of spiritual redemption finding joy in the beauty of men. And I seem to have come full circle here with Andrew's Proustian concern with Time, for as Beckett (again) says: "Proust's characters, then, are victims of this predominating condition and circumstance--Time...."
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Plume (June 1, 1997)
Amazon: The Beauty of Men
Lark struggles with his loneliless, his aging, the loss of so many of his friends to AIDS and the obsessive feelings he experiences toward one young man, Becker, who has taken over his dreams.
Plus: Joseph Hansen/Fadeout; Anderson Ferrell/Home for the Day; Andre Aciman/Call Me By Your Name; Christopher Davis/Joseph and the Old Man; Harold Brodkey/Profane Friendship.
About Vincent Virga: “I’m a native New Yorker born September 28, 1942.
That day, my orphaned mother was mistakenly told by her surrogate mother, Mamie O’Neill, that two tablespoons of bicarbonate of soda (instead of two teaspoons) would ease her discomforts. Soon, an ambulance rushed Frances to St. Vincent’s Hospital with me being propelled into the world. In shock, my mother asked a passing nun, “Where am I?” When another nun followed hard upon to ask for my name my mother announced, “Vincent!” Turns out, St. Vincent de Paul is the patron saint of orphans....
We moved into a large city project on the East River opposite the present site of the UN until my dad moved us to Lindenhurst, Long Island in 1952. I felt kidnapped. I loved the city, especially the local movie theater–The Beacon–where they showed reruns of the golden Hollywood movies. That is where my visual vocabulary, my acute visual literacy, was born and nurtured. I learned how to look at what I see from the movies and from picture books. I joke that I look therefore I am.
I’m also a compulsive reader. I cannot remember a time when I couldn’t read. Dizzy Gillespie said that when he found the trumpet he found the best part of himself. Well, when I found the word and the image I, too, entered a luminous realm of existence.
After Lindenhurst High School, I went to St. Bonaventure University, and then to Yale Graduate School where in 1964 I met my life-partner, the writer James McCourt who had a deep and abiding friendship with the musical genius Victoria de los Angeles. (Her love and her art became a cornerstone of our lives together.) Jimmy and I went to live in London for nearly 5 years before returning home to NYC for the publication of his story Mawrdew Czgowchwz and for the making of a life in the city of my dreams.
My first “real” job stateside was as the typesetter at The New York Review of Books. The true joy of that job was my friendship with Susan Sontag. During times of great happiness and times of crisis, Susan was there for both Jimmy and me. Both Victoria and Susan died within weeks of each other. The dedication of Cartographia is to the memory of them both: two gifted people who expanded my world in ways beyond measure. And the same can be said of the third dedicatee, James McCourt.
After leaving NYRB, I published my first novel, Gaywyck, the much-touted first gay gothic; it was followed by A Comfortable Corner, and Vadriel Vail.
My first picture-editing project was in 1973. I made a book from a John Wayne record America, Why I Love Her. Michael Korda, Editor-in-Chief at Simon & Schuster, hired me; he was pleased with my research for his own book Success. Wayne’s book was a success. Presto! I was a very happy picture editor. After complaining that art directors were moving “my” pictures around and screwing up my spreads, Michael told me to show them what I wanted. Presto! I was a designer of picture sections, one he eventually christened “the Michaelangelo of picture editors” and “my secret weapon” in a Washington Post interview.
On my last photo-editing project, adding pictures to Hillary Clinton’s It Takes A Village, I learned that most researchers now use only what’s online and don’t even know about the dusty boxes of negatives at the heart of photo agencies. As with all “my” over-150 authors,” Senator Clinton had been a hands-on colleague adjusting my Xerox collages into the picture sections for her memoir, Living History, as was her husband for his memoir, My Life. Over nearly thirty years I’ve created picture inserts for authors as diverse as John Wayne and Jane Fonda, Omar Bradley and Ethel Merman, Miles Davis and Walter Cronkite, Kitty Kelley and Wayne Barrett and Richard Rhodes. I’ve also done six picture books of my own.”
Gaywyck by Vincent Virga
Paperback: 392 pages
Publisher: BookSurge Publishing (May 18, 2009)
Gaywyck is the first gay Gothic novel. Long out of print, this classic proved that genre knows no gender. Young, innocent Robert Whyte enters a Jane-Eyre world of secrets and deceptions when he is hired to catalog the vast library at Gaywyck, a mysterious ancestral mansion on Long Island, where he falls in love with its handsome and melancholy owner, Donough Gaylord. Robert's unconditional love is challenged by hidden evil lurking in the shadowy past crammed with dark sexual secrets sowing murder, blackmail, and mayhem in the great romantic tradition. As Armisted Maupin urged, “Read the son of a bitch! You'll love it!” And as The Advocate praised, “An extraordinary tour de force that merits special praise.” Angus Wilson agreed, “I enjoyed Gaywyck very much. To me a fascinating mixture of Wilde, the Gothic and, above all, the souls laid to rest in New York.”