Chester was born in Flatbush in Brooklyn, New York. X-rays used to treat childhood illness left him bald, and he wore a wig, which though noticeable was not something that people felt comfortable mentioning. He was educated at Orthodox Jewish yeshiva. He attended New York University where he met fellow writers Cynthia Ozick (who later wrote about him in her book Fame & Folly), Sol Yurick and Edward Field (who wrote "The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag" which has many chapters dedicated to the biography and literary career of Alfred Chester). He attended graduate school at Columbia University but dropped out. He lived in France for most of the 1950s as an openly gay man. In 1952 his essay "Silence in Heaven" was published in Marguerite Caetani's literary review Botteghe oscure. (Caetani was the U.S.-born wife of an Italian nobleman.) Chester wrote a pornographic novel, Chariot of Flesh for Olympia Press using the pseudonym Malcolm Nesbit.
His first collection of short stories, Here Be Dragons, was published in 1955. His novel Jamie Is My Heart's Desire was initially published in French translation, then in an English edition by the British publisher André Deutsch, only later appearing in the United States. With Caetani's support he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1957. His short story As I Was Going Up the Stair was included in Best American Short Stories.
Starting in 1959, his short fiction was published in magazines such as The New Yorker, Esquire, Transatlantic Review. His literary criticism appeared in New York Review of Books, Partisan Review, and Commentary. He returned to the United States and met Susan Sontag through Harriet Sohmers and Maria Irene Fornes.
Chester moved to Morocco in 1963. His short story collection Behold Goliath was published in 1964, and his novel The Exquisite Corpse was published in 1967. He associated with Paul Bowles and Jane Bowles while in Morocco, but eventually had a falling out with them. Increasingly, his behaviour was made erratic by a combination of mental illness and drug use. He died in Israel in 1971. His later writing was published posthumously in collections such as Looking for Genet.
Jamie Is My Heart's Desire by Alfred Chester
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Black Sparrow Press (June 30, 2007)
Amazon: Jamie Is My Heart's Desire
Alfred Chester's masterpiece, The Exquisite Corpse, was one of the literary sensations of the 1960s, a surreal, homoerotic phantasmagoria that became a cult classic. It was preceded by this, his only other novel, a work more straitlaced in literary form but just as shockingly original in content. It tells the story of a cynical Brooklyn undertaker, Harry, and the object of his affection, a beautiful and deceased young man named Jamie. But does Jamie really exist, or is he merely Harry's fantasy, the illusion that makes his life endurable? Harry's friends are divided on this matter, and Chester leaves it to his readers to decide. We are proud to republish this upside-down take on the transforming powers of love, out of print since the late 1950s.
Colonial Affairs: Bowles, Burroughs, and Chester Write Tangier by Greg A. Mullins
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Univ of Wisconsin Pr; 1 edition (October 2, 2002)
Amazon: Colonial Affairs: Bowles, Burroughs, and Chester Write Tangier
A North African port city that was home to as many Europeans as Moroccans, postwar Tangier was truly an international zone, a place where the familiar boundaries of language, culture, nationality, and sexuality blurred, and anything seemed possible. In the 1950s and 1960s three leading American writers settled in Tangier, where they were able to find critical new ways of living and writing on the margins of society. A subtle literary portrait of Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, and Alfred Chester, Colonial Affairs is also a complex and perceptive account of the ways colonialism and sexuality structure each other, particularly as reflected in the literature written in postwar Tangier.
Sexual commerce and culture flourished in Tangier during these years, as gay expatriates fled repressive sexual norms at home. Greg Mullins explores the covert and overt representations of sex, fantasy, desire, and sexual identity in the literature of Bowles, Burroughs, Chester, and Moroccan authors who collaborated with Bowles. He argues that expatriate writing in Tangier articulates the desire to exceed national and other forms of identity through representations of sex, especially marginalized forms of sex and sexuality. The literature that emerges variously celebrates, critiques, and attempts to evade the double bind of colonial sexuality.
Framed in relation to queer and postcolonial theory, Mullins's work is grounded in contemporary debates about sex, race, and desire. His sophisticated yet nimble analysis establishes beyond any doubt the central importance of colonialism and sexuality in the fiction of these writers working at once at the center and the margins of tradition-and reveals to contemporary readers the queer angles of their distinctly original work.
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