JOHN JULIUS NORWICH

The recent death of an extraordinary man, John Julius Norwich, has reminded me of times past and especially the publication of an equally extraordinary book.

Hashish was a sumptuous and strikingly beautiful book production with stunning photographs by Suomi La Valle and a text written by John Julius Norwich. Hashish had long been in use in the Middle East before it was discovered by the European literati of the nineteenth century. It had become part of the alternative culture of the 1980s, being praised and vilified in equal measure, the controversy over the relative benefits and harm done by its pharmacology continuing to the present day. Aside from the arguments, hashish was and is a means of livelihood for many people in Nepal and Lebanon. Suomi La Valle had gained the trust of the peasants who cultivated the plant, Cannabis sativa, and taken a series of astonishing photographs. John Julius Norwich, who had lived for three years in Lebanon, wrote about it with deep scholarly knowledge and level-headed lucidity. As he said:

My own purpose will be to try to put this extraordinary plant in its historical and literary perspective: to assess the effects – political, cultural and even etymological – that it has had over the two and half thousand years or so that have elapsed since its peculiar properties were first discovered; and finally perhaps to remove at least some of the mystique that – among those who have no direct experience of it – has surrounded it for so long.

The Standard reported how John Julius Norwich had tried hashish when he was with the British Embassy in Beirut in the early 1960s, smoking the stuff through a hubble-bubble at the home of a Lebanese high-court judge. ‘I puffed diligently away,’ he recalled, ‘but the incident made little lasting impression.’

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The party for Hashish was attended by a less predictable mixture of guests than usual. Its risqué aspect attracted a wider circle than the normal crowd of book-launch attenders. Suomi La Valle’s wife, being the owner of an exclusive fashion boutique called Spaghetti in Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, invited elements from the fashion industry who were not unfamiliar with ‘the weed’ and its uses. They joined the motley company of beautiful people who were intent on not being excluded from an event tinged with notoriety because of its subject matter. Leonard Bernstein, new to the London party circuit, was there too. So was the more familiar figure of BBC Television’s weatherman, Michael Fish, seen deep in conversation with the model Marie Helvin; which only went to show that modelling and weather forecasting might have more in common than is generally supposed. Hashish sold quite well, though it never achieved the figures we hoped for. We were definitely dealing with a book ahead of its time and lost out as a result. After the original print run of thirty-five thousand copies was either sold or remaindered, the book was never reprinted, and like various other Quartet titles it has become a collector’s item. Whenever copies in good condition surface today, they are sold at a high premium. Hashish has become a cult book throughout the world.

On a more personal footnote, in 1958, when John Julius was Second Secretary at the Beirut Embassy, my sister Souhaila, who worked there, took dictations from him and still remembers him rather fondly.

A CALL TO ARMS!

Augustus Young’s Heavy Years is getting unbelievable reviews which he surely deserves but mostly, alas, written by internet bloggers. You need to be geared to the new media to read them. You might well ask why traditional newspapers and magazines have failed to give the book even a mere mention. Is it because it is a remarkable mix of memoir, polemic and fictional illustrations of events from a long career in the National Health Service? His internet reviewers all call it both entertaining and intellectually stimulating. Yet it is a pity that the public at large, who are aware of what is going in today’s ailing NHS, are not given the chance to read what he has to say on this very important institution from first-hand experience.

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Paul Burke, in his riveting review, says the author has a very specific view of the role of the NHS as the fundamental foundation of our nation’s politics rather than, as some see it, a toy for politicians to play with. He is very good at pointing out the Kafkaesque aspects of life within the NHS:

From the very start Young sets a detached tone and style of the writing that make it clear that the narrator is an interloper. Initially that’s a bit disconcerting and hard to get to grips with or even like, but it is this detachment that helps makes the points that Young wants us to get. So situations and arguments can be developed exclusively of personality although, of course, the arguments are very personal to him.

He carries on: ‘Young is acerbic, very witty and at times excoriating – at no time he attempts to endear himself to the reader.’ Some observations can be straightforward:

My pittance was paid from grant-support reserves, and for the first-year project, were within the hospital. And I wouldn’t be working for a pension. The ultimate object of work for me was the practical application of an idea. Being paid off with a golden handshake was something else.’ But most of his arguments are erudite and incisive. Heavy Years is a highly intellectual memoir that regularly strays into literary and philosophical musing. Topics can spring from very obscure beginnings: Young studies Bentham’s model for a perfect prison based on Brunet’s Pantechnicon with the intention of absorbing ideas for the Health Service. There are many flights of literary fancy and strange stories; the Sumerian man with the X-rays stands out for me. It’s a highly individual and eccentric means of story-telling but Heavy Years is engrossing. At the end of it you realise that Young has presented the original ideas of the Service (slaying the five goliaths as Aenurin Bevan saw it) and to put that in the context of today’s much altered needs for a modern service, Young nails a dysfunctional hierarchy of power and how it works – fails from the political to the practical delivery to service users. The politicians top the list, the mandarins civil to nobody and servants to the devil come next, all the way to the ground troops who actually do the work of medicine. Young reveals the machinations of management, the pompous and the ignorant as well as the good. We get a sense of the changes wrought by political ideology and the work of real people, including the mistakes and the basic humanity. A masterly work of erudition. Enlightening.

Published by Quartet Books last month, this work, as you can see, is very topical now as the NHS is subject to many an argument and needs a great deal of thought and more investment, which must be used wisely as the nation can ill afford to squander financial resources, given the present economic mess and the instability brought about by Brexit.

Buy the book, and find out for yourselves the enormity of the problem the NHS faces as to its future.

Sir Desmond De Silva

Last Sunday, I was told the devastating news of the death of Desmond De Silva, a giant of a man in every respect, whose book of memoirs , Madam, Where Are Your Mangoes? Quartet published last September. I knew Desmond and members of his family for many years and still can’t believe that he is no longer with us. Yet his memory will live with those who knew him for evermore. May the Lord above take good care of him.

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Here what I said in my brief address to those who came to celebrate the launch of his book at the time.

We are here today to mark the publication of Desmond de Silva’s episodic memoir, with the attractive title Madam, Where Are Your Mangoes? You can guess already that the reader is in for a memoir which is different from any other we are accustomed to. For Desmond is a remarkable man, who has lived his life to the full whilst becoming one of the most high profile and brilliant jury advocates of his generation.

Born in Ceylon in 1939 – eight years younger than his publisher and, as you can see, more handsome  and certainly admirably  more eloquent – full of verve and raring to go whenever a challenge presents itself; he splits his time between Belgravia and Sri Lanka.

It is most appropriate to mention that in the course of a long and distinguished career he was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1984, became the first British chief prosecutor of an international criminal court in 2005, was knighted for services to international law in 2007 and made a member of the Privy Council in 2011. He is also a Knight of Justice of the Order of St John for his charity work. What Desmond has achieved is certainly the envy of many of us and is likely to dwarf anything we aspire to, which shows the magnitude of his varied talents and the strength of his personality.

This passionate and insightful memoir provides an authoritative account of many of his most remarkable cases, covering over half a century of practice in the courts of England, the Commonwealth and as chief prosecutor of an international criminal court. It is also a revealing portrait of Britain’s post-war social, political and cultural landscape and a testament to the unparalleled importance of the rule of law in societies all over the world today.

Honest, idiosyncratic, entertaining and never dull, de Silva writes without censor about a remarkable life spent in the corridors of power.

Without further ado, and to keep my address as short as possible, you are invited to show your appreciation for a man who has done so much to gain your admiration by buying a few copies of his book to celebrate this memorable occasion and in the process endeavour to spread the good word around.

As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating – you can demonstrate your generosity by showing us the colour of your money preferably of the red denomination to cheer up the author and his hard-up publisher. Let us see what you can conjure up to make the evening an unforgettable experience.

Thank you for your indulgence.

No Longer With Us

QUENTIN CRISP

Quentin Crisp was born in Surrey in 1908-1999. He worked as an artist’s model until the 1970’s when his book The Naked Civil Servant was dramatized for television to great acclaim. Since then he has written several books including a second volume of autobiography, How to Become a Virgin, and a book of film criticism, How to Go to the Movies. In 1993 he played the role of Elizabeth I in the film version of Orlando. In 1981 he left England for New York where he still lives in a single room on the Lower East Side. His experiences and reflections on life since moving to the US are captured in his  book, Resident Alien – The New York Diaries, was published in 1996.

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From an early age you were aware of what you call your predicament. Do you think your predicament was largely genetic or do you think there were other factors involved?

There must have been something genetic because so many people have such absolutely conventional upbringings and they still are peculiar in some way or another, including sexually peculiar. But there may have been other factors involved. For example, you could say that I lacked anyone to tell me how to be a grown person. My mother alternately protected me from the world and threatened me with it; my father took absolutely no notice of any of us, he hardly ever spoke to us.

You obviously had a very difficult relationship with your father. How much do you think this was a symptom, how much a cause of your own problems?

I never tried to talk to my father about anything, certainly never about anything serious, so I think that was a cause. The more appalling I was, the less he talked to me.

You said that in later years you found ways to fuel the furnaces of his hatred. That sounds like a deliberate attempt to do battle.

In some ways, yes. I became more frivolous and more deliberately helpless. I knew I was a hopeless case, and I paraded my hopelessness before my father.

Money always seems to have been a bit of a problem. Yet the impression is of a middle-class upbringing with domestic servants and so on…would you say that was the case?

We did have a middle-class suburban upbringing, and there were servants with black dresses and stretched aprons, but I now know we had no money. My father was permanently in debt, and there were bailiffs in the house regularly.

In your autobiography, your three siblings are given hardly a mention. Did you always feel apart from them, and they from you?

Yes, I think I was apart from them, and they felt glad that I was apart from them. My sister, who died only about ten years ago, once said long after all the trouble was over, that I had been a terrible child. My brother next to me in age was horrified by having to be associated with me. The brother after that was so much older that he didn’t really bother.

As a child, your unhappiness, or sense of being different, manifested itself in all kinds of attention-seeking behaviour. Were you aware of what you were doing at the time, was it a means to an end, or did you become aware of what it was only retrospectively?

I certainly did draw attention to myself, and I think I knew that I did, but I would have denied it, I imagine.

Do you look back on the period when you were wetting your trousers and soiling yourself with a kind of revulsion?

Well, I suppose I should. I really don’t look back on it at all, but certainly I was a disgusting child, there is no doubt about it. But I don’t remember being ashamed.

Boarding school seems to have been a terrible time. You were half-starved, half-frozen and humiliated in a number of ways. Did you never appeal to your parents to take you away?

I didn’t. I never tried to get them to take me away. It never occurred to me to challenge my destiny.

You hated boarding school, but you describe it as a dress rehearsal for the treatment you were soon to receive in the streets of London. Would you say in that sense it was a good preparation?

Yes. I think if I had left straight from home and gone out into the world, it would have been like falling over a cliff. I had a doll’s-house view of the world when I was at public school. I had to learn that everybody was my enemy, and that I would have to find ways of dealing with this if I was going to go on living.

You were so unpopular at boarding school that you say that you came to regard your unpopularity as a gift, and what was originally something you tried to avoid, you later came to cultivate. Deep down didn’t you still crave friendship and approval?

I think I must have wanted friendship – it seems so unlikely that I wanted none. I didn’t want approval enough to alter myself in order to get any. On some days I would think, I can’t bear this anymore, I will try and behave like a normal schoolboy, and then I would think, I’m doing this so badly, it’s too humiliating, and I would go back to being my horrible self.

Although there was a great deal of homosexual coupling at your school, you said in your autobiography that effeminate homosexuals did not indulge very much in sex with other boys. Why was that exactly?

Effeminate homosexuals tend to want love at the beginning, but they will not find it. It wouldn’t have meant anything to me just to go behind a hedge with a boy and do it, and come away again. I wanted the world to care about me, and that included anybody that I met.

So you weren’t driven at the time by a sexual urge?
I’ve never really been driven by a sexual urge, certainly not deeply. Of course I very quickly realized that love was out of the question, that any contact I made with people would have to be sexual, and I tried to give myself up to this, not at school, but later on. I thought at one time that sex would take me away from all this, without knowing where it would take me. I thought that if I could find someone who would cherish me, everything would be all right, but this never happened.

You also wrote of that period: ‘What I wanted most of all was to use sex as a weapon to allure, subjugate, and if possible to destroy the personality of others.’ That seems a remarkably well-formulated analysis for a boy of fourteen or fifteen. Did you actually think of it in that way at the time?

I think I did. I thought I could meet someone who would be sufficiently interested in me to do as I told him, but of course no such person existed. At the age of about eighteen, that would have been in 1927, I was much influenced by what I saw in the movies. Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were all icons of power, and the great German films were all about vamps – the word has all but disappeared from the language. The women were vamps, and they destroyed men. In one film Miss Helm, the most beautiful woman who ever lived, sits in a tent while the men struggle across the desert, their lips blistered with thirst. She orders some champagne, drinks it, then breaks the glass on the edge of her throne and cuts the throat of one of the men for no reason whatsoever.

When your father died, you say you felt only irritation at having to return for his funeral. Did you ever come to revise those feelings?

No, I didn’t really. I had no feelings about his death. I ought to have been pleased he was dead, but actually I had already left home, so I felt nothing. It was just an event. Even now that I can, if I wish, think of my father as a character in fiction, it’s still impossible to like him. Why did he saddle my mother with four children when he had no money? When he died, she had to go and live with my sister, there was nothing else she could do.

What was it like when your mother died? Were you more attached to her?

We were all relieved, because she had had such a terrible life. She didn’t die until she was eighty-six and by that time she had to be lifted out of the bed into a wheelchair and at night had to be lifted back into bed. I don’t seem to be able to be deeply attached to anybody. It’s hard to tell how much people mean when they talk about such things. I don’t know how different I am from other people, but I certainly do feel I have fewer of what could be called proper sentiments in regard to other people.

At some point in your youth, you managed to shift homosexuality from being a burden to being a cause. Presumably in some ways, far from making your life easier, it must have been made more difficult…?

Of course I know now that it was nonsense to think of it as a cause, but at the time I spent my life in cafés where I sat with other gay boys, most of whom were on the game, and we pooled our tears. They were miserable and for no justifiable reason, and I therefore decided that somebody had to live the homosexual life – it was no good writing books about it, because they would be read only by homosexuals. The important thing was to live it so that people would get used to the idea. The great weapon in the hands of integration is boredom. When you say to somebody, I’m gay, and they say, and then? – you’re in the clear. It’s while you have to explain yourself and justify yourself, and they try to be tolerant of you, that the problem still exists.

Did you ever dabble in prostitution?

Yes, but I was so bad at it. The reason why men go with boys is usually in the spirit of hilarious research. They want someone who’s no bother, someone who doesn’t try to weave an emotion into it. I didn’t so much want to have sex as to be admired, and of course that was no good. So I gave it up the moment I got any real work to do.

Was the wearing of make-up a kind of acceptance of your own sexuality, a statement to society that this was you, and they had better get used to the idea?

Yes. First of all, I wore very little make-up, but exhibitionism is like a drug – after a while you can take a dose of it that would kill anyone who is just starting out. When you don’t get noticed, you think, I must do more. You start to expect to cause a stare, and you’re frightened when you can’t do without it.

You describe the homosexuals you befriended in those days as ‘pseudo-women in search of pseudo-men’. Did that mean it was a disappointment when they had encounters with similarly effeminate men?

Yes, that’s right, it worried them. They would express to me their disappointment, their indignation at finding out that someone who they thought was going to turn out to be a man was just as effeminate secretly as they were. Nowadays the homosexual world is a world apart, and they don’t really want to bother with real people, but in those days we all thought we would reinforce our idea of ourselves by gaining the attention of real men. Of course it led to disaster over and over again.

At what point did you realize that it was pointless to expect people to be tolerant or understanding towards you?

Very early on. By the time I was thirty I didn’t really expect anything.

Your early working life was precarious to say the least, spells of unsuitable jobs interspersed with dole money. You must have lived in a state of permanent anxiety…
Yes, and I was always hungry. The dole was fourteen shillings a week. I had one meal a day and lived in a room which cost six shillings a week. The room was long enough to lie down in one way, not quite long enough to lie down the other way, and not quite high enough to stand up in. it was a very difficult period.

You turned your hand to writing – poems, libretti, stories – but you describe the problem as being one of having a genius but no talent. What did you mean by that exactly?

My genius is for the smiling and nodding racket which I can now practically live on. If you can get by on peanuts and champagne in America you need never buy food again, but in England you can’t do that; you need to be able to do something and do it well, and possibly even study it. I’ve never studied anything in my life.

At one point in The Naked Civil Servant you liken homosexuality to an illness. That implies that it cannot be helped but in some cases it might be cured. Was that your view?

I suppose it still is my view. I don’t remember what I thought at the time, but I have known homosexuals who have got married because they thought it might help. I didn’t ever say, ‘Help whom? ‘and indeed, since they remain married and they have children, it obviously did help. The idea that people are either heterosexual or homosexual is nonsense; they will sometimes drift backwards and forwards for an hour or for a week or for years, it depends. The more the gay people now insist on their rights, the greater the distance becomes between the gay world and the straight world, and this is such a pity. I suppose I have to be careful about calling it an illness, but homosexuals seem to me to be people standing on the bank watching other people swim. In some way it takes you away from real life, away from the main stream, so if it isn’t an illness, it’s certainly like having an illness.

Did you ever sleep with a woman?

Never. I don’t think it could have worked. Sexually I have no interest in women at all. I don’t shun them, I simply have no interest in them.

You say at one point in the book that you regarded all heterosexuals, however low, as superior to all homosexuals, however noble. What did you mean by that?
The world belongs to straight people, and they must be regarded as superior. The superiority of numbers, of power, of know-how, of worldliness is all with straight people – that’s the sense in which they are superior.

Do you have a secret admiration for heterosexuals?

I suppose I do, yes. Especially the ones who seem so totally at ease with themselves.
During the 1930’s you began to meet a greater number and variety of homosexuals, but because you did not conform to their rules you were ostracized by them too. It must surely have been much harder to bear the hostility of homosexuals.
Yes, I was very disappointed when I first found that the homosexual community distrusted, disliked, even despised me. I got used to it and I suppose in England most of my friends were straight women, because they expected nothing of me, and in any case these were women in happier times, before they decided they had to be people. When women were women, one of the things they liked to do was chatter, and I’m a born chatterer, so I could sit with them, and entertain them and they could be nice to me. I didn’t really ever get on with men because they only ever speak to me about money and politics and sport, about which I know nothing.

It seems that because you publicized homosexuality and flaunted your own, you angered a great many homosexuals who preferred to remain incognito. Did you not sympathize with their position?

I understood their position but I don’t really believe that my being obvious made any difference to them. Everything is so changed now. Nowadays if two men take an apartment in any big city in the western world, it is assumed they are gay. In a time gone by, people would have assumed they were sharing a place and halving the rent. Friendship is disappearing altogether and sex has taken its place.

From where did you derive the courage to display all the trappings of homosexuality at a time when it was firmly in the closet?

I couldn’t do otherwise. I was hopeless at being a real person, and even when on occasions I was not wearing make-up, it made no difference. People still stared at me.

When the war broke out you were turned down by the medical board on grounds of sexual perversion. Did you receive that as an accolade or were you humiliated by it?

I wasn’t humiliated. People had told me I would never get into the forces, but I hadn’t believed them. I had no money, I couldn’t get a job, and I imagined it would solve all my problems.

What were your feelings about the war?

It was very nice when it came. First of all, there was a whole year in which you never saw any war whatsoever, and you could only read about it in the papers. But then the war came to London and the sky was pink with doom, the ground shook with the anti-aircraft fire, and you could hear the shrapnel falling. And that was very exciting. I decided I wouldn’t accommodate the war at all, so if I was invited out I went out, whether there had been the air-raid warning or not – it was all a lottery in any case.

The war seems scarcely to have impinged on you – at least it hardly figures in your account of those years. How did you manage to avoid thinking about it, worrying about it?

I just didn’t alter my life, I went on exactly as though there was no war. The only wonderful aspect of the war was the American soldiers. Americans listen to what you say, Englishmen never do. It felt you were being courted to some extent.

When you found unfurnished accommodation, you discovered that squalor was your ‘natural setting’, as you called it. Was this primarily a reaction against your mother’s domestic orderliness?

I don’t think so. It was just natural laziness. I didn’t want to clean everything, and so I thought, I won’t, and we’ll see what happens. Then I formulated the idea that after the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.

Is that what you truly believe, or was it something you said primarily to shock people or to amuse them?

I never say what I don’t mean. And I’m not the only person to think that way. There was once a woman called Nancy Spain who went on to Woman’s Hour and said that only a fool would make the bed every day. It shook England, but in fact it was a message of hope. I once watched a woman dust the rails under the chairs, and I told her there was no need to do that. She said, ‘I know there isn’t, but if I don’t do it they haunt me.’ And that is the way women feel. Women in England are all in a blind rage by half-past ten in the morning, because they’ve had to skirmish round the house, and dust everything, and put everything right, was everything. But there’s no need.

You criticize the advertising industry for spreading the idea, against all evidence to the contrary, that sex leads to happiness. Would you at least concede that it leads to pleasure, perhaps the greatest pleasure of all?

It leads to pleasure, but with penalties. Homosexual intercourse is often actually painful, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes nasty, so you have to think, do I really want this? There was once a programme about hepatitis, and a woman interviewed a young man and asked how many times on average he had sexual relations. He replied, ‘Six’, and she said, ‘Six times a week?’ He replied, ‘No, six times a night.’ Now at that rate, it can’t go on being a pleasure – it must simply be a score. I think it’s a form of pleasure which some people cannot do without, but I don’t believe it is a form of happiness.

Could you yourself do without it?

I can do without it now, and I have done for the last twenty years or so. In the past if I felt sexual urges I usually masturbated, which is less trouble. And so much cheaper.

Why is the homosexual generally more promiscuous than the heterosexual?

I secretly think – though I have been shouted down on this – that it is because it is not very satisfactory. Just as if you eat food that doesn’t nourish you, you eat more food, so people who indulge in unsatisfactory sex are often extraordinarily promiscuous.
You seem very cynical about sex, calling it ‘the last refuge of the miserable’. Was this some sort of defence mechanism operating?

I don’t think so. It’s just that I don’t set much store by sex, and I have had less sexual experience than most people. But certainly, it is a refuge of the miserable in so far as people who are not content with their lives have to go out to look for sex. And that applies to the heterosexual man as well.

Have you ever had a happy sexual relationship?

I’ve had pleasant sexual relationships. I couldn’t say I ever met anyone who fulfilled my dream which was to be admired for sexual and other reasons. I suppose the truth is, I do not deserve it, but you don’t realize that in the beginning.

Your relationship with American GI seemed to be one of the most satisfactory but even then there was no love. Was there affection?

There was affection, and he was friendly, which is rare in homosexual relationships.

But you never really fell in love…

I don’t think I quite know what that phrase means. I understand that you can fancy somebody, or wish them well, or you can enjoy their company, but I don’t know anything beyond that.

Towards the end of the war you became a model and posed for art students. I imagine that had greater appeal than your other jobs…

It did. In the beginning I really liked it in spite of the terrible suffering involved in sitting. There was hardly any limit to the discomfort I could endure, but you can only get better at it for the first two or three years. When you begin, you think I wonder if I’m going to faint, but after a bit there’s nothing you can’t do. I did it on and off for thirty-five years and in the end I was half asleep half the time. But yes, I like it in the beginning.

One imagines that you might have lived a rather promiscuous life, but this seems not to have been the case in the early days. For many years you were able to live without sexual encounters at all. Was this primarily lack of opportunity or lack of desire?

I never really desired much sex. I don’t ever remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to get a man from somewhere’. If it presented itself to me, fine, if it didn’t, I went without it. Now I haven’t had any sex for at least twenty years and this doesn’t worry me in the least. My appetites are in general much weaker than other people’s – I’ve never been drunk, I never overeat, I have never done anything to excess. Even at my worst I was never as promiscuous as most homosexual men are.

After the war you took to the movies and watched anything as long as it wasn’t English. Was this a kind of escapism or was it a genuine passion?

It is a genuine passion. Nothing ever happens in English movies, which is why I dislike them, and in any case I’ve always been American in my heart. When I was a child my mother took me to the movies in the spirit of ostentatious condescension; the cinema was for servant girls, and people with taste went to the theatre. She told me America was nothing like how it looked in the movies, but she was wrong. Everybody who comes from England to America agrees it’s more like the movies than you’d ever dream.

Are you lonely ever?

I like solitude, but of course I’ve never been put to the test because I’ve always lived in big cities. If I spent a whole week in my room doing nothing, I would reconstruct myself, go out, walk from where I live up to 14th street and back again and I would be really surprised not to meet somebody with whom I could have a cup of coffee and discuss the secret of the universe. I’ve never lived in a village and I hope I never shall.

Your first major writing success was The Naked Civil Servant which was soon made into a TV movie. Was that the first real flush of success for you?

Yes, but it was only a mini-success. It did not lead to any work, I wasn’t invited to review other people’s books and say they were worse than mine, and no one asked me to write anything else. It wasn’t until it was made into a television play that my whole life changed. That was in 1975, and the book came out in 1968, so there were seven long dark years in between.

John Hart’s portrayal of you was so widely acclaimed. Were you yourself happy with it?

I was indeed. It was a marvellous reproduction of my voice for one thing. He was slightly more defiant than I ever was, but only minimally. He’s born to play victims. After he played me he went on to play Claudius, which is really only me in a sheet, and then he was the Elephant Man. People sometimes ask me if I feel like an elephant man, and I do, I do.

One success led to another, and you soon had your own one-man show at the Duke of York’s. Did your life change as a result?

I felt my way of speaking, my way of expressing myself, had started to pay off, yes, but my life didn’t change very much. I didn’t branch out, I didn’t spend a lot of money. I went on living in one room, and I still live in one room.

Your success in England was readily exported to America. You say you have always felt your natural milieu to be American. It must have seemed like a dream come true…
To come here was quite quite wonderful. Happiness rains down from the sky in America. I agree with Millicent Martin who is now an American by marriage. She said the difference between America and England is that in America everyone is always in favour of whatever you propose to do, and this is absolutely true. If you stand up in a bar and announce that you’re getting up a cabaret act, everybody will ask, where are you gonna appear? what are you gonna wear? In England if you told your friends you were getting up a cabaret act, they would say, for God’s sake, don’t make a fool of yourself. Everything is a warning in England. I didn’t know there was any happiness in the world, till I got here.

You say the English have etiquette and the Americans have manners. How would you explain the difference?

Etiquette is a process of exclusion. The English have rules, and if you don’t know how to eat an artichoke then you’re not one of us; if you call a table napkin a serviette, you will not to be invited again. In America you have manners, which are a process of inclusion. When you’re with Americans they want you to feel you can do no wrong; that’s the difference.

Your performance in Orlando, as Elizabeth the First, has been widely praised. Was that something you enjoyed?

It was absolute hell, but being in a movie is always absolute hell. I wore two rolls of fabric round my middle tied with tapes, and then a hooped skirt tied with tape, and then a quilted petticoat and then an ordinary petticoat and then a dress, and I had a bodice so tight that it blistered my stomach. No wonder Queen Elizabeth was always chopping off people’s heads – she must have been in a permanent rage from having to wear those clothes.

Presumably now, with your writing and lecturing and TV and film appearances, you are better off in your eighties than you have ever been. Do you feel there is an irony there?

I suppose there is, I am better off, but not very much better off. People assume that if you’re famous you’re rich, which of course is not necessarily so, but provided I die in the next two or three years, I’m in the clear. In America everybody is your friend, but the system is ruthless. Once you’re unproductive you will end up living in a cardboard box on the street corner. So you have to get into your grave fairly quickly.

In your autobiographical writing you seem much concerned with the notion of happiness and what it consists in… for example, you think money is a prerequisite, and to look forward to the future spells the death of happiness. How would you describe the state of happiness, and have you achieved it in your life?

I’ve achieved a little of it. Happiness, I would say, is to live in the present, not to think about the past, not to think about the future, but to be here and be now, to be aware, to live inside your body. I think happiness is a physical thing.

Most people would define happiness in terms of loving and being loved. Does that strike you as being completely alien?

It’s alien to me. My happiness is a relationship between me and myself, not between me and someone else, which is always full of uncertainty.

You have described yourself as doing deliberately what you used to do by mistake, a way of getting the joke on your own terms. Have you arrived at a kind of contentment now, would you say?

Yes. Now I can behave in a way that is perfectly natural for me, and other people accept it, or appear to accept it. Perhaps it’s all an illusion, because in America if they don’t like you, they don’t say so, whereas if they do like you, they tell you. It’s completely the other way round in England – there you feel terribly disliked, but here in America it’s easy to get the impression that everybody adores you. But I would say that I’m happier than I ever expected to be.

You were a martyr, weren’t you, but your martyrdom was partly self-inflicted. You got so used to living in a world which scorned and hated you. Did you become a willing martyr in the end?

I suppose I expected the world in general not to accept me, not to like me, and to throw things at me and shout at me, so yes, I suppose I was the willing kind.

Would you have had the sex-change operation if it had been available at the time?

If it had been available when I was in my late teens, and I had had the money, I would certainly have had the operation. Then I could have gone away to a provincial town and run a knitting-wool shop, and nobody would ever have known my terrible secret. I would have been free.

You have been much preoccupied with the business of death, and have been predicting your own for some time now. Do you look forward to it?

Yes, it’s the next big event in my life. Like most people, I imagine, what one is concerned with is behaving nicely when you’re dying. A lot of people think it terrible to die alone, but if you die in the presence of other people you have to be polite while you die, which must be very difficult. So that is one of my chief preoccupations: how to behave nicely when I’m dying.

What is your attitude towards religion…has it changed at all over the years?

No, I think it’s always been the same. I don’t want to say anything that might give offence, but I can’t believe in a God susceptible to prayer. If God is the universe that encloses the universe, or if God is the cell inside the cell, or if God is the cause behind the cause, this I can accept. But I think it is actually wrong to teach children to bargain with whatever they think is God – for example, if you don’t eat sweets in Lent He will give you a bicycle with ten speeds. This is undignified. If there is a force that keeps the spheres moving in the heavens, why would it be preoccupied with us, and why would it be endowed with such wretched human characteristics? Why is it angry, why is it jealous, why is it forgiving? No, I don’t believe in that sort of God.

But do you expect any life after death?

I can’t afford to. What little I can do, say and be is complete, so it would be very dreary to have to come back. I can’t really imagine what life after death would entail; I can only imagine more of the life that I’ve already led, and that has been long enough.

Your life has been extraordinary by any standards, but it strikes the outside observer as having been a tragic one in some measure. Would you agree?

Yes. I don’t know how it could have been changed to make it less tragic. Other people grow up with their brothers and sisters, and they get on fine for the most part with them, and they go to school and make friends, and then they go out into the world and acquire workmates. None of that happened to me. I was alone, and I had to invent happiness.

Your autobiography ends with the words: ‘I stumble towards my grave confused and hurt and hungry…’ Would you use the same words today?

No. Today I am less confused, my hurts have been mostly healed, and I am well fed.
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED AUNTUMN 1993

 

SPACE ODYSSEY

As we now know the surface of Mars better than any planet except our own, as our space probes have sifted its dust, sniffled its atmosphere and rumbled across its rocky plains, yet scientists still have next to no idea about what lies beneath the planet’s surface.

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Recently, a NASA mission equipped with a British-built seismometer has taken off in search of answers. All being well, it will be the first robotic lander to investigate the planet’s sub-surface and take detailed measurements of the ‘Mars quakes’. The three words ‘all being well’ conceal a justified anxiety.

Any attempt to land on Mars is fraught with difficulties, not least the final stage of the descent. NASA’s ground control crew will be mindful of the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli probe which splatted into the planet’s surface in October 2016. This time the stakes are higher: NASA’s Insight lander will be carrying delicate instruments. Among them is the short period seismometer which will measure tremors using three small sensors, each weighing a single gramme. (The device was designed by engineers at Oxford University and Imperial College, London, with £4 million pounds from the UK Space Agency).

Along with French pendulums, the lander will be used to scrutinise the Martian interiors through the same technique used to infer the composition of the earth from seismic waves. The British Geological Survey plans to give the readings to school children so that they can try performing the calculations themselves. Unlike earth, which has a crust of molten rock, Mars is thought to have geologically frozen early in its history. This means that its structure is not only interesting in its own right, but it could also help scientists to explain how planets are born, in a similar way to how palaeontologists explain the course of evolution by studying fossils.

‘During its formation, this ball of featureless rock metamorphosed into a diverse and fascinating planet, almost like a caterpillar to a butterfly,’ Bruce Barendt, the mission’s principal investigator, said. ‘We want to use seismology to learn why Mars formed the way it did and how planets take shape.’

The Lander was launched on an Atlas V rocket from the Vandenberg Airforce Base in California on 5 May, 2018, shortly after midday British time. It will take about half a year to travel the 140 million miles or so to Mars. Let’s hope this mission of discovery will succeed and we will learn much more about the foundation and formation of Mars and best of all, whether the planet is habitable.

The colonisation of Mars, if ever it is achieved, will pave the way to a future of discovery the likes of which will widen our knowledge of what lies behind what we haven’t already seen, or have so far been beyond our comprehension. Our human capability will then be endless.

PRAISE WELL DUE

Christina Oxenberg’s book, Dynasty, published by Quartet, is still receiving the acclaim it deserves. Nudge Books, an influential book blog, published an extended review on 28 May, written by Paul Burke, which gives an insight on what he calls ‘an absorbing personal account of one of Europe’s royal families,’ saying:

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Oxenberg is an endearing writer who finds it easy to get the reader on side. It’s warm but definitely not in any way sycophantic. Packed with details that royal lovers will gobble up, Oxenberg is keen to give her family a modern context as well as relate their history. She addresses the question of what a royal family does in the modern world.

The first question is how to classify Dynasty. There is no easy answer because Dynasty is part memoir, part history, part travelogue, and part reportage. For simplicity’s sake lets settle on memoir; it’s a very personal voyage into the past and the home country but also Oxenberg’s own past.

One of the things that struck me most about this memoir is that Oxenberg has been detached from her roots by time and place. She lives in Florida and grew up in America and Britain. “By birth I’m an American,” she says. When she arrives in Serbia in 2014, the family have just had their property restored to them. She finds that the people she meets know a lot more about her family history than she does. Oxenberg manages to convey some of the strangeness of that dynamic.

Dynasty is a diary of the epic journey Oxenberg undertook, and she is a natural story-teller. The book is an emotional read, particularly when she is telling the story of her grandparents, Prince Regent Paul and his consort, Princess Olga of Greece and Denmark. Oxenberg challenges the generally accepted image of her grandfather, a negative local perception apparently derived from internal family issues. She also contextualises her family history with the modern developments of European affairs.

Oxenberg clearly learnt about herself in this memoir and her frankness makes this an engaging read. Oxenberg doesn’t shy away from the horrible history; murder, brigands, slaughter of the Ottomans, assassination plots and intrigues. Oxenberg has a sharp eye and a keen wit. This memoir/history contains some new information and previously unseen photographs. For royal fans it’s a wonderfully entertaining read.

There you have it. Although I’m Christina’s publisher, as well as her friend of many years, I always feel a nostalgic sensation when a good review is published. For the benefit of those not familiar with the book, I need no compulsion in this regard for she is my icon for many personal reasons and beyond.

An Encounter With Edmund White

EDMUND WHITE

Edmund White was born in Cincinnati in 1940 and graduated BA from the University of Michigan. Between 1962 and 1970 he worked for Time- Life Books and in 1982 he became executive director of the New York Institute for the Humanities. Between 1981 and 1983 he taught creative writing at Columbia University. Le Monde called him the most accomplished American novelist since Henry James. His books include Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978), States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980), A Boy’s Own Story (1982) and Genet, his most recent work, published in 1993.

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What are your earliest memories, and what emotions do they stir?

My earliest memory is of my third birthday party during the war. My mother forced me to wear an aviator’s cap and a pilot’s uniform for children, and I hated the feeling of the cap and the idea of having to play with other children my own age. I much preferred being with adults. I didn’t like the idea of being forced to do anything. I was extremely attached to my mother, though she was a rather melodramatic and emotional person at that time. Now I think she is much more mature, but then she was going through the difficult end to her marriage, a very naïve woman who had been handed by her father to her husband. She had always been rather spoilt and didn’t even know how to write a cheque. Being aware that her husband was leaving her for another woman made it a painful period for her. Both my parents are Texans. My father was a cowboy when he was a boy and then became a self-made businessman. He was a person almost frightened of fantasy. He despised talking about people or ideas, or about anything imaginary. He preferred to talk about stocks and bonds, or measurements or scientific process. The one exception he made was for classical music, which he adored. When I was very young, we lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, which was a town settled by Germans in the 1840s and so a very musical city. My father loved all that. We went to the symphony every week and often had musicians play in the house. My sister and I both had to learn several instruments, the harpsichord, the recorder, the piano, the violin and so on. No, I didn’t get on well with my father. I was afraid of him. He was very violent. If you spoke at the table he would throw a spoon across and knock you out with it. He was a very eccentric man who disliked people. He slept all day and woke at six in the evening when he’d sit down to a massive breakfast. He then stayed up all night playing harpsichord music till dawn when he’d go back to bed. Since he owned his own business, he was able to do the work at home, then pass everything out under the door to his secretary – which is rather an efficient way to work, but not a very human one. He did it expressly that way because he didn’t like to come in to contact with people. With me he was always disappointed that I wasn’t more athletic, more aggressive; that I didn’t want to take over his engineering business; that I was too cissy, too artistic, too attached to my mother.

When your parents divorced, did it make for a great insecurity?

At first it was a great feeling of release because I didn’t like my father. The idea that we were rid of him, and that my mother, my sister and I could move to another, bigger city like Chicago – which is where we went – was very exciting. I also knew that it was easier for me to manipulate my mother than my father. But the second reaction was a feeling of guilt, because, I suppose, I had wanted to get rid of him. It was almost a classic Oedipal feeling that I had succeeded in killing off my father, or at least in disposing of him. At the time of the divorce we moved into a hotel before moving to Chicago, and while in the hotel I went through a terrible crisis of guilt. I locked myself in the toilet and kept shouting, ‘I did it, I did it! It’s all my fault!’ Finally they had to get the doorman to take down the door to get me out. About that time, when I was seven, I had an ink-blot test, and the person who gave me the test said the results pointed to somebody psychotic. I didn’t see any human beings in the test, only diamonds and graveyards. Those were my two great obsessions.

How far were those early years and experiences formative of your adult persona, or can these links be exaggerated?

The links can definitely be exaggerated. I feel not very much attachment to the child I once was. I have been extremely conscious of childhood influences, but have exorcized them through writing about them. I now feel quite detached from my childhood. One of the wonderful things about being a reader is that it puts you in touch with other lives and standards of behaviour. My own family was quite brutal and given to violence, and it was through novels that I learned about more decent ways of behaving. I wanted to aspire to that, to be like a person in a Henry James novel, not like someone in Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell. I didn’t want to be violent. You have to remember that my Texas relatives were homesteaders – pioneers who, as late as the end of the of the nineteenth century, moved to Texas with their rifles, still fighting off Indians. So we were not very remote from a state of real violence. One of my great-grandfathers was a preacher, and when he was denouncing somebody from his pulpit, the person he was denouncing shot him.

You always insist that you do not conform to the standard Freudian theory: the product of dominant mother and absent father.

When I wrote Nocturnes for the King of Naples, people said this book has a dominant mother and an absent father, therefore, Mr White, you subscribe to the Freudian pattern, don’t you? I replied I had not written the book as an illustration of a psychoanalytic period, but as an artistic reflection of my own experience, which may conform to certain Freudian dynamics but which I don’t feel was universally true for homosexuals. When I first started writing in the early 1970s, people would read a novel which was openly homosexual as though it was a blueprint for all homosexuals, as if it was a statement of principle. I was eager to defend the individual’s right to tell his own story without generalising about others.

Wasn’t the first draft of A Boy’s Own Story written when you were fifteen? Did you write it in diary form, or as a kind of therapy to help you face the difficulties of adolescence?

It was written as a real novel. I began to write it in the first person and in a confessional mode, but I quickly found the book was running away from me and being swamped in detail. I didn’t know how to make it go forward, so decided to go to the opposite extreme and to write it not only in third person, but with a third-person narrator who had no access to the boy’s thoughts. So it was all described in an objective way. It didn’t really work, but it was written as a form of therapy because I felt I was drowning. I had been sent away, or had chosen to go away, to a boarding school, and every night we had two hours’ enforced study. I would get my homework done in the afternoon and then in the evening, between eight and ten, when we had to be at our desks, I wrote my novel furiously until the bell rang. It was always exhilarating. I loved writing it and I felt it was an example of Freud’s idea of the repetition compulsion. Freud noticed that children playing with dolls would often-times repeat with a doll the same terrible things that had happened to them. The mother doll would spank the baby doll. Why would they do that, why recreate the pain, why not make a happy story? He realized that, in repeating the pain, there was pleasure when they became the ones doing the manipulating. They enjoyed their mastery over a painful situation. At that time of my life, to write about the very events which were happening to me but to be the one who controlled them artistically, gave me a feeling of mastery over the situation. At that time of my life I was extremely unhappy. I was besieged by violent, even obsessional, sexual urges that I didn’t like or approve of. There are young homosexuals who have strong desires but never act on them, and who only begin to do something about it later when they are twenty or twenty-two. There are others who become sexual very young, but are very upset about it and find it not easy to deal with. But I was both sexually precocious and guilt-ridden; I had a strong drive to do something about it, but also terrible feelings of guilt. It made me feel I was going crazy.

In the same book you say, ‘It’s the particular curse of adolescence that its events are never adequate to the feelings they inspire.’

I think what I meant is that one often has a big tragic feeling, a feeling that one has lived through bitter and dramatic events, and when, for instance, you read a novel like Wuthering Heights, it is adequate to such feelings; but in the case of a typical teenager, especially for one like me who was rather lonely, who was neglected, who didn’t do much, who just walked around through beautiful grounds filled with mist feeling lonely and melancholy but also tragic, you tend to ask, but what’s so tragic? What have you done? Nothing. Nothing has happened to you, you haven’t done anything. In other words, you have this very strong Hamlet-like response but not to strong events. T.S Eliot talked about the objective correlative: that you have to have objective events adequate to the emotions you hope to elicit. When you write about adolescence, often-times the feelings are extremely strong, but it’s hard to communicate that to a third person, a reader, because the events don’t in themselves trigger such a powerful response for them. The writing itself, though, came all too easily. I wrote from a kind of obsessive interest in confession and with very little interest in artistic expression, so most of my writing of that period is worthless. In fact it was only towards the end of my twenties, after I had written four or five books, that I began to understand that you couldn’t simply babble, that you had to stop and think and arrange things. In other words, when I began to resolve some of my psychological problems and no longer wrote quite so much form the need to confess, I began to have a certain inner calm. I was able to fashion a text like Forgetting Elena, my first published novel, though the first or sixth I wrote.

The hero of A Boy’s Own Story says, ‘I feel sorry for a man who has never wanted to go to bed with his father.’ Isn’t that just the Oedipus complex in reverse?

I don’t know. If I read Freud right, he says the boy wants to sleep with his mother and kill his father, but is so frightened of his father and his father’s revenge that he becomes homosexual as a way of distracting his father’s rage – of convincing his father that he doesn’t really want to seduce the mother and doesn’t even like women. That was Freud’s idea, more or less, but he doesn’t talk about a boy’s sexual interest in the father so much. Yet many of the homosexuals I have known and spoken with intimately have had strong erotic fantasies about their fathers, and have often even slept with their fathers or brothers. It’s not unusual. A psychiatrist once told me that people have a very difficult time talking about incest with members of the opposite sex, such as a boy with his mother, or even a boy with his sister, but between two brothers or two sisters, it’s not very difficult to talk about. Father-son, yes. In other words, between generations it’s difficult, or between two sexes it’s difficult, but the same sex, the same generation, is very easy to talk about. People don’t have strong guilt feelings about that. Anyway, I definitely had strong erotic feelings towards my father, though, as I say, I don’t feel they’re classically Freudian. I think the idea was that whoever was sleeping in my father’s bed was in a privileged position in the family and would gain power. In other words, my father was a tyrant, and at first my mother was in his bed and therefore a privileged person; then my stepmother became a privileged person; then my father had an affair with my sister, and my sister was elevated in the family because of it. I didn’t know about it at the time, but I sensed it because I once walked in on them when my father was brushing my sister’s hair. She had very long blonde hair, and looked quite a bit like his mother, who was very pretty. My father, my sister, and my father’s mother were all blonde, whereas I resembled my mother and my mother’s side of the family, the paternal side of the family being considered the more beautiful. Anyway, my father was brushing my sister’s hair, standing behind her and crying while he did so. It was the only time I saw my father cry. I sensed there was something going on, but I wasn’t certain to what extent. It was only years later, after my sister had a complete breakdown and was in a mental hospital, that I knew for sure. She had tried to kill herself and it all came out, but that was many years later. I guessed she had always had strong guilt feelings about this relationship with my father, maybe partly because she liked it. I think she had loved him very much. It was extremely dramatic when my father died, because we had a farm in the north of Ohio where he wanted to be buried, and that was terribly inconvenient for everybody because it took hours to get there. We finally arrived in the small town with its little farmers’ church, and there he was in an open coffin, which I hate. But my sister went up to the coffin and talked to my father for a long time, rather angrily and crying. She was forty something at the time.

She became a lesbian, you think, because of the affair with your father?

I think maybe. She was married and had three children with her husband, but always had strong lesbian feelings. Finally, maybe, she was able to express it after her breakdown. She seems quite happy now.

You wrote an introduction to Genet’s posthumous Prisoner of Love, but it struck me as rather ambiguous. Did you admire Genet?

Very much. I’m sorry if it was ambiguous. It’s not an obvious book for an English reader, and I am very naïve politically, so I wouldn’t feel too comfortable in saying what I thought about his politics towards the end of his life. But for me his novels are some of the greatest literature written this century. Neve come his plays, then his essays, and least of all his poetry. I never met him. I could have, but by the time I moved to Paris in 1982, he didn’t like to meet white or middle-class people, nor Americans. I was all three so figured it was pointless even to try. Of course, one of the good things about being a biographer today is that you can watch hours and hours of somebody on video. I’ve seen forty hours of him. You get the feeling of how somebody moved and talked and so on.

You are sympathetic to Genet’s idea that any novel which doesn’t set itself up as an Aunt sally is a fake, but isn’t twentieth-century literature riddled with enough irony? Is there no reason at all for commitment, or must every idea self-destruct?

I can’t see any philosophical reason why he should be right, but if you look at the novels you actually like, it turns out he is right. The novels that are very engage politiquement, like Sartre’s, have become very difficult to like – even Malraux I find almost unreadable now. Whereas novels which are deeply ambiguous, like Genet’s are still readable and seem to have a universal interest.

In your introduction you excuse Genet’s acknowledged admiration for treachery by thinking of it as a code word for an incorrigible subjective voice. Do you think that treachery can really be excused by a semantic shift?

Personally no. But it’s very interesting, now that I know so much about his life, to find he was actually deeply loyal to the people around him. For instance, he had a lover in the 1960s, a high-wire artist called Abdullah, who committed suicide. Abdullah’s best friend, though Genet never slept with him and didn’t even particularly know him, was given money by Genet every month till the end of his life – that is, from 1964-1986. Even then Genet made him one of his three principle heirs. And in many other instances you find tenacious loyalty on the part of Genet to his early friends, though he would also excommunicate certain intellectuals, usually women, who tried to dominate him too much. He had terrible fallings-out with friends, but I don’t think you can call that treachery, just an eruption of rage. He liked to present himself as a traitor and to suggest in a dark way, in A Thief’s Journal, that he betrayed people, but when you look for real instances in his life, it’s hard to find them. If you say he admired treachery, though, then I do not think that it is a philosophical position, that he had a kind of love for the unsalvageable person. When he wrote his last play, The Screens, he chose as his hero not a loyal militant Algerian soldier fighting against the French, but the most miserable proletarian Algerian who betrays even the revolution though he doesn’t like the French either. Again and again Genet was attracted to the person everyone else despised, the lowest person. That’s the person he speaks for finally: the person he wants to redeem. I’m not defending him, but I think it’s interesting how his mind works. In Pompe Funebre there is Jean, a real person, his real lover, a communist killed by the milice in 1944 during the liberation of Paris. Then Genet, in mourning, sits down to finish this novel as a monument for Jean, but what does he do? In the novel he glorifies Hitler, glorifies especially a young character called Riton who is in the milice, one of the very people who killed Jean. This idea of embracing evil, of honouring people who are more or less unsalvageable, was very strong in him. It’s partly philosophical choice; he’s partly a Nietzschean. He was certainly very influenced by Nietzsche, and he loved the idea of the transvaluation of all values. Most criminals, when they write, present themselves as wonderful, kind, intelligent and moral. The usual thing for a prisoner who writes is to justify himself in terms of the most conventional morality. What is daring about Genet is that he not only writes about the real evil he’s committed, but exaggerates it and doesn’t apologize at all. From the point of view of homosexual history, that turns out to be something fascinating, because he is probably the first homosexual ever to write without any sense of apology or trying to give a diagnosis of how this strange medical state of affairs came about. Unlike Gide, for instance, who is fairly liberated, or Proust, who distances himself completely from homosexuals so that all the characters in his book are homosexual except him, Genet spoke as a homosexual about actual homosexual life in the Ghetto, and it was something brand-new.

In A Boy’s Own Story you say, ‘I was appalled by my own majesty…I wanted someone to betray.’ Many people who are not homosexual might therefore be tempted to think that the urge to betray is the characteristic of homosexuals.

My feeling is that everything about homosexuality can be explained by two things. One is that it is an all-male culture. In other words, in heterosexual life men are always adjusting to the expectations and values of women, but in homosexual life they are, at least on the sexual plane, interacting only with other men. The other thing is that they are a persecuted minority group. In A Boy’s Own Story, the boy’s urge to betray at the end of the book is morally ambiguous because, on the one hand, the reader applauds, this being the first time the worm turns, the first time this rather persecuted boy, usually passive and always suffering things at others’ hands, decides to do something for himself. It’s a revenge on the adult world, a kind of self-assertion. It’s certainly the end of innocence; but the bad thing, on the other hand, is that the object of this attack is another homosexual. The person he chooses to persecute is one of the few people who has actually been nice to him and who to some degree shares his sexual taste. But that was very characteristic of that period, because homosexuals who belonged to it hated themselves. How could they not? There was no favourable picture of homosexuality available in that culture. A homosexual was either ill, criminal or a sinner. There were only the medical, the legal or psychological models. There was no other way of justifying them sexually. All three of those images are quite pejorative, and so the boy suffers the usual self-hate. Attacking another homosexual was, in a way, proving one wasn’t oneself so homosexual. The one he attacked was the scapegoat.

But, today, do you still find that homosexuals have special characteristics?

I don’t. I know most people do say that, but I think it’s much like anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism and anti-homosexuality resemble each other closely because they tend to look for a unity that doesn’t exist. In his little book on Jews, Sur la question juif, Sartre suggests that the anti-Semite regards the Jew as a synthesis. So if one man says a Jew is not courageous, and another says yes, but here is a Gentile who is not courageous, the first rejoins, ah yes, but the lack of courage of a Jew is different from the lack of courage of a Christian. In the same way, people search for a kind of mystical unity in homosexuals. We all share something which is our condition, but the condition shifts from time to time, so while homosexuals do share something which is their particular social condition at a particular historical moment, I always find it ridiculous when homosexuals talk about ‘we homosexuals’ and mention Plato or Michelangelo. Even if they had homosexual sexual practices, the nature, formation, and contours of their personalities, their mentality, must be entirely different from now. A homosexual living on a Greek island today is entirely different from a homosexual living in Manhattan. So which homosexual are we talking about? I suppose you could say that certain middle-class homosexuals living in London at the moment bear certain resemblances to each other because their condition is a shared one, but only to that degree.

Do you think of your work as political in the sense, as you explain in the Genet introduction, of heightening consciousness by making people more aware of different convictions and lifestyles?

Yes, I think my books are political in the same way that they put you in the shoes of another person, but I also think that my most recent work, The Beautiful Room is Empty, is political in an even more direct sense in that I wanted to show the beginning of homosexual liberation and the period of oppression just before it happened in 1969. There are many people who have grown up or become homosexual since then, and I wanted to show them what things were like before, and to end on a very positive note with the idea, the feeling of liberation. Therefore I chose as my hero someone who is extremely middle class, quite repressed, rather self-hating, and a reluctant revolutionary. I wanted even the heterosexual reader to say to himself or herself, oh come on, get on with your life, stop tormenting yourself about all these ridiculous scruples. It pleased me very much to see a review by a New York Times reviewer, a heterosexual male, who said in effect, I am heterosexual and I barely understand all this stuff, but for Christ’s sake, Mr White, get on with your life. That is exactly what I wanted the reaction of the reader to be. I wanted the reader to be more liberal than the boy himself.

And do you find the ordinary reader today more liberal?

It depends. You see, I’m from the United States, which is a very religious country, and I have all these Texan relatives who are Baptist and are convinced I’m going directly to hell. The ordinary literary reader living in Paris, London or New York is quite liberal, as they have been for a long time. But I’ve had people from America writing letters denouncing me, telling me I’m going to hell and so on. America is an extremely religious country. I feel more like an outsider in America than I do in Europe. That’s the odd thing. In London I have so many friends who are writers, and I feel so warmly accepted that I don’t feel like an outsider at all. If I have a new book out in London, maybe the Independent will do a review, The Times will do a review and the Literary Review will say this is one of the best books of the year and so on, which is very thrilling, whereas in America, if they review me at all, it’s almost entirely in the context of where are homosexuals now and what’s happening to them in this age of Aids? In France, if they were taking a poll of important people, asking what do you think of nuclear power, they might ask a hundred people and I might be one of them, but in America The New York Times would never asked me about nuclear power, only about homosexual rights. I feel very ghettoized in America, but that’s not a problem peculiar to me, it’s peculiar to human life. America is nothing but ghettoes. There is no general reader in America, no general culture. It’s all lobbies, ghettoes and special-interest groups. The reason I’m returning to America now is partly because I was offered a very good job. I’m about to be fifty and I support my mother, and if she didn’t have me I think she would be in the gutter. If I work fifteen years, then I can have a retirement plan and all those nice things, but also, as a writer, it’s dangerous to be out of contact with your country too long. It’ll be interesting to go back, at least for a few years. If I like it, I’ll stay; if I don’t, I’ll come back here. But it was a wonderful offer: a full professor with tenure in Brown University, one of the best universities in America. I couldn’t refuse. I’m going with a friend, who has just got divorced and wants to start a new life. He’s French, and the idea of moving is exciting for him too, so it’s just a good moment to be going back.

But do you feel more appreciated in England than in America as a writer?

Definitely in Europe; specially in England. But also in France. And five of my books are coming out at the same time in Italy now, and five more or less at the same time in Germany, so I feel there’s a big push going on.

But why should that be? After all, you’re America.

Yeah. Well, I asked Alison Lurie once why she was more famous in England than in America, and she said, ‘Because in America I’m writing about familiar subject matter in an unfamiliar style, that is an English style, whereas for English people I’m writing about unfamiliar subject matter, that is American life, in a familiar, that is English, style.’ I think that’s true of me too to some degree. In other words, there is something exotic about those rich American children that I write about, but it’s in a reflective, more European, more literary style of writing. It’s not the sort of Raymond Carver minimalism that people have come to expect from Americans.

In A Boy’s Own Story you say: ‘It seemed to me then that beauty was the highest good, the one thing we all want to be or have, or failing that, destroy.’ Why should a young homosexual feel like that? Is it a thoughtlessness of youth which imagines it will never be old, or is it a more specifically homosexual fear?

I don’t think it’s a fear, and I don’t think it’s homosexual. I think it’s artistic. Artists are susceptible to beauty, including physical beauty, which in real we all react to. Yesterday I had a party where there was a beautiful young man, twenty-two years old, and all the men and women were reacting. He is also an aristocrat, so that helps, but, you know, he’s blond and his father is the governor of Bermuda and so on. He didn’t have to say a word and everybody found him enchanting, everyone was giving him their phone number, men and women both. People do respond to physical beauty very strongly, but when they write, they pretend they’re much more moralistic, that they have better values; that is, that they prize nothing but intellect and virtue. But artists are people who love beauty, and one of the forms of beauty, maybe the main form, is physical human beauty. It’s not any accident that the Greeks made statues of beautiful athletes and goddesses. I’ve had Americans criticize me, saying, ‘Oh, you’re always talking about physical beauty,’ because oft-times I’ll say about somebody, she is very intelligent, and this and that, and beautiful. ‘Oh’, they say, ‘why do you mention beauty?’ Feminists especially, of course, hate that. Yet I mention male beauty as much as female beauty, so it’s not that I’m especially keen on female beauty. Anyway, I do think that physical beauty is an important thing that artists respond to.

How do you view feminists?

Having lived in France now, where feminism is scoffed at and completely over as a movement, it’s hard for me to remember it’s still taken so seriously in England. Recently, when I was a judge on the Booker Prize, there were two women on the panel who had strong feminist sentiments. I found it difficult. I was even shocked by some of the things they said. For instance, to be against a novel because one of the characters is female, masochistic and shown as liking to be mistreated, seemed to be a very shocking response. On the other hand, I consider myself a feminist, but I think of myself as not applying those principles to novels but to actual life. For instance, after a long debate in my mind, I feel I’m against the idea that Moslem girls should wear the fular here in France, because it is mainly men who are deciding that women should wear it. The women have not been asked at all. It is a way of separating those girls from other girls, marking them and oppressing them. It really is a continuation of male domination. I think that’s all right within the context of the Moslem world, but here in France it goes against two things: the secular aspect of the schools and the idea of women’s right, which is very important if you are a member of French society. If you were a highly devout Catholic, you would have a hard time living in Syria, just as if you were a highly devout Moslem you would probably have a hard time living in France. So I would say I am a feminist on questions of economics and legal rights, but I don’t like feminism much when it’s applied to art.

Has women’s liberation helped gay liberation?

What we’ve witnessed in this century is a shift away from an ethic of responsibility to an ethic of pleasure. I’m not talking about aristocrats, but aristocrats have always behaved according to their ideas of personal pleasure, but in other centuries ninety-five per cent of people were farmers. They needed children to work in the fields, they were watched closely by their neighbours, they were obliged to conform and were obsessed with performing their duty to the church, their family, their parents, their children. The whole idea was of self-sacrifice to help the next generation and fulfil your duty, which was clearly defined and ordained by God; nobody doubted it. You still see that in Third World cultures, but once it shifts you have a kind of aristocraticization of middle-class life, hence the vast armies of people in the major cities of Europe and America who have adopted the ethic of self-satisfaction and pleasure. They divorce when they’re no longer in love, get rid of their children if they feel they’re cramping their style. They do exactly as they please, treat their lives as a work of art, and are mainly interested in self-fulfilment. That’s when homosexuality becomes much more important, because if those are your real feelings, then you are going to act on them.

But hasn’t feminism driven some men towards homosexuality?

I don’t think so. That suggests that men have more choice than they really have. If a man is really attracted to a woman physically, so that he gets an erection when he looks at her, then even if she’s a difficult bitch, he’s not going to become excited by a man. Oddly enough, I think women have more choice than men. I do feel that there are women who, for political reasons, have decided to be lesbians, but I don’t feel that there are any heterosexual men who, for political reasons, have decided to be homosexual.

Is homosexuality on the increase, or is it that people are now liberated and have come out of the closet?

It’s that it’s more visible, but there might have been many before who, if they were marginal cases, would have worked very hard, with their psychoanalysis or their priest, to remain heterosexual if at all plausible. I know of several examples in my father’s generation of women who married men who really were homosexual, but the men did not act out their homosexuality. They lived with their wives and were sadists. They tortured their whole family. They were alcoholic, disagreeable, wife-beating monsters because of their repressed homosexuality.

Has American society yet absorbed the idea of homosexuality? Can it now be regarded as part of the make-up of the nation, or is it accepted de jure but not de facto?

It’s accepted neither de jure nor de facto. It’s become a powerful special-interest group in certain cities, especially in the west where there aren’t other ethnic groups to compete. In New York, where strong Jewish, Italian, Polish and Irish ethnic groups, and now Puerto Ricans control the city, gays do not represent a very powerful vote even though they are numerous. But in places like Houston, Texas, or Los Angeles, which are newer cities and where ethnic groups are less well organized and the largest ethnic groups are comprised of either blacks or Mexicans, who tend not to vote very much, gays have become more powerful in local government and have even helped to elect a woman mayor in Houston. So in certain regions, gays have gained a lot of clout. In response to Aids, gays have become very well organized, and activist groups, like ACT UP in New York, have done a lot to change legislation, to streamline the availability of new medicines for the critically ill. Before, people who were ill were being told that they couldn’t try a new drug because it hadn’t been tested long enough to see if it was safe, but if you are going to be dead in a month, what difference does it make. Now all that’s been streamlined and there is much quicker access to the drugs, even to dangerous ones, if one wants to try. This has been something achieved by ACT UP, and they’ve gotten much better funding for people who are ill, for home care, for medical bills and so on. So gays don’t represent a powerful special-interest group in certain regions and certain aspects of American life. But whereas in France a recent poll showed that sixty per cent of heterosexual French people regard homosexuality as a normal variation of sexual behaviour, probably less than ten per cent of Americans would say the same.

Why could no publisher be found initially for A Boy’s Own Story in Britain? Was the country simply not yet receptive enough for gay literature?

Well, A Boy’s Own Story was quickly accepted in the United States, but in Britain, where I already had one or two books published by Andre Deutsch, they didn’t like the book. Deutsch rejected it, and then it went to several other publishers and was rejected. It was finally accepted by Picador, who decided it was good and made a big fuss over it.

As a title, A Boy’s Own Story looks deliberately provocative, did you feel it necessary to provoke a response when you wrote it?

Actually, you know, the title has slightly different echoes for an American. For the British, of course, it’s clearly provocative because it makes you think of A Boy’s Own King Arthur, a Boy’s Own History of England, the Boy’s Own Paper, but in America, at the turn of the century, there was a series of first-hand oral reports given by juvenile delinquents to an important Chicago sociologist that were printed in a book called A Boy’s Own Story, which was the context in which I first thought of it as a title. I wasn’t really thinking of British books so much. Later I thought it would be amusing to take this very strange boy and place his story, which was anything but the typical Boy Scout’s story, in this very traditional context. Susan Sondheim, who was a very good friend of mine at the time, hated the title because she felt it made light of the book, that the book was better than the title and the title was ironic in a light way, but I liked it.

Is she no longer a friend?

She’s no longer a friend because she felt I portrayed her as a character in one of my books, which I didn’t mean to do, but she’s been angry with me ever since, though I still admire her and like her. I felt she was over-sensitive, and for somebody who has always been an advocate of the freedom of speech, she reacted in an odd way.

Much of your work, I think you acknowledge, is autobiographical. Can you tell me something of the relationship between the life and the fiction?

First of all, I’d like to say that Caracole, which is not at all autobiographical in the obvious sense since it has no-first person narrator and no character obviously based on me, is, I feel, my most autobiographical novel. This is because it’s the only novel I have written in the third person in which the narrator has the ability to get into the minds of all six characters: three woman and three men. I felt fully expressed in that book, in the sense that I felt I could exaggerate different aspects of my own personality and project them onto those six characters and dramatize my own inner conflicts in the bi-play between them. If you write a so-called autobiographical story, like A Boy’s Own Story or The Beautiful Room is Empty, then you are stuck with only one character, the narrator, and you don’t really have that kind of full expressivity. Certainly in any autobiographical novel you’re always shaping it primarily for novelistic purposes. A real autobiography, written by, let’s say, a famous general like Eisenhower, is written by somebody you can assume the public is already interested in. He doesn’t need to create interest, he can assume it on the part of the reader. But a novelist, and especially a novelist who is not well known or who is only well known for his novels, has to create interest in the book. Therefore it has to operate as a piece of literary machinery to create interest and satisfy the reader’s normal anticipations. A lot of shaping has to go on. Say, for instance, that you have had three boyfriends in a six-month period. It’s much better to have them become one boyfriend, because otherwise the reader gets confused with too many names, too much coming and going, too much shifting of stage machinery. I also tended with A Boy’s Own Story to make the character more normal than I actually was, because in real life I was more competent than the boy. I was less timid, had had more sexual experience and more artistic success at an earlier age. My boy in the book tends to be a bit timid, unsure of himself; more, I think, like most gay people that I’ve interviewed and talked to. I spent years and years in group therapy with other gay men, listening to their stories. The psychiatrist once said to me, ‘Don’t tell your story to this group because it upsets them too much.’ I had poems published when I was young, I had a play produced on Broadway when I was twenty-two. In other words, I was not quite as defeated, retarded or slow as the boy in my book, but I wanted to create somebody I thought the reader could identify with, somebody a little more timid. The brassiness in Americans seems very foreign to English readers, especially to English children, who tend to be rather more supervised, but even though I changed all those things, many English readers still said to me, ‘I find the amount of freedom the boy had absolutely astonishing.’ That shocked me, because I had thought of him as being rather oppressed, but English children, brought up in a traditional way, tend to think that the boy has an enormous amount of freedom. So, to return to your question, I’ve changed many things to simplify them, to make them more shapely, to make them more novelistic, but also to make their character more representative.

‘I never doubted that homosexuality was a sickness’, says the boy in A boy’s Own Story. How long was it before you began to feel differently? Is it just social programming, or does it represent some deeper and more permanent fear?

Many Americans are phobic about sex itself, not just homosexuality, so many times, when American homosexuals are coming out and trying to accept their homosexuality, they find they have an even bigger problem, which is to accept their sexuality at all. And it’s a universal problem, it seems, among certain kinds of Protestant and Irish Catholic Americans. That’s one thing, but I feel myself to be very involved with the history of Gay Liberation, and deeply indebted to it because the kind of self-assertion, the kind of political activism that emerged in 1969, was liberating for me personally. Oddly enough, I was the co-author of a book called The Joy of Gay Sex in 1976, published by the English publisher Mitchell Beazley. I wrote it with my own psychotherapist, but that was pure accident. He had already been chosen to be the doctor half of the team when they were looking for a writer. They auditioned ten writers, who all had to write sample entries. They liked mine the best, so chose me, and then I found it would be with my own psychotherapist. He said to me, ‘You must choose either to continue to be my patient or to be my collaborator, but you can’t be both.’ I chose to be his collaborator because I needed the money badly and felt it was towards the end of my therapy anyway. But I told Mitchell Beazley that I didn’t want to sign my own name because I thought it wasn’t a work of any literary interest and would hurt my literary career. The book, though it had some rather juicy sexual drawings in it, wasn’t in fact very sexual in the end, but tended to be more about life-style than sexual activity. More than half of the entries were about such things as coming out, dealing with your parents, taking a lover, telling a fellow officer worker you were gay and all that kind of stuff. And the more I worked on it the more I said to myself, ‘It’s completely hypocritical of you to urge everybody else to be honest and open and then sign a false name.’ So I put my own name on the book, and it was the first major thing I had written that was specifically and openly homosexual. That had a tremendous liberating influence on me. I was rather old, I was thirty-six, and it is shocking to admit how many years of therapy and struggle it took me before I could accept myself. Now I really do.

I can’t imagine myself going to a therapist and talking to him about a problem. Why did you find it necessary and were you helped?

It was very destructive at the beginning because the therapist acted as an agent of repression rather than liberation. It was only when I was in my late twenties and I chose to go to a homosexual therapist – a therapist who has, I knew, openly homosexual and felt relaxed about it – that I began actually to make some progress. But, you see, in choosing him I had already made progress. In other words, up to that point, as late as the age of twenty-nine, I was still engaged to a woman, trying to go straight and get married.

But you needed therapy because of your homosexuality?
Yeah.

Nothing else?

Nothing else. Although it had such consequences that it made me quite crazed in other way too. I mean, I was full of nervous tics, constantly shaking my head and bobbing. I couldn’t sleep at night. I would eat too much or too little. I had all kinds of anxiety attacks where I would hyperventilate and almost pass out, all kinds of strange psychological and psychosomatic symptoms. My sister too. Then in both our cases, when we came to accept, really accept, our homosexuality, we relaxed and all these other psychological problems disappeared.

Did your father know that you had homosexual tendencies?

Uh-huh, yes. And he hated it. He hated it and wanted me to stop.

Did you ever go through a period of your life when you could make love to a woman and enjoy it?

Yes. I was always afraid, though, of being somehow captured by women, maybe because I had a mother who depended on me very much when I was a child. After my father left us, even before, my mother would often say things like, ‘Oh, I wish you were grown up, I would marry you.’ I felt suffocated by her need for me. After that, I would tend to choose similar women, women who were very needy, partly because I didn’t have very much self-confidence. So a woman who was overweight, or who had extreme psychological problems and who was very dependent on me, reassured me in one way though in another it reminded me too much of my mother and I felt suffocated by that very need that I liked and trusted. It was all rather upsetting to me. I have the feeling that if I had been able to work out those problems, I might have had a more bisexual life. Certainly the interest in men was very early and strong, but there was a genuine interest in women that got stifled at some point along the line, mainly because I was afraid of them, afraid of failing sexually myself; because often-times I would be impotent with women. Never with men.

You spoke of A Boy’s Own Story as ‘the laying to rest of a section of my life’. It suggests a sort of therapy in which you spoke to a public, arranging and qualifying your life for inspection. Would that be a fair analysis?

Yes. I suppose it’s a very American and especially a very Protestant thing, the idea of bearing witness to your life. In America we have revival meetings where everyone becomes hysterical and saved through Jesus. They run to the alter and confess their whole lives. Europeans find it very amusing that Americans have this tendency to confess, but I think I’m typically American in that sense. I can only say in my defence that I feel that very few people have ever made this particular confession before in this particular way, and that it has meant a lot to a lot of readers. I still get letters from readers, and it’s reassuring for people to realize that someone else has had the same experience.

When A Boy’s Own Story was published, the New York Times review claimed that you had ‘crossed The Catcher in the Rye with De Profundis – J.D. Salinger with Oscar Wilde’. Was that a claim you were happy with?

I found it an odd remark because it seemed to me that, from a technical point of view, the trick of The Catcher in the Rye is that he is still an adolescent, so it is a brilliant act of ventriloquism, whereas with A Boy’s Own Story I felt it was important to have the narrator much older than the protagonist. In other words, the same man is speaking, but he is speaking about himself twenty years before. I felt that the life portrayed in A Boy’s Own Story was that of somebody who was in such pain and who hated himself so much that if the reader was to come away with a feeling of consolation he could only get that through an indirect contact with an adult narrator who did accept himself. In fact, somewhere in the book the narrator says that even though he hated himself, he now loved the boy he was, and it’s almost as though it’s autobiographical paedophilia. We love the self we once were, but that self-acceptance trails behind our actual life by about twenty years. And it is true that I do now feel a kind of pity and sympathy with that boy who at the time thought of himself – as I thought of myself – as a kind of monster. But now I see that, given his situation, he wasn’t so bad, he was rather normal. In that sense my book had an entirely different strategy from The Catcher in the Rye, which is a teenage boy speaking to you in his own voice, which was not at all my goal. As far as Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis is concerned, I feel it’s a very elegant piece of blackmail directed at Lord Alfred Douglas. He wants to wring his heart and preach at him, and finally punish the ideal reader of this long letter, who was Lord Alfred Douglas. I don’t feel that my book is at all interested in targeting, punishing or manipulating a particular reader. I suppose what the reviewer had in mind is that it is a cross between a teenage narrative and a homosexual narrative, but then it would have been simpler to say it.

If you were to relive your youth, how differently would you relive it?

Given the circumstances then, I was fairly courageous and probably did as best I could, but I would like to live now and lose less time feeling guilty; to have more fun having sex and being more self-accepting sooner. I don’t feel I was deprived of sex, because I had a lot of sexual experiences, but I feel I was deprived of love, because I was unable to sustain a long-term relationship – even a six-month relationship – because I hated myself too much. In other words, many homosexuals from that period, and even homosexuals now who hate themselves, can perform individual sexual acts, but don’t want to have the piece of evidence that proves they’re gay sitting around day and night. If you have no lover around, then you can say to yourself each morning, well, today’s a new day, everything’s indeterminate and maybe I’ll be heterosexual later, who knows? So the kind of commitment to homosexuality that an actual lover represents was very hard for me then, and if I had to live everything again now, I hope that I would come to self-acceptance earlier and be able to experience love younger.

Many reviewers point to a vein of poetry running through your prose. Is that a deliberate or unconscious device?

Oh, like many writers of prose I started off writing poetry, and I probably still read more poetry than most prose writers. I read French poetry, English Poetry and American poetry. Ezra Pound said poets should be at least as good as prose writers, and I feel that prose writers should be at least as good as poets. There’s a great deal of careless prose writing, especially now in the age of the word processor. A lot of people have a good plot which is destined ultimately for the movies, and the style is ramshackle, just a way of conveying the plot as quickly as possible. That’s a betrayal of the artistic possibilities of prose. I like a finely worked style. It’s where the English often-times lose patience with me, because they’ll say it’s too self-conscious or over the top or arty. That’s why I’m happy Quartet is publishing so many foreign works, especially French, because I find English prose a little sterile in its sociological preoccupations with class, with region and its obsession with realism, especially in showing small pictures of small lives. I find all that tiresome.

You have taught a lot of creative writing. Is it really possible to teach people to be creative?

I’m about to start teaching creative writing again, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and one of the things I’ve been thinking is that when I was a boy beginning to write, the only idea that one had of serious literature was The New Yorker. The New Yorker story was a kind of formula that aspiring young writers held in mind as a goal. Of course, now it seems terribly demonde, and I think it would have been useful if somebody had put Proust in my hand at that age – read this, forget about the New Yorker. Young writers now have Raymond Carver and other minimalist writers. I love Ray Carver, by the way. He was a good friend of mine and I admire him as a writer, but he pulled those stories out of his guts and invented the style. He was a working-class man who was an alcoholic, who suffered tremendously but who finally tore those wonderful stories out of himself. But because it is a very plain-spoken style, it is an easy one for people to imitate, and now you see rather spoiled middle-class kids who want to be writers but have never suffered a second in their lives, writing as though they’re tortured. They don’t know any other way of writing because it’s all they see around them. So one thing that the creative writing teacher can do is expose the student to world literature. I always ask students, ‘What have you read, and what are you reading now,’ and it’s very interesting. Many of them don’t read at all, and I can say in my whole long life of knowing writers, and I’ve known hundreds, I never met any good writers who didn’t read, except Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. And they both read when they were young. Every other writer I know reads all the time – maybe not always fiction, maybe autobiography, history or whatever they’re interested in. Every writer worth his salt is interested in innovation, and there are two sources: one is by imitating life, that is to say writing about situations that have never been written about before in ways that have never been used before; the other is through parody of other literature. That is a deliberate act of influence and I think you choose your influences very carefully.

There is a school of thought which says there are profound links between homosexuality and artistic talent. Indeed some people would claim it is difficult to find one without the other.

I think that’s ridiculous. Clearly you can find many great writers and painters who are heterosexual. It does tend to vary according to the arts, and to the period. For instance, very few architects are homosexual, but maybe it’s partly because the engineering, technical aspect of architecture has become so important. I find that most homosexuals don’t like spending years and years studying maths, science and engineering. When I was a boy in the 1950s, the whole world of American painting was extremely macho, and if you were a homosexual you had to hide it because you wouldn’t be considered a serious artist. If you think of the generation of De Kooning, Pollock, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, they were all heterosexual. You barely find a woman and certainly not a gay man. Now, with the Hockney generation, you find many homosexuals, but I think it varies according to the period and the ethic of the period. If gay men tend to be sensitive to the arts, it’s partly because they are participatory outsiders. If you are a complete outsider, like a gypsy who doesn’t ever get into the inner structure of society but lives as a complete marginal, it’s rather difficult to be a writer, or you can only write about that small world. If you’re a complete insider or a successful Wall Street broker who was head perfect at Eton, it’s hard to question the mechanics of your world, but if you’re a Jew who passes as Gentile or a gay who sometimes passes as heterosexual, you can enter into the world without ever feeling completely part of it. You feel very much like an outsider, but are a participatory outsider; you participate in the system. It’s no accident that Proust, who was half-Jewish and at least half-homosexual, should be the person really to have written about the mechanics of the inner world of the French ruling class.

But people with great artistic talent nowadays often are homosexual.

There are many exceptions. For example, of the hundred and two books we read for the Booker Prize, I think only two had any overt homosexual consent. It was a shockingly low proportion, and the only one that was good was Sibyl Bedford’s Jigsaw, where she was quite open about her own lesbianism. Just numerically, there you have a spread of all the best English fiction of one whole year, and very very little of it was homosexual at all.

Would you want to claim heightened sensibility, as many homosexuals do, and if so, is it cause or effect?

I think you could claim heightened sensibility, which is the heightened sensibility of an outsider, and it’s definitely an effect. It’s an effect of being homosexual, nothing mystical, nothing innate.

From what you have written, the various psychological explanations for homosexuality seem inadequate to you. Can you suggest any reason why people should be divided in this way? Lesbians often point to the brutality and self-regard of men, but presumably a different explanation is needed for male homosexuals.

I think, as I said earlier, that women can choose to be lesbians. There are many women who felt they never had a choice, that they were born lesbian, but I’ve also known many who have actually chosen to be lesbian for political reasons – disappointment in marriage or disappointment in contact with men, or because of their political feminist convictions. But I have never known a man make a similar claim. I read a poll that Playboy magazine conducted of their readers, asking what is your secret fantasy, what would you like to explore that you’ve never had the courage to explore? Many women readers responded that they would like to explore lesbianism, but no heterosexual male reader said he wanted to explore homosexuality. So either they’re not admitting it or, as I suspect, it’s more clear-cut for men. I think it’s linked to masturbation. I think that when you masturbate alone, you have fantasies, and those fantasies guide you to what your real desires are. In that sense masturbation is psychologically productive, because it allows you to locate what you actually want to do sexually. But many women, especially of your generation and mine, did not masturbate until they were in their thirties or early forties, and it’s only at that point that they discover they’re having persistent lesbian fantasies. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.

You mean boys masturbate at an early age, women don’t?

I don’t think that’s the case now, but it was the case before, at least among traditional cultures or people who were from a religious background. Many girls simply didn’t touch themselves until they were older. As a political statement, I would say that no explanation is necessary, and that just as we don’t search for explanations for heterosexuality, so we shouldn’t search for explanations for homosexuality. To search for an explanation is to fall into the trap of regarding it as a pathology that needs an explanation. Curiously enough, the translator who is translating Genet material of mine into French, and who is heterosexual, said, ‘I find reading your work so odd because you name heterosexuality as a condition, and every time you present a new man, you say he’s a heterosexual. Heterosexuals themselves never think in those terms. They think of themselves as being a kind of universal nameless class, and then everybody else gets names as exceptions.’

But don’t people want to know more about homosexuality because it’s perverse?

Yes, because it’s different and because it can be threatening. They begin to think, maybe this will happen to me or my children, and what are the early signs? How can I be sure I’m not that way? It’s interesting. My friend who is just getting divorced – I’m his first male friend – has always lived as a heterosexual, with the wedding ring and so on, and he was telling me that in his milieu, which is architecture, many men joke about wanting to have homosexual adventures. It is constantly on their minds, always being brought up but in a joking fashion. They don’t act on it, but it is a thought that passes rather frequently through their heads. In my own case, homosexuality struck me as a source of freedom. I knew I didn’t want to be bourgeois, didn’t want to have a family or the expenses of a family, didn’t want to have a wife or children dependent on me, didn’t want to need a full-time job. I wanted to be a writer. I never felt I was rich enough to have children, nor did I want to be rich enough to have children. I wanted to be free as the wind and not to recreate the same kind of stifling manly situation that I suffered from as a child. When my father would come and visit me at university, the minute he left I would rush off to pick somebody up to have sex with. I needed to touch flesh, to prove to myself that I wasn’t like him, that I wasn’t going to be like him. In other words, I was fleeing into a kind of freedom that, for me, homosexuality stood for: the opposite of everything my family stood for.

If you had a choice, would you opt for homosexuality or heterosexuality?

I would opt for bisexuality, because it would be very exciting to be able to experience everybody and everything. I wish I had more flexibility as a heterosexual. I mean, I wish that part of me were developed because first of all I love women and the company of women and think it would be fun to explore that more. Also, women are very tolerant of older men if they’re successful, but men are not very tolerant, so I think that if the world were ideally arranged, you would, if you’re a man, be homosexual when you’re young and heterosexual when you’re old; and the exact contrary if you’re a woman, because lesbians tend to like older women and heterosexual men like younger women, so a woman should go from being heterosexual to being lesbian.

With people’s awareness and acceptance, however partial, of more sexually explicit writing, a certain kind of literature, which might be called the literature of concealment, has disappeared. Do you think that more relaxed attitudes have always been good for literature?

Yes and no. One of the most exciting homosexual stories ever written is one that’s not at all homosexual, ‘The Secret Shower’ by Conrad or another, ‘The Pupil’ by Henry James. Those writers wrote about highly charged erotic situations that were never specific. Even, let’s say, the paedophilia that is concealed in The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is absolutely thrilling and hair-raising, so it’s true that that has a kind of artistic value which is no longer quite so possible; though in my novel, Forgetting Elena – even though there’s no specific homosexuality – the atmosphere is heavily charged with a kind of mysterious and repressed homosexuality and I think the book works perfectly all right, although it was written after Gay Liberation. So it’s still an option if one wants to write about things in that way. I’m now editing an anthology of homosexual fiction for Faber, and the contribution by the youngest of all the writers is a throwback to this earlier period. In other words, it is about the relationship between a white man and an American Indian out west, and there’s a strong homoerotic pull between them, but neither of them appears to be conscious of it. It works as a very exciting homosexual story of friendship, but definitely physical.

In The Darker Proof, the volume of short stories you wrote with Adam Mars-Jones, there seems to be a note of defiance in the face of Aids. Is this defiance aimed at those who would smugly and piously claim that Aids has nothing to do with them, or is it perhaps stalking the spectre of death itself?

I think both. I have a very peculiar reaction to Aids that nobody else I know has, and that is a feeling of rage and humiliation. I’m a very proud person and I hate to have people condescend to me, but I have felt since Aids came along that many well-intentioned and perfectly nice heterosexual people look at me pityingly. I was very early in coming out as somebody who was HIV positive. I gave interviews early on, and I even wrote in Life Magazine recently that I am HIV positive. Now I find that many people have this way of looking at me as though they know I’m going to be dead in two years, and it’s as though that proves that everything I was saying earlier about the importance of expressing yourself homosexually was a mistake. It’s as if the Establishment, or heterosexuals or square normal people, are having the last laugh, and it absolutely infuriates me. So in these stories I’m interested partly in showing the kind of heroism, and even the high spirits, with which homosexuals are sometimes responding to the disease. I’m also very interested in showing that it’s not just people who are always at the baths having sex twenty times a day who are getting it. In fact it’s a single exposure that causes it. The viral nature of the disease wasn’t known till 1984, and by that point the disease had already been very widely spread. It first started appearing, as far as we know, in 1981, so there were three or four years of sexual activity when we didn’t know what safe sex was. Now we know how the disease is transmitted, and of the younger generation, the people who have come out since 1984, only one per cent has reported being positive in the United States. It’s a very low percentage. In other words, safe sex is really working, while for the older group there was no such thing as safe sex. People said you shouldn’t use poppers. Now it turns out that that had nothing to do with it. People said you shouldn’t have too much sex, or you should know the name of your partner. All of which is ludicrous, since it’s a question of a single exposure and you can get it as easily from your lover in bed at night in your home as you can at the baths or in the back room. It had nothing to do with the promiscuity, it had to do with the nature of sexual contact.

How much does it worry you?

It worries me constantly. Every time I make plans I make them with a double accounting system. In other words, I can tell you in one breath that I’m going to teach so that I can have a retirement plan in fifteen years, but the other system of accounting says I’ll probably be dead in four years, which is a statistical possibility, and a very strong one, because I know I’ve been positive since 1985, which is from the beginning of the tests. The view now is that ninety to a hundred per cent of the people who are positive will develop the disease. They used to say ten per cent, then it was twenty-five percent. All you can hope for is either that they’re wrong or there will be a vaccine for people who are positive but don’t yet have the disease.

Does that fear make you reject sex, or doesn’t it make any difference?

I never have non-safe sex, but that’s for the other person’s benefit, not for mine. I continue to have a lot of sex, so it doesn’t make any difference that way, but it makes you wake up in the middle of the night thinking you’re going to die. I’ve lost some forty friends, you know – almost my whole generation. We were a group of gay writers, in New York together, and now I’m trying to organize all of their papers for Yale University before the last of us dies, so they can have something to study for the future.

Why is it that homosexuals get the virus, and lesbians don’t on the whole?

It’s the nature of the sexual contact. It’s spread by blood and sperm. A homosexual man, or any man, can get fucked in the ass, so he receives sperm, and the nature of the anus is to absorb fluid to make a hard stool, so it absorbs instantly anything that’s put in it. Drug addicts, for instance, will often put drugs up their ass to get high very quickly, or if you give yourself a wine enema you will get high very quickly because it doesn’t pass through your liver first. It’s very vulnerable tissue; whereas the nature of the vagina is not to absorb but to conduct the sperm all the way to the uterus. The anus being highly absorptive, a man can get fucked in the ass, can get Aids that way, and the can turn around and fuck somebody else in the ass. The nature of homosexual men is that they can both receive sperm and give sperm. The nature of a heterosexual man is that he can give sperm but can’t receive it. The nature of a woman is that she can receive sperm but can’t give it. So it’s almost a fact that, mathematically, a homosexual man plays this pivot role of both giving and receiving sperm, and it’s that which makes a homosexual especially vulnerable.

What has been the social impact of Aids? I know what liberal response is proper, but is it not time to curb freedoms as Aids spreads through the population? The Soviet Union, for example, has a very small-scale problem, seemingly because homosexual acts are still illegal there and are heavily punished.

Western Europe, at least, is not likely to be very repressive about Aids because there was a period when the disease was heterosexualized, that is to say, it was being presented as a strong heterosexual possibility and people started getting very frightened. Now it appears that the target populations are Black Africans, mainly heterosexual, gay men and intravenous drug-users, and the ruling class in Western Europe isn’t very interested in any of these three groups. If they all die, nobody cares. That’s the ignoble side of it. The noble side is that people like the Minister of Health here in France have realized that forbidding homosexuality or closing bath-houses is not really very efficacious in stopping the spread of the disease. It can take up to ten years before it manifests itself, but there’s no way of knowing who has it. For a while, the Bavarians were trying to give people instantaneous tests before they crossed the border, and other people, like the Finns, were insisting you had a blood test before you went to their country; and India was saying that to have longer than a six-month visa, you had to have blood tests. All of that was quite ridiculous, and in Western Europe it was decided it was against human rights, so now the European Community, with the reluctant acceptance of Britain, which is always more primitive in these matters, has decided it is unenforceable and we must spread health information to encourage prevention and, secondly, pay for research. Trying to stop people from having sex is pointless.

It’s almost twenty-five years since Viscount Montgomery said of homosexuality: ‘This sort of thing may be tolerated by the French, but we are British, thank God.’ Presumably you would agree we have moved on since then, but do you think that the underlying attitude of the majority of British people remains the same?

Yes, I think England is especially backward in the acceptance of homosexuality. But again it extends to sexuality in general. For instance, all the business that was going on two or three years ago with small children, the witch-hunting of parents in Cleveland and all. In France people laughed. They couldn’t believe something like that could possibly happen. One of the main reasons why England is so primitive is its press. In France we don’t have a popular press, a gutter press. There are no headlines saying ‘Mother Tortures Baby’. In Britain you have almost nothing but. Even The Times runs sensational headlines. The level of British journalism is appalling, and it’s interesting, going back to the question of Aids, to find the countries that have behaved the worst have been the United States, England and Germany, those being the three countries which have a great gutter press. The countries that have behaved the best have been those in the Latin world – Spain, Italy and France – which don’t have a gutter press to stir up all this anxiety and craziness.

And aren’t we in Britain much more hypocritical about sex in general than people in Europe?

Absolutely. In France, if you go to a dinner party among middle-class or educated people and you start whispering about somebody’s divorce or somebody’s adultery, everyone looks at your askance. But in England I’m shocked even by my friends and about how much they gossip, especially about sex. Somebody said something very amusing recently: that in America people talk about money in order to avoid talking about the real secret, which is sex, whereas in France everybody talks about sex in order to avoid talking about the real secret, which is money.

In your view, are you born homosexual or do you become homosexual? Is it nature or nurture?

In my own case I feel it was nature, because one of my earliest memories, during the war, when I was less than five years old, was of sitting on the lap of a pilot who was a friend of our family and being absolutely enthralled by him as a man – I mean feeling weak at the knees with admiration for this huge man with golden wings on his shirt. It wasn’t the usual little boy’s desire to want to be the man. It was the desire to have him, somehow. Admiration of a little boy for a soldier is perfectly normal, but this was something slightly different. Certain societies favour the expression of homosexuality, but the urge toward homosexuality may well be determined biologically.

Now for the important question. What is it about the homosexual that makes him generally more promiscuous than the heterosexual? Where does the compulsion spring from? It’s something everyone wants to know.

It goes back to what I said earlier. Almost everything about homosexuality can be explained by its status as an all-male world. For instance, a study done on lesbian couples, gay-male couples and heterosexual couples, showed that if you took a certain age group, say thirty to thirty-five, the lesbian couple has sex once a week, the gay-male couple has sex three times a week, and the heterosexual couple had sex twice a week. In other words, heterosexuality is what needs to be explained in that it is a compromise between a powerful male sexuality and a weaker or more restrained sexuality. Many heterosexual men used to say to me before Aids, you guys are really lucky because you can get laid all the time and don’t have to spend a fortune taking somebody out to dinner four or five times, then sitting around and hoping she might put out. You see somebody in the street, you ask him for a light, you go home with him and you have sex immediately. That was the great advantage of homosexuality before Aids. You didn’t have the braking effect of female socialization, but you had the affectionately enhancing effect of male on male. Men were doing exactly what they wanted to do, and what they would be doing with women if they could. I think very few heterosexual men, if they’re honest, would say oh, I like having to court a woman for a month before I can go to bed with her. If you read erotic fantasies by heterosexual men, it’s often-times where women are on heat. Many erotic movies are about women who have hungry pussies – they are on heat, they can’t have enough. In fact they don’t exist very often. There are nymphomaniacs, of course, but never enough.

But there’s another thing which is inexplicable. However heterosexual I may be, it’s unlikely I will go to a public lavatory and wait outside for a woman to come out and proposition her. But there are very distinguished men who, before sexual liberation, ran the risk of arrest by visiting lavatories. There’s a comparison there.

That has partly to do with the repression of homosexuality. Many of those men were married and did not have a homosexual lifestyle, but did have strong homosexual urges and no normal channels for expressing them. They were afraid to be seen in a homosexual bar or pub; they couldn’t take a lover because they had a wife. I have in those furtive situations met men who turned out to be married. I used to cruise all the time, but found it was most compulsive before I accepted my homosexuality, which was when I went to a Freudian woman Viennese psychiatrist when I was twenty years old. My biggest problem was that I was so sexually compulsive, and I asked, ‘What can I do to cure this?’ She said, ‘If you can speak to your heterosexual friends a little bit about why you are homosexual, and if you could be more open about it and could integrate it into your life, you would find you would become less compulsive.’

So in your present settled situation, would you ever dream of cruising?

Yes, of course I would cruise. Just as I can imagine how it would be if you were in an airport bar and a very attractive woman sat down next to you and you bought her a drink and started talking to her; and then it was announced that all the planes were cancelled and that you would have to stay in Paris another night. If she invited you back to her apartment or you invited her to your hotel for another drink, what would happen next?

Yes, but I wouldn’t go looking for it.

Well, I don’t go to bars and I live with somebody, but I can’t say I would resist temptation a hundred per cent if it presented itself.

You say in A Boy’s Own Story: ‘Sex seemed a strange thing to me, a social rite that registered, even brought about, shifts in the balance of power.’ What is the relationship between sex and power?

A sub-text in many sexual acts, even ones that seem quite affectionate, can be sado-masochism. There was a famous American psychiatrist called Stoller who began to record the sado-masochistic fantasies of patients who called themselves sado-masochistic, but he was a good enough scientist to realize that he should record the sexual fantasies of regular people too, and found that they also had fantasies of submission and domination to a shocking extent. The truth is that even when the sex act, viewed by a camera or a voyeur, looks fairly peaceful, if you were reading the text going on in the head of the man or the woman or the two men or the two women you might find there were themes of submission and domination; that they were very fluid in that sometimes one might begin as a submissive one and end as the dominant one. Many of the themes of childhood, the feelings of wanting to control and fear of losing control, get played out in the adult sexual act. It’s part of what makes it exciting. Stoller found that the reason couples get bored with each other is that they get to know each other too well and know that the other doesn’t really represent any threat. The ideal sexual moment is when people are comfortable enough with each other to feel free to express their fantasies but don’t know each other so well that there’s no longer a mystery.

That’s true. Can you suggest something of the homosexual attitude towards women? It must be a different kind of relationship in general from that which obtains between heterosexuals, even when there is no overt liaison, nor any likelihood of one.

Friendships between heterosexual women and homosexual men can be some of the strongest in the world. It approaches Hegel’s idea of the brother/sister relationship, because it’s a sister that you’ve chosen. It’s one of the purest relationships because it is completely disinterested. There’s no sexual tension. You don’t want anything from the woman and she doesn’t want anything from you. What you want is each other’s friendship. That can be very complex too, and it can be involved with social ambition, working together, all kinds of things, but nevertheless I would say it approaches a state of purity, because for homosexual men every other man is potentially a sexual partner.

Has it ever happened that you befriended a woman and she fell for you?

Yes. That’s painful. I try to be very clear from the very beginning, though now that I’m well known as a gay writer I don’t even have to. But before I would always try to be very clear that I was exclusively homosexual so that at least I was being fair and honest about what was possible. It does happen, but less often, I find, because I tend not to make a mystery of my life and I will often introduce a woman friend to my boyfriend very early on. Therefore it would have to be somebody very unbalanced and strange who would let herself go so far.

I understand that you are also occasionally attracted to heterosexuals. How do you deal with that? It is possible for you to seduce the heterosexual?

[Laughs] Yes, well, that’s maybe one reason why I like Genet, because Genet never had sex with homosexual men, only heterosexual men. They were always working-class boys who were in some way dependent on him for money, but he would always arrange for them to have girlfriends. He would even choose their wives and so on. It was the sort of thing that used to happen a lot in the Mediterranean world, especially Greece; the older man who had the younger boy, then set the younger boy up in the world. Many younger heterosexual men admire me as a writer. They’re curious and they want to have an edge on you. I’ve been seduced more by heterosexual men than I have seduced. I don’t think I’ve seduced them very often. But if they want to seduce me; It’s OK.

To come back to Genet and the subject of Prisoner of Love. How do you feel about the Palestinian cause? Are you sympathetic?

It’s a very awkward question. I’ll tell you why. It’s because American publishing is entirely pro-Israel. Recently I was asked if Genet was anti-Semitic, and I said yes and no, but yes to some degree. The publisher said, ‘Well, why are we even bothering to publish your book? Nobody will read it in America.’ So there’s a commercial part of me that thinks I have to be very careful how I respond to your question, but the truth is I’m very sympathetic to the Palestinians.

You can sympathize to the Palestinians without being anti-Semitic. I’m certainly not anti-Semitic.

Nor am I. I’m not even anti-Zionist, but all the contact I have had with Palestinians has been very good. I’ve found the Arab people that I’ve met are most cultured, even their attitude towards literature is extremely sophisticated. For instance, a book like Prisoner of Love would have been a very easy one for the Palestinians to claim and try to use as a political weapon but, in fact, when I was recently at the Institute of the Arab world here in Paris on a panel with the head of the Palestinian Review, he said that he thought the book should be considered a work of art and not a political text; that, of course, it did have a political aspect, but it would be very difficult to decode a clear political message. It’s very ambiguous politically. The thing about Genet is that he himself was a homeless person and hated France. He thought that he was an orphan. He was always rejected by everybody, and the two political groups he identified with were the Black Panthers and the Palestinians, both of whom had a government but no country. He once said that the day the Palestinians recovered their land, then he would no longer love them. It was very important to him that they were marginal homeless people like himself.

He identified with them?

Absolutely. He hated France and never thought he was French. When he was a child, he had a persistent fantasy that he was Polish. He loved it when people told him he looked Polish.

Could you write a novel without any trace of homosexuality in it?

I’ve already done it, and that’s Caracole where there are no homosexual characters. Mind you, it’s been a very difficult book to sell because our society is one which packages everyone, and so people were very puzzled by it, especially in the English-speaking world. Why would a homosexual writer write a book where there are no homosexual characters? I found it exciting and liberating to write. For one thing, in this book I wrote compulsively about heterosexual sex, which I have very little experience of, so it was all my fantasies, and I found that very exciting. Several heterosexual readers have told me they found it exciting too. It was a pure act of imagination, projection and voyeurism.

What’s the greatest ambition left to you?

I want to finish the cycle that has begun with A Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty. I want to write two more volumes, one about the 1970s, the heyday of gay life, then one about the 1980s, about the Aids period. So I want to finish that as a cycle, and I certainly want to finish the Genet book. After that, we’ll see.

INTERVIEW CONDUCTED WINTER 1989