Easter reading

I am afraid that my reading in the last month was somewhat cramped by my need to learn to use my new iPad. However, Biersdorger, J.D. iPad: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly, Sebastopol. 2010 came to the rescue and was a great help. I even bought my first e-book and have kept it for holiday reading. It is Best Book of Gay Stories 2010. Edited by Steve Berman, Lethe Press 2010. I am always a sucker for a good collection of short stories.
I read through O’Gorman, Colm. Beyond Belief. Hodder & Stoughton, London. 2009. O’Gorman successful sued the Roman Catholic Church for physical and sexual maltreatment (€300,000) and briefly launched an action against the Vatican (until he realised its hopelessness beyond publicity). It is an easy read and marked by the strange characteristic that some Irish writers have of producing dialogue, which sounds unmistakably Irish in the ear of a reader. It is also marked by the fact that O’Gorman recognised he was gay while quite young but kept that separate in his mind from the abuse he suffered. He also explores the dynamic within his family as he tries to deal with his coming out and his abuse without confusing the two.
I must confess to a long-term interest in this topic as an aspect of institutional violence. In my late teens I read Del Castillo, Michel. Child of Our Time. Ace, London. 1960. [Published in French as Tanguy – Cocteau said of this work “It is terrible and admirable”]. It is the story of a young boy (Tanguy) at the end of the Spanish Civil War. His father ‘dobs in’ his mother (a communist) and the boy finds himself very much on his own as WWII comes to a close.
He has to deal with the Gestapo, POW camps and oppressive religious brothers while in ‘care’. He encounters a lot of abuse but also learns to hold close the few elements of genuine friendship he encounters. There are some eerily insightful passages as he compares his treatment in a variety of custodial male dominated institutions (still relevant to ADFA today!).
While somewhat more spirited, Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy (1958) gave me a similar view into the life of the English Borstal system. There have, in recent times, been a number of reports into a range of ‘caring’ institutions on the Australian scene. They range from orphanages through child immigration schemes and the lost generation to educational institutions. Few, however, have touched on the Queensland male youth ‘home’ at Westbrook.
I previously told the group of my reading Stokes, William. Westbrook. Pan Macmillan, Sydney. 2010 and am taking Fletcher, Alfred. Brutal: Surviving Westbrook Boys Home. New Holland. 2006 as an Easter holiday read. It appears to be a re-write of The ‘Brook, Blake Publications. 2004. I will let the group know how I find it.
I have now finished Maupin, Armistead, Mary Ann in Autumn. Doubleday, London. 2010.
I am pleased to say that he hasn’t lost his touch. The things that attracted from the start – the fluid, easy, compact writing paired with the episodic format enforced by the original newspaper publication – are all still there – he still has his skill in weaving a moderately complicated set of plot lines into coherence without too much absurdity – and there are the (literally) ‘remains’ of his almost Dickensian characters.
It has been a long road from the original ‘Tales’ – a title that bespoke the Arabian Nights-like range of characters characters and plot complications that led you on in the manner of Scheherazade, always with the promise of ‘more to come’. I felt that ‘Michael Tolliver Lives’ began to be a little self-indulgent and almost doesn’t count as part of the canon. However, Maupin is back on track with many of his characters dealing with the problems of growing older and illness (understandable given Maupin’s age and that of his readers who have followed him from the glory years of the 70’s.)
Similarly, the other dimension that has increased over the last few novels (episodes) is a focus on inter-generational relationships (again understandable) though Jake and Jonah retain echoes of the glorious confusions and muddles of past books. It is probable that the title is also correct in that in many ways Mary Ann’s changing characterization is the strongest link with the past while arching over the present issue.
As part of my QRG duties, I re-read Hollinghurst, Alan. The Spell. Random House, London. 1998 and  The Swimming Pool Library. Penguin, London. 1988.
It was an interesting experience to look back on these just as I had done so for Maupin. I didn’t find it as rewarding an experience.
I very much admire Hollinghurst’s capacity to use language – often it has great depth and is capable of stopping the reader in his/her tracks and gasping at the clarity and insight of what he has presented – an example would be his description very early in the book of William entering a public toilet as a row of melancholy hopefuls turn as one to inspect him – nice writing!. The unsparing truth of those lines is memorable.
Unfortunately, he also seemed capable of trying much too hard at times to display his skill and erudition (oddly enough, like some of his less likable characters). The book was written at a time (1982) before the plague descended and is there is much free and easy sex – both in the past and present. Unfortunately, most of the characters are not someone I would like to know (some might make an acquaintance). This is partly because they mostly seem largely stuck in a post-Nicholson era under attack from a hostile Tory government. If William seemed to learn anything as an outcome, there might be some kind of redemption. Otherwise it is cold, empty and unfulfilling.
It is marvellous what ten years difference can make. The Spell has achieves a lot more than The Swimming Pool Library. The fine use of language is still there as well as the skilful description. However, neither is as forced or intrusive as in the former. Quite a few of the characters are still unattractive as human beings  (more than necessary?) though there is a demonstrated capacity for growth, learning and change in some. The mooning over drug use simply tedious and the focus on inter-generational relationships almost works. There is a matching exploration of trust and betrayal but this also falters. Apart from poor old James, there is no one else in the book I would care to know.
A more mature read with enough to interest, just not very memorable.
John C.


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