The Two Hotel Francforts
By David Leavitt
To some extent the ghost of ‘While England Sleeps’ hangs over this novel. From the scrupulous detailing of place and time, relating it to story development and the fine detail of the Sources and Acknowledgements, the previous accusation of plagiarism hovers. Frankly I enjoyed the previous novel and likewise with this. Both are set at a similar time but in different countries. This latest is in Lisbon at a time of great upheaval and tension against a background of constant spying and scheming with refugees from the recently takeover of most of France by the Nazis leading to streams of refugees looking for a way out of Europe or, at least, an interim calm and safe harbour.
The Two Hotel Francforts (actually one is a ‘Francfort Hotel’) shelter two couples of mixed American and English backgrounds with a soupçon of Jewish included. Out of accidental meetings between the couples arises a steamy homosexual relationship between the two male partners. The complexities of each married relationship and the opportunistic male/male relationship are thoroughly explored against a background that consists of a mixture of historical and touristical interest, daily life under the cunning dictator Salazar and the extremes of those loosing hope of escaping from the looming German menace.
The narrative style is regularly mixed using a variety of sources and materials (even novel-writing tips). Little, however, prepares the reader for the rush to conclusion which, I think, few will anticipate and most will enjoy, leaving the reader looking back and reviewing what they have read, thought and concluded for themselves before these last pages. While some might argue that too much of the present has been imposed on an historical context, I would argue that there is no reason that the events could not have occurred exactly as they are presented.
Inside a Pearl
By Edmund White
As indicated in my note on Felice Picano, Edmund White in memoir mode is, at times, accused of name dropping. Certainly, this is one work in which some people may be tempted to make that accusation. I refuse to accept it, however. There is no shortage of other sources who will point out that White has always been at the centre of a whirlwind of friends, acquaintances and lovers. This portion of his life, living in Paris (from 1983 for fifteen years) as a representative for Vogue magazine (what an entrée!) is no exception, it may even be a high point. This is key to the man and part of his charm. You may not love or even like the man, but you must surely be swept along in the barrage of reminiscences and insights in French culture and even the niceties of mastering colloquial French. He meets and has something to know about almost everyone. Reading this book is full of ‘aha!’ moments as he meets, and maybe dines, and sometimes has sex with an astonishing range of interesting people – no, he dined with Nigella Lawson but nothing more).
A lot of what White has written of in those years is set in context by this book – his writings on Proust, Genet and Rimbaud, ‘The Flaneur’ (A meditation on Paris) and ‘Our Paris: Sketches from memory’ (His times with his ill-fated lover Hubert Sorin – one of a number). It is at times almost overwhelming – there are so many people, places, events, atmospheres that rain down on the reader. He has described himself as an ‘archaeologist of gossip’ (sounds like a bunch of older queens in a gay bar) but is simultaneously instantly enlivened and given insight by such remarks as “Robert Mapplethorpe had first sent him to me and we’d had sex immediately, standing by the front door, half undressed. That was what people did in the 70s.”
I particularly enjoyed his insights into French culture and behaviour both in sophisticated Parisian and rural contexts. A central figure who does a great deal to introduce White and maintain important contacts in salon society (salon is a bit misleading for what were usually extended and not always fancy dinner gatherings) is Marie-Claude de Brunhoff (MC) originally wife of the son of the author of the Babar childrens’ books. We see her through a range of phases in her life as the dependence between her and White develops.
AIDS is dealt with – not just its factual presence and the French response but also at the very personal level. There is some of the sense of ‘survivor guilt’ that affected many men at that time (White was a slow progressor.) Reviewers have attacked some (maybe many) inaccuracies in the text and I certainly detected some in his visit to Syria where he conflated Homs and Hama. I refused to allow this to be too annoying as I have often had to find fault with my own far less interesting and less copious travel diaries. I was not reading this book for detailed factual accuracy but rather to feel a sense of participation in a life I could only otherwise imagine.
Fred In Love
By Felice Picano
‘In the early 1970s, when he was still an aspiring, unpublished writer, Felice Picano began a remarkable relationship with an extraordinary animal: a days-old kitten slated for euthanasia who refused to perish. Rescued, named, and trained, Fred became an extraordinarily intelligent companion, ally, teacher, and constant wonder to the author as he began his ascent through the Bohemian circles of Greenwich Village, among musicians, actors, curious characters, and even the famous British actress in hiding right next door.
But when an acquaintance brought his female cat to be serviced by Fred, an entire new set of experiences opened up for the cat—and for Picano, who had never had the nerve to befriend her owner, his ideal man. The course of love seldom runs straight for cats or for men, and this time would (hilariously) prove no different.
This is another of Picano’s distinguished portraits of a vanished era, when a new gay domain was solidifying only a few years after the Stonewall Riots, and the still nascent gay literary world that Picano would help invent was just a conception. Fred in Love is a charming, nostalgic, funny, gossipy, involving, and ultimately enlightening story about how we learn and grow, and how we love—whether the object of our affection is a cat or another human being. It is sure to take its place next to Picano’s now classic literary memoirs.’ Publisher’s Blurb
This is more Picano, author of a range of novels, memoirs, poetry and anthologies and a homosexual sex manual – (‘The New Joy of Gay Sex’ following on Edmund White who wrote the original). He has too many publications to attempt to list here. Suffice it to point out that both he and White bridge the plague years and are both survivors. It is therefore understandable that some readers see the parade of their conquests as name-dropping and certainly both risk this at times (see my comments on White’s latest ‘Inside a Pearl’). But that very parade was a large part of the lives of men (and women) carving out a new physical being and consciousness that continues to influence today. Undoubtedly cats (and dogs) fill a role in many a gay man and woman’s life. Picano is no exception and I feel he has reasonably successfully managed to entwine his cat’s years with his own life. I found the attempted matings of Fred, his ‘social’ life and eventual disappearance utterly typical of gay men I know. Do we need to know who is in Picano’s bed at any given time and where he is exploring his identity (Fire Island at the peak of the party years)? Of course we do. This is not a small book simply on the life of one cat but the connections and sometimes mirroring of lives of cat and man. Fred may or may not have been in love but Picano was certainly in love with life.
She Lover of Death
By Boris Akunin
I am losing track of how many Boris Akunin novels I have now read. This latest, however, is number 8 in the very long canon of murder mysteries. It features Erast Fandorin and his tubby Japanese servant as the fin de siécle phenomenon of suicide clubs is attracting the attention of the Imperial authorities (It is 1900). It is noteworthy that Fandorin in these novels is always represented as an official if somewhat secret agent for these authorities while they are mostly represented as patriotic, religious and concerned for the general well-being of the Empire. This probably says something for the background and contemporary views of modern Russians.
It is clear that Fandorin has been sent to observe and investigate a particular grouping about which there is the possible stench of murder and/or enforced suicide. Akunin tells the story from a number of viewpoints including reports from a (lower-level) fellow investigator and also newspaper reports gradually feeding the reader information that includes sizable red herrings.
The novel commences with a (for the times) relatively new phenomenon, a well-educated sensible young woman (known as Columbine – all members of the suicide club have picturesque names) who falls under the influence of a visiting metropolitan swain and determines to follow him to Moscow in a cloud romantic yearnings that include a love of death and a romantic suicide – a she-lover of Death. The relationship goes nowhere (literally) but Masha is drawn into the suicide club and becomes a handy touchstone against whom developments can be observed while commenting on her romantic stupidity. The developments come thick and fast with no shortage of bodies with lots of twists and turns. The characters are all well sketched-out while I particularly enjoyed the flavour of life in varied settings at a time when the clouds of revolution were gathering. One point that needs mention is that suicide poems (and others) abound in this book. They have been presumably translated from the Russian and while the books I have read seem usually well-done in this respect, I have no idea how faithfully this has been done (they are mostly pretty dreadful).