Bon Anniversaire, Little Marcel

In which I celebrate Proust’s birthday by returning to the source of Proust and his many anxieties: his mother. 

On this day in 1871, Proust was born. It seems appropriate, then, to trace a biographical sketch of Proust, and reflect on the woman who gave birth to him and who was the source, directly or indirectly, of his many neuroses: Madame Proust.

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Here is Proust as a nipper. His full name at his baptism was Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust – though thankfully for world literature he was known as Marcel.

Alain de Botton writes in How Proust Can Change Your Life that Proust’s mother was fond of calling him mon petit jaunet (“my little yellow one”), mon petit serin (“my little canary”), mon petit benet (“my little clod”), mon petit nigaud (“my little oaf”) or also mon pauvre loup (“my poor wolf”).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it appears that these infantalising nicknames and the large theatrical bows on his clothes contributed to Proust’s sense of himself as a perpetual invalid, helpless without his mother’s assistance. Proust worshipped his mother, writing to her constantly, and created something of a shrine to her after her death.

It seems strange that Proust never read Freud, just as Freud returned the non-favour by claiming never to read Proust, as they seem to be the opposite sides of the same coin. Proust’s writing, with its detailed interest in dreams, the workings of involuntary memory and the intense bonds of family correlate closely to Freud’s theories, just as the facts of Proust’s life could be lifted from one of Freud’s case studies of sexual neurosis. With his suffocating mother, his distant unforgiving father, his half-admitted homosexuality and his strings of unhappy romantic attachments, Proust could be the definitive Freudian poster boy – or  at least a prime contender for a turn on Freud’s consulting couch.

Perhaps someone will write a fictional encounter of the two of them meeting. For now, we have the first part of The Way By Swann’s as a grand testament to the power of Mummy Love.

* * *

Jeanne Proust and her sons Marcel and Robert. 1896? FONDS LE MASLE Num豯 411

Here is Madame Proust in a photo with mon pauvre loup Marcel and his much healthier, heartier brother Robert, who was known as mon autre loup (“my other wolf”) – which, as de Botton says, gives us an insight into who got more attention in the Proust household.

All the biographers report that, despite the unequal split in their mother’s affections between them, Marcel and Robert had a long and happy friendship. Edmund White writes that at the end of Marcel’s life, Robert secured for him the Legion of Honour, and was with him when he died. Robert also oversaw the publication of the final two volumes of In Search of Lost Time, which remained unpublished at Marcel’s death.

* * *

This photo shows Proust being photographed with two fellow flaming queens. On the left is Robert de Fler, the future Marquis de Flers and a writer for the theatre and opera. On the right, Lucien Daudet, who became Proust’s lover, and later a live-in gigolo for the widow of Napoleon III.

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Though it’s not immediately obvious from the photograph, all three are wearing make up. Lucien, once described by an observer as “curled, well-dressed, pomaded, painted and powdered”, rests his right hand provocatively on Marcel’s shoulder, and looks down at him adoringly, the other hand (to quote Edmund White) “suspended in the air as though he had plucked an invisible harp string”.

Apparently, Madame Proust hit the roof when she saw the photograph, and had a fierce argument with Marcel, in which she implored him not to circulate it. Marcel objected initially, writing to his mother:

“I don’t think there’s any harm in being photographed with Robert de Flers and if Lucien Daudet is wearing a tie a little too right or a complexion a little too pale [due to his powdered face], that’s a problem that disappears in the photograph which doesn’t render colours.”

The lady doth protest too much, methinks. However, like all well-behaved Mummy’s boys, Marcel capitulated, writing this note at midnight and slipping it under his mother’s door:

The best would be if I’m the one to take all the proofs, I’ll give one to each of them and I’ll hand the rest over to you: in that way they won’t be in circulation (since you find in all this something I fail to understand).

Proust’s final parenthetical sentence is a mini-masterclass in passive aggression and emotional denial. It appears that Madame Proust was aware enough of her son’s sexual orientation to be horrified by it and attempt to censor it, at least publicly. Marcel responded with the blanket panic of the secretly terrified closet gay, denying all knowledge of the “guilt” of his proclivities, and assuming a disingenuous innocence. I remember feigning a similar lack of awareness when I had both my ears pierced when I turned 18 – to the horror of my mother and father, who wanted to know if I was trying to “tell them something.””No, no”, I said, unconvincingly, forestalling a more difficult conversation for another year or two.

Though thankfully gay culture has moved away from some of these Freudian-inspired stereotypes – not all gay men are fussy cravat-wearing dilettantes with overbearing mothers – it’s somehow comforting to know that Marcel showed us all how it should (or shouldn’t) be done, over a hundred years ago.

* * *

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Here is a photo of Proust on his death bed, taken by celebrated photographer Man Ray. It’s a striking photo, beautiful and disturbing in the same breath. The custom of photographing the dead was apparently quite common in Proust’s day, especially for a celebrity whose reputation was felt grand enough to be monumentalised in death, and goes back to much older medieval and Renaissance customs of fashioning death masks from the recently dead. It seems that it’s only in recent times that dead bodies have become too taboo to be photographed and recorded – at least here in the death-phobic Western developed world.

So bon anniversaire, mon pauvre loup. You packed a lot into a (fairly brief, by modern standards) 51 years.

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The Great Freudian Drama

In which I enjoy the sun of St Ives and dive into the murky Oedipal depths of little Proust’s big bad mummy obsession. 

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It’s a lovely sunny day in St Ives. It’s the weekend now, so there are few more tourists and day-trippers filtering into the town for breakfast.

In the morning papers, the news is full of the Tour de France cycle competition travelling to Yorkshire. The weather has been, uncustomary, beautiful and sunny, sending foreign correspondents swooning over the lusciousness of the English landscape. It’s the first time the race has taken place in England, and it’s being hailed as a triumph for British cycling, and even for the tourist industry. The French are, apparently, in love with the North of England, and plan to flock to Yorkshire in their thousands this summer. What a shock they’ll get when they get there expecting Wuthering Heights and discover grim industrial towns and terrible weather. The news coverage reads like wishful thinking writ large into patriotic hysteria by a country desperate to be Great Britain again. That said, it’s nice to read a positive story in the news for a change.

I spend the afternoon with a guy, M, who I met on a chat site. He’s a red-headed rugby-playing Welshman with a cute smile and a vaguely shy sheepish manner. (It’s not until much later that I realise he bears a striking resemblance to an old friend of mine, which makes me feel slightly pervy). M lives in a small town in rural Wales, and has recently broken up with his partner of nine years. He’s staying with his ex’s parents in a caravan outside St Ives, which sounds a bit grim.

We have a coffee on the beach. He’s a bit gutted that he’s suddenly single on the verge of turning 40, and says he’s overwhelmed by the dating scene, which has gone digital since he was last single. We share a few battle stories from life on the front line of online dating. He says men want to get married as soon as they meet him. I remember my friend Chris describing something similar of his experience of dating: men with a long history of secure relationships are usually relaxed and easy with emotional intimacy, which attracts less confident men like flies. As we walk back to my B&B, M and I joke to each other that we love each other and that we’re going to get married as soon as possible.

Afterwards, we go back to the Beachcomber’s Cafe for a cream tea. M is very much of the view that the jam goes on first and then the cream as a kind of industrial sealant to hold in the jam. He builds a mighty structure on top of his scones, like two miniature Volkswagens. As we say goodbye, he looks suddenly embarrassed, and holds out his hand for me to shake it. I give him a hug, which he only half-receives, his body stiff as a board. We promise to keep in touch, and go our separate ways.

I have a leisurely four hours before my sunset beach stroll and dinner at 9, so head back to my armchair in the bay window for some more Proust. I get through an unprecedented 15 pages. It’s a tiny amount in relation to the entire book, but it’s loaded with hair-raising details of little Marcel’s great Freudian battle to secure his mother’s goodnight kiss and avoid the wrath of his father.

Sitting at dinner, the narrator realises that his parents won’t let him stay, and so prepares his thoughts:

so as to be able… to devote the whole of the minute Mama would grant me to feel her cheek against my lips, as a painter who can obtain only short sittings prepares his palette and does in advance from memory, guided by his notes, everything for which he could if necessary manage without the presence of the model.

I’m reminded of the extreme fragility of a certain kind of sensitive child – in other words, me – intelligent enough to have foreknowledge of consequences and pain to come, but not old enough to control his environment or modulate his feelings.

The narrator’s father intervenes angrily, as if reading word for word from Freud: “No, really, leave your mother alone, you’ve already said goodnight to each other as it is, these demonstrations are ridiculous. Go on now, upstairs!” I find this moment strangely familiar and upsetting. Little boys, gay and straight, are inevitably punished for being sensitive and for uncontrolled outbursts of feelings – something that stays with many of us all our lives.

Once again, the narrator becomes overwhelmed by his senses, prompting some extraordinarily atmospheric detail:

That detested staircase which I always entered with such gloom exhaled an odour of varnish that had in some sense absorbed, fixated, the particular sort of sorrow I felt every evening and made it perhaps even crueller to my sensibility because, when it took that olfactory form, my intelligence could no longer share in it.

Frazzled, but still determined, the boy sends a note to his mother (something I remember doing with my mother as a child), via the maid, Françoise. Like many writers of Proust’s generation and sensibility, his descriptions of servants are both romantic and denigrating, viewing Françoise and those of her class as representing some old and authentic indigenous wisdom about the nature of the world. Her behavioural quirks:

seemed to have anticipated social complexities and worldly refinements such that nothing in Françoise’s associations or her life as a village domestic could have suggested… to her…. [L]ike those primitive men whose senses were so much more powerful than ours, she could immediately discern, from signs imperceptible to us, any truth that we wanted to hide from her.

It’s easier and more convenient, of course, for people keeping servants to imagine their servants uncomplaining and contented to follow ancient hierarchies, rather than just paying them properly. 

There’s a lovely moment where the narrator links the memory of his childhood self with that of Swann, who he first assumes “would surely have laughed at the anguish I had just suffered if he had read my letter”. With the advantage of adult hindsight, he notes that “a similar anguish was the torment of long years of [Swann’s] life and no one, perhaps, could have understood me as well as he… the anguish that comes from the feeling that the person you love is in a place of enjoyment where you are not.

I’m amazed here by how delicately and carefully Proust builds his narrative. The book still appears plotless at this stage, but slowly and carefully he constructs a picture of Swann, through casual repetition, until he starts to feel familiar to us. A bit later, the child overhears his family gossiping about Swann’s “wretched wife” who is living “with a certain Monsieur de Charlus”. There’s a long, not entirely successful metaphor where the narrator compares his joy at Françoise delivering his letter to his mother, to that of an adult man (like Swann, presumably) who waits to speak to his beloved at a ball. It’s a little bit too much foreshadowing with not quite enough context, though it may make more sense once I’m up to the “Swann In Love” chapter.

As the child narrator sits at the corner of his bed, he resolves to see his mother before falling asleep, and “to kiss her whatever the cost.” There’s an eerie silence to this scene, as if the child is preparing to commit a crime or sit an exam. “I had gone too far along the road that led to the fulfilment of my desire to be able to turn back now,” he reports. Proust intensifies the emotional atmosphere by casting our attention outside the window:

Outdoors, too, things seemed frozen in a silent intentness not to disturb the moonlight which, duplicating and distancing each thing by extending its shadow before it, denser and more concrete than itself, had at once thinned and enlarged the landscape like a map that had been folded and was now opened out.

Elsewhere, he describes distant noises from the nearby village “like motifs so well executed by the orchestra at the Conservatoire that, although you do not lose a single note, you nonetheless think you are hearing them far away from the concert hall.”

The child stands in the hallway waiting to see his mother, anticipating and almost expecting his punishment. (Is this the beginning of the narrator/Proust’s masochistic tendencies?) To his surprise, his father, who he describes as having no principles, takes pity on him, and instructs Mama to take him to bed with her. “We’re not brutes”, the father says, dressed eccentrically in a pink and violet Indian cashmere shawl tied around his head for “attacks of neuralgia”. 

Then suddenly, mid paragraph, Proust pulls us back into his central theme – the loss and recovery of the past:

This was many years ago. The staircase wall on which I saw the rising glimmer of [my father’s] candle has long since ceased to exist. In me, too, many things have been destroyed that I thought were bound to last for ever and new ones have formed that have given birth to new sorrows and joys which I could not have foreseen then, just as the old ones have become difficult for me to understand.… The possibility of such hours will never be reborn for me. But for a little while now, I have begun to hear very clearly, if I take care to listen, the sobs I was strong enough to contain in front of my father and that did not burst out until I found myself alone again with Mama. They have never really stopped; and it is only because life is quieting down around me more and more now that I can hear them again, like those convent bells covered so well by the clamour of the town during the day that one would think they had ceased altogether but which begin sounding again in the silence of the evening.

It’s a beautiful moment, though Proust is careful to essay the dark psychological undertones of the scene. His father is established as a despotic patriarch who gives and withholds affection, his behaviour retaining an “arbitrary and undeserved quality that was so characteristic of it and that arose from the fact that it generally resulted from fortuitous convenience rather than a premeditated plan.” The child’s own sadness becomes regarded “no longer as a punishable offence but as an involuntary ailment that had just been officially recognised, a nervous condition for which I was not responsible”, no doubt setting in stone the narrator/Proust’s identification of himself as an invalid. And his triumph in securing a kiss, rather than keeping him in the reassuring grip of childhood, raises him “to the dignity of a grown-up and brought me suddenly to a sort of puberty of grief, of emancipation from tears.” The narrator recognises a loss as well as a gain, by causing his mother’s judgement to weaken, shattering the illusion of his mother as a goddess: [t]his evening was the beginning of a new era, would remain as a sad date…. it seemed to me that with an impious and secret hand I had just traced in her soul a first wrinkle and caused a first white hair to appear.”

And so we learn that Proust’s style, which seems so impressionistic and unfocused (like his father’s moods) have in fact been carefully constructed. He knows the emotional responses he wishes to engage and the psychological milestones he wants to traverse, and so he lays it all out for us within a disarmingly simple anecdote from childhood.

My passage tonight finishes with a lovely reminiscence about his grandmother, who, like Proust’s own grand-mere, was a huge influence on his aesthetic tastes. His grandmother buys him a series of classic books (including the philosopher Rousseau), which are possibly beyond a boy of six or seven. “She judged frivolous reading to be as unhealthy as sweets and pastries,” he tells us, but “it did not occur to her that a great breath of genius might have an even more dangerous and less invigorating influence on the mind even of a child than would the open air and the sea breeze on his body.” When the child’s parents protest at the appropriateness of her choices, the grandmother responds: “‘My dear daughter, she said to Mama, I could not bring myself to give the boy something badly written.’”

The narrator writes that his grandmother “could never resign herself to buying anything from which one could not derive an intellectual profit, and especially the profit which beautiful things afford us by teaching us to seek our pleasure elsewhere than in the satisfactions of material comfort and vanity.” She buys gifts for the family that are too old to be useful, but which are “more disposed to tell us about the life of people of other times than to serve the needs of our own life.” It’s unsurprising that she detests the “vulgarity and utility” of photography, preferring to fill the boy narrator’s room with paintings and prints. And he reports, deliciously, of her disastrous attempts at presenting gifts to strangers:

The family could no longer keep count, at home, when my great-aunt wanted to draw up an indictment against my grandmother, of the armchairs she had presented to young couples engaged to be married or old husbands and wives which, at the first attempt to make use of them, had immediately collapsed under the weight of one of the recipients. But my grandmother would have believed it petty to be overly concerned about the solidity of a piece of wood in which could still distinguish… a lovely invention from the past.

His grandmother’s taste for the antique, in decor and language, appears to have rubbed off on Proust, who, like her, fills his novels with commendations of “those old things that exercise such a happy influence on the mind by filling it with longing for impossible voyages through time.” 

The word “nostalgia” comes from two Greek words: “nostos”, meaning “returning home”; and “algos” meaning “pain”. Proust is, then, a true nostalgist: an artist who longs for the past, knowing that such a return is impossible and irrecoverable. How extraordinary, then, to create a scene that is so redolent of the pain of childhood, and so celebratory of our sentimental means of recapturing it. Though I’m rather pleased that his grandmother didn’t give me any gifts of furniture.

A trip to the Provinces

In which I go to Birmingham, read some more Edmund White and am reminded of the pleasures of living in the big dirty city.

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Though Proust’s self-discipline as a writer was formidable, his experiences in paid employment weren’t as successful. Proust spent three years studying the law, but after two weeks’ work experience in a solicitor’s office, he exclaimed “In my most desperate hours, I have never conceived of anything more horrible than a law office”.

I have this antipathy in mind when I have to get up at 5am to get an early train to  a law office in Birmingham. On the upside, I get to see the early morning sunrise, which is glorious. It’s 5.45am and nearly 20°C. Today London is supposed to reach temperatures of 27°C, making it hotter than parts of the Mediterranean. The English always get excited by stories like this, which speaks to the contrarian and paradoxical relationship they have with the weather: it’s both a constant source of complaint or something to be defended patriotically from the criticisms of Eurotrash and Antipodean parvenus like me.

The Tube is spookily empty, like a post-apocalypse movie. It’s extraordinary to think that in an hour it will be packed with commuters, sweating discreetly as they hustle for a place in a crowded carriage. Whenever I travel at this time of day, I’m always amazed at how many people are actually moving around: cleaners and service industry workers, bankers who need to be in the office for the opening of international markets, early morning gym bunnies. London is truly a 24 hour city, even if the public transport and restrictive laws about Sunday trading don’t reflect this. How fascinating it will be to see the city come alive when London Underground open all night on weekends from 2015 onwards.

The Virgin train service to Birmingham is fairly prompt – just an hour and a half. I sneak in another quick chapter of White before settling down to breakfast and some prep.

* * *

One of the pleasures of White’s book is his reverence and respect for Proust, coupled with a playful tugging on Proust’s coat sleeves. Like a dutiful biographer, White notes Proust’s dislike of autobiographical literary criticism, and then blithely proceeds to assess Proust’s writing in relation to his life. It’s done with a lightness of touch, though unlike earlier biographers, White isn’t afraid of rapping on Proust’s closet door and bidding him to come out. White takes Proust’s homosexuality as a given – no more or less extraordinary than his Jewish ethnicity or his chronic asthma attacks, and he gives In Search of Lost Time the queering that it deserves.

White identifies Albertine as a composite of a number of Proust’s love-interests over the years – mostly straight working class men who Proust was besotted with and bribed with money, gifts and employment to keep them around. It seems extraordinary now that past biographers still made the case for Proust’s heterosexuality. George Painter, Proust’s first English biographer, writes in Marcel Proust: A Biography (1959-64) that when Proust “migrated to the Cities of the Plain” – that is, when he became a homo –  “he took with him a prisoner crushed between the weight of Time and Habit, a buried heterosexual boy who continued to cry unappeased for a little girl lost.” White politely salutes Painter’s work, and then shoots him down in flames: “I would suggest that Proust’s exclusively homosexual sexual experience might suggest that the only little girl he was crying over was inside him.”

I’m pleased that Proust finally got a biographer who understands the workings of Proust’s homosexuality, and who can parse the powerplays and doublespeak that goes on in the closet. To his credit, White doesn’t overplay the Freud-by-numbers analysis (as he does with himself in his autobiographical writing) and he recognises that In Search of Lost Time is art, not just therapy.

That being said, White does reveal some bizarre stories about Proust’s conflicted sexuality. Case in point: the Romanian Prince Antoine di Bibesco met Proust at a salon and described him as having eyes of ‘Japanese lacquer’ and a hand that was ‘dangling and soft’. He later instructed Proust on how to shake hands “with a virile grip”. Proust replied, ‘If I followed your example, people would take me for an invert.’ White reads this as”

“an indication of how devious the thinking of a homosexual of the period could become – a homosexual affects a limp handshake so that heterosexuals will not think he is a homosexual disguising himself as a hearty hetero – whereas in fact he is exactly what he appears to be: a homosexual with a limp handshake.”

Despite the many layers of disguise and gender-recasting, White makes a case for Proust as a great truth-teller. Proust himself said Proust says: “I very much wish to finish the work I’ve begun and to put in it those truths that I know will be nourished by it and that otherwise will be destroyed by me.” White gives him the benefit of the doubt, arguing:

“Proust’s strategies of disguise and transposition must still begin and end with a highly specific recollection of his own feelings and sensations. In that sense, involuntary memories represent the truth in Proust’s process of composition, the bare face that he must later paint with invention.”

White concludes that it is Proust’s “fidelity to truth” that has secured his reputation as one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists:

“This truth telling – joined to his long sentences, his many comparisons, his resolution to mine every last ounce of gold from a subject – is what made his writing seem old fashioned to his contemporaries and renders it eternally fresh to us.”

* * *

Birmingham isn’t my favourite city. My trip is mercifully short, as I’m only here to speak at a seminar, and then straight back on the train. How wonderful it is to emerge from the Tube and Old Street and be back in Shoreditch on a sunny summer’s day. The hipsters out in full glory – waxed moustaches, skateboards, tattoos, no socks – but somehow it seems marvellous rather than pretentious and mildly irritating. There’s nothing like a trip to the provinces to remind yourself that many Londoners, like I did, left their small towns and moved to the Big Smoke in search of adventure, and more crucially, the right to be the lead characters in their life stories that they couldn’t be in their hometowns. And so I decide to salute the hipsters – just this once – for being there.

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I then inhale a quiche and salad lunch box from the wonderful cafe Salvation Jane, followed by a coffee from Ozone just around the corner. My favourite barista, a young, softly-spoken blonde girl, is on today, and she makes me a single-shot latte of such smooth, velvety caramel perfection, that I want to burst into song. On a day like this, there’s really nowhere else I’d rather be than London.

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* * *

It’s a beautiful evening, so I walk to Shoreditch High Street station and get the Overground home, via a walk through the Common. It’s a stunning evening, warm and luxuriant with a playful breeze that takes the deadweight out of the air. I’m a bit overdressed in my suit and my new brogues that pinch a bit aren’t ideal for walking through grass, but it matters not one whit. 

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Londres sous la pluie

The start of a working week, and the summer rain brings thoughts of final resting places and sticky ends. 

Monday morning starts hot and sunny. The Tube is like an oven. It may be a plan to leave my suit and shirts at work and travel in wearing a tshirt and shorts. My colleagues in the offices opposite mine will, I’m sure, appreciate the striptease.

A long busy-ish day. My focus is heightened in the knowledge I’m in Birmingham on Thursday (though fortunately only for an hour or two) and then off work on Friday. It’s the start of my new four-day working regime, which I’ll be coincidentally spending in Cornwall for the weekend. There’s lots to do before then.

I take my late lunch break in the park in Bunhill Fields Burial Grounds, next to the grave of William Blake. His tombstone reads “Near by lie the remains of the poet-painter William Blake (1757 – 1827) and of his wife Catherine Sophia (1762 – 1831)”. It’s a politely English way of saying that he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, and no one quite knows where he is.

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Poor Mozart met the same fate. There’s a striking scene at the end of Milos Forman’s film Amadeus showing Mozart being dumped unceremoniously in a communal pit in a pauper’s graveyard: a grim ending that was worlds away from the lush romanticism of his music. Meanwhile, Proust was buried in the relative splendour of Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, in a chic sarcophagus of black marble. Moral of the story? Drink less, and save for your interment, lest you become cheap compost in East London.

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The rain turns the City into a Renoir painting, as the bankers’  enormous golfing umbrellas are opened and jostle for space on the sidewalk. Rain washes away some of the sludge of the weekend and makes London smell slightly less like sewage. On the downside, pedestrians become slow and stupid as cattle.

The Tube at rush hour has the multiple discomforts of heat, overcrowding, insufficient ventilation and the pungent smell of wet wool. It’s moments like this I almost envy my friend Chris, who cycles to work every day – but I have neither his fearlessness nor his concentration to survive on London’s treacherous roads. Plus I like my hour of reading and note taking as I commute each day.

The papers are full of the news of Rolf Harris’ conviction for indecent assault with teenaged girls. He was a much-loved part of my childhood, though clearly a much less loved part of the complainants’. The wave of dirty old man celebrity sex abuse trials feels larger than just the details of the cases themselves. We appear to be in the middle of a moral panic – as we were in the mid 1980s when everyone was obsessed with child sexual abuse in creches and daycare centres. Helen Garner’s analysis from The First Stone also springs to mind. Are these cases a tipping point in the battle against sexism, or a lumbering attempt to redress the unpunished crimes of Jimmy Saville and all those abusers who did get away with it?

On happier ground, I have a very enjoyable first date with R, a guy I’ve been chatting to on Grindr for about a week. He’s cute, smart and works in vaguely the same industry as me, and we chat away merrily for a couple of hours, even braving the Monday night pub food menu to try and prolong the evening. He’s cute and funny and laughs at my jokes, so top marks so far.

R is a fan of Evelyn Waugh, and we talk about the gorgeousness of the writing in Brideshead Revisited and the pleasure of immersing oneself in Waugh’s langorous, nostalgic tone. We agree that the recent Julian Jarrold film of Brideshead was a travesty, and how the opening up of the erotic attraction between Charles and Sebastian made their relationship much less interesting. I’ve spent most of my life wanting writers and artists to be more open in their presentation of homosexuality, and pushing myself to be frank in my own writing about sex. That being said, there’s a delicious kind of magic to the closeted writings of Waugh and Forster and James and Wilde, that loses its lustre when you tamper with it and inject modern sexual politics into the mix. Perhaps those closeted pretty boys in immaculately tailored Savile Row suits should be left in peace to throw their wandering glances at each over after the afternoon tea table – as R and I have been doing these evening.

When I get home, I run a bath and start on Edmund White’s 1999 biographical study of Proust, which looks to be marvellously well-written. How wonderful White was in his hey-day: The Beautiful Room Is Empty and The Farewell Symphony are two of my favourite novels. His best seems now well behind him – I still remember the savaging my old book group gave his My Lives – so it’s nice to be able to discover one of his earlier, more buoyant pieces.

Gay Pride and Gefiltefish

An unconventional Gay Pride weekend in London, involving fried fish balls in Hampstead. 

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It’s Gay Pride weekend in London, a date that appears to have passed me by until now. The parade through the streets of Soho starts at 1pm, but I’m going to miss it. In the continuing black comedy that is my life, I’m spending the afternoon in Hampstead learning how to make gefilte fish (fried fish cakes) with two little old Jewish ladies and a pair of notorious homosexuals. It should be an interesting cross-cultural collision.

I’m now feeling like a bit of a Bad Gay for not joining in with Pride. In times past, it’s been a bigger weekend – attending the parade with friends, languorous picnics in Hampstead Heath followed by a perusal of the flesh at the Men’s Bathing Pond, dancing until 3am at Duckie’s Gay Shame parties in Brixton, and the occasional random snogging of strangers in the rain at Hyde Park.

Over the years, it’s become less and less essential a fixture in the diary. I suppose I’ve fallen victim to the same middle-aged middle-class complacency that I used to complain of in my elders. Or it could be that needing to celebrate Pride feels less pressing than it once did. One of the great privileges of living in London is that every day can feel like a gay pride parade – at least in Old Compton Street. More happily, as gay culture shifts more and more into the mainstream, the number of ways we can celebrate Pride are as many and varied as gay men themselves. So this year, I’m being proud with saturated fat and kosher cuisine.

When I come out of the gym, it’s pissing with rain, and it’s gotten worse by the time I emerge at Hampstead tube. What a different tribe live up here – it’s all linen suits and floral scarves, little dogs under one arm and copies of the Guardian under the other. Everyone has the calm, cow-like expression of the perpetually well-off, and there’s nary a person of colour around, except those serving behind shop counters. My part of South London is fairly salubrious, but it’s a younger, sportier populace, with huge Bugaboo pushchairs vying for space on the pavements with the pert-buttocked joggers. Up ‘ere, the locals could all be extras in a Merchant-Ivory film, give or take a Volvo or two.

The fish ball making session is huge fun. Today’s shenanigans were organised by Sandra, my fabulous Streisand lookalike friend who invited me to my first Seder dinner earlier this year. Our host, Angela, is a head teacher at a school in North London, and is famous, Sandra tells us, for her fish balls. Angela’s house is a spectacularly well-preserved 60s modernist split-level apartment, all gleaming hard wood and period furniture, with floor-to ceiling windows looking out onto a perfectly-tended garden. One almost expects David Bailey and Catherine Deneuve to come wafting down the staircase in matching kaftans. Angela herself reminds me of my many aunties on my mother’s side of the family: wonderful homemakers, accomplished cooks, generous hostesses and filled with anecdotes about family history.

I’d had mixed reviews about gefilte fish before coming. My friend Laura claims that gefilte fish smells and tastes like rotting flesh, an opinion I’ve never been brave enough to verify personally. As the New York Times recently explained, the “hate” side of the love-hate relationship with gefilte fish may have something to do with people eating tinned rather than fresh fish, which does sound revolting. Angela promises us that these bad boys will be much tastier.

Angela prepares the fish balls in her kitchen: they’re made with a blend of minced fish (a mixture of cod, plaice, haddock and carp, which she buys prepared from her local butcher), matzo meal and minced onions, which she mixes by hand. Stephen’s face turns white as he watches Angela pour half a bottle of sunflower oil into a saucepan and heat it to boiling point. “I’m pleased I went to the gym this morning”, he murmurs, as Angela cranks up the oven extractor fan onto full. Angela explains that she usually cooks fish balls with a plastic bag on her head to stop the smell getting into her hair – though as she’s just had her hair done and there’s a photo shoot later, there’s no plastic bag today.

One by one, the Gentiles are lined up to have a go rolling the balls and sliding them into the boiling oil. As we work, we ask Angela when she first started making fish balls. Angela explains that while her mother was a great cook, in the great tradition of overbearing Jewish mothers, she seldom let anyone into her kitchen and didn’t think to pass on the wisdom to her children. This sounds very much like my own mother. Angela makes us laugh explaining her first attempt at cooking while on her honeymoon in Malta. Her kitchen is now filled with recipe books – the ubiquitous Jerusalem by Ottolenghi sits next to a well-thumbed looking volume called The Jewish Princess’s Cookbook.

Apart from the initial terror of working with boiling oil, it all works a charm. Angela points out, kindly rather than critically, that Stephen’s fish balls are so beautifully hand-worked that they’re too smooth to brown quickly. “You killed them with perfectionism,” I say to Stephen. “Story of his life,” Kurt adds. Learning my lesson from Stephen, I rough mine up a bit, adding a few fingerprints for an uneven surface. Sure enough, they brown up beautifully.

Angela encourages us to try a few as we work. They are delicious – the fish flavour is subtler than I thought, with a sweet creamy texture more like potato croquettes. Angela explains that gefilte fish was traditionally made on the day before Passover or other holidays, and then eaten cold on the day, in keeping with Orthodox laws that forbid cooking or operating mechanical equipment on the Sabbath.

After about an hour, the kitchen smells like a fish and chip shop, but we have a platter of beautifully cooked fish balls. Simultaneously with the fry-up, Angela has boiled a dozen or so fish balls – the slightly less calorific alternative – which are served with a slice of boiled carrot on top.

We sit down to lunch with the two platters of fish balls, a crispy green salad, a potato salad to die for, and a fresh plaited white loaf. The fried fish balls are served with chrein, the Jewish condiment made with horseradish and beetroot. The Ashkenazi Jewish diet, from which most Jewish ceremonial food recipes seem to derive, is fairly bland and largely spice-free, so the chrein adds a vivid splash of cerise to our plates, and a nice sharpness to the palate. 

It’s a lovely afternoon, and we’re touched by Angela’s generosity and her interest in sharing her love of food, which provides such an immediate and appealing insight into Jewish history and culture. Fried fish, which now seems such a quintessentially English dish, is in fact a Jewish invention. Food writer Claudia Roden writes that fried fish was introduced to England by Portuguese Jewish refugees in the 16th century. In 1860 a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe called Joseph Malin opened the first business in London’s East End had the bright idea of selling fried fish alongside chipped potatoes, which until then had only been found only in the Irish potato shops. It was a match made in culinary heaven – though perhaps not that great for the nation’s arteries.

The rain has finally stopped by the time we bid our farewells and roll merrily along to the Tube station. “I don’t think I’ve eaten so much deep-fried food since that house was built in the late 60s,” Stephen said. He invites me back into Soho that evening to celebrate Pride, but I’m too full of grease to move, let along struggle into a tight t-shirt. I decide to toast Pride more sedately, propped up in my armchair at home, watching Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian mom comedy The Kids Are All Right while drinking T2’s fantastic Just Rose tea from my new cast iron teapot. I’m in bed by 11.30pm. It’s hard, being this rock n roll.

As I fall into sleep, I wonder whether Proust ever tried gefilte fish. His mother was Jewish, but he was baptised and raised as a Catholic, and appears to have been irritated whenever anyone mentioned his Jewish ancestry. There are no reports of his visiting England, and it sounds as though his constitution was too delicate for fried fish – though he was supposed to have ordered a grilled sole for dinner on his death bed. It’s also interesting to speculate on how he might have dealt with the Bacchic excesses of Gay Pride weekend – perhaps, as I have, by bolting the windows shut and going to bed early.

Once on a Thursday

In which I see Once: the Musical – sweet and quietly heartbreaking – and weep like a child for the past. 

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A long piggish day at work. Thursdays are usually beset with demands from clients who want things done by Friday so it’s off their desks in time for the weekend – requiring the subtle art of what’s euphemistically referred to as “managing client expectations”.

At lunchtime I go over to Shoreditch – a mere 20 minute walk from the City, but a magical alternative land of skinny jeans, brilliantined moustaches, free range tattoos and sockless ankles. I see Hans for my monthly haircut. At nine years’ standing, he’s my longest term relationship, a factoid I find rather depressing. He’s just back from a friend’s wedding in Australia and filled with the joy and magic of rural Queensland. (I wonder if Prue & Trude from Kath & Kim were at the reception). Afterwards, I nip into T2’s new store in Shoreditch and hoover up as much tea as I can fit in my bag. I buy a Japanese style fat-bottomed cast iron teapot. It’s very beautiful and quite expensive, but only marginally more so than Hans’ haircut. Aaaaah, Shoreditch. I remember you when you were still mildly disreputable and ungentrified. Our babies grow up too soon.

Tonight I’ve got a night off the gym and reading, as I’m going to Once, the musical version of the independent Irish film from a few years ago. It’s been on my to-go-to list for over a year, but hasn’t felt pressing or urgent enough to make time for, especially as it looks to keep playing to full houses for a while yet. The ticket is a birthday present from MJ, who surprises me once a year with something fabulous. Last year it was Matilda, a musical I’m still utterly in love with.

Once is playing at the Phoenix Theatre on Charing Cross Road – a theatre I’ve never been to before, as the 20 year-long residency of the musical Blood Brothers has only recently vacated. It’s a lovely little theatre with a small curved stage, perfect for this kind of intimate mood piece. The stage is dressed as an Irish pub, with wood veneer panelling and smoking mirrors lining the walls. Audience members are invited up on stage to buy a drink and listen to the cast, who are already onstage jamming merrily away.

Once is a gorgeous piece of work, decidedly unstarry for a West End musical, and disarming in its simplicity. An Irish boy meets a Czech girl in Dublin, make music together and fall in love over the course of a week. It’s underplayed throughout – perhaps a bit too underplayed, especially the lead female, who wasn’t quite starry enough – with all the emotion seeping into the music.

And what music it is! I tend to hover on a knife-edge with Irish folk. If you’re not on your guard, it can tip into winsome or shampoo commercial at a moment’s notice. The score of Once (much of it written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the stars of the film) was pitched just perfectly, carrying emotional sincerity and grace without becoming overly sentimental. There are a few weak moments – the story is fairly slight, and dependent on a host of zany stock characters with “amusing” Czech accents to bring in the laughs. To its credit, it’s played good-naturedly and without a hint of cynicism, which becomes impossible to resist.

The charms of the show are helped enormously by the talented cast, who double as musicians, playing guitars, piano, mandolins and piano-accordions as well as singing throughout. It looks effortless, but it’s the equivalent of a marathon in energy and concentration for each of them. The chief sound engineer, who’s a friend of MJ, tells us in the interval that there was a half hour delay in the matinée show due to a power cut, leaving the poor cast with less than two hours to recover before going back on stage for the evening show. Not that you could tell it from their performances, which were energetic, full-bodied and filled with the enthusiasm of wide-eyed kids spontaneously putting on a show.

I’d known from reading earlier reviews that Once doesn’t end happily – not unusual for an independent Irish film but most unusual for a West End musical. The emotional impact of the love story creeps up on you slowly, while you’re only half-looking. By the end, your heart has been softly and exquisitely trampled.

As I listen to the lovers singing a refrain of Falling Slowly, the show’s signature song, my mind goes on a Proustian flight of fancy back to 1999, and my eight day love affair with D. He was a lovely man, who I met just as I was about to leave my university town and go to the Big Smoke for my first proper job. It was the first time I’d been in love where I both knew and felt that it was reciprocated, and the thrill of our happiness was coloured – and possibly sustained – by the knowledge that it would end. We tried to keep things going for a year or so after I left. Like most long-distance relationships, it was frustrating and unsatisfactory, creating too much expectation on the few times we were together, and too much unhappiness in the long months when we weren’t. Eventually it fractured apart. There were a few horrible arguments, and a long period of hurt silence for a year or so before we found a way to speak to each other again.

As if by magic, the song in Once transports me back in time, past all the unhappiness and squabbling and regrets, and into those first few days – heady, joyful, sleepless, giggling and suffused with the cool plangent colours of early autumn. I remembered waking in D’s bed in the early morning at his flat in the hilly outer suburbs. I left him sleeping as I crept through the house, then sat on the front doorstep and looked at the sunrise. I shivered slightly with the cold, thinking about what would come next – the uncertainty of the future and the certainty of the unhappiness we were both about to feel. I still remember it now, as I did then, not as the moment when I felt most happy, but when I felt the most fully alive.

Once isn’t the most sophisticated take on human relationships, but it speaks to anyone who’s struggled unsuccessfully to hold onto new love in all its fragility, or who’s wondered afterwards about the one who got away. I was happy to see that the audience felt the same as I did, rising to give the cast a well-deserved standing ovation, before we scraped ourselves off the floor and headed out into the rainy summer night to drown our sorrows.

How extraordinary music is, with its ability to transport us immediately back in time. I’m reminded of DH Lawrence’s beautiful poem Piano, which has been recently set to music by singer Nick Mulvey in his song Cucurucu:

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me; 
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see 
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings 
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song 
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong 
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside 
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour 
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour 
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast 
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

The Thrill of the Lash

Roman Polanski’s film version of Venus In Fur – a sexual tug-of-war between a submissive director and a mysterious, sexy actress – is smart, funny, entertaining, and very pervy.

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I’m too tired to read when I get home, so start to watch Roman Polanski’s film version of David Ives’ play Venus In Fur. The film had such a short cinema run here that it was over before I or anyone else saw it – though I’m amused to see that it’s this month’s top-selling film on the Curzon film on demand website. It seems that les rosbifs would prefer to watch racy S&M-themed films at home with the net curtains drawn than in a cinema.

The film is great fun, and pleasantly kinky, befitting the text which it’s named after: Venus In Fur, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 erotic novella about a young aristocrat named Severin who convinces an older woman, Vanda, to dominate him and let him become her love-slave. Like the Marquis de Sade,  Sacher-Mosoch is better known for his name than his writing – the word “masochist” was derived from his name.

Ives’ play updates Sacher-Masoch’s story to modern times. A blowsy actress (the fantastic Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives late in the middle of a thunderstorm to audition for a stage adaptation of Venus In Furs. She’s dripping wet from the rain, dressed in a cheap hooker’s outfit, and hilariously uncouth. “It’s S&M porn, right?” she says of the script. The exasperated playwright-director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) splutteringly defends the novel as a love story and suggests she’s not right for the part. The actress begs and cajoles, and casually mentions that her name is Vanda – the same as Sacher-Masoch’s sadistic heroine. Sufficiently intrigued, or perhaps just worn out, Thomas lets her read.

As the audition progresses, things get very strange. Vanda is able to recite the entire play from memory (despite having said she only glanced at a few pages from the script) and vanishes into the role of the stately dominatrix with frightening ease. Thomas becomes transfixed, and quickly assumes the role of the submissive. Chaos follows.

Ives’ script, translated into French for the film, feels very Proustian in its exacting analysis of subtle shifts of power between the duo. Each line becomes a teasing riddle, as you try to make out where reality ends and performance begins, or who exactly is directing whom. Vanda’s identity is never quite made clear. One minute she’s effortlessly seducing Thomas, the epitome of Sacher-Masoch’s fantasy of the dominant sexualised woman; then just as quickly, she’s angrily attacking Thomas for the misogyny of the script. Is she the embodiment of his fantasies, an avenging goddess, or just a surprisingly gifted actress? Though the answer is “revealed” in the final scene, the film finds room to embrace doubt.

There’s an added level of delight (and dread) in Polanski’s casting. Amalric is a dead ringer for a younger, Chinatown-era Polanski, and he’s playing opposite Seigner, who is Polanski’s wife. We’re invited, playfully, to read the script as a slice of psychodrama from Polanski’s marriage. Or perhaps it’s Polanski’s tongue-in-cheek take on the sado-masochism existing in any director-actress relationship. Either way, it adds a deliciously weird layer of uncertainty to a story about the treacherous nature of identity.

As a film, Venus In Fur doesn’t quite pop with the explosiveness that the script promises. There’s a particular magic to watching two people interact with each other live on stage that simply can’t be replicated as well in film. That being said, the actors slug it out satisfyingly like a pair of prizefighters. It’s an engrossing tug-of-war that lasts right up until – and perhaps beyond – the final frame.

The referencing of Sacher-Masoch interests me, as he also seems to have been an influence on Proust. One of the later volumes of In Search of Lost Time features a gay character, Baron de Charlus, who the narrator later discovers in a male brothel. I seem to recall a scene in Time Regained, Raoul Ruiz’s 1999 film of In Search of Lost Time, in which Charlus (played by John Malkovich) is tied up and flogged. Less obviously, romantic masochism seems to form an extensive part of In Search of Lost Time, which is filled with hapless lovers like Swann, suffering exquisitely at the hands of the withholding Odette, or the narrator himself who is obsessed with Albertine.

It’s curious that despite our modern openness about sexuality, and the “release” of S&M practices into the mainstream, we’re no nearer to understanding or navigating human sexuality. All we have, it seems, is the dance (or in Venus In Fur‘s case, the tug-of-war) – and what a splendid thing it is, too.

 

 

Savage Proust

Savage Grace tells the tale of the Mother of all dysfunctional mother-son relationships. There’s a Proustian quality to its depiction of the idle, supremely unhappy rich. 

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Tom Kalin’s 2008 film Savage Grace is based on the very creepy true-life story of Barbara Baekeland, an insecure gold digger who marries into money and forms the centre of a severely dysfunctional family. It’s that most rare of things – an American film that attempts to parse the subtle vibrations of class warfare and social exclusion.

In an early scene, Barbara (played by Julianne Moore) is out of her depth at a dinner party with her husband’s friends, and is desperate to be seen as high-class and sophisticated. So she does what every social-climbing arriviste does – drops French phrases into conversation, and randomly references Proust. “Was Proust truly a homosexual? Qu’est-ce que tu penses?” she asks a disinterested literary critic. Cue stunned silence as the critic smiles nervously and fumbles for a response, and everyone else rolls their eyes at her gauche pretensions. Barbara follows it up by having her son Tony (then aged at about 10, I’d guess) read aloud to the dinner guests from the Marquis de Sade’s pornographic novel Justine, presumably to show everyone how avante-garde she is by allowing her children to read “transgressive” literature.

Unfortunately for Barbara, the horrors described in Sade come to life in her own story. Her husband Brooks, the heir to a plastics fortune (his father, Tony’s grandfather, invented Bakelite), is a soulless dilettante, with a fondness for rough anal sex with his wife in hotel rooms. Barbara develops a suffocating co-dependent relationship with Tony, the kind of which all great Oedipal dramas are born. True to form, Tony grows up to be painfully shy and a closeted gay. Brooks sweeps in and carries off Tony’s girlfriend, eventually divorcing Barbara. Mother and son move closer together, and eventually settle in London, where they start to resemble husband and wife. Barbara develops an incestuous relationship with her adult son Tony, in an apparent attempt to “cure” him of his homosexuality. In the film’s hair-raising conclusion, Tony, clearly in the grip of a psychotic breakdown, stabs and kills Barbara in their Chelsea flat. Leaving her on the kitchen floor to die, he calmly uses the telephone to order a delivery of Chinese food.

Unfortunately for Tom, the Proust reference turned on him, like a bad prawn in Tony’s Chinese takeaway meal. Reviewing the film for the New York Times, A. O Scott, compared Savage Grace unfavourably to Proust:

Even as it tries to be suave and nonjudgmental, “Savage Grace” has some of the breathless salaciousness of Barbara’s question about Proust. It lays out the facts of the case with the false nonchalance of a seasoned gossip, professing not to be shocked by anything even as it expects you to be.

Bisexuality! Marijuana! Anal sex! A father who sleeps with his son’s girlfriend! A son who sleeps with his mother’s boyfriend! All of great intrinsic interest, to be sure, but “Savage Grace” doesn’t seem quite sure of how to communicate its own fascination with such doings, whether to convey shock, envy, pity or bemusement. Proust might have known what to do with the Baekelands, but Mr. Kalin and Mr. Rodman [the screenwriter] don’t make much more of them than the mess they apparently already were.

Ouch. A little Proust reference sure goes a long way.