Reading Group: 2001 Discussions

LGBT Community Center NYC The Gay & Lesbian Reading Group, based in New York City, is a friendly and diverse discussion group founded circa 1982. We welcome everyone interested in GLBT Literature, and appreciate all points of view. We read contemporary and classic works of GLBT-related fiction, non-fiction, drama, and poetry. Join us the second Thursday of each month, 8:00pm at the LGBT Community Center, 208 West 13th Street, NYC.

In addition to many GLBT Literature Resources, this site also archives information about the G&L Reading Group from 1997 to today, including all of the books we have discussed.

Books & Resources: 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 || Books Only:  1998 | 1997 || Full Index

Books Discussed in 2001

(in reverse chronological order)

 

Other Voices, Other Rooms
December
2001
Other Voices, Other Rooms – Truman Capote
1948 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – December 13, 2001

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 21 of us at our December 13th discussion of Truman Capote's autobiographical first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Published in 1948, it tells of a lonely boy's search for his identity in a grotesque and decadent Southern world.

Throughout the evening, we talked a lot about Truman Capote (1924-1984), who was diminutive in height, but large in literary stature... and notoriety. Born Truman Streckfus Persons, he achieved fame as a short-story writer, novelist, and dramatist; he moved from macabre early works to the bittersweet comedy Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), then went on to expand the boundaries of journalism with his "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood (1965). In later years, Capote's lavish parties, and alcoholism, became more talked about than his writing.

But since we are a Reading Group, we managed to tear ourselves away from dishing Capote's life to discussing his novel. Some people were very enthusiastic about the lush Southern Gothic style which he mastered, and even refined, while still in his mid-twenties. Even more of us were fascinated, and repelled, by the grotesque cast of characters who lived near, or in, a decaying mansion in the deep South.

Take a look at this representative excerpt from the novel - containing the title phrase - which we discussed. This is Capote's depiction of the ill-fated Cloud Hotel - once a show place, now derelict - and the old man, called Little Sunshine, who confines himself there. This passage, from Chapter 7, virtually defines the Southern Gothic style:

Slowly old creek-slime, filtering through the limestone springs, had dyed the water an evil color; the lawns, the road, the paths all turned wild; the wide veranda caved in; the chimneys sank low in the swampy earth; storm-uprooted trees leaned against the porch; and water-snakes slithering across the strings made night-songs on the ballroom's decaying piano. It was a terrible, strange-looking hotel. But Little Sunshine stayed on; it was his rightful home, he said, for if he went away, as he had once upon a time, other voices, other rooms, voices lost and clouded, strummed his dreams.

While some were drawn into the sinuous rhythms and intense dreamlike/nightmarish imagery of Capote's style, others were put off by what they saw as its ludicrous excesses. One person's mantra while reading the book was, "Let me out of here!"

Our members who recall pre-Stonewall life, said that the claustrophobia evoked by Other Voices, Other Rooms captured how they felt in the '40s, '50s, and '60s, no matter how many miles removed from the novel's bayous. This led to our discussing how homophobia may have played a major part in the important Southern Gothic literary movement, most of whose major practitioners - after Faulkner - were gay, including Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, and Capote.

More specifically, we talked about how homophobia shaped Capote. Although he was as "out" as any gay man can be, he struggled all his life - and we see this reflected in all his writing - to find a place for himself in what he saw as a hostile world. We talked about how young Joel embodies those deep concerns of Capote, and so many other GLBT people of his time and later.

History aside, several people had a major problem with Other Voices, Other Rooms: They saw Capote self-congratulatorily flaunt his mastery of style instead of explore, in any depth, either the psychology of his characters or the social reality of their world, even though they were drawn from Capote's own family.

Many also noted Capote's "standard racial stereotyping" of African-American characters, including his use of dialect and slang. Capote's defenders pointed out that few white authors at that time wrote about black experience with any more subtlety. They also said that the black characters - in particular "Zoo" - were the most emotionally grounded in the novel, and the only people who had a lasting connection with each other and their world.

The character we spent the most time discussing - sometimes heatedly - was flamboyant Cousin Randolph; in particular, we asked if his relationship with Joel, the 13-year-old protagonist, included sex... or even "sexual molestation." At first most of us were shocked by the idea, since it is never explicitly mentioned in the text. But then, so much else is also elided - including Joel's nascent homosexuality - that various subtextual readings become crucial to our understanding the work. As we looked at various passages, describing Randolph's and Joel's relationship, the possibility of the older man's taking advantage of his lost and lonely cousin began to resonate with several of our members.

We ended our discussion by focusing on the ambiguous young central character. While some saw Joel as passive - not to mention vaguely drawn - others had a more affirmative opinion. They noted that, at the novel's end, not only has he survived his ordeals, but he has begun to find himself: "'I am me', Joel whooped. 'I am Joel. We are the same people.'" Of course, whether his emotional breakthrough is genuine and lasting is never depicted in the novel. And if his self-affirmation is seen as autobiographical, then it can be read in the context of Capote's own life, which extended for 36 turbulent years after the publication of this novel.

In the final moments of our discussion, a new member shared a poignant reminiscence about Capote. He used to work at a health club where the author came to swim. One day, he got up the nerve to approach Capote and tell him how much he loved Other Voices, Other Rooms. Capote smiled and said, "Well, somebody had to write the fairy Huckleberry Finn."

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Three Lives
November
2001
Three Lives – Gertrude Stein
1909 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

  • Three Lives – Amazon.com resources
  • Three Lives – unabridged, free online copy
  • Flaubert's "A Simple Soul" ("Un Coeur Simple"), from his collection Three Tales, was Stein's literary inspiration for Three Lives; she even undertook a translation of "A Simple Soul" before beginning her own work.
  • Gertrude Steinoutstanding introduction! – includes brief excerpts from both her work and various critics' responses to it
  • Gertrude Stein Online – many resources
  • World of Gertrude Stein – illustrated biography
  • Gertrude Stein film connections – from Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
  • Paris Was A Woman (link to my review) – filmmaker Greta Schller's (Before Stonewall) illuminating and moving documentary about Paris's 1920s/30s Left Bank lesbian artistic circle, focusing on Gertrude Stein, Colette, and others
  • Tender Buttons – free online copy of Stein's playfully erotic 1914 work which translates the art of the Cubists into prose poetry

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – November 8, 2001

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 18 of us at our November 8 discussion of Gertrude Stein's collection of three novellas, Three Lives. Written in 1905/06 (while she sat for Picasso's famous portrait of her, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and published in 1909, it recounts the life stories of three working-class female outsiders: two white ("The Good Anna" and "The Gentle Lena") and one African-American ("Melanctha").

Gertrude Stein must have been turning in her grave, as most of the people who spoke skewered Three Lives. Some admitted that they had not been able to finish such a "punishing" experimental work. (Of course, Stein could take comfort from her status as an icon of both Modernism and GLBT Literature, and as the author who drew the largest-ever Reading Group crowd - 45 people - at our July 1998 discussion of her novel The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.)

Despite the general unpopularity of Three Lives in our group, several people admitted that it is one of the most original and influential books ever published. We noted its acknowledged impact on such authors as Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, William Carlos Williams, and possibly Wallace Stevens and James Joyce.

We also talked about the book's unique place in American literature, as perhaps the first fictional work to combine three disparate traditions:

(1) scientific research (Stein studied at the Harvard Psychological Laboratory, under William James, and later at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine),

(2) avant-garde aesthetic theories (Symbolist poetry - Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Mallarme; and what Stein called "democratic" Modernist painting - by Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse - which gave an equal emphasis to all of a work's elements), and

(3) first-hand observations of working class women (from her years in medical school, and from her family's servants).

We analyzed Stein's unique style, which made its first major appearance in Three Lives. We looked at her attempt to create a "continuous present" by sometimes shattering conventional grammar and syntax - and by using repetition - to highlight her characters' mental processes, including their obsessions. We also noted how she treats time as a series of discrete moments, instead of as a linear progression.

Clearly, Stein allowed for a more highfalutin than usual discussion in our group [big smile].

Before proceeding with more of our group's comments, take a look at this brief passage from "The Good Anna" which we discussed, to get a sense of Stein's technique. In the first and third paragraphs, you may note her pictorialism, as she tries to use words to create a verbal Cubist portrait of the character. Then at the end of the third paragraph, she seems to modulate from visual to psychological depiction. Miss Mary is the capacious employer, and Anna and Jane are her servants. Here is the excerpt:

Miss Mary was sitting in a large armchair by the fire. All the nooks and crannies of the chair were filled full of her soft and spreading body. She was dressed in a black satin morning gown, the sleeves, great monster things, were heavy with the mass of her soft flesh. She sat there always, large, helpless, gentle. She had a fair, soft, regular, good-looking face, with pleasant, empty, grey-blue eyes, and heavy sleepy lids.

Behind Miss Mary was the little Jane, nervous and jerky with excitement as she saw Anna come into the room.

"Miss Mary," Anna began. She had stopped just within the door, her body and her face stiff with repression, her teeth closed hard and the white lights flashing sharply in the pale, clean blue of her eyes. Her bearing was full of the strange coquetry of anger and of fear, the stiffness, the bridling, the suggestive movement underneath the rigidness of forced control, all the queer ways the passions have to show themselves all one....

For most of the people present, Stein's achievements - or what one person called her "dry literary exercises" - were not sufficient to offset "the dull monotony of her style," in which some phrases are repeated dozens, or even hundreds, of times (impossible to convey in the above brief passage). One person felt that a good punishment for Stein would be to force her to listen to nothing but minimalist composer Philip Glass's music for a year [ouch!]. However, a few people praised how Stein introduced small changes into the repetitions, producing a subtle effect of incremental development. And at least one person was fascinated by the sometimes extreme contrast of her slow-moving, repetitive images with bursts of intense, even violent, emotion.

In fact, while some of Stein's critic disliked her "dullness," others - by contrast - were overwhelmed by such extremely painful episodes as Melanctha's downfall, including her protracted break-up with Dr. Jeff Campbell (whom, it was noted, Stein modeled on herself). As one person joked, I've already lived through that kind of pain; I don't want to read about it. Other people praised Stein for her ceaseless probing into some of the darkest emotional places explored in American fiction up to that time.

Still others criticized Stein for what one person called "a chilling emotional distance from her characters." Another person disliked what he called Stein's "snide tone" and "contempt for her working class characters." They noted that Stein came from a wealthy family: The inheritance she received as a young woman enabled her to move permanently to Paris - with her lifelong partner, Alice B. Toklas - and to amass one of the world's finest collections of Modernist painting. Others countered by saying that they felt Stein not only had real affection for her characters, but that she had delved further into the real lives and emotions of working class women than any previous writer (including Flaubert, whose "A Simple Heart" Stein had been translating just before embarking on her own Three Lives).

We also touched on lesbian themes in the work, including Melanctha and Jane Harden's relationship, as well as the many intimate - and problematic - bonds between women in all three novellas. We looked at how this reflected Stein's own life: Her personal romantic relationships up to the time she wrote Three Lives had been frustrating and painful. Happily, in 1907 she met the great and permanent love of her life, Alice B. Toklas.

So what is Three Lives really like? Painful? Cathartic? Monotonous? Realistic? Pretentious? Revelatory?

If you're intrigued by the book, pick up a copy - or read it free online - and see what you think. It's safe to say that, one way or another, you will come away with a very strong response.

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Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland
October
2001
Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland – Gerald Clarke
2000 biography

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – October 11, 2001

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 20 of us at our October 11 discussion of Gerald Clarke's biography Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland. Published in 2000, it recounts the turbulent story of the extraordinary singer/actress... and gay icon.

This discussion was atypical in that we spent as much time exploring what Judy Garland meant to each of us - with a wide range of perspectives - as examining the merits of the book.

However, there was general agreement that the book, despite its massive length, was a page-turner. However, it was criticized for its cliched and awkward prose, as in this sentence describing Judy leaving her hand- and footprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater: "like the image of some girl of Pompeii, immortalized by a belch from Vesuvius, her lithic impression would remain long after she herself was gone."

The book was also criticized for not presenting a portrait of Judy which shed any real insight into the awesome force and beauty of, say, her legendary April 23, 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall (the recording of which became the most rhapsodized album of her career).

Several people praised Get Happy, arguing that the enormous amount of information which Clarke collected (from hundreds of new interviews and Judy's unpublished memoir) gave them insight not only into Judy's tragic life but into the historical period (1930s through 1960s) in which she lived.

Despite all the new research, many of us wished that Clarke had presented more details about Judy's sporadic bisexuality. And while Clarke "outs" several men in her life as gay/bi (including her father, and two of her four husbands), some felt he did not present enough historical background for us to understand these men in a meaningful historical, or even personal, context.

Clarke was also criticized for giving such short shrift - just one paragraph - to his description of what the index refers to as "Garland, Judy - homosexual fans of, [page] 389." This irked several people because of Judy's importance as a gay icon, at least to GLBT people of her generation.

And that brings us to perhaps the liveliest aspect of our discussion: What Judy meant to each of us personally. Opinions ranged from a man in his early 20s, who said that Judy had no resonance for himself or his friends, to a woman who grew up at the same as Judy. She had us all laughing when she noted that she and her friends did not see Judy as an "indomitable gay icon;" rather they became tired of reading about her widely-publicized ups and downs, year after year for three decades.

Many of the other opinions about Judy were more enthusiastic. Most people praised the mournful yet sweet quality of her voice, which so often seemed about to crack... yet rarely did. Others also praised her talents as an actress, from the ingenue in The Wizard of Oz (1939) - which is sometimes cited as the most widely-seen film of all time - to perhaps her most successful mature role, in A Star is Born (1954).

Yet pinning down what many of us felt personally was much easier than pinning down what made Judy the enormous talent, and self-destructive woman, she was. For many people, the information in Clarke's biography helped them understand Judy, not because of any interpretation supplied by Clarke, but because his straightforward presentation of facts allowed the reader to decide for her/himself what drove Judy. For others, Clarke's biography was disappointing in that very lack of analysis, and for not going far enough in exploring Judy's life and times.

Whatever each individual's impression of the book, most of us would agree that we shared a stimulating discussion with a wide range of viewpoints.

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September 11 September 11 QuiltBecause of the tragic events of 9/11, the Center was closed.

Sometimes beauty can come out of horror. To learn more about Linda K's quilt, and the September 11 Quilt Project, click here.

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A Room of One's Own
August
2001
A Room of One's Own – Virginia Woolf
1929 essay

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – August 9, 2001

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 20 of us at our August 9 discussion of Virginia Woolf's landmark feminist essay, A Room of One's Own. Published in 1929 - after being presented as lectures at Cambridge - it explores women's potentialities and achievements in creating literature, and living fulfilled lives.

As with every Virginia Woolf book we've read, A Room of One's Own received enthusiastic - and sometimes rapturous - comments from almost everyone. However, some people found a stumbling block to their enjoyment in a lack of familiarity with the books - many now forgotten - and historical incidents which Woolf discusses. Also criticized was Woolf's elitist background; although there was wide agreement that her central argument - that an artist needs at least modest independent income and "a room of one's own" in order to work - still holds true.

Many people praised Woolf's distinctive use of rhythm, whose inviting and propulsive momentum kept many of us enthralled - not always an easy task for a work of literary criticism. Always aware of her technique, Woolf even remarks - early in Chapter 6 - about the "strange rhythmic order with which my imagination" invests scenes of life, not to mention literature.

Highest praise went to Woolf's playful, memorable use of language, especially her imaginative metaphors (e.g., thought as a "sort of fish") and parables (e.g., such Woolfian creations as Shakespeare's "wonderfully gifted sister" Judith, Chloe and Olivia "who shared a laboratory together," and the pathetic misogynist Professor von X). Many people were fascinated by how Woolf injects these detailed fictional characters, with their elaborate - and metaphorically crucial - background stories, into her study of women's literature. Many enjoyed how she then uses these resonant characters to draw out all the implications of her themes, as she moves seamlessly from literary to social criticism.

For example, she uses the bitter Professor von X - a possible cuckold (whose wife may be in love "with a cavalry officer slim and elegant and dressed in astrachan") - to explore the anger which some men feel against feminists. Woolf explores the emotional, and personal, subtext behind this scholar's "pure" ideas. We talked about how she examines the peculiar "anger that had gone underground and mixed itself with all kinds of other emotions... anger disguised and complex." Later Woolf discusses how misogyny might actually be "a protest against some infringement of [a man's] power to believe in himself. Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size."

Several people described how relevant Woolf's feminist critique still is, despite the profound advances women have made - in art and life - in the decades since the book's publication. We discussed how Woolf's ideal of the "androgynous mind" (a term she borrows from Coleridge) has prevailed in many contemporary books, not only with women writing in the voices of men and men in those of women, but in the recent phenomenon of straight-identified authors writing in GLBT voices. For Woolf "the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.... [a] man-womanly mind...that...does not think specially or separately of sex."

On an even more philosophical note, we looked at the key passage, in the closing pages of the book, where Woolf states, "I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves."

The humble tone of this passage also points up Woolf's canny strategy, as analyzed by one of our members. She tells the reader that she's merely a woman, couldn't cut butter with a hot knife; but then, little by little - using colorful metaphors, engaging stories, and wit - she sucks you into her argument, in all its evolving complexity. This may remind you of the technique of a much earlier philosopher, Socrates.

We also discussed how, on another level, Woolf's exhortation for us to "think of things in themselves" is made more complex not only by her delightfully trenchant use of figurative language (clearly not "things in themselves") but by the persona she has created for herself in this work: The "I" both is, and is not, Virginia Woolf. And the authenticity of the events (eating lunch in a men's college contrasted with dinner at a women's college, viewing London from an upstairs window, perusing the books in her library) gives us yet another layer of reality to ponder. However, for many this "fictionalizing" made the work more engaging - and memorable - than any straightforward tract could ever hope to be.

As with Woolf's other major works, A Room of One's Own will continue to yield its meanings, and pleasures, upon rereading, as we continue to explore how it reflects not only the culture of her day but our own, not only Woolf but ourselves.

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LGBT Center
July
2001

The LGBT Community Center was closed for relocation, back to its renovated original location, at the scheduled time of our meeting.

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Another Country
June
2001
James Baldwin's 1962 novel, Another Country

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – June 14, 2001

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 20 of us at our June 14 discussion of James Baldwin's novel Another Country. Published in 1962, it explores the relationships of eight racially- and sexually- diverse characters living in 1950s Manhattan.

Another Country received enthusiastic comments from almost everyone present. Highest praise went to its dynamic structure (interweaving the lives of its many protagonists), lyrical style, psychological and social insight, and humanity.

Those who criticized Another Country admitted to having enjoyed it... back in high school. But upon rereading it now, they felt the book was forced in both its handling of characters and its overly-complex narrative design.

Several people eagerly jumped to Baldwin's defense, quoting - and analyzing - passages which they argued revealed the novel's insight and power.

One of our members made a provocative comparison between Another Country and a typical soap opera. Once the gasps subsided [smile], he explained why he thought Baldwin's novel - while superficially similar to a "daytime drama" (with intertwined, sometimes melodramatic story lines) - was, in fact, a masterpiece on many levels, including the political.

We discussed how Baldwin's multicultural cast functioned as a microcosm of 1950s - and even today's - America. We talked about how Another Country deals fully, through a broad range of characters and incidents, with rage in its many forms - racial, sexual, artistic, social, even spiritual.

Many of us admired how Another Country balances a violent, even apocalyptic vision of life with - ultimately - the healing possibility of love. Our discussion of this theme focused on Eric - a white gay Southerner - who, like all of Baldwin's characters, suffers from personal and societal repression. Yet it was noted that for a pre-Stonewall novel, its treatment of same-sex love is remarkably open and nuanced. And we talked about how the more Eric gains in self-knowledge, the more he comes to a humane understanding of himself, the man he loves, and even society.

We talked about Baldwin's concept of gayness holding the potential for both personal and social redemption - not in a simplistic way, but by its forcing us to confront, and integrate, The Other both in ourselves and in the world. This raised the charge that Baldwin was a closet Existentialist, more a philosophical novelist than a realist.

Labels aside, many of us were engrossed by how Baldwin continuously probes into his characters - stripping away layer after layer of self-deception, sometimes moving further back into their pasts. And many people admired the evocative prose Baldwin creates to reveal the psychological - and spiritual - depths of his characters, however tortured they may be. Even when his characters fall into destructive traps - set by society and/or themselves - Baldwin's compassion, and sheer brilliance as a writer, gives us genuine understanding and hope.

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Tipping the Velvet
May
2001
Tipping the VelvetSarah Water
1999 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – May 10, 2001

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who joined our May 10 discussion of first-time novelist Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet. Published in 1999, it recounts the adventures of Victorian-era lesbian Nan King, who goes from cross-dressing music hall star to "kept" woman to political activist.

Tipping the Velvet was a hit with most of our members, who praised how exciting, sensual, colorful, and even historically accurate it was. Some people thought it the most sheerly entertaining book we had read in a long while. One of our members said she had never missed so many subway stops in her life: The novel was that much of a page-turner!

The major criticism was that Tipping the Velvet was more successful in the broad scope of its story (ranging from oyster house to music halls, from secret lesbian high society to London's underworld) than in its psychological depth.

However, some people felt that Nan, and the other major characters, were as fully developed as those in comparable novels in the picaresque tradition, including Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, and Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. (Waters has a doctorate in English Literature.)

One of our members, with a background in English theatre, was impressed by how accurately Waters depicted the Victorian music hall milieu, even as she maintained the novel's fast-paced narrative.

Also highly praised - by both the women and men at the discussion - was the novel's unabashed sensuality. Tipping the Velvet is hot!

Several people appreciated how Nan combines her sexuality and emotions, as she grows from a shy girl into a woman who is open and comfortable with being lesbian, despite the oppressive times in which she lives.

Also praised was how Nan achieves her happiness as a result of understanding, and ultimately surmounting, the traumatic events which serve as the novel's dramatic turning points. Nan's is not an easy "coming out" experience; but for many us, although we live in a very different world, it was as moving as it was engrossing.

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Before Night Falls
April
2001
Before Night Falls – Reinaldo Arenas
1993 memoir

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – April 12, 2001

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 26 of us at the April 12 discussion of Reinaldo Arenas's Before Night Falls. Published in 1993 (three years after the author, suffering from AIDS, committed suicide), this memoir recounts his experiences in Cuba under the nightmarish Castro regime, and his escape to the United States.

Although over half the group noted serious flaws in the book, it generated a passionate discussion which touched on many literary, political, and personal issues.

Several people commented that Before Night Falls seemed 'spewed out,' that it resembled scattered notes rather than a polished work. For others, this raw quality gave the book its vitality. Regardless of its literary qualities, the consensus was that it had great narrative momentum and was a real 'page turner.' However, many of us were skeptical about the veracity of its exaggerated and unbelievable (though supposedly true) events.

Arenas, as he portrayed himself in Before Night Falls, inspired many negative comments. Many people did not trust him; some would not want to spend five minutes with this 'volatile egomaniac.' Others were deeply moved by his unshakeable will both to survive and to write (he was a prolific novelist and poet, half of whose works remain confiscated by the Cuban government). Arenas, always the provocateur, would have loved inspiring such strong - and diverse - reactions.

One particularly controversial topic we explored was Arenas's view of same-sex relationships. Many of us found his bleak view distasteful and false: As he wrote in the chapter entitled "Raul," "I do not think [permanent love] is possible, at least not in the gay world." We talked about Arenas's sense of loneliness, despite his five thousand sexual partners (all of whom were, he claims, attractive young men). Some people explained that his behavior and attitudes were formed under Castro's totalitarian, and anti-gay, regime, where almost everyone (it seemed) was an informer. Others felt that the self-absorbed, and sometimes petty, Arenas generated much of his own sadness.

Some people raised the issue of aesthetics, saying that a gifted writer must be able to transcend their immediate circumstances, however oppressive, and personal obsessions to transform their experience into art. Others found that standard too rarefied, especially when applied to an author who had lived through the horrors depicted in this memoir.

We concluded our discussion by examining our respective personal and cultural biases (what one member called "our 2001 New York City mentality"), and how they affected our individual readings of Before Night Falls. Despite many people's strong reservations about the book, it had inspired our group's most impassioned discussion in months.

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Cherí & The Last of Cherí
March
2001
Cherí & The Last of Cherí – Colette
1920 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – March 8, 2001

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who joined us for the March 8 discussion of Colette's two-part novel, Cherí (published 1920) and The Last of Cherí (1926). These works recount the love affair between Lea, an aging retired courtesan, and Cherí, a pampered playboy over 20 years her junior who marries a wealthy young wife he does not love.

Our group greeted the Cherí novels with enthusiasm, praising Colette both for her insight into a diverse range of characters (though all were part of the Parisian demi-monde) and for the evocative, but fast-paced, prose style which interwove nature, history (circa World War I), and psychological depth. (Although lost in English translation, it was noted that in the French originals Colette is meticulous in her control of the sound and rhythm of language.)

Colette took us deeply into the emotions, and thought processes, of Lea, Cherí and his wife, Edmee. Although the first novel focuses on Lea, the second traces with great force the tragic decline of Cherí. Several people commented on Colette's insight into the complex - and narcissistic - "boy toy" Cherí (whose real name is Fred). He grew up surrounded by wealthy courtesans but never learned to connect intimately with himself or another person (despite his sexual prowess). In section 7 of Cherí, Colette lucidly depicts his present beauty, even as she foreshadows his future:

"[Cheri] took from the night table a blond tortoise shell mirror and gazed at himself. 'Twenty-five years old.'

Twenty-five and with a face of white marble that seemed indestructible. Twenty-five but at the outer corner of the eye and directly beneath, delicately repeating the design with which antique sculptors once treated the lid, were two lines, visible only in full light, two incisions made by the most relentless and light of hands. He replaced the mirror"

By contrast, we discussed Lea's strength and flexibility, as seen in her ability to break away from Cherí (whom she loved), to age gracefully... not to mention amass a robust stock portfolio. One of our members commented that Lea and Cherí presented a fascinating role reversal, since in most fiction it is the woman - and the older person - who is stereotypically shattered by the ending of such a relationship.

We also looked briefly at the "out" lesbian, cigar-smoking Baroness de La Berche, who played a prominent minor role in The Last of Cherí. Colette noted her "bravery and a certain grandeur of spirit such as men sometimes display under sentence of death." This character also brought up the issue of Colette's own lesbianism/ bisexuality, including her long-term relationship with the Marquise de Belboeuf, known as Missy. Some of us wryly noted that while Colette is regarded as one of France's greatest writers, her many same-sex relationships are still glossed over, and the strong lesbian subtext found throughout her vast body of work remains largely unexplored by critics.

There was broad agreement that the two Cherí novels are outstanding on many levels, as was Colette's earlier novel Claudine at School (which we discussed in November 1999).

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A Passage to India
February
2001
A Passage to India – E.M. Forster
1924 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – February 8, 2001

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 26 of us at the February 8 discussion of gay author E.M. Forster's 1924 novel A Passage to India. Set during Britain's occupation of India, it tells of the diverse experiences of four Britons and one Moslem Indian during a single fateful year. Forster, who had lived in India for several years, provided an authentic background, even as he balanced his novel between the twin poles of social observation and mystical experience.

Our group greeted A Passage to India with universal acclaim. One member said it ranked with the greatest novels of the last century; while one of our authors said it was among the 10 best novels he had ever read. Although some of us found Forster's densely-written novel slow reading, we all agreed that it was absolutely worth the effort. We spent most of the evening exploring what each of us liked best in this extraordinary work.

Perhaps the greatest praise went to how Forster balanced a sharply-observed portrait of life in colonial India with the mystical interconnectedness of experience shared by his half-dozen protagonists. Socially, the work ranges from realistic - and moving - scenes between characters, often shown in pairs, to some very funny satire of the boorish British "ladies and gentlemen" who remain oblivious to the complex native culture around them. Mystically, Forster is concerned with our search for the eternal and infinite, as well as the illogical and mysterious aspects of our lives. The central symbol of the novel is the profoundly ambiguous Marabar Caves - which turn all sound into booming echoes - and what happens (or does not happen) there to Adela Quested.

Although not as elaborate as the Marabar Caves section, this brief passage, from the end of Chapter 3, will show how Forster's lucid style bridges the distance between empirical observation and mystical import:

Going to hang up her cloak, [Mrs. Moore] found that the tip of the peg was occupied by a small wasp. She had known this wasp or his relatives by day; they were not as English wasps, but had long yellow legs which hung down behind when they flew. Perhaps he mistook the peg for a branch - no Indian animal has any sense of an interior. Bats, rats, birds, insects will as soon nest inside a house as out; it is to them a normal growth of the eternal jungle, which alternately produces houses, trees, houses trees. There he clung, asleep, while jackals in the plain bayed their desires, and mingled with the percussion of drums.
"Pretty dear," said Mrs. Moore to the wasp. He did not wake, but her voice floated out, to swell the night's uneasiness."

With this scene, we talked about how Forster uses simple words, and skillful narrative momentum, to build to a rich cumulative effect. The wasp is also one of the many images which Forster weaves throughout the novel, building resonance and meaning. The wasp returns at the end of Chapter 4, when a minor character asks if "the mercy of God, being infinite, may well embrace all mammals. And the wasp?... and the bacteria...?" And finally, in Chapter 33, the Hindu mystic Godbole becomes aware of a wasp - and its connection to the enigmatic Mrs. Moore - during an energetic religious ceremony. There are many vivid, but subtle, details throughout the novel which reveal Forster's acute powers of observation and his mystical humanism, not to mention his sly sense of humor.

Many of us were affected Forster's humanism, well summarized by Fielding when he remarks, in Chapter 7, that the world is made up of people "who are trying to reach one another and can best do so by the help of good will plus culture and intelligence - a creed ill suited to Chandrapore, but he had come out too late to lose it." Although ultimately none of the characters manages to bridge the cultural gaps which separate Britons and Moslems and Hindus, the novel ends on a sombre, but ambiguously hopeful note. The two people who come closest to making a genuine connection, Fielding and Aziz, end apart: "'Why can't we be friends now?' said [Fielding], holding him affectionately. 'It's what I want. It's what you want.' But the horses didn't want it - they swerved apart; and the earth didn't want it... 'No, not yet,' and the sky said, 'No, not there.'"

An extended part of our discussion focused on Fielding and Aziz, and the complex reasons for their inability to "only connect" (to borrow Forster's most famous phrase from his earlier novel, Howards End). We discussed the personal, social, political - and sexual orientation - reasons which underscored their relationship. In fact, some critics have said that, on one level, the novel is their love story. One of our members also pointed out how the "foreigner" was traditionally used as a representation of a GLBT person: both Fielding and Aziz are "outsiders," albeit in different ways. Yet they were unable to bridge the many gaps which separated them, although the novel does end with their increased understanding of, and respect for, each other.

Some of us speculated that freedom - both personal and political - is a necessary precondition not only for mutual trust but for honesty with oneself and others. And freedom is sadly lacking among the Indians under British rule, as well as among the Britons, who are trapped by rigid, sometimes ludicrous conventions. Forster also looks at the Indian Moslems and Hindus, whose respective cultures contribute to their disconnectedness from others and themselves perhaps as much as British imperialism. Some of us were fascinated by Forster's turn to the mystical interconnectedness of experience - beyond any sectarian faith - as a path to self-fulfillment. As Godbole ruminates in Chapter 33, "'One old Englishwoman [Mrs. Moore, and her simple connection with] one little, little wasp,' he thought, as he stepped out of the temple into the grey of pouring wet morning. 'It does not seem much, still it is more than I am myself.'"

There was general agreement that A Passage to India is far more than a "period piece," rather it is a vibrant work, filled with complex characters and a wide range of challenging issues, from the political to the mystical. This novel is as meaningful - and powerful - for us today as when Forster wrote it over three-quarters of a century ago. It is a subtle, beautiful, and unique work which, as several of us pointed out, amply repays rereading.

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The Last of the Wine
January
2001
The Last of the Wine – Mary Renault
1956 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

  • The Last of the Wine – Amazon.com resources
  • Mary Renault – same-sex themes in Renault
  • The Greek World of Mary Renault – extraordinary site includes background on Renault, brief sketches of historical persons and events, maps, and more
  • Perseus Project: Classical Literature – complete, searchable texts and commentaries on ancient Greek and Roman literature. Here you can learn more about the historical figures mentioned in Renault's novel, e.g., all of Plato's dialogues, Xenophon's histories, et al.
  • The Peloponnesian War – Thucydides' first-hand account of the long conflict between 5th C. BC Athens and Sparta, which is the background for Last of the Wine

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – January 11, 2001

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 23 of us at the January 11 discussion of lesbian author Mary Renault's 1956 novel The Last of the Wine. Set during the Peloponnesian War, it tells of the love between two young Athenian men. Renault went to exhaustive lengths to ensure the historical accuracy of her background. But more importantly, at least for those of us at the discussion, Renault created both a compelling plot and complex, deeply moving characters, which allowed us to experience life in a world very different from our own.

The Last of the Wine was one of the most highly-praised novels we have read in months. Although there were some minor criticisms, most of the evening was spent in exploring what - and why - each of us liked in this extraordinary work. Perhaps the greatest accolades went to how Renault depicted Alexias, her first-person narrator, from birth through his late twenties. We saw and felt, with all our senses, Alexias's world. And that includes his love for Lysis, his lifelong (what we would call) partner. Some people said that they had read this novel many times, primarily because of the power - and beauty - of that central relationship.

Some members were mildly put off by the seemingly inexhaustible range of Renault's knowledge of ancient Greece. The novel does contain an enormous number of historical figures, incidents, places, and customs to contend with; each with a name which was (literally) Greek to us. (An outstanding online resource for understanding the Classical world is the Perseus Project.) In Renault's defense, several of us noted how deftly she wove historical fact, and imaginative fiction, into a compelling narrative.

You can see Renault's technique in this brief passage, from early in Chapter 2, which we examined in some detail. Alexias remembers from his childhood how...

Being too young to understand serious things, I used to look forward, when [the invading Spartans] had gone, to seeing what they had been up to. One year a troop of them had been quartered in the farmhouse; and those who could write had inscribed the names of their friends, with various tributes to their beauty and virtue, all over the walls. I recall my father rubbing angrily at the charcoal and saying, "Get this ignorant scrawl whited over. The boy will never learn to spell, or to make his letters properly, with this in front of him."...

With this scene, we talked about the resilience of Alexias and his family, who stoically accept the annual incursion of Spartan troops onto Athenian land. We also discussed now Renault does not demonize the Spartans as mere "enemies;" instead we learn how much they value - and love - their comrades in arms. We also see one more step in Alexias's growth in a culture which values same-sex attachments... even in the military. In an example of Renault's wryness, Alexias's father is not bothered by the invaders' love for each other, but only by their bad spelling and penmanship! There are hundreds of comparably vivid details throughout the novel which reveal Renault's deep humanism, as well as her sly sense of humor.

The passage also shows the slightly elevated, but still natural-sounding, tone which Renault uses for most of the novel. As some members pointed out, Renault does include several passages which are genuinely poetic in their imagery and emotional intensity. But she always returns to the conversational tone, which many of us thought was important to helping a modern reader connect with the ancient world.

What especially impressed many of us was Renault's matter-of-fact, yet understated, depiction of same-sex love. One of our male members - deferentially - said that he was surprised that a lesbian could so fully understand the love between men. One of our women members countered by saying that Renault's great powers of empathy and expression are particularly well represented among female authors. (No argument there!) Also, we talked about how - a half century ago - it might have been easier for a lesbian to write about same-sex love when it was somewhat removed from her own experience, both in terms of gender and historical period.

We also talked a little about the 1950s society in which The Last of the Wine was published. Like all of Renault's later works, this novel was an international best-seller... during a period when homophobia was the order of the day. Some of us speculated that Renault's genius for storytelling and historical accuracy came together at a particularly opportune time, since 1950s popular culture was especially interested in the ancient world, e.g., most of its blockbuster movies were historical epics set in the ancient world (The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, Hercules).

But unlike most fiction of that period, Renault's works continue to be read - and reread. Perhaps that is because her characters - and the world they live in - remain so vividly with us, long after we close The Last of the Wine, or The Persian Boy (which we discussed in March 1999), or her other novels.

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