Winter Dreams: ‘Novel Genealogies’

Published in: January-February 2021 issue.


THE WORKING TITLE for this issue was “The Genealogy of the Gay Novel,” but this heading seemed to promise an awful lot, while “Novel Genealogies” suggests a more relaxed approach to some major novelists whose works and lives we recognize as simpatico. (Also, there wasn’t enough room for the original title on the cover.)

              This is not the first time we’ve broached this topic. A special issue (Nov.-Dec. 2014) nominated eight books as candidates for “The First Gay Novel” and reprised articles from past issues to make each case. The nominees, in chronological order, were: Wilde’sPicture of Dorian Gray, Forster’sMaurice, Proust’sIn Search of Lost Time, Radclyffe Hall’sThe Well of Loneliness, Gore Vidal’sThe City and the Pillar, Mary Renault’sThe Charioteer, James Baldwin’sGiovanni’s Room, and Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man. Of course, there was no “winner” in this contest; each successive work made its own contribution to what was clearly an evolutionary process.

            This issue returns to the history of the gay novel, which modern usage would convert to “LGBT” (possibly with a “Q”)—and rightly so, as gender and sexual orientation were deeply intertwined in these early novels. The general consensus for much of the 20th century was that homosexuals were “inverts”—women trapped in men’s bodies or vice versa—and this belief is reflected in many of these early narratives.

            Our starting point here is again Oscar Wilde, but Mark Dery focuses not on Dorian Graybut on the young Wilde as a rapier wit who became famous before writing a single great work. Proust is back, too, but this time Andrew Holleran’s focus is on his ambivalent relationship to his homosexuality (and his Jewishness): his willingness to create sympathetic gay characters while covering up his own sexuality. Forster’s Maurice, written in 1913, makes no bones about Maurice’s gayness, but it wasn’t published until 1971—and was still able to provide solace for a young Jeffrey Round, as he confides in these pages.

            Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar(1948) was remarkable for depicting two young men who actually fall in love, but it’s also worth noting, as Phil Smith does here, that Vidal kept tinkering with the ending for the next two decades. The novel Olivia, by Dorothy Strachey, is also about young love, though in this case Olivia’s desire for another woman remains unfulfilled, causing her to pass through what Irene Javors calls “the stations of the cross of first love.”

            It’s a big jump to 1981, when the Violet Quill Club met to discuss its members’ latest novels. This issue’s cover by Charles Hefling is a tribute to the VQ’s living members: Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, and Edmund White. Their salons coincided with, and were a catalyst for, the crystallization of what we call “the gay novel”: a narrative whose characters are self-consciously LGBT and do all the things that straight people do, and then some.