Reading List November 2006

Walk-In Closet

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Olivia, by Dorothy Strachey (1949). A febrile little tale of student-teacher sapphism at a posh French boarding school in the 1880s. When Mademoiselle Julie, the glamorous headmistress of Les Avons, singles out Olivia, the adolescent narrator, for special good-night kisses, Olivia goes bonkers over her. There’s never any sex—Mademoiselle J. being the very worst sort of velvet-cloaked, Phèdre-quoting nipple-tease—and the story veers into melodrama. But Olivia is still the ultimate crushed-out-schoolgirl novel: dizzyingly erotic despite (or because of?) the old-fashioned setting and the comically high-flown style.

The Charioteer, by Mary Renault (1959). A yummy, plummy page-turner—Gone With the Wind for the educated-pansy set—by a writer best known for her novels about ancient Greece. Laurie, a young British soldier recovering from devastating wounds suffered at Dunkirk, is loved by two men: Andrew, the beautiful and virginal Quaker orderly who cares for him in the hospital, and Ralph, a schoolmate once expelled for homosexuality, who now resurfaces as a handsome naval officer. Which one to choose? (I myself would go for Ralph, whom I imagine looking like George Clooney.) Lots of bedpans, bandage changing, and poetical blathering about Plato, but also a hugely satisfying dollop of the creamiest Homo Romance.

A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood (1964). Severe, glinting, sad: a day in the life of George, an aging British expatriate living and teaching in Los Angeles. The surroundings are sybaritic, the tanned USC boys ravishing. But, for the melancholy George—grieving over his dead partner like a fading, fuddled, Shakespearean king—the only way through it is no way at all. Herr Issyvoo at his stark, camera-eyed best.

Poet and Dancer, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1993). Next to Clarissa, the saddest book I’ve ever read. The poet is Angel, the plain, misfit daughter of German refugees living in Manhattan; the dancer is her disturbed cousin Lara. Dimly haunted by the sex play they had as children, and blind to Lara’s odiousness, Angel appoints herself Lara’s personal slave. I wish I hadn’t done something similar once.

The World of Normal Boys, by K. M. Soehnlein (2000). Squalid, druggy boy-rapture in the Jersey suburbs, in the late ’70s. Thirteen-year-old Robin is obsessed with Todd, the big kid next door, whom he spies on from the roof outside his bedroom window. After Robin is involved in a grotesque accident, he starts skipping school and hanging out with a fellow misfit named Scott. They have weird sex. The parents are clueless. The Partridge Family sings. Todd keeps reappearing. You feel that everything in this deft, astonishing first novel really happened.

My Dog Tulip, by J. R. Ackerley (1956). Religious fundamentalists frequently condemn homosexuality on the grounds that it leads to bestiality. And right they are! Though an avid devotee of guardsmen and other virile types, the British writer J. R. Ackerley found the love of his life in Queenie, a female German shepherd he adopted in the mid-1940s. (She is renamed Tulip in this classic—and hilarious—memoir of their liaison.) Looking at pictures of Queenie’s sexy snout, lithe haunches, and noble, lofting tail, one can see why Ackerley succumbed: she’s a Hot Hot Hottie from Hotsville. Woof.

Terry Castle is a professor of English at Stanford. Her books include The Apparitional Lesbian and Courage, Mon Amie.
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