Book review: Wilde in the media room

Arkansas by David Leavitt, Abacus pounds 14.99

David Leavitt is the author of two quite good novels, whose dignity consisted in their subject and how he dealt with it; he may be responsible for more middle-class families having come to terms with their sons' homosexuality than are some contemporary gay authors. These two novels, Family Dancing and The Lost Language of Cranes, were studies in tolerance that combined a certain daring with a canny cosiness. His third novel was to a considerable extent addled by the blandness of celebrity and of American prosperity.

Recently, his trajectory has been occluded by a novel called While England Sleeps, which is a barely disguised translation of the life of Stephen Spender through Leavitt's own understanding of the subtle- ties of sex, war, society and this country, whose language he perhaps accidentally shares and whose sardonic emotional wardrobe - not to say closet - he is, on the evidence, barely able to open. There was an ugly court case about this book, and sides were taken.

Arkansas adduces Oscar Wilde as its sponsor, prefaced by his poetic, allusive, and "attributed" remark: "I should like to flee like a wounded hart into Arkansas." It's the best thing about the book, apart from three intelligent animadversions, which come to the reader late on. This thin but well-produced book is advertised as consisting of three novellas. Only if ring doughnuts are buns are these empty hoops novellas.

The first story concerns a well-known writer, young, homosexual, of affluent academic family with whom he is staying ("This house, which originally belonged to a movie producer, includes a 'media room', the electronic controls of which are so complex that even after five years neither [parent] has figured them out: a lighting system more various and subtle than that of most Broadway theatres; a burglar alarm they can never quite explain to Guadalupe, the cleaning lady, who seems always to be tripping it accidentally." It's entertaining to compare this lush account with the exact evocation of a North Oxford don's sitting-room in Ian McEwan's Enduring Love). This well-known young writer - hell, let's call him DL - doesn't baulk at drawing attention to his low-wattage apercus by remarking "had she lived in our age, George Eliot might have said that".

Leavitt could, if he were not playing a game of double bluff - vanity acknowledged in order to minimise its overweeningness - be fairly sound on the competitiveness of writers and their insecurity. As it is, he, or rather his "I", suspects they play "a more singular role in most writers' lives than they would care to admit". At this point, it's bracing to recall the acidic certainness of Gore Vidal's pleasure at his colleagues' failures, the doughty unmodesty of Martin Amis. Leavitt compounds his gaucherie by name-dropping Forster, whose name will always, evasively, intelligently, refuse to land.

So, this guy, who is blocked and must anyhow be pretty much whacked-out by his onanistic private life, meets a guy, who is straight, but prepared to exchange physical favours for term-papers. This gets about, and so does our hero. It's rather an interesting subject, since all sedentary solitaries - that is most writers - are faced with the problem of how to have some life at first hand; and the idea of writing for love is good.

But repeatedly in Leavitt's writing one bumps into the sad gap between the ability to apprehend and that of expression. There is the occasional neat phrase: the telephone is "coy as a cat". The words are stroked the wrong way, though, by the introductory "smug on its perch". Is the phone a cat, or is it a mynah? There is quite a bit of by-play over the Cleveland Street affair - a homosexual scandal involving more than one nobleman, surprising to learn - and Jack the Ripper. Leavitt, for it is indeed he who is our hero, shows a want of grasp of more than genitalia that sets the teeth on edge, as no doubt my cavil will his: no more is Lord Arthur Somerset to be described as Lord Somerset than is his sister-in-law as Lady Somerset. As the author says, "I grow impatient with facts." You bet. But they make a knot in our belief before we begin to try to balance upon it.

The Wooden Anniversary is set in Italy, a country that has evidently of late enjoyed the presence of the author, and is bothersomely heterosexual in appearance though not perhaps in essence. There is some reasonable greedy stuff about food which is quite sexy. Much the best story, Saturn Street, has as its subject Aids and the appalled care a well man offers a sick one. It is very well done, light of touch, fully and movingly open to America and to popular culture, and wonderfully, paradoxically fuller of life as the dying man nears his quietus not, though the narrator wishes it to be, sexually but mortally induced.

Perhaps David Leavitt should simply leave Europe alone. In his own vast land, his voice stops straining and rings true. The three good bits are, by the way, to be found in this last story, which makes a nice point about the difficulty of "distinguishing the genuine from the counterfeit". Readers of this book won't have too much trouble.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor