Portobello £12.99 343pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Lovetown, By Michal Witkowski, trans W Martin
Friday 14 May 2010
Is anything about gay life now untold? In the West, it feels as if all bases are covered. Leading practitioners in fiction, such as Edmund White, have admitted as much. Most European literatures, however, have not approached this critical mass. Many have not experienced even the first tremors of gay representation.
Poland, for instance, was blessed with a writer of the first rank, Witold Gombrowicz, who can be said to have possessed a singular "gay aesthetic". Yet the novel for which he is most remembered, Ferdydurke (1937), isn't really about marginal sexuality.
Michal Witkowski's Lovetown, which pays tribute to Gombrowicz, was a succès de scandale in 2005, the author barely 30. It was taken to be the first Polish "queer" novel, but gay themes have only fleetingly surfaced elsewhere. Lovetown has become something very rare: a gay-themed crossover bestseller. It is of interest to foreign readers not simply because it looks at homosexuality in a different landscape. Witkowski chose – after interviewing scores of Polish drag queens, ex-rentboys, disco bunnies and every conceivable gay "type" – to base his novel around the political changes of the 1980s, and their impact on gay men's lives. Instead of merely disinterring a period that seemed crude or repressed, Witkowski allows his dissident voices to challenge the notion that capitalism has benevolently triumphed in Poland, bringing prosperity and also every accompanying gay bauble to a backward people.
The gritty world before 1989 is perversely celebrated by cross-dressing "Patricia", who opines: "Everything is going to the dogs. Under communism, plucking a recruit off the train was a piece of cake." For her, the occupying Russian soldiers had constituted a feast, readily picked off from their all-male camps by wilful, rapacious drag queens now given to mourning: "Where is my Sasha now, where's my Vanya, my Dmitri?"
"Lubiewo" itself (Lovetown – a fictive beach resort, alongside the German border) is quickly deluged by the first converts to Western gay lifestyles (fitness regimes), vanities (a masculine look) and the logistics of social assimilation (gay parenting). Buffed bodies crowd the beach from East Germany, or Western-leaning Poznan. Witkowski's queens-of-a-certain-age recoil in disgust, treasuring, paradoxically, a yesteryear of certain oppression, discretion, poverty, Aids... and yet also of sexual opportunity.
No British author – except, perhaps, Neil Bartlett – has come close to examining the generational tensions which accompanied the emergence of an bourgeois, aspirational gay culture. Yet every triumphant new order has its dissidents and lost souls. As Paula mournfully reflects at the end of this bracing, strident, surprisingly beautiful novel: "What good has emancipation done me?"
Richard Canning's most recent book is 'EM Forster' (Hesperus)
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Isis burns thousands of books and rare manuscripts from Mosul's libraries
- 2 Scarlett Johansson new band 'already hit with legal complaint' from another The Singles
- 3 Husband and wife die holding hands within hours of each other after 67 years of marriage
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Michael Keaton putting his acceptance speech away was the saddest Oscars 2015 moment
Alien 5: Sigourney Weaver will reprise Ripley role in new movie, says director Neill Blomkamp
Seinfeld is laughing all the way to the bank: TV show generates $3.1bn in repeat fees since final episode
Wolf Hall finale, review: Simply brilliant TV
All fiction follows one of six basic storylines, according to new research
Oscars 2015: Birdman beats Boyhood as Eddie Redmayne and Patricia Arquette win big - as it happened
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit