The Monday Book: Gay Life Stories, By Robert Aldrich Thames


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The Independent Culture

This is a beautifully-produced but essentially frivolous book.

As a "gallery of portraits" of gay men and lesbians across time, geography and culture, it looks inviting. Readers expecting anything more profound, however, regrettably must search elsewhere.

In the 74 entries, anything up to half the space is given over to portraits, photographs or artworks. The brief biographical summaries rarely transcend Wikipedia. Though Robert Aldrich often seeks to make more general points about homosexuals' experience, these pull away awkwardly from the specificity of individual cases.

Nobody should expect such a collection to be representative. Most gays live obscure, unreported lives: those which have been documented are exceptional. Nor should it surprise anyone that figures who have written about their sexuality predominate. Fewer than a quarter of entries relate to women, whose historical neglect is readily appreciated.

Gay Life Stories does have some uncontested virtues: one is its esotericism. Aldrich, an Australian academic, contests the dominance of European cultures, quoting South African writer William Plomer's summary of a spell in the Far East: "Japan was my university". Sections on "the Levant", "Japonisme" and "International Lives" underline this broad vision.

Who is Gay Life Stories written for? Here, Aldrich reveals some insecurities. The epithet "ageing" recurs in a handful of entries. Gide is "fusty". Edward Carpenter's "understanding of homosexuality" is "antiquated", whereas Walt Whitman, whom Carpenter imitated, perversely remains "profoundly modern".

Numerous errors suggest Google is a safer bet. Carson McCullers never published a novel entitled 1. The "scratchy recording" of Oscar Wilde Aldrich it recommends is now accepted as counterfeit. Paul Bowles "settled" in Tangier, not Ceylon.

There is, inevitably, a historical problem over naming gay sexuality. Aldrich correctly points out the many euphemisms or concealments applied in the past. Yet he unaccountably characterises Saint Laurent's 50-year relationship with Pierre Bergé, ending in a civil partnership, as "friendship".

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