Friday Book: A pattern tie to bind gay authors

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AUTOBIOGRAPHIES ARE, by their very nature, individual works. If, however, we look at the autobiographies of people who have in common something as crucially defining as homosexuality, we may be able to draw some general conclusions about sex and society.

Paul Robinson is a cultural historian rather than a literary critic, and although he subjects his 14 texts to close readings and is finely alert to their authors' literary as well as psychological strategies, his principal interest is in the way these books reflect the similarities and differences of homosexual experience, and in the influences exerted on the lives of their authors by history and nationality.

Six of his writers are British, three French, and five American. The oldest was born in 1840, the youngest in 1947. Some of their accounts are dispiriting, others are heartening.

"When I began work on this book I had no hypothesis about what general story it might tell," Robinson writes. "And in the end no such story has emerged, or, if one exists, I have failed to detect it."

This may be true, but Robinson has nevertheless been able to trace some patterns. The British writers have "a fascination with the lower classes"; the French "tend to put their stories through a philosophical wringer"; the Americans are inclined to write "coming-out stories" that "invite comparison with the conversion narratives that figure so prominently in the Western cultural tradition".

He detects a concern with masculinity and effeminacy in all the stories, and discusses notions of "solidarity" - not merely the political solidarity that came out of the postwar liberation movement, but also the tribal loyalties referred to in the title of Christopher Isherwood's Christopher and His Kind.

Some of these books were like messages in bottles, unpublished during writers' lives but left for posterity. The most extreme case is JA Symonds, whose autobiography did not appear until 91 years after his death - an astonishing Victorian document to unleash upon the Eighties. While Symonds and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson felt that their stories would be of interest and benefit to others of their kind, and perhaps to society at large, neither makes particularly cheering reading.

Similarly, Robinson's three Frenchmen are hardly role-models: Andre Gide escaping the confines of marriage to pursue Arab boys, Jean Genet abasing himself before assorted thugs, and Julien Green dividing his time between "writing his Pamphlet against the Catholics in France - which celebrates the Inquisition and attacks modern Catholicism for its moral laxity - and squalid nights cruising near the Trocadero".

As Robinson notes: "The history of gay autobiography in France confounds our naive expectation that the genre should move inexorably towards self- affirmation."

Robinson has arranged his material skilfully. For example, he discusses JR Ackerley's My Father and Myself in tandem with Quentin Crisp's The Naked Civil Servant. He notes that although the two books are "set in the same town at more or less the same time... the worlds Ackerley and Crisp inhabited and the lives they pursued seem so alien from one another as to constitute virtually separate universes."

Two Americans, Jeb Alexander and Donald Vining, representing the Twenties and the Forties, also produce a piquant contrast. Alexander narrates "a descent into loneliness, despair and drunken inertia" in Washington, while Vining "moves in the direction of ever-greater assurance, contentment and activity" in New York.

Occasionally, such groupings for effect seem a little unfair. A distinctly uncharitable discussion of the waveringly bisexual Stephen Spender's World Within World is sandwiched between much friendlier analyses of the absolutely queer Isherwood's Lions and Shadows and Christopher and His Kind. Robinson correctly notes that Lions and Shadows "is ingeniously contrived to be perceived differently by two different imagined audiences: the general public, which is properly heterosexual, and an audience of sympathetic `conspirators', essentially homosexual, who will respond with recognition and pleasure to the author's carefully coded secret history."

However, he derives no such pleasure from Spender's book, which is more open about the author's homosexuality. Robinson merely finds it dishonest and evasive.

On the whole, Robinson is a reliable and entertaining guide. He writes lucidly, avoiding jargon even when writing about the "essentialist" and "social constructionist" views of homosexuality. Unlike Julien Green, who "can hardly bring himself to describe any part of the body below the neck", Robinson is amusingly forthright about sex. I particularly enjoyed his observation that Andrew Tobias, author of The Best Little Boy in the World, "took it for granted that he needed to work on his sexual skills. His determination to do better reflects a typically American devotion to self-improvement."