Bending the Straight Line of Queer History

Recent novels by Alan Hollinghurst, John Boyne, and Tim Murphy experiment with the idea of progress over time.

 

Manuel Betancourt | Longreads | March 2018 | 8 minutes (2,170 words)

 

Confronted by a historical record that mostly excludes and often disparages them, queer communities have long been forced to write their own histories — or, more often, to scrub them clean. After all, such histories can be dangerous to write, and the act of memorializing can sometimes feel like just another burden to bear.

In Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, Heather Love warns against this, writing that “given the new opportunities available to some gays and lesbians, the temptation to forget — to forget the outrages and humiliations of gay and lesbian history and to ignore the ongoing suffering of those not borne up by the rising tide of gay normalization — is stronger than ever.”

Three recent novels, all of them decades-spanning narratives centered on LGBTQ characters, are attempts to connect recent queer history with contemporary gay life. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, and Tim Murphy’s Christodora are each expansive visions of post-war queer life. Set in London, Dublin, and New York City respectively, they tell stories about men and women living in the decades before and after gay liberation, through the AIDS crisis, and into the present. They depict everything from restroom cruising encounters and gay conversion therapy appointments to ACT UP meetings and late-night Grindr hookups. And they ask us to consider how past traumas haunt the 21st century.

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Queer history has always been at the center of Hollinghurst’s literary project. Like many of his previous novels, The Sparsholt Affair tracks changing attitudes toward homosexuality in England. Beginning in the 1940s and ending in the early 21st century, The Sparsholt Affair takes snapshots of homosocial spaces (first at Oxford, later at gay bars) and homosexual encounters (first carried out in hushed whispers, later aided by mobile apps) which, presented chronologically, suggest the slow if steady advance of progress. In fact, the “affair” of its title — a scandal involving family man David Sparsholt and another married MP, the specific details of which are vague — serves as a turning point in the history the novel is tracing. The gossip that fueled Sparsholt’s disgrace — which we see continues to haunt his gay son John’s life in London, eliciting raised eyebrows whenever he introduces himself — is tied to a very specific time period, a time when such things (and the novel does leave it all very much cloaked in obfuscating language) were not only improper but illegal. Had it taken place just a few years later, the novel seems to imply, then the “Sparsholt Affair” may not have become such a lightning rod scandal after all.

It would seem, however, that there are fewer and fewer of Foucault’s “infamous men” in need of exhumation the closer we get to our current era.

 

John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies also chronicles the passage of time — and the changing of the times — for a gay protagonist, Cyril Avery. The novel opens with an account of his birth, which is marked by an episode of brutal homophobic violence. His unwed mother-to-be, Catherine Goggin, has left her small Irish town for Dublin, having been written off by family and parish. On her way to the city, Catherine meets a young man named Seán, who takes her in. She becomes a sort of mother figure to Seán and his boyfriend, Smoot — without ever realizing they are in a relationship. The trio’s domestic bliss is short-lived, however — Seán’s estranged father, having found out where Seán lives, forces his way into their home and beats Seán to death. Catherine goes into labor with our protagonist, Cyril, as soon as she has knocked the attacker unconscious. (We eventually learn that Seán’s father has been set free, the jury “finding that his crime had been committed under the extreme provocation of having a mentally disordered son.”)

Both novels, by telling origin stories rooted in criminality and scandal, are guided by the godfather of queer history, Michel Foucault. As the French thinker explains in “Lives of Infamous Men,” historiography must give voice to those “lowly lives reduced to ashes in the few phrases that have destroyed them.” Indeed, in a Foucauldian spirit, Hollinghurst lets documents — unpublished memoirs, nostalgic reminiscences, snippets of newspaper headlines and obituaries, even gossip-ridden conversations — speak for and about David Sparsholt.

It would seem, however, that there are fewer and fewer of Foucault’s “infamous men” in need of exhumation the closer we get to our current era. The contrast between the out-and-proud life of young John Sparsholt and his father David’s closeted one defines Hollinghurst’s novel. John is able to navigate his sexuality in ways that were not available to and nearly unthinkable for David. Similarly, the transformative forward-thrust of time in Boyne’s narrative, which orders the novel’s very structure — each chapter break accounts for seven years in Cyril’s life — suggests a kind of progressive teleology. Having begun with Seán and Smoot, who had to conceal their relationship in euphemisms, the novel (just about) ends with a celebration of the passing of the Yes vote in Ireland, which ratified marriage equality across the country in 2015.


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Boyne’s novel is aware, however, that this is “a kind of painful progress,” as Tony Kushner puts it in his own exploration of queer history, Angels in America. Rather than merely positioning this final episode as a sign of how far we’ve come, Boyne’s novel acknowledges the inherent pain that laces even the most inspiring moments in queer history. “I was watching the news reports on the television,” Cyril recounts late in the novel. “And there was [gay rights activist] David Norris. It’s a little bit late for me, he said, once he knew that it was a Yes and that the country had changed forever. I’ve spent so much time pushing the boat out that I forgot to jump on and now it’s out beyond the harbour on the high seas, but it’s very nice to look at. And that’s how I feel. Standing on the shore, looking out at the boat. Why couldn’t Ireland have been like this when I was a boy?” The question sums up why the hopeful teleology should nag at us: there are still people who’ve been left ashore.

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The straight line of queer history is an alluring idea, these novels make clear, but not, perhaps, a nuanced enough one. Tim Murphy’s Christodora goes a step further. While readers of The Heart’s Invisible Furies and The Sparsholt Affair experience history as an irresistible forward-moving force that necessarily leaves some people behind, like a strong tide, Christodora presents a more explicitly intertwined vision of past and present. The tide, after all, always comes in again.

This is apparent from the novel’s first lines. Although the chapter heading informs us that it is the year 2001, the opening of Christodora takes us back decades: “By the time the Christodora House settlement erected its handsomely simple new sixteen-story brick tower on the corner of Avenue B and Ninth Street in 1928 — an edifice that loomed over Tompkins Square Park and the surrounding blocks of humble tenements,” it reads, “the Traums had long left the Lower East Side.” The tone is thus set for a novel whose main interest is on urban geography as an inescapably layered repository of history.

In exhaustively detailed scenes set in the New York City’s health department, for example, we witness the wide-eyed activism of a young man named Hector, who eventually quits his post to better help those affected by “the plague.” However, readers of Murphy’s book have already been introduced to Hector in the book’s first chapter, where they read that he “had done so much in the fight against AIDS in the city.” But the comment is an aside, tucked within a censorious description of a young disheveled man leaving the Christodora House — Milly, a tenant of the building, thinks to herself “that he was probably a trick of Hector’s” — evidence of how far Hector has fallen. In shuttling us back and forth between images of Hector as a near-derelict drug addict and Hector as a righteously angry ACT UP member, Christodora disrupts any clear-cut idea of progress. We’re not offered a linear path. We learn history in spurts and starts, often in roundabout ways. It’s as though the story of the AIDS epidemic requires a rethinking of what queer history looks like. Jennifer Evans, in “Why Queer History?,” defines “a queered history” as one that “questions claims to a singular, linear march of time and universal experience and points out the unconscious ways in which the idea of progress often seep into our analyses. To queer the past is to view it skeptically, to pull apart its constitutive pieces and analyse them from a variety of perspectives, taking nothing for granted.”

We’re not offered a linear path. We learn history in spurts and starts, often in roundabout ways.

While progress is more radically interrogated in Christodora than the other novels, elision is central to all three. The gaps in the stories — the never-revealed details of the “Sparsholt affair,” the recurring seven-year periods which Cyril omits from his narrative — serve as a reminder that queer history begins with absence. And Christodora, especially, forces readers to reckon with the difficulty of telling a kind of history that depends on erasure and loss in the present. As we watch Mateo, a young adopted boy living in the Christodora building, grow up and become restless and angry about how little he knows about his biological mother Issy (one of Hector’s friends who died of AIDS, as it turns out), we follow his quest to find out about her. As a 28-year-old, he watches an aged video tape recording of Issy at an ACT UP demonstration, which reveals to him how important Issy had been in the fight against the CDC and the Reagan administration — an episode, however, which Christodora has described already in vivid detail, much earlier in the novel — and an episode about which Mateo is told, by a fellow activist of Issy’s, that “there’s not a lot of documentation” and “everyone’s forgotten about it.”

This process of excavation is similar to the one presented in The Heart’s Invisible Furies. Adoption, in both cases, encourages the protagonists to seek out their lost histories. But while Cyril’s story, which is presented as a sort of memoir Cyril is writing toward the end of his life, is tidily arranged so that we know from the beginning things he won’t learn until late in life — “her face was not scarlet, she would tell me years later, but pale,” he writes of his mother’s shameful Church banishment — Christodora’s Mateo is not connected to his mother Issy’s story until the end of the novel, making it a lost history for the reader as much as for the character. “To queer history,” as Evans elaborates, “is not just to add more people to the historical record, it is a methodological engagement with how knowledge over the past is generated in the first place.”

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Knowledge which has been totally suppressed or hidden so deeply that it only resurfaces through happenstance or great efforts of excavation, these novels suggest, can ultimately only be fully recovered when it is imagined — in paintings, photographs, and, of course, novels.

The Sparsholt Affair (in which the young Sparsholt becomes a portraitist), The Heart’s Invisible Furies (in which Cyril seems to be a writer composing his memoirs), and Christodora (in which Mateo becomes a successful artist) each see imagination as a necessary component of queer historiography. “Sometimes a picture drew him in,” we’re told when John Sparsholt reminisces about a visit to the National Portrait Gallery. “It exacted a surrender with no show of force, it seduced by something precisely unsaid.” The exhibit he’d toured, titled “Londoners at Home,” captured subjects “alone, in their rooms, with a TV, an unmade bed, some worthless but probably treasured object.” John is drawn to a photograph of two young men — one shirtless, the other in a tight patterned sweatshirt — who are pictured at home with, among other belongings, a poster of Mick Jagger, two glass ashtrays, and most curiously “a square white adaptor plug, strangely prominent.” Sparsholt scrutinizes the photographer’s choice to feature the adaptor so prominently. “Was it also the photographer’s way of saying something the men themselves couldn’t make so explicit?” he wonders.

Sparsholt in that moment, inching ever closer to the photo, seeming “to stare into the room through a two-way mirror,” interrogating the meaning of an array of symbols which might be meaningless to a straight person (and might be meaningless, period), perfectly expresses how queer lives have been lived and how they have been uncovered in the historical record: by being coded and decoded by those in the know. And the photograph represents what Hollinghurst, Boyne and Murphy are trying to achieve in their work: not just to decode hidden histories and memorialize subjects whose lives remain elusive in every realm but that of imagination — not just to “add more people to the historical record.” But “to expose how knowledge is generated in the first place” — to expose the “two-way mirror” of history as being, fundamentally, itself a work of art, bounded by a frame, defined by its relationship to the viewer, containing an array of symbols — and over which the artist exerts control.

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Manuel Betancourt is a New York City-based writer, editor, and critical thinker. He’s a pop culture enthusiast and an eternal Buffy fan. His work has appeared in Film Comment, TheAtlantic.com, Backstage Magazine, Vice, INTO, Esquire.com, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Catapult, among others. He’s a regular contributor to Remezcla and Electric Literature.

Editor: Dana Snitzky