Sunday, 30 April 2017

Of Its Time

Is A Friend from England (1987) a homophobic novel? I have heard it so described. I'm hesitant about judging novels of the past by present standards and mores; nevertheless the question requires some consideration.

The truth about Michael Sandberg's sexuality is hinted at through the early part of the novel, and then rather stagily revealed at the end of chapter 6, when, in a 'peculiar' male-dominated wine bar ominously called the Titanic, the narrator sees him wearing blue eyeshadow and glossy lipstick. In the preceding pages there are indications, all of them a little heavy-handed: he is 'infantile ... not to be taken entirely seriously, happiest and most himself in places of light entertainment'; he is seen laughing 'uproariously'; he is pictured in his 'whining pathetic' boyhood.

It is Oscar Livingstone, Michael's father-in-law, who most clearly betrays attitudes that are 'of their time'. Of a minor character, he remarks, 'Calls himself Jean-Pierre, if you please', and of Michael himself he says, 'If only the boy were less of a boy, there wouldn't be any need for all this advice. But he's not manly enough...' (ch. 6). Oscar may merely be referring to Michael's immaturity, but he probably means something more. Oscar is plainly presented as one of the novel's congenial and trustworthy figures, one of its moral consciences. But we may, reading him now, find our sympathies undermined.

But Brookner isn't wholly on Oscar's side. In the pages before the wine-bar reveal, Oscar and Heather's relationship is seen for perhaps the first time in less than positive terms: 'They were really rather claustrophobic, I decided.' More, Michael begins to be viewed sympathetically or anyhow with a measure of pity. This is, one might say, better than nothing. And these were the 1980s. But soon the narrator Rachel's tone turns critical. Michael may, we're told, be mad (ch. 7). His choice of life is 'terrible'. It isn't an identity; it's an aberrant 'idiosyncrasy'. Of course Michael has got married under false pretenses, but this isn't solely the reason for the condemnation. And no quarter is to be given. 'Whatever the explanation', Rachel says, 'he would have to go.' As for Oscar, he is heaped with praise; he is, we learn, 'only at ease with the noble passions'.

Michael is duly and somewhat summarily dispatched, and this makes Rachel pity him again: 'Poor Michael ... I spared a thought for Michael' (ch. 8). But none of this expunges her ambivalence. We might place in the balance her friendly and accepting attitude towards another character, Robin, who may be gay. But Robin is viewed with extreme obliquity, an obliquity that is very probably highly wilful.

In seeking to absolve the authors of the past of particular attitudes there's always going to be a degree of special pleading.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thoughts and comments are always welcome.