To be gay in a civil-rights era often seems like an us-versus-them declaration, which — as much as I support the cause — can be exhausting. Like most people, I don’t always want to feel like a placard. So whenever I’m feeling burned out on the news, I look for more nuanced and complicated or let’s just say “literary” characters/voices, which this year I found in two amazing novels, one older that I re-read and one new, both of which transcend two-dimensional arguments about homosexuality and weave questions about what it means to be gay into narratives about humanity and — perhaps more important — becoming an artist.
A Book of Memories by Peter Nadas was first published in Europe in the mid-80s and follows a Hungarian living in Cold War East Berlin, where he falls in love with a frustrated poet (another man) who longs to escape to the West. Chapters jump between the narrator’s adult life and memories of his childhood, a structure made almost insanely complicated by a third series of chapters — again written in the first person — by a belle-epoch writer who also moves back and forth between his past and present. Despite the logistical challenges — and at first it can be hard to tell exactly who’s writing — it’s a beautiful and rewarding read. Nadas captures the many selves and desires, often conflicting, which reside in all of us, and his descriptions of adolescence are particularly gripping, when he must come to terms with living in a police state and with a secret love he feels for another boy. The book should resonate with anyone who has endured questions about identity while navigating through what often feels like terrifying, brutal, and shifting alliances in our circles of friends and enemies.
Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) by Eileen Myles is much easier to digest on a sentence-by-sentence level, but no less profound. In what feels more like a memoir (albeit one concerned with self-invention) Myles — though again, not chronologically — after growing up in Boston describes moving to Manhattan to pursue a career as a poet and, later, a lesbian. (And she uses the word “career” to describe both, which is painful, hilarious, and not exactly PC in the manner of much of the book.) Myles has an intoxicating willingness to try anything — or well, just about, whether involving sex, drugs, or supplicating herself to important people in her downtown scene — in her decades-long march to become a paid artist. At times her deadpan cool seems emotionally detached (and no coincidence, one of her favorite books is The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil), but by the end it’s clear she has mastered her craft to an extent that as a reader it’s almost impossible not to feel deficient for being anything but a poet/lesbian, and specifically anyone but Eileen Myles. (Which is a pretty amazing trick when you step back and consider the political power held by lesbian poets in our society at this juncture generally speaking.) For Myles, the issue is not “it gets better” but a rather more punk-rock “it IS better,” which I found to be the perfect antidote — a kind of artistic redemption — to the more depressing tedium that so often accompanies the painstaking march for political/social equality.
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