Nov 27, 2012

Spring 1981: Gay-Free Great Books: The Modern British Novel

Even after my dreary experience with Modern Literature during a freshman course in Fiction Writing, I had to take courses in Modern American Literature and The Modern British Novel.  Both assigned works that were deadly dull, all about heterosexual courtship and marriage, with same-sex relationships, even friendships, absent (the same might be said for my upper-division French, Spanish, and German classes).

Sons and Lovers, by D. H. Lawrence (1913), is about a man attempting to choose between a farm girl, a feminist, and his mother, with no men in sight.

My professor claimed that, if civilization ever ended, we could reconstruct it with nothing more than Ulysses (1918), by James Joyce.  But such a world would be gay free.  The day in the life of Stephen Dedalus includes a visit to a prostitute and lots of descriptions of ladies, but only one mention gay people once, when Buck Mulligan warns Stephen Dedalus that the guy ogling nude statues at the British Museum might be a "sodomite."

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931), sex is the chief recreation in a near-future dystopia, yet no one considers anything but straight sex.

One novel  did evoke same-sex practice, as a symbol of debauchery and moral decay, but so subtly that at the time I didn't even notice.

In I, Claudius (1934), Robert Graves assigns the decadent, insane Emperor Caligula a laundry-list of sexual practices, including bestiality and incest, but only hints at his interest in men, as if it is by far the most disgusting of the lot. (And it's not mentioned at all in the 1976 miniseries).

No wonder I stuck to the Victorians, where same-sex relationships were portrayed with depth and poignancy, if only in subtext.