Recently, the peerless Book Coolie mentioned Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, winner of last year’s Booker, and this excellent review by Andrew Anthony.
I am a great fan of Hollinghurst, from the supreme indulgence, freedom and tragedy of The Swimming Pool Library to the frustration and self-absorption of The Folding Star, and The Line… is definitely his greatest achievement so far, blending high literary prose (including, admittedly, endless descriptions of furniture) with the most fully realised description of gay life I’ve ever read.
For example, everyone’s first kiss stays with them forever, but for gay people this moment has an extra thrill to it. Hollinghurst’s description of the jeering from a passing car as the protagonist recieves his first public kiss, sounding to his ears more like a cheer of approval, describes this moment perfectly (I apologise for not having the exact quote to hand). Certain scenes, such as those at Hampstead’s Men’s Bathing Ponds, locate in fiction real archetypes from gay men’s lives.
The book has it’s faults, of course: Nick is not the most likeable protagonist, nor are many of the characters (a common trait in Hollinghurst) and the language, as already mentioned, is terribly overblown and self-conciously Jamesian – but that is a matter of individual taste. These are minor quibbles when set against the grand sweep of the novel.
Now the BBC has comissioned an adaptation of The Line… for television, and chosen Andrew Davies for the job, lauded adaptor of Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair and the heaving-boson’d Moll Flanders. And then he comes out with a spew of crap.
According to The Times, Davies “balked at the idea of portraying gay sex for his latest screenplay… put off by a combination of personal distaste and a belief that, despite increasingly liberal attitudes to sex, the public still has a limited appetite for watching men in bed together”.
Personal distaste? Is it possible he was not the man for the job?
Davies goes on to add: “The gay sex makes me rather queasy.” Well, fuck you too, Mr Davies.
My mum read The Line of Beauty before I did – in fact it was her copy I borrowed – and at the end she said, “I really enjoyed it, but I don’t think I needed to know that a black man’s anal hair curls inwards.” I understood her point, but I argued it, and in the end I think she agreed with me. In a true representation of gay men’s lives, the inclusion of sex is essential. Because so many straight people deliberately turn away from representations of homosexual sex, while failing to relate this to the utter pervasion of the culture by representations of heterosexual sex, and it’s consequential appropriation of ‘normality’, it is essential that gay writers address this imbalance.
One would have thought this argument had been made clearly some years ago – Queer As Folk, among other programs, contained graphic scenes of homosexual sex (although, it must be pointed out, no more graphic than many, many heterosexual scenes in the same time slot) and the world did not come tumbling down. The argument then, and now, remains the same: sex is a part of these characters’ lives. Omit, censor or efface it and you restrict the essential truth of their existence.
Davies is, however, the man who scripted Sarah Waters’ lesbotastic Tipping the Velvet, not only keeping in the sex, but admitting to a screening panel it “excited” him to write it. Compare with “queasy”. Without getting into a discussion of the age-old conflicting straight attitude to lesbian vs male gay sex, this comment above all shows the inherent bigotry in Davies’ refusal to address gay sex in his adaptation of The Line…. Shame on you, Mr. Davies, and high praise to the BBC for stepping in to reinstate scenes. The latter is a gratifying move, as it cannot be for commercial reasons: the film will undoubtedly turn many off, but it will, I hope, turn a number on: not to gay sex themselves, but to the acceptability of gay lives.
Much homophobia stems directly from a horror of gay sex, of anal sex, of men fucking and sucking one another. ‘Cocksucker’, ‘sodomite’, ‘bugger’, ‘shirtlifter’, ‘batty boy’ and many others are sexual insults reserved for the denigration of homosexuals and those compared to them. But oral sex and penetration are staples of straight sex too, and until gay mens’ sex lives are normalised, our place in society is not fully and equally established.
STML will be away for a week or so, but feel free to discuss this in the comments section, or via email.