Category Archives: Virginia Woolf

Aaron’s Top 5 GLBTQ Books

Aaron is one-third of the founding members of the book club. He believes that the answer to the meaning of life is to uncover the meaning. He tries to find it in books from serious fiction to frivolous reads.

Aaron’s Top Five GLBTQ Books

foldingstar1. Alan Hollinghurst/ Michael Cunningham/ Virginia Woolf

This is a bit of a cheat of Top 5 but, to me, they are all related in one way or another. Hollinghurst and Cunningham are one of the earliest “serious” openly gay writers, writing about gay themes and gay lives, and winning awards.

I was about 18 (in 1998) when I found out about Hollinghurst. His novel, The Folding Star, was nominated for Booker Prize four years ago (in 1994). This was shocking to me, as a teenager who was coming to terms to my sexuality. All my life, I have been told that being gay is sick, perverse and inferior but this writer actually was nominated for a major award?

I simply had to lay my hands on the book. And not surprisingly, I had a difficult time tracking it down after calling tens of bookshops. When I found the hardcover, probably the only copy in Singapore, it was costly to a student but I bought it. (No Amazon, no booksdepository then.)

Among all Hollinghurst’s books—The Swimming Pool Library has a large following, while Line of Beauty is said to be his magnum opus—Folding Star remains my favorite. It is a re-telling of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice—about an old man lusting for a teenage boy—but there is so much beauty in the novel. Heartbreaking beauty, beauty that pains the reader with every line I read. I can’t remember clearly what it was but I may or may not have reached the conclusion that although moral is relative, beauty is dangerous. Beauty tricks us but does nothing and is, in the end, vacuous.

tumblr_lvbazpomJT1r1akito1_500Cunningham’s The Hours suffers the same fate as The Folding Star in that the novels couldn’t be found in Singapore until they won awards or made into movie. You could hardly find The Hours when it won two major awards (Pulitzer and PEN) in 1999. But when it was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 2002, the novel flooded Singapore bookshops. Like the difficulty I had in finding Folding Star, I come to realize that it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight; as long as you’re good enough, your books will be on the market. Unless you’re so kickass in your job, you’re just another neuter worker-bee in the hive. Nobody cares about your sexuality. You can be anything you want to be.

mrs-dallowayThe Hours is three short stories: an imaginative fiction of Virginia Woolf’s life; a rewriting of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway; and a 1950 American housewife. I remember I finished reading it during a CSO duty. The officer—this sexy Malay boy, tall and sleek, with a taut body, like a panther—was sleeping in the next bed. I finished the novel, set it aside, and cried my eyes out. Very drama.

The essence of The Hours is the same as Mrs Dalloway, that is, nothing wins time. We are puny, we keep waiting for the hours to pass and then we die.

If I were really forced to pick one and kick the rest out of the top 5, I choose The Folding Star as the one. In general, I thought Cunningham isn’t as imaginative or complex as Hollinghurst and Woolf can be dated.

[See book club discussion on Cunningham’s By Nightfall and Woolf’s Orlando.]

dracula-cover2. Bram Stoker’s Dracula

When I first read this nineteenth-century novel, it caused such a strange sensation in me. I spent the entire night reading it, and then I had nightmares and fever for a few days after it. Like Javin, I find that men sucking men, and men staking men can be very sexciting. The homoeroticism and the misogyny are appalling but attractive. I couldn’t really make sense of the attraction until Talia Schaffer, an academic, traces the history of the writing of the novel. Apparently, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde were wooing the same woman, and there were some homoerotic tension going on between the two. When Wilde’s sodomy case came out, Stoker destroyed almost all the correspondence between them, and Dracula could be read as an expurgation and projection of Stoker’s homoeroticism. Interesting, right?

131813. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room

I wanted to call my non-existent bookshop in the future “Giovanni’s Room” after the novel until I knew of a famous bookshop in San Francisco with the same name. I couldn’t stand the cacophony of Baldwin’s other novels but Giovanni’s Room is perfect and beautiful and artful. David, whose girlfriend leaves for Spain, has an affair with Giovanni who is executed at the end. There is a bohemian indecisiveness that resonates with me—a desire to be free VS the call to be responsible.

4. Yukio Mishima’s Temple of Golden Pavilion

Mishimi is more known for Confessions of a Mask, with a gay protagonist. But I thought it was facile and puerile. Temple of Golden Pavilion, however, is a complex, philosophical book about life, death, love, beauty and ugliness. The story is about an arson in 1500 that shocked Japan. An ugly acolyte with a stammer and clubfoot, who sleep with women by manipulating their attraction to the grotesque, has a cynical (boy?)friend. Stammering and clubfoot are often symbols of homosexuality in literature. This book mind-fucked me.

3748275. Paul Monette’s West of Yesterday, East of Summer: New and Selected Poems

This is one of the most influential books of my formative years. Paul Monette is better known for his gay autobiographies on HIV such as Borrowed Time, Becoming a Man, and Last Watch of the Night. But his poems move me deeply. Whenever I want a good cry, I’d re-read his poems, eulogies written for his lovers who died of AIDS-related diseases. His incoherent rambling makes sense to me because in the face of grief, who could speak?

“Pain is not a flower pain is a root
and its work is underground where the moldering
proceeds the bones of all our joy winded.”

Even after 15 years of reading the poem, I can still recite it by heart.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Alan Hollinghurst, Bram Stoker, James Baldwin, Michael Cunningham, Paul Monette, Top 5, Virginia Woolf, Yukio Mishima

39th Discussion: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

Notes written by the multi-talented Timmy. He can moderate discussions, he can write and he can kiss his boyfriend all over town. Hooray!

      

Foods served this week were fried chicken, chips, blue cheese dip, and an “indescribable” cake which turned out to be zucchini. “The selection of foods for this month is meant to be as confusing as the book,” explained Raj-ella Lawson.

Aaron moderated the discussion, which was joined by Raj, Alexius, Joshua, Alex, Glenn, Ernest and Timmy.

First Impressions

Alexius was up first, and said that the book was too descriptive, chunky, draggy and “not MRT friendly.” Joshua, however, thought the book was well-written, despite the plot being non-coherent. Raj was appreciative of Virginia’s writing style, though he did mention that this was a book that he would not like. Alex could not remember much about it, while Aaron had no opinion of the book except that it was “avant-garde.”

Themes

Plot

Joshua found the story itself as illogical; Alex described it as irrational and hysterical. As the book was written during the Second World War, Alexius jest that perhaps Virginia could not keep track of her writing. Aaron explained it could be so due to the limitations of a biography. Both Raj and Timmy joked that the author may have just randomly input things just so that it is compiled as the book.

Transition/Narrative styles

Raj felt that Virginia portrayed women well, and commented that the switching of writing styles went well with the sexes (males = action oriented; females = word oriented). Aaron, however, disagreed and thought that the changes in narrative styles were more in correlation with the time period as opposed to gender. Joshua felt that the transitions were jarring. Alexius thought that the transition as a whole was absurd and speculated that the author may have “an agenda.”

“How has Orlando changed throughout the course of the book?”

“Clothes,” said Alexius candidly. He also mentioned sexual preference, which led Alex to ask: “Was he always straight?” Raj highlighted Orlando’s preference for girls who look like guys when he was still a male.

Aaron, Raj, Alexius and Joshua perceived Orlando as an androgynous character – feminine male, then masculine female. Alexius found Orlando’s transformation as a male to be more interesting compared to when he/she was a woman.

Chapter 3 (aka the dancing goddesses/sex change scene)

Raj joked that the dancing women were akin to the three (good) witches of Macbeth.

According to the passage, the three ladies were representations of modesty, chastity and purity. Timmy asked if these are qualities that women of those times should attain. Raj replied that the three values were the epitome of womanhood. Aaron, however, countered that they seemed to be imposed limitations so that women of those times could be culturally accepted. Joshua agreed with Aaron’s sentiments. Alex quipped that these are the qualities that none of us have. We all laughed because this is legit information.

Cross-dressing

Alex speculated if Virginia had lesbian tendencies. Aaron clarified the book was written for her girlfriend. Raj found it to be a dramatic twist to the story. Alexius questioned if Virginia and Orlando could be the same person, as both shared the same personalities and liked poetry. Someone then joked that the oak tree symbolised the male appendage.

Marriage and child

“What’s the point (of including them)?” Aaron exasperatedly asked. Raj equated it to a marriage of convenience. The two of them noted that the sailor came out of nowhere, as well as the child (“magical child,” as Aaron put it).

“A lot of things in this book happened for Orlando’s benefit,” Raj highlighted.

Longevity

Besides Orlando, Aaron highlighted that Nick Green and Mr Dupper lived very long lives in the book. “Why them? Especially Nick Green, in particular?” asked Aaron. Joshua said this was done to show how Orlando has changed. Raj added on that Orlando needed the men, as writing was perceived as a man’s job at that point in time.

Foreigners

Aaron asked of their treatment in the book. Raj felt that it was barbaric, while Joshua surmised that the English have a superiority complex.

The ending

“She bares her breasts to the moon.”

Timmy quipped that she can’t do it to the sun as she may get sunburn. Joshua described the gesture as a mark of sexuality. Aaron and Alex believed it to mean femininity. Alex then joked that Orlando was turning into Chang Er.

Final say

Aaron liked the book even more after the discussion. Joshua concurred, even though he still found it confusing. Raj didn’t hate the book as much, though he hoped to go through some parts of the book quickly to finish it. Alexius didn’t like the book. The rest of us reserved our judgments.

We grew bored discussing the book through the middle of the discussion, so we decided to end it quickly to catch up with one another instead, which is more fun as compared to talking about Virginia Woolf and Orlando.

3 Comments

Filed under Bisexuality, Class, Classics, Family, Love, Post-Colonialism, Queer, Transgender, Transvestism, UK, Virginia Woolf