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literature

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Firbank, Ronald (1886-1926)  
 
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Santal (1921) explores the religious aspirations of a young Islamic boy.

The Flower Beneath the Foot (1924), which includes a description of a party excavating "among the ruins of Chedorlahomor, a faubourg of Sodom," follows the adventures of Laura de Nazianzi, who achieves sainthood by renouncing heterosexual romance and joining the lesbian Convent of the Flaming Hood.

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Sorrow in Sunlight (1924), given the outrageous title Prancing Nigger in the American edition at the suggestion of Firbank's close friend Carl Van Vechten, ascribes the typical social aspirations of the lower-middle-class English to Mrs. Almadou Mouth, who migrates with her black family to the local capital of an unnamed tropical isle so that she can get her daughters into society.

His last and most explicitly gay work, Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, appeared in 1926, the same year as Firbank's early death at the age of forty. The book begins with the cardinal baptizing a police puppy named Crack, and ends when the naked cardinal ("elementary now as Adam himself") drops dead while pursuing a choirboy named Chicklet around his church.

The posthumously published The Artificial Princess (1934) reworks Wilde's tragic play Salome, concerning the fatal encounter between the Herodias' daughter and John the Baptist, as a comedy.

With the exception of Prancing Nigger, which enjoyed brisk sales in the United States, Firbank received no income from his literary works, which were published at his own expense and pointedly ignored by British critics unable either to gloss over or acknowledge his homosexual subject matter.

By accusing him of "frivolity" Firbank's homophobic detractors have obscured recognition of his literary innovations, which place him in the company of other gay and lesbian modernists such as E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Evelyn Waugh, and Gertrude Stein.

No descriptive summary can begin to convey the rich allusiveness of his narratives, which abandon conventional plotting and chains of cause and effect and focus, rather, on the workings of an artistic consciousness through a series of interrelated conversations, animated tableaux, and symbols that constitute a veritable encyclopedia of gay and lesbian cultural reference.

Excavating the homosexual meanings in everything from St. Sebastian to Egyptian statuettes, butterflies to orchids, and Priapus to Ganymede, his use of inverted word order, dashes, exclamation points, ellipses, and innuendo shows his characteristic "" mode of presenting material in fragments in order to articulate the love that dares not speak its name.

His description of Monsignor Parr in Vainglory as "something between a butterfly and a misanthrope, [who] was temperamental, when not otherwise . . . employed," gives some indication of his masterful use of indirection.

Committed to the preservation of gay and lesbian culture in an era of political backlash, as well as to the unfettered expression of his artistic self, Firbank himself may be fittingly characterized by the comment of Lady Parvula de Panzoust in Valmouth that "None but those whose courage is unquestionable can venture to be effeminate."

He died on May 21, 1926, probably as a result of acute alcoholism and general debility. In a truly Firbankian scenario, he was accidentally buried in a Protestant cemetery, but--upon discovery of the error--was subsequently reinterred in the Catholic cemetery of San Lorenzo.

Corinne E. Blackmer

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    Bibliography
   

Benkovitz, Miriam J. Ronald Firbank. New York: Knopf, 1969.

Brooke, Jocelyn. Ronald Firbank. New York: Roy Publishers, 1951.

Brophy, Brigid. Prancing Novelist: A Defense of Fiction in the Form of a Critical Biography in Praise of Ronald Firbank. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Davies, Paul. "'The Power to Convey the Unuttered': Style and Sexuality in the Work of Ronald Firbank." Lesbian and Gay Writing: An Anthology of Critical Essays. Mark Lilly, ed. London: Macmillan Press, 1990.

Horder, Mervyn, ed. Ronald Firbank: Memoirs and Critiques. London: Duckworth, 1977.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Blackmer, Corinne E.  
    Entry Title: Firbank, Ronald  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 21, 2009  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/firbank_r.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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