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literature

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Novel: Gay Male  
 
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Maurice critiques an English educational system that seems to encourage male-male love up to a point, but not to the point at which it might become rewarding; and a class system that discourages love among those who are not social equals. That Maurice finds fulfillment suggests that the novel has elements of fantasy; indeed, it is dedicated "To a Happier Year": not the year in which it might be publishable, but the year in which the relationship it depicts might become acceptable.

Maurice aside, the first half of the century in England was comparatively fallow. There were the elegant arabesques of Ronald Firbank, so drenched in homoeroticism as to have become camp; there was E. F. Benson's odd Ravens' Blood (1934), and there was D. H. Lawrence.

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The homoerotic undertones of much of Lawrence's fiction, Women in Love (1920) for example, are well known; he himself told Katherine Mansfield, "I believe tremendously in friendship between man and man, a pledging of men to each other inviolably," and added, "But I have not ever met or formed such a friendship."

Other exceptions might include Alec Waugh's The Loom of Youth (1917), which created a scandal with its suggestions of schoolboy homosexuality, parts of his brother Evelyn's Brideshead Revisited (1945), J. R. Ackerley's Hindoo Holiday (1932), which had to be tamed in revision before publication, and Denton Welch's lyrical work.

The Agents of Change

In both England and America, the vast historical upheaval of World War II did much to unseat traditional structures of value and patterns of behavior. In England, the Wolfenden Report (1957) and consequent legislation legalizing homosexuality for the first time since 1885 were influential events.

So in America were the Kinsey Report of 1948, which revealed that three-eighths of American men had had at least some homosexual experience, and the legendary Stonewall Riots of 1969, in which for the first time police harassment of gay men met with widespread and determined resistance. These events and many others repositioned social attitudes toward gay men and gay men's attitudes toward themselves.

The Gay Male Novels of Mary Renault and Marguerite Yourcenar

In England, one of the first writers to take advantage of new possibilities in gay male fiction was a woman. After writing several novels about young nurses in which submerged lesbian themes were present, Mary Renault, an Englishwoman who spent much of her adult life in South Africa, made a breakthrough in 1953 with The Charioteer, her first fiction dealing with male homosexuality.

Laurie, a young soldier wounded at Dunkirk and evacuated to hospital, meets again the older man he had adored at school. After many vicissitudes, they manage to establish a firm relationship. Marred by its scorn for certain kinds of homosexual men (the effete, the effeminate), The Charioteer nonetheless represents a new candor in dealing with male-male sexual desire.

The more she distanced herself from her material, the more feelingly Renault seemed able to write. The Charioteer dealt with the sex not her own; when she combined that with a removal into the past, into the Hellenic and Hellenistic worlds of Periclean Athens and the empire of Alexander the Great, she found her true moment. Little in historical fiction, or in gay fiction, is as finely realized as The Mask of Apollo (1966) or The Persian Boy (1972).

Similarly, the French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar found history a safe haven in which to discuss male love, in her classic Memoirs of Hadrian (1951).

The American Novel: 1948-1982

In the United States, too, serious gay fiction could now reach a wider public although its tone reflected both the public's presumed hostility and the gay man's perplexity. Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948, revised 1965) and James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956) may stand as typical examples of gay male fiction--nearly the only examples, except perhaps Truman Capote's hauntingly Gothic Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948)--in the years immediately after World War II.

Each in its own way demonstrates the impossibility of a favorable resolution of the homosexual's plight, not least because in each case the protagonist refuses to admit even to himself that he is gay. In their public aspect, both novels are about gay men's relations to society, or lack thereof, and about the milieus in which homosexuality can, if not thrive, at least be tolerated.

In their private aspects, the novels are about knowing oneself and about how dishonesty breeds dishonesty.

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