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literature

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Reading Across Orientations  
 
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Such vocabularies and image repertoires also represented a way to transform illegitimacy into legitimacy and the exotic into the mainstream if one was but original, subversive, and creative enough.

Works Offering Interpretive Openendedness

A certain kind of interpretive openendedness, of floating meaning, also allows one to cross-read.

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That is why Franz Kafka's novels and short stories so easily lend themselves to cross-reading. You don't have to stretch the text very far to read "The Hunger Artist" (1924) as a tale of unrequited secret desires, The Trial (1925) as a cautionary tale of social oppression and self-defeating "passing," and "The Metamorphosis" (1915) as a parable of closeted denial and coming out.

"I was Gregor Samsa," confesses American novelist Paul Monette in his prize-winning memoir Becoming a Man (1992). He speaks for many gay men and lesbians when he adds, "It was not the last time I would take my life out of a book."

Works Set in Exotic Cultures

Cultural exoticism--the North Africa of Paul Bowles and Andre Gide, the Italy of E. M. Forster--often appeals to cross-readers because it is easy to substitute equivalencies for exactitude.

That is why it is harder, though not impossible, to cross-read the stories of Raymond Carver or Anton Chekhov. Indeed, if you seek the closest equivalent of a sexual Kafka--and it is the absence of sex in Kafka's world that speaks to closeted gays as much as it is the suggestiveness of nonconformity and alienation--then look to the post-war French novelist, Marguerite Duras.

Though almost exclusively heterosexual on their surface, her works convey the kind of amoral sensuality and antibourgeois impulses that speak of bisexuality and a world where lover-loved is really a metaphor for all kinds of forbidden exchanges and alliances.

The older-younger and Chinese-French dichotomies of the main characters in her bestseller The Lover (1984) are more pertinent than the male-female difference. Treat the protagonists as two women or two men, and you will add a layer of marginality without much changing the narrative since Duras's deepest sense of erotic romance is her distinctive style with its richly confusing and sensually prose.

The same transgressive combination of eroticism and exoticism lies at the heart of the nineteenth-century Romantic sensibility. Much more than men, women embodied "sexual outlaws" and, as prostitutes and adulterers, linked romanticism to realism and naturalism.

In her self-destructiveness, Flaubert's Emma Bovary speaks to all cross-reading sexual nonconformists as do Balzac's Esther Gobseck, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and Zola's Nana. These nineteenth-century women are larger than life in the same way that leading women in grand opera--another product of the same age--seem culturally heroic.

In their sense of tragic love, sexual repression and sociopolitical oppression, such women speak to gay men who share their sensibility and out-of-power circumstances if not their actual fates.

Works Reflecting Dangerous Desire

Probably the most common denominator in cross-reading is dangerous desire. Each era defines its own notion of erotic subversion, and that very notion appeals to gays and lesbians who know first-hand the tragedy, both literary and real-life, engendered by unsafe sexual identity.

Consider Sherwood Anderson's story "Hands" in Winesberg, Ohio (1920), in which a school teacher's reputation is ruined by false accusations of boy love. Some gay readers would no doubt see the tale as more realistic if irony did not become the deus ex machina to affirm a heterosexual social order; if the allegations had proved true so that the protagonist were condemned, as the readers would have been, for fact instead of fantasy.

Similarly, perhaps attenuated transgression also explains why even though the Marquis de Sade openly described the desires and actions that better writers left unnamed, he did not help affirm a gay identity. His pretentious philosophical works contain no real characters but torsos attached to oversized and obscenely nicknamed genitals.

Works Featuring Same-Sex Bonding

Same-sex bonding, a sharing of "" space, is another way to discern "homotextuality" and "homographesis." For example, a particular poignancy marks the bonding and subsequent splitting up of Falstaff and Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV plays, and also of Montaigne's syntactically intimate homage to his friendship with La Boétie ("Because it was he, because it was I").

It turned out just as many gays suspected all along--there was indeed much more to the camaraderie of soldiers and road travelers in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855-1860) than the vaguely cosmic and asexual brotherhood emphasized by traditional critics.

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