The First – And Still The Best – Modern Gay Novel

Gore Vidal: THE CITY AND THE PILLAR

 

I’ve just re-read this novel from 1948, which I think is the very first ‘home-grown’ gay novel in the US. Vidal rewrote the book in 1965 with major changes and a revised ending, less melodramatic than the original (murder) although the hero’s “hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-wronged-faggot” action seems equally out-of-character.

The City and the Pillar, like many early novels from writers in the 40s and 50s (and still all too often today), shows clearly the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald: lean, finely-honed prose with a kind of muscular elegance, which works supremely well for this chronicle of the coming-of-age and the coming-out of a gay high-school senior during WW2 and its aftermath. Jim Willard’s briefly reciprocated love for a fellow student casts a shadow over the next decade of his life as he becomes a sailor, then a tennis-coach (and kept boy) in Hollywood and New York.

Scenes in NY and LA offer early glimpses of the archness that were to characterise the author’s public persona in later life and reach an apotheosis in Myra Breckinridge and Myron, the two-volume high-octane farce which for many readers is at once his best and his worst writing. Many scenes – and many of the characters – could as well belong to New York or Los Angeles of today as to the 1940s. Except for some clunky conversations exploring the ‘Nature Of Homosexuality’ which must have seemed insightful as well as daring in 1948, this is a lot less dated than other gay novels of the era.

The sex scenes are almost as discreet as Mr Forster’s – there’s nothing as lurid or as dazzling as Gore would later concoct for Myra/Myron. But overall The City and the Pillar is not only an outstanding piece of gay fiction (better than many that were to come after Vidal opened the floodgates) but also one of the best novels of its era, different from but as exquisitely readable – still – as the early works of Capote and Carson McCullers.

In later life Gore overdid the bitchiness and bitterness, perhaps disappointed by his failure to make it as a realm presence in US politics, the role he most craved. But his output as novelist, historian and essayist was prodigious. Other writers may have left a bigger footprint (Roth, Mailer, Updike, Irving), but Vidal deserves to admitted to the literary pantheon. He wouldn’t thank me for this, but he is probably, as Somerset Maugham is supposed to have said of himself, “in the very front rank of the second-raters“.

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About davidgee

I've worked in telecomms and journalism in London and the Persian Gulf, but have now settled back onto my native Sussex South Downs to a life of writing and rustic pursuits (pub-lunches and dog-walking!) I've published three novels:SHAIKH-DOWN, my comic 'blueprint' (fairly blue) for a revolution on an island in the Persian Gulf.THE DROPOUT: how does a sex-starved straight man deal with gay advances?THE BEXHILL MISSILE CRISIS: the Horseman of the Apocalypse rides his motorcycle into the lives of four middle-class misfits in October 1962.Extracts from these novels on my website:www.davidgeebooks.comLILLIAN AND THE ITALIANS is currently going the rounds of agents and publishers in the UK and USA. Hoping not to go back down the self-publishing road with this one.

5 Responses to “The First – And Still The Best – Modern Gay Novel”

  1. I have long believed the first homosexual novel to be ‘The Price of Salt’ by Patricia Highsmith. I say homosexual as a simple categorisation. Perhaps it would have been better to have said ‘Lesbian.’ Thanks for this splendid post. Interesting to read but also informative.

  2. Just Wiki’d Ms Highsmith, Russell. SALT was 1952, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN 1950, so Gore was still first with CITY/PILLAR 1948. Obviously Andre Gide came much earlier and probably isn’t thought of as ‘modern’ compared to Vidal and Mary Renault. MAURICE might be counted if Forster had dared to publish it in his lifetime, although it’s closer to the Gide/Wilde era than to ours. I’ve just ordered FINISTERRE (which I’d forgotten until a friend recalled it) and plan to reread CITY OF NIGHT and Baldwin’s ANOTHER COUNTRY. Any other suggestions/comments welcomed.

  3. Nice references, I tried to look up online but the eBook version are not available on iTunes. Amazon, not really a big fan of them. Will look up else where then.

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