Some of the best books to have been written about the male gay experience in the past hundred years have been written by women. Here are ten of my favourites. (And it would be considerably more difficult to find ten books about lesbians by male novelists that weren’t salacious or simply puzzled. I wonder why?)
The second of Mary Renault’s extraordinary trilogy about Alexander the Great, this one tells the story of the conqueror’s adult years from the viewpoint of his Persian slave, Bagoas, captured, transformed into a eunuch and given to the young Macedonian warrior-king, with whom he falls slowly, and despite himself, in love. Renault takes a minor character in historical terms and weaves a tale of passion and heroism that says more about individual pride and the battle it fights with devotion, power and the responsibility it brings, and the sheer force of naked ambition against a resisting world than any other novel I can think of. It’s also made me cry more often than any other book, and in a wider variety of places, including a stolen Mini in Cornwall and a second-class railway carriage between Milan and Venice.
2. Brokeback Mountain: Annie Proulx
This one comes close to The Persian Boy in its unfailing ability to reduce me to tears, although they’re rawer and angrier than those evoked by Renault’s novel. It’s difficult now to separate the original story from the film, but the punch of the written word is harder, and bruises more deeply, than even that of Ang Lee’s great adaptation. It’s a story about love, about love against the world and about the ways that love can make both heroes and cowards of us. The conflict between the two men at its heart is implicit in their names, which give both men the lie: Jack Twist, who never wavers, whose love for Ennis is constant and insistent; Ennis Del Mar, who refuses to adapt, sea-like, who refuses to go with the flow. I can’t take a shirt off a hanger without welling up. It’s also taught me the hardest lesson of all: What can’t be cured, must be endured.
3. The Last of the Wine: Mary Renault
I know, this is the second Renault, but, believe me, I am trying to keep things under control; I could have filled this list with her work. (Don’t even mention The Praise Singer!) The Last of the Wine is set in Athens against the background of the Peloponnesian War. Socrates and Plato are peripheral figures to the action, which centres on the adventures, and misadventures, of Alexias and his lover, Lysis, but central to the sense of both this and the subsequent book, The Mask of Apollo. Renault takes on the big issues – love, freedom, responsibility – in all her work, and nowhere more effectively than in this one, where she has some difficult things to say about democracy and its limitations.
What makes this book so good is that Yourcenar’s decision to occupy the mind and voice of Hadrian never smacks of ventriloquism, and, to my ear, never rings false. Tone-perfect, the letter to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, another philosopher-emperor (briefly seen in the bodily form of Richard Harris at the start of Gladiator), narrates the life of Hadrian, ruler, architect of Rome’s (and, in my opinion, the world’s) most wonderful building, the Pantheon, and modest enough to attribute the work to someone else, lover, protector and distraught survivor of Antinous, the classical world’s most gorgeous golden lad, immortalised in a hundred statues, a man even Plato might have been proud of. It’s a book that describes a man, but also an age.
5. The Catch Trap: Marion Zimmer Bradley
Mists of Avalon is an extraordinary book, as are many of Zimmer Bradley’s science fiction novels, but she can also set her work in less distant times and places, as this novel, now sadly out of print, makes clear. Set in a travelling circus in the 1950s, the novel’s a saga about family, work and love. It’s fascinated by the details of circus life, communicating that fascination powerfully to the reader, but at the heart of the novel is the issue of personal responsibility and gay identity. It’s a brave novel, with two brave men at its heart, and not only because it faces square-on the seduction of a fourteen-year-old boy in a realistic, non-judgemental way. It also has a brilliant walk-on part for a Hollywood actor who may be a thinly disguised Rock Hudson. Or could that be Roddy McDowall?
An extraordinary book, set in the English Civil War, and one of the best examples I know of that rare creature – a novel that thinks its way into another mindset entirely. It also has the courage to cast as its central figure a man who is unaware just how unpleasant and pathologically unstable he is. No novel does sexual obsession better than this one, and the fact that there is no name for what its hero feels, and no way of defining it other than in the language of revelation, only makes it more claustrophobic. It’s also, although perhaps it shouldn’t be, a very sexy book indeed. All of which makes The Wilding, McCann’s second book, pace Richard and Judy, an even bigger disappointment.
7. The Front Runner: Patricia Nell Warren
Paul Newman is supposed to have bought the option on this, as a follow up to Butch Cassidy and The Sting, but Redford thought it might damage his macho image and the film was never made. Redford’s loss, Gyllenhaal’s gain, although the climate in Hollywood in the 1970s may have been a little less ready for overt homosexuality than it was thirty years later. It’s a great book, though, adult, realistic, erotic, a book that opened out ways of being gay that weren’t otherwise available in mainstream fiction. It’s a book that modern-day sports fans and sportsmen – with the noble exception of Gareth Thomas – could still profitably read. Free copies at the London Olympics, anyone? (By the way, the cover reproduced here is the one I first bought, years ago. Memories of a time when the male body was a rare sight…)
8. The Talented Mr Ripley: Patricia Highsmith
No one does amorality better than Highsmith, or embodies it more effectively than her greatest protagonist, Tom Ripley. What she gets so perfectly is the ambivalence between wanting someone and wanting to be someone, between desire and usurpation. Ripley isn’t content to fall in love with Dickie Greenleaf, or even admit the truth of this to himself, other than as a sort of aspiration to what the other man has, and is. And possession, for Ripley, is ten-tenths of the law, even if it means the death of the loved one. It’s not Mary Renault, or Yourcenar come to that, but it’s a powerful gay theme and one that’s explored, albeit obliquely, in the next book on my list.
The book that convinced me I didn’t need to write my own gay vampire novel when I first read it, almost immediately after it came out (what drew me to it, I wonder now). No one seemed to understand more clearly than Rice what it meant to live as an outsider, forced to live beyond the boundaries of society through a twist of fate, and to slowly learn how to relish the freedom and lack of societal constriction that exclusion gave. It was allegory, I knew that, or thought I did, but most of the vampires were also, just to make things clear, gay as well. A difficult path for a young man, both victim and avenger, unchained spirit and utterly dependent on the other for sustenance – still, it seemed like a good idea when I was a callow youth, fresh out of full-time education, hungry for blood…
10. The Cutting Room: Louise Welsh
This is just the kind of stuff I like, both dark and thoughtful, set not in New Orleans or the backstreets of revolutionary Paris, but in modern-day Glasgow. The brilliantly-named Rilke (Duino Elegies?) finds himself enmeshed in a web of deceit, murder, pornography; just the job for a hard-drinking, hard-living, tough as nails, gay auctioneer… The book’s violence is anything but gratuitous, and its study of why and how one man avoids intimacy makes for compelling reading. As someone who’s also used the crime genre to speculate on sexual loneliness and violence (that’s right, obligatory plug for Any Human Face), I’m very impressed by Welsh’s take on both.