The world is sick.
It is easy to think that when the COVID-19 death "tally" increases every day and reports suggest that as much as a third of the global population is currently living in some form of lock-down.
Here in Australia we are experiencing unprecedented limitations on how we can move about and who we can see. Some of us are lucky to be in a long-term relationship and intimacy is only a look or a joke away. Others are having a much more challenging time: not being able to see who they want, when they want, how they want, and why they want. Has love become even harder?
This week, while eating a homemade omelette for lunch (packed with mushrooms and feta), I decided to take my mind off the current troubles by watching a short film in which French philosopher Alain Badiou spoke about love being "a risky adventure".
Towards the end of the film, Badiou said two things that resonated with me: "Love creates a perspective and an existence in the world from the point of view of two, not one", which he described as a "revolutionary act"; and, evidently paraphrasing Spinoza, "All that is true and rare are difficult", which is a statement that reached right into my belly.
All that is true and rare are difficult.
Yes, that is love: wonderful, beautiful, messy, contradictory, infuriating, exciting, banal; and, in this challenging and sometimes unbearably heavy year, necessary.
Love is the domain of philosophy; it is also the domain of novelists and poets. There was a time, during my childhood and adolescence, when instructions on love came from a man in a black frock who was armed with a bible and a hymn book. Thankfully, these days my shelves are packed (ever more chaotically) with much better books.
Although I do not seek it out with any kind of fervour, gay literature is well-represented on my shelves, particularly gay novels. These works have provided me with experience, understanding, solace, antagonism, confusion, and, in the end, profound contentment. I never found profound contentment in nightclubs or tennis clubs or dinner parties, darling. I found profound contentment in novels, where the gay experience could shift and buckle and expand and explode; where it could be both ordinary and wondrous, and spectacularly alive.
The following are some novels that have indeed felt spectacularly alive.
When I first finished reading Timothy Conigrave's Holding the Man (originally published by McPhee Gribble in 1995), I grabbed the dog's lead and walked up a mountain - my world had shifted; I was also heart-broken. Although essentially a memoir, this book performs in a novelistic way as it chronicles the love between two Melbourne men, which began when they were attending an all-boys Catholic school.
Clearly Tim and John have a special bond, but it would soon be rocked by a disease that some at the time called "the gay plague". (AIDS/HIV would have an acute impact on my life, though not in the most obvious way, which is something I have been thinking about in recent weeks.) That Conigrave only just lived long enough to tell his story shattered me.
In 1997, on my 29th birthday, The New Yorker published a long short story called Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. The story would then be published as a small, thin, stand-alone volume, which I bought. Here was a narrative that felt as though it had been written specially for me, despite my never being a cowboy (literally, metaphorically, or in that clichéd Oxford Street sense). Two friends, powered by the Wyoming landscape, have a lifelong love that must be hidden from all but themselves.
These works have provided me with experience, understanding, solace, antagonism, confusion, and, in the end, profound contentment.
Here was a narrative that rose above the human body, as wondrous as it can be. Here was a narrative about emotion, and yearning, a deep - so very deep - drive to connect, to sustain each other no matter what. And, oh, the prose: "The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light; the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholz and split rock a bestial drone." Perhaps most remarkably, Brokeback Mountain had a political purpose: to knock The Marlboro Man, that harbinger of limitation and death, out of his saddle.
Two decades later, Andre Acimen punched me in the guts. On first blush, the central premise in Call Me By Your Name (2007) is typical of the field: a love affair between a late-teenage boy and a man in his 30s. However, awash in the ease and gloriousness of a summer holiday, Call Me By Your Name has a subtly more unique dynamic: Elio, the younger, is precocious, provocative, and daring, while Oliver is all calm intelligentsia. Fearlessly, the narrative travels into highly erotic territory, but, to my mind, there is more to admire in the evocation of place and art and the workings of the mind. If there ever was a truly three-dimensional novel about gay love and eroticism it is Call Me By Your Name.
Last year I read Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. Vuong is perhaps mostly known for his poetry, and his enviable skills in that form are on show in this, his first novel. Built on the conceit of a letter, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is an exploration of the multi-generational impacts of war, of the journey of the artist, of the inherently complicated - and sometimes mysterious - relationship between mother and son, of the power of addiction, and of the drive to experience intimacy and love, even in the most fraught of circumstances. Vuong has said in interviews that queer people have to "fail into pleasure". His novel makes that potently clear.
Going back in time, but staying with the poets, The Monkey's Mask by Dorothy Porter (first published by Hyland House in 1994) proves, with astonishing results, that a gay narrative could - and perhaps should - be a multitudinous thing. This is a verse novel; it is also a detective thriller. It is an exposé of upper-middle-class family life in Sydney, a satire on the sometimes precious, if not ludicrous, world of poetry, and it is a lesbian romance. It is also hilarious: "In love I've got no style / my heart is decked out / in bright pink tracksuit pants". That the humour is not the overblown camp of some gay fiction makes The Monkey's Mask incredibly refreshing, even after all these years.
What surprises me is that two of the above works were not written by "gay authors". It is surprising because currently there is a polarised debate about who can tell what story. How does Proulx create such profound lifeness from her two closeted male leads? How does Acimen go with Elio and Oliver to such dangerous places and live to tell the tale?
Because we are all defined yet undefined, maybe even indefinable. Because literature is both specific and universal.
And because we are all reaching out for connection, illumination, and love - however it comes and wherever we find it. Even in a sick world.
- Nigel Featherstone is the author of the novel Bodies of Men.