Join 3,494 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Great (Gay) Novelist You’ve Never Heard Of
June 17, 2013 7:32 PM   Subscribe

"Great war novels inevitably follow great wars, and in literary circles following World War II, everyone was wondering what would be the successors to A Farewell to Arms and All Quiet on the Western Front — and who would write them. But when John Horne Burns, age 29, in his small dormitory suite at the Loomis School in Windsor, Conn., on the night of April 23, 1946 (Shakespeare’s birthday, at that), finished The Gallery — 'I fell across my Underwood and wept my heart out,' he later recalled — he was convinced he had done just that, and more. ‘The Gallery, I fear, is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century,' he wrote a friend." (SLNYT) (via)

Adapted from David Margolick's new book on Burns, Dreadful.

some things, books, and people mentioned in the article, selected arbitrarily in order of appearance

The Galleria Umberto I in Naples

Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

From Here to Eternity by James Jones

William Weaver, best known for translations of Calvino and Eco

The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

Lincoln Kirstein, General Director of the NYC Ballet from 1946 to 1989

John W. Aldridge, postwar critic

Studs Lonigan, a trilogy of novels by James T. Farrell

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane

William Congreve, popular Restoration playwright

Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener, on which South Pacific was based

Orville Prescott, prominent NYT book reviewer; refused to review or allow to be reviewed The City and the Pillar
posted by Rustic Etruscan (48 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
I just opened up this story in the Magazine on my kitchen table tonight. It starts out great, looking forward to reading it!
posted by Miko at 8:01 PM on June 17, 2013


Hey what about The Roads to Freedom?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:09 PM on June 17, 2013


Orville Prescott, prominent NYT book reviewer; refused to review or allow to be reviewed The City and the Pillar

Why?
posted by Gin and Comics at 8:19 PM on June 17, 2013


Cause gay.
posted by The Whelk at 8:19 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sounds more like a guy who wrote one good book than a "great novelist"
posted by thelonius at 8:22 PM on June 17, 2013


Kinda like Joseph Heller, say.

I dunno, a lot of people we call "great novelists" really only wrote one good book, and lots of mediocre ones. I love Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, and I might even say that about him. A lot the best novels in English were written by one-hit wonders.
posted by Miko at 8:23 PM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


A lot the best novels in English were written by one-hit wonders.

Crazt yalk!
posted by ericost at 8:26 PM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


I love Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, and I might even say that about him

Well, of course "Deadeye Dick" is a modern classic, but "Slaughterhouse Five" and "Cat's Cradle" were also pretty good.
posted by thelonius at 8:34 PM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


"one good book" is also, of course, one more than most writers manage.
posted by thelonius at 8:37 PM on June 17, 2013 [14 favorites]


Jane Austen managed five good books, and Mansfield Park. (There are fans of that one out there. they are crazy).

Flippancy over - why specify that he's was gay in the title? It is obviously pertinent to his biography, but putting it in the title of the article seems an unnecessary qualification.
posted by jb at 8:54 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Naked and the Dead was one of those books that changed my thinking. That's a WWII war novel, isn't it?
posted by KokuRyu at 9:12 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Flippancy over - why specify that he's was gay in the title? It is obviously pertinent to his biography, but putting it in the title of the article seems an unnecessary qualification.

Agreed. Besides, as Kurt Cobain once said...
posted by KokuRyu at 9:13 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I dunno, a lot of people we call "great novelists" really only wrote one good book, and lots of mediocre ones. I love Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, and I might even say that about him.
posted by Miko at 4:23 AM on June 18


God, I wouldn't. I'd say Vonnegut wrote at least three classics. Slaughterhouse isn't even his best novel, in my opinion.
posted by Decani at 9:26 PM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


I sincerely doubt the author wrote the title. That's typically handled by a line editor or some other such person, and so may not be especially germane to a discussion about the article, unless we want a side-discussion about the problems of having line editors compose titles.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:35 PM on June 17, 2013


Naked and the Dead was one of those books that changed my thinking.

And Mailer's first novel written after his service in WW2. Mailer also got a Pulitzer for Executioner's Song which he wrote decades later.
posted by three blind mice at 10:07 PM on June 17, 2013


Agreed. Besides, as Kurt Cobain once said...

With the lights out, it's less dangerous?
posted by Jimbob at 10:09 PM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Waif me?
posted by item at 10:16 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ohhh. Great warrior.
[laughs and shakes his head]
Wars not make one gay
posted by Smedleyman at 10:23 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, a guy who wrote one good book, BFD. I mean, granted, it was À la recherche du temps perdu, but still .....
posted by blucevalo at 10:25 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Flippancy over - why specify that he's was gay in the title? It is obviously pertinent to his biography, but putting it in the title of the article seems an unnecessary qualification.

Because it implies that it's pertinent to why he and his novel (which surfaced some unexpectedly mature -- for the time -- gay themes) are relatively unknown.
posted by treepour at 11:35 PM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Like a vast majority of G.I.’s, Burns never saw combat: thanks to his fluent Italian (and German and French), he was channeled into military intelligence, which for him meant reading and censoring the letters of Italy’s captured, homesick soldiers. The only weapon Burns ever wielded was an X-acto knife.

Norman Mailer wasn't gay - but he did see combat with the U.S. Army's 112th Cavalry Regiment during the Philippines Campaign and surely that was part of his success as an author. Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden when the bombs fell. Hemmingway served as an ambulance driver during WW1. In addition to real combat experience, all three were huge personalities in their own right.

Readers want more than a crisp story from their favourite authors.
posted by three blind mice at 12:31 AM on June 18, 2013


I think he is unknown not because he is gay, most authors and books are unknown, even the good ones. The idea that gay = squashed by history is contradicted by other famous gay writers, Oscar Wilde for example. If he was reviled by his peers he went out of his way to insult everybody and then produced sub-par work to boot (after the first novel). Anyway, he was re-published in 2004 by NYRB which is a rarefied shelf of "known" (short of LoA).
posted by stbalbach at 12:53 AM on June 18, 2013


three blind mice: "Readers want more than a crisp story from their favourite authors."

Have you read the book?
posted by krinklyfig at 2:02 AM on June 18, 2013


stbalbach: "The idea that gay = squashed by history is contradicted by other famous gay writers, Oscar Wilde for example"

Oscar Wilde ended up in prison for two years for being gay. He lived in Ireland, England and France in the 19th century; he did not live in the US in the 20th century. His only novel was The Picture of Dorian Gray, which didn't include gay themes, nor did his other major works.
posted by krinklyfig at 2:14 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Agreed. Besides, as Kurt Cobain once said...

Fuck reading, get me more scag.
posted by marienbad at 2:18 AM on June 18, 2013


He’s kind, too, to the unnamed G.I. who lands in a venereal-disease ward for syphilis, surely because Burns contracted the disease after sex with what he called a Neapolitan “dreadful” — the campy slang term for “gay” he used in his letters to David MacMackin, a gay student back at Loomis to whom he supplied what was surely the richest and most candid descriptions ever of gay life in the American military during World War II.

Are these letters collected or anywhere still available? That sounds fascinating (and isn't Loomis a prep school, so these were all to a high school aged student of his?)
posted by Chipmazing at 3:16 AM on June 18, 2013


The great unsung WWII books is, of course, Harold Humes' The Underground City. As far as I know, he wasn't gay (he had four daughters).
posted by TheRaven at 3:46 AM on June 18, 2013


I love biographies and memoirs. Along with introducing me to Margolick's book, thanks also for the link to Biographile. Looking forward to discovering other good reads over there.
posted by marsha56 at 4:07 AM on June 18, 2013


Readers want more than a crisp story from their favourite authors.

Indeed. I don't read anything unless I know its author could do at least twenty handstand push-ups at a moment's notice.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:58 AM on June 18, 2013


Besides, as Kurt Cobain once said...

You can eat fish, cuz they got no feelings?
posted by 3.2.3 at 5:00 AM on June 18, 2013


Oof. Tough crowd in here. I think The Gallery is a pretty good book, and I'm glad it's getting some new interest thanks to Margolick's biography of Burns. It's one of those massive sprawlers that tries to take in everything, building up a huge picture with these pointillist pen-portraits, exactly like Dos Passos did, until you're just overwhelmed with the noise and conversation of these voices, all discussing sex and death and religion and class and identity and war and home. I'm well out of my depth discussing if something is or isn't 'gay fiction', whatever that is (although my copy came via the "Lavender Menace" bookshop in Edinburgh), but I agree with Margolick that Burns' own identities are central to the novel, and the scenes at Momma's are of considerable power, in so far as they normalise the homosexuality of the soldiers there: their lives are depicted in just the same register as all the other characters in the book, and their routines and interior lives are just the same as those around them, which was (it's depressing to realise) a very unusual thing to be writing in 1946.

If anyone's interested in the specific context of The Gallery, there are a couple of other very good novels about this particular time and place in the Second World War, with Allied troops flooding Italy and fighting in the dog days of the war and staying on in its immediate aftermath: Eric Linklater's Private Angelo and (especially) The Girl on the Via Flaminia by (the wildly neglected) Alfred Hayes.
posted by hydatius at 5:04 AM on June 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Metafilter: Oof. Tough crowd in here.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 5:23 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wasn't saying that the book isn't good (haven't read it, sounds interesting) or that it isn't significant because of its depiction of gay life in the war. But my reaction to the title was to feel like it was a qualification, implying that he's only a significant writer because he was gay, or that he was good "for a gay writer". We don't talk about Heller as a great straight writer or a great male writer. I think the title "great writer few know" could have stood on its own.

But good point that the author of the article probably didn't write the title - and maybe this title will draw the attention of people who have a specific interest in LGBT fiction. (I don't think it's totally irrelevant to any discussion of the article, because titles are a big part of the way media is framed and part of the depiction of the subject).
posted by jb at 5:34 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


His only novel was The Picture of Dorian Gray, which didn't include gay themes

...Granted, you have to squint harder to see them in the revised one-volume edition than in the original magazine publication, but hoo boy, gay themes. Enough so that the novel was used against Wilde at his second trial.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:15 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I saw the piece in the NYT a few days ago, I realized that I would've skipped right over it if it had been another headline announcing a previously unknown "great novelist" with no qualification. Because, honestly, so what? The NYT announces discovery of yet another great (straight, white, male) novelist. Film at 11.

So I was happy with the parenthetical; it made me want to read it, especially since the photo made hinted further that he was not just some contemporary gay guy writing away in his loft in Chelsea (or wherever the hip gay neighborhood is these days). He was a gay man writing about things that should be whispered behind closed doors, at a time when being known to be gay could get you jailed or thrown in a mental hospital or worse.

From the article: for someone as evasive about his own sexuality as a gay man of his generation had to be — ostentatiously “dating” and pretending periodically to have a fiancée — it was more than a startlingly ringing endorsement of gay culture; it was an act of enormous and atypical, almost inexplicable, courage.

That.
posted by rtha at 6:21 AM on June 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'd say Vonnegut wrote at least three classics

I picked a controversial example on purpose, but "de gustibus" and all that.
posted by Miko at 7:30 AM on June 18, 2013


I was just out of the army, using GI Bill to go to college. I disliked the literature we had to read. Finally, a friend said: you are reading backwards. You study the classics and they do not connect to you as yet. Begin by reading your contemporaries. He gave me a copy of The Gallery...I loved the novel and went on to get a PhD in literature.
posted by Postroad at 7:30 AM on June 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


good point, rtha - probably I'm wrong. I was more interested in the article because of the parenthetical too, because I'm interested in LGBT literature.
posted by jb at 7:30 AM on June 18, 2013


They, or at least the officers among them, are invariably animal-like, with double chins, potbellies and jowls, squiring around their mistresses while their wives wait for them blithely back home. They stand in marked contrast to the Italians, whom Burns depicts as courageous and resilient: to him, Neapolitan whores are far more simpatico than the most upright Red Cross volunteers.

This raises my suspicions right off the bat. Nine portraits and not one goes against type? I'll have to take a look, of course, but Margolick is not helping the guy's case here.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:42 AM on June 18, 2013


Raises your suspicions of what? What case is not being helped, and by whom?
posted by rtha at 8:07 AM on June 18, 2013


Oscar Wilde ended up in prison for two years for being gay. He lived in Ireland, England and France in the 19th century; he did not live in the US in the 20th century. His only novel was The Picture of Dorian Gray, which didn't include gay themes, nor did his other major works.

James Baldwin fits all your requirements and he was African-American too, but the better question is probably not if a gay writer can make it, but if a gay writer has a harder time making it.
posted by ersatz at 9:16 AM on June 18, 2013


Radcliffe Hall got her unabashedly lesbian novel published in 1928. It was immediately banned as obscene, but I think that may have actually helped both its notoriety but also kept it in the public imagination. I recently attended a lecture about queer history in Toronto, and the banning of The Well of Loneliness didn't just bring the novel but also lesbianism in general into the mainstream Toronto press for the first time. Also, a great book, totally worth reading.
posted by jb at 1:02 PM on June 18, 2013


The Toronto Star even quoted a scholar from Britain who talked about homosexuality as a normal part of the human experience. That's not quite the same as the Star taking a sympathetic stance towards the novel, but I was super-impressed that they quoted someone with a sympathetic view.
posted by jb at 1:04 PM on June 18, 2013


Wars are great?
posted by yoga at 1:42 PM on June 18, 2013


Big wars, such as those in which people die all over the world, can indeed be described as great.

Similarly, Ivan the Terrible was in fact a competent administrator.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:55 PM on June 18, 2013


why specify that he's was gay in the title? It is obviously pertinent to his biography, but putting it in the title of the article seems an unnecessary qualification.

If you don't specify (gay), there's an invisible, though unavoidable, gigantic assumption of HETEROSEXUAL. It's okay to specify gay.

His only novel was The Picture of Dorian Gray, which didn't include gay themes,

I stammer. I gasp. I try to find words to respond, but can't. I conclude you didn't really read the book, or don't know what "gay themes" are.
posted by MoxieProxy at 1:57 PM on June 18, 2013


This is a really good article, which beside offering a great book recommendation, can lead one down a lot of internet rabbit holes - after an hour I still have about a quarter to finish.
posted by unmake at 4:48 PM on June 18, 2013


Finally read it. Interesting piece. You kind of want to know more - whence sprang this guy's pathological arrogance and anger?
posted by Miko at 5:59 AM on June 19, 2013


« Older Amazingly detailed replica of the Friends Apartmen...  |  Lately, I've had some doubts a... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments