Thursday, 22 March 2012

'Could you marry me, Stephen?': Why Everyone Should Shut Up And Legalise Gay Marriage

Ugly cake toppers for all!
Today I'm going to take time out of my busy reviewing schedule to discuss something that I care a whole heap of a lot about: gay marriage.

Gay rights (and the fight for gay marriage) is very important to me. That's not just because some of my favourite friends and housemates happen to be gay and I want to go get drunk at their weddings, but because it seems so obvious to me that the combination of genitals possessed by a person and their partner can have no possible bearing on that person's goodness, decency and right not to get spat on in the street.

It beggars belief, to my mind, that anyone can honestly believe - as some people honestly do - that gay people either do not fall in love, or, if they do, that they do not deserve to be allowed to commit to that person and live peacefully and happily with them for as long as they both choose. The failure of empathy and imagination on the part of opponents of gay marriage is staggering. How can anyone who has ever had feelings for another human being not consider how they would feel if they were denied the ability to have a full and public relationship?

But, of course, these people don't, because as soon as the word 'gay' is mentioned all they can imagine is a ravening horde of rampant sex perverts, coming to infect all the heterosexuals in the world with a wicked gay virus. The fact that this has about as much likelihood of happening as we have of all flying to the moon on rainbow-coloured otters does not at all seem to strike them. Some people, let's face it, are idiots.

It's also important to remember, though, that some of the people who don't believe in gay marriage are not idiots. Despite all the goodwill they might have, most members of my mother's generation and above have to combat an enormous indoctrinated understanding that being gay is just plain bad. My mother tries so hard, and is technically extremely pro-gay rights, but all the same her default setting when faced with something gay is a sense of nervousness and slight embarrassment. I find it difficult to blame her. The belief system you grew up with will, to some extent, never leave you. (My father, almost a generation older, once greeted me on my return home with the news that he had just been 'massaged by a Turkoman'. What he meant was that a Turkish man had visited him for a physio session, but, er, it didn't quite come out that way, and I could not make him understand why his description of events might be slightly more problematic.)

Let's not listen to him
My point is that only one of these kinds of objections to gay rights ever has a chance of truly going away. There will always be idiots, but it's up to us to make sure that there don't have to be people who were brought up believing that being gay is wrong - and the only way to really ensure that is to give gay people exactly the same fundamental rights in law as their straight counterparts. We can't change all minds, for ever, but we can make sure that those minds that don't get changed are put on the wrong side of the law, where they belong.

Sure, you personally may not want to get gay married. If you are not gay, this is not a problem. Nor is it a problem if you are gay. No one forces straight people up the aisle, so gay people should likewise be free to stay single. But to make that choice, you have to have a choice to make. It's the same basic argument as for abortion: just because it's legal doesn't mean you have to have it. I personally wouldn't, but all the same I furiously defend other women's right to decide that they need to get one.

But why does all this matter? What's wrong with the way things are now? Gay couples have most of the same rights as straight couples, don't they, so what's the problem with just being different but equal?

Well, as soon as you consider the historical precident for 'differently equal' you'll see that it doesn't have the best track record. Yes, I'm being hyperbolic here, but my point is that picking out one group of people as negatively 'special' is a really, really bad idea. It sends subtle signals to the rest of the herd that those ones are weird. They're not like us normal people - and after that, the jump from 'not like us' to 'not as good as us' is actually barely a shuffle.

And, as is perfectly clear to me just from living my life that gay people bloody well are normal people. Some are fans of marmite, some are not. Some are good cooks and some are awful ones. Some crochet and some go to all night raves. There's no such thing as the gay 'type', there are just people who happen to be gay, and denying a person the ability to be who they are is just plain wrong.

Bringing the discussion round to literature (because I can't stay away from it for long), this week's reading for my Turn of the Century Representations of Sexuality module was, aptly enough, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, and reading it brought home to me, for about the thousandth time, how neverendingly important gay rights really is.

First published in 1928, The Well of Loneliness got tried and banned for being Too Lesbian - not entirely surprising, since it's astonishingly open and unapologetic about lesbianism, both in general and in particular.

Granted, I have some ideological problems with it - my own argument that there is no 'gay type' makes me disagree with a lot of the things it says. Hall was so desperate to prove that lesbianism was a natural state of being and not a choice that she used inversion theory, which basically says that lesbians are men trapped in women's bodies. It's an odd and vaguely offensive idea that's a sly pop at any woman who dares not to be ideally feminine: by the inversion theory, I, as a tall, awkward, clever girl who fences and likes to wear trousers, should be a pronounced and irredeemable lesbian. The fact that I'm not shows its very great flaws.

Today we'd be more likely to think that Hall's heroine, Stephen (yes, she's even got a man's name, it's not at all subtle) was probably transgendered, but - all that cranky stuff aside - the reason why The Well is still being read today despite its flaws is because it's astonishingly powerful on the subject of what happens when gay people are denied the chance to make a public committment to the person they love.

Don't get too close
Today we're more used to reading lesbian love stories with happy endings, but it takes a tragedy (and The Well of Loneliness ends very badly for all concerned) to really bring home how terrible it is to be a lesbian in a world without gay rights. Sarah Waters (who you should all read, by the way, she's great) writes historical romances where the lesbians miraculously find ways to be together, and she's not entirely wrong - there were plenty of lesbians who had long and happy partnerships. Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, for example, spent most of their lives living together as a couple in Paris - but it's important to remember two things about stories like theirs. First, neither of them actually were French - they were in Paris partly because they couldn't be together in their native country - and second, no matter how much Gertrude treated Alice like her wife (ie, kind of badly, I'm no great fan of Gertrude Stein's relationship style), she could never actually make her Mrs Stein. They had to keep their relationship a secret from the rest of the world for their entire lives - and the pressure of that secrecy, as The Well of Loneliness shows, was something that could absolutely destroy even the most loving relationship.

Stephen comes from a wealthy English family, and she's (female) heir to an enormous country estate, Morton. Because of this, her concept of love is particularly public - what she's looking for, consciously or unconsciously, is a Lady of the Manor to manage her home by her side. But of course, Stephen is a woman herself, and that means that her chances of being able to install any beloved of hers at Morton is absolutely nil. Actually, because she's a lesbian, she can't even live there at all - her mother kicks her out and she has to go into exile in (you guessed it) Paris. Stephen's sexuality means that she just can't ever hope to have the kind of relationship she needs, and so every love that she ever has ends up running into an impassible wall.

The Well of Loneliness reminded me how important publicity really is to a successful relationship. A huge part of being in a relationship is speaking about it. It's not just the landed gentry who want to show off their partners. I love my boyfriend because I think he is a marvellous human being. If I could I would stick a flashing sign over his head that said LOOK AT THIS PERSON. HE IS AMAZING. AND HE IS MY BOYFRIEND. HA HA. The thought of not being able to tell people that he is my boyfriend, and to talk about how proud I am of him, is completely terrible - but that's exactly the situation Stephen and the other lesbian characters in The Well of Loneliness have to live with.

The consequences of this kind of enforced secrecy are brought home again and again. Fairly early in the novel, Stephen falls in love with a woman who's already married. Stephen begs her to leave her husband, who she doesn't love and who's an utter pig. "But could you marry me, Stephen?" asks the woman - and obviously, with the best will in the world, the answer is no. Stephen's got nothing to offer her in exchange for the security of her present relationship, and from that moment you realise their affair is doomed.

Later, in Paris, another character's lifelong companion dies, and the woman wants to be able to bury her body. But who are you? asks the nurse. Are you family? The woman has to say that she's not. Legally, she's no one. She has no status as her girlfriend's lover and therefore no right to have anything to do with her death.

It doesn't have quite the same ring to it
Even when Stephen has found the love of her life, Mary, she's constantly tormented by the fact that she'll never be able to offer Mary the life that either of them wants. She loves Mary as much as a man would, but the fact that she's a woman means that she's incapable of actually proving it officially. The unhappy ending, it's implied, isn't either inevitable or necessary - or, more importantly, it shouldn't have to be. To Hall, the problem is obvious, and the solution to all that heartbreak is just as simple. Lesbians need to be allowed to get married.

It's pretty terrible that, more than 80 years after she wrote The Well of Loneliness, we're still hesitating and nitpicking over the issue. To me, and to Radclyffe Hall, it's so bloody obvious. Either you leave a large and inevitably present group of people to live miserable lives, or you let them be unoffensively and unobtrusively happy. End of discussion.

So, to conclude, please would you all fill out this Home Office survey about attitudes to the proposed gay marriage law, and also - and perhaps more importantly, in a holistic sort of way - please would you support gay marriage.

Better late than never.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Review - There But For The

Last November, in a flush of A. S. Byatt-induced excitement, I recommended my grandmother Angels and Insects. This was well-intentioned but (I realise now) a grave and awful error, because now whenever I communicate with her she asks me to tell her about something else just as amazing and I have nothing to say. Sad but true: it's been over four months since I've read any new fiction that I thought was really exceptional. All the good stuff has been required reading for my course (which proves that an English Literature MA has some use after all).

But - at long, long last- I think I've finally found something that approaches (even if it doesn't entirely reach) real excellence.

Just in time, because I was beginning to lose hope.

There But For The (no, I haven't missed a word, that's really the title) is the newest novel by Ali Smith, a writer who has previous form for being pretty great. My favourite thing by her is a novella she did for the Canongate Myths series called Boy Meets Girl, a retelling of the story from Ovid's Metamorphoses about a girl who problematically falls in love with another girl and then gets turned into a man by the gods so that they can get married. If that sounds like something the Republicans might approve of, don't worry. Ali Smith's version definitely isn't.

The basic premise of There But For The, in as far as it has one and isn't just a tenuously connected group of short stories (which I think is what it really is) is as follows. A man is invited to dinner at the house of people he doesn't know. The people turn out to be objectionable asses. The man goes upstairs and locks himself into their spare room and refuses to come out ever again.

Beginning of story.

Don't worry, you'll never find out why the man, Miles, does this. What you will hear about are all the people whose lives - indirectly or directly - have been made subtly better by Miles's existance both before and during his voluntary-imprisonment episode. It's all extremely tangential, and you've got to be sharp to pick up the threads that link each part together. Honestly, there are some hints I didn't get, and they're still bugging me now (is the first short story actually real, and if so how? What happened to May's daughter? Is Mark actually being haunted?) but I think that might be what Ali Smith is trying to do. Life (she's saying) is a bit weird and lumpy and nonsensical but all the same it's fascinating, and everything you find out just leaves you wanting to know more.

Granted, her portrayal isn't perfect. Smith has an annoying unwillingness to use speech marks like a normal (English language using) human being, and (more importantly) at times she gets far too wrapped up in a desire to be Relevant to Modern Life. Like most attempts, this just feels like somebody trying too hard to be serious and not managing it. At one point, for example, she has her characters talk about remote-controlled toy-sized drones that can kill you. Yes, yes, very horrifying, but the scene doesn't actually do anything as far as the novel is concerned. It's just there, being lazily right-on and making the reader feel smug about how much better they are than the idiot characters who think it's a good idea.

However, in the main I think Smith writes excellently, and it's the charm and drive of her writing style that carries There But For The along. She's got a flair for describing the weird in everyday life, and where I think Smith's particularly brilliant is the way she writes children. Her kids are alert, smart and casually bizarre in the way that actual children have. Children in books tend to be either tiny, unnerving adults or lisping poppets, whereas in real life they are like the little girl I saw on my way to Tesco's yesterday, who was running along shouting "CHEERS! CHEERS! CHEERS! GRAARGH!" to each of the lions on the underpass mural. Smith's children enjoy things like accessorising tiaras with combat trousers, hearing facts about medieval martyrdoms and standing on their hands while singing nonsense rhymes about the universe. In other words, they're normally abnormal, and it's incredibly refreshing.

As I've said, Ali Smith's more of a short story woman, and you can tell. There But For The's only real flaw in my eyes was its complete and utter lack of any kind of resolution. It began, stuff happened, more stuff happened and then it stopped. The situations she creates are so interesting, and her characters are so empathetic (the Bayoudes, especially, are wonderful), that for a while I seriously considered going over to Ali Smith's house, breaking in and rooting around under her bed to see if she'd left any more bits of story lying about.

What I'm trying to say is: I liked this book. After all the dodgy stuff I've been wading through lately, this one was delightful. It was charming, intriguing and a very smooth and engrossing read, and when I finished it I wished it had been twice as long. However, (just in case, in a mystical twist of the universe, Ali Smith happens to be reading this) a sequel would do just as well.

4 stars.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Review - Flaubert's Parrot

Oh readers, I am tired. As the wise man never said, but should have, if you fly to another country for 24 hours, and then immediately get on a train to the Midlands for another 24 hours, do not expect, when you finally get back to London, to be able to do anything more meaningful than sit and stare blankly at the wall. This week I had things to do and people to see, and I ended up just lying in a prone position and reading all 500 pages of Tipping the Velvet, because it was near me and I couldn't move and it turned out that my brain needed an enormous helping of delicious faux-Victorian literary comfort food to recover itself properly.

Whilst I was on my travels, though, I read something that (to continue the food metaphor) was not so much bountifully delicious as thin and sandy and requiring a lot of mental digestion. Flaubert's Parrot is by Julian 'Arthur and George' Barnes, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984 and appears on the (accursed) 1001 Books list. It is a book with pedigree, and from the very first page you can tell that it is going to be Very Clever.

To be fair to it, I think it required the kind of attention and brain-power that, at that particular moment in time, I wasn't able to give, and so it merely left me feeling Very Confused Indeed.

I have to admit, I thought Flaubert's Parrot was actually going to be about a parrot. Obviously, I am not postmodern enough. Fool that I was, expecting a linear story with a single viewpoint to the narrative! Actually, it's a clipped up and deconstructed let-me-dazzle-you-with-my-playful-erudition quasi-biography of Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary and also other less famous books.

Every chapter is presented differently - one's Flaubert's key dates done three ways, for example, and another's his life from the perspective of his mistress. The title comes from the fact that Gustave not only enjoyed comparing himself to animals, but may or may not have owned (or borrowed) a parrot, which may or may not now be on display in a museum, and may, in fact, be more than one parrot, which may (or may not) be in itself an amusing story. Julian Barnes thinks it is. I'm not so sure.

I think I found this book so difficult to like because of an early and never remedied failure to care about either Flaubert or his parrot(s). I suspect that Flaubert's Parrot would have worked an awful lot better had I come to it knowing anything at all about Gustave Flaubert apart from the fact that he wrote Madame Bovary. The reader (I think) is meant to experience a delighted recognition - ah! Flaubert, that old rogue! I never knew he liked camels/ wrote about soup/ went to Egypt! How jolly! - whereas all I experienced was a low-level but persistant annoyance and a general sense that I was Missing Important Jokes.

Flaubert's Parrot is one of those books in which an academic makes snippy, sniping in-jokes about other academics. This tends to either work beautifully (see: Possession) or go horribly, horribly wrong (see: most other books with this plot device). In this case, I think it went the way of the latter option. True, there are some good digs at critics who are needless nitpickers (I've read far too many articles like the 'What Colour are Emma Bovary's Eyes?' one he takes the rip out of), but the general effect is both elitist and oddly stressful. There's a particularly mad chapter where the narrator frantically defends Flaubert's honour as a writer against the (theoretically) hostile reader - but since I don't know anything about Flaubert, I personally don't have any complaints to raise against him. So why (I wondered) am I being yelled at? The whole project, in fact, comes over (or at least it did to me) as being just a little too cranky to be fun, too much of some random dude riding his weird little hobby horse all over my brain.

Actually, the narrator's slightly more interesting than I just made him sound. Geoffrey Braithwaite - a Flaubert enthusiast/maniac, of course - starts off seeming like he's just going to be a Julian Barnes avatar, an older middle aged white man who's a bit lonely and pedantic. But, just like in Arthur and George, Barnes pulls a smart little identity trick, and who Geoffrey is, and why he's writing about Flaubert at all, turns out to be, to some extent, the point of the book. I admit, it's clever, and when I finally got it I looked back on what I'd just read in an entirely different way.

But all the same, my overall impression of Flaubert's Parrot was of something far too clever-clever for its own good. I came out of it feeling, not that I was friends with Flaubert, but that Geoffrey Braithwaite was, and that Geoffrey Braithwaite was slightly crazy.

Not one to read lightly.

2.5 stars.