Saturday, April 12, 2008

Loneliness, madness

While it may end up being an important book in the gay canon, Mr. Clive and Mr. Page, Neil Bartlett's second novel, is not a greatly written work. Sure, it has all the dark dealings that have come to typify his writing. But it is nowhere near Skin Lane in its convoluted plot and 1920s' London setting.
The novel is narrated by Mr. Page, describing the incidents of four eventful days during Christmas time, 1924. This was the period of the worst repression against gays in England, with the memory of Wilde's trial still fresh. Homosexuality was illegal and anyone found indulging in "those acts" was incarcerated. In this scenario, Mr. Page, a regular visitor to the Turkish Baths in Jermyn Street meets one Mr. Clive, a spitting image of him, which may mean that they are long-lost brothers (or not). Clive is a fabulously rich man who comes to Jermyn Street ostensibly to get his cuff links stitched, but really, to measure his chances with men emerging from the Turkish Baths.

He invites Mr. Page to his house on Brooke Street
, a magnificent structure dating back to the nineteenth century. The novel is as much about the beauty of houses as it is about the beauty of men. (It starts with an account of Richardson, a well-known architect, who built a house on the South Side of Chicago in 1886.) Like Skin Lane, dreams play an important part in the story—Page begins to dream of the house and of Mr. Clive's handsome, blond manservant, Gabriel. Later, after the disappearance of Mr. Clive and Gabriel, Mr. Page is called up to give testimony into the "unmentionable things" that went on in the house. Here really, the dream-like sequence reaches its zenith, with the boundary between Page's fantasy and the reality blurring with rapid frequency.
Mr. Clive and Mr. Page is a far more optimistic work than Skin Lane, and therefore, also more forgettable. However, the two works share certain themes. Dreams as pointers to our desires, the loneliness and madness within the gay community, and the penultimate intense encounter between the main characters, heavy with sexual tension, that propels the books to their respective ends.

Now, read this.

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