Smuggler: A Memoir of Gay Male Literature

By Kennicott, Philip | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Smuggler: A Memoir of Gay Male Literature


Kennicott, Philip, The Virginia Quarterly Review


"Then what are you complaining about?"

"About hypocrisy. About lies. About misrepresentation. About that smuggler's behavior to which you drive the uranist."

André Gide, Corydon, Fourth Dialogue

1.

1 REMEMBER MY FIRST KISS WITH ABSOLUTE CLARity. I was reading on a black chaise longue, upholstered with shiny velour, and it was right after dinner, the hour of freedom before I was obliged to begin my homework. I was sixteen.

It must have been early autumn or late spring, because I know I was in school at the time, and the sun was still out. I was shocked and thrilled by it, and reading that passage, from a novel by Hermann Hesse, made the book feel intensely real, fusing Hesse's imaginary world with the physical object I was holding in my hands. I looked down at it, and back at the words on the page, and then around the room, which was empty, and I felt a keen and deep sense of discovery and shame. Something new had entered my life, undetected by anyone else, delivered safely and surreptitiously to me alone. To borrow an idea from André Gide, I had become a smuggler.

It wasn't, of course, the first kiss I had encountered in a book. But this was the first kiss between two boys, characters in Beneath the Wheel, a short, sad novel about a sensitive student who gains admission to an elite school, but then fails, quickly and inexorably, after he becomes entwined in friendship with a reckless, poetic classmate. I was stunned by their encounter-which most readers, and almost certainly Hesse himself, would have assigned to that liminal stage of adolescence before boys turn definitively to heterosexual interests. For me, however, it was the first evidence that I wasn't entirely alone in my own desires. It made my loneliness seem more present to me, more intelligible and tangible, and something that could be named. Even more shocking was the innocence with which Hesse presented it:

An adult witnessing this little scene might have derived a quiet joy from it, from the tenderly inept shyness and the earnestness of these two narrow faces, both of them handsome, promising, boyish yet marked half with childish grace and half with shy yet attractive adolescent defiance.

Certainly no adult I knew would have derived anything like joy from this little scene-far from it. Where I grew up, a decaying Rust Belt city in upstate New York, there was no tradition of schoolboy romance, at least none that had made it to my public high school, where the hierarchies were rigid, the social categories inviolable, the avenues for sexual expression strictly and collectively policed by adults and youth alike. These were the early days of Ronald Reagan's presidency, when recent gains in visibility and political legitimacy for gay rights were being vigorously countered by a newly resurgent cultural conservatism. The adults in my world, had they witnessed two lonely young boys reach out to each other in passion- ate friendship, would have thrashed them before committing them to the counsel of religion or psychiatry.

But the discovery of that kiss changed me. Reading, which had seemed a retreat from the world, was suddenly more vital, dangerous, and necessary. If before I had read haphazardly, bouncing from adventure to history to novels and the classics, now I read with focus and determination. For the next five years, I sought to expand and open the tiny fissure that had been created by that kiss. Suddenly, after years of feeling almost entirely disconnected from the sexual world, my reading was finally spurred both by curiosity and Eros.

From an oppressive theological academy in southern Germany, where students struggled to learn Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, to the rooftops of Paris during the final days of Adolf Hitler's occupation, I sought in books the company of poets and scholars, hoodlums and thieves, tormented aristocrats bouncing around the spas and casinos of Europe, expat Americans slumming it in the City of Light, an introspective Roman emperor lamenting a lost boyfriend, and a middle-aged author at the height of his powers and the brink of exhaustion. …

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