Wednesday, 16 February 2011

While England Sleeps

While England Sleeps by David Leavitt.
After reading the reviews of this book, and how gut-wrenching the ending was I thought I'd give it a go. I'd just re-read Forster's Maurice and was wanting a bit of a gay period story. Oh dear.
I know that it's possible to have a hateful protagonist, and for that to add to a book; but even horrible people need to grow, or at least go on some journey and be different at the end (even if they are still horrible). Brian Botsford does go on a journey, a literal one, and comes back the same. I was disappointed by the story. Upper-middle class writer briefly lives with a working class boy, treats him terribly, awfully, then realises he loves him. Kind of. Well, actually, no, "it would be twenty years until I even contemplated marriage between two men".
Part of why I didn't like it is the picture it paints of gay men. All gay men cheat, it seems to say; all gay men go cottaging, desperately. I'm gay and I do neither of those things. Alec Scudder didn't do those things, neither did Edward Phelan. What is Leavitt trying to say then? Upper class gays do? The story was a non-story, the main character didn't change all the way through.
I agree with other reviewers who say it's perfectly acceptable to have a villain as the protagonist, and to be able to enjoy that book or story - but I can't condone the way Brian treated Edward, his cowardice or lying, and worst of all: he learned nothing from his behaviour and its consequences, not even regret.
Read the book if you want to, there's lots of beautiful description in there, and there's no denying Leavitt is a good writer. Having read this, I doubt his storytelling abilities though. Every chapter ends with a wistful, forced image; much like a hollywood blockbuster: "I stopped being young", "Then the letter came", "As if it mattered. As if he weren't watching my every move".
The characters talk of Oscar Wilde, E.M. Forster, and it seems that Leavitt wanted this book to be a sort of Maurice or Wildean tale; it falls far short. It lacks the wit, tenderness and story that Forster or Wilde's works do.
I wish it had been great, I wish Brian Botsford hadn't been such a lazy, cowardly cheat; but it wasn't, and he was.

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