Wednesday, 29 January 2014

A Room in Chelsea Square

A Room in Chelsea Square was first published anonymously in 1958. Its author was a charming but rather ineffectual young man called Michael Nelson (1921-1990). It is a book that excites very different responses. To some, it is a camp tour de force, full of wit and whimsy, a waspishly self-deprecating view of a certain type of homosexual circle from within its soulless heart or heartless soul. Some people find it very funny.
            To others, especially in the decade or so after first publication, it is a parade of negative representations of homosexual men, following many of the imposed, homophobic stereotypes of the age and ending with an obligatory, if somewhat peripheral, death. Falling into the hands of the isolated gay teenager, it was not likely to raise the spirits; it could not foster pride or solidarity. This is not a novel about what was then called the 'homosexual problem'. Nor is it about what so many publishers' blurbs used to refer to as 'the twilight world of the homosexual'.
            It contains no social defence of same-sex love. In that regard, it is not what one would happily call a 'gay novel' at all. It has not a single attractive and sympathetic character with whom the gay reader can identify. There is no plea for tolerance, let alone acceptance. If any of these characters are meant to be representative, the book can add nothing to an argument in favour of law reform. Although they seem never to be having sex with each other (that has to be assumed between the lines, where plausible), these are far from being the discreet, well-behaved, consenting-adults-in-private envisaged by the Wolfenden Report (which, in 1957, recommended reform of the laws on homosexual acts in England and Wales). They socialise in public places and behave with ostentatious sang froid. If hidden at all, they are, like Poe's purloined letter, hidden in plain sight.
            And yet, one might argue, it is the very lack of an affirmative or apologetic theme that is so impressive about it. Its main virtue is that it takes homosexuality completely for granted. There is anguish aplenty, but not about being gay. Most is about being unloved or unmoneyed. Perhaps that is the point: there are more important things to worry about—a poorly cooked meal, an ill-chosen tie—than the trivial matter of being queer.
            Other than by reading the publisher's blurb, how does the reader first learn that the book's central characters are gay? The narrator never says this of them. We do hear that Patrick was sent down from his Oxford college for calling the Warden 'an old-fashioned suppressed quean'; but not until later in the book—and then only by inference—shall we realise that this is also a pretty accurate description of Patrick himself.
            Only two words are ever used, throughout the book, to denote a homosexual man; and each is used only once. In the case just mentioned, Patrick uses 'quean' to insult an older man; and, much later, the newspaper editor Stuart Andrews refers to Ronnie Gras, mistakenly, as a 'pansy'. Never are any of the central homosexual characters explicitly referred to as such, either pejoratively or otherwise. Indeed, in the whole book, there is not a single explicitly positive reference to homosexuality at all.
            One other pejorative term does come up, if only by the implication of its opposite. When Patrick suspects Nicholas of having brought a woman back to the flat in his absence, he contemptuously refers to him, and to others of his ilk, as 'you normals'. He is wrong about this: for, as far as we can tell, Nicholas is as much of an abnormal as Patrick himself. This crude terminology is ultimately derived from a discourse that was especially powerful in the 1940s and 1950s, that of the mental health industry. It was an era when the skills of parenting were policed with constant references to the 'normal' and the 'abnormal' child. Despite his sense of his own superiority to popular culture, Patrick has internalised this discourse and is apparently happy to spit it out at one he supposedly loves.
            The date of publication (1958) places the book just after the Wolfenden Report (1957), recommended law reform (not to be achieved until a decade later). But this is misleading, since Nelson actually wrote it in the late 1940s. The early version was called A Room in Russell Square and its relationships were heterosexual (Patrick was an unlikely Patricia). One can see why it failed to find a publisher, lacking the unique selling point of its homosexual theme. The delay in publication also helps to explain why its few cultural references seem a bit out of date: W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, both of whom the character Christopher quotes, are more closely associated with the 1930s (at the end of which decade, Auden famously emigrated to the USA). A Rodin sculpture and a Picasso etching are mentioned—hardly the cutting edge of new art in contemporary London. This adds to a general impression that, notwithstanding their pretensions to cultural significance, these men are all marginal to London's real literary and artistic scenes. They are just a little bit out of touch.
            Popular culture is hardly visible at all. Nicholas does goes to the cinema, but we are not told what he sees. Only when his landlady has a few critical words to say about Diana Dors do we get the slightest whiff of what the majority of Londoners would have been consuming in their cultural lives. Only Christopher mentions anything that seems to have got into the book during its revision for publication in the late 1950s. At one point, he says 'I'm not an existentialist'. This is, characteristically, a statement not of philosophical principle but of incapacity—and, moreover, of incapacity for which he disclaims responsibility: 'No one has ever been able to explain it to me as a layman'. But at least he is aware of a trend.
            Christopher also says to Michael, who has served in the Royal Air Force, 'Living in the peaceful welfare state is terribly frustrating. You'll just have to join the ranks of the angry young men and suffer.' The birth-date of the British welfare state tends to be given as July 1948, when National Assistance, National Insurance and the National Health Service came into force. The writer Leslie Paul published an autobiography called Angry Young Man in 1951. His expression was then taken up to describe the characteristics, or the mood, of a generation. It became a particularly important epithet in reference to characters in contemporary drama. Christopher's remark seems to be guiding Michael towards the genuine  crucible of artistic activity in London, a long way further down the social scale than the snobbish Patrick.
            Common accounts of the immediate post-war period in Britain offer a diorama of unrelieved gloom: austerity, social conformity, surveillance, puritanism, Cold War paranoia, nuclear anxiety... But the characters in the book seem detached from this context: Patrick is rich enough to rise above it, and for as long as he enables them, his protégés follow him into a realm above income, almost above politics. What few political references there are might have been written in the original 1940s version or in the 1950s re-write. Lord Winterborn, whom Patrick regards as a 'mad socialist', is said to be still upset at not having been offered a Cabinet post by the 1945-1951 Labour Government of Clement Attlee. Stuart Andrews wonders if the government (but which government?) is going to call a general election—clearly, the sort of question an editor need to be asking himself. Patrick thinks Greece an unsuitable place to visit with his new protégé, presumably because of ongoing problems caused by British involvement in Cyprus.
            If it is satire, what is it satirising? There is too little identifiable social context for it to be a political commentary. Yet, for those in the know, it must have been a rather obvious roman à clef, based on the lives of easily identified, living members of the English literary scene. Michael Nelson had some experience of literary London, having worked as secretary to John Lehmann (1907-1987), a poet and the prominent editor of New Writing (later to be reincarnated as Penguin New Writing). It is clear that he had met enough of the literati to know how some of them operated, and it seems possible that he had been on the receiving end of enough of their disdain to have wanted to get his own back. How many readers will have been aware of it is open to question, but for certain insiders Ronnie Gras is based on Cyril Connolly (1903-1974), editor of the literary magazine Horizon. Patrick is based on Peter Watson (1908-1956), who had co-founded Horizon with Connolly, funded it and acted as its art editor. Christopher is based on the poet Stephen Spender (1909-1995), who also worked on the magazine. And Nicholas, fecklessly passive and lacking in initiative, is a rather unattractive (even if physically desirable) authorial self-portrait: a boy seeking an effortless entry to the world of the arts; or rather, to its upper stratum, where money is no object. (And, as we all know, that is not where any art of real quality is ever created.)
            The novel begins in a manner both outspoken and vague: 'He was very, very rich.' This is not exactly Jane Austen, whose opening paragraphs tend to locate her characters financially; but it does what it needs to. It tells us what people know about Patrick, why he is admired, and the source of his power over other men. He is the sort of man who returns to London because it is raining in Paris. He dislikes anything he cannot control. Nicholas is apparently closeted: 'I wish you wouldn't do that in public,' he says when Patrick tries to hand him some money in the bank; 'It makes me feel uncomfortable'. And yet, even while he is saying this, he has taken Patrick by the arm to lead him down the steps of the bank to his car. So it is not the mere fact of an intimate relationship that he is trying to hide, but a monetary arrangement. It is not that he fears being thought homosexual, but that he does not want to look like a kept boy. It is no accident, thinking of the inscription of identities, that the more tense moments in the incipient career of a semi-prostitute take shape around signatures: the counter-signing of a restaurant bill, the failure to sign a cheque... Patrick is probably better off with a working-class boy than with the likes of Nicholas. Thinking of himself as a Pygmalion-figure, an artist in the flesh, he needs someone he can manipulate, a male Galatea whose tastes and teeth he can re-shape to meet his own impossible standards.
            There is a rather chilling scene in which a valet attached to Patrick's apartment building intimidates Nicholas, clearly aware that he is just another in a line of younger men who have passed through Patrick's flat. Nicholas is so cowed by the insinuations of this man that he imagines he might say, at any moment, 'Come off it. Stop giving yourself airs. I know all about you. You're just another one-night stand. At least my job's steadier than yours.' Even without saying anything so impertinent, the valet exudes an air of menace, perhaps more of a threat to the absent Patrick than to Nicholas, whom he has identified as a mere transient and therefore of no consequence. Any man so patently in the know about Patrick's only flimsily discreet personal life is a potential blackmailer. The fact that this is not mentioned shows the extent to which Michael Nelson deliberately steps aside from the expected script about the position of the homosexual in society. Reading this scene in 1958, a homosexual reader would have shuddered of his own accord.

[This essay was written to serve as the introduction to the new Valancourt Press edition (2013) of Michael Nelson's novel.]

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