The love that dared not speak its name

Having returned to Singapore only last week after a long time, I have been catching up with the news. And one of the stories I have been following is the furore over two gay-themed books removed from the children’s section of the National Library.

I love the library and am sorry to see it and am sorry to see it getting its knickers in a twist with bloggers, writers and others raging against literary censorship. A blog post I read even drew a parallel with Nazi book burnings.

But I have one question: Can you name any great play or novel celebrating same-sex love?

This is not exactly related to the National Library controversy.

Reading about it, however, reminded me of the great range of literature.

Literature covers everything – from incest (Oedipus Rex) to paedophilia (Lolita). There’s any number of famous novels about adultery (Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary) and prostitution (Molly Flanders, Fanny Hill). Literature is not Sunday school. Even traditional children’s literature includes violence (Grimm’s Fairy Tales) and sex (The Arabian Nights translated by Sir Richard Burton).

But, offhand, I can’t think of any great novel or play on the same-sex theme.

Reading EM Forster’s A Passage to India, one would not call it a gay novel.

But it was inspired by his unrequited love for an Indian Muslim man, pointed out a recent article in the Guardian (EM Forster: “But for Masood, I might never gone to India”).

Damon Galgut wrote in the article:

His motive for going to India was to see Syed Ross Masood, a young Indian man whom he’d befriended in 1906 and with whom he was deeply in love. The affection was lopsided: Forster had twice declared his feelings, but Masood was straight and couldn’t reciprocate. Nevertheless, the two men were close, and when Masood completed his legal studies and returned to India, Forster followed a few months later.

Forster took 11 years to complete the novel, published in 1924, two years after a second visit to India in 1922, this time as private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas.

Galgut wonders why Forster took so long to complete the novel, which he dedicated “to Syed Ross Masood and to the 17 years of our friendship”. He would never write another novel.

Before finishing A Passage to India, Forster wrote another novel: Maurice. Published in 1971, a year after his death, Maurice is a gay novel, unlike A Passage to India.

But Maurice is not considered a classic, like A Passage to India. And, as we just noted, it was published only after its author died. “Forster resisted publication because of public and legal attitudes to same-sex love,” says Wikipedia.

Homosexuals could be jailed. Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labour for gross indecency. Alan Turing, the mathematician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist, avoided a jail sentence in the 1950s only by agreeing to undergo hormonal treatment to reduce libido.

Shakespeare’s sonnets raise an interesting question. Some of them are addressed to a young man, including the exquisite Sonnet XVIII:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

But, reading it, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s addressed to a man or a woman. There’s nothing homoerotic about it.

Attitudes may not have been very different in Shakespeare’s time. Edward II, in Christopher Marlowe’s play, angers his nobles by his open display of affection for his favourite, Gaveston.

The erotic element is pronounced in the first scene, which opens with Gaveston happily reading a letter from the newly crowned Edward II:

‘My father is deceast, come Gaveston,’
‘And share the kingdom with thy deerest friend.’
Ah words that make me surfet with delight:
What greater blisse can hap to Gaveston,
Then live and be the favorit of a king?
Sweete prince I come, these these thy amorous lines,
Might have enforst me to have swum from France,
And like Leander gaspt upon the sande,
So thou wouldst smile and take me in thy armes.

Both Gaveston and Edward II are eventually killed – and the latter’s son becomes king: Edward III.

There are memorable, what may be called “deviant” characters in literary masterpieces. For example, Balthazar the gay Jewish doctor and Scobie the pederast in The Alexandria Quartet. Dirk Bogarde gave a haunting performance as the ageing writer Gustav von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, filmed by Luchino Visconti, who falls in love with a beautiful boy, Tadzio.

But, by and large, the great love stories, acclaimed as literary masterpieces, are the old-fashioned kind, where a man meets a woman – and not, what until recently, was the love that dared not speak its name.

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