I first learned about this book when I was perusing an academic essay written by a famous English professor from Mainland, published in a very authoritative journal-a bold move indeed even in 2012. Although I am never much of a fervent researcher deeply into intricative and evasive academic jargons in those articles, this is quite a bold move, if you consider the conservative atmosphere concerning gay subjects and many others, to have your toes dipped in a theme as tabooish as gay literature, which perhaps can only be pardoned and normalized if you have already stood in a high position in academic hiarachy yourself. Anyway, the professor ranked the book with Ruby Forest, claiming them to be the very pioneers of the gay literature in America. Since Ruby Forest mainly deals with lesbian literature, I was drawn to the City and the Pillar naturally, hoping to read it as soon as possible, yet it turns out the E-version of it is so hard to hunt down, so the plan of reading it was swept to some dim corner of my memories, in which a lot of to-do lists were stored, all of them encumbered either by limited resources or simply weak velocity.
But several weeks ago I managed to get a paperback of this book,mailed from the U.K., and another several weeks passed, until today, a sunny afternoon and a warm evening, I finished reading it, including twice of the preface by the author wrtiten in 1993, about half century after the book was published.
And this reading is worth it.
Gay literure, though hard to pin down its definition, argued by many that it existed almost as old and as pronounced(e.g. Gilgamesh) as the first literary masterpieces spoken or written by humans, for most part of the time until modern history, kept its head low, nudged in a safe corner, and it more often than not takes an insider to decipher those evasive lines and references to bodies and eros, to see the carefully codified queer theme beneath. Yes there are Achilles and Patroclus, naked male torsos in Walt whitman and Melville's books, but they stayed in the periphery, the center always being held by straight common readers and equally common critics, applausing their high-brow literarines, and at the same time regretting the undue "homosexual obsenities", claiming them briefly as insignificant smudge of great men and soon get them dismissed. As for19th century literature, if you are a sensitve and careful reader, you could always find that gay love is portraited beautifully, and safely, in those idyllic farm lands or uninhabited wild sea, gay men content and innovative in a corner to themselves, but always de-centered, dimly, obscurely.
This voiceless picture is bound to break, yet who will take the courage to strike the first revelation? Surely, an explicitly gay-themed novel wouldn't raise a brow in 1960s, but for Gore Vidal, a young man raised up by a decent politican grandfather, served and honored in the second world war, then having built up his reputation for publishing two war novels, writing a book depicting gay life in 1940s and putting it publicly and solely is really a brave thing to do. and he did it based on his "honor." He did an amazing and honest job, and therefore we honor him to this day, for his ground-breaking candor and valor, and of course talents and daring analysis of himself, and of others.
This is, to some extent, a book of ideas, communicating the ever-lasitng themes frequently visited in modern books, especially queer ones: identity, belongings, searching,change, wants, desires, and a bunch of displacements, brief fill to the brink of life and eternal unhappiness. Yet the book also takes great pain to portrait in its canvas what really took place in the 40s American cities, and the world-there are two or three chapters I was immersed in the hot and listless summer in South America. Gore is reputed as an author of history novel, and he built not only his characters but also the places with such authenticities and thickness, both rarely seen in nowaday novels and surely to be missed by modern readers who lead a kind of fragmented existence.
Jim Willard, sustained by his teenage ideal and dreamy love for Bob Ford, went through the sea, the big war, the saultry California and then the metropolitan and a very, very queer New York. He may get drawn to the temptations, but his loyalty, or faith to Bob never wavered. Unfortunately, an uncompromising pursuit for love is doomed to be bent by life, when he found that it's impossible to achieve his ideal in this regulated, straight world, he chose to destroy-both what he treastured all through his life and himself, back into the earth, or the roaring river, where he could merge into the sea, his hope finally realized, be free, and move on again.
During the book, Gore managed to spill out a crop of anecdotes about the famous literay figures back then, and the exact portrait of California movie industry and military is accurate and engagingly arrayed. At least to me, 40s is never a blurred period anymore, which could be alive and gay and roaring than it appears to be. Start looking forward to my second novel.
Recommend everyone who's interested in queer literature to read this. vivid life scenes, beautiful views, physical and natural, and the language, wit, sensitive and sympathetic.