“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

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“From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

The advice for dealing with your problems is often to suck it up and deal with them as best you can, rather than hiding away under the duvet, never mind which you’d rather do. I, however, am of the belief that aside from things like earthquakes, forest fires, or the person you were about to break up with kneeling in front of you with a wedding ring in hand, there aren’t many problems you can run away from, just for a little bit, or just until you’re stronger and have been able to regroup your thoughts. Arthur Less, the hero of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, appears to be of a similar opinion.

Less is about to turn fifty and not handling it very well. His publisher has just turned down his latest novel, and the man he loved for nine years is about to marry someone else. When Less receives an invitation to the wedding, he is faced with a conundrum. If he accepts, it would be too awkward. If he turns it down, it looks like defeat. Instead, he turns to a stack of other invitations he’s been ignoring; an interview panel in New York, an article in Japan, a series of lectures in Germany, an award ceremony in Italy. Apologising that he’ll be out of the country, Less heads off on a world tour.

You can, however, only run so far, and Less discovers that maybe he’s not so happy away from the action. As he catapults himself across continents, he finds himself continually struggling against misunderstandings, language barriers, lost suitcases and the barbed comments of old acquaintances. And rumours follow him too, of a scandal at the wedding he’s missing, but no one will tell him what happened. Less is left with a lot of time to think about his past and what really matters in life.

Simultaneously tragic and comical, it’s rare that a comic novel wins such a prestigious award. It’s not a fast book, and reads rather like much other literary fiction, but in a delightful twist of fate, it actually has some jokes in it. Less is immensely likeable – an innocent, sweet and nice man, who is beset by misfortune as wherever he arrives he gets the wrong end of the stick, loses something important, mistakes a situation, and is never on time to see or experience the best of the place he’s at. For example, he’s in Mexico on the day their grandest museum is closed. He’s too early in Japan for the cherry blossom, and too late in Germany for the autumn festivals.

As Less puts more and more distance between himself and the problems he’s trying to ignore, they do their best to make sure he can’t forget about them entirely. Indeed, the further away he goes, the more intense his emotions become. He tries to have affairs, and works on his rejected novel, but mostly he worries about his age. Fifty isn’t particularly old, especially not today, but at one point he laments that being fifty is like you’ve only just understood youth, and then it’s snatched away from you, like how on the last day of a holiday you finally work out where to get the best lunch or see the best views, but it’s too late and you’ll never be going back. Greer paints beautiful landscapes too, making the cities that Less visits a big part of the story in themselves, almost characters too.

While it is funny, above all I found the book very poignant. I came close to tears a few times with the sheer sadness and feeling of loss and loneliness that saturates the pages. Those around Less aren’t nearly as sympathetic as he is, adding to how alone he feels surrounded by people he views as being more attractive, more successful and more wanted than he is. He’s one of the most endearing characters I’ve come across all year, and I feel a huge amount of affection for him. The novel ends with several unanswered questions, and I really do hope that he is happy once the book is over. But it’s not for us to see.

Charming, funny and very moving.

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“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman (2007)

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“‘Later!’ The word, the voice, the attitude.”

I’ve been away at a wedding this weekend, and a trip away always requires at least two books to be packed. As it was (and as I think I expected) I had hardly any time to read, so most of this was completed once I was back. It felt right to take a romance with me to a wedding, and this one ties into the fact it’s Pride Month, too. Where better to spend a few days at this time of year than the Italian Riviera. Come with me, let’s go.

It’s the late eighties, and seventeen-year-old Elio has just met the man who’ll be staying with his family for the summer. His parents take in a lodger every summer, someone who is working on a book and needs time and space to write. This year, it’s Oliver. He’s twenty-four, intelligent, effortlessly cool, and utterly beautiful. Elio is smitten from almost the moment Oliver gets out of his taxi and becomes conflicted about whether he should make his feelings known. Oliver is at times friendly and perhaps encouraging, but at others distant and determinedly ignores Elio, who begins to wonder if he should start a relationship with the local girl Marzia instead.

As the weeks progress, the two young men grow closer and become more entangled in one another’s lives and emotions. The six weeks of the summer may not mark a particularly long time on the calendar, but they will forever change Elio and Oliver as they seek out true intimacy for the first time, and maybe the last.

At its heart, the book is simply about the difference between sex and intimacy and how they can easily be confused. Pure intimacy is perhaps the rarest relationship one can have with another human, and while at times you could argue that Elio tries to force it here, there’s no denying that they do have something pretty special, if at times somewhat bizarre. Although the sex scenes with them together are kept discreet and half-hidden, there are still enough scenes of Elio pleasuring himself – often in fetishistic and unusual ways – to counterbalance.

Anyone of any sexual stripe will be familiar with this sense of lust; a longing for someone that you can’t be sure returns the feeling. This being literary fiction, however, the characters are not necessarily people we know, even if their emotions are. Elio is precocious at seventeen, transcribing music and blending artists together for his own compositions. Oliver teaches at Colombia and spends most of his time in Italy working hard on his new book. The characters around them all have an other-worldly sheen, too, as if the Riviera polishes everyone to a high gleam and makes even their faults look more acceptable.

As for the prose itself, like much literary fiction, the book is awfully fond of itself and its use of extensive paragraphs that detail very little action at all. Elio spends much of his time fretting and while he’s not unpleasant as a person, some may find him beginning to grate after a while. Fortunately, the book’s wise words and descriptions of life are rather good. It’s also notable that despite being a book about two gay lovers, I don’t think the words “gay” or “love” make a single appearance. The book is open and aware of bisexuality, which is a novelty, and does its very best to avoid labels. Love is love, after all.

A warming and thoughtful novel, which can make even the hardest heart believe in the worth and power of intimacy.

“The Swimming-Pool Library” by Alan Hollinghurst (1988)

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swimming-pool“I came home on the last train.”

I’ve never really understood what is meant by “literary fiction”. That is, I understand what books generally get classed as such, but I’ve never understood why. It feels snobbish, and implies a seriousness about the works that renders “genre fiction” – all the really good sci-fi, fantasy and crime – somehow beneath these “proper books”. I only mention this, because Alan Hollinghurst is one of those writers who is apparently writing literary fiction, and yet still seems accessible and good fun. I read The Line of Beauty a few years ago and enjoyed it, so I thought I’d pick him up again, and the fact that this title contains two of the places I most like to spend time, it felt like I was on to a winner.

Will Beckwith is young, gay, jobless and horny. Living off the vast wealth of his family and not bothering to make himself into a useful member of society, he spends every day swimming at the Corinthian Club and sleeping with the men and boys that he finds there. One day while potentially soliciting in some public toilets, he saves the life of an elderly peer who collapses. When he finds the man, Lord Nantwich, at his swimming club, he finds himself befriending the old man. But there is more to this than mere friendship, and Nantwich has a job in mind for young Will.

Nantwich wants someone to write his biography before he dies, and so hands off all his old diaries and notes to Will to read through and see if he’s up for the task. In between bedding his latest beau, the muscular and shy Phil, Will reads the old man’s diaries and finds himself coming up against some harsh truths about his privileged lifestyle.

Plotwise, the book is pretty slow going and things that seem to be leading somewhere have a habit of tailing off, which I suppose is much like life – you never get all the answers out here, but in books you tend to expect them. I liked the characters a lot from the off though. Will is attractive, slightly arrogant and apparently unable to learn from past lessons, but also human enough to be tolerable as a narrator, even if you wouldn’t want to spend too much time in his company. Because the story is seen through his eyes, many of the older gay men are painted with unfair descriptions and almost all come across as lecherous, past their prime and desperate. Will’s best friend James remains my favourite character, a rather sweet doctor who is insecure and seems to put up with a lot from Will, often getting little in return.

The book is deeply sexual in nature, dealing not just with changing (or rather, unchanging) attitudes to homosexuality, but also describing the acts that Will and his many partners perform during the course of the book. Sometimes these are brushed over, but other times they are very explicit. Oddly, and something I shamefully only seemed to realise towards the end of the book, there are no women in this book. I think you once get a phone conversation with Will’s sister, but otherwise I don’t recall there being a single female character. This seems to emphasise the fact that Will has eyes only for other men, and seems to live in a particular bubble, where everyone is gay and there’s no wider world to be seen. Will’s narrow way of looking around him almost proves to be ruinous – he is a man who sees only what he wants to see.

I found it an interesting read, with several parallels to My Policeman which I read last year, and it’s always shocking to be reminded of how society acted towards gay men only a few short decades ago. While occasionally a bit dry, Hollinghurst does have a wonderful turn of phrase. Two come to mind. In one, Will observes a street of people all doing such “nameable activities”, suggesting that they look like a picture designed to teach foreigners the basics of the English language. In another, after Will has been in a fight, the loss of one of his front teeth is said to make him look like a “defaced advertisement”. I’ll take many pages of dry discussion on old authors and changing room showers for lines like that.

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt (1992)

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The-Secret-History1“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

I bought The Secret History on the recommendation of a very literary friend of mine last year, although was, as usual, daunted by the size. However, this week it felt right. I was going away and needed something substantial to distract me on the plane, and I’d grown increasingly aware of the jet black spine that kept looking down at me.

The book opens with the knowledge that one of the characters, Bunny, is going to die. Not just die, but he will be murdered by his friends, who include our narrator, Richard Papen. The story the jumps back an undisclosed amount of time and we meet Richard properly. He is a middle class teenager from California who enjoys reading and studying Greek. His parents have no education and don’t understand this desire of his. He starts at one university, studying medicine, then Greek and English, but soon realises he needs to leave his parents orbit and so applies to Hampden College in Vermont, where his life will change forever.

He attempts to get onto the Greek course, but the reclusive professor, Julian Morrow, is hugely selective about his students and only has five people on his course, claiming that it is full. Richard begins to obsess over these five, and after a few curious meetings, is invited to join the Greek course and get to know them properly.

They are: Henry, deeply studious and serious, always wears suits and carries an umbrella; Francis, red-headed hypochondriac who is a bit more fun than Henry; the twins, Charles and Camilla, practically identical in every way, slightly Aryan, airy and the kindest of the group; and of course Bunny, the joker of the pack who has been almost shunned by his family and struggles most with money issues. They are all wealthy, intelligent, eccentric and definitely misfits. Richard worships them and is in awe that they’ve let him in.

But Richard soon realises that he is not privy to all of their secrets, and they regularly meet without him. One day it all spills out, the terrible secret that they’ve been keeping. Bunny has found out about it too, and he’s now blackmailing his friends, ensuring that they spend every last cent they’ve got on him. Henry begins to fear that Bunny will announce their secret to the world and comes to a rather startling conclusion: Bunny has to die.

Bunny does indeed die, and the second half of the novel (which drags on a little too much) is dedicated to the aftermath of this event and how it affects the surviving five.

Due to the characters all studying Greek, this indeed does read a little like a Greek tragedy, with emphasis on beauty, death, sacrifice and secrets. Charles and Camilla seem at first to be the characters you’d most want to meet, but by the end I would suggest it was Francis. There’s a good case for Richard, because at least he’s not quite as pretentious as the others, but there’s still something distinctly unpleasant about him. All the students at Hampden are pretentious in some way or other, but the central group are moreso than any. Francis wears accessory pince-nez, for example. They drink only the finest alcohol (and are practically always drunk), but the most ridiculous moment is actually a background character, an art student who is using paintbrushes as chopsticks.

While the world they inhabit seems nice – big houses, endless wealth, great prospects, huge intelligence – it’s unclear if any of them are actually happy. They have all been cast out from regular society, although his is partly Julian’s fault, as he has little contact with the rest of the college faculty and keeps himself and his classes as far apart from them as possible. Especially after the murder, their facade of happiness begins to unravel and they start having to deal with their problems more and more in isolation.

Richard is the blandest character, which is odd given that he’s the one writing the confessional, but that doesn’t mean he’s two-dimensional. There’s a lot to him; it’s just that the other characters are so wonderfully crafted. It’s unclear how much Richard says is the truth and how much is embellished, but that makes it all the more interesting. The book plays with beauty and truth, and how the two are interlocked.

I was wary about the book before I started it, and it really is the very definition of literary fiction, but nonetheless I really enjoyed it. Though dense, large parts of it sail by, and you can’t bring yourself to properly hate any of the characters, not really, because they all seem to possess a sort of charm that makes you forget their foibles, even the really nasty ones, and focus on the fact that they seem decent people. After all, they’re attractive, intelligent and moneyed – doesn’t that make you perfect in society’s eyes?

An excellent novel; very interesting and cleverly constructed, like Euripedes crossed with Bret Easton Ellis.