(The review format is stolen from lifeonmagrs, where it may or may not have originated from.)
Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
Smouldering gay desire in a very literary 1960s boarding school.
Book Pot or Personal Choice?
Book Pot, although it was high on my list of books I wanted to read soon, so I was happy for it to be picked out. The book itself came recommended by The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Uncovered.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
I finished it all in a rush, having been gripping from somewhere around the mid-way point. When I first started it, I found it an enormous struggle – both in adapting to reading the narrative style that I’ve grown unfamiliar with reading of late, and thanks to an onslaught of names and characters in the first 100 pages with very little chance to correctly formulate their positions and relations to each other. Once I’d got a handle on all these, though, the book began to sing.
What genre would you say it is?
Literary — although a bit of a bohemian edge and a bleak humour that seperates it from some of the other very ‘worthy’ volumes I’ve read that fall under the genre. It’s grounded in erudite literary history, and is at all times well-mannered, but the whole book is powered by a collection of unrequited loves, though I would hesitate to ever categorise the novel as romance.
The central plots are of Carleton (shortly to leave the school for University) love for the younger boy Allen, and his subsequent transformation and coming-of-age as a result of these feelings, juxtaposed against Ashley, a young master at the school who can’t help but see his own stifled homosexualty reflected in Ashley. Throughout all this, the new headmaster has decided — with absurd consequences — to crack down on the moral decline rife across the school, and there are a whole host of other minor characters who play greater or lesser roles in the ensuing farce.
What surprises did it hold – if any?
[SPOILER ALERT] Although the novel was contemporary, removed by fifty years it is impossible to read it as anything other than a ‘historical’ text. As such, I had expected the depiction of homosexuality to be far ubtextual, but the novel is highly up-front about it. (It was written the year after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, but even so…). That said, the central romance remains unrequited out of a desire for ‘purity’ and Ashley’s takes a sudden diversion into suicide in the final chapter that feels less like a realistic end for his character and more a feature of the literature of the time, in which gay men must be doomed either to chastity or death. Coming to the book, it was billed as something of a farce or black comedy, but it is quite a long way from that; it has its moments of comedy (the eternal quest to catch a kleptomaniac student is one joke that runs throughout) but its ending is very bleak.
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
Although the book purports to be centred on Carleton and Allen, it’s Ashley who stood out for me; he is both flawed and inspirational, and its hard not to feel for a person so fractured by his sexuality that he’s returned to the school in which his only romance took place, only to find echoes and ghosts in the students he teaches.
Is it available today?
I read it as a batter second-hand copy, but there is a recent rerelease from Valancourt Books (which has a handsome but subtly misleading cover.)
Give me a good quote:
‘To be honest, I’d be a bit fed up if no-one knew. If it were possible, I’d make it for them all to know. When you score a hundred, they cheer. To have fallen in love seemed a far greater achievement.’