It was the winter of 1964 in the town of Enniscorthy in the southeast of Ireland and I was training to be an altar boy. My fellow apprentices and I spent an hour three evenings a week in the vestry of the cathedral learning the intricacies of serving Mass and Benediction. We learned by rote the names of all the vestments the priest wore -- the amice, the alb, the girdle, the stole, the maniple, and the chasuble. We learned how to ring the bell on the altar, first to alert the Mass-goers to the immanence of the Consecration and once more as the Host was raised and the chalice lifted. We learned how to serve the water so the priest could wash his fingers. We learned how to hold the gold plate under the chins of those who came to receive Communion.
We were serious and dutiful, knowing that we had been chosen carefully not only because of our families' position in the town but because of something the priests had noticed about us, a lack of a rebellious spirit perhaps, a willingness to bow our heads during religious ceremonies and an ability to go straight home when they were over.
After our training sessions we did not go straight home. We went to the chip shop opposite the cathedral, which served hamburgers and fried fish and fried potatoes. There were a few tables at the front, and although we ordered only take-away chips, we liked to sit there. Walking through the streets with the chips somehow did not involve the same pleasure as eating them in the shop. I loved pouring salt over the potatoes and then vinegar and watching the vinegar melt the salt. The fries were always too hot for my delicate altar boy's hands and I liked to sit in the window and let them cool.
The two men who ran the chip shop wore white tunics and black-and-white trousers. One of them was thin and dark and very hairy. He always seemed to have a few days' stubble. He could have been Italian, but he was, I knew, from the town. The other had fair hair, was stockier. I watched them as they flung potatoes into the oil, waited for them to cook, and then vigorously fished them from the oil, tossing them into another compartment of the chip-making machinery. They were businesslike, but never friendly. I have no memory of their voices.
One evening, the dark one told us that we could no longer sit at the tables. The tables were for people eating meals, he said. Not for take-away customers. When we got our chips, he said, we were to leave. He was firm about this, so there seemed no point in telling him that since the tables were always empty at this time it could hardly matter. It seemed to matter to him. We never sat at the tables again.
I have a vague memory of two half-heard snatches of conversation in the subsequent few years. One is my mother talking to someone, I cannot think who it might have been. She is saying that the two men in the chip shop go everywhere together, that she had seen them, or someone had seen them, out for a Sunday drive together. I have no memory of a label being used. She does not say homosexual or queer, or anything like that. But it is clear to me that they are together and it is unusual, and yet she does not seem to disapprove. And later someone visits the house who is a great gossip and always has interesting and accurate information about many things and people in the town. She mentions the couple in the chip shop and uses the word misbehaving and says that the police have had to intervene and that the men have been put away. No one else in the room comments.
Decades later, I wonder if we learner altar boys were banished from the tables so that the two men on the other side of the counter could guard themselves against suggestions that they were preying on the young. I wonder what pressure they were under in those years, from the town, from the law. (The Victorian laws against homosexual acts between men remained on the Irish statute books until the early 1990s, and were still enforced in the mid-1960s.) I thought about their bravery, living openly in the town during a dark time, thinking they could behave freely in a place full of prejudice.
In 1985, I reported from Buenos Aires on the trial of Galtieri and the other Argentine generals accused of causing the disappearance of more than ten thousand people. Evidence was given by those who had survived the torture camps and by those whose relatives had disappeared. On certain days evidence was also given by the torturers themselves or by members of the security forces.
The testimony began at three each afternoon and often went on until after midnight. I was living in San Isidro, a posh suburb about thirty-five minutes away from the old city by train. Each evening I walked from the courthouse to the station, passing through the grid of narrow streets that make up the old center of Buenos Aires. Sometimes, the sheer cruelty of what had been described all day in the court, the wanton viciousness of it all, stayed with me as I left the court and, as a way of getting it out of my system, I lingered in the old city for a while, having a drink and looking around me, before taking the train back to the suburbs.
Since I had not been in the city before, I heard the street names for the first time in the court, addresses where, for example, one of the disappeared has lived, or been detained, or was last seen. Now I was walking these very streets at night alone. In those years the bars and city center sidewalks were half empty, but there were nearly always lone figures wandering oscillating between the aimless and the purposeful as the moment required. Gay men pretending they were going somewhere. I had no trouble recognizing them.
I heard stories in those months about gay life in Argentina. Many of the men I spoke to had never told anyone they were gay and were certain they never would. Being rich, or really smart, or having traveled a great deal, or being well read, all this made no difference. I remember being told by one man that he thought one of his friends was gay, but he knew that the friend would commit suicide rather than tell anyone. Most of these men intended to get married, and although some of them knew that a great liberation had taken place in North American and European and Australian cities, all of them believed that Argentina would not change. They had never contemplated anything other than a life of secrecy and shame. This did not make them unhappy. It was how they lived and how they expected to live. The drama surrounding gay life in Argentina in those years was one of quickly snatched interludes of sharp sexual pleasure surrounded by silence and prohibition. They could talk about it just now to me. I was an outsider. I would not be around for long.
In August 1993, at the Edinburgh Festival, I arranged to meet Andrew O'Hagan, who at that time was an editor at The London Review of Books. The London Review of Books, he said, was commissioning a series of articles that would also become pamphlets, and they wanted me to write one. These pieces would be long and serious, he said, but also personal and polemical. I presumed as he spoke that he wanted me to do something about Ireland since I had been writing about Irish books and Irish history for The London Review of Books. No, it wasn't about Ireland, he said, and he seemed hesitant and almost embarrassed. Instead, they wondered if I would write a pamphlet about my own homosexuality.
arI told him instantly that I could not do that. It was a matter, I said, that I did not think I could write about. And there were many other writers, Irish, English, and American, who could easily do so. I had, when we spoke, written the first chapter of my novel The Story of the Night, in which I dealt with homosexuality for the first time. But it was set in another country -- Argentina -- and it was not autobiographical, or not obviously so. My sexuality, like Richard's in that novel, was something about which part of me remained uneasy, timid and melancholy. I told O'Hagan that I had nothing polemical and personal to say on the subject.
Then, without my realizing, The London Review of Books decided on another method of enticing me to confront my own sexuality in print. They began to send me books about gay writers or by gay writers, and some of these books were too interesting to resist. Thus I found myself writing constantly on the work and lives of homosexual writers. I realized that certain writing done in the hundred years between the trial of Oscar Wilde and the rescinding of the Victorian laws against homosexuality in Ireland raised fascinating questions. Some of the greatest writers of the age were fully alert to their own homosexuality. In their work, they sought to write in code, yet they managed also, once or twice, despite their own reticence and the dangers involved, to tell the truth in their fiction, to reveal the explicit drama of being themselves. Thus we get The Picture of Dorian Gray, Roger Casement's Diaries, Death in Venice, and Giovanni's Room. We also get work such as E.M. Forster's Maurice, which the author did not feel free to publish in his lifetime, but nonetheless needed to write, and the poems about lesbian love which Elizabeth Bishop did not publish in her lifetime, but which have been published since her death:
Just now, when I saw you naked again,
I thought the same words: rose-rock, rock-rose...
Rose, trying, working, to show itself,
Forming, folding over,
Unimaginable connections, unseen, shining edges.
Rose-rock, unformed, flesh beginning, crystal by crystal,
clear pink breasts and darker, crystalline nipples,
rose-rock, rose-quartz, roses, roses, roses,
exactly roses from the body,
and the even darker, accurate, rose of sex --
It is easy to imagine Bishop writing this poem, the style so tentative, the effort to describe so precise and exacting, her mind so free and independent, her imagination so fearless. And yet she did not publish the poem. She was describing, as all these writers and artists were, a love that was 'trying, working, to show itself' and then holding back, fearing the 'unimaginable connections' between private desires and the public realm.
This is a book about gay figures for whom, in the main, being gay seemed to come second in their public lives. But in their private lives, in their own spirit, the laws of desire changed everything. The struggle for a gay sensibility began as an intensely private one, and slowly then, if the gay man or woman was a writer, it seeped into the work or was kept out of the work in ways that are strange and revelatory. Writing these pieces helped me come to terms with my own interest in secret, erotic energy (Casement and Mann); my interest in Catholicism (Wilde and Casement converted close to the end and the work of Almodóvar is full of Catholic imagery); my interest in Irish Protestants (Wilde, Casement, Bacon); my admiration for figures who lived in a dark time and were not afraid (Wilde, Bacon, Almodóvar); my abiding fascination with sadness (Bishop, Baldwin, Doty) and, indeed, tragedy (Gunn and Doty).
In the 1970s, Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Thom Gunn's My Sad Captains and Elizabeth Bishop's Selected Poems were among my favorite books. But I did not know until later that these authors were gay. Love in a Dark Time reflects my excitement about my discovery and my interest in exploring the work and lives of these writers in the light of that new knowledge. This book is also a tentative history of progress. The first subject was born in the 1850s in an intolerant age. Mark Doty and Pedro Almodóvar are contemporaries of mine, born a hundred years after Oscar Wilde and living now in a less dark time.
I am interested in tracing the tension between the fearless imagination and the fearful self. I want to trace, in writing, the connection between the altar boy's half-understood sense of his own sexual difference, which would soon develop into strategies of concealment, and the chip shop owner's bravery. I want to imagine now the lone figure in Buenos Aires or in Dublin as he opens a book in solitude and secrecy to find there the story of his life, told to him by E.M. Forster or James Baldwin or Thomas Mann or Thom Gunn, or by one of the others who have broken the silence that has surrounded our lives for so long.
Copyright © 2001 by Colm Tóibín
And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature
Love in a Dark Time
And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature
Tóibín examines the life and work of some of the greatest and most influential writers of the past two centuries, figures whose homosexuality remained hidden or oblique for much of their lives, either by choice or necessity. The larger world couldn't know about their sexuality, but in their private lives, and in the spirit of their work, the laws of desire defined their expression.
This is an intimate encounter with Mann, Baldwin, Bishop, and with the contemporary poets Thom Gunn and Mark Doty. Through their work, Tóibín is able to come to terms with his own inner desires -- his interest in secret erotic energy, his admiration for courageous figures, and his abiding fascination with sadness and tragedy. Tóibín looks both at writers forced to disguise their true experience on the page and at readers who find solace and sexual identity by reading between the lines.