Thursday, 18 October 2018

Reading the 80s - 1988

Utz - Bruce Chatwin

After enjoying The Songlines so much I was pleased to find something else by Chatwin for 1988. This one is fiction, although I still don't think Chatwin draws a particularly hard line between fiction and non fiction.

Utz - possibly Baron Von Utz, although our narrator isn't entirely sure Utz is entitled to call himself a Baron - lives in Prague beyond the Iron Curtain, and a central theme that makes it a book of it's time is the cold war and the difficulty getting from east to west and back, although Utz manages it (possibly not purely for his health as he claims) every year.

He is also an obsessive collector with a fine collection of porcelain figurines all on shelves in his living room which he's been collecting since he was a boy. As long as he has agreed to leave them to the nation he is allowed to keep them, and as long as he has them he will always return to Prague.

But it's the humour in the story, and Chatwin's ability to share large amounts of information in a narrative - all the discussions about porcelain - without making it seem forced, that really shine out.

The Swimming Pool Library - Alan Hollinghurst

This one is why I'm three days late. I expected it to be a much quicker read. Instead what started as a story of promiscuity and privilege turned out to be far more layered.

Will, our narrator, is a young man leading a charmed and largely decorative life on family money. He has a younger less well off black boyfriend, a nice flat in London, and a pretty face. In addition almost every bloke he makes a pass at says yes, and being young and confident and somewhat spoilt, he's not at all shy of making passes.

He also has a fantastically detailed eye, not just for other pretty boys and their anatomical perfections but for the different nuances of London districts, places, pictures. He is also strangely likable and often empathetic, even slightly Woosterish in his willingness to be pulled into other people's troubles, although in other ways jaded, selfish and sometimes unthinkingly cruel.

When Will gives the kiss of life to an older man who collapses in the gents in Kensington Gardens, and then meets him again in the swimming pool of his gymnasium, the old man asks him to write his biography. He knows Will can write, because he's read something by him before - Will has dabbled with work, although more to please other people that because he needs or wants to, but is currently unemployed.

I have to say although I 'believed' in Will - far more than Utz - and would be curious to read about what happened to him next I didn't really enjoy the book all that much. Perhaps if I had read it when it was first published the historical background and the comparison between that and Will's life would have hit me harder and made more of a story. Most of the information would have been new to me at that time, and the effect would be more striking.

Something of that contrast has been lost now we've moved on again. As a gay man in the 80s Will is undoubtedly better off than Charles was in the 50s, but from a modern perspective he's nowhere near parity. It occurred to me for example that the nice long term couple he meets from time to time in clubs could get married now if they wanted to, and expect the family to come along and throw confetti, and that the narrative is still heavy in places with the things Will can't admit to other people.

The book also made me feel uncomfortably prurient in spots -  I don't know if my 15 year old self would have been shocked or would have gobbled it down much more easily in the same way she did The Stud and the Victorian erotica I discovered at the time, but my 45 year old self kept thinking  'come on Will, you don't even fancy this guy all that much and you've got a nice bloke at home..'

I did wonder as well if there was a nostalgia in all the bonking. Although published in 1988 the book is set in '83, and there is one bit right at the start where Will says ' was my time, my belle epoque - but all the while with a faint flicker of calamity, like flames around a photograph, something seen out of the corner of the eye'.

Hollinghurst dedicated the book to Nicholas Blake, an early AIDS victim, and - a completely unintentional coincidence between the two books chosen for this year - Bruce Chatwin was to die of the same thing in 1989.

We come then to the darker side of the '80s in these two books. The ongoing standoff between East and West, and the AIDS epidemic, and a reminder to me that nostalgia aside, things actually have got better.

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