by Stuart Walton
Picador, 225pp, ISBN 9781509874637, £14.99
Tomasz Jedrowski, Swimming in the Dark
Bloomsbury, 229pp, ISBN 9781526604965, £14.99
Writing sex has always been an elusive aspect of literary art. In the 18th century, it was an offshoot of the nascent novel itself, before disappearing from view in the Victorian age. When it explicitly re-entered literature in earnest with Lawrence and Joyce, it had the function of documentary realism, even where cloaked within elaborate aesthetic codes, as in the Circe chapter of Ulysses. Superseding this forensically unsparing approach, it has since gradually recovered something of the culinary function it enjoyed in the Georgian era, where finely detailed depictions of sexual congress that have had their sensual materiality restored to them play a similarly appetitive role to Lucullan descriptions of food and drink. Each ought properly to stimulate the sensual imagination of the recipient, but there is no evading the fact that a well-crafted narrative of sex should also make the reader want to masturbate.
A standard piece of bedroom advice suggests that one partner, typically the more active one, should tell the other what they are doing as they do it, to accentuate the thrilling presumption of it. In literature's sex scenes, this technique is effectively all over the page, verbalised in words that are not of the reader's own devising, the material nature of which, where it manages to avoid the kind of metaphorical absurdity that will earn it a Bad Sex Award, is a powerful intensifier of imaginative desire. In this respect alone, literature remains a more potent stimulant than motion pictures, precisely because its discursive field is not visual. The fleeting smiles that phosphoresce like sparklers in the cinema – Björn Andrésen's etiolated simper at Dirk Bogarde in Visconti's Death in Venice (1971), the older boy Richard Warwick's knowing grin at the watching fourth-former, Rupert Webster, in the gym before he performs his high-bar routine in If… (1968) – must, in however sublimated a form, be evocatively spelled out in writing. Thus Thomas Mann: '[Tadzio] smiled at him, speakingly, familiarly, enchantingly and quite unabashed, his lips parting slowly as the smile was formed . . . a smile that was provocative, curious and imperceptibly troubled, bewitched and bewitching,' the smile of Narcissus, greeting his aquatic reflection, 'that profound, fascinated, protracted smile'. And so forth.
Compared to the blow-by-blowjob tactics of Garth Greenwell, Tomasz Jedrowski takes a positively chaste approach to sex in his debut novel. Favouring the directness of a second-person narrative voice does nothing to figure in any detail what the two young male lovers actually do with each other, either during their idealised first camping holiday in the Polish wilds, or in the single bed in a cramped Warsaw apartment. 'You had me and I had you,' the narrator recalls in reverie long after the fact, where the verb 'to have' in its elementary mutuality might be presumed to mean 'to fuck', but hardly dare stutter out the blunt fact.
It is as though, just because of its materiality, an element of je ne sais quoi is an indispensable ingredient in all sex writing, if it is not to seem grimly mechanistic. The narrator of Greenwell's second novel, who bears a striking family resemblance to that of its predecessor, What Belongs To You (2016), catches this point early on when, during a hook-up with a dominant partner who spits in his face during the preamble to their encounter, he asks himself, 'who knows why we take pleasure in such things, maybe it's best not to look into it too closely'. A little later, with the other's corpulent bulk crushing his own supine body, he is moved to reflect that 'there's no fathoming pleasure, the forms it takes or their sources'. There is much fathoming in it, in fact, but what the narrator means to say is that desire only retains its electrical capacitance, not to say its ideological current, precisely where it isn't explained. Many a one-nighter is narrativised afterwards with the evidently helpless avowal that one is at a loss to explain what the attraction was, which is often another way of saying there wasn't any.
Casual sex has always been candidly marked with the character of capitalist exchange relations, even where no money changes hands. Far from being a moral imputation against it, this was its dignity, as compared to the often fantasmatic currency of emotions in an actual relationship. Greenwell's narrators are finely versed in this conceptual set. In What Belongs To You, one of the storyteller's encounters with the mercurial Mitko, a rootless opportunist first picked up in a public bathroom in Sofia, finds him concerned 'to claim, finally, the goods for which I had contracted', assuring Mitko that he is under no pressure to leave the apartment 'once he had settled our accounts'. If established relationships are at risk of turning sour when the partners begin to take this overtly contractual approach to each other, its withering during the kinds of assignations Greenwell's two novels describe is the first evidence that an equally inimical ingress of feeling is precipitating an unhappiness to come.
The trajectory of gay male amours in literary history has been beset by the persistent trope of imperfect self-realisation, during which one of the parties to what had seemed a full-fledged love affair later decides he is acting against his true nature. Characters who switch back to heterosexuality may not necessarily be in denial after all, only finding what they prefer by investigating what they like less. Clive Durham, the title character's undergraduate boyfriend in Forster's Maurice (written in 1913), introduces him to the classical Greek view of homosexuality, but later marries a woman and leaves all that behind. One of Jedrowski's two boys, Janusz, follows the same path, his first stirrings of desire for women arising, painfully for the narrator Ludwik, in the very midst of their own passion. They have both read what was at the time of the novel's events – early 1980s Poland during the Solidarity upheaval – a samizdat translation of James Baldwin's doom-laden novella, Giovanni's Room (1956). Baldwin reverses the usual focus by making his narrator, David, the uncommitted partner who ultimately follows social convention by going back to his fiancée, Hella. Its denouement suggests that David is fooling only himself about his true sexuality, and his own yearning for conventionality – 'I wanted to be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned, watching my woman put my children to bed' – reflects that integrity of self-assurance to which actual heterosexual men don't need to aspire. It is an ominous text indeed to be the framing device for a hopeful same-sex affair that must be tactfully conducted under the shadow of political-ecclesial repression. The effort to counteract this decrepit ambience of foreordained tragedy in gay love is what made Forster, decades before the onset of legal reform in Britain, choose the radical strategy of giving his characters a happy ending.
If the phenomenality of such desire invests much of the physical description of sex between men with its still faintly alienating air to a non-gay readership, it can at least be counted on to be celebrated for its bracing lyrical sensuality, as both these writers are in their blurbs. Greenwell in particular is not conspicuously interested in the lyrical tone, as distinct from an efficient journalese that seems curiously British in its fastidiousness. It is a long time since one expected to hear a contemporary writer sound a piss-elegant note like the meteorological report that 'for the whole trip a light precipitation fell', but neither is he above mobilising metaphorical usages of static conventionality. In a chapter of Cleanness, 'Decent People', the narrator joins a political demonstration against the corrupt post-communist government in Sofia, stopping on the way at a market-stall, where he buys a bag of cherries, 'swollen and voluptuously red'. 'The cherries burst in my mouth, firm and ripe, sweet with a dark sweetness, gorgeous, like a low frequency. I spat the pits in my palm and dropped them a little guiltily in the gutter.' He meets D., a journalist-poet, one of his first Bulgarian friends who, like most of his acquaintances, is introduced with an initial summation of the quality of his looks. 'He wasn't obviously beautiful but he was beautiful'. The proffered bag of cherries duly becomes eucharistic in its embodiment. 'I offered the cherries to him, too, telling him to take the bag, I had had enough. You brought us gifts, D. said, flowers and cherries, you brought us springtime.'
These cherries, gravid with erotic significance, played the same role for Baldwin's David and Giovanni 60 years earlier. 'We had bought a kilo of cherries and we were eating them as we walked along. We were both insufferably childish and high-spirited and the spectacle we presented, two grown men, jostling each other on the wide pavement, and aiming the cherry-pips, as though they were spitballs, into each other's faces, must have been outrageous.' Voluptuous red fruits, cherries particularly, only enjoy a short season. They can overripen and moulder, and even, as with Aschenbach's fatal strawberries on the Venice Lido, carry the contagion that will kill you as you simmer in futile passion for the unattainable.
Nobody seriously expects sexual attraction between men to be sustained for long by the burst grape of Keatsian sensuality alone. There is more grittily libidinous work to do, much of which turns on the brutality of distilled masculinity – themes of violence, criminality, the sense that sex is only really sex if there is at least the implication, or pretence, or unilateral fantasy, of coercion, a ruthlessness that extends from beastly personal manners to a temperamental readiness for cruelty to animals. Ken Keaton, the young American tutor to a German family in Thomas Mann's The Black Swan (1953), reveals his true erotic potential when he leaps on a stone heraldic beast on a day-trip to Holterhof: 'he impudently seated himself astride the back of one of the sentinel lions . . . He clasped the spike in front of him with both hands, pretended, with cries of “Hi!” and “Giddap!”, that he was giving the beast the spurs, and really could not have presented a more attractive picture of youthful high spirits.' Jedrowski's Ludwik recalls his satisfaction at the maternal butchering of the Christmas carp, to which he has given a pet name while it idles in the bathtub, but which must be sacrificed by decapitation and gutting once his belly overrules his heart, his mother's hands 'as red as the devil, blood trickling down her wrists and forearms all the way to her elbows'.
In the graphic penultimate episode of Cleanness, 'The Little Saint', the narrator reverses the habits of a lifetime and arranges a hook-up with a man who wishes to be hurt and humiliated. We begin with the now axiomatic assurance – 'I was surprised by how beautiful he was' – before they return to the man's apartment and get on with it. During the verbal rough-housing and spitting, manual anal penetration, forceful fellatio and improvised trouser-belt flogging that ensue, the narrator finds he takes to the dominant role like a duck to water, but eventually the two greatest antibodies of unbridled eros invade the picture. The first is ideology, which reconnects physical behaviour to the social conditions that produce it, when power manifests itself as fucking somebody in the throat to the brink of asphyxiation: 'I took pleasure in his suffering, in his willingness to suffer. It was the pleasure of being a man, I think, I'm not sure I had ever felt it before. I luxuriated in it, I didn't want to let him go, I held him even after he motioned for me to stop'. The other antibody is psychology, more emotionally painful for the perpetrator, in the memory of a tyrannical father given to leathering his own children with a trouser-belt, and the obscene enjoyment that characterises all physical chastisement, making its object into the object of one's own desire. In the sex scene, he finds himself snapping the belt in mid-air before lashing the victim's back. 'That too was what my father had always done, frightening us to double our punishment, I guess, to make us fear the belt before we felt it.' And so brutality goes on reproducing itself.
If the regular flagellations in Genet, the mutual thrashings in which Hervé Guibert's narrator indulges with his heterosexual lover in Crazy for Vincent (1989), the erection that Musil's Young Törless helplessly succumbs to in the attic room, where the other boys are whipping a gay classmate who has stolen money from the savings fund, are the main-course meat of male excitement, they are often succeeded by the psychical balancing-act of sweet remorse. One of the lovers in Cleanness is reduced to silent tears by nothing other than the prolonged physical tenderness he doesn't believe he deserves. Ludwik in Swimming in the Dark, having been on a collision-course with the party-state, finds himself expressing a note of post-coital resignation to the repressive political reality incarnated by his lover. These too are the evidences that sexuality is as imbricated with the administered world as Baldwin's David suggests in the familiar conservative maxim that 'nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom’.
Finally, it is the invidious asymmetry of desire, beyond ultra-masculinised expressions of it, that connects gay male intimacy to all other kinds, that elusiveness of desire – Buñuel's 'obscure object' – which begins with the failure of the self to satisfy itself fully in adolescence. Greenwell captures this point in a fine insight from his first novel: 'there's something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly’.
Desire's wayward course is expounded skilfully in the best passage of either of these two novels, in Jedrowski's penultimate chapter. Five friends have gathered at the opulent country house of a nomenklatura family, the father a personal associate of the party leader, Edvard Gierek. The parents are away, and the teenagers indulge themselves with feasting and card games. On the last night, the daughter of the family makes a soup of poppy-stems, and a sensuous several hours of tripping ensue, during which the revellers run naked into the woodland on the estate to play hide-and-seek. Ludwik and Janusz enjoy the kind of explosively luxurious kiss that only psychotropic drugs provide, but a bitter revelation soon follows. In the early morning, with the parents due back any minute, Ludwik makes off without waking his friends. The parents' limo passes him on the approach to the house, while he walks on into the village where the local people are pouring into church for the Sunday Mass. He follows them in, and finds his eyes brimming with tears as he joins in the ancient hymns. If his desire has had to confront frustration and loss, it also has to contend, more fundamentally still, with the knowledge that desire fails where it does, not because its object is wrong – a boy might love another boy from a different background without the sky crashing in – but because its conception falsifies the inner impulse that drove it. Swimming in the dark, whatever our preferences, is ultimately the only way.