Walking Paris in ‘What’s Left of the Night’

I’ve been slacking around these parts lately on account of a new job, but I aim to get back up to full speed ASAP. As I do, please ruminate on this stirring excerpt from What’s Left of the Night, Ersi Sotiropoulos’ soulful  and erotic account of C.P. Cavafy’s 1897 visit to Paris, when the Egyptiot Greek poet was 34,  still unknown, and finding his creative voice.

Exquisitely translated by Karen Emmerich, What’s Left of the Night delves into more than Cavafy’s personal experiences as a man struggling with his same-sex desires in restrictive era. It shines a light on far more universal debates about the nature of art in an ever-changing world. Does art bring people together or form a barrier? How is artistic success defined? And when does artistic desire become obsession?

These enthralling topics aside, I’d like to call out Sotiropoulos’ masterful description, and Emmerich’s resonant translation, of walking through the city.

As someone who spent 12 years in New York, where walking is a way of life, before moving three years ago to Atlanta, where the car is king, this passage sparked pangs of nostalgia for the biped life.

Here, for your enjoyment, is that excerpt. It takes place just as night falls across Paris and a young  Constantine Peter Cavafy takes a solo stroll. While the backdrop’s the City of Lights specifically, the vibe translates to any bustling urban environ:

“He soon began to feel better. The current of the crowd flowed in the direction of the grand boulevards, over wide sidewalks dotted with cafes, beneath awnings and into arcades where strangers’ silhouettes fleetingly took shape, then vanished again.

A blind river pulled him into its current. He inhaled deeply and followed that vibrant ripple in the hum and dust. Crowds overflowed the intersections, lingered at shop windows before indolently setting off again beside stylish coaches and one-horse buggies that clattered away into the lilac night. Newspaper boys on street corners bellowed out the latest news. Where the road met Rue des Pyramides he stopped and stood as if hypnotized. Faces rushed toward him, shattering as they passed. The traffic began an utter crush at Rue di Rivoli, where the arches of the Lourvre loomed like a domed seawall. Groups of friends disappeared down side streets. Their stroll would no doubt take them, later on, to more remote districts, off the beaten path. Secret, ill-famed neighborhoods. Shadowy doorways and basement rooms, he though, feeling a flutter within.

A mob of musicians was just ahead of him, lurching this way and that, laughing and shouting drunkenly. One of them was dragging a monkey by the hand, dressed like a soldier with a little cap. He increased his speed so as to overtake them. Light flooded the paving stones, spread over the facades of the buildings, trailed over the silvery roofs — a fluid, shadowless light. As he walked, the lines of a poem he was writing came to mind. Every so often he would pick it up, poke and prod, then let it be. He had looked back at it recently and had been satisfied. Very satisfied. It didn’t happen often. The musicality was flawless, the rhyme effective:

The city will follow you. The roads you wander will be

The same. And in the same quarters you’ll grow old, and see.”

What’s Left of the Night is out now from New Vessel Press, an independent publishing house devoted to translated literature and narrative nonfiction, and I’m happy to add it to All the LGBT Books Around My House.

The First Vampire Was a Lesbian

In case you’re interested, the first vampire novel was 1872’s Carmilla, by Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu, and it had a distinct lesbian bent: The titular character is a succubus-esque creature who tries to seduce and feed upon a young woman, a plot perhaps informed by eons-worth of patriarchal anxieties.

Predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 26 years, Le Fanu’s story first appeared as a serial in The Dark Blue, a literary magazine, before being published as a single volume illustrated by D.H. Friston, the same man who first illustrated Sherlock Holmes.

Above, one of Friston’s  images from that collection depicts Carmilla making for her prey, Laura.

HBD: Mary Renault and Richard Wright

 

Today marks birthdays for Mary Renault (b. 1905) and Richard Wright (b. 1908), two authors who used their tremendous talents to tackle social injustice and institutional discrimination.

Renault’s novels, including 1953’s The Charioteer and 1956’s The Last of the Wine, challenged homophobia: the first directly, the second, like most of her works, indirectly, through the lens of historical fiction. Meanwhile Wright’s works, most notably 1941’s Native Son and his 1945 memoir, Black Boy, explored and exploded racism in America and its deleterious impact on the nation and its people.*

In another similarity between these Virgos, both authors left their homelands to live their truest lives: Renault and partner Julie Mullard escaped England’s mainstream homophobia by relocating in 1948 to comparatively nonchalant South Africa (they would also become vocal opponents of that nation’s racist apartheid government); and Wright and his wife Ellen Poplar relocated to Paris in 1946 to enjoy an existence free of American racism, especially because they were an interracial couple in a time when that was uber taboo.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that post-WWII America and England, symbolic stars at the time for the west’s superior liberalism, lost two of their brightest  stars because of their restrictive, moralistic social norms?

Both authors died in their adopted lands, Renault in 1983, and Wright in 1960, in Paris.

(*Note: James Baldwin, the gay black author recently discussed here and who escaped American homophobia and racism by also moving to Paris, later took aim at Wright’s depiction of black people, in Notes of a Native Son).

All the LGBT Books Around My House

Pride month ends today, and I still haven’t penned anything LGBTQ-related. Considering so much of my career has been in gay media, that seems wrong. But what to write? I’m pretty out of touch with queer politics and culture at the moment, so I guess I’ll just keep it simple: a cruise through lavender-tinged titles around my house.

Starting in my office, where I spend most of my time, the top row of a tall brown Ikea Billy bookshelf holds many homo-related hardbacks: Leo Lerman’s diaries, The Grand Surprise, abut Between Me and Life, Meryle Secrest’s biography of lesbian painter Romaine Brooks, which are next to the equally Sapphic Selected Letters of Willa Cather, which is pressed against The Days of Anna Madrigal. Theoretically the rest of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series should be up here, but those paperback copies are elsewhere.

On that same row you’ll find Tim Murphy’s Christadora, about the lives, loves and losses of people in the East Village apartment building of the same name, and Cathers’ collection of short stories, Obscure Destinies, which I’ve never read but hope to soon. Speaking of, I’m not sure where my copy of O Pioneers! moseyed off to; I do know My Antonia was abandoned on a Brooklyn stoop — I didn’t care for her. Meanwhile, a few titles over from Destinies, are three EM Forster tomes: his realist and oh-too-relevant political collection, Two Cheers for Democracy; the heart-breaking Maurice; and a collection of the English author’s short tales. (Howard’s End is elsewhere.)

Finally, off to the right, a recently acquired paperback of John Rechy’s raunchy Rushes lays on its side, appropriately removed and aptly aloof.

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Zora Neale Hurston Helps Ex-Slave Tell His Tale

In 1860, while minding his own business in his native West Africa, 19-year old Cudjo Lewis was snatched, chained and stuffed in the crowded and putrid hull of a ship called Clotilda. When he reemerged he was in  Alabama, where the young man was forced to work on a plantation. This despite the fact that the importation of new slaves to America had been prohibited for nearly 50 years already.

Five years later, once emancipation had been declared and the Civil War over, Lewis and some of his friends from his plantation, many of whom were also on Clotilda*, created their own town, Plateau, where they lived freely for the rest of their days, living witnesses to one of the most horrific experiences in history: the slave passage overseas.

It was to this tale that young author  Zora Neale Hurson was drawn, and in 1927, she traveled to Plateau to interview Cudjo. Four years later she returned for a three-month stay, meticulously noting his every sentence, word and syllable and creating an unprecedented account of his kidnapping, enslavement and new life in freedom, providing an unparalleled and invaluable testimony to one of humanity’s lowest moments. Shockingly, no publisher would touch it, largely because publishers felt his vernacular proved too hard for average readers to grasp. And so, the story went unpublished and forgotten. Years passed.

Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lewis went on living in Alabama. He died in 1935, aged 94, and she followed in 1960, and their collaboration continued sitting on a shelf at Howard University for another six decades— that is, until today. Literally today, because the HarperCollins imprint Amistad today releases Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” which offers readers an unprecedented look at the cruelty experienced by millions whose own stories have been lost and obscured by centuries. Perhaps Lewis’s can be a proxy for all those whose lives were lost and otherwise obscured by the most devastating and indeed terrifying aspect of human history.

You can buy a copy here — and you really, really should.

*Side fact: QuestLove descended from another slave on that ship.

Links to Recent Stories On Earth, America

I’ve been away from the site for far longer than I intended, for which I apologize. It will be another few days before the regularly scheduled program starts cranking again, as I continue clearing my desk of pesky editorial debris.

In the meantime, I’d like to share links to some recent stories I’ve written elsewhere…

First, “The Congressman Who Warned Us About Climate Change in 1864,” which I wrote for The Daily Beast in honor of Earth Day.

A few days later Mental Floss published my piece “How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol,” which is a great condensed summary of my book, for those of you who are interested in quirky but critically rigorous American histories.

Alright, off to shovel more vowels and consonants. Be back soon….