Monthly Archives: December 2020

#Christmas2020 – mementos, memories, and reflections on my Christmas decorations

Daily Posts on Facebook and Instagram, December 1 – 25, 2020

#Christmas2020 Pic1. The first Christmas decoration that Bill and I bought in December 1976, six months after meeting, falling in love, and moving in together.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic2. An indoor and an outdoor Christmas tree framing my reading chair in which I blissfully pass countless hours and the piano at which I inexcusably spend far too few hours.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic3. A contrast of eras, Dickens Village and today’s Toronto skyline. This year’s Christmas centrepiece on my dining table. We had a pine hutch in the kitchen of our Stratford home and on one of its shelves Bill arranged the Dickens Village pieces (of which there are many more than I’ve used here). He kept it there year round. Bill had Multiple Sclerosis and on nights when he couldn’t sleep he’d make himself a drink, sit on a stool in front of the hutch, and tell himself stories about the goings-on in the Village, especially the juicy gossipy bits.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic4. Our goose feather Christmas tree, hung with antique ornaments. Feather trees are considered one of the first artificial trees used as a Christmas tree. Feather trees were usually made of green-dyed goose feathers which were attached to wire branches. They originated in Germany in the late 19th century and became popular in North America during the early 20th century. On the wall above it, you’ll see an old style photo from one of our early years together where Bill had the two of us dress and pose as a couple of 19th century frontier “buddies,” his inspiration being the beautiful oval frame that had held an old family portrait.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic5. The memento tree. In November 2009, a few months after Bill died of pancreatic cancer, I was wandering through the Christmas decorations section at the Queen Street Hudson’s Bay Store feeling … well, you know. I turned a corner and saw before me this purple tree. Purple is the colour of the pancreatic cancer ribbon. This tree graced my home that Christmas and has continued to every Christmas since. The tree is decorated with the annual ornaments that Bill and I bought over our 33 years together supplemented by meaningful ornaments that I have found over the years since his death as well as touching gifts from friends.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic6. With this year’s decorations, my piano is playing (pun intended) its part with cedar roping, lights, and an arrangement of holly branches arrayed on the piano lid. I collected the pine cones from various places and they all have their own stories – one is from Avondale Cemetery in Stratford where our niche is; I picked the large one up in Idyllwild Park just outside Palm Springs; I brought the small ones home from the grounds of the UN in Geneva on my last work trip there before retiring. During the Christmas season, the usual music books on the piano (Bach, Beethoven, Chopin) are replaced by these old Christmas carol books: the top one “Yuletide Melodies” belonged to my grandmother Emma Perschbacher (her signature inside) who taught music lessons in her/our family home in Waterloo from the 1920s until just prior to her death in 1964 to hundreds of children including my brothers and me; “The Christmas Carollers’ Book” has my mom’s signature on the cover, Lillian Hallman, and was used when she played for sing songs at parties in our home or at church; the bottom two books belonged to my partner Bill who was a music teacher much beloved and respected by his students. Bill was generous but strict as is evident from his inscription inside these books: “Property of W. Conklin, please return!!”

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic7. My Pride Christmas tree, a gift a few years ago from a couple friends who knew how much I was into Christmas trees. The three gay-theme ornaments on the memento tree a) the pink triangle which was used by the Nazis in the concentration camps to designate homosexual men, bisexual men, and transgender women; in the 1970s, it was reclaimed by the LGBTQ community as a symbol of protest against homophobia; b) the rainbow triangle ornament combines Pride and the triangle history; and c) I bought the red AIDS ribbon key chain as a Christmas ornament in 2013, the 20th anniversary of the year 1993 when I tested HIV+.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic8. Dickens Village with Tiny Tim on Bob Cratchit’s shoulders and a grumpy Ebenezer Scrooge beside them. If you look carefully, you can just make out “E. Scrooge” in Bill’s handwriting over the doorway.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic9. A beautiful cranberry glass ornament from my friend John Russell that he found at the Art Gallery of Ontario and gave me last year (2019) accompanied by a Rubens angel. John looked after me for three weeks after my open heart surgery in March 2019 and sweetly noted in his Christmas card that his gift of the Rubens angel was an ongoing presence to watch over me.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic10. This little prancing beauty was our 1990 Christmas ornament purchased late fall of that year at the Banff Springs Hotel. I was there as theme speaker at an environmental conference and Bill had come with me. While I was in sessions, he would curl up with a book in a comfy chair by one of the grand fireplaces, a roaring blaze keeping him warm while November snow fell outside. Hotel hospitality staff fell in love with Bill, connecting with his irreverent humour that skewered the pretentiousness of some of the hotel guests. They kept the fire stoked and him well supplied with beverages. The reindeer ornament still carries the light aroma of the cedar from which it’s made.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic11. Every Christmas my table is covered by this crocheted tablecloth that Mom made. I can recall as a child seeing her crocheting countless of these medallions that she would then stitch together into tablecloths as gifts. Later in life when her fine motor skills were not up to this precision work she took up knitting afghan throws, one of which rests on my sofa and gets used on chilly nights.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic12. The goose-feather tree holds our collection of antique (or at least very old) ornaments. I love the elegant unpretentious simplicity of them. The two bells have “GDR” stamped on them indicating that they were made in the German Democratic Republic, that is, East Germany. And what’s the story behind that very old and curious Hindenburg-type blimp? I never light the candles. 😉 A few of the ornaments come from my family, some from Bill’s, and others we picked up at flee markets or antique shops over the years. It fascinates me to imagine the Christmas settings in which these ornaments played a role – children, parents, and grandparents (or perhaps a lonely senior living alone) hanging them on a tree; the character and location of the houses or apartments in which these folks lived decorated for Christmas; the Christmas mornings’ excitement of unwrapping presents from under the tree holding these ornaments; the diverse complexities of Christmas emotions in the homes where these ornaments hung, joy for some, loss and grief for others, perhaps even conflict and heartbreak and abuse for yet others. If these ornaments could only talk and share the stories they hold.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic13. Before Bill died in August 2009, he told me that instead of a funeral he wanted me to throw a big party with lots of our friends, lots of booze, and everybody telling jokes. His heritage was half Irish, after all. At this wake/party, he wanted me to give each of our friends one of our Christmas ornaments as a memento of him. So, prior to the party that I held in early September, I dug out the Christmas boxes from the locker and put together a big collection of our decorations, that is ones that I would be willing to part with. On the night of the party, I laid them out on the table (amongst the food and booze) and people were invited to select one that they could take home as a Bill-souvenir. One of our longtime friends, Susan Wiseman, who owns and operates Casa de los Arcos in Puerto Vallarta where we have stayed for many years each winter was sorry that she couldn’t attend the party and asked if I could keep one of the decorations for her. (Bill’s connection to Susan went back to the 1980s when Bill taught Susan’s daughter piano lessons when we were all living in The Beach neighbourhood of Toronto). Susan sent me a photo when she put the Bill-memento ornament that I gave her on her Christmas tree in PV, a wooden carved love-bear. Bill’s nickname for me was “Bear.” Bill loved our annual stays at Susan’s so it’s comforting to see this memento basking in the Mexican sun on Susan’s tree. (Btw, I disregarded the other half of Bill’s dying wish. I did indeed have a funeral/memorial service for him. It was mega. Lots of music and lots of friends sharing reminiscences, funny and poignant. The church was packed with 400-500 people.)

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic14. My favourite angel on the tree. Handmade by Zulu women in South Africa through Zimele dedicated to developing community self-reliance. The Fair Price guarantees income for their households, helping to fight poverty. A gift several years ago from my Canadian-South African friend and neighbour Thean Beckerling.

* * * * *

December 14, 2020

No fantastic holiday parties this year. But one can still dress up … and fantasize.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic15. A Santa souvenir from a trip Bill and I took to Paris in 2000, a city that we loved. When we first met in 1976, we discovered that we had both studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, Bill for two years 1967-69 and me for one year 1970-71. We took that as a sign, among others, that we were meant to be together. Both sets of parents had been opposed to our travel plans but we each persevered, financing our study trips on our own from savings accumulated through part-time and summer jobs the previous years. During Bill’s time in Paris, he lived above a restaurant and paid his room and board to the proprietors by cleaning the restaurant each night after it had closed. During one of his summers, he made extra money smuggling wine back and forth across the French/Spanish border. He also studied one summer at Le Cordon Blue. When I was there, I lived in a single room cold water flat on the 5ième étage of an old apartment building with a toilet in the hall shared by four other apartments. It cost me 250 francs/month ($50). I lived on 5 francs/day which bought me a copy of Le Monde, a baguette, and a bit of cheese. My one hot meal of the week was couscous at an Algerian or Tunisian restaurant on the left bank on Sundays after attending an organ recital and evening mass at Notre Dame. I had classes at the Sorbonne each weekday morning and then would spend all afternoon in la Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève where I would read anything I wanted – art history, philosophy, literature, history, political science, theology, etc. Thursday and Sunday afternoons were spent at the Louvre or Jeu de Paume because entrance was free for students on those days. It was the most intellectually stimulating year of my life and also the most monastic. Christmas was particularly lonely. I attended Christmas Eve midnight mass at Notre Dame followed by gorging on the Buche de Noel (Yule Log pastry) that I had splurged on back in my room.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic16. Bill taught piano and voice to children and adults in our home. Around 1980, a ten-year-old boy brought this construction worker toy to Bill as a Christmas present. It was one of his favourite toys and he wanted to give it to Bill who had become a very special and supportive adult in his life. The boy’s home situation was not the best. He told Bill that it was for the top of Bill’s Christmas tree. Bill thanked him and replied, “But we put an angel on top of the tree.” The student’s eyes dropped and he said quietly, “So, boys can’t be angels?” Chastened, Bill made a quick recovery, and said excitedly “Of course they can!” He found a couple pipe cleaners (remember them?), fashioned one as a halo and the other as a security belt to hold the construction worker/angel atop the tree. That young boy would be a 50-year-old man now. I imagine he remembers Bill. I wish I could let him know that his angel still occupies its place of honour on top of Bill’s Christmas tree.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic17. Yeah, that sounds about right. 😉 (The tree decoration was a gift a few years ago from my longtime friend Denny Young … who knows me well.)

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic18. Pretty as a picture … or, maybe not? I come by my love of Christmas decorations honestly. It’s in my genes. Mom used to decorate a lot, actually Dad did the decorating as per Mom’s direction. And Mom’s mom, Grandma Perschbacher, did as well as is evident in these two photographs of Grandma’s house in Waterloo that I think were taken in the mid-1920s. On the left side, the large dining room table festively set for Christmas dinner is the same table (recognizable by the stubby legs) at which our family ate many Christmas dinners as my brothers and I were growing up. All warm memories. The photo on the right, though, gives me pause. You’ll notice the opened presents displayed under the tree. They’re mainly dolls. Grandma Perschbacher had five daughters, my mom being the youngest of the five girls. Sometime in the next few years after this photo was taken, her husband left the family to live with another woman in Toronto. It must have been traumatic for the family and a minor scandal in the church in which they were deeply involved (the two of them had met and started courting while in the church young adults group; one of my aunts was the church organist). Mom almost never spoke about her father except on rare occasions when she would express shame about coming from a “broken home” (in her words). I look at these dolls under the Christmas tree and try to imagine the tension that presumably existed in the home, even on a Christmas morning that’s supposed to be about joy. And I think about Grandma Perschbacher, putting all the work into the Christmas decorating, buying or making the dolls as presents for her daughters, and preparing and serving and cleaning up after the Christmas dinner for the family and guests. After her husband left, Grandma raised her five daughters surviving on income from teaching piano lessons, taking in roomers, and some child support that her husband sent to her. As she aged, she lived with us and mom looked after her until she died in 1960 when I was ten years old. My recollections of her are not affectionate ones. We kids were scared of her. She was a cantankerous person at that stage of her life when I knew her and she was a trial for my mom as her caregiver. But when I think of the difficult life that she lived, I cut her a lot of slack. And I recognize that in her home … and in many other people’s homes … Christmas is not as picture-perfect as photos like these might suggest.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic19. Bill and I moved into our first house in the Toronto Beach neighbourhood in 1984. This ornament was the natural choice for that year’s Christmas tree. The house was one of the original buildings on Kenilworth Avenue and had apparently been an early postal station around 1900. It was tiny, constructed of wood and stucco, had a significant lean to the kitchen floor at the back of the house, a crawl space basement, and a low ceiling in the small gabled bedroom upstairs on which we bumped our heads many a time. And it was devastatingly charming. Our first year there, we invited two friends to join us for a traditional tourtière Christmas Eve dinner. Bill constructed a hanging wreath with evergreen boughs. He embedded candles in it and then suspended it over the table. It was similar to this pic from the internet … but, being Bill’s DIY model, not nearly as secure. We had a wonderful evening with good friends and Bill’s homemade tourtière, our table lit by the warm candle light from the wreath hanging above our heads. What made that Christmas Eve particularly special was that we succeeded in not burning the house down.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic20. Bill and I picked up a lot of these delicate ornaments on a trip to Paris in November 2000. We bought them and brought them home to give as little take-away gifts for each of the 100+ guests whom we were inviting to a big Christmas party that we were throwing in December to celebrate three milestones that year – our 25th anniversary, my 50th birthday, and the new Millennium. One of my favourite mementos from that wonderful evening, in addition to these remaining ornaments, is a photo of my parents dancing. My mom was having mobility problems by that point in her life and my dad was showing early signs of dementia and yet there they were enjoying themselves on the dance floor. It was the last time in their lives that they were capable and had the opportunity to do so. In this pic these ornaments are sitting on Bill’s childhood Christmas Rudolph plate.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic21. A parade of Santas. – Upper left: our collection of old Santas, some more of the Saint Nicholas variety, including the tall papier-mâché one that opens to hold candies and my mom’s ceramic salt and pepper Mr. and Mrs. Claus that I still use on my table every Christmas;- Upper right: a 4” metal Saint Nicholas mold with clamps perhaps for making candles or chocolates or something else (any ideas?);- Lower left: a creative plaster-of-paris Santa figure formed on top of an avocado with fine detail in the sculpting and painting; found in an antique shop run by an eccentric kinky gay guy in the rural Berkshires (Massachusetts) in the summer of 2017;- Lower middle: a sweet Santa ornament given to me a few years ago from friend and neighbour Frank DeMois;- Lower right: our cat Simon in our Stratford home (in 2005) not at all thrilled about having to play the role of Santa even though he should have been inspired by all the actors and company friends from the Stratford Festival who were often in our home during our years living there (1991-2009).

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic22. My partner Bill and I were the principal family caregivers for both sets of our parents during their declining years. My brother Rick and his wife Diane in New York sent us one of these Swarovski crystals each Christmas as an expression of their appreciation for our caregiving. In 1998, Bill’s dad died. In 2005, my mom died. In March 2007, Bill’s mom died and in April my dad died. In 2009, my brother Rick died by suicide in January and, in August, Bill died suddenly of pancreatic cancer. Because of the reason that these crystal decorations were given to us and from whom, this Christmas display is a treasured representation for me of these six lost family members.

“Your absence has gone through me,Like thread through a needle.Everything I do is stitched with its colour.” M.S. Merwin

The silver tray on which I’ve placed them this Christmas was bought by Bill and me in the mid-1980s. We had our names engraved in the middle along with August 17, 1976, the date on which we had our first date. We were both so excited/nervous about that first date that I arrived an hour early at the location to make sure I didn’t miss him and he brought along a friend to bolster his confidence. In subsequent years, we always celebrated our anniversary on August 17th. (I still do.) Around the outside of the tray are engraved the names of our parents: Lillian and Kenneth (my parents), Adelle and William (Bill’s parents).

In this other photo of the crystals, you can see prisms of colour cast on the back wall by the sun shining through the crystals. I like the implied metaphor.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic23. I love this city and I love the view of it from my condo. I recall so many special moments in Toronto over the years, such as when I was:·

  • 10 years old: the thrill of Mom putting my younger brother Rick and me on the train in Kitchener and us being met at Toronto’s Union Station by my Auntie Ev, my mom’s eldest sister, for an exciting day ogling the mesmerizing Christmas window displays at Eaton’s and Simpsons department stores on Queen Street, visiting Santa, and riding the subway;·
  • 21 years old: walking into the St. Charles Tavern, my first step into a gay bar; sitting nervously with a beer on a stool at the horseshoe bar; after about ten minutes, feeling a pair of arms wrap around me from behind and hearing a voice whisper in my ear, “I have to have you”; thus began my first relationship; for the next year and a half while I was still living and going to university in Waterloo, I would come to Toronto to spend the weekends with Clyve, a 32-year-old beautiful Black ballet dancer, at his apartment on Sherbourne St. (in a building that I can see from my condo);·
  • 26 years old: now living in Toronto, being asked out on a date by a hot guy I’d been admiring in the gay dance clubs (Manatee and the Maygay) for months; he took me to a play at what is now Buddies in Bad Times Theatre on Alexander St.; the connection between us was immediate and intense on many levels; within two weeks, we were living together in my apartment at 100 Wellesley St. E. (a building that I can see from my condo balcony); Bill and I were together as a couple for 33 years until his death in 2009;·
  • 50 years old: Bill and I attending a concert of opera superstar soprano Cecilia Bartoli at Roy Thomson Hall; we line up to get a CD signed by her after the concert; when we reach the front of the line, Bill, to the shock of everyone around including me, starts singing to her in his fine tenor voice one of her own arias (Cacinni’s “Amarilli, mia bella”) but changes the words to “Cecilia, mia bella”; her handlers try to shut him down but she waves them off, leans back, and listens with a huge grin on her face; when he finishes she applauds, congratulates him on his fine Italian, and signs our CD: “Per Guillermo & David, con amore (Amarilli), Cecilia Bartoli, 20/10/2000”;·
  • 70 years old: Christmas 2020, in this pandemic time, not being able to share my decorations and view of the city with friends in person at any of my usual seasonal gatherings of small intimate dinners or big house parties; instead, I post photos of the decorations on Facebook and Instagram with little stories of their history and what memories they evoke; and in response, I receive back from you, my sweet friends (in Toronto and beyond), such warmth.

I love this city.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic24. May the star that guides you, guide you well, and may the star upon which you wish, grant you your wishes.

* * * * *

#Christmas2020 Pic25. Merry Christmas, my dear friends. Whether you’re a believer or not, may you resonate with the Spirit of the Bethlehem Child and find your heart imbued with a passion for justice for all peoples and all creation, for peace that overcomes violence, for love that defeats hate, for hope that surmounts despair, and for life in all its fullness. 

(Handmade pottery crèche from a trip Bill and I made to Columbia in 1979.)

* * * * *

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Joy and Pain in Romantic Love in André Aciman’s “Call Me by Your Name” and “Find Me”

Prepared by David G. Hallman for

The Toronto Gay Men’s Literature and Arts Salon (Zoom Edition)

November 17, 2020

In June of 2013, I picked up the novel “Harvard Square” by André Aciman because I had heard good things about Aciman from friends … apparently, he had written a gay novel in 2007 that people loved entitled “Call Me by Your Name.” I had somehow missed that earlier work. With “Harvard Square”, I found the storyline relatively interesting but I was irritated all the way through by various aspects of the author’s writing style.

In particular, we as readers were constantly being told what the narrator is thinking and feeling. Listening to a character’s internal dialogue can be a powerful story-telling tool when it is done subtlety and nuance. But it’s off-putting when it is used obsessively and depicts the obvious and/or the predictable as I found it to be in “Harvard Square.” I am more engaged as a reader in a piece of fiction when I have to surmise what a character is thinking and feeling by observing their actions and speech. As editors are fond of saying, “show me, don’t tell me.”

Fast forward to September 2017. I went to see the film version of “Call Me by Your Name” at its première at the Toronto International Film Festival along with almost every gay man in the city. I fell totally in love with it. 

I then read the 2007 novel on which it was based and loved that too. In “Call Me by Your Name,” Elio is the narrator. We experience the whole story through his eyes, including his thoughts and feelings. But I didn’t have the same negative reaction to reading so much of the internal monologue of Elio’s heart and mind as I had in “Harvard Square.” Was that because of differences in Aciman’s writing style between the two books or had my perceptions changed? 

In February 2018, I was thrilled that James Ivory won the Academy Award for best screenplay for “Call Me by Your Name”, his first ever Oscar. He was 88-years-old at the time. He and Ismail Merchant were romantic life partners and creative professional partners for forty-four years from 1961 until Merchant’s death in 2005 and the two were responsible for the beautiful Merchant/Ivory films “A Room with a View,” “Maurice,” “Howard’s End,” and “The Remains of the Day.” 

What impressed me so much about James Ivory’s screenplay of “Call Me by Your Name” was how he had captured so perfectly the tone, the poignancy, the essence of the novel which is difficult to accomplish with a novel written in the first person. A common device used by screenwriters when translating such a personally narrated novel is to use voice-overs in the film. That sometimes works but it is also, in my opinion, a lazy way out. Much more difficult is what James Ivory did. The screenplay was so brilliantly crafted that it is as if we are Elio, falling in lust/love with Oliver from the moment that he sees him arrive at the villa, struggling with Elio to decipher whether signs from Oliver are positive or negative, riding Elio’s rollercoaster of emotional responses as the relationship takes on an intimate reality while Oliver’s summer sojourn in Italy draws towards a close. What James Ivory did in the screenplay was to evoke the atmospheric essence of the novel — the soul of Elio.

Which brings me to André Acimon’s newest novel “Find Me”. Since I had loved both the book and the film of “Call Me by Your Name” so much, I was looking forward to “Find Me” billed as a sequel. I was initially somewhat put-off by the structure. I wanted more of Elio and Oliver and what I got in the first section “Tempo” was 115 pages of a heterosexual bawdy romance between Elio’s father Samuel and Miranda whom he meets on the train. Elio appears in the second section “Cadenza” but no sign of Oliver. Instead, we’re introduced to Michel with whom Elio sort of falls in love but with the shadow of his soul-shattering love for Oliver hovering in the background. A drunken moping Oliver surfaces in the third section “Capriccio” pretending outwardly to be enjoying himself in his straight persona while longing for his long-lost Elio. Finally, in “Da Capo,” the last ten pages of the novel, our lovers are reunited for what appears to be a happy ending. 

Despite my initial misgivings about the structure and my glib synopsis above of the four sections, I came around to the judgement that, in “Find Me,” Aciman has produced a brilliant non-sequel sequel to “Call Me by Your Name.” 

  • Firstly, each of the four sections are written in the first person, three different first persons: Samuel in “Tempo,” Elio in “Cadenza,” Oliver in “Capriccio,” and Elio again in “Da Capo.” And the voices are all distinct and perfectly reflective of the characters. With a few minor exceptions, I was not distracted but rather thoroughly entranced by being privy to the thoughts and feelings of these first-person narrators through the internal monologues as Acimon writes them.
  • Secondly, as I moved further and further through “Find Me”, I came to an appreciation of the brilliance of structuring this sequel in such a way that we readers are thrust into three substantively different stories whose common thread is that each are built around protagonists who are the principal characters in “Call Me by Your Name.” This is so much more interesting than if we just had been bequeathed a second novel of Elio’s and Oliver’s romance, part two. In fact, the weakest part of “Find Me” is the final section where Elio and Oliver are back together. I think that’s partly because there’s no real tension to the storyline at that point.  
  • Thirdly, I loved the interweaving of musical motifs, metaphors, chapter titles, and critical plot elements. This worked most effectively for me in “Capriccio,” the Oliver chapter, that I think is the most beautifully written part of the book with its overwhelming poignancy.
  • Finally, I guess I am a romantic at heart. I was swept up in the various love stories in “Find Me”, those that burst forth in passion and joy so suddenly and unexpectedly for the characters and those that gave way to the searing and poignancy of loss. They come close but don’t quite match the heart-rending conversation between Elio and his father in “Call Me by Your Name” after Oliver has left when Samuel says, 
    • “You had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship … if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it … we rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste … right now there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it, and with it the joy you felt.”   

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

David Sedaris’s Gift

Introductory Comments by David G. Hallman for

The Toronto Gay Men’s Literature and Arts Salon (Zoom Edition)

September 15, 2020

I’ve never really gotten David Sedaris, or more accurately, I’ve never really understood all the hype round him. “Calypso” is the fourth Sedaris book that I’ve read preceded by “Naked” (1997), “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” (2008), and “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls” (2013). I saw him live 8 or 9 years ago at what was then called the Sony Centre. The hall was sold out, packed with adoring fans. 

I’ll grant you that he can be very funny. There’s a point in the short story “I’m Still Standing” where he is arguing with his husband Hugh about Hugh’s obsessiveness with privacy when he’s in the bathroom. 

Hugh won’t even let me in when he’s peeing. I’ll call from the other side of the door. “I had that in my mouth ten minutes ago and now it’s a private part?” Hugh yells back, “Yes! Go away!”

Sedaris’s humour often has a dark side as is characteristic of much satire. I relish darkness in writing styles but I’m not as attracted to it when it veers toward cruelty. In “The Spirit World” he talks about how he sometimes plays with audience members at book signings by pretending to know things about them like their astrological sign or about their family.  

I met a young woman a few years back, and after being right about both her sign and her sister, I said, as if I were trying to recall something I had dreamed, “You were in a…hospital earlier this week, not for yourself but for someone else. You were…visiting someone very close to you.” The woman fell apart before my eyes. “My mother has cancer. They operated but…How do you…I don’t…What are you doing?” “I can’t help it,” I told her. “I know things. I see them.” I don’t, of course. Those were just guesses, pulled out of my ass in order to get a rise out of someone.

It’s one thing to have a nefarious fictional character in your story but when you’re describing a real-life experience of your own and then not to express any remorse about having played a mean trick on someone … well, I find that off-putting.

Sedaris does have that wonderful gift as a writer to take mundane day-to-day situations and describe them in such a way that I as a reader become totally engrossed. He’s nowhere near a Proust in that skill nor does he come close to my current favourite Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard who, like Proust, can write for pages and pages about something as trivial as waiting for a friend to show up at a café and after reading his prose for half an hour I look up from the page, shake my head, and try and figure out how I got so swept away in his writing about something so seemingly inconsequential. 

Sedaris’s writing about the quotidian does have an intimacy to it on numerous dimensions: he’s brutally candid about his own foibles including for better or worse, his scatological ones; he’s mercilessly descriptive about his family’s eccentricities; and he’s totally matter-of-fact about his life as a gay man and his relationship with Hugh. This personal and familial intimacy in his stories is more evident in “Calypso” than his earlier books.

His style as a humourist, his ability to describe the ordinary in interesting ways, and the intimacy of his stories make “Calypso” an engaging read. But is it great writing? Apparently many of the hundreds of thousands who buy his books and attend his readings think so. I just don’t think that I’m one of them.

But, and this is a “but” that overrides much of my lack of enthusiasm for Sedaris as a writer, I’ve come to appreciate through reading “Calyspo” how courageous Sedaris is. He’s a little man physically, as he regularly reminds us, but he seems to have an innate strength and fearlessness to toss his vulnerability out onto the table for all to see. The prime case in point for me in “Calypso” is his descriptions of his relationship and interactions with his sister Tiffany, her struggles with mental health issues, and her eventual suicide. His writing about the alcoholism of his mother is also poignant but it didn’t resonate with me as much. I did not have an alcoholic parent whereas I did have a sibling who committed suicide.  

The last time I saw my sister Tiffany (Sedaris writes) was at the stage door at Symphony Hall in Boston. I’d just finished a show and was getting ready to sign books when I heard her say, “David. David, it’s me.” We hadn’t spoken in four years at that point, and I was shocked by her appearance. Tiffany always looked like my mother when she was young. Now she looked like my mother when she was old, though at the time she couldn’t have been more than forty-five. “It’s me, Tiffany.” She held up a paper bag with the Starbucks logo on it. Her shoes looked like she’d found them in a trash can. “I have something for you.” There was a security guard holding the stage door open, and I said to him, “Will you close that, please?” I had filled the house that night. I was in charge—Mr. Sedaris. “The door,” I repeated. “I’d like for you to close it now.” And so the man did. He shut the door in my sister’s face, and I never saw her or spoke to her again. Not when she was evicted from her apartment. Not when she was raped. Not when she was hospitalized after her first suicide attempt. She was, I told myself, someone else’s problem. I couldn’t deal with her anymore. “Well,” the rest of my family said, “it was Tiffany. Don’t be too hard on yourself. We all know how she can be.” 

This is what happened. Sedaris doesn’t softpeddle it. He tells it like it is. He doesn’t describe his residual persistent guilt. He doesn’t have to. It’s there, unmistakably there. 

I’ve done a lot of writing but I have not written about my younger brother’s suicide except for a short reference in my memoir “August Farewell” about my partner Bill’s sudden pancreatic death in which I mention that my brother Rick took his life in January 2009, six months before Bill’s death in August 2009. There would certainly be lots to write about: the deep depression that Rick went into after retiring from a senior academic position in New York City, a depression that he hid from everyone except his wife who was forced by him to keep it as a secret; about Rick’s sudden disappearance from their home in Brooklyn leaving behind a suicide note saying that he was driving to Canada; about his phone call late that night to me, the last person he spoke to; about him being found the next morning hanging from the back of his hotel room door in Waterloo, our family’s home town; about my meetings two days later with the police who investigated and the funeral home once his body had been released by the coroner; about the memorial service that I organised and conducted in New York City the following week on behalf of his traumatised wife; about Rick’s appearance to me in a dream several weeks later in which he calmly told me “I can explain”, a dream out of which I awoke screaming with anger and was held for hours by Bill as I wept. 

I have not written about my brother’s suicide. Yet. I am working on a book, but only for myself, not for publication. I’m calling it “Brushes with Death.” It will have five chapters. The first is on my testing positive for HIV in 1993. The second is about Bill’s and my caregiving for our parents as they aged and died. I’ve written those first two chapters. The third will be about Rick’s suicide. The fourth will be about Bill’s death. And the fifth will be about my open-heart surgery last year. 

David Sedaris has given me a gift in writing about Tiffany in “Calypso”. For that I’m very grateful. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

An Introduction to Alan Hollinghurst

Prepared by David G. Hallman for 

The Toronto Gay Men’s Literature and Arts Salon (Zoom Edition)

July 21, 2020

I first started coming to Toronto on weekends in 1968. I was 18-years-old. I would stay at the YMCA which at that time was on College Street where the Toronto Police building is now. The Y had a swimming pool of course along with exercise facilities, offices, and meeting rooms. The top three floors of the building were for accommodation, each with a large number of single very spartan bedrooms. You could rent a room cheaply. Communal showers and washrooms were in the far corner of the floor. A lot of sex went on in the showers. A lot of sex went on in the bedrooms. Guys would leave their doors slightly ajar and others would wander around in the hallways, pausing and glancing into the rooms. If the eye contact was held and an inviting signal given, you would go in and close the door behind you. I can attest to a similar setup and sexual atmosphere at the YMCA in Montreal and in New York. 

When the Village People sang in 1978 “…it’s fun to stay at the YMCA…”, it was not a fabrication.    

But outside of disco tunes, nobody was writing engaging, candid, explicit, unsensationalized, literary fiction about our contemporary lives at that time. Alan Hollinghurst was among the first. 

There had been other gay authors, certainly, who had written gay-themed books: E.M. Forster, Jean Genet, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, John Rechy, Christopher Isherwood, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Armistead Maupin, and others. And many of those books are brilliant evocations of time, place, and character. 

What Hollinghurst did so terrifically in his 1988 debut novel, “The Swimming Pool Library,” was to describe contemporary gay life matter-of-factly, including the sex that was part of gay life. As one reviewer wrote, it is the “first major novel in Britain to put gay life in its modern place and context … a historic novel and a historic debut.” 

Hollinghurst has observed about his literary debut, “There really wasn’t any serious fiction in Britain that was explicitly and unapologetically about gay life and that was a fantastic position to find myself in as a novelist. I had this amazing area of human interest to explore.”

A 1988 article about Hollinghurst in the London Review of Books reads, in part,

Writing about sex tends to go wrong in one of two related ways. The first is through embarrassment or over-excitement on the part of the author: overly rhapsodic descriptions of sex, in particular, tend to cause feelings of unease. The other, subtler way is through the failure to show sex as a function of character: to depict sex in fiction as a holiday from personality is to make sex, in fictional terms, merely digressive. One of the triumphs of The Swimming-Pool Library – a startlingly accomplished first novel – is the tonal control it achieves in writing graphically and explicitly about homosexual sex while never seeming flustered or prurient, and never wavering in the amused, ironic control of the narrating voice. 

It was this authenticity in depicting sex as being part-and-parcel of gay life that contributed to the enthusiastic reception of “The Swimming Pool Library” within the gay community. It was also what scandalized the novel for many heterosexuals. 

The Corinthian (men’s) Club in “The Swimming Pool Library” played a role as a place for gay men to meet and have sex in London in 1983 (the year in which the novel is set) as did YMCAs of that time in Toronto, Montreal, and New York.

One short illustration from the book:

The Corinthian Club in Great Russell Street was a place I loved, a gloomy and functional underworld full of life, purpose and sexuality. Boys, from the age of seventeen, could go there to work on their bodies in the stagnant, aphrodisiac air of the weights room. As you got older, it grew dearer, but quite a few men of advanced years, members since youth and displaying the drooping relics of toned-up pectorals, still paid the prices and tottered in to cast an appreciative eye on the showering youngsters.

It is astonishing to think of “The Swimming Pool Library” as a debut novel. Hollinghurst’s writing here is so accomplished, so confident, so elegant, so funny, so natural, and so literary without a hint of pretention. How did he learn to write like that? He studied English at Oxford, taught English at various colleges, and was the deputy editor of Times Literary Supplement from 1985 to 1990. So, he had been immersed in literature all his life but still, unquestionably, he had an extraordinary gift. 

Five other novels have followed “The Swimming Pool Library.” I’m not as enthusiastic about Hollinghurst’s two most recent books, the 2011 “The Stranger’s Child” and the 2017 “The Sparsholt Affair.” But I can’t say enough good things about his 2004 “The Line of Beauty” which won the Man Booker Prize. “The Line of Beauty” begins in 1983 but then unfurls over the subsequent four years during the course of which a dark cloud began slipping across our lives as gay men. 

It was thrilling and heart-rending to re-read “The Line of Beauty” over the past couple weeks. The experience reaffirmed my assessment that it is one of my all-time favourite novels, gay or otherwise.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized