Robert Aldrich – Gay Life Stories, Review
“I learned about the variety of ways in which what we call ‘homosexuality’ has been expressed through the centuries and around the world, what a significant impact it has had not just on personal experiences but on social debates, and how many misconceptions there are in the present-day world about same-sex desires and relationships”. Robert Aldrich, writing for the Huffington Post
“[T]he expression of homosexual desire is in itself revolutionary, since it challenges the whole canon of social norms and can be a point of departure for a new personal and social experience in general”. Aldrich on Guy Hocquenghem, Gay Life Stories
Gay Life Stories is a compendium of notable gay men and women in history. It’s author, Robert Aldrich – who has written and edited a number of books on gay social history such as The Seduction of the Mediterranean, Colonialism and Homosexuality, and Gay Life and Culture – has assembled an interesting range of individuals from the incredibly famous to the less well known. From Wilde to Whitman, Michelangelo to McCullers, Gomes to Arenas, Aldrich has been at pains to point out that this in no way an exhaustive tome, having already edited a Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History in the past decade, a collection of over 1000 entries across two volumes. Instead, it is a fascinating set of short essays amounting to a bio-socio-geo-historical study of homosexuality for anyone with an interest in the lives of past gay figures.
Handsomely produced in hardback, with soft grey covers and thick vellum pages, each entry has an illustration to accompany it, either of the subject and/or their work. These are incredibly useful in bringing the subject to life and offer a small taste for anyone who wishes to investigate further. It can be read from cover to cover chronologically, by section (characters are categorised loosely by era, politics, geography, vocation, or art) or simply by delving in out. Each entry is a vignette in itself, nicely woven together by Aldrich but also sitting independently from each other. His research is meticulous (especially on historical persons who almost little or nothing is known about their private lives) and his writing is lucid and to the point. He can cover long periods of a person’s life in just a few sentences without leaving anything out.
Gay Life Stories is rather similar in scope and aim as Colm Tóibín’s Love In a Dark Time, which includes a number of individuals notably missing from Aldrich’s book; Roger Casement, Thomas Mann, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, and Elizabeth Bishop. Both books seek to tell the story of homosexuality through biography, piecing together the untold histories of gay experience and same-sex love, as well as situating each subject in the historical context whose morals affected their lives and impinged upon their sexuality and the development of a ‘gay identity’. Aldrich deserves credit for giving due space to individuals often left out of the gay canon; Michael Sweerts, Karol Szymanowski, Claude Cahun, Richard Schultz, Newton Arvin, Eugène Jansson, Magnus Enckell, Alair Gomes, Tamotsu Yato, and Shi Pei Pu, as well as having a section on woman. Their lives and their works are given equal prominence and open new avenues for readers interested in gay art and history.
One interesting thread throughout the book was the importance of wealth, privilege, and background for gay men and women. Indeed, coming from a bourgeois (even aristocratic) family made it much easier to be gay and engage in same-sex couplings. Their position and their money buffeted them from the social mores of the time and also allowed them the freedom to discover their sexuality on their own terms, travel to find like-minded individuals, and time to create. There are only a handful of cases – Reinaldo Arenas, Jean Sénac, Claude McKay, Simon Nkoli – who came from poor families and had difficult childhoods. Only by the force of their personalities and their creative talents could they rise out of poverty and thus be included in a book of individuals who did something significant with their lives. The point I guess I am making is that so often – as very generally in history – the ‘little man’s’ voice is lost; poor, ordinary folk who perhaps had greater difficulties because they were gay and had no money. Their story is forgotten to history.
This is only a minor criticism (which is beyond the scope in fact) of Gay Life Stories, a brilliant source of information and a good place to start for gay men and women who want to know more about prominent gay figures in history. Immersing oneself in their lives is reassuring and stimulating, a reminder of hard won battles and experiences that mirror our own.
Also see my blog post on The Artists of Robert Aldrich’s Gay Life Stories
Buy Robert Aldrich – Gay Life Stories from Amazon.co.uk
Gay Life Stories by Robert Aldrich (Thames & Hudson) £19.95