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He recognized her despite the uproar, through his tears of unrepeatable sorrow at dying without her, and he looked at her for the last and final time with eyes more luminous, more grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in half a century of a shared life, and he managed to say to her with his last breath:

“Only God knows how much I loved you.”

Today has been reported as the hottest day in Sydney for 85 years. I certainly felt it. When I set out this morning the air had been pleasantly cool. One quick deposit of previously reviewed book titles and the collection of this coming week’s novels and I was back outsde, stepping lightly on sizzling concrete.

Absolutely unbearable. While waiting for the bus I began reading Love in the Time of Cholera, a book I am sad to say I am mostly familiar with following its use as a prop in that Kate Beckinsale romcom Serendipity. I felt as if the heat simply dropped, so absorbed was I in the book’s fluid prose. Later when I retreated to my shady bedroom, with my wife curled up asleep beside me in bed, I felt like I was the luckiest man alive.

The story begins with the tragic suicide of a man who refused to grow any older once he had reached his sixtieth year. Though he does not figure in the rest of the story, a narrative that flashes back and forth across the lives of three individuals caught in a strange love triangle, this man’s refusal to grow old reflects the concerns of the novel itself. Whether love, that animating principle that sustains both generation and devotion, is possible in old age?

For fifty-one years, nine months and four days Florentino has remained passionately in love with Fermina. They met while they were both teenagers and conducted a secret affair of the heart through love letters. Florentino is given to over-romantic poetical outpourings of affection, gifts and persistent entreaties for Fermina’s love. For her part, she maintains a degree of reserve in her replies, although she is convinced that she loves him. Even after the affair is discovered, she persists in her shared attraction to the poet, until one day, having overcome many months of obstacles thrown in their path to be together, she sees him in a new light: as a pathetic looking figure, completely dependent on her reciprocation.

She rejects Florentino and instead finds herself courted by Dr. Urbino, sophisticated and possessing of wordly knowledge where her former lover was insular and consumed by an irrational infatuation. Urbino has returned from Europe with the sophistication of a true Parisian, a cultured interest in literature and modern medicine, having aided in the defeat of a devastating cholera epidemic. They marry and raise a family together, discovering an enduring domestic happiness.

Florentino fastidiously preserves his own body to remain in shape for his beloved and is incapable of writing anything but love letters in memory of the woman who rejected him – something of a hindrance when it comes to writing business letters for a shipping company. As the years pass he begins to take a series of lovers, generally widows, with whom he has clandestine relationships, never marrying, never accompanying any of them in public. As he rises up the corporate ladder rumours spread that he is in fact homosexual and with his studied vanity, unusual attention to his health and obsession with sex is seen as an odd character.

When Urbino finally dies, having fallen in an attempt to retrieve a parrot from a mango tree, Florentino presents himself to Fermina while she is still in mourning and presses his suit. Horrified she rejects him a second time, in disbelief that such an unnatural request be made while her husband sits in his coffin waiting for burial.

The death of Urbino occurs at the beginning of the novel, with the three lives of the spurned lover, wife and dead husband poured over for the rest of the book. There is a Proustian quality to the proceedings, with memory the fuel of the narrative. The frailty of the human body is ever-present. Florentino’s romantic obsession is symptomatic of cholera; the aging characters are betrayed by bodily effluvia. At one point someone declares that romantic love in youth is ridiculous – during old age, obscene.

This book remains passionately defiant and wickedly seductive till the last page. Delirious, amoral and bewitching.


I deplore the far too easy analogy between the traditional role of the priest and the current role of the therapist. It can only be made by people who clearly know very little of your profession and less than nothing of mine. You may assuage a troubled mind, but you offer no solace to the soul.

The Catholic Church is facing a losing battle with public opinion these days. The horrific revelations of child sex abuse that have increased in recent years were only made more horrifying with the discovery that the Vatican has made it policy to cover up allegations of abuse in lieu of investigating and prosecuting the crimes. This year Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone went even further and laid the blame on homosexual priests, in effect excusing the Church itself of any responsibility. A long-standing antagonistic relationship exists between the Catholic Church and the gay community, one that has led to the ironical claiming of Christian martyrs as gay icons, such as Saint Sebastian. Even the masochistic imagery of the Passion has itself become confused by sexual ambiguity and it is this blurred line between martyrdom and repressed sexuality that author Michael Arditti explores with his first novel.

Each chapter of The Celibate opens with a continuing narration by an erudite tour guide to a group of astonished tourists. We then flit from, in the first half of the novel, a discussion of the Whitechapel murders by the figure popularly known as Jack The Ripper, to a second narration, that of a troubled young man who has been ordered to undergo therapy. Slowly it becomes clear that the tour guide and the young man, an ordinand in the Anglo-Catholic Church, are one and the same. The therapy sessions are entirely one-sided, with the trainee priest’s life story unfolding almost unprompted, as to his increasing frustration, the therapist never speaks.

He describes how his calling was quite a unique one. As the son of an English Jew it seemed odd to many that he would choose to become a priest, but he feels compelled to study the Catholic faith and make it his own. At the seminary he befriends – and from the beginning we are given to understand was betrayed by – another student named Jonathan, who is fiercely passionate and politically active. The narrator at one point mentions that his one-time friend expounded from the pulpit that the Church’s ban of homosexuality is actually a distraction from the breaking of the more serious taboo of incest in the Bible by figures such as Noah and Lot.

The sudden seizure upon the altar which leads to the narrator’s suspension from his studies results in him working alongside more secular charities for a time. While there he discovers something of his old missionary zeal in trying to help London rent boys. He compares himself to William Gladstone, which in turn reflects the narration by his future self of the attitude towards prostitutes held by the Victorian era. Slowly his religious resolve begins to weaken and he discovers that he has been hiding his true nature from himself, something that the rent boys and pimps he meets are quick to guess at. Can someone believe in a Christian god represented on this Earth by a homophobic church and be gay at the same time?

This book is divided into two sections, each bookended with a different opening tour by our nameless guide. The first compares the hypocrisy of the Victorian era with its condemnation of ‘fallen women’, (allowing for a double-victimisation at the hands of the Whitechapel murderer), to the rampant homophobia of the Church and its refusal of mercy to homosexuals. The second examines the parallels between the plague of 1665 and the present-day AIDS epidemic, with bigotry and intolerance increasing the risk to sufferers of both.

As Arditti has chosen the device of having this character engage in ongoing monologues, via his tour guide patter and therapist confessional, we are privy only to his thoughts throughout. Scholarly discussions of the history of Christianity meet a reserved naivety of a man hiding from himself. As such the reader comes to know this nameless protagonist better than he knows himself – and by extension, we come to understand the dilemma of many priests who are called to betray themselves.

This is a stunning, yet disturbing debut novel. Sex and spirituality are twinned, the bigotry of the Thatcherite era equated with Victorian hypocrisy. A powerfully moving book.

One more page, she decides; just one more. She isn’t ready yet; the tasks that lie ahead (putting on her robe, brushing her hair, going down to the kitchen) are still too thin, too elusive. She will permit herself another minute here, in bed, before entering the day. She will allow herself just a little more time.

Johann Goethe is credited with having inspired the dolorous Romantic movement that followed the publication of his work The Sorrow of Young Werther. The German author would later disown Werther, for inspiring what he felt was a ‘sick’, morbid melancholy, a fascination with the act of suicide itself. “It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.” I wonder if Virginia Woolf were to have lived to see the publication of The Hours might she have expressed similar regrets.

The Hours tells the story of three women fascinated by the story of Mrs Dalloway. It begins with the suicide of Virginia Woolf herself, before returning to the period during which she conceived the novel. This is intentional, as her work, for better or worse, will forever be defined by the manner of her death in the minds of her readers.

We then skip forward to the present day, where a Clarissa Vaughan, much like her namesake, is feverishly planning a celebratory party for her old friend Richard, who has won a prestigious literary award. She is also caring for her friend, who is dying of AIDS and is rapidly losing his grip on reality.

Finally we meet Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife who is obsessed with Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs Dalloway. She feels trapped by her marriage to her war hero husband, petrified by the responsibility of being a mother to her young son Richard, while all she wants to do is retreat into a book and hide from the world.

The parallels between the lives of these three women and the novel Mrs Dalloway are teased out by author Michael Cunningham. Obviously in the case of Virginia Woolf we see how events in her own life inspire the characters and situations introduced into her writing. Where she is offhand to her servants, Clarissa Dalloway will be caring and considerate. Her feelings of depression inspire the character of Septimus Warren Smith. Laura Brown takes inspiration from Woolf in reflecting about her own life, whereas Clarissa is mocked by Richard with the nickname ‘Mrs Dalloway’.

As well as focusing on the importance of Woolf’s writing, this is also a book about how the challenges faced by homosexuals have changed by the end of the 20th century. In Woolf’s time gay men and women conducted their lives in secret (speaking of which, gamahuche is my favourite euphemism – ever!). Now gay lifestyles are more visible, yet the bigoted view that AIDS is somehow a ‘gay disease’ is expressed openly by homophobes. These are important issues and I am glad that writers like Cunningham are unafraid to deal with them.

So why do I find this such a trite book?

In part it is the aping of Woolf’s style. While I found the language of Mrs Dalloway flowed and sang with a natural rhythm of its own, the imitation attempted by Cunningham feels like purple prose. This is also quite a humourless book, full of doomed characters reflecting on self-slaughter. When Tom Stoppard wrote the script to Shakespeare in Love he wisely avoided hammy portentousness and self-indulgence, throwing in digs at the expense of England’s Greatest Writer ™ (I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once). Cunningham has Virginia and her husband casually discussing “Tom’s mistakes”, presumably a reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which they published under the imprint Hogarth Press.

This attempt at levity comes off as pretentious name-dropping. It gets worse when Clarissa in the present day is amazed at the sight of Meryl Streep entering her trailer on a New York street. Perhaps in an attempt at po-mo humour Stephen Daldry cast the actress as Clarissa in the film version of The Hours. Both she and Laura are overly enamoured with famous actresses in the book, making their profundity strangely trivial.

This tiresome book is Twilight for New York literary salons, little more than turgid and pretentious fanfiction.

Who has not battled a fleeting shudder, a secret dread and anxiety upon boarding a Venetian gondola for the first time or after a prolonged absence? That strange conveyance, coming down to us unaltered from the days of the ballads and so distinctively black, black as only coffins can be – it conjures up hush-hush criminal adventures in the rippling night and, even more, death itself: the bier, the obscure obsequies, the final, silent journey.

Luchino Visconti’s film of Death in Venice was always a favourite of mine, with its use of Mahler and beautiful Venetian scenes. I never got round to reading source material though, Thomas Mann’s classic novel about artistic frustration and obsession. Now I realize Visconti conflated elements of two of the German writer’s books – Death in Venice and Doctor Faustus – changing the main character’s profession of writer to music composer, presumably as the themes of the novel are more easily translated to film if the subject is music and not literature.

Gustav von Aschenbach is a celebrated author who has received commendations from his king, his writing selected as class texts for school children and now in his fifties, enjoys a high level of fame and privilege. One day as he takes an afternoon constitutional through his home town he sees a strange man who catches his quizzical gaze and embarrasses Aschenbach by glaring back at him. Caught up in these feelings of embarrassment and shame, the writer’s calm is thrown off-balance and he is suddenly seized by a desire to travel. His orderly existence is too predictable and tiring, he needs a holiday to refresh himself. Some weeks later he sets off, eventually arriving in Venice in the grip of an unpleasant heatwave.

With the city’s canals rising and the humidity pressing upon Aschenbach’s delicate constitution, he decides to leave shortly after checking into his hotel. However, he happens to see a family of Poles dine in the hotel and is amazed by the startling appearance of a fourteen year old boy in the group. While the boy’s three sisters are dressed conservatively and obediently follow their governess, their sibling has long golden hair, wears less formal clothing and seems to be the most spoiled of the children, the constant centre of attention. Aschenbach learns that the boy’s name is Tadzio and begins to find excuses to spend his days down at the beach to watch the his object of obsession at play, even choosing to have his meals at the same time in the hotel. Even as the city’s climate continues to become more oppressive, with officials ordering restrictions that no one seems able, or willing, to explain, the celebrated German author ignores his suspicions, allowing his new obsession to take over.

Thomas Mann commented that this story was an effort to discuss the ‘dignity of the artist’, and the current translation by Michael Henry Heim contains an interesting introduction by Michael Cunningham that argues all books are in effect translations, attempts to capture the idea dreamt up by the writer’s mind with the written word. Aschenbach is troubled by the thought that he has become conventional. He enjoys his fame and national renown, but underneath he is aware that it is a poor recognition of his desire to achieve perfection in his art. He is obsessed with abstractions, ideal forms and “particulars”, becoming more divorced from life by his philosophical musings.

Mann introduces several odd individuals who are very particular indeed, robbing the author of his philosophical poise. First there is the stranger visiting his home-town, who inspires his sudden feelings of wanderlust. Then there is a fellow passenger on the boat to Venice, an aging dandy, whose face is heavily made-up. Then the cartoonish musician, with the mocking uncontrollable laughter that may in fact parody the effects of the pestilence the Venetian authorities are covering up. I would argue that Tadzio is yet another of this group, a ‘particular’, that Aschenbach’s philosophy cannot reduce to theses or antitheses. His sudden admission of ‘I Love You’, is a complete loss of self-control, a statement that is made with no one else present to witness it.

Death in Venice is a book about love, or rather desire. Aschenbach abandons all his hard-won professorial airs and has a barber dye his hair and plaster his face like the dandy on the boat. All to make himself look young enough for Tadzio.

A beautiful, tragic fable.

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