Banned Books Week: Brideshead Revisited & Other Classics Involving Homosexuality

Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder and Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte in the miniseries produced by Granada Television in 1981. And Aloysius, Sebastian's teddy bear. I named one of my own for him. Image: Granada Television.

My best friend in high school was gay. Except that we didn’t commonly use the word gay in France at this time (even if it’s supposed to exist since 1970). Actually, even the word homosexual wasn’t used in front of children and teenagers at this time. So he was something he hadn’t even a word for. Can you imagine what it could be?
He experienced strange feelings for some boys. He didn’t even use the word love, not in the beginning. How would he have dared? Love was a thing between boys and girls, women and men, as defined by living examples around us, movies and books.
Yes, books. I’m sure you see my point, now.

Many young boys and girls are in the same situation as my friend was, even if it’s a bit easier now. They need the same thing he needed: to hear about other people feeling like them, to find stories they can relate with, words to define their desires.
For centuries, they weren’t able to find it in their relationships, nor in their schoolbooks, nor in the overprotected school libraries. I remember that when we studied the famous French poets Verlaine and Rimbaud, our schoolbooks talked about their “friendship”. And when I told my schoolmates what it really was, they hardly believed me.
How had I happened myself to find this particular piece of knowledge? I cannot remember. What’s the point being a nerd if you cannot learn such things? I also was a very lucky bookworm: my parents trusted me enough to allow me an open access to any library, including their own.

Then I began to read about homosexuality, to look for it in books, between the pages, even between the words. That was to help my friend, first, to lend him the books I had found. Then to understand him better. At end, it was the fascination of the discovery of a whole new world, a world that was round us from the beginning and we were never told about, a world most people refused to imagine.
I read Oscar Wilde, of course, not only The Picture of Dorian Gray, but also his more autobiographical writings, and his biography by Robert Merle.
I read Maurice, the novel E.M. Forster asked to be published only after his death.
I read French authors André Gide (who’s very good) and Roger Peyrefitte (who’s less). I read more recent authors such as Yves Navarre, openly gay, whose novel Le Jardin d’Acclimation (translated in English as Cronus’ Children) won the most prestigious French literary prize, the Goncourt, one year before homosexuality was decriminalized in France in 1981.
I enjoyed discovering homosexuality in fantasy books, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Heritage of Hastur. That was long before works like the Kushiel series could be written and published.

And I read Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh (who’s male, despite his first name).
Which is far more than a “gay book”. Which is a wonder. One of these very rare books you’ll find a wonder if you read them at 18, and still find a wonder rereading them at 30.

Brideshead Revisited also pictures gay characters, from the openly homosexual, sarcastic and decadent Anthony Blanche, to the almost untold love between the narrator, Charles Ryder, and the delicious and tragic Sebastian Flyte.
But there’s more, much more. That’s a story about faith, with an agnostic narrator fascinated by a family of English Catholics whose all members struggle between their religion and their desires.
That’s a story about nostalgia, for the dying world of English aristocracy, for the world before World War II, for all the “paradises lost” of our adolescence, the ones that shone so brightly they almost pierced our hearts.
That’s a story about the coming of age, a very bittersweet one.
Above everything, that’s a book about grace, whose writing was also touched by grace.
The complex and demanding grace of God. The equally complex and demanding grace of love. The fragile grace of personal charm, which is given to some, refused to others, and rarely come with happiness.
That’s a book you want to have in your library, in any library.

As any library needs to provide good novels featuring gay and lesbian characters. So as no teenager finds himself or herself in the same situation my friend was, without a single story to relate with, without a chance to learn that classics also spoke about such things, without a word to name her or his feelings.

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