Monday, 21 January 2013

Rereading 'While England Sleeps' by David Leavitt

'While England Sleeps' by David Leavitt is a novel I first read almost twenty years ago. I believe it's been revised since then, because of a legal complaint. Its original version is the one i've got - the one that veers too close to the life of its ostensible real-life subject. I'm not sure how much Leavitt had to change it around.

Anyhow, I remembered how much I loved this book, and how much i enjoyed Leavitt's writing generally. I stopped keeping up with him a number of years ago - finding his stuff just a little narcissistic and pleased with itself... and just a tad fancily done. You know when the writing feels just a bit sticky, as if the paint is somehow too fresh and neatly applied?

What came across this time was what a great feat of ventriloquism Leavitt pulls off here. He brings up the voices of these upper class twits, ne-er-do-wells, revolutionaries, bohemians, nasty poets, cottaging queers, lesbian radicals, interfering aunts and anarchists quite beautifully. My favourite is the narrator's object of desire - Edward Phelan - who works on the underground and who reads two books a week and strives to educate himself and improve his lot. The novel is really about how the Isherwood / Spender cipher Brian Botsford finds him, loves him, foolishly loses him and bravely pursues him into the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. It's a wonderfully sexy romance novel, really - and it comes to us with a whiff of age-old novel about it. All of these details are commuted through a brownish smog of earlier novels and published diaries - some of the characters (the aunts and the flappers and the silly slappers) seem as if they've been airlifted directly from other people's books. Leavitt gleefully outs them all, and gives us the hot and sexy scenes those 1930s novels didn't dare present quite so boldly.

I guess he's doing what Sarah Waters would later do for the Victorian era novels of Sensation. Gaying up the genres of the past. Or gaying them *back* up.

So - that was my first return to an early 1990s novel in this casual project of rereading that I've set myself.

I think in my brash early twenties (did i have such a time?) i was a bit miffed by the pastiche element in this book (it seemed too show-offily virtuoso, perhaps..? And a little po-faced...) I had read all the originals too recently, possibly. Isherwood was a very great hero of mine just then. But now I can see much better how hard Leavitt is working here, and just how wonderfully readable he makes it all. It could have been quite a stodgy brew, working from those sources and trying to say something about the politics of then and 'now'. However, he brings these people and their literary London back to life quite magically - if messily. Everything in the book is stained - with tea and all sorts of secretions. There never are any blank clean sheets in the beds or books of Leavitt's fictional world.

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