I have to put my hand up here and admit me and classics don’t tend to get along. There’s just something about them that seems so dry. But then again, how do we define what constitutes a “classic” and what kind of social forces influence that? (But that’s a discussion for another time.)
Anyway to cut that long discussion short, classics tend to be white and straight and about men. Or the ones that have been long considered classics (isn’t it notable how a lot of the gay classics are more “modern” if you will – but that is also a discussion for a different time). Here you will obviously find only gay classics.
Before we start, a confession. I haven’t read any of these, so I’ve dispensed with the “why you should read it” sections.
(Also please rec me more, as ever!)
Summer Will Show
Sylvia Townsend Warner
Rep: wlw mcs
Sophia Willoughby, a young Englishwoman from an aristocratic family and a person of strong opinions and even stronger will, has packed her cheating husband off to Paris. He can have his tawdry mistress. She intends to devote herself to the serious business of raising her two children in proper Tory fashion.
Then tragedy strikes: the children die, and Sophia, in despair, finds her way to Paris, arriving just in time for the revolution of 1848. Before long she has formed the unlikeliest of close relations with Minna, her husband’s sometime mistress, whose dramatic recitations, based on her hair-raising childhood in czarist Russia, electrify audiences in drawing rooms and on the street alike. Minna, “magnanimous and unscrupulous, fickle, ardent, and interfering,” leads Sophia on a wild adventure through bohemian and revolutionary Paris, in a story that reaches an unforgettable conclusion amidst the bullets, bloodshed, and hope of the barricades.
Rep: mlm mc
Baldwin’s haunting and controversial second novel is his most sustained treatment of sexuality, and a classic of gay literature. In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself. After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.
Examining the mystery of love and passion in an intensely imagined narrative, Baldwin creates a moving and complex story of death and desire that is revelatory in its insight.
Notes of a Crocodile
Rep: lesbian mc, lgbt cast
Set in the post-martial-law era of late 1980s Taipei, Notes of a Crocodile depicts the coming-of-age of a group of queer misfits discovering love, friendship, and artistic affinity while hardly studying at Taiwan’s most prestigious university. Told through the eyes of an anonymous lesbian narrator nicknamed Lazi, Qiu Miaojin’s cult classic novel is a postmodern pastiche of diaries, vignettes, mash notes, aphorisms, exegesis, and satire by an incisive prose stylist and countercultural icon.
Afflicted by her fatalistic attraction to Shui Ling, an older woman who is alternately hot and cold toward her, Lazi turns for support to a circle of friends that includes the devil-may-care, rich-kid-turned-criminal Meng Sheng and his troubled, self-destructive gay lover Chu Kuang, as well as the bored, mischievous overachiever Tun Tun and her alluring slacker artist girlfriend Zhi Rou.
Bursting with the optimism of newfound liberation and romantic idealism despite corroding innocence, Notes of a Crocodile is a poignant and intimate masterpiece of social defiance by a singular voice in contemporary Chinese literature.
Rep: lesbian author
Narcyza Zmichowska (1819-76) was the most accomplished female writer to come out of Poland in the mid-nineteenth century. In terms of influence and popularity, she was the George Eliot of East European letters, but her fiction was written less in the realist style than in the Romantic one. Her novel The Heathen, rendered here in a crystalline English translation by Ursula Phillips, is the tale of a doomed love affair between Benjamin, a young man from a poor but patriotic rural family, and Aspasia, a femme fatale who is older, beautiful, worldlier, and more sexually liberated.
As the story unfolds, Benjamin falls in love with Aspasia, accompanies her to Warsaw, and under her influence achieves incredible intellectual and professional heights—until she tires of him and takes another lover. Jealous, Benjamin murders Aspasia’s new paramour and flees to his mother in the countryside—where he realizes the full extent of what he has lost and betrayed. Hence the fundamental tension in this work, represented by the two women who compete for Benjamin’s affection: the mother, who represents self-abnegation and redemption from sin, and Aspasia, who represents self-indulgence and sin itself. In the end, The Heathen embodies a profound meditation on the limits of these typecasts: the novel not only explores the restrictions they placed on women during the nineteenth century, but on human happiness, and Poland’s then tenuous impulse toward modernity.
Rep: Japanese wlw mc
Yoshiya Nobuko’s short-story series Flower Stories (Hana monogatari) is widely known for launching the genre of shōjo fiction–stories expressly written for girls and young women. For the first time in English, one of the most ardent and influential of the collection, “Yellow Rose,” is published with a translator’s introduction, era-specific design and list of further readings. It will appeal to all readers of fine fiction, especially those with an interest in women’s writings, genre fiction, youth culture, queer writings, and twentieth-century modernist styles.
Rep: wlw mc
Nightwood, Djuna Barnes’ strange and sinuous tour de force, “belongs to that small class of books that somehow reflect a time or an epoch” (TLS). That time is the period between the two World Wars, and Barnes’ novel unfolds in the decadent shadows of Europe’s great cities, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna—a world in which the boundaries of class, religion, and sexuality are bold but surprisingly porous. The outsized characters who inhabit this world are some of the most memorable in all of fiction—there is Guido Volkbein, the Wandering Jew and son of a self-proclaimed baron; Robin Vote, the American expatriate who marries him and then engages in a series of affairs, first with Nora Flood and then with Jenny Petherbridge, driving all of her lovers to distraction with her passion for wandering alone in the night; and there is Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O’Connor, a transvestite and ostensible gynecologist, whose digressive speeches brim with fury, keen insights, and surprising allusions. Barnes’ depiction of these characters and their relationships (Nora says, “A man is another person—a woman is yourself, caught as you turn in panic; on her mouth you kiss your own”) has made the novel a landmark of feminist and lesbian literature. Most striking of all is Barnes’ unparalleled stylistic innovation, which led T. S. Eliot to proclaim the book “so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.”
Confessions of a Mask
Rep: Japanese gay mc
Confessions of a Mask tells the story of Kochan, an adolescent boy tormented by his burgeoning attraction to men: he wants to be “normal.” Kochan is meek-bodied, and unable to participate in the more athletic activities of his classmates. He begins to notice his growing attraction to some of the boys in his class, particularly the pubescent body of his friend Omi. To hide his homosexuality, he courts a woman, Sonoko, but this exacerbates his feelings for men. As news of the War reaches Tokyo, Kochan considers the fate of Japan and his place within its deeply rooted propriety.
Confessions of a Mask reflects Mishima’s own coming of age in post-war Japan. Its publication in English―praised by Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, and Christopher Isherwood―propelled the young Yukio Mishima to international fame.
E. M. Forster
Rep: gay mc
Maurice is heartbroken over unrequited love, which opened his heart and mind to his own sexual identity. In order to be true to himself, he goes against the grain of society’s often unspoken rules of class, wealth, and politics.
Forster understood that his homage to same-sex love, if published when he completed it in 1914, would probably end his career. Thus, Maurice languished in a drawer for fifty-seven years, the author requesting it be published only after his death (along with his stories about homosexuality later collected in The Life to Come).
Since its release in 1971, Maurice has been widely read and praised. It has been, and continues to be, adapted for major stage productions, including the 1987 Oscar-nominated film adaptation starring Hugh Grant and James Wilby.
J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Rep: wlw mc
You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.
When a mysterious carriage crashes outside their castle home in Styria, Austria, Laura and her father agree to take in its injured passenger, a young woman named Carmilla. Delighted to have some company of her own age, Laura is instantly drawn to Carmilla. But as their friendship grows, Carmilla’s countenance changes and she becomes increasingly secretive and volatile. As Carmilla’s moods shift and change, Laura starts to become ill, experiencing fiendish nightmares, her health deteriorating night after night. It is not until she and her father, increasingly concerned for Laura’s well-being, set out on a trip to discover more about the mysterious Carmilla that the terrifying truth reveals itself.
Rep: wlw mc
When Olivia turns sixteen she is sent to a Parisian finishing school to broaden her education. Soon after her arrival, she finds herself falling under the spell of her beautiful and charismatic teacher. But Madamoiselle Julie’s life is not as straightforward as Olivia imagines and the school year is destined to end abruptly in tragedy.
Have you read any of these? Which others would you rec?