Love and Death on Long Islandby Gilbert Adair
“A very funny portrait of an extraordinarily unworldly academic’s introduction to the dizzyingly incomprehensible realm of popular culture.” –Nick Hornby
The basis for the hit independent film starring Jason Priestly and John Hurt, Love and Death on Long Island, is a brilliant, witty, and heartrending update of Death in Venice. When he wanders into the wrong theater and finds himself watching the wretched teen-pic Hotpants College II, cerebral British author Giles De’Ath becomes romantically obsessed with dreamboat Ronnie Bostock. Giles’s infatuation drives him to the unthinkable: he reads American fan magazines and watches movies with titles like Tex Mex and Skid Marks. And finally, he travels to Long Island, intent on meeting Ronnie in the flesh.
“A literary gem, a tour de force . . . Most of us had probably forgotten English could be written so well.” –Literary Review (UK)
“A very funny portrait of an extraordinarily unworldly academic’s introduction to the dizzyingly incomprehensible realm of popular culture.” –Nick Hornby
“Brief, pure, intense. With perfect poise and poignance, Adair puts across the impossibility of fulfillment, the heat and humiliation of passion. The writing is masterly, the conjuring of contrasting worlds a triumph.” –Financial Times (UK)
“Utterly original, baroquely comic . . . [Love and Death on Long Island] is about the generally closeted nature of love, in general, and about how all of us are capable of conjuring up love objects in the least likely of places.” –Daphne Merkin, The New Yorker (on the film)
I do not know why I should have come to so abrupt a halt in the middle of the broad pavement of the street along which I had been walking an instant before with, to all outward appearance, not a care in the world. Conveniently, or perhaps this it was which caused me to stop there rather than elsewhere, the first thing I noticed as I stared about me in bafflement was a street sign attached to a low brick garden wall. It read “Fitzjohn’s Avenue”. For the moment I felt quite disoriented, I was incapable of deciding whether or not I ought to register some little amazement at the fact that I was still in Hampstead, still at a sensible distance from home instead of halfway across London or dear knows where. Evidently I had stepped out at my own garden gate and, for one reason or another, a reason that may have had nothing in common with reason in any more abstract sense, had chosen not to stroll upwards towards the Heath as was my customary practice.
Instead, I must have taken Frognal Rise and by some circuitous route of which I had only the very vaguest recollection – possibly by Church Row? – now found myself moving out of Hampstead altogether. I had left home, it’s true, with no specific destination in mind, just an enervated conviction that I “had to get out”, and it was no doubt when I reached that stretch of Fitzjohn’s Avenue where it might be said to gather speed, as it were, like a current about to plunge headlong into the ocean of the metropolis that lies beneath it, and when I knew, if only “unconsciously”, that I had been following a longer and straighter path than was feasible within the snug, verdant maze of Hampstead proper, with all its lamplit ‘crescents’ and ‘rises’ and ‘rows’, that an obscure territorial mechanism cautioned me to stop and take stock.
The pavements on both sides of the street were free of pedestrians and no traffic seemed to be travelling in either direction. Fitzjohn’s Avenue is almost entirely residential, bordered by large and pleasant if sometimes slightly uncommunicative private houses with rambling and even derelict front gardens and red-brick walls high enough to hide from the undesired gaze of a passer-by all but their rooftops or low enough to expose the whole fa”ade from driveway to chimney pots or else suddenly giving way to a slatted, charred-looking sort of fencing. Here and there, too, one passes a church, an orphanage or a convent school. But I had observed none of these, for as I descended the avenue at an uncommonly lively tread my observations had all been of a seethingly internal order. Only now did I view the need to consider my immediate surroundings as an imperative one.
The house in front of which I happened to be standing, and on whose garden wall was affixed the signpost that had caught my eye, differed from its neighbours in appearing tolerably new, certainly newly repainted; that combined with a vague Dutch or pseudo-Dutch style of architecture and a very unrambling rock garden lent it a queerly miniaturised look. Emphasising its toy like aspect was the number-sign nailed on to the gate. This had been contrived out of a single piece of varnished wood which reminded me of some old-fashioned painter’s palette (although the two shapes were in fact quite dissimilar) and on which was carved, in letters not numbers, Forty-Three A. There was, as I could not help thinking, something most definitely un-Hampstead in such arch and suburban artfulness.
It was, however, the garden itself to which my attention was drawn. It was laid out, naively symmetrically, with plants in pots and flowers in flowerbeds, to practically none of which I, a writer so often praised for my descriptive powers, could have put a name. But pride of place had been given by the house’s occupiers to, of all improbable trees, a palm.
The intention had doubtless been to contribute an inkling of exoticism to the dull, housebroken leafiness of NW3, to make of this poor solitary palm tree a synecdoche and symbol of the light and warmth and colour of which the British quotidian round is so starved. Yet its effect on me, as an uneasiness of spirit invested the matter with an intensity I could not explain, was completely the reverse. The presence of the palm, set to very moot advantage by a meandering string of little white pebbles that looped around its base and an arrangement of turquoise-and-yellow flowers so orderly it might have served as a pattern on a woman’s blouse, only underscored how alien it was to its setting. It transported me no further southwards, nowhere more exotic or alluring, than Torquay, that insipid jewel of the “English Riviera” – Torquay of the palm-skirted putting greens and promenades. Its having been uprooted in this manner filled me with the same distaste and pity as would an elephant trained to stand up on its hind legs in a circus act.
Really, it was an inoffensive enough thing to encounter on a Hampstead lawn, and no one else would have afforded it more than a glance. But it was there that I chanced to stop and, if not this, then something else would have allowed me to objectify my exasperation with the world and its ineradicable mediocrity, to pronounce, not precisely aloud, the anathema I had been harbouring inside of me since I left home: “All journalists be damned to Hell!”
I was born in the year of grace 193- and as a writer had been – somewhat to the surprise of my contemporaries at Cambridge, who had expected the greatest things of me – what is generally called a late developer. Orphaned during my final year, and made wealthy by the tragedy, I was of course without the incentive of any pressing material need to commit myself to literary expression of whatever variety or depth and, until the latter sixties, had brought out just a short, indifferently published study of the sixteenth-century Mannerist school of painting – the kind of thing that was no more and perhaps even a trifle less than might have been looked for in someone of such obvious brilliance. In every other respect, that period of my life remained as sketchy and enigmatic to those with whom I had formed close friendships at university, and there were few enough of them, as it did to the scarcely more numerous readers and critics and fellow writers (for if anyone deserved the ungrateful epithet of “writer’s writer”, it was I) who discovered what they judged to be talent of a quite extraordinary stamp in the series of four novels I wrote in swift succession from 1969 to the middle of the next decade.
These four novels – which were frequently referred to, to my intense annoyance, as a tetralogy – shared the theme of sacrifice, a theme to which their author seemed to be ascribing an explicitly religious or at the very least otherworldly significance. In spite of that, they had conventionally been read (especially in France, where my stock was higher than in my native country and my work had been compared to Blanchot’s) as allegories of the quasi-sacrificial act of writing itself and the correlative condition of perpetual and agonising incertitude that it induces in the writer. Of the four individual sacrifices chronicled in the novels not one is shown to have been justified.
Fastidiously textured, unlyrical and superficially uneventful save for the pivotal act, curiously timeless in atmosphere despite the occasional and, as some believed, rather intrusive allusion to the Holocaust, they were of personal inspiration only in the paradoxical sense that the equivocal convulsions of self-abnegation which made up their subject matter appeared to be mirroring, in what the French term a mise en abyme, my own self-effacing attitude to language as the externalisation of an interiority. (Lately, for example, one of my American exegetes had created something of a minor sensation in academic circles by demonstrating that not once in the entire corpus of my published writings, fictional and non-fictional, and even unto those extremely rare exchanges of dialogue that speckled my fiction, had I had recourse to the first person singular: in short, even when assuming the voice of one of my protagonists, I had never brought myself to say “I” in print.) At any rate, they had enjoyed no commercial success whatsoever. In England, where an unprecedented shift in social mores had ended with the relaxing of censorship, their cold, demure narratives could not have seemed less of their own time. Even across the Channel their total absence of direct political engagement or ideological underlay would repel many a potential admirer.
The situation remained unaltered throughout the following ten years. I ceased to write – or, more exactly, to publish – and at the same time I wholly ceased to make my never very frequent and frankly merely dutiful attendances at theatrical first nights and private views. It was heard that I had married, that my wife was considerably older than I and without connections in the world of literature, and that I had more or less retreated to my house in Hampstead. As the years passed this or that was heard, that I had been travelling, that my only real friends, whom I sporadically visited, were a small coterie of Cambridge dons, that my wife had died – in truth, though, the world, with its own affairs to attend to, paid next to no attention to my doings. Like more writers than most people ever suppose, I had absolutely no public life, and both the world and I appeared to prefer it that way.
Yet these four novels of mine refused conclusively to go away. Little by little, in part because of intrinsic qualities that were great and durable enough to survive any lengthy period of neglect, in part because the passions of the two previous decades had quite cooled down, and in most part because of the subtle but indisputable nimbus of rarefaction that enhaloed my work, the cachet that will ever be attached to an artist fallen silent in his prime and whose silence fascinates as an impertinent shunning of the world and the blandishments it holds out to those it deigns to regard as gifted, I returned to fashion. I was not, even then, widely read. No commuter ever selected one of my novels as the ideal ‘read” for a tedious journey by rail. But they were reissued in paperback form, as Modern Classics no less, and had appended to them introductions by some of the younger novelists – introductions that I thought moronic but was willing to accept as the price I had to pay to gain a new readership, an opportunity to which I was more alert than might have been predicted. There meanwhile came my way so many requests for translation rights that I had to call on the services of an agent. For the first time in my life I was making money out of my books.
Concurrently with this (all very relative) rise to celebrity, I started writing again. Not fiction – that period seemed to have reached an end – but works that were not easily definable offhand, libraries tending to catalogue them either under Philosophy or Art Criticism. The most esteemed of these had been a history of angels – which is to say, a history of the representation of angels in all the arts but particularly in painting. Into the prose of this long essay – whose premise, crudely put, was that only by aspiration to and concourse with some form of the super-natural (a word I invariably hyphenate) was the artist able to create out of the humility that is, or should be, his natural state and essence – there had come a sweetness of descriptive colouring and a near-morbid refinement of expression for which nothing else I had written would have prepared the reader: more than one critic approvingly cited Pater’s The Renaissance. It was, to be sure, no less ‘dated” in conception and style than my earlier volumes. But the period in which it was published was infected by that febrile eclecticism of taste that is peculiar to every fin de si”cle and had no difficulty accommodating what it interpreted as a wilful and even “postmodern” archaism on my part. Its reception was such, in consequence, that my latest book could lay claim to rather more than the tepid aura of anticipation that had always been my lot.
To this work I had given the title The Gentrification of the Void. It was a title that procured me a certain secret euphoria – the more so as I had arrived at it almost by chance since the one I had previously intended to use and which now struck me as pompous and overdeter-mined, The Death of the Future, had initially been rejected only because of what would have been the infelicitous proximity on the book’s jacket of the word ‘death” with my own absurd surname. Coincidentally, the work itself, due to be published imminently, was a reflection on precisely the phenomenon of postmodernism and was already attracting a degree of pre-publication curiosity by virtue of its modish subject matter. And even if anyone at all conversant with the hauteur and austerity of my thought would know that such a book must bear scant resemblance to the racy, jargon-strewn productions that the postmodern movement had already inspired, the fashionableness of my theme in conjunction with the revived prestige of my name was so potent that, a few weeks before taking that walk down Fitzjohn’s Avenue, I had been rung up by my agent with the news that a certain expensive, trend-setting magazine for men (of which I had never heard) was interested in buying the serialisation rights.
For my agent the call had been made out of duty. But, to his astonishment, I consented to the request. Why, I could scarcely have said. Money was not a primary consideration – though, as I told myself, I knew of no strong reason for refusing it. But such a sale would, above all, afford me almost mischievous gratification at the thought of how dismayed the magazine’s editor would be when he received a proof copy and discovered that what he had purchased could not be further removed from all those horribly trumped-up articles, riddled with clich’s as with cancerous cells, on the supposed postmodern properties of television advertisements and record sleeves and neo-classical insurance offices in the City, articles that I had felt obliged to read before starting my own essay. I had never sought easy acclaim and did not resent in the least having never attained it. But I would have been less than human were I not capable of taking a mildly gleeful pleasure in being offered the chance of wrongfooting that world which I so despised -and also of making a not inconsiderable sum of money.
I did not have very long to wait for my worst suspicions to be confirmed. A week or so after a proof of my book had been sent to the magazine in question, its features editor telephoned me to ask in a languorously incurious voice whether I would be so good as to suggest a passage suitable for extraction. I was polite and quite unforthcoming. Perhaps, I answered drily, if he were actually to read the book instead of, as had plainly been the case, just leafing through it with a solicitously professional eye, he might be capable of arriving at a decision without the author’s assistance. Apparently unashamed by this rebuke to his competence – a traditional one for such an exchange, after all, and which he had no doubt heard before – the editor languidly mumbled something about having not wanted to misrepresent my thesis then all but hung up on me.
I placed the receiver down with a smile. The first round had gone to me. What did it matter which passage they chose for publication? No one would read it – or anyway finish it. And I had been able to prove that the world still boasted a small cluster of souls, poet-spokesmen, mandarins – yes, unrepentantly so! – who had not capitulated to the debased values of a society for which art was a mere commodity, as marketable and reproducible as another, a society in which, as I liked to say to my Cambridge friends, in one of the very rare witticisms that had ever been attributed to me, writers did not write, they processed words.
From that point onwards I should have forgotten all about the incident had not the same languid young man telephoned again a few days later, this time with the suggestion that only if accompanied by a personal interview with its author could the extract be (here, the features editor momentarily racked his brains before hitting on the mot juste) contextualised.
With a hint of tartness in my voice I replied that I never gave interviews. The editor persisted. Ignorant, however, of his interlocutor both as an artist and as a private individual, he at first botched his chance. His pitifully vulgar endeavours to flatter me fell so far wide of the mark they only strengthened me in my resolve. The conversation sputtered on thus for several minutes with my being barely able to fit a word in edgeways but none the less determined to draw the line at granting an interview; until the editor, as though in acknowledgement of the inevitable outcome and ceasing to feel too concerned with the poor impression he was about to leave on the man whose vanity he had been so actively caressing, delivered himself of a curt comment on writers who take the concentration camps for their theme (a coarse perversion of the generally understated way in which the memory of the Holocaust had been interpolated into my novels) and then decline to emerge from their secure and soundproofed ivory towers in NW3.
The reproach was no less clumsily phrased and philistine than the preceding flattery had been, but to an extent that the editor could not realise I was stung by the words “ivory tower”. I had, as I have already intimated, neither regret nor nostalgia for the great humming world of business and letters and the wheels and deals by which it turns. Yet, equally so, I had travelled more in that world, further afield, too, than my detractors suspected, and the notion that I lived in an ivory tower struck me as most offensive and unjust. A few months back, when that American academic had brought out his paper on the first person singular that was so famously missing in my work, it distressed me more than I cared to admit (for I myself had remained unaware of such a compulsion). It incited me to wonder whether, on an incomparably more exalted plane, the artist in me did not resemble the sort of poor devil obliged to consult his doctor on the matter of a sordid physical affliction and to pretend shamefacedly to speak on behalf of some imaginary third party; to wonder, indeed, whether I might not accurately ascribe to pride, and to pride alone, the fact that I had sought so airless and inaccessible a path to self-fruition.
Immediately cutting through the editor’s incoherent prattle with a weary “Oh very well, yes’, I stated that I would agree to be interviewed, but for no longer than an hour and at the hour of my choice – in my own house -on the following Sunday afternoon. This last proviso represented my sole remaining concession to a quite undiminished hostility towards the magazine and all its works. By fixing on a Sunday, for me a day that dawned no differently from any other, it had been my puerile intention simply to blight the weekend of some as yet unsuspecting journalist.
During the next three days – the conversation had taken place on a Thursday – I found my attention obstinately, distractingly, straying to the interview (the first I had ever submitted to in my career) and what my expectations of it ought reasonably to be. Would my interviewer, whose name had meant nothing to me, be just as unsavoury an individual as his superior? Would he even have read the book? Or, on the contrary, would he turn out to be surprisingly intelligent and well informed, as somewhere in my mind, with an obscure stirring of premature and rather paradoxical resentment, I started to think might be the case? In fact I prepared myself for wellnigh every eventuality save the one which did come to pass. The journalist stood me up.
At the exact hour of the appointment, three o’clock, I was in my study, sitting at a spacious writing desk by the half-open window and irritably scanning the Telegraph, over the top of whose pages I would glance up at the square marble-framed dial of the clock on the mantelpiece. A half-hour later, now positively quaking with fury (more especially as, it being a Sunday, I could not even ring up the editor to announce that such professional irresponsibility had forced me to call the interview off), I found I was unable to remain calm for more than ten or twenty seconds at a time. Then, when yet another three-quarters of an hour had elapsed (for I was still rational enough to allow for an initial misunderstanding in the hour arranged for the interview), and my wrath was fuelled by the now completely irrational conviction that the abortive rendezvous had been a trick deliberately perpetrated on me by the magazine’s features editor, that I in short had been the wrongfooted one, I brusquely cast aside the newspaper I held in my hand, left the study, gathered up an overcoat and woollen scarf and, stepping into the cheerless damp air of a Sunday afternoon in early autumn, began that agitated and directionless stroll that would ultimately lead me, almost as though my very willpower had been paralysed, to no. 43A Fitzjohn’s Avenue.