The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity , by Daniel Mendelsohn. Alfred A. Knopf, 206 pages, $24.
In this confessional age, in which memoirs and personal revelations tumble out in unprecedented abundance, Daniel Mendelsohn’s new book stands as a literary achievementofthefirst rank. In a series of five chapters he traces the evolution of his own homosexuality against the complex backdrop of his Jewish family. These chapters could scarcely be said to constitute a conventional autobiography. They are more like the movements of a lyric suite, in which motifs come and go until the reader feels at the end wholly attuned to their spiritual and emotional conjunctions–conjunctions that begin in dissonance and conclude in exhilarating harmony. The book defies categorization. Although sexual identity is a central theme, this is not simply another gay memoir.
Homosexual autobiography seems already to have acquired in some quarters the status of a genre of its own. But a recent book devoted exclusively to this subject, Paul Robinson’s Gay Lives , only serves to demonstrate that autobiographies by male homosexuals are about as diverse as those bymaleheterosexuals.Gaysexis,of course, even more limited in its repertoire than heterosexual sex (after all, there is one less orifice available than the three that the empress Theodora found insufficient). But stories of initiation, pleasure, shame and creativity vary enormously over time and from nation to nation: Little boys at good schools in England, for example, obviously had a head start on their coevals in France and America. Mr. Mendelsohn tells us that he felt no desire for another male until he was in college. His first love was entirely at a distance. When the boy, who knew he was being watched, finally offered himself, the young Mr. Mendelsohn declined to go with him: “I knew that to go that day would have been to commit myself to something irreversible and, worse, namable.”
What makes any autobiography distinctive is not the sex in its pages, but the intelligence, sensitivity and skill of its author. Daniel Mendelsohn has devised a subtle structure and carefully modulated style. As he moves with ease between accounts of his own generation and his grandfather’s, his writing courses between the colloquial and the rhapsodic. In describing the many young men whom he has seduced and never wanted to see again, he adopts an engorged style that produces a single sentence of nearly 400words.Hedrawsthereadercompellingly into his personal world by illuminating it with the light of classical Greece.
Mr. Mendelsohn has a profound knowledge of the culture and literature of the Greeks. He belongs to a distinguished tradition of homosexuals who have found consolation and inspiration in the moral landscape of Socrates and Plato. The Greek model, with its acceptance of pederasty and its public display of erect phalloi , seems a lost paradise, even though the Greeks imposed clear limits on acceptable homosexual conduct and had no single word to encompass all its various forms. In fact, the love that dared not speak its name really had no name. Homosexuality was a late coinage that Proust did not much like, although he could not altogether avoid using it. Some 19th-century enthusiasts called themselves “Uranians,” invoking by the Greek word for heaven their affinity for the classical past (to say nothing of a less exalted allusion in the conventional pronunciation of the word). Although Mr. Mendelsohn regularly refers to “gays,” the word “homosexual” comes in occasionally, and when it does the music of his prose is startlingly altered.
But it is clear that he knows what he is doing at every step. Nothing is fortuitous in this book, least of all the exploitation of Greek literature and myth. Remarkably, Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus , which have been biblical texts for gays in the past, makenoappearancehereat all.Mr. Mendelsohn has chosen his Greek examples with the eye of a connoisseur: Narcissus and self-absorption, Tiresias and his experience as both man and woman, Ion with his two fathers, Antigone and her familial loyalty. These examples convey the masterly way in which Mr. Mendelsohn brings together his sexual identity with his Jewish one. And in this respect he, like Proust, finds he must confront two kinds of otherness, not one. By contrast, none of the autobiographies surveyed by Paul Robinson exposes the double burden that comes from being Jewish and belonging to what Proust called the race maudite (“accursed race”) of homosexuals.
Mr. Mendelsohn’s obsession with family history dominates his work no less than sex. The Greeks serve as eloquent witnesses for both. Family and promiscuous sex illustrate a bipolarity that forms a unifying motif for the whole work. Mr. Mendelsohn’s first words, consciously or unconsciously echoing the opening words of Proust’s great novel, are “For a long time I have lived in two places,” and before long we are given a lesson in the use of the Greek words men and de (normally rendered in classrooms as “on the one hand” and “on the other”). In an arresting passage we are told that when the author writes out these words consecutively in Roman letters he finds himself starting to write his own name.
Mr. Mendelsohn’s bipolar world is not the familiar homosexual one of masculine and feminine. It is a world that is both gay and straight. The two places where he lives are the gay community of New York and a suburban home with mother and child. I know of no work about homosexual life with so eloquent a defense of parenting. Mr. Mendelsohn’s chapter entitled “Paternities,” with its account of his becoming a surrogate father to an infant from the moment of its birth, is astonishing. At the hospital with the mother on the verge of parturition Mr. Mendelsohn is mistaken for the father. He explains his acceptance of this role by his own nature: “Since I grew up gay, I’m used to imposture, to sculpting false identities for myself … The paradox of that day was that in allowing myself to be thought the dad … I was being as gay as I’d ever been.”
Mr. Mendelsohn’s paternity is linked inevitably with his place in his own family, which is explored in the penultimate chapter. A search for the circumstances behind the death of a great-aunt, who was said to have died tragically before an arranged marriage, becomes a mini-detective story in which Mr. Mendelsohn uncovers lies that turn out to have secret truths embedded within them. The “bride of death” in his own family had a special meaning for someone whose doctoral dissertation had been on this very topic in Greek literature. Paternity lies and family lies, all filtered through Greek myth, merge imperceptibly into one another. They deliver Mr. Mendelsohn to himself and to us with an integrity that brings the bipolar opposites together at last.
Proust observed that the solitary homosexual, who thinks himself an exceptional creature, eventually discovers that he is only one of a vast number of fellow creatures. As he put it, no one who fled Sodom was turned to salt for looking back at a boy, and consequently a great many escaped. Mr. Mendelsohn’sbookevokesasimilar progress from isolation and shame. As a boy, he masturbates so often “that he begins to see sex with other people as something of an aberration.” His early desires teach him “to associate longing with shame.” Like Proust’s Baron de Charlus, he is consumed by the fantasy of seducing a man who loves women. But at the end and in full acceptance of his nature Mr. Mendelsohn has attained, through fatherhood and family, a degree of self-knowledge worthy of those ancient Greeks who inspired him. The Greeks knew how to give a universal significance to individual experience. So does Daniel Mendelsohn.