Gay literature's new wrinkle

Nobel-winner Herta Müller has written a dazzling new gay novel. Does it matter that she's heterosexual?

Published April 24, 2012 3:59PM (EDT)


This week sees the publication of "The Hunger Angel," by the Romanian-born German author Herta Müller. It’s her first novel to appear in English since she won the Nobel Prize three years ago, and the book, set in a Soviet labor camp in the years after World War II, arrives in America trailing behind it a passel of rave reviews in the European press: a masterpiece, they say, to be put next to Solzhenitsyn or Primo Levi.

But, more quietly, "The Hunger Angel" is something else – a major addition to the tradition of gay literature, and a rare evocation of gay life in the war years and after. Leo, the narrator, is just a teenager when he’s deported from Romania to the Ukraine, but he has already had his first “strange, filthy, shameless and beautiful” assignations in the town park and the local bathhouse. At first he sees his deportation as a welcome escape from his Nazi-supporting father, and a mercy for the mother he truly loves, for in his own eyes he is a double disgrace: not just gay, but an ethnic German who sleeps with Romanians. In the camp, hunger becomes all-consuming, and he longs for home, but he also watches fellow skin-and-bones detainees sneak off to an industrial wreck for sex and knows, “If I’d been caught in the camp I’d be dead.” "The Hunger Angel" lets a gay man embody universal themes of suffering and endurance but also captures the unique contradictions of gay desire – a substantial accomplishment, and one that’s even more impressive because Herta Müller is a straight woman.

Müller is part of a small but growing number of heterosexual writers publishing novels that not only include gay characters as central parts of their narrative, but are largely about gayness itself. It's a trend that suggests that homosexuality may no longer be the taboo it once was, for writers -- and for readers.

These days, in American and British fiction, at least, it’s no longer uncommon for straight writers to feature gay characters in a novel. Think of Claire Messud, whose "The Emperor’s Children" examines a young gay writer’s friendship with his two best friends, both straight women. Or read Jennifer Egan’s "A Visit From the Goon Squad," which features a young gay kid experimenting first with drugs, then with sex. More recently, Chad Harbach in "The Art of Fielding" didn’t just feature a gay and decidedly not butch baseball player, but a 60-something, theretofore straight college president who falls in love with him. (These examples all feature gay men, obviously: Straight writers’ interest in lesbians is usually less edifying, as any gay person who endured Philip Roth’s "The Humbling" will remind you.)

Yet while straight writers now include gay characters as a matter of course, putting gay people at the center of a book remains all too rare. Gay characters can help straight writers write a book of larger scope, but a novel that concentrates on gay characters is automatically “gay fiction” – and that, sadly, still puts readers off. Gay novelists know all too well that without the right promotion, their books can end up relegated to the “LGBT interest” section of the bookshop, somewhere between the Spartacus travel guide and "Homosex: 60 Years of Gay Erotica." (If, that is, the bookshop even stocks gay books; if, moreover, the bookshop hasn’t gone out of business.)

For straight writers, taking on gay subjects isn’t just an imaginative risk, it’s a commercial one. And therefore the list of examples is brief, but even so, they suggest that reader opposition to gay-themed books is on the wane. Although fantasy and science-fiction writers may have taken earlier steps, it wasn’t until the 1990s, with Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, that a straight writer saw major success with gay literary fiction on both commercial and critical terms. The Regeneration trilogy,  with its cast of both real and fictional characters during World War I, had a built-in audience among British readers who grew up reading poets like Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen. Yet on the first pages of "The Eye in the Door," the middle book, they were plunged into a rough (and fantastically hot) sex scene between two officers of different class backgrounds, complete with war wounds from Passchendaele and bedside Vaseline. "The Eye in the Door" goes on to detail the horrible persecution of gays in the British civil service, sometimes even by closeted gay men themselves, while in "The Ghost Road," the last novel of the series and the one for which Barker won the Booker Prize, Sassoon, Owen and fictitious soldiers spend page after page thinking about their desire for men, and about the gaps between the military’s sometimes surprising tolerance and the cruelties of civilian life.

You see similar contrasts of confidence and doubt, narcissism and self-loathing, in Annie Proulx’s short stories, most famously "Brokeback Mountain." The subsequent film was anxiously promoted as a “universal” love story, but Proulx insists that her two ranchers aren’t any old star-crossed lovers, and that gay desire has a special character. Ennis and Jack aren’t just incapable of having their love accepted by society; much more fundamentally, they hate themselves for loving who they love. Proulx told the Paris Review that she now gets fan mail from readers who have rewritten "Brokeback Mountain" with a happy ending, like the stale 18th-century tradition of letting a victorious Hamlet marry a not-drowned Ophelia. “They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis,” Proulx lamented. “It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation.”

Homophobia is naturally a major theme in straight-written gay fiction, but it’s not all about tears and the law. In "Call Me By Your Name," from 2007, the straight writer André Aciman looked at the enduring power of first love through a teenager’s overwhelming desire for another man, complete with lashings of sex in the forest, at the sea, and in the streets of Rome. (You will never eat a peach again without thinking about what those two guys do to a piece of fruit.) Straight novelists are even beginning to write about gay history, and in particular HIV/AIDS. Tristan Garcia’s "Hate: A Romance," co-translated by the Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, examined not only the devastation of the first years of the disease, but the virulent debates between proponents of safe sex and more radical gay activists who see barebacking as a political act. That is the sort of thing even many gay writers are not yet ready to discuss.

It can only be a good thing that the terms of gay fiction are expanding to include not only more readers but more writers. Yet gays have been writing about straight people for hundreds of years, and while straight writers who write gay fiction are celebrated for taking a risk and for imagining something beyond their own experience, gay and lesbian writers who do the opposite, such as Colm Tóibín in "Brooklyn" or Sarah Waters in "The Little Stranger," don’t really get the same credit. Perhaps this is because straight love and desire is omnipresent; perhaps, more homophobically, it’s because we still think gay writers “naturally” have such powers of imagination. Either way, while the situation has improved, gay fiction still suffers from ghettoization, and while straight writers may be mindful of the risks they take in depicting a minority to which they don’t belong, gays who turn to straight subjects can find the new, larger audience for their books bewildering. Michael Cunningham observed as much back in 2000, when he was asked about the success of "The Hours." “I can’t help but notice,” said Cunningham, “that when I finally write a book in which there are no men sucking each other’s dicks, I suddenly win the Pulitzer Prize.”

By Jason Farago

Jason Farago is a regular contributor to the Guardian and writes criticism for the London Review of Books, n+1, Frieze and other publications. He is also editor of Art in Common, a blog on art and urban life.

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