WILL D’ THE WISP
Stephen Tennant was a ieatherweight; a tinsel treasure who, as legend has it.
“could charm the butterﬂy oil a iiower’, ?
but who left no notable evidence of his 2
ever having lived. other than the curious, dilapidated iairy castle which he had created of Wilsiord Manor, his
childhood home. Philip Hoare, Harpers
and Queen journalist and writer of Tennent’s biography Serious Pleasures, is a man obsessed with what he terms ‘this pristine virginal iairy child’, the subject of a hefty, intricately researched but overly cluttered tract of a liie of shopping sprees and luxurious inactivity, which ended in 1987 to the sound at a resounding ‘who?’
Belonging to the Roaring Twenties, Tennent was the acknowledged leader of the ‘Bright Young Things', a group of writers, artists and high society clingers-on, oi which the photographer Cecil Beaton and First World War poet, Siegfried Sassoon, Tennant's lover, were the most notable. Tennant. although inspiring much devotion and iaith, both personally and artistically; despite his ceaseless procrastinations, appears to be the anomaly in a group of commercially sucesstul creators. His flamboyant and hedonistic liiestyle as a homosexual aristocrat, said to have inspired the character oi Sebastian
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Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, was to fade to a pitiful existence of seclusion in a darkened bedroom at Wilsiord Manor, steeped in monkey skin blankets and his own unwashed stench.
Despite a lite-long craving tor tame and admiration, initiated by a classically obsessive mother, Tennent’s Edwardian hangover and the beliei that a professional status as writer and painterwas vulgar, disabled him in an egalitarian post-war England intolerant of lazy aristocrats and their sell-indulgent extravagancies. His
uniinished sell-proclaimed masterpiece, Lascar, stretching over live decades of Tennant's lite, exemplitles his inability to create anything more substantial than his own lantasy environment - reterred to by Hoare as his ‘prison, iortress and iairy palace'. Similarly, Serious Pleasures becomes iurther testimony to the pathetic deterioration of a life of ileeting promise, and the transiormation oi the ‘ethereal man-woman’ ol Cecil Beaton's stunning photographs oi the 1920s, to a ilaccid, henna-haired old queen; the mere echo at what Hoare believes to be a glorious past.
Stephen’s interest is merely contextual, ratherthan personal, and Hoare is at his best when side-tracking into the lives oi Willa Cather, American writer, or Siegfried Sassoon, the bear-like man who became a knock-knead devotee oi Tennant. As a glittering cog in the wheel which drove the ostentatious upper reaches oi society in the 1920s, Tennant attains a
' degree of validity. Characteristic oi the
aristocratic homosexual scene, he dabbled in tinancially procured aitairs with the lower classes, unable due to its illegality, to have sex with his peers. Privilege and inﬂuence were utilised, as in the aborted court case at Nancy Astor’s son Bobby, to keep the press at bay at a time when homosexual love could mean jail.
Hoare stresses Stephen's dual attraction and repulsion to the physicality oi sex; again the impinging reality oi the real world proving too vulgar for one who posessed the financial and emotional ability to insulate himself from its grasp. This destructive detachment is parallelled by Hoare, with Tennant’s summer tour of 1939, marred by his intolerance oi the obstacles presented by a continent in the clutches of Nazism. Cecil Beaton later noted that Stephen ‘liked Hitler's mysticism -the way he parted his hair -the mad starry look in his eyes’. Hoare‘s Serious Pleasures attempts cautiously and lovingly to lure us to the feet oi a Peter Pan decoy who in his late seventies still prelered cracked cosmetics to murky reality. What lies within the childish chrysalis - a bloated, wasted depressive, abstaining from any meaningful existence, public or private — fails to sustain the sell-cultivated legend which Hoare seeks to perpetuate. Ultimately, l-ioare’s examination of Tennant’s supposed physical and mental prowess, and subsequent decay, although inspiring ileeting images of a precious jewel, fails to overcome a strong suspicion that we are moonlighting with a lake. (Kathleen Morgan) Serious Pleasures: The Life oi Stephen Tennant by Philip Hoare, published by Hamish Hamilton at £20.
I Juan The Landless Juan Goytisolo (Serpent‘s 'I'ail £8.99) This is the last book in (ioytisolo‘s trilogy. written in the years preceding Franco’s death, and born of an unmitigated hatred of all things Spanish.
Because we like talking about dictatorships here. and because Goytisolo has now lived outside his homeland. Spain. for 34 years. we comfortably put his hatred down to the oppressive regime of the generalissinm. In fact it‘s not that. Goytisolo hates the things which we think quaint: the little old ladies in black; the son who praises his mama‘s paella with tears in his eyes; the rows of smiling plastic flamenco dancers.
His most burning loathing is for the brainwashing hypocrisy of the Church. (ioytisolo‘s Spain is constipated. short~sighted and conservative. The violence of his hatred can hardly be under-estimated: even his own language is punished, words mutilated and strangled, new means ofexpression sought.
In Juan The Landless, however, there is some let-up. The agony of the unforgiving son is over, and a new home — the Arab world — is embraced. Even so, the antagonism takes its toll on the reader, and it is easy to feel guiltin overwhelmed after pages and pages of almost
unpunctuated prose. Be sure to read books one and two (Marks of Identity and (‘ountJulian) of the trilogy first. (Miranda France)
ADAM AND EVE
I Venus Envy Adam Mars—Jones (Chatto Counterblasts £3.99) Adam Mars-Jones reveals what lies distinctly uneasin beneath the professed idealism and fashionable innocence of the writings of two of the tnost lauded authors ofthe British literary establishment. Martin Amis and Ian McEwanllis counterblast is long overdue. Focusing on Einstein 3‘ Monsters and The Child in Time. Mars-Jones demonstrates how both Amis and McEwan, in the guise of a certain masculine responsibleness. use fatherhood simply as a rhetorical gesture. Their literary portrayal of fatherhood does not enable men to express their emotions more freely, it simply imprisons their emotions in a different way: ‘ . . . the persona of the father is a literary construction, allowing for the safe expression of emotion in unprecedented quantities (the keyword here is safe ) provided it is bounced off children and not expressed direct.‘
Mars-Jones, with insight, wit and metaphor, shows how these authors’ preoccupation with fatherhood is deceptive — they are really talking about something else. ‘Each in his own way bears witness to the tidal
pull offeminist thinking,and to a nagging doubt about the authenticity ofmale experience (the Venus Envy of my title).
‘Anthropologists use the word couvade to denote patterns of male behaviour that seek to upstage or to appropriate potent moments in the lives ofwomen. The women go into labour. but the men — it varies from culture to culture — either cry out in stylised agony. or else persuade themselves they actually feel the pangs.‘ Amis and McEwan when they talk of fathers are depicting not a representation of love but control.
In this subversive piece of literary criticism. Mars-Jones has pre-empted ‘real life’ where the approaching trendiness of fatherhood (wear your baby with pride) is now being advocated by the advertisers. Fatherhood has become a marketable product. You should read Venus Envy because the longer the image of fatherhood is being sold as a rhetorical self-portrait where ‘a man’s children can be his property one minute. and his virtue the next‘. the longer what is genuine about paternal love will remain masked. (Alice Thompson).
LOAD OF BOLLOCKS
l Being A Man, David Cohen (Boutledge £29.99 hardback, £9.99 paperback) ‘What is it like Being A Man Today?’ ‘Has Feminism had any real impact on Men’s Lives?’ These are the questions to which
Cohen addresses himself. (The answers by the way are Crappy and Yes).
There is here a welcome statement ofsome of the issues which should concern any man or woman who is concerned about sexism as it affects men: lack ofpersonal life, pressure to work. no contact with children etc.
Also welcome is his declaration that it is not for individual men to feel guilty. This particular issue. though. he fudges. At some points he seems to be saying that 'reformed‘ men should not feel responsible for what their predecessors have done; and at others he comes closer to arguing that men have nothing to be guilty about anyway as it is society which has made them what they are. just as it has done to women.
This confusion is compounded by Cohen‘s own all-too-obvious guilt. His account of how his wife badgers him into guilt before the break-up of his marriage makes one cringe, albeit sympathetically. but it is less easy to understand why he allows himselfto continue in this tone for the rest of the book when what is required is a rigorous statement of a
Cohen should be congratulated for setting out some of the aspects of sexism ofwhich feminism has made us aware. but has completely ignored. Nevertheless, this is a deeply flawed book, and it remains for someone else to go over the same ground in more detail. (lain Grant)
72The List 13—26July I990