April 6, 2008

Scoundrel Time
Lillian Hellman

A Measure of Madness
Gordon Merrick

Lions at Night
Richard Himmel

The Old Man and the Sea
A Farewell to Arms
Ernest Hemingway

Pentimento, Indeed – Bagging books amidst some spring cleaning, I have been more relentless than ever in clearing my shelves of longtime keepsakes. The most difficult volumes to part with have been my collections of Carver and Hemingway. I’ve hauled these books from place to place throughout my life like an ancient religious zealot secreting sacred scripture from cave to cave – wanting to preserve The Word while continually returning to the well-turned pages for clues to salvation. But now I am apparently ready to part company with all but two: The Old Man and The Sea, a near-perfect story near perfectly told, and A Farewell to Arms, which I have somehow never read. Over the years, I have been sentimentally attached to many other authors and books, including Lillian Hellman, an early favorite, whose self-aggrandized moralistic tales suited my budding gay desire for diva-hero worship with far too much ease. For the longest time, I thoroughly romanticized Hellman, her life, her writing, and – as embarrassing as this is to admit – imagined a similar life of artist-activist for myself. Of course, from imagination springs reality and I have, indeed, sculpted some sort of life as part-activist, part-artist, and still to this day strive to hone my skills and talents on both fronts. I have been attached to the Himmel and Merrick books for years, too; not for any special artistic value but, I see now, out of a similar sense of carving self-identity: both books were early finds for me of writing that depicted men having sex with other men. Beyond the titillating sex scenes, the novels were confirmation of attraction – a validation found all too infrequently back then. In short, the Hellman, Himmel and Merrick books, even with their variations in artistic achievement, helped me learn who I was and who I wanted to become. So have I become that person? I’ll quote Hellman in response:

Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.


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