Early in 2012 author Edmund White was asked by The Browser to select five gay novels with beautiful writing. His top two choices: Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers and A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. He praised Genet for his sumptuous poetic style, Isherwood for his chaste simplicity. Polar opposites, some might say. And yet, true to my contrary nature, I find a certain confluence.
This past weekend I saw beautiful translations of both literary works on film. I won’t dwell on the 2009 Tom Ford adaptation of Isherwood’s novel, which everyone but me seems to have seen already. Did it look too much like a perfume ad, as Edmund White remarked? Perhaps. Did I care? Not at all. I’d never read the book, but I recognized Isherwood’s distinctive prose, followed by a strong desire to head directly back to my own manuscript for another round of revision.
(A brief digression: The friend mentioned in my previous post introduced me to Isherwood’s work. That’s why my radio feature A Train to Sachsenhausen is written in the form of a letter to him. It includes an excerpt from Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind.)
“My heart’s in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand’s in the bag,
and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught.”
– Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers
As for Monsieur Genet, a film has just been added to YouTube of the Lindsay Kemp Company’s complete performance of Flowers, a pantomime interpretation of Our Lady of the Flowers. I saw the original production at London’s Regent Theatre in 1974 and it blew me away, totally changed my vision of what theatre could be. It also opened my rather closeted eyes to the true meaning of queer, though it would be awhile before I completely understood that.
Although Lindsay Kemp had stripped away the author’s words, he captured both the sensuousness and the brutality of Genet’s imagery on stage in what can only be described as visual poetry. But I didn’t really know that until I found the book a few months later in the St. Marks Bookstore just after I moved to NYC. The film recently posted is thirty years old, faded and fuzzy. But it captures the essence of the piece, as does my memory of it.
I’m not sure I can explain precisely why these two very different adaptations of two very different works by two very different authors, coming together as they did within such a short space of time, have provoked such strong feelings for me. Perhaps I shouldn’t even try. It’s enough that they do. Let’s leave it at that.
Note: The video is the full 90+ minute performance (Rome 1982).