Pile of Books Books Right Books Left

Reading Gay Men’s Book Club


Review for

“Now and Then” by William Corlett.

Sometimes you just sense that a book is not for you. "Now and Then" by William Corlettt, seemed to send out all of the telltale signals. A lonely, repressed middle-aged man haunted by a schoolboy romance that ended in tears and left him blighted for thirty years. Half of the action takes place in a fictitious public school. As someone who thanks his parents every day for the benefits of a state education, the attraction of private school largely escape me. If you want to pay for beatings and cold showers (as depicted here) you can get these elsewhere, and at a fraction of the price. The emphasis on young love also points to our almost unhealthy obsession with youth, reflected in so much culture and literature, and so much gay life in particular. We sometimes seem like a society of perpetual adolescents, which unfortunately is not the same thing as remaining forever young.

And yet, once you start to delve into this book, it soon starts to charm you, beguile you and bewitch you, and suck you along in its wake. I can't think of many books that I have read recently that I have been so reluctant to put down. In part it is the style. Cool, straightforward inconspicuous, the sort of writing that you hardly even notice, which is surely the best. It must help here that whilst this was Corlett's first novel for adults, published at the grand old age of 57 (so there's hope for us all...), he had actually alreadywritten a series of much loved children's books. While I knew nothing of these, a successful children's author has to know how to write characters, and narrative.

And Corlettt is a master of character. You can't help but feel for the younger Chris, in all his teenage passion and willful self deception. Even the older Chris, desiccated shell of a man that he is, defending his inner life like a castle keep, incited my sympathy; and the end shows that he can, perhaps can open out again. Stephen, the 'love of his life' is the type, sexy, passionate but ultimately incapable of commitment whom we can all imagine falling for, even if we never have. Then there is Chris's mother, just widowed, embarking on a parallel voyage of self-discovery to that of her son, the sister from hell, and the long term female friend, with her own off-on relationships, who doesn't quite know whether she is a fag-hag or not.

The schoolboy love affair seizes you by the throat. You want it to succeed in spite of its impossibility, its inability to tell the difference between love and lust. But can any of us really beat out that boundary? Wild, romantic love, which can strike us at any age - read Hardy if you think otherwise - has become in a secular society, almost an ersatz of the divine, and sexual love a kind of religious conversion. We "fall in love" almost as a Kirkegaardian 'leap of faith We worship the loved one, spurning any signs which might make us doubt, damning as heretics any friends who might question the object of our love.. 'We experience raptures and agonies such as the great martyrs might have done. - No wonder the great religions are so uncomfortable about sexual love - especially when, as with gay love, it can't be rationalized as a means to an ulterior end. It can all too easily seem like madness. But this book, even in its saddest moment, surely vindicates Tennyson's dictum that "T'is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all/" The wild, searing passion is what makes us ourselves even as it threatens to break our heart.

The narrative device of a book switching back and forth in time has become a clich? and can easily irritate, Corlett carries it off almost perfectly , partly because it is so carefully orchestrated. The interplay of the Chris of "now", and the "Kit" of thirty years ago raises interesting question of identity (in what sense, and how far am the "same" man as my teenage self?), marching inexorably towards a common meeting point, in Granada of all places. The ending itself carries a twist. You know that Chris has to meet Stephen again before he can finally be released from the spell. And open himself up to the potential of mature love, potentially even with the schoolboy nuisance whom he had earlier dismissed.

I didn't find every aspect of the story totally credible. Can a dashed love mark someone permanently? Certainly. Can it take an attractive, articulate and affectionate young man and turn him into an emotional shell for the best part of his life? I find that harder to believe. Still perhaps the ultimate value of this book is as a tribute to the "power of love" (for good and ill). Whilst the gay elements are significant - in making the love that much more impossible, it could also be read as a classic love story.

As such I not only agree with the other members of the group that this was one of the better books that we have read. I would also thoroughly recommend it to a wider circle of reading groups.

  Web pages by Piet