“Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says.”-Ali Smith, Girl Meets Boy
Ali Smith and Christopher Isherwood are both classic queer writers. I know I never stop talking about Smith, and I read Isherwood’s Berlin Novels for the first time last year. They were fantastic, very funny and, by the end, moving in their portrait of a Berlin that was changing before the Second World War. I found these Ali Smith books and Isherwood’s A Single Man in my room when I went back to my parents’ for Christmas, and I got around to reading them last week.
Girl Meets Boy is Smith’s adaptation of the Iphis myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. For those of you who weren’t so socially isolated during uni that you read every last book on the reading list, the Iphis myth is about a family who can’t afford to give birth to a daughter. When they do have a daughter, the mother prays for her child to survive, and the gods allow her to raise her child as a boy; his name is Iphis, and he’s raised as a trans man. Iphis falls in love with a girl whom he grows up with and they are betrothed, but he worries that his marriage will fail when his wife figures out that he can never bear her children. He prays to become a man biologically, and his wish is granted. He marries his love and they live happily. Smith’s novel is set in 21st century Scotland, and it’s about two sisters, one straight and one gay. The queer sister starts dating a genderfluid person who inspires discussion of the Iphis myth. There are also public demonstrations against a large company, sexism and harassment in the workplace, and absolutely gorgeous moments of sisterly bonding. This book was short enough to read in a morning, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants a beautiful, lyrical story about queer people and women standing up to male corporate authorities.
Public Library is one of Smith’s several short stories connections. I thought I was getting used to the strangeness of her style, and she suprised me again. Public Library‘s stories are interspersed with quotes and short essays by literary figures about the importance of public libraries to them. There are also frightening statistics. Smith writes that from the time she began the book to the date of its publication, over a thousand libraries closed in the UK. The quotes Smith gathered reminded me how much I went to the library as a child and through high school, and I signed up for two library cards within days of finishing the book. The stories in this collection are largely in the first person, and largely read like autofiction. I didn’t like the first person as much as I liked the stories in Smith’s Free Love collection. These stories are also very literary; there’s one about a woman who’s dating a woman obsessed with Katherine Mansfield, and another about someone reading about D.H. Lawrence. Smith is a fantastic writer, but I would recommend the collection more for the memories of libraries than for the stories themselves. They’re so touching, and they brought back so many memories of all the libraries I’ve lived near and worked in through my life.
Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man is written in a very different tone than Ali Smith’s stories. It’s a short novel about George, a late-middle-aged gay professor living in L.A. in the 1960s. It follows him from waking up to falling asleep, and it’s written pretty distantly. Several passages separate George’s mind from his body, and his real persona from the person he presents to his neighbors and his students and colleagues at his university. He’s very depressed because his younger lover recently passed away, and over the course of the day you learn that their relationship wasn’t going well by the end. I loved how frank this book is. It describes the most mundane aspects of existence in an engaging way, simply because they’re rarely focused on in literature. There are also great passages about how L.A. has changed over the decades. There’s a description of the streets that still look like they did in the 1930s, and another great passage about how George’s favorite bar evolved from the end of the Second World War to the mid 1960s. Isherwood writes about gentrification in a very modern way; he distrusts suburban living for its heteronormative structures, and a lot of the things that frustrate George about L.A. continue to frustrate people who live in American cities.
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