Seated Man, attribtued to Roger de la Fresnaye
Memory

Writing to Remember

When I came out to my parents, my mother, like many other mothers who had heard similar stories, asked me how long I had known. Her question was merely a way of checking to see if the year corresponded to her own reckoning of my sexuality. She already knew.

The behavioral clues she used to deduce this were almost wholly a matter of gender roles and had very little to do with sex: I hated contact sports, spent too much time reading, and was all in all much too nice for a boy. When asked what instrument I wanted to learn to play, I told her the flute. Instead of the baseball mitt my brother asked for Christmas, I wanted watercolors.

I couldn’t give her a date for when I “knew” I was gay. It had always been a part of me, like my voice or being left-handed, and like my left-handedness was revealed again and again in a growing awareness that I didn’t fit all that well into the world around me. My uneasiness with the locker room talk of breasts and my equally uneasy fascination with the men in the fitness magazines I’d furtively skim through at the supermarket were the equivalents of school binders with rings on the left and the pencil smudges I left on my homework assignments: evidence of my deviation from the norm.

I told her that as long as I could remember myself, I knew I was different. This was true enough. I had countless examples of not fitting in as a child, including my lack of a romantic interest in girls. Had she asked, however, I would not have been able to supply her with a concrete example from my childhood of a romantic interest in a boy. Of course there were such examples, but it was only when I began writing about those early years did I fully discover the immanence of desire that marked my later childhood.

Each of the fragments of desire that I recovered as I wrote led to others. As in the retelling of dreams or the confessions of therapy, the recollection of these early memories was aided by the ascesis of narrative: the more stories I told, the easier it was to remember.

I recalled a childhood fascination with Popeye’s sexy nemesis, Bluto, and then a pulp fiction paperback that was the first in a series of books I would read as a teenager that spoke of men who loved men. I saw again the outline of my cousin sleeping across from me on an attic cot one summer night, and then remembered how I looked at Jesús, who dressed in tight pants and danced on the street. Later I would recall the attraction I felt for my chemistry teacher and for a rebel classmate.

Simon, my best friend at high-school, first appeared in a post of mine three years ago. Occasioned by a visit to an exhibition and spurred by memories of the petit-fours his father, an Austrian-born baker, used to make, the story talked of our forays into the city but was obliquely suggestive of my feelings for him. I could remember the restaurants we went to but could only sketch in lightly tinted outline the attraction I felt for him.

Simon continued to appear in subsequent texts. As I wrote, I remembered him in an ever deepening hue of feeling, the way an artist might build up a painting from ground to detail by applying layers of ever richer, oil-saturated pigment. In these later texts our friendship acquired a vibrancy missing from the earlier ones; they became saturated with desire.

I hadn’t expected this to happen. The memories were there, I thought, all I had to do was uncover them, as if they were a neatly arranged set of burial artifacts lying in a tomb. If I dug through the sediment of the intervening years and got down into the crypt, it would all be there.

The finds of memory, however, are less like an intact tomb than a field of shards. We have at the most fragments of a scene: the image of a man on a rowboat pulling up crab traps or a cellar illuminated by flashes of lightning. They suggest, some more evocatively than others, the story of which they are a part. But only when the shards are gathered together can their contours and edges be compared, the arcs and lines of their motifs and silhouettes matched, and the pieces reassembled—with ample supplementation from later material—into the more certain shapes of amphorae and daggers. And the more numerous the fragments, the richer the detail of lovers, banquets and battles that can be reconstructed.

All texts of memory are acts of interpretation, of course. I am aware that I may be suffusing my recollections of those years with feelings that emerged only years later, as a 19th century restorer might repaint an original surface with scenes of his own invention or conceal the groin of a nude figure in drapery. Was I instead removing the drapery from the figures, seeing desire when none was present?

But no, the shards of memory I recovered were so vivid and the desire I recalled so palpable that I could not doubt their authenticity. Although I could not always date them and knew that I might be constructing the pretext and aftermath with memories borrowed from other times and places, the fragments themselves were true, even when they were no more than the momentary sight of a shirtless boy walking down a resort boardwalk.

He was a few years older than me and had the deep and even tan of a boy who spent his whole summer at this beachside town. Even the tops of his feet were brown, except for a thin crescent of white that rimmed the cleft between his toes. His skin looked even darker in the early dusk, and dusty, too, as if the sea had left a trace of powder over him. I remember envying his endless days at the ocean, envying his freedom and his tan, and wishing I could be like him. I would not have been able to articulate the pleasure I felt when looking at him, but now I know it was there.

I started writing Breach of Close almost six years ago. I had no specific purpose in mind or niche I expected to nestle in. Characteristically enough, I didn’t write my About page until weeks after I started the blog.

The first post was essentially an announcement of my intention to write to my brother after a long period of silence. I suppose I thought I would be less likely to renege on my resolution if I exposed it in a public text. But the post soon wandered off into recollections of a bubble-light Christmas tree that had been a constant part of my brother’s and my childhood holidays.

The blog never acquired a true focus. There were a good number of texts about sexual identity and coming out, but also a few about food and politics and music. Sometimes I wrote to work out my reactions to a work of art, though these posts, too, often wandered off; they were texts not of a reviewer but of a memoirist.

Keeping this blog has been a key to cultivating an ascesis of narrative. It has helped me strengthen the habit of writing. Unlike the journal in which I record scraps of the day’s events and conversations (or merely fill a page with inchoate musings), the blog has provided me with the opportunity and incentive to craft something more deliberate and cohesive. And given the prospect of publishing the text for the small audience of fellow bloggers who have honored me with their readership and have followed these stories (some have even read the first post of Simon and the petit-fours), hopefully more carefully written. More importantly, it has helped me remember.

-/-

Featured image: From the Hooover collection, attributed to Roger de La Fresnaye

Although the subject matter of the painting has little to do with the content of the text per se, there is a curious history to the work that does.

The tale is told by Niccolo Caldararo, the conservator who was invited to examine the painting by the San Francisco art dealer who had acquired it at an auction at the estate of George de Batz, an enigmatic and reputedly rather brilliant but eccentric collector. The painting had suffered damage before its sale; apparently the work had been sold, unframed and folded up, as a rug.

Although typical of de la Fresnaye’s richly colored Cubist compositions, the identity of the artist who painted it has not been ascertained beyond all doubt. It is missing from Germain Seligman’s catalogue raisonné of the painter’s works. Drawing on conversations with several art historians Caldararo suggests two possible explanations for this peculiar absence.

One proposes that the painting had been confiscated by the Nazis and was later acquired by de Batz under dubious circumstances. The other concerns the artist’s sexuality.

Caldararo reports that the relative responsible for the sale of the artist’s work after the painter’s tragic early death at the age of 40 gave a number of paintings and drawings to the painter’s friends and male lovers. The Seated Man could have been one of these privately held works. Though some of these paintings were never publicly exhibited, the conservator notes that they could well have been seen by de Batz, who was also gay and whose father had been a collector and art dealer in France (de Batz only left France in the 1930s)

The rest of the article describes Caldararo’s curatorial detective work (it is a fascinating story if that kind of investigation interests you). After comparing the fibers of the canvas with that of other works by the artist, analyzing ground and pigment, brush strokes and painting surface, he concludes there are enough similarities with other paintings to suggest authenticity but not enough to confirm it.

Discussion

3 responses to ‘Writing to Remember

  1. Your writing is exquisite, a painting with words of memories that evoke memories of my own, waiting to be explored. There are so many of them that one flows into the next and the focus is lost; by writing them down, they are captured and can be rebuilt to stand again, rooted in the past and part of the now that informs the future.

    Like

    • Thank you! I liked your notion of memory as a flow of coalescent recollections. It used to bother me that I couldn’t always disentangle one from the other and say, yes, this belongs here in this scene and that there. I wanted to be faithful to the material of memory, as a historian or documentarian might with their primary sources, though of course the scraps of memory are so often devoid of context that fidelity is impossible. Besides, as you probably know, too, it doesn’t really matter all that much if the details are mixed up, provided that the recollected scene is emotionally true.

      Liked by 1 person

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