What I’m Reading: Writer Paul Russell

Recently I mentioned Paul Russell’s novel Immaculate Blue as a book a lot of readers might have overlooked. That wasn’t a judgment I reached on the basis of sales figures, for instance – I’m not privy to that information – but the fact that the book didn’t show up in reviews in the New York Times, the Washington Post and so forth, the remaining big  (if somewhat diminished) outlets for book coverage.

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  • Photo of Paul Russell by Tuan Ching, via paulrussellwriter.com

The Salt Point made it into those Reviews, and I’d have imagined some value to continuity in revisiting the original review and the two books in tandem. Then again, I don’t get paid to run the book section of a major publication, to commission reviews, and so forth. All I know is that picking up with the four friends from The Salt Point strikes me as worthwhile in the same way it’s worthwhile to follow the results of Jay McInerney’s recently completed trilogy (or maybe there’s more to come – I’ve got no advance intel on that question). And understand, I liked the McInerney novels, flaws and all. I just don’t think Russell’s work catching up with past characters has to get the short shrift. It suggests to me something like Mark Merlis’s aside that his work has been studied in “the ghetto of the gay literature survey.”

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One outcome of that marginalization is that we get a writer like Russell, who’s been productive for years now, and who has received broader-based attention at times (see The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov), observing that, when reading neglected novels by gay writers from the 40s and 50s, he “feel[s] a kinship with these forgotten writers.” I don’t want to make too much of what was maybe an offhand comment, but it’s easy to see why Russell might feel like his work is less remarked upon than it deserves to be.

All that said, a look at what Paul Russell has been reading lately is a look at the intellectual life of a working writer. He teaches full-time at Vassar, and that places certain demands on his reading time. As you’ll see, though, he turns that to his advantage, uses it to feed his interests, and with any luck, finds a spark within his reading life to keep alive the writing he has to put aside during the semester. And while he suggested I might want to cut, rearrange, or otherwise shape his responses, they’re really worth reading in their entirety. Take it away, Paul Russell:

I can’t really answer the first question without also answering the second.  I’m midway through a semester of teaching, so much of what I’m reading these days is dictated by what I’m doing in the classroom.  I’m one of those highly inefficient teachers who insists on rereading everything before teaching it.  Thus, for this week I’ve reread Patricia Highsmith’s smart and lively 1952 lesbian novel The Price of Salt; three glittering, funny, heartbreaking stories by Katherine Mansfield—”Prelude,” “The Garden Party,” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”—and, for my James Joyce seminar, the gorgeous “Nausicaa” chapter from Ulysses.  Fortunately, I only teach books I like, so rereading them is almost  always a pleasure. 

 

I’m also doing an independent reading project this semester with a student on “Sex, Identity, and the Literature of AIDS.” We’re sort of inventing the reading list as we go along, and for some reason it’s turned into a mini-seminar on Derek Jarman:  his extraordinary final film Blue, made after he was stricken with AIDS-related blindness, a volume of his writing about the stark, magical garden he built by the sea at Dungeness, in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, and one of his several volumes of memoir, At Your Own Risk.  We admitted to each other in out meeting yesterday that we both have a kind of crush on Jarman.  His prose is so luminous, compassionate, transgressive, human… 

 derek-jarman

In addition to regular schoolwork I’m pursuing two other reading projects:  one involves neglected gay novels from the 1940s and 50s (in part as preparation for a course I’m teaching in the spring).  I know there’s lots of contemporary work I should be reading, but I feel a kinship with these forgotten writers.  My latest foray has been Scotland’s Burning (1953), Nathaniel Burt‘s wistful, homoerotic, beautifully written tale set in a boys’ school in the American south—a little reminiscent of A Separate Peace or The Folded Leaf in its not-quite-closeted longings. Not a great novel, but an elegant, oddly satisfying piece of work.  Some of my great discoveries among these writers have been Fritz Peters (Finistere, Boyhood with Gurdjieff), Lonnie Coleman (Sam; The Southern Lady; The Golden Vanity, Mark), Harlan Cozad McIntosh (This Finer Shadow) and Charles Jackson (The Fall of Valor). 

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 – Photo via Valancourt Books

Finally, for the last several months a colleague and I have been exploring New Testament canon formation, reading through all the many gospels and epistles and revelations and other documents that never made it into the  New Testament proper (though some, like The Shepherd of Hermas and The Epistle of Barnabas were included in certain early codices).  We’ve also made our way through the gnostic texts from the Nag Hammadi library (standouts include The Secret Book of John and Thunder, The Perfect Wisdom), as well as Tertullian’s hilarious takedown of the gnostics in his Against the Valentinians.  My friend and I arrive at a local diner every Sunday morning loaded down with Bibles and other pedantic paraphernalia, and sit for three hours poring over arcana, no doubt making a spectacle of ourselves to the curious, but supernaturally well-tended to by our waitress who, it turns out in a weird bit of serendipity, is the niece of Maurice Sendak!  Why are we doing this? It all started when we realized neither of us knew anything about the ancient monophysite churches.  Well now we know, and so much more!

 

And all this while my new novel, The Two Angels Came to Sodom, which I’m 300 pages into, is on hold as I carefully try to keep that fragile egg warm and incubating, hoping against hope that when I finish teaching and return to the hatchery in June I won’t find it has expired in the meantime (something that has happened before!).  

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