Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Small, But Most Sympathetic

Another of my book reviews for Gay Community News, published in 1984 or 1985. I'm posting it out of chronological sequence (of course I've done that before anyway), but it seemed appropriate to put it here now since the author died recently. I'm pleased too that I could add a link to David Jackson's letter to the New York Review of Books, critical of Farnan's homophobia and of her conduct after Kallman's death.

Auden in Love
by Dorothy J. Farnan
Simon and Schuster

Dorothy Farnan became friends with Chester Kallman in New York City in 1943. She had met him at the University of Michigan a year or so before, but didn’t get to know him well until she and her friend Mary Valentine moved east to seek their fortunes. Mary had been part of Chester’s crowd in Ann Arbor during his time there as a graduate student, and when these two “midwestern girls who wanted to get out of the Middle West” ran into Chester in the old Waldorf Cafeteria on Sixth Avenue, he helped them begin to feel at home in the big city. Later he would refer to the years 1943-1946 as “my Dorothy and Mary period.” Indeed, according to Farnan, “Chester spent almost all his waking hours with May for at least two years”. Eventually Farnan fell in love with and married Chester’s father, which put her into a reasonably good position to observe the rest of Chester’s life.

The reason why all this is of interest, of course, is Chester Kallman’s association with the poet W. H. Auden. Kallman, a poet himself, had been the great love of Auden’s life almost since the two had met in 1939, and there was a sense in which the devotion was mutual. But Kallman was a butterfly, incapable of sexual fidelity for long, and his vagaries caused Auden much anguish, so much that many friends wondered why Auden put up with him.

Dorothy Farnan offers some explanations in her book on the Auden-Kallman relationship. For one thing, while Kallman was by no means in Auden’s league as a poet, he was bright enough to be a stimulating intellectual companion. For another, he possessed immense energy and charm. He was a good cook, a fanatic music lover (especially of opera), a scintillating gossip, with the capacity for making his enthusiasms contagious. He was also physically attractive, though Auden would doubtless have been happier had Chester been less attractive – or at least to fewer people.

Auden in Love will appeal perhaps to those who don’t feel like wading through Charles Osborne’s or Humphrey Carpenter’s longer, drier, and more detailed biographies of Auden. It will also interest those who have read these books but are curious to learn more about Kallman, who long has been a problematic figure. Many of Auden’s friends disliked Kallman, partly out of ordinary homophobia in a few cases, partly perhaps because they thought the boy (fourteen years Auden’s junior) insufficiently grateful for having chosen as a great poet’s consort. But there is no question that Kallman was generally irresponsible: he could not, would not, hold a job; he exploited Auden (and all his friends) financially; he may have compensated for his lack of literary success (due as much to lack of industry as to lack of talent) by exploiting the power he had over Auden’s feelings (though it seems he lacked the self-disciplined malice necessary to do so consistently). Besides, he knew well enough that in Auden he himself had an unparalleled intellectual companion. It must also be remembered that Auden did put up with Chester. He didn’t have to. To blame Kallman for Auden’s devotion to him, as some of Auden’s friends seem at times to have done, is absurd. Whether or not there was anything in the relationship for Auden, and it is most likely that there was, he chose to maintain it.

Farnan draws on conversations and letters from friends and relatives of Kallman’s as well as her own reminiscences, but it is not clear that she has used her vantage point on his life uniformly well. She cannot resist casting his later years in old-fashioned moralistic terms – an old fag must pay for sexual favors from handsome young trade, etc. – which seem to be at odds with the reality. The composer David Jackson, who knew Kallman well during that time, claims in a letter in the New York Review of Books (October 24, 1984) that Chester inspired great loyalty – even love? certainly affection – in the young Greeks he pursued with notable success in his middle age. The young soldier who was with him the night he died waited until the paramedics came, even though this meant being thrown into the stockade on his return to barracks, and he still managed to get permission to attend Chester’s funeral. Farnan has not quite outgrown her Midwestern Catholic girlhood, I fear.

What Auden in Love makes clear, thanks to its frequent quotations therefrom, is the need for an edition of Auden’s letters: funny, campy, opinionated, eloquent though they are, we aren’t likely to see them published in extenso soon for the obvious legal reasons: too many closet cases still won’t come out, even in such distinguished company. But even a bowdlerized selection of Auden’s letters to Kallman would be a welcome delight. Meanwhile, Farnan’s book, despite the limitations of its author’s sensibility, gives us a slightly closer look than we have had before at these two brilliant and fascinating men.