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Rob Perrée: Biografie van John Horne Burns

Biografie van John Horne Burns

Marginalized, Yes, but Also a Nasty Guy


The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns
By David Margolick
Illustrated. 382 pages. Other Press. $28.95.

“An unpitiable swine.” “He liked to hurt people — being extremely sensitive to wounds himself — and as he drove the knife in he smiled.” “A total narcissist.”

Such toxic descriptions splatter across the pages like a summer downpour in “Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns,” David Margolick’s evocative, strangely moving new biography of a largely forgotten novelist with a poisonous character.

How poisonous? Well, consider that some of those unflattering assessments come from people sympathetic to Burns, who shot to fame with the publication of a World War II novel, “The Gallery,” in 1947, and was dead six years later at 37, his literary reputation having fallen off a cliff, and the sum total of his worldly goods adding up to just $109. (Included on the sad inventory: 18 packs of Lucky Strikes, assessed at $1.50.)

It was one of Burns’s brothers who described him as a “total narcissist,” and he had his reasons. While Burns was serving in the Army — never near the front lines, he spent the war censoring letters from Italian prisoners — his three brothers were also enlisted. In his chatty letters home to his mother, rich in descriptions of the vivid Neapolitan night life that was the setting of his celebrated novel, Burns never bothered to ask after their welfare, although, unlike him, they saw combat.

The martini-in-the-face title of Mr. Margolick’s book is not, however, meant to be a summary judgment of Burns’s character. Or perhaps not primarily so. It is a winking epithet that Burns employed as campy code for homosexual, and sprinkled liberally throughout his lush, funny, histrionic letters to a former student (also gay) he taught at a New England prep school. In these prickly missives, Burns vamps and camps merrily, elsewhere referring to homosexual figures in whimsical religious terms, as abbots and abbesses.

Burns’s life would hardly warrant interest — and certainly not a full-scale, studiously researched biography — on the basis of his literary output. After “The Gallery,” he published two more novels, both of which were dismally reviewed and disappeared quickly. (“In publishing this book,” Brendan Gill wrote of “A Cry of Children” in The New Yorker, “Harper & Brothers show distressingly little respect for the author, for writing, or for themselves.”) But his life provides illuminating if often dispiriting perspective on the gay experience in the mid-20th century, when homosexual culture was developed exclusively in private spheres, or at least managed to hide in plain sight. “The Gallery,” intriguingly and daringly, includes a lurid account of a gay bar in wartime Naples frequented by soldiers of various nationalities, though the book’s laudatory reviews all but ignored this startling chapter.

Burns never “came out” in the contemporary sense to family, friends or the public, occasionally alluding rather vaguely to girlfriends and potential marriage partners, to the bewilderment of his acquaintances, who could plainly tell that he was not that way inclined. But he had a varied, raucous sexual life — particularly during his war years — and freely described his exploits in his letters, which are often written at a keen, extravagant pitch. His purplish eloquence makes him an entertaining correspondent, and Mr. Margolick’s book is liveliest when drawing directly on Burns’s stinging letters.

Burns grew up on the fringes of privilege, the child of an upper-middle-class New England family. As Catholics, however, they were also outsiders. Burns attended Andover and Harvard, but despite ringing endorsements from professors who recognized his literary gifts, he was more or less blackballed because of his religion when he sought work as a prep school teacher.

The headmaster of the Loomis School, in Windsor, Conn., took umbrage at this prejudice, and gave him a job — a decision he would rue when Burns’s second novel, “Lucifer With a Book,” was published. A venomous and ill-disguised burlesque of prep school life that received blistering reviews, the book’s reception precipitated Burns’s return to Italy, where he would prop up the bar at the Excelsior Hotel in Florence for several years before his death from either a cerebral hemorrhage, sunstroke or simply an excess of drink.

Cleanly written, with a measure of sympathy and perhaps a little understandable mystification beneath the sober writing, “Dreadful” inspires a curious combination of fascination, pity and revulsion. With our knowledge of Burns’s quick slide into obscurity, it is hard to be anything other than baffled and irritated at his overweening egoism.

All writers need a strong quotient of self-regard for that momentous leap onto the blank page in the morning, but Burns’s lyrical crowing about his talent is sometimes breathtaking. In one letter he says that the yet-to-be-finished “Gallery” is “like Dostoyevsky, Andrew Marvell and Voltaire.” (Rather a hard combination to wrap one’s mind around.) There’s also this: “James Joyce had to resort to private symbols, but I can use English wrenched in the anguish of the world.”

The anguish of the world Burns would come to know well when his later novels were savaged, and the stream of royalties from the best-selling “Gallery” dried to a trickle. He lived cheaply but moderately well in Italy, and found some contentment with a lover, a veterinarian. But even as his reputation evaporated, his self-absorption and his bitchery — there’s no better word — continued unabated, and they leap off the pages of Mr. Margolick’s book with a scorching unpleasantness. As one friend would reminisce after his death: “He could be very insulting to total strangers and was almost always, sooner or later, insulting to his acquaintances, including myself.” (Charmed, I’m sure.)

The hazy subtext of “Dreadful” is: How much, or how little, did Burns’s status as an identifiably gay man in a culture that overtly and covertly expressed contempt for homosexuals contribute to his misanthropy, his snobbery and his unhappiness? The answer remains elusive, because even in his most personal letters, Burns was not baring his soul so much as striking poses. Perhaps because Mr. Margolick is not writing sociology, he never delves deeply into the question, but lets the story of Burns’s experience speak for itself.

But Burns took up the subject of the psychic plight of the 20th-century gay aesthete in a letter to that favored acolyte and former student, David MacMackin. Writing from Italy while at work on his novel, Burns mused on the psychological and philosophical implications of the male homosexual’s experience:

“Even if he ever arrives at the point of accepting his bias as merely an incident in his personality, he sets up all sorts of pitiful little compensations. Camping is after all the essence of the tragic spirit contorted into a leer no Greek mask ever knew. He sets up for himself a tinseled world that has nothing to do with any reality, believes himself a golden and divine spirit, gifted beyond other men, and frequently goes over into the realm of art, which soothes the feminine ganglia in him. Unless he has a first-rate mind, merciless self-appraisal, and honesty too large to force his world on a larger one he becomes an artist as warped as his own psyche; and you get ugliness, negation, and nonessentials substituted for the blood of great art.”

This polemic can be seen as the product of a man “warped,” perhaps equally, by both his own dyspeptic personality and the repressive times in which he lived. As you read through the grim last chapters of “Dreadful,” it becomes piercingly and heartbreakingly clear that while Burns’s assessment of the pathology of the gay artist hardly qualifies as an insightful (or even truthful) generalization, it does provide a precise and rather macabre analysis of his own failings, both as a human being and a writer.