Friday, June 23, 2017

Birthday: "Writers often disguise their lives as fiction," David Leavitt writes. "The thing they almost never do is disguise fiction as their lives."


David Leavitt (1961-  )

Growing up in an academic family, David Leavitt showed remarkable- and remarkably early- prowess on paper. The Writer’s Almanac reported,

He was studying writing at Yale with Gordon Lish and John Hersey when an editor at The New Yorker noticed a short story of his in a literary magazine and asked him to submit something. They rejected him nine times before accepting a story, Territory, in 1982. It was the first story the magazine had ever published that was overtly about homosexual life. Leavitt was 20 years old. Two years later, he published his first collection of stories, Family Dancing (1984).

Leavitt is considered the first modern fiction writer to bring gay themes to mainstream literature.

Early works like Family Dancing and The Lost Language of Cranes won Leavitt acclaim and movie deals.

In 1993, Leavitt published While England Sleeps, a retelling of the pre-World War II appeasement movement and its foes, as seen through the eyes of two male lovers. Drawing on historical accounts, including a memoir of Sir Stephen Spender’s, Leavitt- then 32, found himself and his publisher on the short end of a lawsuit by Spender.

Spender, who spent decades managing his complex and contradictory personal life for public consumption, claimed a Leavitt character was, in fact, Spender, and that the real Spender found the fictional  Spender’s robust sex scenes pornographic.

After protracted litigation and dueling articles in The New York Times, Viking-Penguin settled the case and published a revised edition that omitted three pages and the sexy bits Sir Stephen found not at all in his line of country. Spender then did a victory lap in The Times:

Mr. Leavitt, in his essay, wrote that the theme of his book, "if it belongs to anyone, belongs to E. M. Forster, who wrote in his famous essay 'What I Believe' " that " 'if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.' " Mr. Leavitt added: "It seems to me crucial, in reading these sentences, to remember that Forster was homosexual, since for gay men and lesbians the choice between cause and friend is rarely abstract; indeed, particularly in the age of AIDS, it is often viscerally real."

It is surprising to a member of my generation that sometimes young people today cannot imagine the intense urgency with which antifascist youth responded in 1937 to the probability of Hitler's prison state gaining total domination of Europe. The idealistic volunteers in the International Brigade felt that far from betraying their country, they would preserve its freedom by fighting to prevent, as they believed, the greater catastrophe of a world war.

Their altruistic decisions to die if necessary for deliverance from an evil tyranny have nothing in common with the involuntary suffering of a plague, heroic though victims of AIDS undoubtedly are. The choice Mr. Leavitt quoted from Forster cannot apply to them. It puzzles me how seldom it is perceived that Forster's choice is dubious. One has only to think of the Cambridge spies to realize that in betraying their country they were inevitably also betraying their friends, many of whom were unable to forgive them. Public treachery and private deception cannot so easily be disentangled.

Spender died in 1995, the year a cleaned-up, Spender’s lawyers-approved version of the book came out. The lawsuit has been seen by some as a last-gasp effort to keep gay fiction in its own little ghetto, rather than one more element of life that has its place in mainstream fiction and history.

Leavitt went to ground for a while, then turned up in 1997 with a short story called “The Term Paper Artist,” of which a New York Times reviewer wrote, it is “unlike anything Mr. Leavitt has ever done before: sly, self-knowing and hilarious.”

Mordantly written in the first person, it concerns one David Leavitt, a well-known novelist who is temporarily installed at his father's house in Los Angeles, where he is recovering from a nasty lawsuit by a well-known English poet and doing research for a new novel, when he meets a stoned, delectable U.C.L.A. junior who lusts to get into Stanford Business School and needs to raise his English grades. The setup is deviously Nabokovian -- though while stodgy, lecherous David Leavitt is obviously written with Humbert Humbert in mind, Eric Steinberg is a lot less artless than Lolita. He flirts with the smitten author (''Hey, sexy''), buys one of his books (''Which one?'' '' 'The Secret Language of the Cranes' ''), invites him over for a joint, comes on to him (''You're gay and I'm sexy. So why not?''), then coolly douses his lust and delivers his proposition: ''You can write my paper for me. And if I get a good grade. . . .'' It's an idea with legs, and soon a number of good-looking U.C.L.A. airheads are turning in beautifully written papers.

Los Angeles is the perfect setting for such a cheerfully depraved story, and even though the sex scenes are actually less explicit than some of Mr. Leavitt's previous ones, you can see how the whole concept might spook a nervous magazine editor. The lewdness, though, is what gives the writing its grace -- the pompous nerd who goes straight for the heartstrings has vanished in a puff of self-mockery. And for once he isn't writing sex scenes as a public service.

The story was originally set to be published in Esquire Magazine, whose editor got cold feet over offending a big advertiser (Time reported it was because a male/male sex scene in a Jeep might cause Chrysler to pull its ads; Leavitt responded, “"Do you know how many gay men own Jeeps?").

Leavitt’s cheek- accused of plagiarism, cheerfully casting himself as the abetter of plagiarists, was a departure from what many critics found a rather arch, Henry Jamesian reserve in his early works.

Perhaps still stung by the Spender affair, Levitt ‘s later books have exhibited a need to provide blueprints to the joinery in the plot. A 2013 review of The Indian Clerk, his novel on an early 20-century Indian maths prodigy (his story was made into the 2016 movie, The Man Who Knew Infinity, but was based on another’s biography) commented,

Leavitt clearly put a great deal of work into The Indian Clerk, which bristles with learning lightly worn. The list of "sources and acknowledgments" runs to seven pages and even recommends Colin Spencer's Vegetarianism: A History, for details of contemporary vegetarian cookbooks. Despite - or perhaps because of - Leavitt's candor over what he took straight from life and what he merely invented, the result is sometimes more like a dramatization of existing material than a fully-fledged work of the creative imagination. Significantly, some of the very best bits - notably Hardy's affair with a wounded soldier met in a military hospital - are the ones he made up.

A New York Times review, praising Leavitt for his ability to draw out, and make relevant, class conflict from past eras, made the connection in his work explicit:

If one of Leavitt’s earlier novels could be considered a draft for this one, it is “While England Sleeps” (1993), the story of an upper-class writer who falls in love with, and subsequently betrays, a bright but uneducated subway ticket-taker. The story was inspired by Stephen Spender’s autobiography, “World Within Worlds,” and when Spender sued, Leavitt was forced to defend himself and his novel. (His publisher eventually agreed to cut three pages from the book, including some explicit sex scenes Spender particularly objected to.) Having survived that ordeal, many writers would’ve scrapped historical fiction forever, especially historical fiction populated by a profusion of illustrious people. Luckily, or circumspectly, Leavitt has chosen this time to portray people who are no longer around to file lawsuits.

The author or editor of twenty books, Levitt has been on the creative writing faculty at the University of Florida for many years.

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