Portrait of the Lesbian as a Young Artist

Alison Bechdel, "Fun Home"

Alison Bechdel, “Fun Home”

Today I continue my love affair with Alison Bechdel’s 2006 illustrated memoir Fun House. Radically different though our childhoods were, both the author and I had fathers who were passionate about books and initiated us into the world of literature. (Both were literature teachers although my own father was not a closeted gay man.) Bechdel and I also use books in similar ways, sometimes seeing direct parallels with our lives, sometimes seeing ironic contrasts.

Of course, we see this only in retrospect. When we first encountered the works, we just experienced the magic of fictional identification.

It so happens that our fathers were drawn to many of the same books, most notably Remembrance of Things Past and Ulysses. Here’s what she has to say about these and other literary works.

Remembrance of Things Past

We stopped for a moment by the fence, Lilac-time was nearly over; some of the trees still thrust aloft, in tall purple chandeliers, their tiny balls of blossom, but in many palaces among their foliage where, only a week before, they had been breaking in waves of fragrant foam, these were now spent and shriveled and discolored, a hollow scum, dry and scentless.

That’s how Proust describes the lilacs bordering Swann’s Way in Remembrance of Things Past.

My father, as I say, had begun reading this the year before he died. After the lilac passage, Proust describes Swann’s garden in a feat of both literary and horticultural virtuosity that climaxes in the narrator’s rapturous communion with the pink blossoms of the hawthorn hedge.

Through the hedge, Proust’s narrator could see even deeper into Swann’s garden. There, surrounded by jasmine, verbena, and pansies, sat a little girl. The young narrator, failing to distinguish this girl, Gilberte, from the general floral fecundity, instantly fell in love with her. If there was ever a bigger pansy than my father, it was Marcel Proust.

Proust would have intense emotional friendships with fashionable women, but it was young, often straight, men with whom he fell in love. He would also fictionalize real people in his life by transposing their gender. The narrator’s lover Albertine, for example, is often read as a portrait of Proust’s beloved chauffeur/secretary, Alfred.

My father could not afford a chauffeur/secretary, but he did spring for the occasional yardwork assistant/babysitter. He would cultivate these young men like orchids.

Winnie the Pooh and James and the Giant Peach

When she’s off at college and has her first lesbian relationship, Bechdel starts reinterpreting childhood favorites:

Joan was a poet and a “matriarchist.” I spent very little of the remaining semester outside her bed. This was strewn with books, however, in what was for me a novel fusion of word and deed. I lost my bearings. The dictionary had become erotic. (“Os- Mouth. Oral, oscillate, osculate, orifice.”) Some of our favorite childhood stories were revealed as propaganda. (“God. Christopher Robin’s a total imperialist!”) Others as pornography. In the harsh light of my dawning feminism, everything looked different:

The walls were wet and sticky, and peach juice was dripping from the ceiling. James opened his mouth and caught some of it on his tongue. It tasted delicious.

Catcher in the Rye

Dad didn’t have much use for small children, but as I got older, he began to sense my potential as an intellectual companion. Years of neglect had left me wary. But then I ended up in his English class, a course called “Rites of Passage, and I found that I liked the books dad wanted me to read.

In a scene that cuts perilously close to home, Bechdel remembers her father conducting a class discussion of the scene where Holden’s English teacher makes a pass at him.

The Importance of Being Earnest

At one point Bechdel’s mother is playing Lady Bracknell in Wilde’s play, and while Bechdel falls in love with it, the covert references to homosexuality (bunburying) elude her, just as her father’s secret life is eluding her. Passages from the play take on special significance in light of what Bechdel later learns about her father.

Colette’s Autobiography

A chance gift from her father when he is giving Bechdel books to help with a course on Ulysses (below), Colette’s autobiography becomes intertwined with Joyce’s novel to contribute to Bechdel’s lesbian awakening:

I referred back to Colette herself, basking in her sensualism as perhaps the sea-ravaged Odysseus had in the ministrations of Nausicaa. And like Nausicaa’s Ulyssean counterpart, Gerty MacDowell, she was even good for a wank.

Ulysses

I can’t begin to do justice to the way that Bechdel uses James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is her father’s favorite book. It’s a book that Bechdel stumbles into by accident and which she resists—but which proves to be the work that most shapes her memoir. Finding resemblances between Stephen Daedalus’s relationship with his spiritual father Leopold Bloom and her relationship with her own father leads to final understanding and some reconciliation.

In her use of Ulysses, I particularly like Bechdel’s demonstration of how elastic literature can be. It is impossible to predict all the ways that literature impacts our lives, and sometimes the works that students resist the most have the greatest effect. Sometimes the effect doesn’t show up–or at least become evident- for years:

Having neglected to plan an independent project for our short January term, I was forced to select a class from the meager list of offerings. Could this Hobson’s choice have been a form of divine intervention, like the Goddess Athena’s visit to Telemachus when she nudged him to go find his long-lost dad, Odysseus? For I was beginning admission to not just any English class, but one devoted to my father’s favorite book of all time.

Remarkably, this interview with Mr. Avery [the teacher] occurred on the selfsame afternoon that I realized, in the campus bookstore, that I was a lesbian.

And indeed, I embarked that day on my odyssey which, consisting as it did in a gradual, episodic, and inevitable convergence with my abstracted father, was very nearly as epic as the original.

And further on:

[In response to the teacher’s question “whether we learn anything concrete about Bloom and Stephen’s encounter? Do they connect?”]

I had no idea. By the time the January term ended. I still had two hundred pages to go. And like Odysseus’s men who had fallen in with the lotus-eaters, I felt no urgency to continue.

The regular semester began and I still hadn’t met with Mr. Avery for my oral exam on Ulysses. I had a more daunting test to face first: descent into the underworld [the Gay Union]. It was a benign and well-lit underworld, admittedly, but Odysseus sailing to Hades could not have felt more trepidation than I did entering that room. Nor could he have been more transformed by the initiation that befell him there. In the week after the meeting, my quest shifted abruptly outward. My parents received the letter on the same day that I bullshat my way through the Ulysses exam.

And further on:

I was adrift on the high seas, but my course was becoming clear. It lay between the Scylla of my peers and the swirling, sucking Charybdis of my family. Veering toward Scylla seemed much the safer route. And after navigating the passage, I soon washed up, a bit stunned, on a new shore.

Like Odysseus on the island of the Cyclops, I found myself facing a “being of colossal strength and ferocity, to whom the law of man and god meant nothing.” In true heroic fashion, I moved toward the thing I feared.

Yet while Odysseus schemed desperately to escape Polyphemus’s cave, I found that I was quite content to stay here forever. Joan was not just a visionary poet and activist, but a bona fide Cyclops. She’d lost one eye in a childhood accident vividly reminiscent of the way Odysseus blinded Polyphemus.

After coming out, Bechdel receives a letter from her father which directly quotes Ulysses:

Perhaps my eagerness to claim him as “gay” in the way I am “gay,” as opposed to bisexual or some other category, is just a way of keeping him to myself—a sort of inverted Oedipal complex. I think of his letter, the one where he does and doesn’t come out to me. (“I am not a hero.”) It’s exactly the disavowal Stephen Dedalus makes at the beginning of Ulysses—Joyce’s nod to the novel’s mock-heroic methods.

Critical though Bechdel is of her father, the closing panels of her book capture the debt that she owes him. Unlike Dedalus and Bloom, she and her father share a blood as well as a spiritual paternity. But there is also an inversion. Shifting over to the other Daedalus story, she may be an Icarus inheriting the artistry of his father, but it is the father who hurtled into the sea. The literary and artistic heritage that he passed along to her, however, saved her as she faced her own challenges as a lesbian in a heterosexual world. Or as Bechdel, drawing on memories of her father catching her when she jumped into the swimming pool, puts it,

But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt.

Like Stephen Dedalus, he is neither all bad nor all good but simultaneously anti-hero and hero. Literature guides Bechdel to this complex understanding.

This entry was posted in Bechdel (Alison), Colette, Dahl (Roald), Joyce (James), Milne (A. A.), Proust (Marcel), Salinger (J. D.), Wilde (Oscar) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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