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[301] London Triptych – Jonathan Kemp

” I had never known such happiness. Sometimes I thought I might explode with the intensity of it. It’s strange to recount all this, to tell all this to you, knowing that you will never hear it. There hasn’t been a single day in here I haven’t thought about you, wondered what you’re doing, and if you ever think of me. ” [77]

Stylistically evocative of the works of Michael Nelson and Alan Hollinghurst, London Triptych, Kemp’s debut, interweaves the lives of three men from three eras in a lyrical and unabashedly explicit narrative set against London’s gay underworld. In 1894, Jack Rose leaves his poor family and begins his apprenticeship as a rent boy. Uncomplicatedly libidinal, he finds the job delivering more than just a decent living, for he enjoys having sex with men without having to integrate such behavior into his sense of self—until he meets Oscar Wilde, who has awaken a storm of emotions in him like never before. But Wilde’s fake affection leaves him angry and disappointed.

I thought I meant something and I know this sounds stupid coming from a whore but it’s the truth. I wish it wasn’t but it is. I don’t know whether I would call it love because I’m certain I don’t know what that word means… [130]

Living a life that is completely at odds with Jack’s no-string attachment is Colin Read, a middle-aged artist who has been ashamed of his desires and keeps his emotions at bay. In 1954, recently widowed, Colin explores his sexuality as he works on the preparation of a most ambitious painting, London Triptych. He falls in love with his model, Gregory, who represents the antithesis of what Colin has become in life, a kind of sexual freedom and audacity unimaginable to him. Colin cannot help feeling a vertiginous sadness over his wasted youth as he has kept his lustful desires in check over the years out of an inveterate morality surrounding homosexuality. He chooses to avoid a life of scandals and rumors at the expense of happiness and intimacy. Gregory is a mirror in which he sees his desires.

Gore’s curiosity is for pleasure, and is pursued with a hunger so huge I cannot fathom it. Yet I cannot accuse him of anything other than following his desires—something, surely, for which I at least have to commend him, having never dared open myself up to the possibility of unadulterated pleasure. [105]

Resolved to break the shackles by religion, by morality, by familial expectation, and by social conventionality is David, who formulates a life radically in defiance of what was expected of him. He lives a life of duplicity and turns to prostitution. The ego’s trip is one of escape, of unbridledness, and of constant stimulation. David is living life on the fast lane without realizing that true meaning has passed him by. He recounts his story in prison, addressing the narrative to his lover who has betrayed him.

Nothing about my life seemed real to me and that was just how I liked it, just how I wanted it . . . My pleasure lay in getting what I wanted even though I wasn’t sure why I wanted it. [92]

From living outside the law to living outside the society, as the connections between these men reveal themselves, one realizes that times are irrelevant when it comes to the sentiment of gay men: one of turmoil, of irretrievable loss, of struggle over stigma, and of unrequited love. One interesting thing about the book is that , while I’m taking notes in my journal, the different passages revealing the emotional terrains of the three men living over a span of time can be transposed to another one of them. London Triptych captures these political and emotional battles with a lyrical beauty and raw lucidity.

231 pp. Myriad Editions. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

*Thanks to Emma Dowson and Myriad Editions (Brighton, England) for the complimentary copy. London Triptych will be published on August 19, 2010 in the UK.