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The Lost Library: Donald Windham’s Two People

By (March 1, 2010) 2 Comments

This essay will appear in The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered, edited by Tom Cardamone. The anthology collects the writings of variety of authors on gay fiction that has fallen undeservedly out-of-print, and that remain important touchstones in America’s literary and gay heritage. It will be published this March from Haiduk Press.

I first came to know of Donald Windham through his association with the great gay American playwright Tennessee Williams, who was Windham’s friend and literary mentor for twenty-five years. In 1977, Windham published the correspondence he had received from “10,” as Williams often signed his letters, under the title Tennessee Williams’ Letters to Donald Windham: 1940-1965, a book I devoured. I had come to love Williams’ plays and to admire his courageous portrayal of shocking, taboo subject matter, especially homosexuality. As an aspiring writer still in my twenties, I combed those letters (Windham’s replies were not included) looking for the courage to write my own stories, looking for tips on how to be half as fabulous a gay man as Williams was, looking for clues as to how to cultivate a literary friendship such as the one he and Windham had.

The letters were such fun to read. I loved Williams’ campy patois, the coded language, the gossipy news: “The ‘crowd’ here [Provincetown, 1940] is dominated by a platinum blond Hollywood belle named Doug and a bull-dyke named Wanda who is a well-known writer under a male pen-name.” I loved the outrageous honesty: “There are only two times in this world when I am happy and selfless and pure. One is when I jack off on paper and the other when I empty all the fretfulness of desire on a young male body.” Loved, loved, loved Williams’ descriptions of writing The Glass Menagerie, the rehearsals, the subsequent triumphs, and the later flops. The letters were peppered with famous names, witty aperçus, and candid confessions of sexual shenanigans.

Windham and Williams had met in New York in January, 1940. Windham, then nineteen and “practically penniless,” had recently fled Atlanta with his twenty-one-year old boyfriend. They were living in a single furnished room. The romance of all that delighted me. As I read the letters, Windham seemed like the writer-in-training and literary acolyte I longed to be. Nevertheless, I didn’t feel any strong desire to delve into his novels. Perhaps that’s because Windham’s books were hard to find, mostly out of print; or perhaps because, in the last years of the seventies, newer gay voices—Andrew Holleran, Ed White, Joseph Hansen, Larry Kramer, Armistead Maupin—had begun to appear. Whatever the reason, it was thirty years later that I finally got around to reading one of Donald Windham’s novels. It happened, really, quite by chance.

One day, browsing in one of my favorite used bookstores in downtown Boston, I came across a copy of Windham’s novel (his third, it turns out), Two People. I might have easily passed it by but for the author’s name, which triggered happy memories of reading the Williams-Windham correspondence so many years before. I pulled it off the shelf. The dust jacket—a sketch of the Spanish Steps in Rome, a few people lolling about—seemed innocuous, even old fashioned. And the title, such a generic one, seemed innocuous as well, promising little more than a safe plot, a pleasant read. But the book—its heft, its sheer physicality—piqued my curiosity. It was an immaculate copy, not a mark or tear, and the pages, creamy white, had the soft, thick, luxurious texture that hardback paper used to have. I checked the publication date: 1965. A quick glance at the dust jacket blurb—“the story of an American man and an Italian boy in Rome … a situation that another author might have made melodramatic or sensational”—clinched it. Code for a gay story! That night, curled up in bed, I began to read.

In the opening sentences, Forrest, the American, who is hanging on in Rome after his wife has left him, picks up a stray newspaper and reads that several people have jumped from bridges into the Tiber. Their intention, he soon realizes, was “diversion, not suicide,” just the Roman way of celebrating the New Year. This moment, which might pass as nothing more than a bit of scene setting, is, in fact, Windham’s deft way of announcing one of the novel’s main themes: that a diversion, even one that is “unique and unfathomable,” is preferable to emotional suicide.

A shy, amiable New York broker, Forrest is conventional in every way. He’s from the Middle West; he has two children. Twice a week he plays handball after work. His days in Manhattan have been “as much alike as the business suits” he wears to work. We soon learn that an aimless year in Greenwich Village and “some early promiscuous encounters” are long behind him. At thirty-three, he counts on his life being settled. But then, on the Spanish Steps, he meets Marcello, a seventeen-year old, whose attitude toward the American is “carefully balanced between the indifference of a departure and the deliberateness of an approach.” A casual buon giorno on Forrest’s part leads to a conversation, tentative at first, and then, when Marcello turns to him with a smile that’s “a part of the sunshine,” to an invitation back to the American’s apartment, where they make love.

At first, Forrest feels that he has made a mistake, that he has “started something that he would regret or that would end without anything having come of it.” A jaded gay acquaintance warns him that he’ll be robbed or blackmailed. When Forrest tells Marcello, “My friend says that boys in Rome began doing this after the war,” Marcello answers, “Your friend is wrong. Roman boys have been doing the same thing since ancient times.” It’s the matter-of-factness with which Forrest (and Windham) treat homosexuality that makes Two People so interesting, both from an historical and fictional perspective. Forrest becomes neither a possessive lover nor the boy’s surrogate parent. As a result of a much earlier homosexual experience, the American has learned that “categories do not account for everything,” and he seems content to let this affair play itself out in the “innocent male conviviality” that is Rome.

Marcello is “serenely beautiful.” At one point, he is described as “a youth on a Greek vase,” but in general Windham does not indulge in the kind of prurient encomiums to comely ephebedom that characterize, say, Mann’s descriptions of Tadzio in Death in Venice. This restraint is one of the novel’s many appealing qualities. And unlike Tadzio, Marcello is old enough—and Italian enough?—to have learned how to pick up guys in cinemas. (Windham notes that “promiscuous encounters are to Italian boys what ice cream sodas at the corner drugstore are to their American counterparts.”) There’s a dual practicality to these hook ups: “Instead of having pleasure alone, he had it with someone and was given money.”

A second encounter, a week later, leaves Forrest bewildered, unable to explain his new desire. “The boy’s figure, lean and rounded, evoked neither masculinity nor femininity, rather the undivided country of adolescence; and his silent receptivity, open equally to tenderness and passion, spoke of no special desires, but of a need for love so great that it prevented him from asking for it.” Those looking for hot scenes of passionate man-boy sex will not find it here. If you read the novel too quickly, you could almost miss the references to the times Marcello and Forrest go to bed. Still, there are beautiful passages that nicely capture the limpid dynamics of their lovemaking:

As soon as they were in bed, Marcello’s distance, awkwardness, and waiting vanished. His childish eyes, which had sought the floor or had looked into a nowhere just above their lowered kids—with a reflective quality that made it impossible for Forrest not to feel that the mind behind them was full of unspoken thoughts—sought him as directly as the hands and lips.

Although Forrest gives Marcello money and gifts, it’s clear that the relationship is about something more than prostitution. With Forrest, Marcello is alternately friendly and shy. In one particularly telling passage, Forrest offers to buy a present, and after some coaxing, Marcello hesitantly tells him he’d like a new shirt. With that, the boy opens an Italian grammar book he has brought along and inscribes it “A Forrest con simpatia.” Later, Forrest consults a waiter, asking him about the exact meaning of simpatia. Closer to love than friendship, the waiter tells him.

The chapters alternate between Forrest’s point of view and Marcello’s. Windham, who was forty-five when Two People was published, does an extraordinary job of getting into the head of a teenager, and a non-American one at that. The intense and confused needs, the egocentrism alternating with shyness, the self-consciousness, the moments of brutal honesty, the feelings of loneliness and loss and confusion. Marcello’s father, a Sicilian tile contractor, treats his son “as though he were an employee that he wanted to make a profit on.” He expects the boy to follow in his footsteps. He treats Marcello’s interests in other careers with grudging tolerance. Sundays are the worst, for then the whole family spends the day together—church, visits to relatives, dinner—where the two usually end up fighting.

Rome, too, is a character in this novel, a place of romance, beauty, eroticism, chaos, squalor, mystery. A city “charged with an elixir,” Henry James once said. All over Rome, Forrest encounters “sights that drew him out of himself, not through an attraction that he recognized in them, but through an obscure affinity that returned and persisted beyond understanding.” It’s the seductive elusiveness of Rome—the impossibility of pinning it down—that Windham offers up as the city’s most appealing quality. Like Marcello (or Forrest, for that matter), the city resists easy pigeonholing.

A further complication is that Marcello also has a girlfriend, Ninì, a girl with full breasts and skin whose “plumpness and whiteness … was more suggestive of a woman than of a girl.” In the context of his playful, but chaste, times with Ninì , Marcello thinks of his continuing relationship with Forrest as a “friendship.” The sex he and Forrest have, Marcello tells himself, is a stopgap measure before he can “properly make love” to Ninì. Forrest is, Marcello assures himself, “no competition to his feelings for Ninì, anyway.”
Windham doesn’t treat this arrangement ironically. His intention is not to write a novel about a “bi-curious” kid who is deluding himself. It’s about two people—note that the age discrepancy is absent in the title—each in search of something. For Marcello it’s autonomy, identity, maturity, experience. And indeed, through his relationship with both the girl and the American, he gradually enters into an understanding of “the process by which love, when the world expands, limits responses and makes intensity possible.” It’s the intensity of the adult, not the child.

And for Forrest? What is he searching for? What Forrest most wants from Marcello is to “enter the boy’s life,” to enter the life of Roman Italians, indeed, to enter “any life at all.” Like so many generations of travels before him, he discovers that in Italy “the heaven and the earth are mixed up.” Goethe called Rome the place in which to be reborn. Forrest is not exactly “reborn” here—Windham is too sober for that kind of earth-shattering epiphany—but he does achieve a kind of quiet, peaceful reconciliation to what has been, to what is possible, to what may be. For Forrest, Marcello has made things—Rome, and everything—real again. Glad is the word Forrest applies to himself toward the end of the novel—“glad that he had been in Rome and glad that he was returning home.”

Donald Windham and E.M. Forster

E.M. Forster, who also became a literary friend and correspondent (his letters to Windham, a much slighter volume, were privately published in 1975), appreciated Windham’s art and volunteered to write an Introduction to Windham’s collection of stories. In that little essay—a model of economy, lucidity, and insight—Forster notes that “warmth” is the hallmark of Windham’s style. “He knows that human beings are not statues but contain flesh and blood and a heart, and he believes that creatures so constituted must contact one another or they will decay. Isolation means death.”
If there is anything “political” about Two People, it’s to be found in an understated subplot involving some research that Forrest is doing at the Vatican Archives on Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth-century Italian monk and philosopher, who was burned alive for not retracting his heretical works. Forrest is interested in Bruno because the monk did not “falsify his declarations to achieve a nominal accord.” Perhaps Windham threw in these references to suggest a parallel with Forrest’s unapologetic acceptance of his relationship with Marcello. This is not a novel that pleads for understanding or tolerance, or indeed makes any apologies for Forrest’s behavior, an amazing stance for a pre-Stonewall novelist to take.
I will not give away the ending. That would spoil the sweet, poignant pleasure of reading the novel’s closing chapter, pages in which Windham nicely, but not facilely, wraps up the several themes he’s been weaving. Instead, my original intention was to encourage you to go out and find a used copy of this long-out-of-print little gem and read it for yourself. But how wonderful to discover, just before I finished the final draft of this essay, that Mondial, a small, independent publisher of “rare and unusual books in English and Esperanto,” has reissued Two People in a new, paperback edition graced with a handsome cover drawing by Fritz Bultman.
And while you’re at it, pick up as well a copy of Windham’s Emblems of Conduct, published two years before Two People. A memoir about his youth in Atlanta during the Depression, it’s another model of clarity, wisdom, and restraint. Toward the end of that book, Windham wrote: “The wonder of beauty is that it does not lie in any identifiable quality. It cannot be isolated; it exists outside the sum of its parts; and until you are aware of it, nothing is wonderful. But once you are aware of beauty, the wonders goes out of it into all that is beyond your understanding. You may make no effort to understand it, or you may track it down as far as ‘wholeness,’ ‘harmony,’ ‘radiance.’ But it remains outside what you can pin down. And from it wonder enters life.”
A quiet wonder will enter the life of any reader lucky enough to read Two People, or any of Donald Windham’s other gracious, generous, intelligent, and beautiful books.

Philip Gambone is an award-winning writer of fiction and nonfiction. His collection of short stories, The Language We Use Up Here, and his novel, Beijing, were each nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. Phil’s longer essays and memoirs have appeared in a number of important anthologies, including Hometowns, A Member of the Family, Sister & Brother, Wrestling with the Angel, Boys Like Us, Gay Travels, Obsessed, The Man I Might Become, Wonderlands, and Big Trips. Phil’s collection of interviews, Something Inside: Conversations with Gay Fiction Writers, received praise for “both the depth of Gambone’s probing conversations and for the sheer range of important authors included.” Phil has taught writing at the University of Massachusetts, Boston College, and Harvard University. Currently, he teaches English at Boston University Academy and fiction writing at the Harvard Extension School. His latest project is a book of profiles of important LGBTQ Americans.

Tom Cardamone is the author of the speculative short story collection, Pumpkin Teeth, recently nominated for a Dark Quill Award, as well as the erotic fantasy novel, The Werewolves of Central Park. He has edited an anthology, The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered, out this March.