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Had he not come of age in the 1980s, Daniel Mendelsohn, like Gore Vidal who matured 40 years earlier, would surely have looked down his long straight nose at the teeming, sweating masses of New York's gay gym bunnies and decamped for the sublime and rocky shores of the Mediterranean. He is, after all, a scholar of ancient Greek and Latin, a speaker of most of the Romance languages as well as German and Yiddish and an apparently dashing swain who, he tells us, has no trouble picking up comely bundles of muscle wherever they are. But Mendelsohn, a 39-year-old refugee from the suburbs, does like or has liked a pumped physique and has spent his young adulthood residing in the city's hottest gay ghetto he prefers the term "colony", Chelsea. He is a tormented -- deliciously tormented -- prisoner of his times. His debut book, on desire, love and identity, though at times needlessly repetitious, is also one of the smartest meditations on American homosexual life in many years.
Like most gay memoirists, Mendelsohn leads us through his sexual awakening silently salivating over an unavailable Southern swimmer who transferred to his Long Island Jewish-intellectual high school to his loss of homo-virginity to a Virginia college classmate to his eventual admittance to Chelsea boyland. Along the way he succumbs to ancient Greek, whose elusive linguistic images and structures become both intellectual and psychological guides to his own elusive sense of desire and identity. The key to understanding both the language and the author resides in a peculiar syntactic device of classical Greek: the use of the conjunctive men at the beginning of the first clause of a sentence in tandem with de at the beginning of the second clause.
This syntax, which Mendelsohn renders as "on the one hand this" but "on the other hand that," epitomizes, he says, the Greek tendency to bipolar thinking. Yet the linguistic polarity of men and de is also key to Mendelsohn's story: the Jewish boy always chasing after fair-haired Southerners, the meditative intellectual in search of relentless play, the playboy dogged by the mysterious tombstone image of a beautiful immigrant ancestor 70 years dead, the hunk lover seduced by the infant child he is helping to raise. "If you spend a long enough time reading Greek literature, that rhythm begins to structure your thinking about other things, too," he writes. "The world men you were born into; the world de you choose to inhabit. Your Jewish men heritage, stern yet fertile, sexless for you because heterosexual, yet for the same reason procreative, proliferating, productive; your passion, de, for classical Greece, rich with fables that must always end the same way, the culture of perfected beauty and marmoreally self-sufficient bodies doomed always to repeat the same pleasures." It is a handsome device for intertwining the complexities of his own diverse passions and demolishing the simple-minded propaganda of the proliferating gay chambers of commerce bent on reducing homosexual desire to a marketing niche. It would be more effective still had he not lingered so long on the professorial platform, hectoring the reader with repetitious and often self-indulgent elaboration.
Mendelsohn's elusive embrace is nowhere stronger than in his brutal reflections on the difference between his love-lust for perfect young men and his simple love for his friend's child. He had never loved, truly loved, the boys he sought, he admits, because he stayed with them only "as long as they left me alone and whole and untouched." The love of those boys was like the narcissistic love of the dapper, oft-married grandfather who was his idol. "To be a lover -- to be a desirer, a collector -- is to be self-obsessed, for your desire is ultimately about yourself," he writes of both his grandfather and himself. "But to be a parent is, ultimately, to efface yourself -- your self…In our different ways, my grandfather and I are great desirers."
Unlike the authors of the recent stream of soupy-minded diatribes against the exuberant sexuality of the gay demimonde, Mendelsohn does not repent his testosteronic chase. Yes, he has become a part-time suburbanite parent like his schlumpy schoolteacher father, but he still spends half his week in Manhattan, a few subway stops from the Chelsea corner he calls the Intersection of Desire. Daniel Mendelsohn remains, in this age of Monica moralizers, a "yes, but" seeker after the meaning of his own identity, a trickster of Gotham who understands well that simple nostrums are never adequate to complex passions.
"A literary achievement of the first rank.... The Greeks knew how to give a universal significance to individual experience. So does Daniel Mendelsohn." -The New York Observer
Sometimes when I take a break from writing I walk down the east side of Eighth to Fourteenth Street, then cross over to the west side and walk back up. At the corner of Twenty-second Street is the Big Cup, a Day-Glo-painted coffeehouse that has proved even more popular as a late-night alternative to gay bars than it is as an afternoon gathering spot for other self-employeds. The latter tend, as far as I can see, to fall into two groups: writers, whose elaborate charade of using their laptops productively sags more and more with every hopeful glance up at the opening door, and a small but fairly regular collection of hustlers, who monopolize the telephone at the back of the room while checking off entries in what you assume must be small black books. In Twenty-second Street itself are Barracuda, a low-ceilinged gay bar that has been frequented exclusively by horny young middle-class gay men since it opened in the fall of 1995 with a party celebrating the publication of a queer-radical treatise by the lesbian activist Urvashi Vaid; and Barracuda's next-door neighbor, a bookstore called the Unicorn, whose inconsequential stock lines a small front room through which you pass en route to the back room, a barely lit space where men can have sex with each other after paying a ten-dollar entrance fee.
But as I say, I usually continue straight down Eighth. Just past the Big Cup is a home furnishings store called Distinctive Furnishings, where you can buy, among other things, screen savers that display mostly-naked, muscle-bound young men in bathing suits. Then there's a clothing store called Tops N Bottoms (a gleeful double entendre: in the language of gay sex those words refer to those who prefer the active and passive roles in intercourse). A nearby card store called Rainbows and Triangles has a full stock of gay-themed birthday and anniversary and condolence cards. "Because I know how you feel" goes the inside of a card whose outside shows a well-dressed young hunk in a black suit holding a white rose. On this side of the avenue you eventually also pass the American Fitness gym, almost invariably referred to by its campier nickname, "American Princess." Many of the gyms frequented by gay men have been similarly redubbed: Better Bodies has become "Bitter Bottoms," and, in wry but not wholly unadmiring tribute to its owner's hypertrophied pectorals, the David Barton gym on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Thirteenth Street is also known as "Dolly Parton's." A bit farther south is the Chelsea Gym, through whose enormous second-floor windows you can watch men cycle and lift things and run. The crucial meeting between the two male leads in the gay film Jeffrey is set here. Perhaps in recognition of its primacy in the chronology of body culture, the Chelsea Gym has no nickname.
Also on this side of Eighth Avenue are the Viceroy restaurant--a place you hear described as being one of the "nice" eating spots on this avenue which seems, the more you think of it, to be about little besides feeding, developing, and clothing men's bodies--and the Video Blitz video store. The Video Blitz is just across Seventeenth Street from a huge Blockbuster, but local gay men are apt to belong to both, since Blockbuster cannot compete with Video Blitz's ample collection of art films and gay pornography for rental: The Bigger the Better, A Matter of Size, Brothers Should Do It.
When I get as far south as Fourteenth Street I usually cross Eighth Avenue and head back uptown. At Fifteenth I pass the Candy Bar and Grill, which opened in the fall of 1996 and whose door is monitored alternately by a tallish drag queen and a shorter, chubby club promoter. The decor here recalls that of upscale Catskills hotels of the fifties, the kind of place my Jewish, heterosexual family might have gone for a weekend in, say, 1953, the year my parents, a mathematician and a schoolteacher, were married; but by now the large and intricate "Moderne" lighting fixtures that would have impressed those young Jewish people almost fifty years ago have, like so many artifacts from the world of their youth, somehow become the objects of irony, signaling a particular brand of stylishness, a certain kind of knowingness, to the young, attractive gay men who come here in order to feel glamorous and special. (For some reason many of these men are dark-haired; not Jewish perhaps, but Mediterranean.) North of Candy Bar is FoodBar, perhaps the most popular restaurant in the neighborhood, at least partly because its co-owner, Joe, is as opulently well muscled and darkly handsome as some of its clientele is, and most of its clientele aspires to be. As you walk past FoodBar you invariably see him through the enormous plate-glass window etched with the restaurant's name; he's sitting on a bar stool close to the front door, smoking in a tight T-shirt, dispensing seats and air kisses to huge men in work boots and tank tops. Often as I pass by on my walks he'll raise an amused eyebrow at me and beckon me in with a look that says he won't take seriously my inevitable protests about overwork and looming deadlines; pushing a pack of cigarettes across the bar at me, he'll order me a glass of red wine, and another one for himself, and we'll gossip about boys or books. There are no unattractive waiters at FoodBar.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Posted March 5, 2001
Reading this pastiche of memoirs, I often thought of being in a maze. Not a terrifying, high one like in 'The Shining,' but something more oriental, perhaps waist-high. I could be trapped in it only at my will; at any time I wished I could break the illusion of captivity by looking outside the maze. In 'The Elusive Embrace' the author has given us a great many vignettes from his past, focusing mainly on early childhood, his sexual coming-out as an undergraduate, and his present life (which combines the fun of life in lower Manhattan and a quasi-parental relationship with the son of a good friend in New Jersey). These passages are beautifully, even lyrically written (especially the ones at U.Va.), but unless you're one of the critics who enjoy the Asian maze conceit you may find them irritating. Major portions of the man's life are sealed off to us--we hear next to nothing of graduate school, nothing of his present professorship, nothing much of his teen years. For someone to write a book called 'The Elusive Identity' should imply he has found a working solution to that riddle. These memoirs emphasize the fact that he has not, and, as stylistically enchanting as some of it is, I did not find it worthwhile reading.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 14, 2000
Simply put, there is no other book on the market that intersects the quest for identity, classicist academic scholarship and (uncomparably) beautifully written text that is memorable, resonant and multilayered. Through weaving, comparing and integrating his personal history and the classicist discipline, where his expertise exists, the reader is transformed on multiple levels to try and understand who we are. Although there are many chintzy or poorly written texts that focus on self-discovery, this memoir surpasses all the rest due to the way he conveys his analysis and theories. The imagery and construction of each thought, each sentence--pure erudition, literary in the truest form, and not condescending to the reader at all. Daniel Mendelsohn is a classicist scholar, and I appreciate that he maintains the scholarly discussion throughout the course of the book; it gives the 'Elusive Embrace' such depth and complex layers that it is an erudition for all who read it. Yet, what I think is just as profound, is that he crafts 'The Elusive Embrace' in such a personal and inviting tone, that it draws the reader in and makes the whole experience more intimate. The exquisite images and keen physical details enhance and complement Mendelsohn's thesis. Plus, we really get to see his thought processes, analyses and, in a way, another perspective of how to view the notion of 'the self' and our individual selves. Needless to say, I could not put this book down. And it cannot be compartmentalized as being a 'gay' or 'Jewish' or 'Classicist' work. There is an amazing universality that this book possesses; I guarantee that each reader can relate to what Mendelsohn has so brilliantly laid out for us to explore. Don't miss out on this amazing book. After reading it, you'll see why Daniel Mendelsohn's, 'The Elusive Embrace' will be an instant classic.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 20, 2000
Mendelsohn has certainly a way of writing his memoires that sometimes portends to jamesian transitional elusiveness. One might find it a fault with a writer conveying such a deep and pervading theoretical background to the understanding of gay identity or gay nature that the mediation of such deep thinking lies within the subjective and poetical view which is a general core feature of writing memoires. But in the very nature of the subject lies the craving for the subjective view and therefore the conveyance and applicability of the thoughts displayed seem the more profound and truistic. Truistic in such a way that one feels: 'YES! Of course, why didn't I think of that'. There is on a 'meta'-level an almost Bergsonian angle on how to have a grip on reality. The play of memory has this characteristic feature of setting one's world in view. Further: The Bergsonian idea of 'elusive concepts' which should secure change and diversity in our always renewing grip on reality is fully displayed though implicitly in Mendelsohn's work - in the motion of the work. I know not and have not found evidence to the claim that Mendelsohn is inspired by Henri Bergson. But the elusiveness not only of the embrace physically but also mentally strikes me as an acting out of Bergsonian ideas.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.