ON THE ART SCHOOL curcuit of postwar London, Quentin Crisp was well known as a model specializing in gruelling poses - like holding his arms above his head or poising his frail torso athwart the edge of a bench. This didn't make him an inspiration, except to those students in the throes of confusing exhibitionism with character. For beginners struggling with anatomy, there was no concentrating on the body in the face of so much competition from the psyche. On the other hand, no one could remain unmoved by the first sight of his erect and haughty figure swishing lifeclass in a slipstream of prefume. With mouth painted, eyebrows flagrantly crayonned and hair dyed red, Crisp was, in effect, something out of Christopher Isherwood's German past.
Now, with everyone out of the closet (the door must be hanging by a thread), Crisp's style would scarcely be noticed. Then, a man flyless slacks and medium heels with a touch of softness at the throat could be found only in all-nigh bistros like Lyon's Corner House. Through him, new students were persuaded that they were in the Bohemian bigime, though as soon as they fell to working on their own images. Quentin seemed to fade back into the Soho landscape. Perhaps because he rarely spoke to anyone save other models, he was rumored to be a poet.
It turns out that this was no rumor. The Naked Civil Servant , for all its hyperbole and sometime frantic inversions, is the work of a poet of great wit, intelligence and sensitivity. In a preface as brilliant as the text it introduces, Michael Holroyd reports that when first published in Britain in 1968, the autobiograph was greeted with either condescension revulsion, or, as in the case of the newpaper that listed it as fiction, optimism. That "only Irh reviewers recognized the bleak wit and insight and did not look away" lends weight to Holroyd's point that the writer is closer to the Irish literary tradition (Beckett, that is - not blarney) than the English. Perhaps his honorary Irishness was sensed by the audience, but in any case the English could cope with him only by seeing him as one of the Evelyn's Waugh's "more flamboyant inventions." Fortunately, British stolidity didn't prevent the book from being turned into a television masterpiece, one in a "package" imported here last year.
Since he treats homosexuality as a misfortune rather than a magical preference, Crisp will never displace Genet as a hero. Indeed, so far from being hailed by the gay community here, he will probably be accused of setting back the cause by a hundred years, much as he was long ago criticized for spoiling things for his less ostentatious peers. "From the dawn of my history ," he begins, "I was so disfigured by the characteristics of a certain kind of homosexual person that, when I grew up. I realized that I could not ignore my predicament. The way in which I chose to deal with it would now be called existentialist . . . I became not merely a self-confessed homosexual but a self-evident one . . . I wore makeup at a time when even on women eyeshadow as sinful." He goes on to say. "As soon as I put my uniform on the rest of my life solidified around me like a plaster cast." Existing as if by default. Crisp subsisted on the crumbs from society's table. His friends were people worse off than himself or "anyone who could put up with the disgrace" of knowing him; his occupation was any job - as draftsman, commercial artist or model - from which he didn't get fired; and so on.
While taking responsibility for his own plight, the author nevertheless dates it from rhe time when, at the age of a few days and ill with pneumonia, he had his first taste of total attention from his mother. Upon recovery, "I saw that [she] intended to reapportion her love and divide it equally among her four children. I flew into an ungovernable rage from which I have never fully recovered." Exulting in Freud where others might wince befoire him or at least object, Crisp bills himself as a monstrous child intent, not on regaining love (an emotion he himself has never experienced) but on securing "unconditional obedience." This he did by fair means of foul, including unscheduled bowel movements until well into his schooldays. With puberty, his mission became - through sex - "to allure, subjugate, and, if possible, destroy the personality of others." Mature work has consisted of provoking distaste and physical brutality from strangers and has culminated in these memoirs which invite the reader to cast the final stone.
But who could cast anything but bouquets of someone who has made a work of art out of misery and whose "stockpile of rage" has given so keen a cutting edge to his prose?On the subject if voices, he says his own, like those of many homosexuals, is "an insinuating blend of eagerness and caution in which even such words as 'hello' and 'goodbye' seem not so much uttered as divulged." The American soldiers whose bounty and sexuality made World War II his Golden Age has voices like "warm milk." Discussing camp, which he disapproves of, the writer claims that its gesture became "fossilized" in the '20s because that was the last time when sexual differences were clear. "The men of the twenties searched themselves for vestigate of effimiacy as though for lice."
Still, it's not just expertise that makes this a moving book. Fettered by his masochism, Crips has had a lot of time to study both himself and the enemy - real life - and he has wasted none of it. I hate to fall back on such words as "universality" and "human," especially since he is not, by any stretch of the imagination. Everyman (or woman). However, he is less a freak than a caricature of a human being. No flights of romantic self-identification are needed to see that his sexual proclivites aside, Crisp has dealt with his lot in public much as regular people do in the privacy of their subconsciouses. Now one of England's "stately homos," he ends by admitting that "even a monotonously undeviating path of self-examination does not necessarily lead to a mountain of self-knowledge. I stumble toward my grave confused and hurt and hungry . . . "