Boekverslag: The Abomination
1. About the title
Een afgrijselijke daad*
(Original title: The Abomination)
De Bezige Bij - 2000
(Original publication: Picador, Londen - 2000)
The title does not refer to sexual abuse, as one might expect, but to the bible text about homosexuality mentioned in the book of Leviticus.
?If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood is upon them.?
2. About the author
Paul Golding lives in London. He made his debut in 2000 with The Abomination, which became an international sensation even before it became available to the public and which was compared to the work of Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Julian Barnes and Graham Swift.
It is typical that only very limited information about this author is available. On the Internet one can find a large number of book reviews, most written in English. We (the writers of this essay) have made an attempt to find more information through the Dutch publisher of the book, De Bezige Bij, but this only thought us that Paul Golding is alias and that the author does not feel a need for public appearances. Despite this, he visited The Netherlands of publicity when 'Een afgrijselijke daad' was published. However, he kept the place where he stayed a secret, he did not want to meet his publisher and above all, he didn't want to be photographed. At some point a very vague picture of him surfaced, which was taken about twenty years ago. Only one recent picture was released, which shows so clearly a narcissistic, fashionable gay wet dream that no one can really believe that it's a picture of a writer and not some model or porn actor.
His debut novel 'The abomination' caused quite a stir in Great Brittain. Golding describes how his main character James Moore has a homosexual relationship with a teacher at his distinguished catholic boarding school. As it happened the Lancashire police was at that time conduction an investigation into allegations of sexual relations between teacher and students at the exclusive Jesuit boarding school Stonyhurst College. And Paul Golding had been a student at that very college, as were the writers Tolkien and Conan Doyle. Several other past students who read the novel, saw clear similarities with the nameless school and practices, as written down in The Abomination.
Of course the police was interested in a talk with the author about the backgrounds of his novel, but in contrast to the prevailing fashion in the UK that dictates confession literature, Golding refused categorically to talk about the possibility of any autobiographical element in his book. He gave both moral and literary-esthetical reasons for this: he wanted to protect his book and he saw no good in having people being send to prison for pedophile acts they committed decades ago. Nevertheless, his silence only enhanced the curiosity of his readers.
Though of course any resemblance between the author and his main character James Moore is purely coincidental, Goldings show of narcissism paints a pretty picture of what the reader of The Abomination can expect, for James Moore, born as Santiago Moore Azmora, is a narcissist as rarely seen. besides this he is cold, aloof and in an indirect way exhibitionistic (another coincidental resemblance with his creator, one is inclined to think). (1)
The critics for his debut novel are praising. On the back of the book two of those critics are printed:
'A shockingly good debut' - The Independent.
'Paul Golding's sensitive, pointy prose reminds us of that of the best English writers of the twentieth century: Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Julian Barnes and Graham Swift.' - The Times.
His second book 'Senseless' has not yet been translated into Dutch. As far as we know homosexuality and aids play an important role in Senseless and it is as tantalisingly written as The Abomination.
3. Place in the history of literature
On the Internet the book is usually subdivided with gay and bisexual novels, but it can also be ordered from regular book stores. Paul Golding's work is being compared to that of the best English writers of the twentieth century. A comparison with Nabokov would also be in order, but in this case written from the perspective of the child instead of the adult. In the history of literature this subject has often been used: the sexual relationship between an adult and a child - in this novel set against the background of an English boarding school.
As befitting to a past student of a Jesuit boarding school, Golding is not afraid to use Christian symbolisms. He does not avoid the classical comparison between sperm and a consecrated wafer on the tongue (he must have read Cees Nootemboom's 'Rituals'), he calls an anus - also classical - a 'cathedral of mysteries', he 'blesses' sheets with his seed, he adopts the posture of Christ at the cross when is bound during a SM game, and further more choir boys, tabernacles and the holiest of the holy are present in his sexual metaphor repertory. (1)
4. About the genre
This novel is best categorised with social and psychological novels: A clear image is created of how groups interact, the sense of hierarchy and how the main character, James Moore, locked in his own little universe, tries to survive on the island of his parents and on the English boarding schools. He shows us much about his feelings towards these people and about the emotions they induce.
Santiago tells about his earliest childhood memories on the island owned by his well-to-do parents. He has a nanny, lovingly called mam'zelle, who is very important to him. He feels comfortable with her: with the way in which she wakes him every morning, gets him out of bath and with the French songs she sings doing that, but also when she gives him the most beautiful gift on his birthday: 'a big-peoples-ring'. However, mam'zelle leaves and a new nanny takes her place. The beautiful ring "gets lost" and when Santiago asks for it, his parents and the new nanny exchange meaningful glances over his head, because the consider the ring with a large green brilliant too flashy. The sensitive Santiago feels, even in his earliest youth, misunderstood by adults. Besides mam'zelle there is his beautiful mother who he initially places on a pedestal.
An important moment arrives when he gets a relatively innocent compliment from his Spanish teacher who caresses his thigh. Santiago experiences this as a pleasant sensation. Later on, at the English boarding-school, he will - too early - loose much of his innocence to the teacher to whom Santiago gives his heart, Mr. Wolfe.
His father is by birth an Englishman and he wants to give Santiago all the benefits of a good and sound English education. For Santiago this means that he has to attend a boarding school back in England. In his new surroundings he adopts an English name: James Moore. He feels alien. His typical Spanish habits and peculiarities, his arrogance and his attention for physical care, thought to him from an early age by his mother who emphasised her filiation that way, soon make him the odd man out. Moreover there is of course the language barrier. Not only his class mates, but also his teachers look suspiciously at this 'expatriate'. James, however young, understands that he needs a survival strategy and soon he finds an ally in the form of Mr. Wolfe.
In the beginning the relationship between James and Mr. Wolfe is still rather innocent: they secretly exchange winks and throw kisses, 'like real kisses in the making'.
In the mean time James returns to the island for holidays, but as during the Christmas holidays he notices that his mother, who was very sad when Iago - as she calls him - had to leave for many months, has found her own occupations and is completely absorbed by them. She does takes Iago to several parties for children, but he notices that he starts feeling as much a stranger on the Spanish island as he did in England and since mam'zelle is not there, he feels he has no place to call home anymore.
Back on the boarding school his affair with Mr. Wolfe becomes ever less innocent. One night James, being unable to sleep, sneaks into the room of Mr. Wolfe and crawls in bed with him. At that point James looses his innocence. Many nights follow, because James is madly in love.
The first rifts, as if it is a test from God, arise when James is send to Mr. Wolfe to be disciplined with a mat beater. Mr. Wolfe shields him from too much harm by covering his buttocks with a pillow, nevertheless a range of difficulties starts as he doesn't get the same treatment as his fellow students. These events give James the notion that he has struck a mother load.
The second difficulty arises when the inevitable happens. James has fallen asleep in Mr. Wolfe's bed and when walking the morning rounds, the teacher on duty, Mr. Bonifaccio, finds James' bed empty. The following night Mr. Bonifaccio interrogates James, not because Bonifaccio is concerned about James, but because he's after Mr. Wolfe's job. James' father comes over from Spain to talk. Although James only tells part of the truth (he shields his lover, Mr. Wolfe) his father most likely had some idea of what really happened, he does however protect the school and lectures to James that he should not tell lies. Openly he blames James' visit imagination and apologises on his behalf. James can't count on his father for support and his authoritarian father decides that his mother has to be kept out of it all, as if she is just a small child.
James reputation becomes more and more stained and as if his fellow students sense it, from the moment James and Mr. Wolfe resume their nocturnal adventures, a large heart is drawn on the blackboard with in large characters: James loves Mr. Wolfe. It is also the end of silent conspiracies: 'fagot', 'ass licker' and such are the type of terms used to refer to James. Because of a beating brawl with a co-student he also ends up in hospital. An enormous pressure thus rests on his shoulders.
During the last week on this boarding school James, with several other students and Mr. Wolfe, makes a trip to Brussels, to visit the tourist sites. For James the time to say farewell to his first big love has come. In this week the pressure no longer comes from his fellow students, but from Mr. Wolfe. He is suddenly frightened by the awareness that James, now no longer dependent on him, might talk about their relationship in the open. To prevent this he showers James with gifts and he asks James to solemn promise never to forget that their relationship was 'real', whatever other people might say. This probably is the reason for his love for Mr. Wolfe to disappear like snow in the sunshine.
Back on the island of its parents, where he can just be Santiago again, he experiments further with sexual escapades with man, though still very young. At first in parks and later on in sea, which gives him a better feeling because he doesn't have to wipe off his sin, all is gone, forgiven.
The era of the 'big school' - as the countess, a friend of its mother calls it - or as James will lastingly call it himself, his fathers Alma Mater comes. Soon problems arise, not only because he is still bit of an eccentric, but also because he meets the same people who tormented him on the previous school. He gets to know the ugly Dr. Fox, his music teacher, who expects the same treatment that James has given and received from Mr. Wolfe. James is not able to resist and gives in. If only not to have to confront the worst thing imaginable to him: the humiliations that would wait for him on sporting field.
Some pressure is taken off him when a new student arrives on his fathers Alma Mater, Clifford. A true narcissistic gay, with whom James gets along perfectly. The become bosom friends - they together against the rest - and the "relationship" with Dr. Fox is places on a side track, not only because James has become stronger, but also because Dr. Fox has a strong dislike of Clifford's 'feminin' behaviour. James talks with Clifford about homosexuality and together they discover a book concerning Buddhism in the library, in which it says that someone who has intercourse with another man in the same way as with a woman, should take a bath with his clothes on as punishment. This punishment is very mild and this give him comfort.
The friendship becomes so close that eventually he entrusts Clifford with what passed between him and Mr. Wolfe. However, later on he will become deeply disappointed in Clifford because he uses this information to get out of school, successfully. The traitor. James will never fully recover from this blow and again he stands on his own. The ties with Dr. Fox become closer once more, but this time on a friendly basis. When Clifford is gone he no longer has anybody sympathising with him. Now that James' position has seriously weakened and the stories about him and Mr. Wolfe again pop up, he feels obliged to bring his fellow students to sticky 'conveniences'. The most effective means to silence his fellow delinquents, to prevent them from being openly hostile.
As it never seems to stop, problems arise when James leaves a note on the bed of his fellow student Tim Nye. He thanks Tim for making a cassette tape with the remark: 'Thanks, I enjoyed it - any more?' A teacher finds the note and - motivated by James' bad reputation - misinterprets the message. As if James has made himself guilty of sinful behaviour and is being a bad influence for his fellow students. James must write an essay as punishment, but he is able to buy his way out of it thanks to the money he earned by tutoring in the summer holiday on the island. He gets another student to write the essay.
Another complication follows as someone realises that James has money to spend. James is being blackmailed by means of anonymous notes. The blackmailer calls himself Al Capone. James sees no other option then to pay. Al Capone becomes evermore greedy and in the long James is no longer able to meet the demands. It even comes as far that he is forced to ask Mr. Wolfe for money. As an ordinary whore, he helps Mr. Wolfe for one last time to a climax. Eventually James will discover who Al Capone is and the only thing he then gets is a humbly sorry.
The stress all this brought causes his grades for his final report to be dramatically bad. He gets into an argument about this with his father who seems to get more and more annoyed with the fairy behaviour James so obviously demonstrates. Is this his way to rebel?
Back in school it is surprisingly Dr. Fox who reaches his hand to James. Probably because he realises that he has to make up for thing that passed. James gets tutoring, with which he is very glad, because he has to meet a number of admission requirements for continuation of his education. In an admirable way James is able to pick up his grades. For the graduation week all parents are invited to the school. Of course James' parents are also present. More than ever he sees his mother as fallen from her pedestal, because she has so much fun during the diner which has been organised. He realises more than ever that she's no more than an appendix to his father, whom he abhors, and that this will always remain the same.
In the same week a group picture has to be taken of the graduates. During the flash of the camera James twists his head, so that a blurry spot is all to be seen. As if he has never been at his fathers Alma Mater. As Dr. Fox gets to see the photograph he is, as notices, disappointed, but he does not really care. To make one final statement James attends the last school party dressed as a transvestite. He is totally absorbed by the music and he does not care at all, because god for once stands on his side.
When all ceremonial duties surrounding graduation are fulfilled he receives a letter from his parents. In this letter they condemn his relations with boys, and call this, as written down in the book Leviticus, an abomination. And - as if to give him one final blow - the judge it to be better, given his unacceptable attitude and behaviour, both at home and at school, that he remains in United Kingdom. Of course, and that is the least he could expect, with a substantial allowance. Even though they have made great sacrifices, or so the feel for themselves. The letter finishes with a p.s.: 'And for God's sake, visit a hairdresser before you go to the bank.
In the first and the last part he asks: 'God give me a new horizon.' We are introduced to the underground gay scene, the sex James has with men he picked up in the gay clubs of London, but also with a happy heterosexual couple - with two loving children - with whom he has become friends and who live somewhere outside London and stand in stark contrast with his own unfortunate existence. Through a contact advertisement he gets to know Steve, a gigolo. The most beautiful man he has ever seen and with whom he falls in love. A game of hunt and be hunted unfolds between these two people. A first invitation doesn't lead to sex, because James had felt rejected when he spontaneously met Steve earlier in his usual club, where Steve gave him no attention. Steve responds that he must learn to relax and, to give him a last blow beneath the waste, Steve adds rather grinning then smiling that he thinks James is too much of a thinker.
After James has trained in the gym for a week, he prepares - with great attention to detail - for a second meeting with Steve. During the sex they have James defies Steve's borders. He even cross them, causing Steve to be hurt in his professional pride. Steve is furious and disappointed that James has crossed that line. Angrily he leaves the apartment, without finishing his work. James shouts after him to get lost. But James promise us, the readers, that he will get over it and nothing more rests for him other than to conclude that his music had ended.
5.2 Time and sequence
In the first and the last chapter of the book, the reader is treated to a look behind the scenes of the gay subculture in the 70's in London and New York. The main character describes for example the protests from mainly transvestites in New York aimed at the police, because the raid gay clubs over and over again. Also he describes his visit to the gay underground scene, the gay clubs, the dress codes and the way young gays act. Even at a very young age fashion plays an important role to him. His favourite paper is 'L'uomo Vogue'.
Besides this, the reader gets an image of life at an English boarding school and of life on the island of his parents.
The story is chronological with occasionally a flash-forward: part 2 starts with a brief summary of his youth.
1. The Spanish island of his parents with amongst other things the house, the beach, the Nautical Club and the park.
2. A boarding school for primary education somewhere in England.
3. A boarding school for higher education also somewhere in England.
5.4 and 5.5 Description and development of the main characters and their relations
Santiago Moore Zamora / James Moore
Santiago/James is a sensitive child who, partly because of his emotionally very poor youth with his self-centred parents, followed by year of sexual abuse by teachers who should have been mentors, builds a wall around himself. This causes him to develop into a narcissistic, cold, aloof and cynical man who, despite everything that happens still keeps his believe in an eternal great love alive!
James' mother is a beautiful, spirited and extravagantly enthusiastic Spanish woman. Though James adores her in his youth, in his eyes she changes because of her loveless, egoistical attitude into nothing more then an appendix of his father.
James' father is an authoritarian, solid Englishman, who wants the best possible learning school for his only, Spanish educated, son. An English boarding school, his own 'Alma mater'. When it turns out his son does not meet his expectations there, he betrays him and takes side with his old school and his status.
Mam'zelle is James' first nanny. She is sweet, reliable, emphatic, and she is the only person who really understands the little James. Her most important gift to James is a 'big-peoples-ring'. This ring however causes her tot have to leave James, something he will never comprehend. His deep love for her however remains unchanged.
Mr. Wolfe at first glance seems to be a good looking, likable man. But he abuses his position, and introduces James, who is madly in love with his teacher, for the first time to gay love. He also betrays James when his own position is threatened. When James is no longer in any way dependent of Mr. Wolfe, his love for him vanishes instantly.
Dr. Fox is an ugly and lonely man, whose life seems to revolve solely around music and good food. When James' life at the 'Big School' turns out to be not much different then his previous life, Dr. Fox takes over Mr. Wolfes position. Dr. Fox however, turns out to be very human after their sexual relationship ends. He remains a friend and above all he is largely responsible for James to pass his exams with good grades.
Clifford is a partly English, partly South American, narcissistic, fairy, razor sharp extravert boy. James calls him the most respect less and sarcastic boy he ever met. He, so it appears, seems to know no fear. He is the only friend James will have while at boarding schools. But eventually even Clifford will betray James when by doing so he can improve his own position.
Steve is an extremely handsome, proud, 'large uncut male' who offers his services in adds. Even though he does not seem to fall for James at first hand, the latter sees in him his eternal great love, the one he would do anything for. But when James, during a paid visit, wants to cross the boundaries Steve has set for himself, he is wounded in his professional pride and James, once more, is left alone.
5.6 Credibility of the story
There are some strong indications that this novel is autobiographical (see paragraph 2 - about the author). The story is by all means credible, more so because every now and again one thinks: no one would think of such a thing! After so much sense of being powerless James Moore has already experienced, there are still people who (want to) profit from his week position within the group: blackmail, treason by his best friend, satisfying the sexual desires of his fellow students. After all he can't count on any support from anybody. Even his parents leave him alone with his emotions, that are partly to blame for him being stuck in his unpleasant position. The characters in the book are often portrayed in such a believable and detailed manner, without them becoming caricatures, that one doesn't doubt their actual existence for a moment.
The harsh reality of a young gay boy at a boarding school in England and on Spanish island. The following citation probably sketches best what the novel is all about:
"No beginning: just a deep rooted sense of unease, of an ancient, premature sadness, of being misplaced, of too much knowledge received too soon, of the wish for everything to be different, me being an adult, elsewhere, having the sense that I missed a crucial joke, and yet as seen from a different position not a beginning at all [..] But well, there was some vague odour associated with my childhood, a smell of abundance, somewhat sickly and hinting at warmth, as if you're eating glace chestnuts in the sunshine."
6.3 Use of language
Citation from the 'Volkskrant':
"But the way he chooses his words is as colourful as a curtain in a kitchen in Coronation Street, and as fragrant. [..] Goldings prose is infectious."
Citation from 'Trouw':
"but also by the form: the author is not shy of soberness and matter-of-factness, his style is as refined as voluptuous."
To illustrate Paul Golding's use of language, some citations from The Abomination:
"And in general (now that it's safe, a smile is allowed) I swim back to the beach ahead of him - just as I, when I climbed up from urinals to chambrettes, always trying to be the first to leave - not because I ashamed, not because I was afraid, not even because I didn't find relieve, but because I was in an urgent hurry to resume my quest for the dream that haunted me."
"Dozens of red glowing cigarettes, as slow flies in a sweaty cave."
"And you say to yourself that You Are In The Mood To Dance, what you certainly are, and that If You Get To See That Chance, which is now and here (so you spin around, now, now you can) because You Are, Yes You are, Yes You Are The Dancing Queen. And you congratulate yourself with the victory and you even claim to be Young and Sweet and that you still are, and even if you've not been that for a century or longer, but you decide what you are: Young, Seventeen - what you no longer are, but that's your business alone - because, from your, from this, new coming of age, you can Feel The Beating Of The Tambourine, so you jingle with your priceless diamonds harmoniously in tune. But don't let yourself be fascinated by your own trance, your ecstasy, for you have forgotten to shave your arm pits."
"...God give me a new horizon."
The book is dedicated to Richard Fowler.
6.5 Narrative and perspective
The narrative is in the I-form: the story is told by the 'I' who himself plays a role in the story.
6.6 Build up of the story
The book is comprised of 5 parts.
Strikingly are most of all the first and the last part of the book because those at first glance seem to be completely separate from the other parts, since in those parts James Moore is a man of middle age, while the other parts are about his youth. What it tells the reader is what, after his childhood which such abound, has become of him.
7. Private opinion
Ron had read this beautiful novel from Paul Golding and he challenged Leon to read the book too. Leo tried to find information about Paul Golding, but since it was very rare and because of his secretive attitude, Leon got curious and fascinated and he started reading 'The abomination'. In the mean time we discussed this book via MSN. The both of us got more and more impressed and Paul Golding's status (PG as we lovingly call him) enhanced: 'Did you read 20 pages today?' - 'PG would be proud of you.' or 'My mother asked me to paint the bathroom, so I did not come round to reading' - 'Don't worry, PG would have understood, after all he placed his beautiful mother on a pedestal.' And: 'Do you think PG would have like it?'
In the mean time the idea was born - we owe him that much - to write a book report for PG, our hero. A big wink is in order here.
Not only does one grow to love PG, but also James Moore, because his behaviour is so recognisable. He, and also the other characters, are always busy to defend their interests, to enhance their position within the group. We all (sometimes) are guilty of that, because no one likes to be in a powerless, awkward position. The book carries you off in emotions and you wonder why James' father leaves his own child out in the cold. He learns his son has a sexual relationship with Mr. Wolfe and he brushes it aside as being a lie and a product of too much imagination. The rest of his school life this will hound James. And even in that last letter his parents send him, they claim to have made giant sacrifices for him. You can imagine James felt totally different about that and you start feeling sympathy. You can judge James' behaviour as cold, narcissistic, egoistic and cynical, but his impenetrable wall is understandable.
The build up of the story is realistic: one event is the consequence of the other and all elements are described. To give an example: when it is clear that James has money to spend, a fellow student is eager to profit, given by the weak position of James within the person moves away: relationships never prove to be strong enough to build trust. The disappointment(s) drive the main characters away from each other. The one exception is James' relationship with Mam'zelle.
PG's use of language is infectious. We tried to compose PG-like sentences on MSN, though we will never be able to match his writing skills. In this book report one can find many quotes from The Abomination, amongst other things because we wanted you to enjoy his beautiful writing.
PG describes a harsh reality, but in all aspects this book - and its writer - are fascinating.
By: Leon & Ron.
1) For the written text we used parts from the article 'Attenties op de kostschool' published on 26 June 2001 in the 'Volkskrant' and from 'Letter en Geest' an appendix of daily paper 'Trouw' on 13 January 2001.
* Dit boekverslag is ook in het Nederlands terug te vinden op deze site (scholieren.nl)!
Paul Golding woont in Londen. Hij debuteerde in 2000 met Een afgrijselijke daad, dat al voor zijn verschijnen een internationale sensatie werd en werd vergeleken met het werk van Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Julian Barnes en Graham Swift.
- The Abomination
- Paul Golding
- Meer boeken van:Paul Golding