Misadventures of a pioneer of gay fiction
Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin By John Burbidge Monash University Press, 329pp, $34.95 JOHN Burbidge’s arresting title, Dare Me!, refers both to the book’s subject, ‘‘The Life and Works of Gerald Glaskin’’, and to the risk the author has taken in researching and writing a full-scale biography of an Australian writer who is scantly known.
Robert Dessaix’s preface rails against this neglect: ‘‘It is as if Gerald Glaskin lived out his tumultuous and prolific life as a writer on the far side of the moon.’’ (As Burbidge contends, Glaskin’s birth in Western Australia and eventual resettling there amounted to the kind of cultural exile that Dessaix’s metaphor suggests.)
For Dessaix, Glaskin was ‘‘the master of both charm and vitriol’’. He regards No End to the Way (published in 1965 under the pseudonym Neville Jackson) as one of the earliest and most important of Australian gay novels. Dessaix sets the bar high for Burbidge when he says of Dare Me! that ‘‘the biography of a very singular man, it is also the portrait of a nation’’.
The book begins and ends at Glaskin’s beloved Cottesloe Beach, frequented with pleasure throughout his life, but also the site of
June 21-22, 2014 an arrest (scandalous in Perth) for nude bathing and of a 1967 surfing accident that left him in a neck brace for the final 33 years of his life.
Glaskin seems to have courted misadventure, whether in his homosexual engagements, physical mishaps that included (in a somewhat exaggerated version) nearly losing an arm in an accident while serving in the navy during World War II and in his rancorous and ultimately profitless feuds with literary agents, the Australia Council, the Australian Society of Authors, let alone in many personal enmities.
Glaskin raged against ‘‘the cult of the moron’’ in his native Australia, but after long sojourns in Singapore as a stockbroker (when he wrote his best fiction) and in Holland with various lovers (among them his long-term partner, Leo van de Pas), he eventually proved that — with what misgivings and trials — you can go home again.
Having committed to writing Glaskin’s life, Burbidge was both pleased and dismayed that there was ‘‘a paper trail that would make even the most earnest researcher gasp for air’’. Although he never met Glaskin, Burbidge interviewed numerous acquaintances. Van de Pas was particularly helpful. Burbidge poses the question of whether the game was worth the candle. Was Glaskin ‘‘just a third-rate writer who had an early flash-in-the-pan success he could not sustain?’’
In fact, the career was sustained and varied. Glaskin wrote ‘‘fiction and nonfiction, for adults and children, novels, short stories, novellas, memoirs, plays for stage and television, even a musical’’. Add to this a trilogy of books on parapsychology, many unpublished manuscripts. Even though he regarded Patrick White as ‘‘an old lady sitting with her knitting’’, he asked to write a screenplay of The Twyborn Affair. White politely declined: ‘‘The actor is the chief difficulty and if there is such a person, he will come to light in time — I am biding mine.’’
The eldest of seven children, Glaskin would cast himself as ‘‘the managing older brother’’. Burbidge engagingly relates the story of the first among siblings. One predictable element was Glaskin’s sense of his family’s ingratitude for financial assistance, another the disdain with which a couple of brothers reacted to his coming out.
Glaskin’s financial probity, if not his sexual adventuring, may have been in reaction to his father, Gilbert, who was sacked for embezzlement and had children by one of his sisters-inlaw. Deadpan, Burbidge tells us of Glaskin’s sexual awakening: ‘‘Boy Scout camps are notoriously fertile grounds for sexual enlightenment.’’
Then came the navy. Singapore demanded more discretion; Holland gave more leeway. Although he would treat van de Pas poorly at times, the relationship endured, partly because of Glaskin’s abiding fear of loneliness.
While Burbidge tells us a good deal about Glaskin’s sales (850,000 copies for Flight to Landfall, 1963) and his publishers (especially James Barrie, great-nephew and godson of the inventor of a character with whom the handsome Glaskin may have felt affinity, Peter Pan), more about the books would have been welcome. Glaskin’s first novel, A World of Our Own (1955) was accepted on the recommendation of CP Snow, who wrote ‘‘I fancy he might become an important novelist, and certainly the best spokesman of contemporary Australian society’’.
If neither prediction was fully realised, Glaskin not only pioneered gay fiction, but was also the first postwar Australian novelist to turn to Asia as a setting. That orientation is usually dated from Christopher Koch’s Across the Sea Wall (1965), but Glaskin preceded him with works of imaginative and political sympathy: A Lion in the Sun (1960) and The Beach of Passionate Love (1961).
Vividly presented in the many circumstances of a warring but productive life, Glaskin has well merited Burbidge’s entertaining and scrupulous attention.