Of all my books, A Sense of Loss has received the most contradictory
reviews. Praised in one review for the "delineation of the plurality
of gay experience", it was damned in another for its "very narrow range of gay experience".
Stories loved by some reviewers were hated by others - and some
reviewers who were
highly impressed by some pages were anything but impressed a few pages later. What is a reader to do? Buy the book, of course, and decide for yourself.
A Sense of Loss deserves its title. The short stories in this collection swirl in clouds of gloom, depression
and failure. One of Foreman's characters makes the emblematic remark "Love is a disease of youth; most of us go through
it. A few are cured, the rest are disabled." Regrettably this appears to summarise Foreman's attitude to the human game
- a series of futile engagements which leave in their wake heartache and bitterness.
Which is not to say that the writing is bad, on the contrary it's
accomplished and at times shows considerable
originality. Nor are the plots pedestrian, rather there is much variety and inventiveness. It's just that the
perspective is so damned depressing.
I wasn't brought up in the Pollyanna school of life. I know there is pain, loss and disappointment to be suffered.
But equally it's true that people find fulfilment,
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contentment and romance. Even gay people achieve this despite the
odds stacked against them. Perhaps it was Foreman's object to examine the downside of relationships, but if so an
introduction explaining his attention would have been nice.
Let's return to that quotation. The analogy of love as a disease is a poor one, based on some mushy notion that it
represents a fever in the blood or an irritation in the loins. This is to confuse love with lust. Nor does love disable
its victims. In reality it liberates those it touches and leaves them with that expansiveness even when love wanes.
I'm with Tennyson - 'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Perhaps Foreman could devote a
collection to that truth as a necessary attempt to restore the balance.
Reading this collection of fifteen stories - all gay-oriented, but well varied for all that - one senses that Martin Foreman
is a writer on the verge. Not on the verge of success, since as a published author he has a measure of that already, but,
whereas some authors lack real distinction and get published because they are gay men writing about gay men, Foreman's
qualities put him in a different league. And that means he's on the verge of being a really good writer, deserving of
being recognised as such, regardless of his subject matter.
Not that everything here is perfect. His willingness to try new directions may sometimes lead to success (as in the title
story, almost in the vein of L. P. Hratley, in which the events of Death in Venice are retold from Tadzio's point
of view), but it can also result in failure. Discotheque - Four Voices, done in the switching narrative mode of
Virginia Woolf's The Waves, is an interesting but rather forced attempt to match thoughts to the rhythms of a
disco; The Benefactor is a fantasy which never quite justifies having three episodes. I would like more
punctuation, a greater precision in making the endings of stories clear (the sexually explicit Room With No View
and the bizarre Train of Events both left this reader slightly bemused) and more care in telling things well
(the agreeably comic fantasy The Coming of Santa Claus fails to establish for some time whether its main
characters are youngsters or adults).
It's worth making these points because so much is so good; two stories set in Rio; an effective piece probably derived
from the Nilsen case [Triangle]; a cunning tale in which we realize, but only gradually, that we are reading
about one of the world's most famous travellers [Oblivion]. Best of all are For The First Time in Your Life,
Andrew and A Room To Let. These are not the most adventurous tales , but they are recognizably true to life
and perfectly handled. In A Room To Let an older man offers accommodation to a young lad from the north who is
described in these terms: "He was attractive, although his youth held a greater appeal than his looks." That sentence
seems simple, but it's also dead right. This collection is well worth reading and I recommend it.
Martin Foreman's A Sense of Loss is exquisite, spanning an impressive
range of contemporary gay experience in quietly powerful, compressed, dense
stories where every word is necessary to the whole. We move from post-modern sex, death and annihilation linkage
(Room With No View) to a fruity sexual encounter with Father Christmas (The Coming of Santa Claus)
to the Nathaniel Hawthorne-like spookishness of The Benefactor, where gay men are granted their
wishes only for them to become mired [sic]. Foreman's delineation of the plurality of gay experience combines
two overall themes: that of the 'sense of loss' of the collection's title borne from the second them, the
'illusion of tranquillity' (experienced most sadly by the man and boy in Oblivion), that so many of
us in our search for happiness and fulfilment labour under and are complicitous with.
Other stories include two stinging addresses: It was, I suppose, inevitable and For the first time in your life, Andrew; a
crisply spare Simon's Dinner Party and an elegant vignette or two. The title story accords us psychological access to the
Death in Venice's boy focus, Tadzio, and his silent but affecting relationship with Aschenbach - beautifully written with
the care and honest precision that marks the collection as a whole.
Martin Foreman has created a set of highly charged narratives: intense, precise whorls that address, with a rather wonderful humanity,
our own inner feelings and experiences. Highly recommended.
Martin Foreman's collection of short stories is aptly titled A Sense of Loss,
being largely concerned with the yearning for youth in certain older men - and with the boys they pursue.
Foreman's great strength is the realism of his prose, but he seems to have focused on a very narrow range of
gay experience. This works in stories like Simon's Dinner Party and For the first time in your life, Andrew
but becomes almost a parody of itself in the obviousness of Triangle. There are other subjects covered,
such as the sexual obsession of Room With No View and, in spite of poor additions (notably the astonishingly trite
The Coming of Santa Claus), this compilation has some thought-provoking moments.
Only six of the fifteen stories deal with, in one way or another, older men's desire for younger. And I'm not sure
I consider murder, ghosts, the beaches and streets of Brazil, Venice and the Scottish Islands to comprise "a very narrow range of gay experience".
"Martin Foreman has created a cast of recognisable characters who are passionately
searching for something abstract and ineffable. Their intersecting journeys weave a tapestry
that maps the very essence of gay experience." That's what it says on the cover at any write.
Much as there is to admire in Foreman's writing, I hardly think this is the book I would
turn to if I was lost and looking for an identity. A collection of fifteen short stories
with no real thematic thread, holding them together, A Sense of Loss is patchy
to say the least. When he's dealing with sexual compulsion in Room With No View
or repressed passions in It Was, I Suppose, Inevitable (cute title), Foreman's
prose is finely worked and capable of communicating a bewildering array of emotions.
The title story, in which Thomas Mann's beautiful, silent Tadzio, speaks out about his
encounter in Venice with the writer Aschenbach, is as delicate and haunting a piece of
prose I've read so far this year. At other times you get the impression the author is simply
spinning yarns. Too many of his stories read like notes for pieces he'd like to have written,
or first drafts of what might, given careful attention, be worth considering for publication.
Others should have been dumped at the ideas stage. Triangle is too contrived to be
anything other than a formal conceit. The Coming of Santa Claus is just plain silly
- you can see the end coming a mile off. Over all, it's an unhappy gathering of voices. What
you gain in variety, you lose in authenticity.
This collection of 15 short stories is what writing should be about. The stories are, firstly, very readable. Martin Foreman employs a variety of styles, sometimes strikingly (Discotheque gives a tempo to one character's internal monologue which perfectly matches the rhythm of the dance beat) but consistently good. Here is a master at work.
Martin Foreman is also a clever writer. In one story [Oblivion], the Flying Dutchman moors near a remote Islands community: does he at last find salvation and peace through being loved by the young barman of the village pub? More audaciously, in the title story, Death in Venice is retold by a now grown up Tadzio. This is not mere experimentation or playing about but genuine, original creativity, done well and not a little bravely.
These are all gay stories and the characters, relationships, settings
and situations are all believable and well observed by a writer of sympathetic and thoughtful insight. You are in the gay disco, or the sleazy back street bar in Brazil; you have had a coffee in a cafe like the one here (actually, I don't do things like that, but I know people who do); I have drunk in that bar; the cynicism, romance, hope and callousness are all real; and what the blurb calls "the sexual compulsion of A Room With No View" you remember and hope to experience again. And you'd like to think that Father Christmas will come for you the way he does here (you will need to read the book now).
These tales are by turn funny, moving, disturbing, hopeful, sad. They all share another quality. Whatever style employed, whatever content, it haunts and flavours Martin Foreman's work. Comparisons are odious, but it reminded me a little of Graham Greene's pervasive catholic alienation. At heart, it is as bleak as the Highlands and Islands land and seascape which is described so knowingly. Martin Foreman has an uncomfortable, probably accurate view of the human condition; our essential separateness. This is an excellent book by an honest man.
For some the most acute sense of loss will result from the hefty hole the cover price leaves in your bank balance. Others might feel bereft of any sense of contact with the 'real' world.
If you're going to read this, I'd sit in a chair which isn't too comfortable, otherwise you might be tempted to close your eyes and drift into a deep, welcome sleep. If you do, it won't be these characters you'll dream about, I'm sure.
There are fifteen stories about a gay man and his experiences. The book calls itself a shifting kaleidoscope of gay reality in Britain today', but there are so many stereotypical, sad, caged, gay men it made me long for a few stable, happy characters. Yes it would be boring to have happy characters all the time, but surely a few would help to redress the balance.
I know it's fiction and should be read and such. A quote from its cover says that the characters' 'interesting journeys weave a tapestry that maps the very essence of gay experience.' If that's not fiction, I don't know what is.
This is a collection of fifteen short stories by Martin Foreman, all dealing with the variations on
loss and losing - whether it be innocence, love or a lover.
A glum subject indeed - and a subject that most are very well versed in. The pleasure in reading these
stories is the ring of semblance you hear throughout. They could even be construed as therapeutic - read
likewise case studies and feel better! The title story is by far the most accomplished - although plagiarist.
It is a reversed narrative on Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, recounting from the young boy's point
A Sense of Loss is a gentle read, and, for some, a soft reminder of days gone by. The honesty is touching but, ultimately, maudlin.
Martin Foreman's title story in his collection, A Sense of Loss, has been waiting to be told since 1913, when Thomas Mann published Death in Venice. Foreman rewrites Mann, narrating no from Aschenbach's, but from Tadzio's point of view. However, by choosing to have him tell his story retrospectively, Foreman has missed an opportunity to reveal the child whom Mann and Aschenbach treat as a mere icon. A characteristic internal moment occurs when the boy is sunbathing: "my mind was free to wander in that limbo between consciousness and sleep, between individuality and the universal, between awareness and death." While it may indeed be that a child's mind wanders in such spaces, no child can map them so clearly. We therefore never read what the boy Tadzio thinks and feels; instead, we receive a rather arch account of what the adult Tadzio thinks he thought and felt.*
Although the collection is technically varied and accomplished, the
best of the stories are the simplest. A Room To Let, for instance, movingly confronts a middle-aged householder with a prospective tenant, a youth down from the north after an unrequited love affair. The older man dismisses love as a phase to be grown out of. The boy likes the room but does not call back for it. Most of the stories represent London as a place to which young gay men escape from their families in the provinces, and from which they escape at night into the clubs and bars. They dream of rich benefactors and rough malefactors, but what they tend to get is a mild strain of disillusionment. Literate and dignified, this is a deeply felt collection, though even and somewhat ultimately bland.
* I disagree strongly with this interpretation. To write as the boy would have limited the impact of Aschenbach's obsession on Tadzio's life. Looking back allows both the boy's thoughts to come through
and the adult to reflect on the implications of that fateful summer.
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