Listening recently to a BBC podcast discussing the 300th anniversary of Jean Jacques Rousseau, I was drawn in by their discussion of the confession, the literary mode for which Rousseau is most infamous.
I am drawn to confessions, as all good gossips are. I want to believe that I am being let in on a secret, that I am being exposed to something that has heretofore been kept hidden.
Of course, many of the books I list here are diaries, and perhaps purists will insist that a diary is not necessarily a confession. But I disagree – I don’t think there is a diarist on the face of the earth who doesn’t secretly hope her diaries will be discovered and published. So I choose to read diaries as long and constant confessions.
My favourite confessions:
Oscar Wilde’s DeProfundis – this is the long (over 10,000 words) and bitter letter that Wilde wrote to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, accusing him of desertion, selfishness and callous lack of concern for others.
Joe Orton’s Diaries – I remember being at college and very young and picking up a copy of this that a friend was reading. I opened up at a page randomly and was instantly drawn in. In fact, I sat there reading page after page, completely ignoring all of the people around me in the busy student union bar. I was utterly absorbed, and knew I had to have my own copy.
Frederick Rolfe’s Venice Diaries – These are very naughty indeed, and these days exceedingly expensive to buy. I used to know someone who had a copy, and, when I was in the midst of my Corvo-mania (a real condition), I was able to borrow them from her.
Edmund White’s My Lives – Confession at its very best, the avuncular White confesses, amonst many other things, to spending a fortune on a sex worker.
Paul Theroux’s My Other Life – Confession cloaked as fiction, I think this is one of Theroux’s best books.
Aldo Busi’s Sodomies in Eleven Point – Another one that skirts the edge of genre – is it autobiography or is it a novel? Busi couldn’t be pinned down, though someone in the book manages to get pinned down in the back of a bread van in Morocco. A fabulous read that deserves to be better known.
Bruce Benderson’s The Romanian – Benderson was one of the angry young generation of queer novelists in the 80s, and I read his scandalous novel User when I was quite young and impressionable. This romantic memoir is about his extended and quite tormented relationship with a straight Romanian hustler, and it is simply brilliant. Honest, unpretentious and entirely without vanity, not many writers have Benderson’s courage.
Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M – I remember seeing Catherine M speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and watching the more staid and conventional Australian writers bristle at her assertion that sex could be divorced from emotion, love and relationship. This book is her experiment in autobiography which, she contests, normally leaves out the sex. She attempts the opposite – to tell a life only through its sexual activity. Fascinating and challenging stuff.
Kenneth Williams’ Diaries – People don’t realise that Williams was a literate, cultured and very funny man, and his tormented and completely absorbing diaries establish this. Along with the banal detail of everyday life Williams recounts the frustrations and fears of being a prominent Queer in a world that was still very difficult for such people. Funny, constantly diverting and ultimately tragic.