EDMUND MARLOWE'S ALEXANDER’S CHOICE REVIEWED BY NEW YORK RESIDENT
Alexander’s Choice, a love story set at England’s most famous boarding-school, Eton College and written by old boy Edmund Marlowe, was published on 12 December 2012.
WARNING: This review contains many spoilers.
Brilliance and Mystery *****
by New York Resident, 10 September 2013
This is a very clever book, a deft mix of gripping fiction, insightful psychology and compelling moral argument. It must be all but impossible to imagine publishing a book supportive of pederastic man-boy love in our seething social climate, but Marlowe has pulled it off. To the point of orgasm. That’s a very strong recommendation.
Now. Anyone who intends to read the book and wants to avoid spoilers should close this post immediately. I really mean it. One … two… three… Bye bye.
OK, for those left, let’s spill the beans. Alexander’s Choice raises some very interesting issues that can’t be discussed if we have to avoid talking about what happens in it.
The book is set at Eton College, a pricey upper-crust English boarding school famed, in part, for its ongoing devotion to classical studies. Thirteen-year-old Alexander Aylmer, a boy whose budding erotic interests seem to lie entirely with girls, is a new resident there. He becomes ever more aware, as he pursues his own classical fascinations, that he is the namesake of Alexander the Great, who, beginning in his teens, was the lover of his taller friend, the adored Hephaestion. This remote matter turns personal when Alexander becomes aware that a seventeen-year-old student, Julian, has become so interested in him that attraction must be involved. Alexander is intrigued and begins to respond, but Julian is too nerve-wracked to pursue his interests, and eventually lets Alexander down badly without ever declaring his love. Alexander is left unsatisfied, and, since he knows it will be years before he touches a girl, is now on the lookout for an older male with whom to share sex, love and the Macedonian ethos. He finds the right male in his young English lecturer, Damian Cavendish. Like Alexander, Damian has been completely heterosexual so far, but he soon begins to hear the muses of ancient Greece whispering in his ear when he is confronted by the desires of a spectacularly beautiful boy. The suspense in this book, as Alexander and Damian approach one another, is a killer. Finally, despite all the nuances of English politeness and discretion, Alexander is able to push Damian through the successive phases of accepting his new role as the boy’s erastes, his pederastic mentor. Whew.
Then, the jealousies of the now unwanted Julian lead to the downfall of the two perfectly fitted, young ancient Greeks, caught making oblivious Bacchanalian love in the midst of our modern Hades.
When you read an old-fashioned, sentimental animal story, you know that it will probably end in the death of the animal. You also know that a book about forbidden love, in our societies, will probably end in the death of the participants. The need for gay characters to die in Hollywood films went on for so long that it became a running joke, and made for good fun in historical books like Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet. When I got to the point in Alexander’s Choice where Alexander and Damian were making love in three positions every day, I couldn’t help wondering if anyone buying this material was risking arrest, at least in the declared literature-burning nations such as Canada. Then, as a gruesome fate befell the lovers, I had to thank the author for providing us a tragedy to wave under the authorities’ noses. Yes, they suffered for it, officer. Make no mistake, though; this book is not defeatist or morose. It is a ringing indictment of human cruelty as manifested through the butchery of true love. Julian, the son of an anglicized German Jew who survived the concentration camps, clearly knows in the end that he is a lonely survivor in a sexual Sachsenhausen that is the equal of the camp his father lived through. But then he, as a virgin, is still entitled to live, in the perverse logic of our Western values. Even his aggressively activist mother, founder of a child rescue organization and heavy promoter of victimological politics, would probably let him survive under heavy supervision.
When I read the early reviews on this book, I naively thought that it would be about pederasts or teen-boy-lovers, as generally encountered today. Actually, Julian appears to be the only typical boylover in the book. He becomes aware that he finds young teenaged boys attractive, much more so than girls or men. When he looks at Alexander and gets friendly with him, his final doubts are soon removed. By contrast, the actual participants in the pederastic affair, Damian and Alexander, are heterosexual according to modern classification. They react visually and sensually to women, Alexander with tame commercial pornography and Damian, up until recently, with his now geographically separated former girlfriend. They both assume they’ll eventually marry the perfect girl, and unlike conflicted gay men who are fooling themselves, they appear to be correctly self-aware.
Their pederastic interest comes on in a curious way that seems to be a mix between something like prison sex – we are attracted to each other because women aren’t available to us and deprivation has temporarily taken us elsewhere – and something else. In puzzling over what this ‘something else’ might be, I finally realized that Alexander and Damian challenged a long-standing assumption of mine, one that I think I share with many people in this day and age. I assume that males will generally be like 17-year-old Julian, knowing instantly via a visual jolt to the brain that one sort of person is attractive to them, and knowing through consistent lack of that jolt that another sort of person is not. I don’t expect guys who only selectively respond to women in porn to start craving the attentions of another male, older or younger. I think back on my own existence as a life-long male-loving male, looking at the cute ones and knowing what I like, and wonder what sort of influence - deprivation or otherwise - would have been required to get me, as a 13 year old teen, to start craving the erotic attentions of a woman in her late 20s, for example. Seems impossible. In fact, blindingly revolting. Yet something very much like this happens to Alexander and Damian.
Here's an illustrative quote:
Alexander did not feel desire for the young man’s superb body, rather it was what he desired his eventually to be, but he felt in awe of its magnificence and overwhelmed by its manliness … It did not make him feel as he imagined a girl would feel, but it did make him feel how very different he, as a boy, was from a man, that boy and man were almost different sexes, and he felt a sudden, enormous relief. He had worried a bit that in accepting a sexual role with a man in some ways similar to that normally played by a girl, he would somehow have to subdue his sense of his own masculinity. Now that he could see how very different their supposedly common masculinity was, his boyish and Damian’s manly, he realised there was no conflict. It might be unmanly to take a man as one’s lover, but it would not be unboyish. He was so thrilled by the flattering homage to his own beauty implied by the giant thing’s standing in rigid attention before him, that his heart was thumping with excitement by the time Damian picked him up in his arms and carried him into his bedroom.
The human race is very diverse, and I am limited; does it mean anything that I’ve never had such an experience? Alexander is not directly attracted to Damian’s ‘superb body,’ but is still turned on by the tribute Damian’s attraction pays to him. Damian in turn realizes that his psyche has a hitherto unknown secondary sexual niche for beautiful boys, even though women remain his primary interest.
As I say, I have always thought of men as being visual and direct about their attractions. I think of women as being more sensual and holistic, more likely to be affected by non-physical factors like attractive or powerful personalities. I know there’s much debate about this. Over my lifetime, though, I’ve known many female friends who debated or waffled or agonized over whether they were more attracted to women or to men, but I’ve known only a very few men who experienced the late blooming of a new species of sexual attraction. To put it in a nutshell, the participants in Marlowe’s man-boy relationship surprised me by having sexualities that struck me as somewhat female – not feminine, but female – in nature. Malleable, undefined. Marlowe suggests that in ancient Greece, such interim pederastic responses were part of the prevailing culture of sexuality, and that boys and men prospered in excellence as a result, remaining maximally heterosexual all the while. Were there ever such people? Does anyone now claim to know these sensations? Certainly, I have never met anyone who perceptibly was like this. So this Alexander, this Damian - who are they? Are any such heterosexual people interested at all in re-establishing the ancient pederastic culture?
Perhaps the spotless heterosexuality of Alexander and Damian is merely part of Marlowe’s advocacy. It is exquisitely ironic to see the forces of child-protection morality destroying the woman-loving, painstakingly recruited Damian after interpreting him as a pedo monster. And it’s by no means implausible. But surely most people arrested for loving boys are more exclusively oriented towards boys. This is one of the factors about Alexander’s Choice that may ultimately fail to convince the skeptics, should any of them actually be able to read their way through it.
Marlowe also gives very short shrift to the idea that some boys may be bamboozled by powerful sexual manipulators in ways that truly mess up their heads. Not everyone who has been the boy in a man-boy experience in the last sixty years has claimed to have been a committed co-initiator, as Alexander is here. Many have been, certainly, but what of the ones who merely complied against their own sensibilities? Is anyone presumptuous enough to claim that they were all cherished and well treated youths who were later screwed up by deluded moral revisionism? I think it’s only respectful to allow that many of the complainants who claim to have suffered from the actions of priests and coaches actually did suffer. Of course, this type of story may legitimately be deemed irrelevant to Marlowe’s storyline, where everyone is a free volunteer. One needs to remember, though, that this appears to be a very political novel. If anyone looks to it for actionable recommendations, they are sure to find that it doesn’t cover enough ground to solve the overall problem. Which is – how can heartfelt and needful teen love for older people, when it arises, be sensitively fostered and abetted in a world that also includes harmful exploiters of the immature, both deliberate and inadvertent? And by the way, totally beyond the pale of this book, what do the ethics of Greek love entail for men who like girls? Is Marlowe implying that we should acclaim male teachers who accept their teenaged girl students as lovers, as Damian did with Alexander? In fact, we have no idea what his opinion might be on this matter.
This is a terrific book, but it takes place in a microcosm, a demimonde of potentially accurate, but nonetheless idealized pederasty. For all its apparent sociological acuity, it ultimately seems to pivot towards fantasy, because it has no way of addressing the questions most people ask about the issues it raises. It does, however, make one good, ballistically solid point about the sacred innocence of genuine love, even when it arises between an initiatory teenaged boy and a reciprocally responsive man.
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