Review: Alec by William di Canzio

In E. M. Forter’s Maurice, the titular character ends up falling in love with his beloved friend’s young gamekeeper, Alec Scudder. Maurice had attempted to love his friend Clive celibately, but finds he cannot live without satisfying his bodily desires, which Alec can provide. However his relationship with Alec is fraught; in a fit of rejection the gamekeeper attempts to blackmail him; he’s also planning to move overseas to join his brother in Argentina. Love wins, with Alec choosing to remain in England to be with Maurice.

In Alec, William di Canzio fills in Alec’s perspective. We see his childhood in 1890s Dorset and dawning realisation that he is one of “them”, a homosexual. We see his initial experiences with other men, an interesting inversion of Maurice’s: it’s Alec’s flesh desires that are satisfied first, his romantic and spiritual desires left wanting until he meets Maurice. The novel continues past Forster’s, showing Alec and Maurice’s attempts to live together as “outlaws”: “under the law they were criminals; outside of it, merely young lovers”. Their young love is rudely interrupted by World War I, with Maurice sent to Gallipoli and Alec the Western Front, these sections partly narrated via letters and diaries. Will their love survive the cruelties of the world? Will they live happily ever after? Di Canzio gives this ancient plot an queer Edwardian renovation. It’s a fast-paced, enjoyable excursion in wish fulfilment, with careful attention to period detail and a knowing wink of hindsight. Alec and Maurice are impossibly beautiful creatures, all green eyes, lithe and muscular bodies, wavy hair and clear skin. It makes you feel churlish to question of whether a story of two such fantastically attractive youth who live well inside contemporary gay beauty standards is really doing anything for the culture.

Much like Madeline Miller’s Song Of Achilles, Alec gives us capital R queer Romance from a secondary character’s perspective (in that novel, we get Patroclus’s perspective on a love that could end a war). And like Homer’s lovers, Alec and Maurice are elevated to symbols, in this case of living and loving freely; well meaning characters around them treat their love — not necessarily their persons —as something to protect at all costs. Love, “it’s the enemy of war,” one says. Another spells out Alec’s modus operandi:

We’ve so few models, men like us, for intimacy, for devotion that endures. By no fault of our own. How many stories have been expunged — from history, from memory? With no stories, we’re made to feel alone, unnatural, ashamed.

Alec passionately elevates the ideal of homo-monogamous love, of a soulmate, as the ultimate salve for that shame and loneliness. Di Canzio embraces the times and tone of Forster’s writing, pitting heart against mind, love against sex, binaries that are of course much more complicated. Even so, there’s a welcome horniness and joie d’vivre to the novel’s explicit sex scenes, particularly early on when Alec is enthusiastically discovering the pleasures of the flesh through his participation in “male physique” culture.

Gay rating: 5/5 for gay characters, themes, relationships and sex.

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