Two New Books Look at Queer Lives Across Time

Diarmuid Hester’s Nothing Ever Just Disappears and Robert Glück’s About Ed offer compelling portraits of the histories and intimacies of artists, writers and lovers who shaped the 20th century

BY Sam Buchan-Watts in Books , Opinion | 27 OCT 23

Diarmuid Hester’s Nothing Ever Just Disappears (2023) is a collective biography featuring an unlikely selection of 20th century queer artists and writers. Taking what the author describes as ‘a situated approach to queer history’, the book privileges space and place over time and date. Historical emphasis on chronology, in Hester’s view, ‘rather misrepresents’ complex spatial states of queer sexuality. His examples include Edwardian queers at Cambridge University finding themselves in the homosocial comforts of Kings College and Hellenic ideas; suffragettes exploiting the then somewhat mythic status of ‘lesbian’ to make alternative models of home and radical theatre together in pre-World War I London; the peripatetic life of James Baldwin, who actively sought states of alienation; and Kevin Killian’s coupling of playful literary experimentation and community-building. ‘Queer’ is ever-flexible, applied to people and places real, imagined and online. But, despite the emphasis on space, Hester appears most interested in the potential of ‘queer’ to rethink fixed ideas of chronology. He would prefer queer lives to be suspended in their plurality ‘without falling into anachronism and without reducing their experience to our own’ – something of which he occasionally loses sight.

Diarmuid Hester, Nothing Ever Just Disappears, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Allen Lane

Nothing Ever Just Disappears owes it structure – and, to an extent, its market – to Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City (2016). Laing’s and Hester’s books could both broadly be said to centre on art, alienation, community and minoritized experience, with Laing commendably providing sustained, humanizing readings of the lives and works of David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger to new audiences in the UK. The book also shares its faults: the cheerful compression of biographical detail, a central hook that fits some artists better than others and an over-readiness to align the author’s own experience with the lives in question (see the discussion of Josephine Baker’s bisexuality in Nothing Ever Just Disappears) that distracts from the situational singularity which is the book’s subject.

The author is cognisant of the risks of such a project. By attempting to preserve the messy line between performance and life for the fractious filmmaker Jack Smith, for instance, Hester acknowledges that he has ‘packaged him within this book and turned him into a commodity’, which risks ‘warping [the work’s] original intention’. As a queer writer, Hester will no doubt be aware of the heterosexist underpinnings to well-trodden linear narrative models and their shades of the ‘landlordism’ Smith despised, so it’s a wonder that each section takes a synoptic form. While ‘warping’ is too strong a term, the book certainly privileges Hester’s own intentions over those of his subjects, which can be condescending. (‘New Narrative’, he notes in ‘Niche: Kevin Killian’s San Francisco’, ‘may be the most important queer literary movement of the 20th century, so why haven’t you heard of it?’) This is a shame because Hester has much to teach us – about mapping illegible ‘substrate[s]’ of queer life through oral history, about the interaction of queer waste and gentrification. There is stylish analysis in a comparison between Baldwin and Charles Dickens as well as an archival encounter with Claude Cahun that could have been cut from Shola von Reinhold’s Lote (2022).

Ed Aulerich-Sugai, 1974. Courtesy: De Winters Studios 

Killian – a magnanimous poet who, in the words of frieze editor-in-chief Andrew Durbin, ‘knew everybody in the world, even if they didn’t know him’ – would, one suspects, have found such condescension amusing. He was himself mentored by New Narrative co-founder Robert Glück, whose workshops at San Francisco’s Small Press Traffic, their related coterie and intimately imagined literary world fosters one of Hester’s best-described queer spaces. Readers will find in Glück’s memoir, About Ed (2023), a manifestation of Hester’s premise and a contrast in the way it formally enacts its politics.

Written over a period of 20 years, About Ed is a memoir of the author’s partner, the artist Ed Aulerich-Sugai, which also documents the way that Glück’s role developed (as partner, friend, carer), how their relationship accommodated neighbours and other lovers, and how AIDS would ultimately take Aulerich-Sugai’s life in 1994. Both kaleidoscopic and bracingly tender, the book locates us in familiar New Narrative territory, with gossipy references to intimates whose names you are assumed to know (or quickly learn), playful pastiche and the campy aestheticization of ‘low’ culture – B-movie horrors, porn mags, dolphins in drag – alongside references to the annunciation and the rapture.

This is also, undoubtedly, a poet’s book on grief and loss in its exploration not of elegy but of lyric time. The writing is non-linear and echoic as it nonetheless fiercely inhabits the present; and – as lyric poems do – it performs and reflects on its own moment of singing (‘I continue to invent as Ed’s invention unravels’). Integrated here in garrulous prose, we have echoes of Emily Dickinson, of the atemporality of grief so accurately articulated by Denise Riley and shades of Jack Spicer, whose (much more fractious) relation to queerness and lyric poetry was underpinned by loneliness, which was not always negatively construed – as here in accounts of Glück and Aulerich-Sugai’s dynamic and their sex. (Spicer is interred, like Aulerich-Sugai, at the San Francisco Columbarium.)

Robert Glück, About Ed, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: The New York Review of Books, Inc

Glück ‘resist[s] Ed’s tomb’ along with a ‘life […] shaped into anecdotes’, favouring ‘faith in […] images’ to convey the fragility of experience, even when ‘sky effects are the only statements to make with confidence’ or when the mirror returns an image of the disfigured person he no longer recognizes. Observing Aulerich-Sugai, Glück writes, ‘grief gives way to marvelling reverie’. And what reverie! The book is often rapturous, and can be amazingly sexy: one lover, a bodybuilder-cum-early modern scholar, is ‘like eating a peach over a sink’; it is also awkward, distracted and hilarious at points (see ‘Ed’s First Sexual Experience, June 1967’). But to quote extensively would be to distort the heady experience of reading, one that – notwithstanding the shorthand and intensity – invites its reader to join in making Aulerich-Sugai’s ‘exhibition space’. May it never disappear.

Main image: Robert Glück, About Ed, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: The New York Review of Books, Inc

Sam Buchan-Watts is a poet and writer. He is the author of the collection Path Through Wood (2021) and is currently working on a book about skateboarding and masculinity.