John Boyne on Homosexuality and Changing Attitudes

John Boyne on Homosexuality and Changing Attitudes

As you might know, Ireland was a very different country in 1945 than it is today. A conservative nation, ruled by the Catholic Church, there was little room for minorities, for anyone who was different, and women were often treated as second-class citizens. My novel opens in a small town in West Cork where Catherine Goggin is being denounced from the pulpit for the sin of being sixteen years old, pregnant and unmarried. But Catherine is no victim and she makes her way to Dublin, intent on making her way in the world, but not without giving up her child for adoption first.

When we next meet that child, Cyril, it is 1952 and he’s living with his adoptive parents, Charles and Maude Avery, in a large house in Dublin. Charles and Maude are distant parents and from the start Cyril has to make his own way in the world. He’s quite lonely until he meets the charismatic Julian Woodbead, with whom he forms an intense friendship.

As Ireland moves through the fifties, sixties and seventies we see Cyril coming to terms with the fact that he is gay in a country in which homosexuality is still a criminal offence, and living through heartache and success. But we also see a country start to change, for the better, and become a more equal and tolerant society.

On the day of the marriage equality referendum in Ireland in May 2015, a news report in Ireland included an interview with an elderly man emerging from a polling station with tears rolling down his face. When asked why he was reacting so emotionally to having cast his vote, he looked directly into the lens and said: ‘Because it’s too late for me. But it’s not too late for everyone else.’

Twenty-four hours later, when Ireland, that bastion of Catholicism, moral hypocrisy and sexual repression, became the first country to approve marriage equality not by parliamentary vote but by public plebiscite, the great scholar, humanitarian and gay rights activist Senator David Norris was asked whether he, in his seventies, might take advantage of the new law himself. ‘I’ve spent so much time pushing the boat out,’ he replied, ‘that I forgot to jump on and now it’s out beyond the harbour on the high seas. But it’s very nice to look at.’

I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life writing novels but I have never written, and never will write, a line as good as that.

While writing The Heart’s Invisible Furies, my tenth adult novel and my second to be set in Ireland, I found myself considering Ireland during an era when it wasn’t just frowned upon in Ireland to be gay, it was actually illegal.

A couple of years ago, I took part in the West Cork Literary Festival in Ireland and during the Q&A with the audience I found myself saying something that I’d never dared express aloud before: that because my first experience of sexuality had been with a grown man in a position of authority over me, I used to wonder whether that was why I had turned out gay. Whether a person’s first experience of sex marked them for life and defined the path upon which they would walk. Of course, I know that’s not the case, but throughout my teens and twenties this question obsessed me and it was only through making peace with my past that I found myself able to write A History of Loneliness, which had I attempted to write it ten years earlier would have been an unreadable diatribe. By the same token, had I attempted to write The Heart’s Invisible Furies ten years ago, I believe I would have been more concerned with what readers might think of me than I am now. Between ’06 and ’08, when The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was at its peak, I hated journalists asking about my personal life, not because I had any issue with being gay but because I simply couldn’t see the relevance of the question and didn’t want to relate that issue to the one that I was discussing.

But away from the doom and gloom, it’s a little surprising to me to find that when I’ve talked about The Heart’s Invisible Furies to friends and family over the last few months I’ve described it as ‘a comic novel’, a form of fiction that I’ve never indulged in before and towards which, to my discredit, I’ve always felt a little snobby. After all, throughout my literary career I haven’t exactly been known for hilarity. I have a line that I occasionally use at readings: that my books tend to feature lonely old men or lonely children, but whichever it is, everyone dies in the end. I don’t mean to be so miserable, but that’s where the books seem to take me. And when I started The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I began from a similar position. The idea was that I would take an elderly Irish homosexual whose life has been diminished by being unable to express his sexuality and through his eyes the reader would see how Ireland, across seventy-plus years, had changed. But, of course, he’d die alone in the end. And to my surprise, it didn’t quite turn out like that. For once I started writing it, I discovered that my narrator, Cyril Avery, was basically a good-hearted, amiable, bumbling chap who goes from disaster to disaster in his personal life simply because he cannot be honest with the world. Or rather, the world – Ireland – will not let him be honest about himself.

For although Cyril in The Heart’s Invisible Furies is born a quarter-century before me, he spends the formative part of his life being as anxious about his sexuality as I was, and many of his experiences, I’m embarrassed to admit, echo my own during my teens and twenties. There’s a section of the novel where Cyril, who is in love with his best friend Julian, remarks that sex ‘was a shameful activity to be conducted in haste, in hiding and in darkness. I associated sexual congress with the night air, with the outdoors, with my shirt on and my trousers around my ankles. I knew the sensation of tree bark imprinting itself against the palms of my hands as I fucked someone in a park and the smell of sap against my face as a stranger pushed against me from behind. Sex was not scored by sighs of pleasure but by the scurrying urgency of rodents in the undergrowth and the sound of cars rushing past in the distance, not to mention the associated fear that from those same roads might come the unforgiving scream of Garda sirens, responding to the outraged phone call of a traumatized dog-walker. I had no idea what it would be like to wrap my arms around a lover beneath the sheets as we fell asleep, whispering words of gentle affection that drifted carelessly into sleepy tenderness. I had never woken with another person or been able to satisfy my tenacious early-morning desire with an unapologetic partner. I could number more sexual partners in my history than anyone I knew but the difference between love and sex could be summed up for me in eight words: I loved Julian; I had sex with strangers.’

Across ten adult novels, a further five for younger readers, and a collection of short stories, I think this is perhaps the most truthful paragraph I have ever written, for this was my life until my late twenties. I come from a generation that felt – that still feels – a little awkward about being gay, a little embarrassed about it, even though we know there’s no reason to.

I’m part of the middle generation, stuck somewhere between those who could never come out and those who shout it from the rooftops when they’re teenagers. A friend told me recently that her eleven-year-old son has a classmate who’s already declared himself gay. I spent the summer of 2016 in London and almost every day I would go for a long walk around the Serpentine in Hyde Park. I remember one afternoon seeing two boys, perhaps sixteen years of age, walking along hand in hand without a care in the world and feeling a sense of envy and, yes, bitterness at the freedom that they had. Is that wrong of me? Probably, but it’s how I felt.

Perhaps Cyril Avery is everyone I might have been, that I am, that I amn’t, and that I might be yet. The desire to fall in love and to share one’s life with someone is neither a homosexual nor a heterosexual conceit. It’s human. We’re all suckers for a pretty face or a kind heart. What else can we do but keep hoping that the right person will show up?