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Quentin Crisp’s Posthumous Book, the Sequel

Those of us lucky enough, by which I suppose I mean old enough, to have known Quentin Crisp’s work while he was alive, are probably aware of the third volume of his autobiography, The Last Word, published posthumously in 2017, on the 18th anniversary of his death.  That wonderful book, simpler and more direct than had been his custom, introduced us to the man behind the eminently quotable persona.  Answering questions about his life and attitudes, The Last Word was a gift of himself stripped of the style which had made him famous and a beacon for gay men or indeed anyone seeking the courage to be himself.

How thrilling, then, to discover that the swan-song was to be followed by an encore.  Composed of miscellaneous short pieces which didn’t fit with the theme of The Last Word, And One More Thing holds its own captivating rewards.

The Table of Contents offers a hint of the breadth of topics on which the unlikely life-coach muses.  A piece on supermodels is followed by one on children; another, on “Flapper Girls and Walt Disney,” by reflections on the religious right.  Bill, Hillary and Monica lead reasonably enough to the British royal family, but before you know it, we’re hearing about the oddest couple of all:  “Philosophers and Human Beings.”  Finally, from “Married Couples,” via drag queens and their various satellites, we arrive at “Television Hosts.”

Some of the thoughts voiced on these pages will be familiar to fans but diehards will nonetheless welcome the new variations on old themes.  There is still so much about Crisp that remains enigmatic that each detail functions as a clue into how and why this most solitary and, for his formative years, despised of creatures came to be so widely admired and loved.

The answer is hidden in plain view:  He was honest.  So honest, no one was sure whether to take him seriously.  As has been quoted extensively, he maintained, “[I]f you describe things as better than they are, you are considered to be romantic; if you describe things as worse than they are, you are called a realist; and if you describe things exactly as they are, you are called a satirist.”

The same deadpan honesty remains alive and well in And One More Thing; for instance, when he explains his deeply ingrained thrift. “In order to spend more freely… I would have to work. And I don’t like work. It ages you terribly. So, before I do anything… I have formed the habit of asking myself, ‘Could I possibly get out of this?’”  Anyone who ever visited his one-room bedsitter with the hot plate, bed and chair missing a leg will affirm that this is no fanciful exaggeration; it is literal truth.

On why he kept his phone number listed:  “[I]f you are not listed, you may well be stuck with your current friends. Now, I like my friends, but I’m mad about strangers.”  That one I can personally vouch for.  When I wrote to him after reading The Naked Civil Servant, saying I thought he should get the Nobel Prize but I also thought it extremely unlikely (a comment whose whimsy is lost in this politically correct era – it won’t be long before the winner is a transsexual from a country requiring him or her to seek political asylum) he responded, enclosing the aforementioned phone number.  I took the hint and he became a frequent dinner guest for the next fifteen years.

However, not all his observations come dressed up as aphorisms.  Many are the fruit of years of abuse at the hands of neighborhood toughs in an era when homosexuality was not simply frowned upon; it was also, in his native country of Britain, illegal.  “That which doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.”  Or crazy.  In Crisp’s case, though he embodied hardly anyone’s idea of strength, (he once explained, “I never take a superior position in any relationship with people; instead, I consider myself the slave and as a result I am not to blame for anything”) and though, despite his embrace of New York and its customs, he didn’t indulge in psychotherapy, he had a wisdom which lesser mortals take years to attain.  “I think it is a grave mistake to sit in your room wondering what some wretched man on another street is thinking about you. What does it matter? What matters is what you think about yourself.”

It was man’s relationship to himself that Crisp claimed as his bailiwick, for despite some long-term friendships, particularly with Phillip Ward who, along with Pink News editor Laurence Watts, edited this book as well as the last, he seems to have kept other people at arm’s length.

Thus does he reach conclusions on love which would probably not strike a chord with anyone outside a monastery:

Generally, I try not to regard one person above another. I think that is wrong. If we give more of our time, our money or our interest to one person rather than another, they will become the millionaires of love. And I come from a generation of people who wanted to redistribute the wealth of the world. So, to me, investing so much love in one person is to spend it unwisely. What then will happen to love’s paupers? They should be our first concern: the unloved. So, there has never been a great love in my life. If there were, he would have to be somebody who was weaker, poorer and less equipped for life than I. So what kind of a man would he have been?

(Unusual notions of love seem to have run in the family.  When his sister consulted a doctor after five years of marriage, asking why she was not yet pregnant, the doctor explained, “Because you are still a virgin.”  How this could have happened mystified Crisp as much as anyone else but he goes on to explain that sex “wasn’t part of the school curriculum back then and she did, of course, marry a clergyman.”)

In fact, the only thing he admits to loving is words.  And nowhere is that love more apparent than in this final book, where a number of his poems are published for the first time.  Perhaps because they are contained within the rigors of rhyming iambic pentameter or similarly demanding verse forms, these, more than any work previously seen, offer a glimpse into the agony he endured as well as the rage that formed in response and lay at the heart of his exquisite manners and style:

If I had deigned to guzzle at the plate,
Whose contents seemed egregiously to please
A squalid world that I have come to hate,
Or tried to run its race with mudded knees
And absolutely no hope of success,
Could I at last, perhaps with greater ease,
Outstretch my feeble hand and try to bless
That world that said my love was a disease?
Would I have written nobler lines than these?

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Jenna Orkin is the author of Writer Wannabe Seeks Brush With Death.

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