EDMUND MARLOWE'S ALEXANDER’S CHOICE REVIEWED BY PARSIFAL
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. The following review of it was published on Amazon.co.uk on 3 August 2015.
The anatomy of pederasty ****
This novel amply illustrates the inconvenient truth that boy love is deeply rooted in the human condition, and that it will therefore always manifest itself, however bizarre its forms, whatever recriminations and derisions it may attract. This accounts for the many allusions to Greek antiquity to give the main theme a universal, perennial validity, even a moral vindication. The Eton setting is an ideal background for the tragedy to take place: for some reason the cultural tag of buggery is stronger around Eton than other public schools. Physical beauty is also imagined to be more prevalent at upper class Eton (a stereotype eagerly cultivated by Tatler for instance).
It should be noted that the pattern of inexorable decline that permeates the novel operates both at individual and social level: Alexander Aylmer is an archetype from the mythical realm of the Imaginary as well as the romantic epitome of England's vanishing nobility ("The English Rose"), whose aristocratic members die one by one; their shadows hang over an Eton world "that could not protect its own against the new spirit of the 1980s" and that would soon be taken over by nouveau riche vulgarity, as embodied by Guy Cowburn, the school bully who is instrumental in Alexander's downfall. In that sense, Alexander's demise is that of his social class and of Merry Olde England after the loss of Empire. In fact, Julian's infatuation with Alexander is partly motivated by the class distinction and the fascinations that go with it, as illustrated by his daydream about Alexander's aristocratic pedigree. In that respect, Julian's failure to truly communicate with Alexander is as painful as the elusiveness of the pederastic love he desires. By the end of the novel, the modern, sanitized world with its rational, normative categories has obliterated the mythical, dreamlike world whose androgynous embodiment (Alexander) it set out to annihilate, as symbolized by the destruction of Damian and Alexander's idyllic love nest. In Lacanian terms, House Master, public opinion, sexual hygiene, social services, even language, are all emanations of the Symbolic Realm; witness Julian and Alexander's futile attempt to transcend the restrictions of ordinary language through inventing their own. Ironically, the gift Alexander receives from his father is George Orwell's "1984" (not coincidentally the year when Alexander's personal tragedy unfolds): the politically correct "Newspeak", created by the totalitarian state to control and suppress thought, leaving no room for nuance or degrees of meaning, is the instrument to subdue the pre-verbal Realm of the Imaginary from which Alexander originated and for which he craves.
The novel masterfully demonstrates that there is no satisfactory response to the sad members of what is commonly termed the "pederastic affliction". Pederasty is problematic in that it revolves around the short-lived beauty of an angelic boy on the treshold of puberty; its transience hardly warrants a long-term, stable relationship outside the Realm of the Imaginary. Redolent of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice", both Alexander and Aschenbach can only find a definitive answer to their unsanctioned condition in total oblivion. Both novels inform us that only death can both satisfy and quench an illicit desire, which makes "Alexander's choice" a tragedy indeed.
Having attended an elitist single-sex boarding school myself (not Eton), I recognized myself in the character of Julian, filling me with sadness. To put it bluntly: in a monastic environment like a public school, a pretty boy is the nearest thing to a girl you can get. I have known 'straight' boys getting crushes on younger boys, leading to a bizarre parody of romantic courtship. I have to point out that these infatuations were hardly consummated or acted upon. In this respect, I very much liked the main characters' musings on the essence of pederastic love, especially the relevant question whether its inspiration is heterosexual or homosexual. Pederastic love probably defies this binary opposition as the androgynous boy eroticizes the moment before the choice (love itself surpasses the imposed dichotomy anyway).
To me, however, the overtly sexual relationship between Damian and Alexander seemed over-the-top and rather implausible, though well narrated. The awkward chemistry and platonic love between Julian and Alexander is much closer to public school reality and is probably something more readers can relate to. In this regard, Roger Peyrefitte's "Special Friendships" comes to mind.
In short, the subtle weave of layers in the novel makes for an interesting, if daring, read that leaves the more sensitive and perceptive reader feeling forlorn.