David Leavitt’s “While England Sleeps” is a romantic adventure, a sprawling novel of star-crossed lovers set against a backdrop of placid pre-war English luxury and gritty Spanish Civil War conflict. Hollywood should pounce on this book, what with all the Oxford golden youth marching off to fight for what is right, passionate (and explicit) last-night sex scenes and teary goodbys at foggy train stations. Even the book’s narrator, Brian Botsford, a Los Angeles screenwriter telling the story at 40 years’ remove, is aware he is in the middle of a three-hankie melodrama: “Have you noticed how all war stories end up at a station? Think of the movies, the requisite scene where the train starts up, the soldier leans out the door to wave goodby, his girl--desperate to prolong the moment of parting--chases after him. . . .”
Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts might star in “While England Sleeps,” except for one detail: The ill-fated lovers in this novel are both male. Everything they do and think--why they hug instead of tongue kiss on the train platform, whom they go to for help when war rips them from one another--is altered by this fact.
Why David Leavitt has chosen to write this book presents something of a puzzle. Over the years he has evolved into an extremely graceful novelist, but classy pop fiction, however innovative in its use of gender, is hardly what critics expect a highly acclaimed author to write. It is by now hard to remember the excitement this author’s first work caused in 1984 when Leavitt was in his early 20s. It was not primarily the content of that story collection that struck a chord. “Family Dancing” was a mixture of stories of young men who had recently “come out” to their families and of mothers going through the rigors of cancer treatment.
What critics and readers most adored was Leavitt’s narrative voice: He created a serious young narrator who was prematurely wise about death and family but not nearly so wise as he thought he was. Much as Simon & Garfunkel’s songs captured the late ‘60s, Leavitt’s fiction seemed perfect for a sensitive generation pouring out of college into a commercial decade already well under way. As a result of the acclaim “Family Dancing” received, Leavitt, widely confused with his likable narrator, became famous--even something of a generational sage. When the Challenger space shuttle exploded, Leavitt’s thoughts appeared in the New York Times notched between those of then Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin and the Rev. Billy Graham. (Leavitt obligingly noted the space shuttle disaster would lead to “a certain loss of innocence” and made reference to the Kennedy assassination.)
Leavitt gradually renounced the role of “twentysomething” pundit with its attendant pressures. (How jealous his peers had been!). He first left New York City, and now spends much time in Europe. He disappeared from journalists’ Rolodexes. And with each of his first two novels--"The Lost Language of Cranes” and “Equal Affections"--he emphasized more and more that what interested him was the gay world. Leavitt correctly sensed that in a homophobic country the mantle of generational spokesperson is rarely given to a gay; they, like writers of color, only get dubbed “minority voices.” And that is what Leavitt has become.
But there are consolations. To be a minority fiction writer in some respects must be like coming of literary age at the middle of the 19th Century when the novel first made its bid for dominance. Plots that seem done to death in the dominant white heterosexual culture are new again: mysteries, romances, novels about growing up. Terry McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale” is a conventional descendant of Mary McCarthy’s “The Group” about four upper-middle-class women exploring love and work in Phoenix; but such a work had never been written about black women before.
The premise of “While England Sleeps” is similarly hoary. It is 1936, and Brian Botsford is an uncertain, snobby, 22-year-old, self-hating homosexual, an Oxford graduate unable to finish a novel alluringly called “The Train to Cockfosters” (actually a suburban London Metro stop) for which he feels he lacks real-life experience. He divides his time between licentious pre-war Berlin and London, where he desperately tries to summon enough conviction to marry a woman of his class.
At a Communist party meeting to raise volunteers for the Republican side in the war against Franco, Botsford meets Edward Phelan, a strapping, young lower-class Metro ticket-taker. They fall in love: “I noticed an attractive boy of 19 or so standing alone at a slight distance from the chatting crowd. . . . His hair was dark blond, shaggy and haphazardly cut, and he had a bracingly clean face and green eyes. . . . Our eyes met. . . .” Quickly they tumble into bed; Edward moves into Brian’s house as a roommate, then finds himself cast out, the victim of a combination of class prejudice and Botsford’s misguided belief he is about to marry the girl his aunt has selected for him. Disconsolate, Edward ships off to fight in Spain, and Brian realizes what a fool he’s been. He engineers an assignment from a Communist party paper that requires a visit to Spain, and begins the chase to reunite with his one true love, a journey that takes him from battle front to prison to shattered town.
“While England Sleeps” owes a lot to the accounts of the lives of the famous 1930s Oxford gay literary circle of W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood (whose stories of Weimar Berlin were filmed as “Cabaret”). Spender, at least, feels it owes too much. The 84-year-old author has raised strenuous pre-publication objections to Leavitt’s novel in the British press and the Washington Post, claiming it steals from his out-of-print 1951 memoir, “World Within World.” Much of Botsford’s life is clearly based on Spender’s. Leavitt has poached wholesale Spender’s story of how he tried to retrieve his friend--and presumably lover--Jimmy from a Spanish prison. How strange for Spender to see his sex life at that time invented by a man born 30 years later!
Fictional borrowing must pass a smell test distinct from the more legal standard that applies to nonfiction. Simply put, a novel must stand on its own, presenting an internal artistic logic separate from its sources. This “While England Sleeps” does not always do. Take, for instance, a conversation Spender recounts having with Isherwood in which the latter warns Spender, who is rapidly becoming famous, that he will no longer tolerate his company in Berlin, which he regards as his turf: “He disliked seeing me transformed from his Berlin disciple into a London literary figure,” Spender writes. When the anecdote appears dramatized in “While England Sleeps,” the warning to Botsford from his well-known poet friend Nigel makes less sense. Botsford is unpublished and unknown; he is no challenge to Nigel.
A careful reading of “World Within World” shows Spender’s charge of plagiarism to be over the top--all the novel’s words seem Leavitt’s own--but a charge of laziness would be far harder to disprove, and the knowledge of it mars an otherwise graceful, romantic novel.