I Look Divine - Christopher Coe - ebook

Nicholas is beautiful, wealthy and hopelessly vain. With his older brother in tow, he jets from one glamorous scene to another. Whether it's in Rome, Madrid, or Mexico, what matters to him most is the admiration of others. Then one day, not even forty and his beauty faded, his life comes to an early end. His brother is left to pick up the pieces and make sense of Nicholas' untimely demise. "I Look Divine" is a precisely told and moving tale about what lurks beneath the ripples of Narcissus' reflecting pool.

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Christopher Coe, whose death from AIDS in 1994 robbed us of a visionary American writer, published only two novels. The second of these, Such Times, is a lyrical dirge, a paean to life written in the valley of the shadow of death. Its predecessor, I Look Divine, is funnier, leaner, more nimble, if no less dark and majestic. At its center stands Nicholas, the narrator’s younger brother, a man “with an instinct for placing himself in a frame.” Nicholas’s narcissism is, to borrow a term from Henry James, the donnée of I Look Divine, the spark by which its wit and its tenderness are ignited. Impossibly wealthy, impossibly smart, and possessed of the finest cheekbones in Christendom, Nicholas parades through the novel throwing off insouciant remarks and admiring himself in mirrors. (“You are the smartest little boy in the world, and you also look like this,” he tells one of these.) Yet he is also committing a suicide as “long and lovely” as any since Oscar Wilde coined the phrase. It is the course of these parallel trajectories—and their eventual confluence—that the novel charts.

The plot of I Look Divine, to the extent that it has one, is modest. Nicholas has died, and his brother has come to New York to survey his effects. Among these is a photograph of Nicholas in a black Japanese robe, standing against “a wall of skull-like faces carved in stone. His pose includes a cigarette, white filtered, and a hollow-stemmed champagne glass that he is holding to his neck, just below the jawline.” Not surprisingly, the photograph has a mirrored frame—and indeed, one might say that I Look Divine is the mirrored frame within which Coe positions Nicholas. Where the narrator—and the reader—catch glimpses of themselves is in the reflective edging.

A genius of self-regard with a penchant for self-destruction, Nicholas commands his brother’s awe and his ire, his passion and his compassion. Though his preferred milieu is the hotel bar—in Madrid, in Rome, at various Mexican resorts—it is when he stumbles into environments where he finds himself at a disadvantage that he comes most gloriously into his own. Indeed, Nicholas’s strategies for making himself feel at home (which entail making others feel uneasy) provide Coe with some of his best opportunities for comedy, in particular when he is sending up, through the effete Nicholas, the hypermasculine posturing that was such a feature of gay life in New York in the nineteen-seventies. Hence we get this hilarious description of a Roman gay disco:

The one wall not covered by mirrors was covered instead by a mural of opulently muscled, overgendered men, half or more undressed. The illustrator must have tried to capture how men might look if they could issue directly from each other in a womanless world, and in the mural the lewdly virile specimens, cartoon ideals, regarded each other with untender admiration.

Or this passage, as notable for its elisions as its skewering of a particularly humorless kind of gay vanity:

Nicholas had taken me to a place where men did not wear ties. Ties were not allowed. Sweaters were not allowed. The sign at the door listed what was not allowed. Cologne was not allowed. Certain kinds of shirts were not allowed. Shirts could be checked at the door. Anything could be checked at the door. Some men checked everything but their shoes.

The pool table was not used for pool.

The passage exemplifies Coe’s style in I Look Divine: a sequence of short sentences, repetitions, lists will suddenly open out into broad humor or rhapsodic song.

“Maybe you can tell me,” Nicholas said, “why everybody wears these trousers, with the labels in the back that tell the waist size. Why do all of you want to go around telling the world your waist size? I mean, disclosing it. And maybe you can tell me why it is always, always thirty.”

The heartbreak here—as in so much of the novel—is that Nicholas doesn’t fit in to the bar. The men ignore him—and for Nicholas, to be ignored is far worse than to be ridiculed. For despite his self-proclaimed splendor, Nicholas does not belong to the age in which he lives. Rather he is a throwback to the teens and twenties, to the heyday of Ronald Firbank, who was famous for eating a meal consisting of champagne and a single pea on a porcelain plate (and whose novels, not incidentally, this one recalls). Even Nicholas’s vanity is dated, as the narrator observes in the Rome nightclub where “the most beautiful men” dance with themselves in front of mirrors. “It was not only true that they were not looking at each other,” Coe writes; “it was also the truth that, when they danced by themselves in mirrors the most beautiful men in Rome were not looking at Nicholas…He was sitting between two older, good-enough-looking men at a front table, in several hundred dollars’ worth of clothes, and the most beautiful men in Rome were not looking at his drop-dead bone structure, and it was not going over.”

I only met Christopher Coe a few times, toward the end of his life. He was very sick by then, yet in his face you could still discern the vestiges of an abruptly cancelled youth. From what I gathered, he had been rich but had lost all his money, first through profligacy then through lack of medical insurance. Now he lived in poverty, in an apartment on Christopher Street the shabbiness of which was in its way seigneurial. Home health aides had stolen his last Baccarat tumblers, a detail that might have come out of I Look Divine. For there was no question that Christopher was an aristocrat—which did not stop him from displaying extraordinary modesty, in particular when it came to his own literary talents. I doubt he realized how much he had already achieved by the time he died, how close he had already come to mastery.

Though AIDS is never mentioned in I Look Divine, its specter haunts the novel. Contagion is always a step away here—in a justly famous scene, Nicholas, on a whim, dives into the contaminated waters of the Tiber—just as the body, rather than a site of pleasure, is a site of vulnerability. Near the end of the novel, the narrator recalls traveling in Mexico with his brother and seeing “a horse or a cow that has been hit, burning.”

One sees the animal in flames. On many roads in Mexico, when a horse or a cow is hit, the natives ignite it with gasoline. Sometimes the animal is alive when it is ignited, and one can see, from one’s car, or on foot if one is walking, the animal dying of the impact while it is dying also of the fire. One sees the animal convulse. The smell of the fire and the flesh is also a taste. It gets into the throat, the carcass taste, with the smell of smoke and the taste of blood in the swallow of each breath.

For all its charm, and elegance, I Look Divine has “the carcass taste.” Early in the novel, the narrator describes an antique lacquer table that he has found in his brother’s apartment, made according to an “old Japanese process that, over time, makes the black base show through in random patches under the red layers laid over it.” Lacquer, he goes on to explain, “comes from toxic sap…When raw, if touched, the sap will burn through skin.” Though certain monks discovered a means by which the exposure of the black base could be hastened, Nicholas’s table, his brother is sure, “is the real item, lacquer aged the valued way, before the monks learned to coax the base, by artifice, to come up through the many sheer layers of red.” The same might be said of I Look Divine, a novel of self-evident authenticity, through the radiant surface of which a dark core of suffering burns.

—David Leavitt

For Hans Guggenheimer

For Majorie Edwards Brush

“And he carried to the wars with him a gilded scutcheon, whereon he had no cognisance, nor ordinary device of the Athenians, but only had the image of Cupid on it, holding lightning in his hand.”

plutarch, Lives

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!