ex libris: bread, wine, a list
July 15, 1999
Bread and Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York
by Samuel R. Delany, Mia Wolff (Illustrator), Alan Moore (Introduction)
Paperback - 44 pages (March 1, 1999)
Juno Books; ISBN: 1890451029
Amazon's price: $11.99
I've just been reading the most remarkable book.
Comic book, actually.
It's the latest chapter of Samuel Delany's autobiography. It's very startling, because it is a comic book; you don't expect a biography in this format.
(For those who may not know, Samuel Delany is a gay black science fiction author, and also a professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. You can find his office address and phone number at their web site; that's just so weird...)
Of course biographies frequently have photos, pictures, other things, but these are always either publicity photos, or other things that are somehow public moments. The sort of thing that people don't normally mind if others see. Oh, maybe your mother delights in showing that picture of you running naked down the street when you were two, or maybe you're having a bad hair day in that picture, or you've got teminal red-eye, but still and all, those photographs, even the very personal ones, are still somehow of public moments. Sometime when others were looking at you, capturing the moment.
The drawings in this book are frequently of moments that most people wouldn't have thought to capture.
The general synopsis of it would be: college professor meets and befriends homeless man and they eventually become lovers. But the synopsis would leave out just about everything: the feel of the book, how well the emotions come through somehow.
Delany notes that his publisher didn't quite understand why he wanted to make it into a comic book. I confess, in some ways, it does seem like an odd choice. However, there are moments illustrated in this book--moments where, clearly, no photographs exist or would exist--that somehow gain power from being forced to see them in exactly the way that the author sees them. (Or rather, the artist's rendering of the author's memories, but still, I think it works out the same way.) Some of the drawings are thoroughly surreal, as in Dennis' (the homeless man) view of Central Park. Some of them are fairly straightforward.
What startled me, what seems to be the most powerful, were the moments showing him and Dennis when they first go to a hotel, when they first make love. I mean, in a more conventional autobiography might have used the same words he used to describe it, but your concept of what Dennis looked like, what the bath was like, it would all have been more of a hybrid of what you brought to it and what he gave you. Doing it this way forces what he gives you and your impressions into consonance in a way that simply might not happen.
The book is, as noted, billed as an erotic tale, and there's certainly sex in it, but it's not erotic as in "boy, that gets my engine running!" It's erotic as in, it's a love story with sex in it. Which does, after all, happen when you fall into love with someone.
Another odd bit is the interview at the end, where the artist, Delany, Dennis, and Delany's now-adult daughter talk about the book, and what some of the events were like, how their memories differ. That's when you realize that his daughter has actually read this, that she's seen those drawings of her father and his lover together. It's a very strange moment for the reader; I can't imagine how strange it would have been for his daughter.
For those of you who might have read Delany's The Mad Man, reading this will bring one of those great moments of enlightenment, when you realize where at least some of it came from. (I don't know if all of it came from this relationship, and I don't want to know, thank you very much. I don't know how much his life informed his writing in that case.)
I suppose, if I were talking about this to someone (as I guess I may be, right?) I'd say: I recommend it, but know that you may not actually like it. It's fascinating and it's interesting, and if you like Delany and his work, it's certainly illuminating.
A few things that may be of interest, by and/or about Delany: