David Leavitt: ‘While England Sleeps’

As I tend to do when faced with aisles of cheap books, I picked this one up at a used book store knowing little about it. When I read the preface to While England Sleeps and found that it was a second printing, because the first had been banned–and all copies literally shredded–I was intrigued. This wasn’t a nineteenth century book ban. This was the ‘90s.

The book is, it seems, a re-telling of another man’s biography. Or at least parts of it. This man, Stephen Spender, objected to David Leavitt’s use of his life, his book, which I can understand.

Leavitt considered acknowledging Stephen Spender’s World Within World in the original printing and may have been persuaded by his publisher not to, but probably would have been much better off if he had given credit where credit was due. He doesn’t deny that his book is in some ways based on Spender’s. In the preface, he writes, “…While England Sleeps takes an old story and looks at it from the point of view of a generation that came of age after psychoanalysis, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and the Stonewall riot.”

The issue of plagiarism is weighty and there are grey areas. But all writers acknowledge how very much we are influenced by what we read. Taking plot points from another work, if done with credit, is to me, very different from plagiarizing the words, the language, the artistry. But of course credit wasn’t given, which was Leavitt’s mistake. Autobiographies are fictionalized all the time, as Spender would not like to admit.

But Leavitt wants us to dismiss these issues, and read the damn novel. “The lawsuit that dogged its first appearance diverted attention from what seems to me its real subject, focusing the spotlight instead on tired and gossipy questions about sources.” Let’s focus the spotlight on the novel: I found it hard to put down mainly because of the intimacy with which the protagonist, Brian Bostford tells his sad story. Living in 1930s England during the Spanish Civil War with Nazi Europe building steam by the day, Brian, who is in his early 20s and homosexual, learns life’s lessons the hard way. He finds himself in love for the first time, and while figuring out who he is, makes the kind of mistakes that would not end up quite so disastrously if there weren’t a war going on. But there is a war going on. When his lover, Edward, joins the Communist party and flees to Spain, Brian, realizing how horribly he’s treated him, follows.

I’m somewhat of an easy audience for this book, since I know little of what it was like in 1930s England, especially the issues of the time that were important to this novel: class and sexuality. But at the same time, I come to the book with my own modern-day American opinions on the writing life. While Brian is practically penniless, he also hasn’t worked a day in his life and depends on his wealthy aunt to float the beginnings of his career as a writer. Meanwhile Edward comes from the working class, and is helping to keep his whole family afloat. It’s hard to relate to any of Brian’s ongoing anguish for that reason alone. Today, how many people depend solely on handouts while trying to make it as a writer? Most writers get a job at Starbucks (or a desk job with benefits that leaves time in the evenings to write) and still need help, but not because they’re lazy. Times have changed, and life is expensive. Brian had it easy, as far as I’m concerned.

It’s his youthful confusion, lust and heartache, and the poor predicament of Edward having fallen for him that kept me waiting for resolution. Will he find Edward in Spain? Will Edward die in battle? Will he forgive Brian for lying and betraying him?

Gigglers: I’m not going to seek out the newest hardcovers and tell you whether or not to buy them. And while not the Sunday Review, this Sunday blog will explore my brilliant and fascinating thoughts about books. Please use the comments section to share your own thoughts on this book, or whatever you’re reading.

Photo via Indiebound 

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