The New York Critic: Book Reviews

Resident Alien
by Quentin Crisp
alyson books

Resident Alien, Quentin Crisp's last book, is subtitled the New York Diaries. They are, to be specific, his collected diaries from 1990 through 1994, during which time he lived in his home of many years in lower Manhattan, where he lived until his death. Now, the diary is a difficult form. Nothing takes us closer to the writer. Anne Frank, Anais Nin, and Samuel Pepys and had a knack for it, but there are precious few others who hold our interest with the trivia of their lives. Resident Alien proves Crisp not only a wit, but a diarist of the first order.

Through his writings, and through his life, Mr. Crisp has earned greatness. Yet he writes like someone who's had greatness thrust upon him, recounting his fame and its ensuing particulars with ironic detachment. Virtually any passage would illustrate, but here's one of my favorites:

"On Friday morning at half past six, a total stranger telephoned me for a chat. On hearing my slightly drowsy response, he said that he had not looked at his watch and therefore did not realize it was so early. I would have thought the fact the world was still in utter darkness might have warned him. At half past seven someone telephoned me from England to ask me the difference between right and wrong (I am not making this up). I quoted the hero of one of Mr. Munro's stories who admits that he has forgotten the difference between good and evil but excuses this lapse by adding that his mother also taught him three ways of cooking lobster and that 'you can't remember everything'."

A diarist has a single advantage over other stylists: he's relieved him of the burden of content. He can select elements from life at a whim. Crisp has been called the Oscar Wilde of our turn-of-the-century quite rightly. A true aesthete, his concern is with form. Every sentence of this book has a subtle, rippling rhythm - with the tone of eyebrows-up comedy. The book is like the surface of a sphere; every point is equal.

From the first sentence, we're sharing the routine of an atypical life. The routine concerns largely a series of travels, and invitations offered to someone 'in the smiling and nodding racket', as he says. Entries typically begin "I've been to Los Angeles", or "The other day I was invited by the maitre d' of a posh hotel to..."

Activists looking for Crisps' endorsement, however, will be disappointed. He has no concern with politics - his alleged political lobbying in England is a myth. On the contrary, he tells us:
"I have been on a grand tour. First I visited Minneapolis, summoned thither by an Organization for Human Rights. Needless to say, that meant gay rights - not because homosexual men have any more rights than other people, but because they complain so loudly and so continuously when they are deprived of them. When asked why I was there if I didn't believe in gay rights, I said because I never say no to any invitation if my fare is paid."

The activist should not be surprised, though. He was warned in the Foreword, where Crisp writes: "I am concerned with the high gloss on society, not with its inner machinery."

Crisp's fame, of course, and his contribution, transcend the gay culture. He wrote in his first book, The Naked Civil Servant, in 1968, "...I never wanted to paint, but hoped, to borrow a phrase from a later aesthetic movement, to become an objet trouve in the world of art." Instead, that book awarded him a position in the literary world. Resident Alien enhances that position.

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