Okay, I’ll admit it – this book had me baffled. It was billed as a fictionalised biography based on the diaries of a real-life actor, Mark Sheridan, as written by his descendant Alan Sheridan, but I have to admit I couldn’t tell if this was the case, or if it was really just a novel in disguise, so skilfully was it written.
The story was told in first person as though by Mark himself, almost-but-not-quite in the form of a diary of his experiences in the acting world, and earlier as the son of a diplomat based in China and Russia in the late nineteenth century. Much of the book (biography? novel?) was set in Peking and St Petersburg, with lengthy travelogue-style descriptions of both cities, as well as lengthy but slightly less orthodox descriptions of Mark’s many encounters with men. His essays on the usefulness of public conveniences as pick-up joints at a time when homosexuality was still expressly forbidden across most of Europe were quite an eye-opener!
The sense of place, then, was beautifully suggested. I felt I knew the avenues of Paris, the canals and underground toilets of St Petersburg, and the compounds and back streets of Peking, and that I was there with Mark as he explored, rutted, and trod the boards.
Where I was less convinced was with Sheridan’s handling of the time-scales involved. The book (novel? biography?) opens in the early twentieth century with Mark as a fully fledged actor but soon skips back to China and Russia of the 1890s when he was still a child, and from then on it leap-frogs backwards and forwards from the 1920s to the 1900s to the 1890s in a endless and bewildering series of flashbacks. Each section was complete in itself and each one nicely presented the time in which it was set, but I soon found my head was spinning and any continuity of narrative was hopelessly lost.
This applied to the central relationship as well. When we first met Mark he was living with another actor, the young Esmé, but their meeting wasn’t described until at least two-thirds of the way through the novel, after a series of other affairs, some earlier and some later. Even then the description of what must have been a life-changing event was curiously flat, and the same applied to many of the other encounters with men, be they political dialogues with diplomats or mutual masturbation sessions with rough trade. I never got the feeling that I knew the characters half so well as the places they visited.
Overall I found the book rather like the proverbial curate’s egg – good in parts. Beautiful scenery does not a novel make, and once I’d waded through several hundred pages of constantly-switching time and place, I struggled to finish the book.
Originally published at Speak Its Name.