An Introduction to Quentin Crisp and His Works

Quentin Crisp was, as he put it, a “self-evident, effeminate homosexual” and made queer advocacy his life-long cause. He lived much of his life in London, England, and in 1980 moved to New York where he lived out the rest of his life, dying his hair blue and bowing in respect to the Hell’s Angels. From his youth onward, he wore make-up, nail varnish, sandals, and wide-brimmed hats–all pf which would have been perceived as inappropriate even for a women of the time. He was utterly and irretrievably true to himself and paid a price for it. He was harassed, physically assaulted, discriminated against (grocers would not sell him food, so he relied on vitamin powder and what his friends could give him), and alienated even from the society of other homosexual men. Despite living in poverty for much of his life, he managed to live in his own way–initially making a living as a sex-worker, a commercial artist, and, later on, an an artists model in college art classes.

John Hurt as Quentin Crisp in the television adaptation of The Naked Civil Servant.

John Hurt as Quentin Crisp in the television adaptation of The Naked Civil Servant.

In the 1960’s he wrote a memoir about his life, called The Naked Civil Servant, and appeared in a short documentary (a segment for World in Action) in which he discussed the circumstances of his life and the impact of heterosexism. In the 1970’s, a television film was made (starring John Hurt) based on his memoir, the success of which made him internationally famous and an hero to many. He has since remained a hero, not only as a pioneer in queer advocacy but as an intelligent and witty commentator on popular culture and lifestyle.

The success of his memoir led to the writing of a number of other books. Over the years I have read most of his published work and would like to offer my own recommendation.

The cover of the 1977 paperback edition of The Naked Civil Servant.

The cover of the 1977 paperback edition of The Naked Civil Servant.

Autobiographical
Crisp wrote three memoirs, including The Naked Civil Servant (1968), How to Become a Virgin (1981), and Resident Alien: The New York Diaries (1996). All three stand out to me as excellent books. Crisp was very good at telling stories and this shows in all of his autobiographical works. Resident Alien sets itself apart, however, in one important way; although Crisp made his unhappiness no secret, one sees a much more vulnerable and sensitive side to him in this, his last, memoir. Crisp had a habit of using humor to cope with unpleasant experiences and emotions but, while Resident Alien is full of humorous anecdotes and observations, he expresses his fears and attitudes more directly here than in his previous memoirs.

The hardcover edition of How to Go to the Movies from 1988.

The hardcover edition of How to Go to the Movies from 1988.

Movie Criticism
For a time in the 1980’s, Crisp wrote a series of movie reviews for the New York magazine Christopher Street. A collection of these reviews were punished in 1988 as How to Go to the Movies. His reviews are thoroughly witty and intelligently written. Although he criticizes many of the films he writes about, he admits to enjoying them all (thought he did seem to enjoy some more than others). What struck me most about his review, though, was his positive tone. Critics are known to tyrannize over taste with their acerbic wit and frivolous distemper but his tone is thoroughly respectful and, though he makes plenty of jokes at the expense of the films and their actors, none come off as mean.

The Problem of Style
Crisp wrote several books on lifestyle, including How to Have a Lifestyle (1975), Doing It with Style (1981), and Manners from Heaven (1984). His first book is uncharacteristically serious (that is, relatively humorless) attempt at defining his modus operandi for style, a theme he would later improve upon in subsequent works. Manners from Heaven is funnier but I found his advice at times uneven. At times, I fear, the narrative is too serious and conflicts with the humor tone he tried to create.

The hardcover edition of Doing It with Style.

The hardcover edition of Doing It with Style.

Doing It with Style is, in my opinion, the best of his books on style. The humor is pitch perfect and his arguments, though tongue-in-cheek, bear an undercurrent of serious truth. Those who are familiar with his one-man show will likely enjoy this. The humor, message, and pacing is the same but both stand on their own–while they share various anecdotes and jokes, there are many that are entirely unique to this book, as well as to his one-man show.

Fiction and Poetry
Crisp wrote two novels, Love Made Easy (1977) and Chog: A Gothic Fable (1979), and one poem, called All This And Bevin Too (1943). Unfortunately, copies of these works can be difficult to come by.

Chog is really the only exception and, in consequence, the only title among these I have read, Chog is in every way a gothic novel. Naturally, his humor takes on a much darker tone in such a thematic setting. The story revolve around the various inheritors of an old many estate and the dastardly deeds they are willing to commit in order to acquire and maintain their inheritance. Many of his characters are thoroughly nasty and none are spared from a cruel, gruesome fate. Although I found the last few paragraphs too expedient, I enjoyed every other aspect of story.

Coincidentally, Love Made Easy was made into a film by the same name. Hopefully, I will have a chance to read both the book and see the film in the near future; in which case, I will append this post to include information regarding it.

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