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Budapest and an American Proto-Homosexual Novel

Imre: A Memorandum (1906), a little-known novelette by American music critic Edward Prime-Stevenson is considered to be the first openly homosexual novel in English with a happy ending. It is possibly also the very first that the author himself called a homosexual novel per se.

Unlike many other works at the turn of the century, this novelette does not include crass plot-twists, Gothic monstrosities, male prostitutes sauntering the streets of the city, aristocrats cruising in opium dens, police raids, and orgies in the perfume of their over-heated atmosphere. Instead, this story is relatively simple: the thirty-something Englishman, Oswald meets a Hungarian soldier in his mid-twenties, the titular character Imre. It is a chance encounter and they happen to have quite a few topics in common to talk about. Eventually and not surprisingly, they fall in love with each other. It is not the physiology of the other that they explore but their psychology. The problem is that, as homosexual men, they are very much aware that they should not let their guard down easily; nevertheless, they need to lose their figurative masks so that they can confess their love. But there is a far greater difficulty that they have to face: the words to describe same-sex love are rather elusive at the turn of the century.

 

Fortepan / Széman György

 

Imagine that the word “homosexuality” has not been coined yet. Now imagine that, when the term arrives, there is a multitude of competing terms describing the same phenomenon at the same time: uranianism, “contrary sexual feeling,” the third sex, the intersex, the intermediate sex, unisexuality, sexual inversion, similisexuality and so on. To complicate the matter even further, the meaning of these these words, coming mostly from German-speaking Central Europe, is not public knowledge in English-speaking cultures yet. Sexological advances were not public knowledge at the time: British and American censorship banned the promulgation of medical texts on same-sex desire, let alone the distribution of belles-lettres on this particular subject. Other than societal opprobrium, Oswald and Imre have to deal with and refute common stereotypes and misconceptions about homosexuality: the physiology of the homosexual man is abnormal, his morals are degenerate, he must be a sodomite and/or a pederast, he never gets married, nevertheless, his sexual drive can be “cured” by heterosexual marriage. The novelette, of course, is not all about science. The tone of Oswald’s narration is eased by ever-Hungarian sarcasm and irony. As Prime-Stevenson put it, “[t]he Uranian’s temperament, and his problematic social life have checked his mirth. His gayety tends to irony, or is of that artificial good-humour often characteristic of him.”

There are three things that Imre does for its readers. It invites you to take a stroll “in the cheerful Hungarian city of Szent-Istvánhely [St. Stephen Place],” i.e. the capital of Hungary in the story, to walk across the Chain Bridge with Oswald and Imre, and to spend a romantic evening with them “in the yellow moonlight, along the quais, overlooking the shimmering Duna.” In the form of a beautiful love-story and apologia, it also gives you a glimpse at the history of homosexuality. Last but not least, the novelette is “offered in a hope that some perplexed and solitary soul may grow a little calmer, may feel itself a little less alone in our world of mysteries.” No matter what haters say, we have one job, according to Prime-Stevenson: “let us make it our practical business, as individuals and fellow-mortals, whether [homosexuals] or not, to climb higher with all our best wills and works—and everywhere and eternally to help human nature to climb.”

 

 

The first affordable edition of Imre in English was published in 2003 (Broadview Press, ed. James Gifford). The forthcoming Hungarian translation is to be published in the summer of 2021 (Napvilág Kiadó, ed. Zsolt Bojti).

Zsolt Bojti

 

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