The human condition

31 July

Journée longue et dificile, mais fini gràce à dieu.  Longue période de frustration accomplie.  Incapable d’aider, la maladie exige que je m’y resigne, le déclin d’un ami, l’attente trop longue.  La première crise passée.  Mais certainement d’autres attend.  Longue périodes entre le jour de découverte et le jour de son mort—un deuil impossible.

3 August

A drop in the bucket.  Emotional chaos.  Nothing.  What I was feeling Saturday returns again today.  Resenting the absence of support when I need it.  Feeling abandoned with a dying man.  These moments of complete despair that always seem to be spent alone.  The cave, the grave.  The human condition, to face oneself alone in the world.  Oh god, why hast thou forsaken me?

3 September

Return to the city.  Little if anything new.  Back in the seedy, marginal Mission.  Back to the routines of French-American.  All the old formulas, pursuits of futility.  Waiting for the escape to fiction.

19 October

Whereas some will celebrate their union with a marriage, a child, we will celebrate ours only with a funeral?  Bitter?  Perhaps.  Trying hard not to be so bitter to begrudge others their marriages and births.  Forgive us all our human condition.

Journal entries, summer and autumn 1988


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Peter Bell, Congressional Page

This is but one of many scanned documents that will appear in the final collection:

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Blind date from Hell

Boyfriend hell.  A Nobel prize to the person who eliminates the need for dating.  I can’t figure guys out.  Last night’s stud called back this morning to confirm his interest—I wonder if he’ll break down his reserve after a few weeks… What’s wrong with having sex on the first date?  Instead, he wants dinner one night, a movie the next—should I speed the process by providing the lure of a dinner?  Or should I go on a moratorium?  I know I must go home and clean house in any case…

Why must everything be so contrived?  I don’t think we should see Godfather III either… Oh who knows?

I should go home and CLEAN HOUSE.

Tomorrow I deal with the travel agent—another BLIND DATE FROM HELL:

“Please explain things I already know.”

“Whose superego is strongest?”

“I’m not really interested in sex until I’ve established a strong platonic rapport.”

(He’s too good-looking.)  Any brains?

So I won’t have time for swimming today.  Life is too full.

“Let’s be very careful about what we say.”

“Better yet, let’s not give a shit and give the fellow a good taste of reality.”

I must conspire with Ed for a birthday surprise for Michael…

Dating really shoves priorities up into one’s face…!

Put up your dukes

Looking for fit dad to give

tough love to boyish 31 y.o.

I’m firm 5’11 190 lb healthy

HIV+ and seeking dominant man

who likes a challenge with

prospective of a stable


[Journal entry, 9 March 1991]

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Celebrating personhood and lives intertwined

Posted today at Jack Andrew Urquhart’s blog – a review of my collection of Peter’s short stories, copied here by permission:

Book Review: Peter Marshall Bell’s Nocturne; celebrating personhood and lives intertwined.

Full Disclosure: When my spouse Raymond L. Boyington undertook the editorial role in bringing his former partner’s work to print posthumously, I had not expected to play a role in promoting the finished product.  I had read previously a few of the poems penned by Peter Marshall Bell, who died in 1994, but never any of his heretofore unpublished fiction.  Indeed, save for a minor role in translating one of Bell’s stories from the original French to English, I thought it best to keep my distance from a project that was deeply and privately motivated.  In short, I did not wish to intrude on the editor’s labor of love.

All that resolve vanished when I sat down to read Invitation to the Voyage, the Selected Poems of Peter Marshall Bell, and more recently, Nocturne, the slim volume of his nine stories.  I confess this latter enterprise left me reeling with a sense of loss.  That is because on every page was the evidence of a talented writer evolving toward distinction—an advancement in artistry that continued literally to within a few whispers of Bell’s untimely death from the complications of AIDS at age thirty-five.  Indeed, part of the pleasure and the sadness in reading Nocturne lies in witnessing the progression of Bell’s talent (the nine stories are presented in chronological order, 1979—1990).

The author’s early tales, most notably “The End of Tribute,” “Nocturne,” and “The Enemy,” introduce Bell’s lifelong thematic obsession: the human struggle toward wholeness and personhood, a battle that for many—gay and straight alike—pits a survivor’s instinct against the forces of an externally motivated self-hatred.  It is a struggle that presents formidable and particular challenges for the homosexual and latent homosexual protagonists peopling Bell’s fiction.

Interestingly, the early stories sometimes mirror the author’s own history of personal and familial strife.  Witness Bell’s story “The End of Tribute,” in which Walter, the gay protagonist engaged on a Sunday afternoon tour of Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery (Bell lived in Paris, 1985-86), is inspired to consider his own losses while standing at the grave of the American rock star, Jim Morrison.  Reflecting on the lyrics of Morrison’s classic Vietnam era anthem, “Riders on the Storm,” Walter muses on his rebellious sister’s untimely death (Bell’s own sister died quite young)—and the resulting familial fallout:

“Oh, sister!  She had been the only one in the family who rallied to that music’s cry.  She had angered her family by rejecting accepted American values like fighting in Vietnam.  Now she was dead.

“I hated her,” his older brother had told him, years after … and although they’d drunk plenty of scotch before Ed let this out, Walter realized … a brother hated his sister in defense of his America.  Let him have his America, Walter thought angrily.  Standing before that grave, he knew his sister had been right.”

In the collection’s title story, “Nocturne,” Bell’s thematics find expression in a child’s early recognition of unacceptable difference amply cued by parental disappointment.  Perhaps drawing on personal experience, the author offers almost a case study of how children may internalize and process—usually at the expense of their psychological well being—a steady diet of subtle and not-so-subtle censure.  In “Nocturne,” the resulting damage is manifested (initially) in secrecy and insomnia:

“The important thing was not to be discovered.  His insomnia was his secret world—the fear that kept him awake was unknown to all those around him… He especially feared the derision and admonition of his father, who would only interpret his insomnia as a sign of cowardice and weakness.  “Like a little girl,” he imagined his father commenting with a sneer.”

Indeed, the impetus to avoid discovery drives several of Bell’s protagonists to self-harm—as in “The Enemy,” where two men, complete strangers from opposite sides of a war zone, meet, and manage to bridge their political and cultural chasms in a few moments of almost romantic sexual congress—before one of them self destructs.

These early stories by Bell, an untrained writer whose natural storytelling gifts appear to have been honed through years of rigorous intellectual pursuit and curiosity, showcase a writer’s steady progress toward proficiency, understanding (of the human condition) and a command of language (several languages in Bell’s case).  It is an evolution that reaches its apex, in my opinion, in Bell’s final four stories.  My particular favorite is the wonderfully full-bodied “We Have Always Been the Same Person”.

That the term ‘full-bodied’ should so perfectly apply to a ‘ghost story’ is one of the delightful ironies of Bell’s mature fiction.  For in this tale, the author weaves a richly atmospheric sojourn reminiscent of Henry James—but without the Gordian sentence structure.

Set in the French coastal city of Dinard, Bell’s literary excursion comes complete with haunted hotel, mysterious portrait, and a helpful female spirit named Louise who favors fireside chats that sound very much like a session in psychotherapy.

“Dear Charles,” she said softly.  “I am not trying to do anything here.  We are simply fulfilling our destinies…

I thought this over and realized that Louise was right, and yet still responded irritably.  “I’m not used to having someone around who’s able to see through me.”

Louise smiled slightly.  “Perhaps it’s a level of intimacy you’re not used to.”  She left the window and took the seat next to mine.  “Charles, I’m really not here to vex you.  If I serve any purpose for you, it is as a mirror of your own conscience.”

Like most of Bell’s fiction, “We have always been the same person” does not present a definite conclusion so much as open the door on several possibilities.  In this case, I prefer to think that Charles, the story’s narrator, will—like the story’s author—eventually find safety, self-acceptance.  Love.

And if I may indulge in one final moment of personal reflection, it is strange for me to consider how my life would have unfolded along a different trajectory had Peter Bell’s not been so tragically curtailed.  Stranger still to consider how the lives, perhaps even the spirits, of people who usually never meet face-to-face—an author and his or her readers—become inexorably intertwined through literature.  Such is the wonder and the mystery of the human quest to create and experience art.  That seems to me a good enough reason to play this small role in sharing and celebrating Peter Bell’s Nocturne—in which his spirit and his artistry remain very much alive.  Page after page.

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The [French] education of Peter Bell

From Peter’s UC-Davis junior year in Bordeaux, one of three graded and critiqued papers; the first of seven scanned pages:

The rest of this and the other academic papers will be published … soon.

Meanwhile, Nocturne, the collection of nine short stories available at Amazon, will be offered once more at a 100% discount – all day tomorrow, Sunday. Consider downloading it – (Please!) only if you will post a review, either to Amazon or to this blog.

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My poor students [journal entries, 1987]

19 November—Thursday night

Another school night done.  I had the distinction of correcting THE ESSAY OF NO RETURN.  In which the reader sinks and never comes out alive.  My poor students.  What they must put up with.

Have been correcting papers at J.D. [Just Desserts].  Just for my edification they played Joplin’s Pearl, one of the great artistic achievements left by a brief bright candle of beauty.  How trite.  But I get sentimental with Joplin’s Pearl, and how it takes me back to days of innocence.  I had just returned from sixth-grade camp.  My sister Linda was in tenth, and that date of my return was her 15th birthday.  When I came home, she was wearing one of her gifts, her first long dress.  It was a white blouse attached to a long, light red-print skirt (long skirts were the fashion—part of the peasant look of the fall of 1970, from whence these memories come).  I remember her birthday gift, how pretty it was on her, and what a festive home it was to return to.

24 November

Soon we will leave for the Valley and American Bacchanal—how much turkey can you eat?  For now reading intellectual history and listening to the occasional waltz.  Siren jour on joue une valse au bal public …

30 November

Never to grow old—seniority becomes a luxury for our generation.  A dignified old age—to profit from years of experience.  Savoring warm nights by the fire and long summer evenings …

Oh to grow old!

[Linda committed suicide four years following the event recalled, their mother died the year following; Peter succumbed seven years after these entries.]

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Save the last dance for me

From Peter’s journal, 12 February 1992 [the year is given here; Peter makes it difficult for the reader—he occasionally writes entries out-of-sequence, in different journals, and without the year being noted!]

The prospect of my imminent departure is somewhat alarming… (I haven’t written in this book for ages.)  Alone at home with Vera, I yet again consider the void which I am attempting to straddle with another voyage, a smile.  John, I dreamed of you last night.  Once again, I said I love you, with no reply but your own enigmatic smile.  Is that you up there in heaven, chiding me in my dreams for being the poor mortal I am?  How I carry you with me, year after year, my spiritual baggage.  There must be a heaven, so you may be there.  And if I try hard, I might get there too.  I’m afraid it will come less naturally for me, however—my only hope is that you’ve overlooked my faults and saved the last dance for me.

Meanwhile, down here among the mortals I’m having one hell of a time.  So I could resist the extravagances of this European jaunt, satisfy a craving for a modest adventure—a tour of the capitals.  But here I feel the test to keep focus, to experience fully for once, take it on honestly and fearlessly.

To live through the soul, for the soul, within the gardens of truth, beauty, passion.

To discover my strength, somewhere inside me, to come home to the source of calm and happiness.

— and more babble —

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