Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Gallery by John Horne Burns - this was the first and last time he’d be at the center of the world

John Horne Burns’s The Gallery (1947) is I guess one of those lost classics.  Myself, I prefer the found classics, but this one is interesting enough.  Interesting because:

1. It is one of the first serious American fictional responses to World War II.  It was published a year before The Naked and the Dead, for example.  It prefigures Catch-22 and other later war fiction.  It has almost no combat, none until the very end.

2. Burns was gay, and some of the content is gay, sometimes subtly, sometimes directly.  This is unusual for any American novel circa 1947, and more so for a war book.  A lot of the book is about sex.

The structure is unusual, too.  The gallery in the title is the Galleria Umberto in Naples, a shopping center, but in the book, after the American invasion of Italy, full of bars and prostitutes, every pane of glass shattered.  Here is the protagonist of the last story, “Moe,” when he enter the Galleria:

He walked till he was in the very center of the Galleria, under the dome.  Slowly he spun round in his boots as though he were the needle of a compass orienting itself on the grid lines of a map.  Thus he was at the very center of that afternoon crowd in the Galleria.  He was the nub of hundreds of persons, American, British, French, Polish, Moroccan, and Neapolitan.  He smiled and said to himself that this was the first and last time he’d be at the center of the world.  (315)

There is also a gallery of characters presented in a series of vignette-like short stories.  Portraits, Burns calls them, so it’s a portrait gallery.  Between the Portraits are the Promenades, where a Burns-like (although in some ways -unlike) narrator makes his way, along with the U.S. army, from Casablanca to Naples.

This is quite like Dos Passos, and Burns’s prose is generally in Dos Passos or Hemingway territory:

The sailors were ubriachi and the lieutenants were icily sober.  (147)

The Gallery is full of untranslated Italian and French, which I think of as a Hemingway touch.  I don’t know who this sounds like:

He simply drawled at everyone, and all the things he said lay around in gluey pools like melted lavender sherbet.  (146)

Lavender because this, “Momma,” is the story of one typical night at a Galleria bar that has turned into a pickup spot for gay servicemen.

First came an Aussie in a fedora hat, to which his invention had added flowers and feathers.  Tonight he was more than usually drunk.  He slunk in with the slow detachment of a mannequin modeling clothes.  He waved a lace handkerchief at all:

– Oh my pets, my pets!  Your mother’s awfully late tonight, but she’ll try and make it up to you! (143)

That’s Ella the Aussie; a couple of British sergeants who act as a chorus call themselves, while in the bar, Esther and Magda.

At least the gay soldiers are having some fun.  The first story, “The Trenchfoot of Michael Patrick,” is about a soldier getting himself drunk enough so he has the courage to pick up a prostitute.  Somehow this involves drinking a bottle of cognac during a performance of La Bohème.  I guess that might be fun, too.  Not “Queen Penicillin,” though, the most Hemingwayish story, about life as a syphilis patient in the American army VD hospital, with one penicillin shot “’[e]very three hours, rain or shine, for a hundred and eighty hours’” (277).  Absolutely miserable, and not exactly something I ever wanted to read about, but fascinating in its own way.  The officer is lucky, in a sense, because penicillin has just been introduced as a treatment.  It at least works.

I have to mention “Father Donovan and Chaplain Bascom,” in which an army minister and army priest wander the Galleria arguing theology and everything else until they are simultaneously hit by a truck and killed.  I might well have laughed out loud.  Occasionally, The Gallery is actively bad.

All of this should suggest that the ethos of The Gallery is itself interesting, but I’ll save that for tomorrow.

I will mention here that I bought The Gallery for five dollars from the book room at a Mennonite quilt auction.  Don’t skip the Mennonite quilt auctions.


  1. He simply drawled at everyone, and all the things he said lay around in gluey pools like melted lavender sherbet.

    This reminds me of Henry Miller, as does the passage from page 143. A wild time in American literature, those war years.

  2. Miller - now that raises the question, why is The Gallery not famous in France? It is their kind of thing.

    I see it was translated in 1949, but no go. What a bad title, like it's a noir - On meurt toujours seul / You Always Die Alone.

  3. I was going to say it's maybe too preachy, but then I remembered that the French don't seem to mind moralistic and lecturing fiction. Look at Huellebecq's novels, for gosh sakes. Like Zola on acid.

  4. At some point Burns reminded me of Zola, in the sense that at some point in Germinal I realized that Zola as upset - more upset - about the teenage sexual promiscuity among the mining families than their poverty and working conditions. So bourgeois!

    But it is true that the French taste for the didactic goes in cycles (in the 1930s, the novel was supposed to preach revolution, for example), and Burns may have been on the wrong side of the curve as prestige French literature moved towards the stripped-down New Novel.