Toronto
4 min

The will for true grace

An unsentimental view of love

ROMANTIC RIPOSTE. At the heart of Richard Teleky's Pack Up Credit: Xtra files

The gaydar goes OFF about two sentences into Richard Teleky’s charming second novel, Pack Up The Moon. The sexuality of his protagonist, a 40-something academic on the cusp of 50, isn’t formally disclosed until page 27. But the milieu in which he operates is apparent from page one.



In Toronto for the first time in years, Karl, the novel’s acerbic hero, is on his way to a dinner party he’d rather not attend. En route, he stops to bitch about the timing of the little soirĂ©e, “No one should give dinner parties on Sunday night,” and to pick up some Siberian irises at a Korean greengrocer on Avenue Rd. “Very David Hockney,” he says.



But the novel quickly swerves into unexpected territory. At the dinner party, Karl learns that the great platonic love of his life, a friend named Charlotte who he hasn’t seen in years, was murdered 16 years before. Charlotte and Karl met while they were both students at St Mike’s College at the University Of Toronto in the late 1960s and the friendship foundered not so many years later when she chose a conventional Catholic life. The shock of the news sends him spiralling back in time into a long and deeply felt meditation on the tensions and demands of friendship.



This isn’t the usual stuff of gay fiction, but then Teleky is not much enamoured of the genre. Most of it, he says, is lifestyle fiction, oriented toward the downtown club scene, and it provides a very narrow view of gay life that, “has nothing to do with the way a large number of people live.”



In his second novel (his first was the award-winning The Paris Years Of Rosie Kamin), Teleky creates a very different world. The old Yonge St landmark, the Quest, gets a mention, but otherwise Karl stays clear of the bars. Most of the time, he’s too busy discussing life, literature and love with Charlotte. The friendship is as intense as any romance and Teleky treats it with a dignity and depth that’s a subtle riposte to traditional social values.



A critic of youth culture and consumerism, Teleky doesn’t have much patience with our idealization of romantic love. He feels there’s so much pressure to hook up. Contemporary life is all shopping and romance. And yet there are so many other things you can do with your life.



“I’m not saying that there isn’t such a thing as love,” says Teleky, who teaches a course called Love And The Novel at York University. “But I think we should examine what we mean by that, see the images that we pick up from our culture that sentimentalize it, that glorify it as the only way to find identity, that cheapen what it is and make it an unrealistic kind of goal.” People pursue idealized visions of love instead of accepting that they might not be ready for love or that there’s nobody for them right now.



“A lot of people aren’t very good at loving. It’s a little bit of a talentÂ…. I think it’s important to be able to be alone, to be a good friend, to be present wherever you are. What complicates it, of course, is sex.” Everyone has urges but some people try to disguise their desires as love when what they really need is a bit of casual sex.



Not that he’s a big fan of gay promiscuity. A lot of gay men, says Teleky, echoing one of his characters, just want to have sex so they’ll have something to talk about. It’s not very good sex because they don’t really want to be with the other person. “It’s easier to have sex than read a book or learn a language or whatever the hell people want to do.”



Now 57, Teleky admits that his perspective is easier to accept later in life. But he thinks it’s important to remember that you won’t always be young. “We spend a lot of our time over 35. To prepare to use those years well, and not get lost in bitterness or drink, that’s important.”



Teleky’s own preparations for his midlife passion were somewhat circuitous. A US draft dodger, he arrived in Toronto in 1968, did a graduate degree in English literature and was briefly involved with the early gay lib group, CHAT. He did a bit of teaching and then, when the bottom fell out of the academic market, he moved into publishing. He was managing editor of Oxford University Press for 15 years. It wasn’t until his 30s that he started writing seriously and not until his 40s that he put literature first and abandoned publishing.



Now a professor at York, where he teaches literature and creative writing, Teleky takes a highly disciplined approach to writing. He sees himself as a conduit, or tool, for his books and nothing is allowed to get in the way of their arrival. For him, that means saying no to things like dinner parties and, an old love, classical piano. “If you’re spending enough time doing it [writing] and clearing enough out of your life so that you can do it, inevitably you’re going to be a more open sort of tool.”



The approach has paid off. Since leaving Oxford University Press in 1991, Teleky has published two novels, a book of essays and a book of short stories (Goodnight Sweetheart And Other Stories), one of which spawned the Bravo TV monologue, Some Of The Old Good Feelings, starring John Neville. He has another novel headed for completion (set in the very gay milieu of West Hollywood) and the idea for a fourth in his head.



“It shouldn’t have happened,” says Teleky. “If somebody told me they were doing what I did, I would say, you’re taking too many risks. There’s a lot involved in a writing career beyond talent (whatever that is) and will. There is a lot of luck. I was very fortunate that things came together as they did. Usually people over 35 or 40 don’t get second chances in life.”



* Richard Teleky reads from Pack Up The Moon at 7:30 pm on Thu, Nov 6 at York University’s Stedman Lecture Hall D (4700 Keele St).



PACK UP THE MOON.

Richard Teleky.

Thomas Allen.

304 pages. $22.95.