Time and Place
“The Summer Garden, perhaps the most beautiful garden in Petersburg, had the particular advantage of being almost next to the Embassy. Originally laid out by Leblond, in the manner of Versailles, its most remarkable feature was a series of fountains, with statuary depicting scenes from Aesop's Fables.” ― Alan Sheridan, Time and Place
This is a novel qua biography and an artistic charmer in the gayest sense of the word. The protagonist, young Mark Sheridan, is precocious both intellectually and sexually with an ability to charm most of the men he meets in this book that seemed longer than it in fact was.
The story is narrated in the first person as though told by young Mark himself; with a diary-like form relating his experiences both in the acting world and earlier, as the son of a diplomat based in China and Russia in the late nineteenth century. Much of the book is set in Peking, St Petersburg, Paris, and London with travelogue-style descriptions of the cities, as well as lengthy but slightly less orthodox descriptions of Mark’s many encounters with men. These encounters were usually brief and when he did develop a relationship they seemed somewhat flat and not as well-developed as the settings in which they occurred. His essays on the usefulness of public conveniences as pick-up joints at a time when homosexuality was still expressly forbidden across most of Europe are quite frank!
The sense of place, then, was beautifully suggested. I felt I knew the avenues of Paris, the gardens, canals, and underground toilets of St Petersburg, and the compounds and back streets of Peking. It was if I was there with Mark as he explored, rutted, and trod the boards.
One difficulty I had with the book was with Sheridan’s handling of the time-scales involved. It opens in the early twentieth century with Mark as a fully fledged actor but soon flashes back to China and Russia of the 1890s when he was still a child, and from then on it progresses or regresses from the 1920s to the 1900s to the 1890s in a seemingly endless series of flashbacks. Each section was complete in itself and each one nicely presented the time in which it was set, but I soon felt that the continuity of narrative was confused at best.
Overall, however, I found the book rather enjoyable; written well enough to encourage the journey through the flashbacks. The beautiful locations also helped, but I would hesitate to recommend this book to an impatient reader.