MiniReview: "The Naked Civil Servant" by Quentin Crisp

Quentin Crisp in 1968, at the time of the book's release.

What is it?

An autobiography by Quentin Crisp, first published in 1968.


So, what kind of life did this guy have?

Well, he was 60 when the book was published, and up to that point he’d led a very eccentric and not terribly “successful” life in the way these things are usually measured. Most of his working life had been spent as a model for life drawing classes in art schools. He actually goes out of his way in this book to portray himself as a loser, incapable of doing anything really well, and not really interested in doing anything terribly well, but only interested in himself. He is also, one would have to say, a self-loathing gay. He has nothing positive to say about being homosexual; for him, it’s a life sentence of misery.


Euh … it doesn’t sound as though any of that would make for a compelling or readable autobiography.

The thing is, despite his downplaying of his abilities, he’s actually an extraordinarily fine writer, extremely funny. He’s also unusually honest and open, with many fresh observations on everything from masturbation to “camp” (which he disliked). And he’s one of the most eccentric people one could possibly imagine. This memoir isn’t like anything else you've ever read.


Could you expand on that? What's so unusual about Quentin Crisp?

Crisp decided as a young adult that he wasn’t going to hide the fact that he was homosexual. It’s important to note here that, for Crisp, being homosexual means, effectively, being a trans woman; it is inevitably tied to effeminacy (his word), a desire to take a woman’s place. So for him, one cannot really hide as a homosexual; if you’re open about your sexuality, you will be feminine in your appearance, manner and dress.

In the 1920s and 1930s, this was brave enough. But Crisp didn’t just not hide his true nature, he positively flaunted his effeminacy, growing his hair long and wearing makeup and simply looking very weird in the context of the times. Many of his stories are about the way people in the streets of London would stare at him. He was the ne plus ultra of the oddball, living in a single room that he never cleaned and doing the minimum possible with his time and more or less waiting for death to relieve him of the need to live.


He must have some good stories to tell, though!

He certainly does, and he tells his stories well. The problem, for me, is that Quentin Crisp had no philosophy or spirituality of any kind, so reading his story is a bit like staring into an existential nightmare where nothing in life has any value or meaning. He talks frequently of his desire for his life to end, he isn’t really interested in much of anything, doesn’t read, hates art. Under the surface comedy is one hell of a depressing story. This guy never learned a thing in his life.

If one believed that homosexuality is a choice, and if one had a child and wanted to encourage him not to make the choice of being gay, one would hand him this book to read. No one would want this life. Quentin Crisp has absolutely nothing inspiring to say.

He is funny as hell, though. At one point, he quotes an acquaintance of his who said about an earlier book of his, “I wish you hadn’t made every line funny. It’s so depressing.” That about sums it up. This is humour stretched over a chasm. It’s bracing, but when you get to the other side, you’re glad it’s over and you can move on to other things.


I’m guessing you’re not handing this a star (using the Michelin system)?


Actually, I am! One star.

          As a testament to how awful being gay in the mid-twentieth century could be, it’s an interesting and valuable document. Also, I happen to believe that many (or most) gay men live with a sense of shame, and this book acts as a kind of antidote to that, by inoculating the reader with what he's suffering from, plunging him into a life that was all about casting oneself as a failure, an outcast, some kind of cosmic mistake. I think most gay readers (all of them, I hope) will come away feeling something along the lines of, “However bad things are in my life, at least I’m not that far gone.” So, it’s kind of the flip side of an inspiring read. An anti-example. A cautionary tale.

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