Garth Greenwell completed his long European tour by coming to Bristol to discuss his critically acclaimed novel What Belongs To You. This event was part of the monthly debut novelists’ series organised by Bristol Festival of Ideas and Spike Island.
To be described as ‘the great gay novel for our time’ is no small feat that, as pleasing as it is, can easily cause pressure for a budding writer, but Greenwell spoke modestly and eloquently about the book’s underlying and resurfacing themes.
The very first sentence in What Belongs To You gives an arc for the narrative; it captures the reader in suspense. Greenwell tells of his intentions to begin with a place, and this intentionality is translated in the poignant descriptions and the tone that captures it. The place is Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, where the protagonist, who will remain unnamed until the end, is an American expat teaching English at a prestigious high school.
The first scene opens with the protagonist going to Sofia’s public toilets, notorious as a gay cruising spot, and this is where he will meet Mitko, a sex worker. Rather than exchanging a simple transaction – money for sex, sex for money – their relationship will undergo emotional attachment, swerving between friendship, love, passion and disappointment. And these swerves overfill the ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ of the story, which at times achieves genuine intimacy even if the overall relationship can be described as one of ‘mutual predation’, in Greenwell’s words. There are lyrical moments that show a possibility, an ambiguity between them, holding suspense in the air and stopping time for a short while.
Image credit: Max Freeman
Greenwell explains he wanted to explore the theme of shame, and he spoke at length on the subjective experience of queer shame that his generation went through in the 1990s in America, and which he linked to the situation of Bulgaria today. Another aspect of shame Greenwell tackles in the book is the ‘shame of privilege’, detected in the opposed heritage of the two main protagonists.
What Belongs To You is a deeply internal book, locked in the narrator’s own consciousness – mirroring real life – and Greenwell recounted this as a chief challenge when writing the book, the challenge of showing the other character (Mitko) as real, with thoughts and actions of his own.
A striking characteristic of Greenwell’s debut is that it echoes themes of the queer tradition (sex work, shame) making them anew. The writing reverberates with the style used by the big classics, such as Thomas Mann, Henry James and Marcel Proust, characterised by long sentences and beautifully verbalised internal thoughts. Greenwell spoke of his appreciation of this valuable heritage and his infatuation with the ‘baroque possibilities of syntax’.
What Belongs To You is a novel of consciousness – mimicking thinking – created by a masterful wordsmith that to us, the keen readers, holds a promise of unexpected great things to come.