A piece I wrote about Tim Conigrave’s memoir, Holding the Man, on the 20th anniversary of its publication, and in light of its recent film adaption by Neil Armfield. Originally published in Good Reading Magazine October 2015.
I open Google translate. Sadness is caught like a fishbone in my throat.
‘Ci vedremo,’ I type. The language is automatically detected as Italian, and the translation begins: we will see each other…
Oh god. I keep typing.
‘Ci vedremo lassù…’
We’ll see you up there…
The screen wavers in blurred, watery streaks. I finish the phrase.
‘Ci vendremo lassù, angelo.’
The text jumps.
I’ll see you soon, angel.
The sadness becomes unstuck. Tears fall onto my keyboard and make a little salty moat around my spacebar, which refuses to work for an hour or so afterwards. We sit quietly together, both temporarily out-of-order. I’ve just translated the last line of Timothy Conigrave’s memoir, Holding the Man, written in 1995. He’s in Italy writing a letter addressed to his partner of fifteen years, John, who died of AIDs a few months prior. This isn’t a spoiler; it’s well known that John passes away at the end of the memoir, and it’s even implicated in the blurb. Tim himself died of the same disease not long after he had finished the manuscript, before it had been published. But the imminent death that underscores every sentence of this memoir isn’t nearly as important as the raw romance and the relentless candour Tim portrays it with that established this book as an Australian classic.
Tim met John Caleo in the mid seventies at their Melbourne high school. Tim fell into a deep crush with the quiet Italian boy, who was captain of the football team and had really incredible eyelashes for a dude. What happens next is worthy of any Glee finale episode or commercial YA romance novel. The gawky, awkward protagonist and the gorgeous school jock fall deeply in love. At first John is so shy you’re convinced he’s not into it, and you think it’s going to be another painful story of a gay guy falling for the straight heartthrob, but no. One lazy Friday afternoon in class they’re watching a movie on a grainy projector, and Tim feels John subtly begin to rub his back. Boom. It’s a sealed deal. Your heart leaps as much as Tim’s must have. It’s a superb and shining moment before tragedy begins to seep into their story as the couple grow older and Tim, John and their friends come to face the AIDs crisis of the 1980s. Over half a million people died of the disease in the US between 1980 and 2000 alone.
Life for a young gay person is lonely. The struggle of figuring out your sexuality, the anxiety of craving acceptance, and the aching urge to find people who understand you all make that moment when you finally do fall in love for the first time even more elating. Instantly, that loneliness vaporises, every moment is thrilling and terrifying, and you feel your life-plan explosively and exhilaratingly expand to suddenly accommodate two people. To imagine that feeling being drained away by a disease no one knew anything about yet is beyond devastating; to have your reason for living become a death sentence is perhaps the definition of heartbreak.
Tim Conigrave & John Caleo
What makes Holding the Man so addictive is the blaring honesty with which Tim writes about this experience. He writes with an openness achievable only by someone who had nothing to lose, by someone who knew he was dying. I don’t know whether he should be vilified or commended about how freely he writes about his numerous infidelities. ‘He opened his mouth and out rushed the truth’, writes David Marr in his introduction to the newly published film tie-in of the memoir. As endlessly frustrating as Tim’s disloyalties to John are, it makes you realise how truthful and sincere he is when writing about his love for John too.
My heart sat thickly in my mouth for the entire second half of the book after the lovers both test positive for HIV. I knew what was coming. Part of me wanted to sprint through the rest of the book, to reach the inevitable end, to be done with it; the other part urged me to slow down, to savour the happy parts while they lasted before I ran out of pages and a hollow, depressed feeling filled me up instead. The former urge took over, and I devoured the last half of the memoir in less than a day. As I finished the final page, the latter feeling settled in my stomach like a cold, smug stone.
The translated phrase still hovers on the screen in front of me. Sometimes, a movie, a phrase, or a health-scare will remind you of your approaching death like a slap around the ears. Other times it’s more like a punch in the guts. Finishing Holding the Man was like receiving an uppercut to the jaw swiftly followed by a roundhouse kick in the chest that sends you barrelling down a steep flight of concrete stairs.
Books in themselves are reminders of mortality, even if they don’t deal explicitly with death, because a book’s pages are so obviously limited. As soon as you take up a novel in your hands, you’re aware of the front cover and the back; between these two barriers is the only space the characters will be allowed to breathe. While it’s impossible to know when a person’s life will end, as you near the last chapter of a book, you can feel between your fingers the exact number of pages left before the final sentence. Somehow, you become aware that each day you live is indelibly etched with a number in black ink, just like the pages of a novel. Each night when you go to bed, that moment of blankness between falling asleep and waking is like the turning of a page. You’re slowly, steadily and unconsciously rustling towards the end of your story, and who knows how close you are to your concluding full stop?
But enough of dwelling on death. What a reminder of mortality should do, if administered correctly, is spur you into a renewed lust for living. That’s what Tim Conigrave does with Holding the Man. Tim and John’s story bristles with life and love, and this memoir’s vivaciousness is all but enhanced by its proximity to the promise of death. The result is a book that is equally joyous and devastating, electrifying and sexy, a story that urges you to savour each touch from a lover and every beat of your heart you have left in this calamitous, beautifully brief thing we call life.
I delete the translation, shut down my computer, and I walk outside.
The memoir and movie of Holding the Man both make my chest ache in different ways and I highly recommend them. There’s also a recently released documentary called ‘Remembering the Man’ that looks fantastic. Trailer below.