Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

What is the difference between the pornographic and the erotic? It is a question to ponder on, but after reading this novel the answer is obvious: art. Every world that comes out of Greenwell is indeed that: art.

This novel consists of three parts and nine stories, it could be considered as a short story collection but it reads like a novel and I would define it as such. Our narrator is an American gay teacher living and teaching in Sofia, Bulgaria. We get to know his life as a teacher, some of his students, his love and sexual life. The plot is irrelevant and doesn’t begin to describe the novel. If I had to choose one word to describe the novel, it would be – tenderness. Greenwell describes even the most cruel and horrible of events with such softness, loveliness, melancholy and emotion. Almost like poetry. Spectacular writing filled with beauty.

“Sex had never been joyful for me before, or almost never, it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did.”

It is hard to decide what parts are the most striking, the tender pure love, the cleanness he found not expecting it at all, the musings on sex, relationships and love, the approach to life and thoughts on what is a life worth living, the constant questioning of self, his character, his morality, his doing and wrongdoing. Maybe the description of a dull post-communist country and a life without hope of prosperity or improvement in any way. A (refreshingly) very European way of understanding a European country, as an outsider he managed to see it from within with such unusual clarity.

Finding tenderness in cruelty, a tenderness in cruelty between people, a cruelty in harsh cities, in countries without hope. And that is exactly what our narrator managed to find. Maybe tenderness in art could be his solace.

“How much smaller I have become, I said to myself, through an erosion necessary to survival perhaps and perhaps still to be regretted, I’ve worn myself down to a bearable size.”

So filled with emotion, heart breaking in the best possible way, so true, so truthful, so human, so sincere. It has an “old world” feel, a nineteenth century tragic romantic lover feel. The feelings are huge, so important, so significant but there is nothing to be done there. The world goes on. A new kind of Weltschmerz all over again.

An outstanding piece of work, an author to look out for.

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