Thursday, July 19, 2012

How to Have a Lifestyle, by Quentin Crisp

Quentin Crisp’s 1975 follow-up to The Naked Civil Servant is not so much a self-help book, as the title implies, but rather a long essay, or literary frolic, on the author’s favourite subject, style. Crisp’s prose glistens and shimmers like a Tiffany’s window display, while his ruthless wit delights and amuses. 

Quentin Crisp began his slow rise to fame (or notoriety) in the late 1960s with his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant (1968). Crisp, rather alarmingly, insisted on presenting his true self to the world. Boldly wearing make-up and dyeing his hair red, Crisp made sure 1940s London knew he was an effeminate homosexual. For his troubles he received some type of verbal abuse everyday, and sometimes he was beaten up. His pacifist stance in the face of so much hostility makes him a bit of a gay Gandhi. His make-up and feminine airs were a form of non-violent resistance. The fact that he kept this up until social mores changed in the 60s is quite extraordinary. 

I confess to being a long time Crisp fan. His books provided quirky yet soothing advice for me when I was in my twenties. Crisp was a true outsider who had the stamina to stay the distance, meeting the world on his own terms and ever ready to take the consequences without complaining. On of my favourite Quentin Crisp sayings goes along these lines: ‘You must never go out to the world; always wait for the world to come to you.’ Translated, I think it means: victory is yours if you have the patience and tenacity to wait the bad times out.  

How to Have a Life Style, as far as I know, is Crisp’s second book, published in 1975. It really has little purpose besides allowing its author some 180 pages to employ his skills as a raconteur. It’s been years since I read a book by Quentin Crisp, and Lifestyle is the only book in the oeuvre that I haven’t read. Does his philosophy and style still work for me, so long after I first read him? I think so. His prose glitters like sharply cut diamonds. His quips and observations still make me laugh. When he tries to communicate intellectual ideas, he’s not so successful, but as a dry wit and philosopher of style and artifice, he hits the spot.  

Page 167 has my favourite quote of the book: ‘Self-mockery is a technique that all of us may as well learn’. As the reader can see, Crisp never committed the sin of taking himself too seriously.  

Quentin Crisp fans should be delighted with How to Have a Lifestyle. The book should be read for its shimmering surface, as the book is proud to have little actual content. Those new to this British wit should try his debut memoir, The Naked Civil Servant.

How to Have a Lifestyle, by Quentin Crisp. Published by Methuen. ISBN: 0-416-00141-6

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