Quentin Crisp •
The Naked Civil Servant •
“As soon as I stepped out of my mother’s womb onto dry land I realized I had made a mistake,” deadpans Quentin Crisp, setting the tone for his devastatingly witty memoir.
But there’s not much chance of mistaking Crisp for anyone else. Here he is mincing his way across London in the 1930s: “Blind with mascara and dumb with lipstick, I paraded the dim streets of Pimlico with my overcoat wrapped around me as though it were a tailless ermine cape. I had to walk like a mummy leaving its tomb. At every step one foot had to land directly in front of the other. My knees ground together.” Crisp is regularly vilified, spat upon, and assaulted—none of which deters him. “Incorrigibly hopeful,” he answers the telephone with “Yes, Lord.”
Crisp keeps up such a barrage of aphorisms that you may begin to believe he’s channeling Oscar Wilde. On housekeeping: “After four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.” On popular reading: “Time Magazine . . . cannot be contradicted except by its own subsequent issues.”
The bulk of his ammunition is reserved for sexual encounters. “All liaisons between homosexuals,” he tells us, “are conducted as though they were between a chorus girl and a bishop. In some cases both parties think they are bishops.” Elsewhere he advises succinctly, “Never get into a narrow double bed with a wide single man.”
The book takes its title from his only long-term employment: posing nude for art classes, a job that—with standard bureaucratic logic—falls into the category of civil service. Although Crisp paints himself as the eternal misfit (“My great gift was for unpopularity”), you have to suspect he’s laughing all the way to the publisher’s.