SOURCE: "Gay, Straight and Grim," in Times Literary Supplement, September 5, 1980, p. 964.
[In the following review, Bailey discusses White's States of Desire, and how the book deals with the issue of bigotry against homosexuals.]
I was living in America when Anita Bryant, a mediocre warbler of what are known in the music business as "inspirational" songs, began her campaign against male homosexuals in Dade County, Florida. In the spring of 1977, Bryant and her followers, united under the banner "Save Our Children", convinced the citizens of that clean, well-lighted place that they had several devils in their midst—in their schools, to be precise. As a result of Bryant's efforts, an ordinance which granted homosexual men and women certain basic freedoms was chucked out in the polling booths by an overwhelming majority. Later that year, similar ordinances were abrogated in Eugene, Oregon, Wichita, Kansas, and St Paul, Minnesota.
No less a person than the Almighty, it was revealed (on television, on radio, and in innumerable magazines and newspapers), had called upon this chanteuse of the chapel circuit to rescue the youth of America from the evil attentions of those hordes of limp-wristed pedagogues. God had spoken it seemed, and she was but obeying His instructions. I wondered at the time, and am wondering still, at the amazing limitations of the Holy Father's omniscience as revealed to Miss Bryant. Hasn't He heard about lesbians? Does He really believe (wrong word—know) that homosexual school teachers are interested only in seducing their charges? Is He unaware that heterosexual women indulge in fellatio? Has the diligent Linda Lovelace toiled in vain?
Anita Bryant's dangerous opinions have been widely disseminated throughout the United States. Her much-publicized antics have had an effect, however, that she probably never took into consideration when she laid her plans in the early days of 1977. She could not have known then of the success awaiting her nor that it would cause the homosexuals of America to unite in a way that they had not been united in before. She rapidly became the most conspicuous of the many public enemies of those she chooses to call perverted, and her position remains unchallenged in 1980; the dumbest hick in Hicksville is acquainted with her every utterance, her every move.
Edmund White's notably sane and sensible book is a response to the preachings of Bryant and her kind. States of Desire recounts how White travelled across America in search of people who would talk to him openly and honestly about the quality of their lives. He found them in Texas, in Oregon, in Kansas, in Georgia. He even found them in Salt Lake City. It was there, in the shade of the Mormon Tabernacle, that he chanced upon a man lacking those attributes of sanity and common sense so refreshingly apparent in the majority of the men he interviewed. "Harris" as White calls him, is visited by the Angel Michael, who tells him things that are distinctly at odds with what God tells His friend Anita.
Michael has let it be known to "Harris" that God first created woman in man—in Adam, prior to the departure of his rib. This creature is The Homosexual.
Harris's great secret is that gays make up the lost tribe, the holy 144,000 who are superior to straights: the elect. God, who needed to hide his true people, put them under the yoke and has made them suffer over the centuries. But soon Armageddon will come and the gays will conquer the straights (among whom the Mormons are especially evil). After the...
(This entire section contains 2330 words.)
battle has been won, gays will be quickened and will live here on earth in bliss—all the gays who have ever existed. A few of the gays will go to heaven. The straights will all be damned.
You only have to read the Bible properly, "Harris" asserts, to discover the truth of Michael's message:
Christ and his disciples were all gay … Jacob was gay, Esau straight…. When the Lord tells Rebekah that "Two nations are in your womb" (Genesis 25:23), He is referring to the straight and the gay…. When Christ says in Matthew 19:5, "The two shall become one flesh," he is referring not to straight marriage but to the androgynous homosexual body….
This sad, deluded human being lives chastely, out of fear that a heterosexual, "a son of Satan", masquerading as a homosexual, might tempt him into bed: he would then be "infected by evil" and would lose the chance to lead his brothers to victory in the coming cataclysm.
Edmund White writes about "Harris" with sympathy and tact. He is a shrewd questioner and an expert listener, a respecter of individuality. Unlike some of the men he questioned and listened to, he does not find it necessary to sit in judgment on his fellows. While in San Francisco, he visited David Goodstein, who publishes The Advocate, a magazine which contains a large number of advertisements from hustlers, as well as articles on Isherwood, Genet, and other notable writers and artists. Goodstein sounded off to White on the subject of Castro Street, in the heart of San Francisco's gay ghetto:
The Castro Street group is a really rough culture. Their relationships are brief, they don't work but live off welfare, they hang out like teenagers, they drink too much, they take too many drugs, they fuck day and night, they are scattered—and of course radical politically. They act like kids in a candy store…. I oppose the gay obsession with sex. Most gay men have their lives led for them by their cocks. In return for ten minutes of pleasure they design the rest of the day.
It's alarming stuff, as White points out, coming from the owner of a paper that encourages male prostitutes to list their attractions in its pages. White goes on to say that he is always suspicious of those who denounce others for having too much sex. "At what point", he asks, "does a 'healthy' amount become 'too much'?"
Goodstein's notion that homosexual men are obsessed with sex is echoed, more elegantly, by Alfred Kazin in his autobiography New York Jew, when he expresses disgust for the gay life of his beloved city. (What was he thinking of when he was, as he confesses, following girls with pretty asses through the streets of Manhattan—Kafka?) Kazin's intolerance upsets me because he has been on the receiving end of intolerance himself, and knows where ignorance and bigotry lead. He must understand, as benighted Southern Baptists like Anita Bryant do not, that most homosexuals do not choose their desires. He must appreciate, as a man of imagination, the misery experienced by people who consider their feelings to be natural, but who are castigated by society when they try to satisfy those feelings.
On the evidence of States of Desire, Edmund White is the ideal person to challenge Alfred Kazin, James Dickey, Norman Mailer, and the other fag-haters of the American intelligentsia. What he demonstrates in his book is that there are many homosexuals who find it possible in spite of all the obvious difficulties, to function ordinarily and positively in parts of America not noted for their acceptance of gayness in any of its manifestations. He is splendidly and necessarily critical of those of his own kind who, in the service of a dubious masculinity, accuse the effeminate of betraying the gay cause. Their bogus butchness he regards with dismay—that aggressive hairiness, that determined maleness, has little to do with being a man. Men can afford to be feminine, to be vulnerable. They do not have to be seen, as it were, displaying their credentials. They do not need to flex imaginary muscles.
Edmund White has reason to feel dismayed by aggressive machismo. He writes of his Texan father:
What he wanted in a son was someone brave, quiet, hardworking, unemotional, modest. I can remember once travelling to Mexico with him after I'd spent a year with my mother; I embarrassed him by being a know-it-all and by admiring the cathedrals with too much enthusiasm. He drew me aside and said, "A man doesn't say I love that building, he says I like it. Don't talk with your hands…." He also told me that I should never wear a wristwatch, smoke a cigarette, or put on cologne—those were all sissy things. Men have pocket watches, smoke cigars, and wear witch hazel.
Edmund White is pleased to admit that he has been a sissy. His honesty about this aspect of his character, as indeed about others, is to be commended. He refrains from doing a whitewash job in order to satisfy sympathetic liberals. He even writes in defence of the men who frequent leather bars, who work out their sado-masochistic fantasies with obliging partners. These men, he argues, do not ignore the violent nature of much sexual activity. By releasing the violence in private, they are free to present to the outside world a peace of mind, a serenity, denied to the inhibited and repressed. White's argument makes sense to me. The lineaments of gratified desire are not restricted to the missionary position. How humane Mrs Patrick Campbell was when she observed that homosexuals were perfectly all right so long as they did not perform in the street and frighten the horses. The fulfilled fantasists are frightening no one but themselves. It is not only the horses who are safe with them.
If I have a serious criticism to make of States of Desire, it is that in its entirely admirable determination to stress that homosexuals are succeeding in living well in the United States, it somehow contrives to ignore the thousands who are not. I am thinking of the poor blacks and hispanics in the big cities, the comparatively fewer poor whites. I recall a visit I paid two years ago to a gay bar in the shabbiest district of Oakland. The drinkers there, who included a pair of frantic hustlers, had desperation in common. The laughter was hysterical, and unnerving. Suddenly, a large, powerfully built black entered, and immediately launched into an aria of hatred against the police. "Those bastards have stole my husband", he shrieked. "They've run him in because they want to ball with him." The aria proceeded, becoming more explicitly obscene as he related each indignity his lover had endured. The words "my husband" were repeated constantly. Baldly accounted for, the scene sounds ridiculous, and indeed it did veer on the farcical—yet the man's lament was genuine; it had about it the urgency, the panic, the confusion of unbearable pain. James Baldwin has described such unhappiness, since from childhood he has been a frequent witness to it.
And I am thinking of those men and women who take their lives. In the rich and conservative state of North Dakota, where I lived for three years, there are frequent suicides—mostly married men in their late twenties and early thirties. The strain of having to conform, of having to play the role of devoted husband and doting father, causes them to accept death as the only possible solution to their problems. I met the parents of a young man who had killed himself. Their grief was unendurable because, had he told them, they would have supported him. But he could not tell them.
While living in North Dakota I took part in a forum on homosexuality. The other speakers included a psychiatrist from New York, and a lesbian counsellor and social worker from San Francisco. All who were involved felt that they were opening doors, helping to banish ignorance and prejudice, and—it was to be hoped—rescuing some distressed young people from possible self-destruction. My only regret is that I announced, with I suppose a certain smugness, that Britain was at last displaying tolerance and understanding towards homosexuals, that the bad old days were gone for good.
I was wrong—or, at least, not totally justified in my confident assertion. Since the unmasking of Anthony Blunt, a new wave of hysteria has broken out: the hoary cliché about homosexuals being untrustworthy has been expressed in a hundred different ways. The editor of The Times has entered the lists with a lengthy homily on the decline of the family. The News of the World has recently demanded of its reporters that they act as agents provocateurs at the YMCA hostel in Bloomsbury—no doubt they were young and handsome, not the usual flabby Fleet Street soaks. In the Sunday Express Sir John Junor has described a distinguished living writer as a "nancy", a word much favoured by the bigoted. And a serious magazine, the Spectator, has seen fit to publish an article, by Richard Ingrams, of unequalled odiousness, in which the satirist compares the long-lasting relationship between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears to the anti-semitism of Richard Wagner. Britten's music is now diminished for Mr. Ingrams as a result of his discovery that Britten was gay.
"Gay", in fact, is a word that Britten would never have used about himself. It is not one that I care to use either—for reasons other than pedantry. Life is, by and large, a fairly grim business, for everybody, and terms like "gay" and "straight" tend to trivialize what should be grave concerns. Still, I appreciate why the word is used, and why it has—in its new form—taken its place in the language. Edmund White uses it confidently and proudly, with no apologies for its limitations. It contains a great deal of information about life in America, about those hundreds of good and decent human beings who are surviving in the face of superstition and intolerance. One final, niggling observation: White refers to the bigoted as "homophobes", who practice "homophobia", but doesn't "homophobia" mean "fear of the same"? It is a fear, a morbid and unhealthy fear, of difference, of a deviation from an obligatory norm, that such people suffer from. They are the truly diminished, and the diminishers.
Edmund White 1940–
American novelist, dramatist, short story writer, essayist, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of White's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 27.
With his first novel, Forgetting Elena (1973), Edmund White established a reputation as a new novelist of great promise. His elegant, self-conscious prose has been compared with that of Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde, as have his decidedly homosexual viewpoint and sensibility. Like the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, White's fiction frequently focuses on what he sees as the sad and shallow lives of the idle rich.
White was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. His parents divorced when he was seven years old. His father remained in Cincinnati, and his mother began moving from city to city. White's mother was left in virtual poverty while his father remained relatively affluent. White had difficulty living between the two worlds of his parents, never really feeling a part of either of them. White attended Cranbrook, a boarding school outside of Detroit, Michigan, and then studied Chinese at the University of Michigan. Upon graduation, White moved to New York and worked for Time-Life books from 1962 through 1970. After leaving Time-Life he moved to Rome for a year, and in 1971 returned to New York and began working as a freelance writer and editor. He briefly worked for the Saturday Review and Horizon before he obtained a job teaching at Yale University. He later taught at Johns Hopkins and then Columbia University. In 1981 he became the executive director of the New York Institute for the Humanities. In 1983, White moved to Paris, using his Guggenheim Fellowship for support. He was a freelance writer for Vogue and other Condé-Nast publications while remaining in Paris. White returned to America and became a professor of English at Brown University in 1990. He returned to Paris in 1991, however, when his partner became sick with AIDS. His partner died of the disease in 1994. White himself is HIV positive and very conscious of his own mortality. He continues to live and work in Paris.
White's first two novels, Forgetting Elena and Nocturnes forthe King of Naples (1978) are entrenched in fantasy and poetic in tone. Forgetting Elena draws the picture of life on Fire Island, but it includes a fantastical prince and court. White's Nocturnes for the King of Naples lacks a conventional plot and character development. The novel contains several autobiographical elements, but many details of the protagonist's life differ from White's own, including having a rich playboy father. White's next novel, A Boy's Own Story (1982) is much more autobiographical than Nocturnes for the King of Naples and has a traditional form. The novel traces a young man's discovery of and acceptance of his homosexuality. With Caracole (1985) White returns to a more fantastic style as he portrays life in a high-powered city where greed and vanity rule. The story follows Gabriel as he is imprisoned by his father and then rescued by his uncle, Mateo. Mateo is a narcissist, but devotes himself to Gabriel's rehabilitation. The novel analyzes the relationship between sex and power, and focuses on heterosexual relationships. White tackles the same topic of sex and power in his The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988) but again turns to a more autobiographical style and centers on homosexual relationships. White's collection of short stories, Skinned Alive (1995) takes on a darker theme than his earlier work. The stories center on living with and dying from AIDS. In addition to his fiction, White has written several nonfiction works, including The Joy of Gay Sex (1977), and his journalistic States of Desire (1980), a reportorial account of his journey across the United States in which he spoke to gay men openly and plainly about their experiences in American society. White's The Burning Library (1994) contains a collection of his essays on political and literary topics spanning 25 years.
Many reviewers have commented on White's vacillation between realism and artifice. Phyllis Rose stated, "All literature looks in two directions, toward the world and back toward itself. It portrays the world (or gives the illusion of doing so) and creates a world of its own. More than most American writers, White is divided between these two impulses, old-fashioned realism and modernist artifice." Many critics complained that White's language is too stylized, especially in Caracole. Adam Mars-Jones said of White's style in Caracole that, "At his feeblest, White goes in for elegant variation saying 'adipose cummerbund' for spare tyre or having a character eat raven instead of crow. The sheer density of invention attests a bottomless terror of saying the obvious." Many reviewers lauded White for appealing to a universal audience, and for emphasizing the similarities that exist between gay and straight men. Clark Blaise asserted that "Mr. White's success lies in establishing two contradictory truths: gay men are very much like straight men; and gay men and straight men are fundamentally different. He does so by the meticulous reconstruction of the very texture of his sexuality…." Critics have also praised White for his honest portrayal of desire and sexual relationships. Carter Wilson asserted, "Edmund White is to be envied not only for his productivity … but because he is a gifted writer who has staked himself a distinguished claim in the rocky territory called desire."
SOURCE: "Remembering Desire," in The Nation, Vol. 235, No. 16, November 13, 1982, p. 503-5.
[In the following review, Wilson asserts that "In White's growing-up novel, [A Boy's Own Story,] the tale of the child's peregrinations in the treacherous land of desire is, finally, secondary to the 'story' of the adult's struggle to bring all to mind, to integrate his various selves by coming to love them."]
Edmund White is to be envied not only for his productivity (A Boy's Own Story is his fifth book in nine years) but because he is a gifted writer who has staked himself a distinguished claim in the rocky territory called desire.
The nameless hero of A Boy's Own Story grows up in the prosperous American 1950s with every advantage save one. Only son of a Texas millionaire, The Boy is coddled by black nannies, trained at the best private schools, whisked away each June to the toniest summer camps. "All of our daddy's dollars," he says, "were casters on which the furniture of our lives glided noiselessly."
What's wrong is something money can't do much to fix. It emerges as an intuition well before The Boy reaches the age of 7. In the midst of being beaten by his father with a belt, he recognizes in the man another child, no older than himself, but different, "less appeasable—a heartless boy." Soon the child understands more: that his father doesn't love him, that his older sister is more like the son the sire wanted, that he himself is a sissy, girlish, homosexual.
But A Boy's Own Story is not about a child's coming out to himself. Looking back, the adult narrator can discover in The Boy no particular heterosexual desire, though he does remember a real longing to shuck the burden of being different, to turn out straight, which is of course an entirely separate matter.
In the sweet, contemplative flow of the book, readers may not at first realize what radical assertions about sexuality White is making. Though the psychoanalytic experts now posit that the "arrest of sexual development" (Freud's phrase) that produces homosexuality takes place before the age of 3, few have given flesh to the idea's implications for the individual.
Even those born with silver spoons in their mouths may find childhood a trying time. The wise child learns to endure injustice, practices for grown-up life by oppressing those who are smaller and weaker and, above all, waits for childhood's end. But thirty years ago, a kid like The Boy (or me), who recognized the unacceptability of something which felt so much like his nature, had little reason to hope time alone would raise him out of his predicament. Even today, children who would devil themselves less if they knew of the adult gay subculture are kept ignorant of it and of the significant breakthroughs in society's attitudes toward homosexuality.
The Boy sets about manfully to become a man. But his world holds no men enough like him to serve as models. Even his desire for love sets him apart from a "real man" like his father, who accepts whatever love is given him but believes that only women actively go in search of it. The Boy seeks help: a psychiatrist pops diet pills and discusses the tangles of his own sexual life; a prep school faculty couple take him to bed for a three-way; a clergyman reminds him that homosexuality is a sin—and turns out to have been sleeping with the faculty husband all along.
What keeps A Boy's Own Story from being overwhelmingly sad is the presence of the man The Boy becomes. Content with himself sexually, the narrator is able to cherish and comfort The Boy, whose suffering and isolation gave him a "small, hard gland of bitter objectivity" the writer doesn't at all mind possessing. Among other things, it allows him an epicurean's slow exactness in summoning back the burning details of the few happy passionate encounters he did have as a youth.
In growing-up stories, the most difficult thing to prove is that the writer turned out O.K., because that sense must come from the writing itself. By the age of 14, The Boy has decided the style for rendering his life should be a "translation out of the crude patois of actual slow suffering … into the tidy couplets of brisk, beautiful sentiment." But then another possibility strikes him: "What if I could write about my life exactly as it was … show it in all its density and tedium and its concealed passion, never divined or expressed?"
The adult narrator of A Boy's Own Story remains conflicted. Often he yanks us from the middle of a painstakingly recalled moment to give the adult-embroidered version of the child's thought, as when he wonders if the bad smell his sister claimed emanated from him was really just "the terrible decaying Camembert of my heart?" This would be acceptable if the narrator were being ironic at The Boy's expense, but aside from the mildly self-mocking title, with its allusion to old-fashioned kiddie pulp, the grown-up never makes fun of the child. A 7-year-old seeing that his father's eyes "no longer had that veiled, compounded look of adults who stare at blank walls or get tangled up in the tulle of thought" calls attention to the writer rather than The Boy.
In his reportorial States of Desire, White said the ideal reader for his fiction was a "cultivated heterosexual woman in her sixties who knows English perfectly but is not an American"—which explained the problems I had with his last novel, the tumid, Baudelairean Nocturnes for the King of Naples. A Boy's Own Story is much less arty, partly because the European woman has been replaced as muse by The Boy's American father.
"I fear we shared nothing," the narrator says, "but I like to think that music spoke to us in similar ways and acted as the source and transcript of a shared rapture." There is nothing wrong with wanting to make music in fiction—it was one of Joyce's aims—or with trying to reunite rapturously with the father through reorchestrating the past in the consciousness of the present. These are, however, motives that yield more meditation than urgent storytelling. In White's growing-up novel, the tale of the child's peregrinations in the treacherous land of desire is, finally, secondary to the "story" of the adult's struggle to bring all to mind, to integrate his various selves by coming to love them.
Blue Boy in Black (play) 1963When Zeppelins Flew [with Peter Wood] (nonfiction) 1969The First Men [Dale Browne] (nonfiction) 1973Forgetting Elena (novel) 1973The Joy of Gay Sex: An Intimate Guide for Gay Men to the Pleasures of Gay Lifestyle [with Charles Silverstein] (nonfiction) 1977Nocturnes for the King of Naples (novel) 1978States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (nonfiction) 1980A Boy's Own Story (novel) 1982Caracole (novel) 1985The Darker Proof: Stories from a Crisis [with Adam Mars-Jones] (short stories) 1987The Beautiful Room is Empty (novel) 1988Genet: A Biography (nonfiction) 1993The Burning Library: Writings on Art, Politics, Sexuality (essays) 1994Skinned Alive (novel) 1995
SOURCE: "Moralists and Esthetes," in The Nation, Vol. 241, No. 16, November 16, 1985, pp. 526-28.
[In the following review, Rose discusses the verbal stylization and psychological realism of White's Caracole.]
Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier has been called the finest French novel written in English, but Caracole would be my nomination. Its epigraph from The Charterhouse of Parma suggests its literary ancestry. Like Fabrice del Dongo of Charterhouse, like Julien Sorel of The Red and the Black, Gabriel of Caracole is an innocent young man from the provinces who makes the move to the city that so fascinated nineteenth-century French novelists. No wonder. This narrative structure allows the author—along with his hero—to discover piece by relished piece the complexities and sophistications of a world by no means innocent. It worked for Stendhal and for Balzac, and it works for Edmund White. His hero learns about power and love and the ways in which they're connected. So do we. If you want to know about the dynamics of a small, closed social system and if Stendhal's Parma seems too remote, try White's portrait of an imaginary city, part Venice under the Austrians, part Paris and part New York of the intellectual coteries.
All literature looks in two directions, toward the world and back toward itself. It portrays the world (or gives the illusion of doing so) and creates a world of its own. More than most American writers, White is divided between these two impulses, old-fashioned realism and modernist artifice. His first novel, Forgetting Elena, was dazzlingly self-contained—a brilliant, original piece of fiction which created a world that never was. Well, perhaps there was a touch of Fire Island. But Fire Island with a prince, a court, a grand hotel where everyone gathers at night? It was White's distinctive accomplishment to produce the disquieting sense that you knew this world, these people, these feelings, despite their being placed in the middle of an uncompromisingly artificial narrative.
Nocturnes for the King of Naples, his second novel, detached itself even further from conventional plot and character development. As its title suggests, it is a series of lyric pieces, sometimes of breathtaking beauty. After that, White made the surprising move of writing a novel in a completely traditional form. A Boy's Own Story, a novel of growing up, is his most accessible book. The disquieting moments there (unlike the shocks of realism in the earlier novels) come with sentences of such precision and such careful elegance that you remember rudely that you have to do with art and not life.
Caracole seems a return to the mode of the earlier novels. Its lapidary style calls attention to the artifice and hardly encourages immersion in the fictional world White creates. (This style will always reach for "larder" when "cupboard" would do just as well). Nevertheless, psychological realism is as important in the book as verbal stylization. At times Caracole reads like one of those anatomies of love the French like to write—Stendhal's On Love or Roland Barthes's Fragments of a Lover's Discourse:
Edwige felt a physical aversion to Mateo that she couldn't hide and that, once she realized he was in love, she saw no further need to conceal. He had embraced several comforting fallacies. He believed that others love us for our merits and he struggled to prove his to Edwige, whereas the truth is that merit chills ardor. He believed that anyone he loved so well must sooner or later return his devotion, whereas the chief condition for devotion is that it not be reciprocal. He believed that if he insinuated himself into her friendship he'd eventually possess her love, whereas … affection tranquilizes passion.
White understands people well and tells us what he knows in balanced, epigrammatic sentences. He tells us that tastemakers in a great city idolize "either the tentative beginnings of youth or the absolute mastery of maturity," but have little patience for anything in between. He knows how "fame permits someone to be terse, since his remarks are sure to be heard, and beauty allows someone to be silent, since there is no danger of a beauty being ignored," and he understands that "the very sort of canned wisdom we hoot at in a public forum we greet as profound when someone lovely whispers it to us." In observations like this and in the dramatic encounters between the six main characters, Caracole offers a devastating panorama of life in a high-powered city where everyone is on the make in one way or another and where the mixture of greed and vanity is evident in most of the practices of love.
The opening sections are hard going. In a highly wrought novel, they are overwrought. Gabriel at Madder Pink, his family home, is bored, discovers sex, is imprisoned by his father, who bears him a mysterious grudge, is rescued by his uncle from the city and taken away. It is all very dreamy and archetypal. But with the move to the city, the novel seems to firm up. In the "capital," ruled by "conquerors," inhabited by sophisticated but powerless "patriots," Caracole puts down roots in reality.
White has created two splendid characters. One is Gabriel's uncle, Mateo, who rescues the boy from his father and arranges his rehabilitation. The other is Mathilda, the intellectual queen of the capital. (The beauty queen is Edwige, an actress, with whom Mateo is abjectly in love.) Portraits of female intellectuals are sufficiently rare that Mathilda ought to enter literature's gallery of great women characters.
Commanding in intellect, Mathilda fears that her "self," which she would be embarrassed to associate with her body but would not associate with her mind, is unlovable. When she and Gabriel are alone in her country home on the point of becoming lovers, she says, "I must bathe," and he understands that she means, "I am unworthy," at the same time that, in another way, she considers him unworthy of her. Few writers have depicted this mixture of self-loathing and arrogance as well as White, and fewer have had the imagination to attribute such complexity to a woman. A moralist among esthetes, an esthete among moralists, Mathilda is never less than complicated. She is embarrassed by her wealth but likes beautiful objects, so she excuses them as ethnographic finds. All life is research to Mathilda. Her dandified son acts out the impulses she has forbidden herself. Too radical in thought to allow herself to respect the social conventions she in fact respects, she encourages Daniel to respect them for her. He functions partly as a companion, partly as a research assistant, going into low-life parts of town at night and bringing back prize pieces of reality to spread before her.
Mathilda loves the opera and always goes early, a habit she explains by invoking a "bourgeois anxiety" about being on time:
To confess to "bourgeois anxiety" hinted at an appealing modesty—and concealed her real motive, which was to see and be seen. Although she presented herself as a withdrawn, morose intellectual, she had an infallible sense of theater.
Indeed, Mathilda, so much a product of her reading, has learned emotions either from novels or from even more melodramatic operas:
The only emotions she could name, recognize and reproduce were the violent ones. As a result, she smiled ironically or with embarrassment at all her impulses toward expression, but there was no impulse that wasn't operatic in its irrationality and grandeur. When other people perceived her as being guarded, even sour, they mistook her choking back of instinct as contempt for instinct.
Mateo, who brings Gabriel back to life, is an aging Don Juan transformed by his disinterested love for his nephew. His friends are puzzled by the trouble he takes over the boy:
If the boy had been a girl, a pretty adolescent girl, the public response might have appeared to be the same though it would have been entirely different. People would have rushed to congratulate him on his magnanimity in order to hush amused suspicions no one dared to voice but by which everyone felt titillated.
Thoroughly urban and urbane, Mateo enjoys "the game of trading favors and coercing courtesies" and finds the trade-off of influence for intimacy at which he is so adept "worldly, fair, even (if seen in the right light) cheerful." Yet he fears his specialized career of sexual conquest has left him unable to love, has "warped his responses as surely as some cultures stretch necks, lengthen earlobes or bind feet, distortions that cannot later be undone, that leave the victim incapable of a normal life." This courtly man is powered by a core of self-loathing which he structures his day to avoid. If he sees enough people and generates enough chatter, by evening he can manage to forget his fears enough to greet a stranger. But his terror of boring others ends by making him seem silly, and to Mathilda he is "someone so hounded by an inexplicable need to make it up to everyone that he'd ended by displaying a suspect courtesy matched only by his suspect compassion."
White's portrait of a narcissist taking on the care of someone else and helping his own soul in the process is done with tender and loving realism. I insist upon the psychological realism because of the strenuous artifice of so much of the book. White's work appeals to me precisely because of its unique mixture of artifice and realism, but for the same reason he is not everyone's cup of tea. Americans do not take readily to a lapidary prose style or to self-consciousness in literature at all. Over time, John Updike has established his commitment to golf-playing suburban reality, but at the start of his career even he was attacked for preciosity. Nabokov had to make his name synonymous with sexual perversion to neutralize his reputation for contrivance. If, as is the case with Edmund White, the writer has identified himself as homosexual, the offense is compounded and the work likely to be thought effete.
White's gorgeous style, his verbal intricacies and subtleties, will seem suspect to people brought up on Hemingway. The liaisons in this book will be seen as suspiciously heterosexual, forced and unearned, simply because the author is homosexual, just as people said the bickering couple of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was really a gay couple in drag—as though there were a difference between bickering gay couples and bickering straight ones. For this reason I could have wished the presentation of the book a little less gay. I wish it didn't have the title it has, smacking of Ronald Firbank and furbelows. I wish the beautiful young man by Piero della Francesca did not grace the cover. If I read the situation correctly, Americans will be too eager to dismiss White's work as merely gorgeous anyway.
Gerra, Michael. Review of Our Paris: Sketches From Memory. The New York Times Book Review (3 December 1995): 7, 49-50.
States that "Our Paris isn't really a travel book—it's a valentine to a city most of us can only visit."
Gluck, Robert. "A Boy's Own Story." Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 56-60.
Discusses White's A Boy's Own Story and how it was different than anything that had been published previously.
Johnson, Diane. "The Midwesterner as Artist." Review of Contemporary Literature 16, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 69-72.
Discusses how being a homosexual and a Midwesterner contributed to White's main topic of otherness.
Judt, Tony. Review of The Selected Writings of Jean Genet, by Edmund White. The New York Review of Books 40, No. 17 (21 October 1993): 8.
Reviews White's Genet: A Biography and his The Selected Writings of Jean Genet and asserts that "Edmund White deserves unstinting praise for his painstaking efforts to unravel the threads that Genet so assiduously knotted and crossed in his various writings and interviews."
McCann, Richard. "Years Later, by the Pool: Looking Back at Edmund White's Nocturnes for the King of Naples." Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 43-9.
McCann discusses Nocturnes for the King of Naples as breaking away from the ordinary novel.
"Mixed Gay Chorus." Women Artists News 16 and 17, (1991/1992): 214-16.
A group of writers, including Edmund White, debate the existence of a homosexual sensibility.
Picano, Felice. "Edmund White and the Violet Quill Club." Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 84-7.
Discusses the work of Edmund White and the group of homosexual writers known as the Violet Quill Club, and their lack of acceptance in literary circles.
Pritchard, William H. "Fiction Chronicle." The Hudson Review XLIX, No. 1 (Spring 1996): 135-44.
Argues that the stories in White's Skinned Alive "lack denouement and are severely limited in the subjects taken on."
Van Leer, David. "Beyond the Margins." The New Republic 207 (12 October 1992): 50-3.
Discusses how three different anthologies, including White's The Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction, present gay literature.
Woods, Gregory. "Reaching a Loving Climax." Times Literary Supplement (21 June 1991): 20.
Asserts that in The Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction, White "has succeeded in gathering a richly varied range of voices."
SOURCE: "Passion, purity, innocence and (European) experience," in Times Literary Supplement, March 14, 1986, pp. 265-66.
[In the following review, Mars-Jones lauds White's Caracole and says, "This suavely alien world can give intense and almost continuous pleasure."]
Caracole is less a novel by the author of A Boy's Own Story, as the cover announces in justified eagerness to close a sale, than a novel by the author of Forgetting Elena. In that book, Edmund White described the experiences of a man who comes to consciousness in a sophisticated society, its physical details (shared houses, beaches, tea dances) suggesting an American resort, but its culture having a rigorous obliquity reminiscent of Imperial Japan's; each gesture in the world of that book had a prescribed meaning which the hero had to work out for himself, without ever admitting to being in the dark. It was the richest and most mysterious example of the amnesia novel, a sub-genre which includes Martin Amis's Other People and Eva Figes's Nelly's Version.
In Caracole the society is again a collage, but this time the sources are European. Venice and Paris are the most obvious models for the city in which most of the action takes place. A European setting, however gorgeously transformed by fantasy, is appropriate to the development of White's thinking: he sees experience as by nature European, that is, as layered and multiform, any seeming grossness being merely a ganglion of subtleties not yet teased into clarity. Even in its slang the book turns its back on America, and opts for pallid British forms: "tart", "twit", "trendiness", "infamous bounder" even.
The city is occupied by "the conquerors", who drain it of resources while paying lip-service to its cultural eminence. The six principal characters of the novel make various shifting compromises with the authorities, none of them identifying wholeheartedly with the invaders but all putting up no more than token resistance; they are certainly too sophisticated to throw in their lot with the patriots. Their lives intertwine in a plot that suggests operetta, but is carried off with considerable intensity and something very like conviction.
The story begins, though, far from the city, on a decayed estate called Madder Pink, where the teenager Gabriel tries to keep his collapsing family (mother fat and catatonic, father indifferent, children hungry) in some sort of rudimentary working order, and also carries on an affair with the tribal princess Angelica. These fifty pages are the least confident in the book, and give the novel an uncertain start. White inserts an occasional sentence of stylized spondees ("Just come day, go day", for instance) to enact the stopped flow of primitive life, but otherwise his style makes no concessions to a rural setting, where it is spectacularly out of place.
Any bumpkin can find things beautiful; an aesthete consults ideas of beauty. Such a temperament is likely to regard unmediated nature as downright sloppy, and if called on to represent it at any length will improve on it beyond all recognition. There are passages in the early part of Caracole where the sentences stretch on in their even glory as far as the eye can read, like virgin forests of topiary.
The social world of the country should present fewer difficulties; no human arrangement is actually unsophisticated, although dominant groups can sometimes succeed in dramatizing other groups as defective. It's only in a court or a city, nevertheless, where everything already represents a conscious choice on someone's part, that a ravishing rhetoric like Edmund White's can plausibly be housed in a character. But here in the country the point of view, nominally Gabriel's, can see in someone's ineptness "a charming rubato in the hesitation waltz of sincerity". Only in a city or a court is a taste for practical anthropology a part of the survival skills of the tribe; but here a tribesman attending Gabriel during his tribal marriage to Angelica, asked to explain a particular passage of ritual, shrugs and says: "'These ways … beautiful, no? I love the old ways. Very religious.' He kissed his bunched fingers with a loud smack: 'Very folkloric!'" The tone of the book can't accommodate this strayed Firbankian giggler. For his only other speech, a page later, the tribesman is a duly reformed character, purged of camp and using the ritual language of marital innuendo. He promises Gabriel much work for his broom, many juicy figs.
The most successful dramatization in the book of the contrast between city and country isn't in the first section at all, but in a splendid paragraph describing the Great Return to the People, when, one summer, intellectuals from the capital trooped into the fields to identify with the peasants and their labour. The noble experiment lasted barely a week. The city women offended the locals with their "pedantic licentiousness"; the farmers needed their sleep, but the intellectuals wanted to stay up all night, "flushed with compassion". They didn't realize they were consuming more food than they were producing "until they were unexpectedly greeted not with gratitude but a bill".
By burlesquing the assumptions of the intellectuals, and not approaching the country direct, White can prevent his prose from turning everything into a fête champêtre. Otherwise his version of pastoral is rather too much like one of those high-toned theatrical productions which feature real turf or real water on stage. His relentless tours de force of epiphanic description fit one of his descriptions of Gabriel: "he had succeeded in subjecting the involuntary to his will, a success that surely counted as a failure".
Caracole comes into its own from the moment that Gabriel is rescued from Madder Pink and moves in with his uncle Mateo in the capital. The major fascination of the book is its abstract worldliness; this may be a confected society, but its mechanics are convincing. Familiar elements stand out disturbingly without the protective colouring of naturalness. Bohemians refuse to commit themselves even an hour in advance, their social lives being utterly expressive and impromptu, but turn up doggedly to every rout. Musicians at a reception mutate awkwardly from performers to servants as soon as they stop playing, "still amphibious, half guests, glasses of champagne empty in their hands and deliberately not refilled".
White has a particularly delicate perception of role-playing, of the way an identity must be built up from the registers available (many rewarding parts inevitably being pre-empted by others), and cannot be plucked from air. He insists, not on the coexistence merely, but the interdependence of real and factitious emotion.
White's literary personality dominates the book. Every sentence in a novel carries an implied promise, the promises in aggregate making up what we call readability. The plot of Caracole is soundly constructed, but its promise is not Relax, I'm telling you a story, but rather Relax, I the writer am here in everything. Every page, consequently, is a riot of nuance.
Not all of this prodigious activity can be laid to the account of the characters, though each of them has show-stopping arias of introspection. Gabriel, in particular, can seem like an idiot savant, his naive disclaimers recast in a style of lavish brilliance. There is in any case something odd about using him as an innocent eye, to whom the city's artificiality is patent, when Caracole so consistently portrays innocence as tactical. Perhaps the disparity between character and narrative voice should be invisible by convention, "like the hands of puppeteers", as the narrative voice observes in a slightly different context; but if so the convention should be evenly enforced, and not blurred by an intermittent psychological realism. White is something like a ventriloquist who cannot at the last moment bear the dummy on his knee to have tones less rounded than his own, since they are what he has spent his life perfecting.
The point of view shifts round, from Gabriel to Mathilda, the city's reigning intellectual, with whom he has an affair, to her son Daniel, tortured poseur, to the actress Edwige, with whom Gabriel also has an affair, but it is always most at home with Mateo. Mateo's life as a self-doubting socialite and anxious gallant is disrupted by Gabriel's arrival and the need to look after him. His avuncular feelings become deeply affectionate, and Gabriel returns them; but Mateo has also, unknown to Gabriel, set up Angelica in a little flat of her own, and after a period of intimate unease has become her lover.
Mateo's position, both in and out of society, both in and out of love, his manipulativeness always bound in with his altruism, brings out the best in Edmund White. His fondness for the character is signalled obliquely by an opening blast of irony, which never returns so rawly: Mateo is disappointed that Gabriel isn't handsome—he would have been flattered by a resemblance. The character has received the prescribed dosage of irony, and can now be taken seriously.
White in any case takes care to restrict the operations of irony. A charming passage describes how Gabriel sees irony looming darkly in everything his sophisticated uncle says, obliging Mateo to disengage from real and earned emotion out of politeness. At the crisis of Mateo's affair with Angelica a distinction is drawn, as a gloss on that little incidental smile that in highly conscious people accompanies a strong emotion", between cheap irony, which disowns experience, and the expensive kind that acknowledges it. Irony is too general a structuring element in the world to be a satisfactory response to it.
It is necessary for the book's balance, and even existence, for emotion to be refurbished as well as stripped. The ink in White's pen is not only a solvent but an emulsion. The habit of scepticism, as the narrative voice observes apropos of Mathilda, "like a design of oblique lines, needed to be placed against the grid of love's credulity".
Love in Caracole is "a progressive illness, one that starts as self-hallucination, an act of parody, and ends as a wholly real, involuntary malady that kills us or something vital in us". Love is an invented contract that binds no less for that. It must be said, though, that the rhetoric in the book that reinstates purities and passions is generally less successful than the rhetoric that breaks them down, which has a special brilliance—as if an acid was leaching glitter from the metals it attacked.
There is after all no overriding logic that insists on love presiding over the other illusions. One of the book's epigraphs, from Middlemarch, is bravely borrowed: "It is so painful in you, Celia, that you will look at human beings as if they were merely animals with a toilette, and never see the great soul in a man's face." The borrowing is brave because everything in Edmund White's literary personality concentrates on the way that behaviour is mediated by convention, precisely by a toilette; why should a soul make its appearance on a face, of all places?
In a recent and eloquent tribute to Christopher Isherwood, White pointed out the paradox of a man who as a matter of religious conviction disbelieved in the unity of human personality (described by White as "a useful illusion for a novelist") choosing as his literary form the dynamic portrait of an individual. Something similar happens in White's own case. He questions the unity of personality not on religious principle but from minute social observation. The moment when a character enters a fixed relationship with the world is always an ominous one in his writings. Edwige in Caracole is murdered, but she has never stopped negotiating her value, while Mathilda, becoming wholly the avenging lover, dies into a role she mistakes for an identity, taking a passing resemblance for a definitive portrait. It's significant that both this novel and Forgetting Elena end with the hero occupying, however accidentally, a public position, as if the book's freedom to speculate depended on its hero's non-alignment.
This amounts to an odd sort of Darwinism, as if evolution was the survival of the socially flexible. But there is no doubt, despite the book's attempt at musical balance, that White loads the dice in favour of Mateo and against Mathilda, whose portrayal has a certain sourness, both vague and pointed, as if she was a minor character in Fr Rolfe, being given a drubbing under cover of prose-poetry. Edmund White is nevertheless a full-time aesthete and only a part-time moralist, a busier bee than wasp.
In the long run, it is Caracole's texture that will make friends, or lose them. Every melodic line is fully ornamented; the conceits are as vital to the progress of the book as they are in a Craig Raine poem, or a Tom Robbins novel, come to that. This style is more than most a matter of taste. White's rhetoric has a Jamesian fullness, but none of James's leisure; it has more in common, perhaps, with Proust. A sentence like this could easily find a home in Caracole:
A quelques pas, un grand gaillard en livrée rèvait, immobile, sculptural, inutile, comme ce guerrier purement décoratif qu'on voit dans les tableaux les plus tumultueux de Mantegna songer, appuyé sur son bouclier, landis, qu'on se précipite et qu'on égorge à côté de lui.
The playful memorializing of a casual posture as characteristic.
At his feeblest, White goes in for elegant variation saying "adipose cummerbund" for spare tyre or having a character eat raven instead of crow. The sheer density of invention attests a bottomless terror of saying the obvious. It sometimes seems that this is a sensibility which would find anything as straight-forward as an oak an embarrassment, unless it had a galaxy of truffles stowed away in its roots—or failing that a patch of discoloured bark like a mole under an armpit.
White's rhetoric is sophisticated, but it is also highly specialized. A conceit in a Craig Raine poem taps energy from the incongruity of its materials, and teases the reader with apparent irrelevance for maximum, and delayed, impact; a conceit in a Tom Robbins novel conveys, rather complacently, the absurdity of comparing anything with anything else in a rich, unrepeatable world. White's conceits, by contrast, have a curiously homogenizing effect; they smooth out differences and seal similarities. When Gabriel imagines Angelica's heart, "as stately as a frog at night", the reader feels a twinge of hilarity and then thinks better of it, guiltily ignorant of frogs at night. When Mateo compares Gabriel with a potato, which, "washed, bruised, forgotten and cast under the sink, will sprout horribly in the dark, rampant with life since it is not only a comically banal vegetable but also a seed", the conceit elevates both potato and Gabriel, buoying them up in the same super-saturated medium.
When White's conceits overreach they go authentically gaga. Here is Gabriel reminiscing in the middle of coitus ("sting" is his countrified word for orgasm):
Not that he himself was repelled by the odor, far from it. It was the smell of a stable, of his own long-ago stings in the thunder-box back at Madder Pink, the smell of steam lifting off those black sacs of roe he'd produced, that pair of blood sausages on a frosty morning in the echoing immensity of yet another day, as though time were a freezing mansion and he its caretaker bravely rubbing a fire into life with hard black and fluid white emissions, the demideuil of being human.
More often, the conceits retain a decorum which only the scenes of sexual exchange, notably successful in themselves and quite unlike the home life expected of a co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex, do anything to disrupt. Here is Gabriel with Angelica:
He understood why people might give their favourite goddess eight arms and four faces. Those weren't enough but they did at least suggest the way a girl could crowd a hollow with herself—a pair of arms reaching out to clasp him as she turned her head away in profile, lips lifted, eyes downcast; another two hands to push her hair back from eyes that opened, brightening; two arms to hang at her sides and a face to lower in submission until he butted her side again and moaned and sank to the ground below her, frustrated and yearning; then one more glorious face to swim down towards his, her lips full, her breath fast and shallow, her last two arms pressing his head against her one and only but wildly beating heart.
This is lovely, but also supremely calculated. The project may be passion, but the doing of it is scrupulous. The dizzy rhetoric describes exactly the promised eight arms and four faces, no more, no less; every extravagance is carefully budgeted, and the cadenza is also an inventory.
These quibbles are certainly churlish; but a reviewer is not merely a churl but a hired churl. There are things in Caracole that would win anyone over. This suavely alien world can give intense and almost continuous pleasure. Edmund White is a great dandy, and Caracole is a dandy novel.
SOURCE: "Don't Give In to the Baggy Grown-Ups," in The New York Times Book Review, March 20, 1988, p. 7.
[In the following review, Blaise asserts that White's The Beautiful Room is Empty "is packaged as an autobiographical novel, yet as a novel its flaws reduce its value and interest considerably."]
The title of Edmund White's new novel, The Beautiful Room is Empty, derives from one of Kafka's nightmarish images of perfect symmetry. It seems to me part of a grand design, framed by an urgent and tragic necessity. Grand design because this book had its "prequel" in 1982 in A Boy's Own Story (set during the narrator's Midwestern childhood and adolescence), and this current volume breaks off in 1969, with the same narrator shouting "Gay Is Good!" on Christopher Street outside the just-raided Stonewall Inn. By the end of the first book, he had entered the gay life; by the end of the second, he has glimpsed the origins of gay politics and experienced the birth of a gay community. The specter of AIDS, much in the mind of anyone who reads these two books, had not yet surfaced. Neither had the sexual frenzy of the bathhouse 70's. (This book, in fact, opens on a note as innocent and reassuring as "Goodbye, Columbus": "I met Maria during my next-to-last year in prep school.")
As readers it is pleasant for us to think we might be at the inception of a planned series of intensely sexual experiences, a somber counterweight to John Updike's perennially greening Rabbit, or a gay-WASP retelling of Philip Roth's Zuckerman myth. The 70's and 80's in the life of gay America, as tumultuous and tragic a period as any we've experienced, demand their chronicler Edmund White (co-author of one monument to the gay liberation movement of the 70's, the now anachronistically titled Joy of Gay Sex, and the author of States of Desire: Travels in Gay America, plus three earlier novels) has the credentials for it.
This is, admittedly, putting the best possible interpretation on the enterprise. It's just as easy to observe that the form and content of this book are at odds, as they often are in matters of urgency. This book is packaged as an autobiographical novel, yet as a novel its flaws reduce its value and interest considerably. A novel is something considerably more than a personal narrative, wholly or partially imagined.
Material that feels autobiographical has to be dramatically recast. Unprepared, unmotivated conversions or revelations cannot appear as plot devices. In the course of this book and its predecessor, the narrator's favorite teacher is exposed (by letter) as gay; Maria, the apparently straight best female friend he thinks he loves, suddenly announces her lesbianism; the make-out king of his Michigan fraternity is at least bisexual; and, finally, the narrator's sister with her three children and suburban marriage—she's gay. Minor characters are far too often pure stereotypes: the blustery shrink who promises a cure of homosexuality turns out to be an alcoholic, pill-popping loony; the father is the essence of Babbittry; the mother resembles an aging coquette out of Tennessee Williams: "No morphrodites, for that's what they called homosexuals down South. No morphrodites in our bloodlines!"
Does it matter? Of course it matters. All readers want to know where the authority in a book is coming from, "real life" (the autobiography), the political agenda, or the artistic design. This book is a confusion of all three.
Yet Mr. White's success lies in establishing two contradictory truths: gay men are very much like straight men; and gay men and straight men are fundamentally different. He does so by the meticulous reconstruction of the very texture of his sexuality (much of it sordid, most of it unquotable in this review).
Anyone can identify with the narrator-as-wallflower. "It didn't occur to me that this shockingly intense pleasure could be sought after. If you're someone mainly eager to please others, you don't think much about your own pleasure." Much later he reflects, after years of dedicated iron pumping to eliminate a tendency to fat: "I was so glad I'd bothered to acquire a nice body, since it gave me something to offer every night to a different man…. I went to bed with anyone who wanted me." Two of the sturdiest heterosexual stereotypes, Don Juanism and nymphomania, fade before the fervid sexuality of this narrator. Of his years as a "John queen" in a University of Michigan men's room he writes, "I was alone with my sexuality, since none of these men spoke to me, nor did I even know their faces, much less their names." In describing his nightly cruising of the streets of Ann Arbor or Chicago, he writes, "The thrill came when one bagged not another old fruit but a hot young college kid, for although I myself was at least young and in college, I already saw myself as vampire-cold, turned prematurely old as a punishment for vice…. I'd learned to feel nostalgia for my own youth while I was living it."
In other words, much—but not all—of this account of pre-AIDS male sexuality applies to most of the bachelor bulls of American puritanism, whatever their orientation. "Hets" can relate to the obsessive 50's and their rituals of picking up, making out, scoring, leering at centerfolds (size being a matter of anxiety to both camps). Any of us can relate to the soppy feelings of love, certain lines of which could be set to music: "Then he was gone. I put my lips where his had been on the coffee cup. I felt elated, because that was all I'd ever wanted, to be loved, and nobody ever had."
The promiscuity of the life, and the shallowness of each encounter, are rendered without apology, without reflection. But then Mr. White's narrator turns the tables, lest we be too quick to understand him. He acknowledges the deep sense of shame that accompanies his early "deeds in the dark," and perhaps we even approve the guilt he feels over his "malady." Then he launches a zinger:
And yet something wild and free in me didn't want to give in to them, the big baggy grown-ups. No, if I were perfectly honest … I'd have to admit that there was a world run by women and feminized men (not effeminate but feminized men) that I wanted to escape, the world of mild suburban couples, his and her necks equally thick and creased, their white hair similarly cropped. The … slow wink of a drag queen looking back at me over her ratty fox neckpiece just before she turned the corner—these glimpses piqued my craving for freedom, despite my yearning after respectability.
So, according to Mr. White, gay men are "effeminate" and suburban straights are "feminized." Gay men are defined by their sex acts; straights are no less imprisoned by their sex roles. "We" would have the gay men "grow up" and quit acting out their narcissistic infantilism; "they" would have us act as sexually mature adults and quit sublimating our sex drives in child abuse, Super Bowls and mortgage payments.
With all the suspicion and downright fear that engulfs American "manhood" as it confronts one of its ancient fears, it's heartening to think that any reasonably tolerant heterosexual would be more likely to quarrel with the form than with the content of this book.
SOURCE: "An American Scrapbook," in The Nation, Vol. 246, No. 14, April 9, 1988, pp. 503-4.
[In the following review, Lemon praises White's The Beautiful Room is Empty, but complains that "the ending's exhilarations [are] a diminishment of the power and beauty of what had gone before."]
It was inevitable that the 1960s revival would produce a retrospective novel about gay life in New York City. Less fated, and more welcome, is that the task was assumed by an artist as gifted as Edmund White. The Beautiful Room Is Empty (the title comes from one of Franz Kafka's letters to Milena Jesenská) interweaves public and private events, and even more than its predecessor, A Boy's Own Story, encourages speculation that the author is offering us not just an autobiographical novel but a memoir tout court.
The unnamed narrator lifts facts from White's own dossier: year of birth (1940), Midwestern childhood, University of Michigan education, literary métier, current Parisian domicile and, of course, an appearance at the Stonewall riot, a badge as obligatory for an activist—and as often fudged—as attendance at Woodstock. More telling than this mere matching of facts is the author's fidelity to his master, Vladimir Nabokov, whose uncharacteristic "blurbissimo" advanced White's first novel, the icily brilliant Forgetting Elena, and who, in Speak, Memory, defined the purpose of autobiography as the tracing of thematic designs throughout a life.
Once again the main thread is the narrator's attempt "to love and be loved by men, yet remain heterosexual." It's a struggle perfectly attuned to the adolescent novel, which, since Fielding at least, has focused on the forging of identity, and it proves serviceable again here, in part because, although the book wraps itself in 1960s lore, much of its spirit remains mired in familiar familial repressions of the late 1950s. In A Boy's Own Story, the conflict was enacted inwardly, suffused with yearning, and flooded primarily with guilt; in Beautiful Room, the drama moves outward, oozes bald desire and acquires shame, a more public feature consonant with the new book's acts of furtive erotic expression.
White handles New York City street and subway cruising and collegiate lavatory sex not in the bloodless manner of the film Prick Up Your Ears, nor with the uninhibited glee of the spunky Orton Diaries, but with a mix of analysis and zeal characteristic of the author whose Joy of Gay Sex and States of Desire: Travels in Gay America remain uncanny monuments to the lost art of promiscuity and that art's classic age—the Bad Good Old Days: the 1970s. That his unbridled homoeroticism continues to provoke polite aversion in otherwise hale quarters might amuse White, for in his crisp Condé Nast journalism, and especially in his catty 1985 novel, Caracole, he delights in guying such exemplars of wealth, power and unyielding masculinity. This fascination continues in Beautiful Room. The narrator's fraternity brothers replay a weekend for each other on Monday morning, and "their reports contained no mention of feelings beyond nausea and highly localized lust ('I'm such a beaver man, just put a shaving brush to my lips when I'm asleep and I'll start munching')." Like his more patrician counterpart, Gore Vidal, White extracts gold from such base social ore most effectively when his gaze is trained on the mother lode: America.
For White's narrator, America is a world of stern fathers; the most heinous crimes are Communism, heroin addiction and homosexuality, and "talking about the self and its discontent, isolation, self-hatred, and burning ambition for sex and power" is forbidden. To escape these taboos the narrator befriends a leftist lesbian painter, Maria, the book's most vivid and exacting presence, and an ad exec/drug addict, Lou. In addition, the narrator, a nominal Buddhist who denies soul, will and self, turns to the quintessential American forum for talk: psychotherapy.
Dr. O'Reilly, A Boy's Own Story's cross-addicted analyst, reappears to guide the underclassman narrator, but like a star who, after a string of flops, returns to his career-launching part, his role has become a caricature. He introduces the narrator to Annie Schroeder, a bulimic patient:
"Those stuffy Freudians would split a gut," he said, or rather mumbled, since the pills and alcohol slurred his speech. "But Annie's a good gal, though she's got a psycho for an old man, right out of Dostoevsky, and a mother who wants to be Annie's daughter." He clapped me on the shoulder with too much force. "A fine gal, Annie, but don't think I'm jealous. I'm not the avenging father."
O'Reilly scorns the narrator's reliance on intellect; in defense, the young man's resisting fancy takes flight, pouring forth a stream of interior, Quine-like definitions. "The mind a boat at sea rebuilding itself while under sail. The mind a rotting meat under expensive spices. The mind a pure spirit (the unsuspecting wife) under the sway of a murderous will (Bluebeard)." Readers grateful for the poetic intensity of White's language may also find themselves desirous, occasionally, of a word cop to direct the traffic in metaphors.
Much later, in New York, the shrink-shopping narrator learns to check his intellect at the door. He and his lover, Sean, like couples in tawdry French novels who renounce love to don collar and veil, enroll in "games people play" groups. In his assemblage the narrator encounters a Russian immigrant named Simon, whose repartee shows off White's ear for humor in dialogue even as Simon's relentless refrain ("I wanna hear about de goils") drives the young man to violence, thus ending the self-hating heterosexual quest.
Gays going straight is not the discarded literary theme of a decade ago; AIDS-related repression and attendant auto-homophobia have restored its aptness as a subject. White takes advantage of the shifting cultural wind: Like Maria's favorite opera, Der Rosenkavalier, he enrolls a bygone age—the 1960s—in his pursuit of commentary on more recent events. (He has composed three more overt tales about the AIDS era, collected, with several by Adam Mars-Jones, in The Darker Proof.) In Beautiful Room, White gets at the roots of modern gay self-loathing and its imperative: One must ingratiate oneself to society and its institutions, as well as to co-workers, family, even friends. With his boyfriend Sean, for example, as with the teen-age buddy Kevin in A Boy's Own Story, the narrator disavows what he has felt and experienced:
One night as we were lying in bed, Sean said that that afternoon he had used a public toilet and walked in on an orgy.
"Oh, how awful," I said.
"What are they doing there?" he asked
"What do you mean?"
"Of course I know they're there for sex, but how can they do it? It's really subhuman."
"Totally subhuman," I said.
The incongruence between inner avowal and public expression, of course, is the classic symptom of the Trilling syndrome: insincerity. White cleverly builds upon this quality in the Art of Fiction passages laced into the text. The clearest clue to his affect, however, may be contained at the end of Kafka's title-bestowing missive: "And don't demand any sincerity from me, Milena. No one can demand it from me more than I myself and yet many things elude me, I'm sure, perhaps everything eludes me."
Insincerity dogs almost all of Beautiful Room's characters eventually: William Everett Hunton, the prissy collegiate pal whose counterfeit sexual posing is matched by his fake name ("Some day when we're sisters I'll tell you my real name, but if you snitch on me I'll pull your braids and dip them in the inkwell"); the narrator's sister, who contra natura marries and settles in the suburbs before coming out, which convinces the narrator that "something—genetic or psychological—in our family … had made us both gay"; their mother, who frowns on her son's behavior and announces "I like men," even as she grows more intimate with Maria. Maria, full of socialism, good sense and a University of Chicago-trained intellect, recants her pro-Moscow line and utters anachronistic slogans about the feminization of poverty.
If no character is endowed with what John Updike called "persuasive inertia," the quality that causes figures to linger long in the mind after the book is shut, it doesn't matter. White's sad, stylish prose, his tonic mix of elegy and irony, the page-by-page proof that he is one of our most perceptive prose writers, overwhelms any serious caviling. What's more, the idea that to respond to a novel we must "care" about its characters is hardly worth refuting. (As if we had always to like what we respect or admire or love.) And in a work this close to memoir, especially one which fulfills so beautifully its thematic premise, to ask for a well-wrought plot would amount to impertinence: "My plots are all scrapbooks," the author avers parenthetically.
And yet White's novel/memoir would be more satisfying, I think, had it "wrapped" less abruptly, at Stonewall. The narrator's prise de conscience has been inadequately prepared; the 1960s' second half, to most the more interesting years, are dispensed with in a few pages. And the remark dropped into the middle of the final scene, "I caught myself foolishly imagining that gays might someday constitute a community rather than a diagnosis," while thematically sharp, confers an awkward roman à thèse status on the entire enterprise. Perhaps the author wanted a way out, from community back to diagnosis, when he brings the story to the present. Perhaps community was too enticing a notion to leave out of his 1960s saga.
I may be alone in thinking the ending's exhilarations a diminishment of the power and beauty of what had gone before. Or it may be that under the current ravaged social and economic circumstances, few readers could greet liberation with the sound of more than one hand clapping.
SOURCE: "An Interview with Edmund White," in The Missouri Review, 1990, pp. 89-110.
[In the following interview, White discusses the autobiographical nature of his work and what he thinks about literature.]
[Bonetti:] Mr. White, can you fill us in on some background about yourself? Do A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty follow your own chronology?
[White:] The books fairly reflect where I was and what I was doing. I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. My parents got divorced when I was seven and my mother began to move from city to city while my father remained in Cincinnati. I was sent to a boarding school in Michigan, near Detroit, a school called Cranbrook, which appears as Eton in my books.
And you went to the University of Michigan?
I studied Chinese there, and when I graduated I moved to New York and worked for Time-Life Books from 1962 to 1970. Then I moved to Rome for a year, and when I came back, I became a freelance writer and editor, then worked briefly for Saturday Review and Horizon. I started teaching in the mid-seventies, first at Yale, then at Johns Hopkins, finally at Columbia and New York University. In 1981 I was the executive director of The New York Institute for the Humanities, which is an organization of smart people attached to New York University. Then in 1983, I moved to France, where I've been living ever since. Beginning in spring, 1990, I will be teaching at Brown University, where I've just been named a Professor of English with tenure.
There's a story in The Darker Proof about a couple that move to Paris in an oblique response to the gay community and AIDS. Did you move to Paris for similar reasons?
In a way I gave some of the events of my life to those characters, but the reasons were different. In my case, I won a Guggenheim, which allowed me to go for one year. I worked for Vogue and other Condé-Nast magazines as a journalist, so that allowed me to stay on. I could stay forever I suppose. I have a nice apartment and I make a decent living as a freelance American journalist writing from Paris.
Then why are you coming back to teaching?
I like teaching. I like the idea of a secure position. I'm positive for AIDS, and the statistics are rather grim, but if by some chance I do go on living I would like to have a retirement plan. I support my mother now, and if I weren't there, she would really be penniless.
Does your fiction sustain you economically?
If I weren't such a spendthrift and if I didn't have other people to support—my mother's not the only one—I could live very well from my fiction, but I'm a terrible spendthrift. I like to travel, and that takes money.
Is the narrator's job in The Beautiful Room Is Empty similar to your job at Time-Life Books?
Absolutely. In the sixties, which was the heyday of direct-mail sales of books, we were vastly overstaffed and the books made enormous amounts of money. I was accepted in a writer's trainee program where I learned lots of useful journalistic things—to change, edit, rewrite. We were so encouraged to say everything was the best, the biggest, the most, that it gave me a permanent horror of overstatement, which I think is also a useful tool for a serious writer. But I stayed too long. When I was thirty I thought, "If I continue here, I'll be here the rest of my life." So I just quit, took my profit-sharing, which was seven thousand dollars, a lot of money in 1970, and moved to Rome, where I lived for a year.
Were you working on fiction at that time?
I wasn't working on anything. I was just being a lazy bum. I write very little. I can go a year or even two years without blinking.
Yet you've put out quite a body of work.
Yet, but I write quickly when I write. Most writers write too much, they work too much, they live too little and they anguish too much. Especially American writers, who seem to feel guilty about being writers at all. It doesn't seem like a real job to them. In order to justify their existence in their own eyes, or in their friends' and family's eyes, they feel they must sit in an office and write eight hours a day. I don't think anybody writes well after two hours a day—really one—and anyway I tend to be a very old-fashioned writer who writes from inspiration.
During the years at Time-Life when did you write?
At night. After work. I wrote many, many plays and they were all very, very bad. The writing was dry, voices talking in a void, endless chattering dialogue. Then I wrote three or four novels, and they were all very bad. I think it's because I worked too hard in my twenties that I now don't believe in working hard.
Is that what you tell your students?
I do. Of course everybody's rhythms are different, but I do think that people should approach the page with a certain fear and trembling and a feeling that it's an important encounter. The problem with student writers is not that they write too little, but that they write too much. They crank it out. The ones who enjoy writing enjoy it because they usually have rather neurotic needs to write. It's a real psychological defense, but unfortunately that kind of compulsive writing, though it can sometimes be absolutely gripping can also be extremely dull. It's an experience that only the writer is having, not the reader. Writers should have a kind of wary distaste for the page, a feeling that when you engage with it, you should really be doing something that's interesting. That's compressed. That's beautiful.
You're in Washington, D.C. tonight to receive an award and give a lecture. Can you tell us a bit about that?
It's the first Bill Whitehead award, given by a group of gay people and lesbians in publishing called The Publishing Triangle. They have three or four hundred members and they've only just started. Bill Whitehead was a friend and my editor at E. P. Dutton for several years, and he freelanced the editing of The Beautiful Room Is Empty after he'd become ill and retired. Before he died of AIDS he suggested the topic of the book I'm working on now, a biography of Jean Genet.
I'm going to be talking about gay liberation and what that's meant in terms of gay publishing. This is the twentieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, which was the first time gay people, when faced with arrest during a bar raid, didn't run away into the night. They stayed behind and fought with the cops over a period of about three days. I participated in the riot, and it was a very exciting moment in my own life. It seems fitting that a publishing group should be giving its first award on the anniversary of that important occasion, even though the gay publishing movement did not begin right away.
One important book was published in 1971, called Homosexual, by Dennis Altman, but it really wasn't until 1978 that three gay novels came out: Larry Kramer's Faggots; Dancer from the Dance, by Andrew Holeran; and my Nocturnes for the King of Naples. Those three books gave the impression of a new wave, of a new movement coming along. Especially the first two. Mine was probably the least important of those three, as a publishing event.
How do you place the books by John Rechy, and Gore Vidal, and James Baldwin, and others that came along earlier?
They're all very important. Especially Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man and John Rechy's City of Night, in the sixties. The difference between the so-called gay writers like me and those earlier writers is that there is a tremendous network now of gay and lesbian bookshops throughout the United States with an enormous mail order business. It's a highly packaged, self-conscious, self-declared culture. Those guys back then were writing about rather lonely individuals combatting society. They were isolated by the nature of things politically, and their position in publishing was always anomalous.
Do you see yourself as a writer who happens to be gay and deals with gay subject matter or as a gay writer?
It depends which country I'm in when somebody asks me. In France there is no such thing as a "gay writer" because there is no gay ghetto. Gays are so well integrated that nobody makes a fuss over his sexual orientation. In the United States we have nothing but ghettos. It's astonishing for a European to walk into an American bookshop and see books categorized by Women's Studies, Gay Studies, Children's Books. Literary fiction as such represents a tiny part of any particular bookshop, and even that small percentage is drifting more and more toward popular fiction. It all seems minimalist and regional and confessional.
I'm thinking as we talk that "gay literature" is more ghettoized than these other literatures.
The Beautiful Room Is Empty was number one on the bestseller list in England when it came out in hard cover last year. Here it would never be on any list. In England, I am a judge of the Booker Prize. Here I would never be asked to judge the Pulitzer. The Beautiful Room Is Empty came out first in England, then in Australia and New Zealand and only finally in the States. In those other countries I was interviewed by the major newspapers as a real writer who would be of interest to the general public, but when I arrived in America, the only people who were willing to interview me represented handouts distributed free in gay bars. In England I'm a famous writer, in America I'm a kind of funny ghettoized marginal writer. It's a peculiar experience.
Do you see yourself as writing primarily for a gay audience?
In my first few books I thought first of the general reader. With The Beautiful Room Is Empty I was more aware of writing for a gay reader primarily and then for general readers afterwards, because of AIDS, I think. In big cities, gay people have lost up to three quarters of their friends, which is an extraordinary experience for somebody who's not old to have to go through. Most gay people know they are HIV positive, which means that they have about a fifty percent chance of being dead within two years. It's an experience which gives an immediacy to your writing. That's something I tried to deal with in The Darker Proof, a collection of short stories that I wrote with Adam Mars-Jones, a very good young gay writer in England. We thought that AIDS had been treated too much from the point of view of experts, usually heterosexual, and discussed as though it were a kind of objective scientific condition, rather than an anguish to be lived through. We wanted to show the human side of this experience. We chose the story as a form, rather than the novel, because the novel has an inevitable trajectory to it. That is, you begin healthy and end sick and dead. We wanted to get into and out of the subject matter in a more angular and less predictable way.
I read that The Beautiful Room Is Empty is part of a tetralogy. The idea of a writer being able to hold that much material in his head amazes me.
Well, you can't claim that you know every last little thing, but the broad axes are clear. It's partly because I live my life as though it were a novel. As I'm experiencing it I see it in novelistic terms.
Now what do you mean by that? We're told that life is chaos. Art is discipline and order.
Yes, but I think everyone looks for the order in his or her own life. A novel is precisely that attempt to find a meaning or order. What is important to me is to find meaning with all the complexity left in. One of the things that makes a lot of new American fiction not very interesting is that though the books are shapely, they are shapely at the expense of complication. I like things to be complex.
A Boy's Own Story is basically straight-on, as is The Beautiful Room Is Empty compared to the lush style of Forgetting Elena and Nocturnes for the King of Naples and Caracole. Any comments on that difference?
In Nocturnes for the King of Naples I dealt with my youth in a rather fantastic way with an immensely rich playboy father who's not at all like my fairly dumpy and dour midwestern father. I dealt with some of the feelings of loneliness that I had as a child, some of my first longings for escape and sex and whatnot. All of that was in Nocturnes but given to an invented character, somebody who was small and blond and beautiful, whereas I am large and dark and not beautiful. It's as though I peeled away the fantasy layer, in a style that was extremely ornate and appropriate to that particular vision. Then I was ready to deal with the painful reality of my youth in a more direct way. If my goal now was to tell the truth, I wasn't going to disguise it with a style that was very rhetorical.
Are there any parts of A Boy's Own Story that serve as an example of how reshaping "real experience" can fit the needs of the book?
Of course the chronology itself—the real experiences were scattered over long periods of time, but I tend to group them in the book and shape them and simplify them. I wanted to have a boy who seemed believable, slightly shy, rather sympathetic and awkward. In real life I was much more self-assured. I was a very successful student, well liked by the other kids, and wildly promiscuous sexually. Between the ages of twelve and sixteen I had hundreds of sexual partners.
In secret or openly?
I don't think it was really secretive. Most people knew that I was gay, but I didn't realize that. Thomas McGuane was in school with me, and he mentions in one of his interviews that he always knew I was gay and so did all the other boys. They thought it was amusing and it didn't bother them at all. Tom makes a brief appearance in one of my books, you know, but I won't give away his alias.
Are most of your characters based on real people, or do you often make them up?
Sometimes I'll take a character like Tex, whom I actually knew when I was twelve, thirteen, and revivify my memories by grafting on memories of somebody who's been more recently in my life.
In the epilogue to States of Desire you say that you tend to examine people and individuals with a sociological eye as opposed to a psychological eye. Were you just talking about States of Desire or do you think that applies to you as a fiction writer, too?
I think it's true of me as a fiction writer, but also as a biographer. For instance, in the book I'm working on now about Jean Genet, what's most interesting to me is to think of him as a child of the welfare system, a person who was in reform school and then in the army. Looking at the shaping power of these major institutions of French life excites me much more than wondering about his possible Oedipal feelings. I don't believe in psychoanalytic motivations of that sort. I believe that we're shaped by our class position. In my own case my father was a small entrepreneur who made a lot of money and then lost most of it during the time when small businessmen were being superseded by big corporations. That had an enormous impact on the way I perceived the world. When my mother was married to my father, she was well-to-do, a kind of society matron. After the divorce she was declassed and basically poor, and I along with her. I shuttled between living with my mother and sister in one room in a hotel to my father's house where there were ten bedrooms. I would spend my last five dollars as a tip for the maid, you know. I was sent to debutante balls by my father, but never with the right clothes. I was between two worlds socially. That probably created anxiety in me, but from a positive point of view, it made me more observant of society than a person who is either purely poor or purely rich would have been.
I was struck by the psychological versus sociological question because after reading A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty, the conclusion I came to as to why the narrator is gay seems to be the standard absent-father explanation.
At least intellectually I reject the idea of there being any explanation of homosexuality. Just as there is no explanation of heterosexuality, and no one looks for one, so once you begin to look for an explanation of homosexuality, you're already involved in a medical discourse. It's true that I had an absent father and a domineering mother, but my father, when he was present, was extremely domineering too. He was not the usual feeble father that homosexuals are supposed to have. Whether that made me homosexual I have no way of knowing, and I certainly didn't choose those elements in order to illustrate a theory. I chose those elements because they were the ones that happened to have been allotted to me.
If you read Forgetting Elena in the context of all of your other books, you can see oblique references to a homosexual culture, yet it's not a "gay book." Was that a conscious decision on your part?
No. What happened was I had written a very autobiographical gay book in the sixties and I stole a few passages from it and the title for the book that was only recently published as The Beautiful Room Is Empty. That early book was very long, very self-analytical, very uncritical. It went to twenty-five publishers and was rejected by everybody. One reason it was rejected was because it was about a middle-class homosexual, and I think in the sixties, before gay liberation, publishers were prepared to publish books like those by Rechy or Jean Genet or William Burroughs about freaky people, drug-takers, pimps, prostitutes, marginal gay people. Such characters were colorful, they were strange, and they were certainly not you, dear reader. But it was more threatening to write about a person who was really quite like the presumably middle-class reader, except that he happened to be gay. Having had that book, which I believed in at the time, rejected by so many publishers, I thought, "Oh, the hell with it. No one's ever going to publish me. I'm going to write something purely for myself." So I wrote Forgetting Elena because it reflected my own taste in a way that nothing I had written up to then did. The idea of writing about a culture that had a surface democracy, but an actual hidden hierarchy, and where morality had been replaced by esthetics, where people no longer troubled themselves about what was good, but only about what was beautiful, fascinated me. It seemed to be true of how a certain group of highly privileged gay men were living in the seventies.
Yet homosexuality is never overtly mentioned or referred to in that novel.
There's very little that's explicit at all in that book. It's implicit.
Forgetting Elena also ties into a theme that runs throughout your work, the position the homosexual is put into by the world of having to invent his identity because within the system there is no role model.
All my books are about initiation into a society. I don't seem to be able to get beyond that as a theme. Although perhaps in recent stories I have begun to tackle other subjects. In Caracole I did deal with that initiation from both the point of view of the boy who's being initiated, Gabriel, and from the point of view of the adults who are doing the initiating. It's a painful process on both sides.
Gabriel is a figure that recurs in your work, essentially an amnesiac because he has no frame of reference for where he is and what's going on. He and Angelica are feral. They're strays, eating fried bread while their mysterious enormous mother drinks in the bedroom. Gabriel has no idea what they are doing to him until he finds himself locked in that blackened room in the cage.
I suppose these extreme experiences that I like to put my characters through dramatize a feeling that we all undergo, maybe in less evident forms. Everyone models his responses on the other person's cues, and social life is a kind of theatrical reciprocity and a constant improvisation. The self is a much more fluid thing than we imagine. If a psychiatrist nods while a patient is saying certain things, the patient will talk more about that subject with more enthusiasm. Whereas if the psychiatrist frowns the patient will become uneasy and talk less about it. You can shape and mold behavior by these Skinnerian techniques.
At the time that I wrote Caracole, I was also under the influence of the ideas of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher. I'm sure I didn't understand his ideas very well because I'm not really intelligent enough to, but what I gathered was that there are these large social codes that transect and shape all of our lives, and that the individual is only a locus where these lines of force cross. With Gabriel and Angelica I wanted to show two children who were as close to a state of nature—that is uncoded—as possible. They are brought to the city, and there they are very consciously and elaborately scripted with the ideas of our society, the codes, the laws of behavior and so on.
You have said that the unity of personality is a "useful illusion" for a novelist. Could you sort that out for me? What is meant by "unity of personality?"
Like the narrator in The Beautiful Room Is Empty and A Boy's Own Story, as a young person I read Max Muller's Sacred Books of the East. One of the Buddhist ideas that seemed very true to me is that the "I," the self, the unifying principal that holds this collection of attributes together, is an illusion. What we really are is just a collection of random psychological states, predispositions, emotions, sentiments, and so on, not to mention bodily organs, more like a pile of objects than an actual unity of self. Buddhists feel that the most useful thing a person can do to escape pain and rebirth and suffering is to return the various elements to their origins, separate them out. Although I believe that philosophically, it's not a very easy way to write a novel. What makes a novel seem vivid to a reader is bright and easily recognizable characters.
The narrator of The Beautiful Room Is Empty not only rejects the notion of unity of person but also says that he's come to distrust ideas: "every enthusiasm if genuinely embraced turns into folly or fanaticism." Some critics have taken you to task for that, but I wonder if the confusion might be in how people understand "idea."
What I like about fiction is that it shows events as history does, but they are shaped by certain principles, certain ideas, but only ideas that are well implanted into actual experiences. They're always concrete and contextual. When William Carlos Williams says, "No ideas but in things," that is something I would agree with, and I think most writers would. The philosophical novelist, like Thomas Mann, is someone I tend to loathe and the very concrete novelist who has very few ideas, like Colette, is someone I tend to admire.
Yet you refer to yourself as being a very opinionated person. Now what is the difference between being opinionated and having ideas?
An essayist is someone who has thought about a subject deeply and knows what he thinks and reflects that in an essay. A novelist is somebody who has very divided feelings, but both sides of those feelings are held very strongly on particular questions. Fiction is finding which issues obsess you, but those obsessional issues are usually unresolved problems rather than neatly typed out position papers.
I'm interested to know how at this point in your life you feel about the "baggy grownups" that the narrator talks about in The Beautiful Room Is Empty, especially in light of the homosexual community's response to AIDS. That response seems contrary to the attention to youth and physical beauty, the dread of growing old described in your books.
The generation that came out and was liberated through Stonewall twenty years ago is now in its late forties. When AIDS came along a lot of gays in leadership positions suddenly had a whole new set of problems to deal with. It's true that there's been an extraordinary amount of discipline and courage and dignity in the way the gay community has responded to AIDS. Once the viral nature of AIDS was understood and the means of transmission were fully clear, which was not until 1984, then the gay community made a very rapid change to safe sex behaviors, and if you think how hard it is to change sexual patterns, it's quite remarkable that people have been able to show this degree of coherence, discipline, and versatility. So, yes, I agree with all these things. On the other hand though, I don't regret the stand I appear to be taking in my books, in favor of youth and beauty, because art is about beauty, and young people are more beautiful than old people. I respond to physical beauty, and I agree with the Platonic notion that physical beauty, at least in the mind of the perceiver, is close to spiritual beauty.
Many readers have pointed out that one of the things you learn from reading an Edmund White novel is how alike gay men and straight men are, and how similar the dynamics of couples. Yet in the heterosexual world, the perception is that men become more handsome as they age, more vivid and more interesting, and women don't. How do you account for that?
I think almost all the differences can be accounted for by saying that the homosexual world is one in which you have basically male attitudes interacting with other male attitudes. In other words you are getting a kind of a laboratory-pure sample of how men act when they are both the subject and the object of desire. Just as lesbianism represents the laboratory-pure sample of how women would be if they weren't interacting with men. There was a study a few years ago of straight couples, lesbian couples, and gay couples, and they found that if you took a certain age group, the gay male couples were having sex three times a week, the straight couples were having sex twice a week and the lesbian couples were having sex once a week. So you can really see heterosexuality as a compromise between female and male psychology. In the same way, I think that women have been socialized to admire power, and older men tend to be richer and more powerful than younger men. Men have been socialized to admire a kind of flashy, youthful beauty that has a high status as an object. Thus the gay youth cult really has nothing to do with anything mysterious and unique to the gay community. All it has to do with is the nature of male socialization versus the nature of female socialization.
At what point in your life did you shake off the self-loathing about your homosexuality that you write so fully about in your two autobiographical novels, A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty?
A big turning point was when I decided to sign my name to The Joy of Gay Sex. It was a way of committing myself to gay life and to becoming a "gay writer." Another turning point came in my early thirties, when instead of choosing a straight woman therapist as I had oftentimes done before with the idea that I would eventually be able to go straight, I chose a gay male therapist, accepting the fact that I was probably going to stay gay and male and that I simply wanted to become better adapted to that position in life. I must say that AIDS reawakened and reactivated some of the long-buried feeling I had of self-loathing, and I think it has for many gay men. We live in a sex-phobic society, one that doesn't approve of pleasure in general, and of sex in particular. Something that seems a scourge directed towards people because of their sexual behavior certainly can't help—especially for a Puritanical society like ours—reawakening feelings of self-loathing that I think can be resolved but never extirpated.
Your books deal with love as passion, as obsession, and as an illness, yet love takes on a deeper and different dimension in concert with death and grief in Nocturnes for the King of Naples.
A lot of my own unresolved childhood and adolescent feelings of wanting to actually have sex with my father and live with him as a lover were reactivated in the writing of this book. It was an extraordinarily unhappy period of my life. In order to support my nephew and his girlfriend, I was writing college textbooks, including a thousand-page history of the United States, which I worked on every day—the whole thing had to be done in a year. I thought, "Well, I'll never write another word of fiction at this rate"—my expenses had gone from about ten thousand dollars a year to about forty thousand dollars a year because I suddenly had these two kids to send to private schools and so on.
Then John Ashbery told me that he'd been going to a Jungian psychiatrist who was supposed to help writers, and she suggested that he stay in bed and write longhand for half an hour every morning. I don't think he followed that advice, but I did. That's how I wrote that whole book. I wrote it out of a desire to find some small thing for myself, some small place in my life for myself and it was that little half hour in bed in the morning.
Quite a bit of criticism about this book picks up on the "I and thou," the philosophical and the theological implications.
I was interested in writing a book that would be Baroque in the literal sense of the word. The Baroque period was one when physical and spiritual love were mixed up with each other. It's hard to tell with the statues of Bernini whether Saint Theresa is having an orgasm or a vision. It's hard to tell whether certain poems addressed to God are ecstatic or visionary. I was also interested in the Sufi poets, and Saint John of the Cross. The original edition included a comment by Mary Gordon, the Catholic writer, who said that she felt that this book was a reinvention of devotional literature. I was quite pleased that she said that because I did want to suggest that this kind of wild, unreciprocated passion that I'd been talking about and the soul's longing for God are similar emotions. They are both emotions that lead you away from life and the world, that are life-denying in a sense.
The resolution seems to confirm that notion, yet it's the most ecstatically sensual and sensory book that you have written.
It's funny because it's one of those books that I feel goes beyond me. I know when I wrote the last chapter especially, I never felt quite so released as a writer, as though everything was available to me and I could touch on so many different things. I think I was really more interested simply in creating patterns which I knew were drenched with meaning than I was in sorting out what those meanings would be. It's as though you are flying blind, without signals, but aware that later maybe you'll understand it all. That old idea that the artist is a flute being played on by divine breath is a good metaphor for the puzzlement that I oftentimes feel when I'm writing, a kind of sureness about technique, but an unsureness about what it all is going to be interpreted to mean.
Do you see yourself as an American writer or a European writer?
I don't know. When I'm in Europe, I feel like I'm an American, and when I'm in America I feel like a European. Stendhal complained of Byron that he wanted the nobles to treat him like a poet and the poets to treat him like a noble. There's a way that you can waffle on this and have a kind of international schizophrenia, but I think there's a rich way in which you can use it if you're honest with yourself. The Beautiful Room Is Empty and "Running on Empty" are the most American things I've ever written. They are rather simple, straightforward, and seem to take a pleasure in the Americanness of America, and both of those I wrote in Paris. When I move back here, I don't know whether I'll be feeling as nostalgic for Paris or whether I'll have a kind of new and ecstatic enthusiasm for America. I imagine what I'll have is both an ecstatic and a critical response to America. That should be interesting.
SOURCE: "Three times three," in Times Literary Supplement, July 30, 1993, p. 19.
[In the following review, Dyson complains that, "The problem with Trios is that it plays as if real dramatic skill in writing and direction has not been applied."]
Fresh from a biography of Jean Genet, Edmund White has presided over this revival of his 1990 three-hander, directed (as was that production) by Simon Usher and starring two of the original cast, Kelly Hunter and Robert Langdon Lloyd. But in fact the tone of this love triangle replayed in three different eras has much in common with the kind of sociological probing found in his life of the great provocateur. Visitors to this aircraft hangar of a theatre will see little of the humour and deftness of language which made such successes of White's autobiographical A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty. Trios is stuck firmly in the behavioural laboratory.
The starting point for each triangle is the same: a young woman (Hunter) is drawn from her marriage to an older husband (Langdon Lloyd) to have an affair with a younger man (played this time by newcomer Charles Edwards). In the first incarnation, the nineteenth-century society hostess rejects her suffocating marriage and elopes to the provinces with a dashing, penniless charmer. We then switch to an English country house in the 1920s where a deaf cook is tempted to seek solace from her brutal husband-chauffeur in the arms of the idealistic young houseboy planning to emigrate to Australia. And finally to a present-day open relationship in New York, where a striving young actress introduces her student lover to her washed-up artist husband.
The action darts back and forth between the three stories. "Dart" is the word: for every scene change the actors have to rush tables and chairs from one end of the long stage to the other and plunge themselves in and out of their period costumes. This is so cumbersome and time-consuming as to be comic, but the over-loud snatches of rock and country music played during these change-overs are just plain irritating. The effect is to drive a wedge between scenes when what we are presumably meant to be doing is considering their careful juxtaposition.
Evidently, the idea behind showing these stories being constructed is to reflect the play's central thesis that we all create fictions of ourselves and our relationships. For White in this play, love and all emotions are simply the constantly shifting products of time, place, prevailing social conditions and sexual instincts—"dressed up" and given spurious significance. Antony Lamble's sparse, uninspired set foregrounds this artificiality: three doors hang suspended in frames to the right and left and at the back, and beyond and between them we see the bricks and machinery of the theatre and the actors waiting their entrances and changing costumes.
The three stories of Trios are played out without much subtlety. The Victorian segment becomes something of a hammed-up Anna Karenina as the young lovers repent their hasty elopement and subsequent penury—the woman knowing society will not allow her to return to husband and son, the man aware he is locked in a doomed relationship. Only Edwards manages to snatch back some conviction here from bouts of lacklustre declaiming.
Meanwhile, below stairs, a generation on, the woman's social status as servant and wife and her disability mean that any kind of attempt to escape a violent marriage is not a realistic option and is likely to have disastrous consequences. A rather over-the-top Langdon Lloyd keeps the upper hand over a sharply, manically characterized Hunter—all nervous twitches and stifled shrieks—and a slightly sketchy Edwards.
Only in the modern section does White really seem to get the measure of his characters. Hippy Langdon Lloyd endearingly lollops around the stage and circles towards a growing attachment to the increasingly self-aware young student. Liberated modern woman, meanwhile, an unconvincingly physical Hunter, has the freedom to go elsewhere for sex and career progression. Here, White manages some convincing dialogue and humour—"I can never find Chicken Tarragon. It's listed under 'P'—Perfect Chicken Tarragon", exclaims Edwards over his cook book. And Hunter: "I want to love like in the olden days."
In his fiction and non-fiction books, White works with ideas similar to those in Trios. The pay-off in the books, however, is a beautiful style, with exact descriptions and imagery. The problem with Trios is that it plays as if real dramatic skill in writing and direction has not been applied.
SOURCE: "From celebration to elegy," in Times Literary Supplement, July 1, 1994, p. 13.
[In the following review, Powell complains that, "As so often in the book, [The Burning Library] White's admirable capacity for sympathetic understanding not only inhibits his critical judgment but actually weakens the case being argued."]
"Like any agile debater," confesses the student narrator of Edmund White's second autobiographical novel, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, "I could defend either side of the question, but I was too immoral to wonder which side was right." Within limits it's an entertaining and an engaging quality which for White becomes the literary dandy's irrepressible urge to try on new clothes, but it makes for some maddening contradictions and for the odd queasy moment when, beneath the loudest suit, there seems to be nothing but a tailor's dummy. In fact, this new collection of his essays spanning twenty-five years would have been a complicated, fragmented sort of book in any case, partly because its chronological range straddles the emergence of the AIDS crisis, and partly because of its symbiotic relationship with White's other writing—in particular with States of Desire, from which several chunks resurface verbatim in their original journalistic contexts.
States of Desire, jauntily subtitled Travels in Gay America, is a marvellous, often euphoric set of variations on the theme of the Great American Journey. White doesn't spend much time actually travelling; he just arrives, weary and hungry in equal measure, in a succession of places, each of which (even, incredibly, Salt Lake City) turns out to possess at least some degree of gay social life. Every so often, he digresses, in earnestly naive terms, into sexual politics or—for a memorable few pages—his Texan ancestry, interestingly concluding that "in old Texas what could not be named was unknowingly tolerated—a far cry from the half-informed Baptist bigotry of today". Mostly, though, that book was based on conversations with men he met on his travels, embellished with typically baroque touches and a winsome way with similes; Ned in Seattle, for instance, is "about as self-conscious as a mountain waterfall", even if the same can't be said of White's prose. In New York, he ponders an evolution of cultural styles from decadence through camp to the "new gay arts" but "cannot imagine a gay writer imitating the gray and brown abnegations of Joseph Conrad or the patient, dogged grumbling of late Céline". His stance is unblushingly upbeat, but that was how things seemed in 1980.
And that is how things seem for roughly half of The Burning Library. The earliest piece here, "The Gay Philosopher", written in 1969 and previously unpublished, meshes both with States of Desire ("The nature of gay life is that it is philosophical") and with the adolescent recollections of A Boy's Own Story, but it is chiefly significant for recapturing that strangely distant moment in the year of the Stonewall riot when the case for creating a "militant gay group of activists" had still to be argued, when an end to police harassment and a ban on discriminatory laws could still strike White as "far-fetched" demands; his youthful hedonism, culminating in the suggestion that "the promiscuity of many gay men is a vanguard experiment, a sort of trial run for the rest of the society", seems touchingly absurd. In 1977, addressing a university audience in Washington, DC, on "The Joys of Gay Life", he was still more optimistic, stressing the importance of friendship between gay people (though a statement such as "My old lovers have become close friends" rather raises the question "What, all of them?"):
We gays derive spiritual sustenance and emotional continuity from our friendships—and that is what allows us to weather things so well. Some psychological studies have suggested that gays are, all in all, better adjusted than straights, and I think it is our gift for friendship that makes us so seaworthy.
Nothing in these earlier essays has been more cruelly transformed by time's ironies than that, for those who are most sustained by their enduring friendships must be those most devastated by loss.
White runs the risk of sounding, as he admits, "like a complete pollyanna", but his fulsomeness here is generous, sympathetic and forgivable—"silly like us", as Auden said. More questionable, if only because it depends on the kind of false equation which too often props up his shakier debating points, is his endorsement in "Fantasia on the Seventies" of the "gay leather scene" as "more honest—and because it is explicit less nasty—than more conventional sex, straight or gay": that attempt to foist an irrelevant moral value on to a simple preference is a stratagem altogether worthy of his student self. More convincing, temporarily at least, is the explanation of the respectable professional's leather alter ego proposed in a slightly later essay, "Sado Machismo":
The children of the middle class grew up without seeing any signs of sexuality emanating from their daddies, those corporation drudges in bulky suits who never whistled at women or scratched their deodorized crotches. The only bare chests were those of construction workers; the only images of male raunch were of Marlon Brando astride his bike or caterwauling for Stella. There is no middle-class sexual style for men. What would it be based on? Golfing? Discussing stock options? Attending church? Downing highballs?
That certainly makes sense, and White's prose here has the tang it always takes on when he taps into his own lived experience; yet he only sets up the argument in order to trade it in for an anodyne theory about re-enacting "not our own private troubles but rather our society's nightmarish preoccupations with power, with might". Must pleasure be thus encumbered with sociological special pleading?
This unresolved tension between celebration and apologia becomes especially troublesome in the critical and analytical pieces. The essay on William Burroughs, for instance, begins in White's best down-there-on-a-visit style of reportage with some wonderfully grisly scene-setting, but when it comes to declaring his critical stance, he ducks the issue: "Nor can I disagree with his esthetics. He is against realistic novels, which he dismisses as 'journalism'." That seems a preposterous evasion or a mere untruth, for such a consummately elegant realist as White. An essay on Truman Capote, not improved by dreadful scissors-and-paste editing which attempts to interweave two separate short articles, reads even more oddly; here some sensible comments on the work—"One can imagine this purist cutting down Proust's usual three adjectives to the single limpid one, with a predictable loss of chiaroscuro and gain in brightness and resolution"—find themselves marooned in a rhapsodic muddle about the New York heat, Capote's frequent comings and goings, the altogether more charismatic arrival and departure of Robert Mapplethorpe.
Mapplethorpe, himself the subject of two other pieces, ensnares both White and his editor, David Bergman, as he has ensnared practically everyone who's dared to write about him. "What White values about Mapplethorpe's photographs", Bergman claims in his introduction, "is their obscenity—their refusal to submit themselves to domestication, to the social framework of the good and useful." But that is not what obscenity means; nor is it what White says. He admires Mapplethorpe's "irresponsibility", adding that "passion, like art, is always irresponsible, useless, an end in itself, regulated by its own impulses and nothing else"; yet this would equally support the notion of art's responsibility to ideals beyond the utilitarian, and the distant echo it so curiously seems to invoke is none other than E. M. Forster's eloquent case for the supreme uselessness of literature in Aspects of the Novel. Beyond White's masquerade of cultural iconoclasm lurks an endearingly conventional writer who reveres the "old model of communication" and who on two occasions records his admiration for Jane Austen (as well as for Barbara Pym, whom he regards as her modern counterpart). These are strange though actually not incomprehensible bedfellows for Mapplethorpe, whose cause might anyway be better served simply by noting that he was an extremely witty pornographer who also took some stunning pictures of flowers; White's subsequent "eulogy"—"All the time Robert seemed to be guarding a big secret, an amusing but tricky and intimate secret"—rather suggests that he wasn't remotely fooled by the grand theorizing prompted by his work.
The emergence of AIDS inescapably bisects the book and shadows the sunny assurance of its first half. In a way which now seems superficially shocking but which is in its chronological context wholly understandable, White's earliest reference to the "mysterious and usually fatal affliction" comes as a casual aside in a 1983 essay called, with grim retrospective irony, "Paradise Found", which also contains his blandest affirmations of an "easygoing fraternity of sex and sociability"; much more shrewdly prescient (and, in the same piece, starkly contrasting) is an analysis of the way gay liberation modulated, or became corrupted, into gay consumerism:
From the perspective of the present, we can now look back at the beginning of gay liberation and observe that it flowered exactly at the moment when gays became identified, by themselves and by their market, as a distinct group of affluent and avid consumers…. Unfortunately, today this rampant and ubiquitous consumerism not only characterises gay spending habits but also infects attitudes towards sexuality: gays rate each other quantitatively according to age, physical dimensions and income: and all too many gays consume and dispose of each other, as though the very act of possession brought about instant obsolescence.
It's a stern and uncharacteristically sour note for such a cheerful immoralist to strike.
But by the time we reach "Esthetics and Loss", the predominant tone has deepened from celebration into elegy, approaching just that Conradian darkness which White's younger self couldn't imagine in a gay writer. This essay is one of his finest, with raw personal experience and writerly eloquence in an exact creative balance, and it catches the puzzling essence of a moment when "I, for one, feel repatriated to my lonely adolescence, the time when I was alone with my writing and I felt weird about being queer". Human life had suddenly become mysteriously and incurably evanescent in a way which would have been unthinkable five years earlier: "It's just like the Middle Ages", says White, though we might equally recall the impact, at once traumatic and creative, of syphilis on Renaissance England, a psychological effect memorably compared by A. P. Rossiter to that of myxomatosis on a thinking rabbit. White argues that a "writer or visual artist responds to this fragility as both a theme and as a practical limitation—no more projects that require five years to finish", which is possibly an over-literal view: the proximity of AIDS might just as well spur the urgency which dissuades the artist from deferring the start of the magnum opus until tomorrow. Thus, when he writes (in "Out of the Closet, on to the Bookshelf"), "The grotesque irony is that at the very moment so many writers are threatened with extinction gay literature is healthy and flourishing as never before", he accurately records but inaccurately interprets a phenomenon which is less a "grotesque irony" than an exact instance, of a kind understood by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, of the way in which art invariably works—with the dance of love and death as its oldest, most enduring theme.
Strangely and perhaps heroically, White sustains his equable stance of urbane generosity almost to the end of The Burning Library, only rarely revealing the kind of helpless fury which is provoked by a partly self-inflicted injury:
In America gays have been ghettoized or so thoroughly identified with AIDS that their opinions on all other topics seem irrelevant to the public at large. Nor does such a public exist, since we're parceled out into so many special-interest, single-issue factions.
After so many well-tempered pages, this burst of impatience seems long overdue. Regrettably it doesn't spill over into the critical pieces, which end with an over indulgent essay on Hervé Guibert, who is mildly described as belonging to "a tough Continental line of writers": though he lacks the "charity and emotion" of Larry Kramer or Paul Monette and the "psychological realism and moral exactitude" of Adam Mars-Jones, he scrapes by on "rhetorical panache", which sounds like a poor third. As so often in the book, White's admirable capacity for sympathetic understanding not only inhibits his critical judgment but actually weakens the case being argued. Yet when he writes on a figure of unquestionable literary significance, such as Isherwood, he is reduced to tongue-tied reverence: A Single Man is indeed "one of the first and best novels of the modern gay liberation movement", but the claim is so blandly formulated that it reads curiously like an undervaluation. In taking his critical bearings from Arthur Symons—who, he says, "stood in an equally benign relationship to his subject and to his reader"—White runs the risk of his advocacy becoming indistinguishable from his goodwill.
Although the essays on literary subjects make up the weaker strand of The Burning Library, they nevertheless form an essential part of its untidy, intricate fabric. If the book seems unresolved, a patchwork of modulating and sometimes contradictory views, that indicates its fidelity to the peculiar quarter-century which it chronicles; it concludes with a typically passionate, ramshackle speech given in November 1993, in which White argues against "the whole concept of a canon" and for "the full implications of pluri-culturalism", upbeat to the end. It is a further measure of the age's strangeness that White's tolerant generosity should now seem so much more disquieting than his intermittent anger and despair.
SOURCE: "From the Stonewall to The Burning Library," in The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, Vol. I, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 5-8.
[In the following interview, White discusses his career and his life as a gay writer.]
Cambridge University scholar Ryan Prout interviewed the renowned author while Edmund White was in England last May. White's The Burning Library, a collection of his major essays over a 25-year period, has just been published by Knopf. This even offered an occasion for Mr. White, who lives in Paris, to reflect on his work to date as well as his life as a gay writer and expatriate.
[Prout:] The most recent Cambridge University LesBiGay Newsletter describes you as a "queer hero" and suggests that you might be "A much better model for Cambridge grads than anything the present Cabinet has to offer." How do you feel about being read as a hero and about being a gay role model?
[White:] I'm 54 years old now, and the rate at which time flies by can seem quite amazing, particularly if you don't have children and so you don't have this constant reminder that you're aging. Although it's now twenty-five years ago, it seems like only yesterday that the Stonewall uprising took place in 1969. Just by accident I was in that uprising and almost immediately after it took place I wrote a letter to Anne and Alfred Corn who were friends of mine living in Paris at the time. In this letter, which is reproduced in The Violet Quill Reader, I described the whole event as I saw it then in a kind of semi-comical way. I certainly had no idea that Stonewall was going to be a great turning point in gay history or history at all, or in my own life. But it did have consequences.
I moved to Rome right away, and when I came back a year later I joined a gay consciousness-raising group. I started off both as a writer and as a person thinking that my experience was so peculiar that it wouldn't mean anything to anybody, and now I've ended up seeing myself being almost banally representative of my generation of gay men. It seems to me as if almost everything I do reflects what everybody in my generation is doing, including being HIV positive.
I've avoided that question about being a hero because I don't have any sense of that at all. I think this is because, firstly, I live in France where there's no such thing as a really vital gay movement, and secondly, since I'm not very well known there anyway, I've been protected from the consequences of being a hero, if that's what I am.
I just watched again your interview with Jeremy Isaacs and from that I had the impression that you'd returned to America.
I did go back in 1991 to teach at Brown University. Then, when he became ill and we had no health care for my lover, Hubert Sorin, who just died about six weeks ago of AIDS, we had to move back to France, which was no hardship anyway. We wanted to be back. So I only stayed a year-and-a-half in America.
As The Burning Library shows, you're someone who's deeply immersed in French culture and you've said that from an early age you had always dreamt of going to France. Why is that?
It not only seemed like a great intellectual center, but I think, for me, it seemed like a place where bohemianism and intellectuality and a certain kind of glossy "high society" came together, and indeed they do. In other words, I think in America you find rather dowdy professors who can only talk about their own field and who have no general conversation and no notion at all that what they're doing might be of interest to nonspecialists, and then you have rich people who are very dull and never read a book, and then you have bohemians who are usually not very sure of themselves any more because they've been so overshadowed, if they're painters, for instance, by the marketplace. It's as if whatever bohemian values there were in America, let's say from the beginning of the century to about 1955 or 1960, got wiped out by the values of the marketplace. But in France, it seems to me that the strange confluence of these various elements still exists, a kind of worldly sophistication that joins with a real dedication to the arts and to reading and to making art, and especially to consuming art. I like that about France.
You've also given the impression in previous interviews that it's much easier to be gay in France because you don't have to be gay, that is, a gay life as such doesn't exist there. When I mentioned to a gay acquaintance that you had said this, he suggested that though that may be the case for a well known writer from abroad, it certainly isn't the case for French people themselves, especially those living in provincial France.
I don't think you need to be famous or a writer to have a very nice gay life in France—that is, a gay life of the kind that I like, which is one in which you're oftentimes integrated into the straight world. Now, when I go back to America and I attend an all-male dinner party, it always strikes me as weird. In France, what seems to be more usual, to give you an example, is the kind of dinner party I gave last night where I think all but one of the men was gay and all the women were straight. That seems to be what usually happens.
In your essay"The Joys of Gay Life"you say that one of the advantages to being gay is that we're introspective. Comparing your approach to dealing with the AIDS crisis to, say, someone like Derek Jarman's, I wanted to ask you if an introspective attitude to HIV can enhance gay culture without reducing it to a single issue, which is what you say we must be careful to avoid.
I was one of the five founding members of the Gay Men's Health Crisis in America as well as its first president. What I realized very quickly was that if I remained an AIDS activist I would never write another word. When I look at Larry Kramer I realize that he is a hero. He really has dedicated himself to AIDS activism, a choice which I think is a noble one and one which meant that there are quite a few books which he might have written which he hasn't. I made the other choice. I think what I've been trying to do with the Genet biography, for instance, is precisely to remind people that gay culture can be about things other than AIDS. I remember reading Richard Ellman's Oscar Wilde at a fairly early point in the AIDS crisis. It came to me as a wonderful breath of fresh air because I thought "It's great to be reminded of this important cultural hero who lived long before the AIDS era." Genet, though he died in 1986 and made one or two remarks about AIDS, basically never thought about it and it didn't touch his life.
When I heard you talking about the biography when it was published in this country, it struck me that the fact that you'd dedicated so much time to producing a work on the life of someone else was in its own way just as heroic a gesture as that of someone like Larry Kramer.
Thank you. Larry Kramer was somewhat vexed with me at the time although now I think he's forgiven me. He thought that if you were gay and were a writer or in any way a spokesperson you should feel obliged to talk about AIDS and nothing but AIDS one hundred percent of the time. But I had more the take that I think you're suggesting, which is that it was important that gay culture not be reduced to a single issue. Now I'm writing a novel in which I deal with both the 70's and the 80's, that's to say with the periods both before and after the outbreak of AIDS. So, I suppose there's a kind of natural trajectory to the book. But I'm not really writing it chronologically. I write about the earlier period and then I skip forward to the present. It's a kind of mélange of "before" and "after" because I feel that either period is unendurable alone. If you just wrote about everybody having lots of sex in the 70's and ended a book there, which is what I originally intended to do, I think it would be intolerable. And if you wrote a book only about everyone dying, I think that would also be pretty grim. Something that I do constantly in my own thoughts is to mix the two periods, and the book's form reproduces my own mental experience to produce what I hope will be an interesting approach.
When I first learned the title of the new anthology of your essays and critical work I was reminded of something that Bulgakov said, which was that the one thing that doesn't burn is a document. Would you say something about your views on writing and testimony?
I've heard various sources for the expression on which the title is based. An old French woman who's about 80 now told me that her mother used to tell her when she was a girl, "You must pay attention to what I'm saying because when I'm dead it's as though a library will have burned." And some French people say "Quand une vieille personne meurt, c'est comme une bibiiothèque qui brûle." Other people have told me that the expression comes from Africa and yet other people ascribe it to a particular African writer but they can't remember which one. Marina Warner sent me a citation from a Caribbean woman poet whose use of the phrase suggested it was a local saying. But in any event, wherever it comes from, it seems to be quite a common expression. It suggests that the writer's job is to try to take down some of the experiences of other people before they all go up in flames. And I think, having lived through the AIDS era and having witnessed many of my friends leaving no testimonials behind, I have felt very strongly the oblivion of mortality and that the writer, maybe, can push that back a little bit, at least for a short time.
You once characterized the life cycle of Gay Liberation as being like a May fly's: "Oppressed in the 50's, liberated in the 60's, exalted in the 70's and wiped out in the 80's."
I think that was hasty. It hasn't really been wiped out at all. When I said that in 1988 or thereabouts, it was before I went back to America, and so I wasn't aware of the tremendously vital upsurge of gay culture there that had been stimulated precisely by AIDS activism. In France, Gay Liberation has pretty well died out. Like feminism and other liberation movements, it is subject to a rapid cycle of being "à la mode" and then "démodé." Now you find that in France if you say you're a gay liberationist people will snee: and ask, "How can you possibly do something so démodé?" Identification with the feminist movement provokes the same response. There is no feminism in France. Since they're completely forgotten there, French people can't believe that writers like Luce Irigaray or Hélène Cixous are famous in America. Even Julia Kristeva is seen differently depending on which country you're in. So, living in France I just wasn't aware that gay culture was alive and thriving in America. Now I am aware of it, but I'm not entirely happy with it, as the last essay in the book, "The Personal is Political," suggests.
Obviously, chronology is important in the way the anthology is organized. One of the essays is about Goytisolo and, to ask a Goytisolian question, should we read the collection backwards or forwards? Which way are we going?
I suppose it depends on how much you've thought about these things. To some readers, the beginning could seem terribly basic and they'd want to skip ahead. It's interesting to me that young people, your age, whom I thought knew all about the history of gay liberation and would take it for granted, were surprised that as early on as the beginning of the 70's we were already thinking about all these same issues that are still being debated today. I think that when people see the early dates for some of those essays—"The Gay Philosopher," for example—they're amused to notice that we were already debating gay identity in 1970.
What struck me in reading the early essays was just how late it was in terms of general modern history that things began to change so that 25 years later it would be acceptable for someone like me to say to the powers that be at Cambridge, for example, I want to study questions of homosexuality. I was surprised to realize in reading your essays that it's only such a short time ago that this would have been completely out of the question.
Yes, it's amazing how quickly things have evolved. But there are still many contradictions. My boyfriend Hubert was astonished that I was hired by Brown University because I was homosexual, and that in the same town where the university is located, Providence, Rhode Island, you could be beaten up for being homosexual. He said, "In France we would have neither one nor the other; there's no fag bashing but neither would you ever be allowed to talk about your personal life in the classroom." I think most French people still see homosexuality as being something strictly personal which you shouldn't mention one way or the other, just as you shouldn't mention how many mistresses you have if you're heterosexual.
You talk about writers like Marguerite Yourcenar and Nietzsche, who don't so much evolve as endlessly tease out themes set very early on in their lives. Do you see your own writing as evolutionary? What have been the most significant changes in the twenty-four years of writing covered by the anthology?
I think the evolving consciousness is reflected more in my fiction than in my non-fiction. My first two novels, Forgetting Elena and Nocturnes for the King of Naples, were, broadly speaking, avant garde or non-realistic novels. Forgetting Elena wasn't even openly homosexual, only covertly homosexual and Nocturnes for the King of Naples was similarly very exalted and poetic in its tone. I think it's only really with A Boy's Own Story that I began to write simply and autobiographically about my own experience and about homosexuality. I like to think that I kept in a lot of the complexities found in the earlier novels in treating that theme. A young writer today would probably start off with A Boy's Own Story; and a lot of people assume it was my first novel, when in fact it was the fourth or fifth.
I think it took me quite a while to reach homosexuality as the primary subject matter of a novel. It was partly a question of my own need to undo a strictly personal reticence in talking about that material. I was able to do this in my writing. In Nocturnes, for instance, I dealt with the problems I had with my father on a fantasy level and translated them into extremely different terms that would have been unrecognizable to him. Then, in A Boy's Own Story, which I wrote after his death, I was able to tackle him as a subject much more directly, simply and factually. In the same way, I think Caracole was an attempt to look at the interrelationship between sex and power, but again on a fantasy level in a socalled heterosexual world. It's not a gay book. After Caracole, in The Beautiful Room is Empty, I was able to approach the same subject matter, sex and politics, sex and power, but homosexually and autobiographically.
In other words, I would say that oftentimes I seem to need to go through a stage of trying out new material on a fantasy level before I can deal with it autobiographically. But I like both kinds of writing. When I started off as a writer I was very impressed by a remark of Valéry's (Gide said the same thing in his Journals): He said that if you were a good writer you should lose with each new book the admirers you had gained with the preceding one; in other words, you should be radically changing each time you write. I felt that people would be dazzled by how virtuoso I was and how I never was repeating myself. But, in fact, everybody now discusses my oeuvre, tiny as it is, as though it's totally coherent, which surprises me because I don't see the coherence myself. But I'm happy that people discuss it at all.
From your later essays I have the impression that you think the essentialist-constructionist debate is fairly boring and stagnant. At the same time, though, there seems to be a conflict between positions within that debate in your own writing, a conflict which appears to be quite fruitful for you. Bergman writes that for you "The body is the only way we can have a sense of our being in the world," yet you yourself, when you're talking about the ad hoc-ness of gay living arrangements, for example, say that because these arrangements have no name they're almost invisible. The contest between an ontology of language and an ontology of the body seems to be an important one in your work.
It's funny because I was just talking to some French people about a similar contradiction that I think you can find in the work of Barthes. It seems to me that he's always holding out for the body as though it's something that you can oppose to the doxa and that doesn't seem to me to be rational. But now you're saying to me that I do the same and I think you're perfectly right. I suppose we all have some Edenic notion of something that's going to be unmodified by culture, of something that remains primal and instinctual. Although we've all been trained not to think that way, what often happens is that the target is shifted in order to posit some new thing as the element which precedes culture, as that which is nature. David Bergman may find that process inflecting my writing, but I myself don't see it. What I find is more of an irrational attraction to beauty, to physical beauty. I think that I find beauty to be a self-evident value.
Last night I had a young German woman staying with me at my apartment in Paris. She's a Genet scholar, very Protestant and very German. When I said something about it being obvious that people would fall in love with somebody as beautiful as X she said "How can you say that!" She was quite outraged and she seemed to find that perspective almost immoral. I said, "But you're an artist, aren't you, and don't you respond to beauty?" "Yes," she said, "But intellectual beauty or artistic beauty." My response to that was to say, "But physical beauty is the same kind of beauty." I'm a Platonist in that sense, I guess. I do see a coherence between all forms of beauty. And I find it strange that American politically correct people should accuse me of being a "looksist"—that's their word—as though that were some terrible folly that needed to be eradicated. I have fallen in love with ugly people and I can probably find the beauty in most people. I can even be sexually indifferent to physical beauty but I will always respect it.
In The Burning Library you talk about how those gay people are still imprisoned in so many ways. I wondered if you would expand on that idea and perhaps talk a bit about the differences between America and Britain where gay oppression is concerned.
What happens, I think, is that there's a small group composed of people who are self-identified as gay, who are usually from a middle-class background, who have independent means and who step up the rhetoric. They will say "We must all be gay and in very evolved ways with a very high consciousness" and so on. The trouble with that elevated level of rhetoric is that it leaves behind in the dust the millions of people who are still coming out. I'm actually going out now with a 20-year-old Englishman who's from a working class background and he's completely tormented by the question of coming out. He flies into a terrible fit of anxiety if anybody suspects him of being gay. Of course, he chose the wrong person to go out with! Again and again I see this same battle being fought because a young gay man coming out today isn't being brought up by gay people. He's being brought up by working-class parents in, say, Hackney, so he's got to deal with their values and he's got to work through gay history all over again for himself.
I think we forget that the conservative values of society have to be faced again and again by each generation. It can be dangerous when gay leaders have evolved so far that they've lost touch with this very primary coming out experience. Some evolved and self-identified gay people are very bored with the whole idea of coming out because we've heard too much about it, but it will always be there as a theme.
You say quite defiantly at one point that nobody has the right to deny anybody else's feelings or his or her own account of them. Do you think the way that mainstream society reacts to gay people's experience of grief is another demonstration of how some people's feelings continue to be less respectable than others?
I started seeing a psychotherapist about four weeks before my lover died. He died six weeks ago and I'm still seeing the therapist. One of the things he keeps saying to me is that all the friends around me, most of whom are heterosexual, aren't letting me grieve in the way I want to grieve. He says they either think it's sacrilegious that I'm already going out with somebody else or they think that I'm not being sufficiently courageous if I break down and start crying. In other words, you have to follow the rhythm that the dominant environment dictates. My therapist said "To hell with them, you really have to grieve in the way that you want to and in the way that feels natural to you." I only cite my personal experience there because it's the one I know best, but maybe everyone who grieves finds that there's a program to it. Interestingly, I thought, the therapist told me, "Well, writing is a defense." I dwelt on that idea for a week and it occurred to me that perhaps it's true that writers are somehow able to distance their feelings through writing about them. But, on the other hand, if you are a writer you are obliged to be honest. You can't repeat the standard myths, like the one of the dead beloved that most people resort to. You have to keep even your resentments alive and you probably have to entertain the negative thoughts longer than most people would feel comfortable doing. In other words, if you're a writer I think you take into account and entertain for longer than anybody else would the feelings of abandonment and of anger that you have towards the person who's left you, by dying.
Do you think you will write about your partner?
I'm very eager to, actually, and I'm already taking lots of notes. Joe Brainard is a wonderful American writer who's about to die. He wrote something called I Remember which inspired Georges Perec to write a book called Je me souviens. Now I'm doing something I think of as "Je me souviens Hubert." This is simply a notebook for myself in which I put down all the things I remember about him. Just the little things, like the stories he would tell me about his aunt. But again, it's an example of The Burning Library: it's the details which count, which keep someone alive.
If you had to write a Ph.D. thesis on the works of Edmund White, what would it be about?
About somebody who was subjected to a tension arising from two very different sets of expectations: one set came from a literary community that wasn't particularly gay-identified and the other came from a gay community that wasn't particularly literary. I think the tension has been a fruitful one and an unusual one for a writer. It wasn't until Nabokov praised my first book that a lot of literary people who had previously shown no interest in my work and who certainly weren't interested in homosexuality began to think that I might be a writer worth watching. I was very aware of that. It took me years to get anything published at all, so I was enormously grateful to Nabokov for the interest that he had shown in my work because it got me started as a writer and I was already well into my thirties when that happened. The difficulties I'd had in getting started and Nabokov's interest were very real influences on the way I thought about the work that I was then in the process of doing.
On the other hand, after Nocturnes, I was already very much writing for a gay audience that had almost no books at that point. This was an audience eager for me to write in a kind of programmatic way, presenting positive gay heroes, something I always resisted. But I was aware of it. To me that is what would make an interesting thesis, to show somebody at the crux between a set of aesthetic expectations and a set of political expectations from two entirely different groups.
SOURCE: "Intimations of Mortality," in The New York Times Book Review, July 23, 1995, p. 6.
[In the following review, Dickstein discusses White's Skinned Alive and asserts that, "In writing about AIDS yet keeping it at bay, he has turned a mortal threat into a surprising source of literary strength."]
Among gay writers of his generation. Edmund White has emerged as the most versatile man of letters. A cosmopolitan writer with a deep sense of tradition, he has bridged the gap between gay subcultures and a broader literary audience. Besides five elegant novels, he has written a sex manual, a travel book about gay America, an award-winning biography of Jean Genet, a fine collection of literary essays and now a volume of mostly autobiographical stories that contains some of his best work.
Born in 1940, raised in the Midwest by parents originally form Texas, Mr. White spent two decades in New York before decamping to Paris in the early 1980's and his stories deal vividly with all three worlds—a young man growing up in Middle America, making his way uncertainly as an artist and homosexual in New York, and struggling with the depredations of aging and the AIDS virus as an expatriate in Europe. Yet over the years his style, his very conception of fiction, has changed even more strikingly than the settings he writes about.
Before the 1970's, when direct professions of homosexuality were taboo, writers from Oscar Wilde to Cocteau and Genet made their mark with works that were often theatrical, oblique, florid and artificial. The strategies of concealment many gay people used in their lives were turned into richly layered artistic strategies by gifted writers, choreographers, directors and set designers. For the writers, wit and paradox became more important than sincerity, since sincerity meant self-acceptance (which could be difficult) and self-exposure (which could be dangerous); style, baroque fantasy and sensuous detail were disguises that suited them far better than verisimilitude or realism. Oscar Wilde built a whole Nietzschean esthetic on "lying," and only devolved into plain speaking (in De Profundis) when his whole life had gone to pieces.
Edmund White's early books were no exception. After years of working for Time Inc. while trying his luck as a playwright, he brought out two lushly conceived Nabokovian novels that were as elaborate as they were emotionally distant. At a time when the confessional mode was in vogue and the plain style of Raymond Carver was on the horizon, Mr. White stepped forth as a mandarin esthete, winning applause from literary elders as different as Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag and Nabokov himself, who was little given to promiscuous enthusiasm.
But great changes were in the air. A gay liberation movement had emerged from the Stonewall uprising of 1969, and Mr. White set out to report on it in vigorous, personal prose for Christopher Street, a gay magazine, and in States of Desire: Travels in Gay America. Thanks to the freer atmosphere, he argued in that book, the old stratagems of indirection and concealment were less necessary, though he still wondered whether "art at its best should be evasive and quirky." Soon writers like Armistead Maupin and David Leavitt would be dealing with gay relationships in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way, as Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams had begun to do in the late 1940's.
Mr. White's descent into journalistic writing and his crosscountry encounters with gay liberation enlarged his sense of American life and dramatically altered his fiction. His next novel felt like finely honed personal history. Crisp and fresh in its language, unguarded in its autobiographical simplicity, A Boy's Own Story was a touching evocation of the childhood of a misfit. But its more raunchy sequel, The Beautiful Room is Empty—his entry into the "City of Night" / "Our Lady of Flowers" sweepstakes—put introspection aside for the shock value of cruising public toilets and masochistic self-abasement. Though beautifully written, it was frighteningly hollow.
Darkened by illness, the stories in Skinned Alive give up pornographic detail for emotional honesty. Nearly all belong to what Mr. White himself (in his Genet biography) calls "auto-fiction": edited memories that consciously blur the line between invention and recollection, novel and memoir, story and inventory. The stories have the slightly shapeless quality of real life and the haphazard way we tend to remember it. Where Mr. White's earlier novels were highly patterned and oblique, these loosely structured stories unfold casually; their drift conveys his sense of gay sexual relationships as impermanent. "I had never been happy in love," says a character who is clearly a stand-in for the author; fidelity is "as barbaric as female circumcision." Now the frantic hedonism of the 1970's is a distant rumor. Mr. White himself is H.I.V. positive, and many of the stories take on the elegiac tone of someone looking back over a life that's slipping through his fingers, reliving old pleasures and disappointments, conjuring up the people who really mattered to him.
The first piece, "Pyrography," could be an outtake from A Boy's Own Story. It's a glimpse of the 1950's that sketches the emotional complications of a camping trip taken by a shy gay teen-ager with two straight buddies. In "Reprise," an older boy whom the narrator had a crush on at the age of 14—which led his divorced parents to send him to a shrink to "cure" him—reappears 40 years later and goes to bed with him, just once. In "Watermarked," the reprise takes place only in recollection. "I've written various versions of my youth but I've always left my first real lover," the story begins. "He's been stamped onto every page of my adult life as a watermark, though sometimes faintly."
Some longer AIDS stories avoid this breezy tone, but they are rarely somber. In one sense nearly all these pieces are AIDS stories, because it's the feeling of mortality that drives the writer to pull together his fugitive memories. But Mr. White sidesteps the tragic note for a more bemused and rueful tone—a French tone, ironic, never at a loss, always worldly and knowing. "Watermarked" ends with a long letter to the old friend and lover, in which AIDS is merely the background music that will usher the two men from the stage. ("You and I are both positive and our prospects aren't exactly brilliant.") Call it denial. Or call it Mr. White's essayistic bent for intellectual comedy, his refusal to let the disease dominate his imagination.
But in the best stories, like "Running on Empty," "Skinned Alive," "An Oracle" and "Palace Days," the author sometimes gives way to a sadness that reverberates more deeply than in anything else he has written. These are not AIDS stories but stories about people with AIDS, not so much wrestling with awful symptoms as coping with what remains of their lives. Writing some months ago in The New Yorker, Arlene Croce questioned whether the horrors of the disease, by eliciting a predictable pathos or rage, were not somehow inimical to art. The answer is simply that, like the grotesque inhumanities of the Holocaust, they make real art more elusive, a more terrible challenge. Mr. White wins this desperate wager by keeping AIDS darkly present yet peripheral to the Proustian endgame of living in the moment while reclaiming the past.
Skinned Alive is the right phrase for the painful, terminal exposure and hard-won candor of these stories. A sick man returns to visit his family in Texas, fearful of slipping back into their orbit if his illness worsens. Two men, no longer lovers but still living together, find they have each other when illness strikes all around them. A man goes to Greece to get over the death of his partner and falls desperately in love with a young Greek from whom he is buying sex, and who knows far better than he does that this feeling is a delusion. Abandoned by his French lover, a writer gives us a wickedly witty story about him, the story we're reading, complete with anatomical detail and cutting comparisons of French and American manners, in and out of bed. Though AIDS puts heavy pressure on these stories, each is essentially about people getting by, still playing the mating game or recalling the carefree way it was once played.
The sense of an ending gives the best of these stories an almost unearthly beauty. Though I was put off by the characters' "ideological horror of marriage as a model" and their "unreflecting appetite for pleasure," I was all the more moved by the sustaining quality of friendship in their lives. Mr. White's subject has always taken the permutations of desire and the impermanence of love, when AIDS exaggerates but friendship allays. Spending the last of many vacations with a dying friend, "Mark heard the radio and the typewriter, these faint life signals Joshua was emitting," Mr. White writes in "Palace Days": "He wanted to know how to enjoy these days without clasping them so tightly he'd stifle the pleasure. But he didn't want to drug himself on the moment either and miss out on what was happening to him. He was losing his best friend, the witness to his life. The skill for enjoying a familiar pleasure about to disappear was hard to acquire…. Knowing how to appreciate the rhythms of these last casual moments—to cherish them while letting them stay casual—demanded a new way of navigating time."
In passages like this, Edmund White the elegist, the essayist, the autobiographer and the novelist come together. These are fragments of memory, not tales with traditional beginnings and ends, but their anecdotal shape provides a much-needed narrative frame, and the constant presence of death gives the writing a heft and seriousness often missing before. This epidemic has heightened the immediacy of his work without washing out its human texture. In writing about AIDS yet keeping it at bay, he has turned a mortal threat into a surprising source of literary strength.
SOURCE: "Apologising," in London Review of Books, August 24, 1995, pp. 12-13.
[In the following review, Wood discusses White's The Burning Library and Skinned Alive.]
Edmund White has always struggled between appeasing the gods of his art and paying off the princelings of politics. Endearingly, and sometimes infuriatingly, he insists on doing both, and the result often leaves his pockets rather empty. Thus in his book of selected journalism, The Burning Library, he can move from a sublime celebration of Nabokov's 'greatness' to a demand that 'even the hierarchy inherent in the concept of a canon must be jettisoned.' It is how he is able, in a piece about Robert Mapplethorpe, to argue that 'passion, like art, is always irresponsible, useless, an end in itself, regulated by its own impulses and nothing else' and to propose in another that the best gay writing should be a combination of confession, reportage and witness.
His deepest aesthetic impulse, one suspects, is for a priestly withdrawal, surpliced in the vestments of concealment; but his heart, his politics and his obvious humanity keep him very much a senator of the loud city-state that is gay aesthetics and politics.
White's journalism is often strange because it appears to borrow crazy opinions without wanting to own them. Its pulse rate is slow. It is always humane, intelligent, but without serration. There is hardly a critical word for anyone in The Burning Library. Like his fiction, it is loose, free, occasionally idle and sometimes beautiful (White has a Nabokovian capacity for the splash of metaphor). Unlike his fiction, it has no talent for intimacy. His style is not very natural. The sentences refuse to lie down, and often he turns the page into a lecture hall. Even the best essay in the book, his fine celebration of Nabokov, has a kind of aural clatter: 'I may also seem to be saying that if Lolita, the supreme novel of love in the 20th century, is a parody of earlier love novels, we should not be surprised, since love itself—the very love you and I experience in real life—is also a parody of earlier novels … If I made such an assertion, or if I attributed it to Nabokov, I would be subscribing to the approach to literature and art advanced by Roland Barthes.' White's journalistic style is frequently lustreless, in striking contrast to the gloss of his fictional prose: 'In another passage the harsh power of clichés is invoked.' He can be pedagogical while being platitudinous: Christina Stead 'resists the evil reductionism of our culture and never "totalises" the self (an ugly but useful word)'; 'In great fiction the language is not only satisfying in itself, but it also fulfils larger purposes of design.'
This suggests that White is not a very natural critic, which matters little because he is so clearly a natural writer. His reports on gay identity and sexuality collected in this book are generally much more robust and engaging than his criticism of other writers. They tell a story—both personal and collective—of tentative beginnings, discovered confidence, sexual freedom and increasing politicisation. Aesthetically, the shift of the book is away from the high art of Nabokov towards a literature of witness and anti-canonical sweat. We watch a civilian militarise himself.
In the first piece in the book, 'The Gay Philosopher', written in the late Sixties, White provides a journalistic account, in effect, of the world of his autobiographical novel of childhood, A Boy's Own Story, when he writes of the damage done to homosexuals by society's determination to see their sexuality as an illness, a crime or a sin. White was 29, and had himself been in 'corrective' analysis. Obviously if homosexuals regard themselves as "sick" and most of them I know do, that belief cannot help but have a disastrous effect on their self-esteem.' He toys with a notion that only a few years later will become axiomatic, that of the homosexual 'as a member of a minority group, like the Jew or Negro or possibly the worker. Employing this metaphor can produce a whole range of fascinating insights.' Eight years later, in his essay 'Fantasia on the Seventies', White is appraising a decade in which, apparently, only half of the Sixties capital had made any interest: there is lots of sex, but political militancy has proved unsuccessful. 'Sexual permissiveness became a form of numbness, as rigidly codified as the old morality. Street cruising gave way to half-clothed quickies.' Life was psychically easier—'We don't hate ourselves so much,—but 'gay liberation as a militant programme has turned out to be ineffectual, perhaps impossible.' In 1983, as Aids is just beginning its destruction, White writes in 'Paradise Found' that 'today, 14 years after the Stonewall Uprising and the beginning of gay liberation, there is a great deal more self-acceptance among gays, even a welcome show of arrogance.'
It is the last moment of political serenity in the book. By the late Eighties, the garden gates have been shut. White writes elegiacally that 'what seems unquestionable is that ten years ago sex was for gay men a reason for being. Not simple, humdrum coupling, but a new principle of adhesiveness.' But all this has disappeared, and White's aesthetics, politics, even diction, quicken their step. In literary terms, this is not always very attractive or coherent. In 'Aesthetics and Loss', written in 1987, White proposes a gay art about Aids which will 'witness to the cultural moment', and which must be tactful, angry and without humour, for 'humour, like melodrama, is an assertion of bourgeois values.' 'Cultural moment', 'bourgeois values'—White's language begins its theoretical apprenticeship. It has ceased to belong to him. When it is not in theoretical uniform, it is in ragged civvies. Attending, in 1991, an Out/Write Writers' Conference in San Francisco, he writes disapprovingly of canon formation, 'the process by which powerful critics select a few books to become classics, to be taught in college curricula and earmarked as the essential books of our civilisation'. 'Earmarked'—the word itself is telling.
The slide away from 'irresponsible' aesthetics towards responsible politics culminates in the last essay in the book, 'The Personal is Political', written in 1993. A coda was provided a few months ago in this journal, when White wrote about the importance of a new kind of gay writing—'autofiction'—which combines documentary witness and sexual confession, and which runs from Proust to the late novelist and autobiographer Hervé Guibert. Both essays propose a separatism: 'If previously I'd written for an older European heterosexual woman, an ideal reader who helped me to screen out in-jokes and preaching to the converted, I now pictured my reader as another gay man.' Of the new autofiction—a combination of 'an apologia pro sua vita and a sexologist's case history'—he notes that the 'defining characteristics … are that it is unapologetic, that it is addressed primarily to gay rather than straight readers, and that it conceives of homosexuals as an oppressed minority group rather than as victims of a pathology'.
These 'characteristics' are then filled with aesthetic gold and dropped to anchor the entire argument. The condition of this fiction is taken to be an aesthetic quality. The artist 'is a saint who writes his own life'. Confession is seen as in itself something good in art. Proust, for example, is praised for writing, in a documentary way, about cruising, male brothels and sadomasochism, and praised for halo-ing his own martyrdom: 'Proust recasts his own sexuality, conceals his Jewish origins and ascribes a social importance to himself that apparently he did not enjoy, but he nevertheless does not fail to portray himself as a martyr to love and to art.' Note how everything in Proust other than confession is made to seem a little sneaky ('conceals his Jewish origins') or aesthetically beside the point. White the artist, the unmolested soul, does not believe a word of this—or did not. In his essay on Nabokov, written ten years ago, he praised the 'deliciously slippery' concealments of Nabokov's autobiographical art, and praised in Proust not his quality of confession but its opposite: 'Many writers proceed by creating characters who are parodies of themselves or near-misses or fun-house distortions … One thinks of Proust, who gave his dilettantism to Swann, his homosexuality to Charlus, his love of his family to the narrator and his hatred of his family to Mlle Vinteuil … In this sense (but this strict sense only) every novel, including Nabokov's, is autobiographical.' It appears that the strictness has relaxed itself over the decade.
This is not the only contradiction in White's late position. In his essay 'Out of the Closet', written in 1991, he appeals to the idea of literary universality when he writes that AIDS has stimulated literary production by gay men because it has made them 'more reflective on the great questions of love, death, morality and identity, the very preoccupations that have always animated serious fiction and poetry'. But in his most recent journalism, universality is mocked.
White complains that minor gay art is called 'gay' while major gay art is called 'classic' or 'canonical'. There is muttering against the bourgeois recuperation of all dissident literatures (and of gay literature in particular) through an appeal to universalism … At this point it might be worth mentioning that whereas identification with an oppressed minority is seen as limiting ("gay writer") no limitation is assumed if the individual belongs to a dominant group ("white writer", or "heterosexual painter", for instance).'
But there is a difference between 'identification' with a group and 'belonging' to it—the very distinction White explores in an earlier essay when he writes that 'if one is gay, one is always in a crucial relationship to gayness as such, a defining category that is so full it is nearly empty … No straight man stands in rapt contemplation of his straightness unless he's an ass … No homosexual can take his homosexuality for granted.'
Theoretically, White simply runs from one side of the road to the other, apparently excited that he can interest crowds on both pavements. It makes little sense, yet one of the most attractive qualities of White's writing is its openness to self-contradiction. It is like a water-bed—if one argument is pushed too hard, another pops up somewhere else in the work (which makes it easy for critics …). In particular, and most important, his fiction has tended to disobey most of the theories he has been espousing in recent years—which is why he is an interesting writer and Hervé Guibert is not.
Indeed, when his fiction becomes either confessional or documentary—as in the second half of The Beautiful Room is Empty, and in some of the stories in Skinned Alive—it loses pressure, and becomes uninteresting. When White is documenting, he chokes on cognitive novelties. The strangeness of new encounters is taken to be sufficient for narrative; the descriptive bubble is lost in the exotic pool. This is noticeable elsewhere in writing about gay life—for instance, in the work of Gary Indiana—and tends to emerge as a kind of loose gossip. It may have something to do with the rapidity of certain encounters in gay life (White writes that 'the appeal of gay life for me was that it provided so many glancing contacts with other men'), but it is certainly not confined to gay writing, and may be typical of one kind of literary response to late 20th-century American bloat and detail (you can find it almost as an article of faith in the 'blankness' of mimetic apprehension in the work of Bret Easton Ellis and others).
A moment like this occurs in White's essay 'Fantasia on the Seventies', when he visits a club
where a go-go boy with a pretty body and bad skin stripped down to his jockey shorts and then peeled those off and tossed them at us. A burly man in the audience clambered up on to the dais and tried to fuck the performer but was, apparently, too drunk to get an erection. After a while we drifted into the back room, which was so dark I never received a sense of its dimensions, although I do remember standing on a platform and staring through the slowly revolving blades of a fan at one naked man fucking another in a cubbyhole.
There are similar scenes in The Beautiful Room is Empty. In a lesbian bar, 'a butch entered squiring a blonde whore tottering along on spike heels under dairy-whip hair.' This is certainly 'witness', but it is not literary creation. The language cedes its individuality, and rests on idle formulations ('pretty body', 'burly man') or on a ready-made public language ('butch', 'blonde whore').
Something similar occurs when White writes about sex. The language disappears, becomes familiar, shared, public. This is not, of course, an affliction confined to White (and White writes well about sex as often as he writes ordinarily about it) nor to gay writing. The problem with writing about sex in most fiction by men is that men apparently find it difficult to keep fantasy and wish-fulfilment out of such moments; and that men, apparently, have tediously similar fantasies. Sex is often unwittingly comic in contemporary literature because the act of greatest intimacy is revealed to be the least individual of all our activities, and hence the least private. Sex demonstrates our similarity to each other. Barthes famously said that 'I love you' is a quote; if so, sex is a kind of plagiarism.
All this emerges in White's work—as it does in most writers'—most obviously as repetition. For example, in at least three points in White's work, a hero stands in front of a man and drops his clothes 'in a puddle'. In A Boy's Own Story, the narrator imagines a sports teacher masturbating: 'his dark hand pulls open the pajama flap and grabs his penis, which in a moment is as hard as hickory.' In The Beautiful Room is Empty, the narrator, having dropped his clothes 'in a puddle', stands in front of a lover and sees 'the hickory-hard straining of this cock'. Elsewhere in the same book, the narrator imagines his 'rock-hard college boy erection'. In 'Pyrography', one of the new stories in Skinned Alive, we come across 'Howard's erection was so hard it hurt'; later, in the wonderful story 'Reprise', about a middle-aged man recalling a botched first love affair, we read: 'I'd been erect so long my penis began to ache, and I could feel a pre-come stain seeping through my khakis.'
White's sexual descriptions tend to resemble each other. There is a conformity. Intriguingly, he writes in one of his essays that so powerfully consuming was sex in the heyday of Seventies gay life that it made artistic activity seem unrewarding: 'Even so, sex was, if not fulfilling, then at least engrossing enough at times to make the pursuit of the toughest artistic goals seem too hard, too much work given the mild returns.' It may be that what White describes as a life-choice happens helplessly in literary terms, at the level of style. The powerful heat of sex burns away rival vapours; so engrossing—so fulfilling—is the evocation of sex that real creative notation disappears and melts into something close to pornography. Pornography, in that a ready-made public sex-language is preferred to an individual literary style; and the human being disappears: 'his stomach, so taut from all his sit-ups a dropped dime would have bounced on it'; 'I met a pretty Korean … He'd take it like a man, bite the pillow if I hurt him, and nothing had ever felt quite so good as those small taut muscles under the chamois-soft skin, the colour of cinnamon when it's sprinkled on cappuccino'; 'revealing strong tan calves above crisp ribbed athletic socks'; 'the next morning, lightly silvered in hangover sweat, he finally let me plunge into that strong ass, but not before he'd greased me up with KY'; 'that long flat stomach'; 'extra muscles, the long sexy kind—the interior ones gripping me now … The moment I looked at what I was doing to him, I could feel myself ready to explode.' In the new stories, the narrator of 'Reprise' remembers his first love, 'that big tanned body' and recalls putting 'my slender calf against his massive one, my knobbly knee against his square majestic one'.
Most of the diction is from pornography not literature: 'nothing had ever felt quite so good'; 'ready to explode'; the reliance on the adjective 'sexy', and that telling obliquity 'that strong ass', where 'that' is substituting elegiacally for original descriptive work. Again, this is not a unique weakness of gay writing about sex. What is John Updike's offensive description of a woman as 'poignantly breastless' in Roger's Version if not a moment of heterosexual fantasy, simply inverted?
All one needs to do, to verify that such passages are weak stylistically, is compare them with the brilliance of White's non-sexual portraiture: 'a face sprouting brunet sideburns that swerved inward like cheese knives towards his mouth'. In this world the eccentric, the comic and the fallible are, unusually, allowed their place in the sexual: 'His jockey shorts had holes in them. Around one leg a broken elastic had popped out of the cotton seam and dangled against his thigh like a grey noodle'; 'so massive and quivering were her breasts and hips under the slip that the garment seemed to be the body of a vaudeville horse which at least two people were inhabiting.'
All White's writing has such moments—it is difficult to forget the scattered gorgeousness in his fiction. Clouds 'lit up like internal organs dyed for examination', a sun that 'pulsed feebly like the aura of a migraine that doesn't develop'. And my favourite from The Beautiful Room is Empty, as the narrator stands watching a city's lights come on from an apartment window: 'slowly constructing itself like coral under incoming tides of light'.
It is strange that a writer of this talent would exchange these precious stones for the rocks of 'anger'. In 'The Personal is Political' White theoretically rewrites all his work, and suggests that it has always been political. He describes A Boy's Own Story thus: 'What I wanted to show was the harm psychotherapy had done to homosexuals and the self-hatred that was forced on a young gay man by a society that could conceive of homosexuality only as a sickness, sin or crime.' Does anyone reading that wonderful novel recognise inside it this glum silhouette? After all, one of its many comedies is that the young narrator priggishly chooses to undergo analysis because 'I wanted to overcome this thing I was becoming and was in danger soon of being, the homosexual.' Dr O'Reilly, the famous analyst selected, is not merely some appalling agent of the homophobic hegemony, but a comic creation who 'was not a good listener. He was always scooping up handfuls of orange diet pills and swallowing them with a jigger of scotch.' Were the book anything like White's retrospective description it would be not only dull but most certainly limited in appeal; this is precisely the difference between identification with a gay cause and belonging to gayness.
Skinned Alive shows us that for all his confusions, White has lost none of his artistry. In 'Running On Empty', Luke, a sick translator, returns to his family in Texas. It is a world of conservative women—aunts, great-aunts, cousins. It is religious and rural. The story beautifully charts the awkwardness of Luke's homecoming. The artist in White sees the Southern Baptists with much comedy and tenderness. 'Then there were cheerful moments, as when Luke recounted the latest follies of folks in Paris. "Well, I declare," the ladies would exclaim, their voices dipping from pretended excitement down into real indifference. He was careful not to go on too long about a world they didn't know or care about or to shock them.' Luke's tact is matched by the author's: just as Luke tries not to shock his cousins, so the author respects their otherness.
Other old ladies, all widows, stopped in to visit, and Luke wondered if Beth was ready to join grief's hen club. Girls started out clinging together, whispering secrets and flouncing past boys. Then there was the longish interlude of marriage, followed by the second sorority of widowhood; all these humped necks, bleared eyes, false teeth, the wide-legged sitting posture of country women sipping weak coffee and complaining about one another.
Note that 'weak coffee'. Luke, like White, is an HIV-positive artist from Paris. But White, in creating Luke, has done what Rilke did when he created Malte in his autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Rilke put it like this in a letter: 'Since you last heard of him Malte has grown into a figure completely detached from me and has acquired a being and an individuality which interested me more and more strongly the more they differentiated themselves from their author.' This is a long way from autofiction; but it is certainly art.