The title of White’s novel derives from Joseph Haydn’s Symphony no. 45 in F Sharp Minor (1772), nicknamed “The Farewell Symphony” because in its final movement the instrumentalists get up one by one, blow out their candles, and tiptoe offstage. White is alluding to the AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) epidemic, which erupted in the early 1980’s, killing homosexual friends and former lovers, leaving him to approach old age alone.
The first two novels in his trilogy, A Boy’s Own Story (1982), about growing up gay in the homophobic Midwest, and The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988), a record of gay life in the 1960’s culminating in the Stonewall uprising of 1969, were well received by critics. A Boy’s Own Story has been called a classic of American fiction, and White is widely regarded as the dean of American homosexual writers. The Farewell Symphony, however, shows signs of having been more hastily written, perhaps because the author feels himself living on borrowed time: He was diagnosed as HIV positive in the 1980’s. He may be bidding farewell to his many readers as well as to dead friends and lovers.
White undoubtedly is a genius. He is such a gifted writer that he almost manages to “cross over” from a purely homosexual audience to one composed of both “gay” and “straight” readers. This would be quite a feat because, as he acknowledges in his novel, homosexual fiction is written by homosexuals for homosexuals.
Whereas pioneer gay novels—Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, James Baldwin’s Another Country, John Rechy’s City of Night—had attracted curious heterosexual readers, now gay fiction was a commodity assigned its two shelves in a few stores, and no heterosexual would venture to browse there. . . .
White’s style impresses readers, but his content turns heterosexuals away. His style is characterized by an abundance of striking images, and his content is characterized by an almost tedious description of cruising and naked male bodies. The narrator confesses (or brags) that he had 3,120 sex partners in twenty years. The heterosexual reader who finds himself attracted by White’s intelligence, wit, and poetic genius may also find himself repelled by descriptions of homosexual lovemaking portrayed in crude, deliberately shocking, eminently unquotable vernacular.
French literary genius Marcel Proust, whom mystery writer Raymond Chandler once called “a connoisseur in degenerates,” is practically the patron saint of homosexual writers. White’s novel is Proustian in more than one respect. Like Proust, White is writing thinly disguised autobiography. In a disclaimer, he states:
Although its action parallels many of the events in my life, it is not a literal transcription of my experience. The characters are stylized versions, often composites, of people I knew in those years. Sometimes I have used Proust’s method of merging or mitosis, i.e. condensing two people into one or distributing the traits of one person over two or more characters.
Like Proust, White is interested in the social panorama of his time. Also like Proust, he is a snob, a social climber, and an aesthete. Like Proust, he had a hard time finding himself as a writer. Like Proust, he delights in showcasing his ability to invent unusual metaphors and similes.
Many modern writers—and especially many modern homosexual writers—try to emulate Proust in the matter of dazzling with poetic metaphors and similes, but White is the only writer who can really compare to the French master in this respect. On nearly every page of White’s novel, the reader is struck by the imagery—and it seems impossible to discuss White without direct quotations because his poetic imagery is the best he has to offer.
His manner was lordly but intended to be accessible, like that of an Oriental despot vacationing at Saint-Tropez with just one wife.
Even in my new novel, from which I’d banished homosexuality as a theme, my perversion still seeped through, like a blood stain through cotton.
The digital clock nervously counted illuminated hours and minutes without any of the old-fashioned clock face’s suggestion of eternal return. No, here each green digit seemed anxiously conceded, another chip placed on a losing number.
White does not resemble Proust in everything. His tendency to mix rich imagery and gutter language (like flowers springing from manure, as White might say) is not Proustian at all. There is no petite madeleine inThe Farewell Symphony. Proust tried to make his long masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931), dramatic by pretending the narrator was on a race with death, the central question being whether he could succeed in recapturing the past “in all its most ephemeral details” before his time ran out. Proust’s petite...
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