Edmund White’s new novel, like much of his former fiction, is thinly disguised autobiography. In The Married Man, White, who is sixty, goes back to the year 1990 when his hero was turning fifty. Austin Smith, like White himself, is a likeable, intelligent, cultivated, amusing, friendly, generous homosexual who writes for a living. Like White, Austin does not take his writing seriously. He is not ambitious or competitive. Just as Austin is restricted to a limited audience because of his specialized subject matter, White is similarly restricted because he writes mainly about homosexuality for a predominantly homosexual audience. Austin, like White, is a hedonist. He wants to enjoy gourmet food, fine wine, witty conversation, aesthetic experiences of all kinds—but, most of all, he wants love. Love for Austin, as for most aging queens, is so hard to find that his meeting with Julien, a “gerontophile” (a young man who likes older men), seems a miraculous last chance for happiness.
Julien is “the married man” referred to in the title, but his wife Christine is not what Austin expected. She appears at their first meeting in a leather motorcycle jacket, her hair dyed a bright magenta and her lips painted fire-engine red. She is surprisingly tolerant of her husband’s bisexuality (they are getting a divorce, anyway). Her function as a character seems to be to make Julien more romantic to an effeminate male because the Frenchman is at least partly heterosexual and not just another of the passive homosexuals forced to pair up by default.
Austin lives on the prestigious Île Saint Louis in the heart of Paris. He has the advantage of being bilingual in English and French, and the reader is to understand that much of the dialogue is in French and translated into English. Austin is called upon to appraise antiques and has gotten a big advance on a definitive encyclopedia of eighteenth century French furniture. His work brings him into contact with wealthy and socially prominent people, enabling him to see a side of Paris unknown to tourists. Although born in the United States, he has become more French than American. He resembles Henry James, who became so thoroughly Europeanized that his native United States seemed like a foreign land when he was forced to revisit it. White himself lived in Paris from 1983 until 1998. He then moved to New York City to begin a teaching assignment at Princeton University.
One of the most interesting parts of The Married Man describes Austin’s impressions of the United States when he makes the mistake of accepting a professorship in cold, gloomy Providence, Rhode Island, and bringing his exotic lover with him. He is appalled by the laziness and rudeness of American students and “the dumbing down of America.” He is attacked by three militant feminists for making statements about eighteenth century women that they consider politically incorrect. He does not like Rhode Island, and Rhode Island does not like him. Like Humbert Humbert and his nymphet in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), Austin and Julien are soon off to a succession of temporary destinations chosen at random.
In fact, the novel relies heavily on travel description, as if to create the illusion of movement and to compensate for the fact that the plot is an old one and not very dramatic. An aging queen meets a younger man, falls in love, then has to nurse him through the physical and psychological horrors experienced by a person dying of AIDS. Austin (like White himself) is HIV-positive and finds it ironic that his beautiful French paramour, about half his age, should be the one destined to die first. Both Austin and Julien are determined to remain “gay” for whatever years or months are left ahead of them. Their travels are financed by the generous and wildly improvident Austin, who is using up his savings and not earning much from writing because of his personal problems. His main purpose is to enable Julien to experience as much aesthetic enrichment as possible before he dies. This attitude, according to White, is common in the gay subculture among those who have contracted AIDS. Do not talk about “the plague”: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow, or the next day, who knows?
After Austin loses his job in Rhode Island, he and Julien travel to Miami, Cancún, Italy, and other parts of Europe. They end their rather desperate odyssey in North Africa, a part of the world White knows well. They display the peculiar kind of courage of effeminate men who know they are doomed and really do not much care whether death claims them a little sooner or a little later. They entrust themselves to Arab guides who take them into bleak desert villages where they could easily be robbed and murdered.
During their African travels, Julien...
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