Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1955
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...
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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 enters the last stages of his debilitating disease. He looks like a skeleton. He and Austin have given up intimate relations because Julien can hardly bear to be touched. He has to be lifted in and out of the bathtub. He becomes incontinent. He has no appetite and cannot hold anything down. His beauty has disappeared in a few short years; he looks so wasted that people cannot conceal their horrified reactions. Austin finds it more and more difficult to get them checked into hotel rooms because the desk clerks, quite understandably, are afraid of what might be a contagious disease; they are also worried that Julien might drive away some of their more squeamish guests.
White was part of the gay liberation movement that exploded in New York City in the 1970’s, and his experiences with AIDS are many. In his interesting collection of short stories, Skinned Alive (1995), and in his earlier novel, The Farewell Symphony (1997), he describes the deaths of many of his friends and lovers who experienced the joy of liberation and the excitement of wild promiscuity only to have to face the grim aftermath of the previously unknown scourge of AIDS.
White, like many another gay writer, was strongly influenced by the great French novelist and aesthete Marcel Proust. White even published an excellent short biography titled Marcel Proust (1999). The influence of the French master is unmistakable on every page of White’s fiction. Like Proust, he writes novels that are thinly disguised autobiography dealing with his own mental and emotional development. In Marcel Proust he writes, “This idea, that life presents us with but one book to write, the story of our own existence which we must merely translate,’ was one to which Proust would remain faithful.” White himself remains faithful to that idea. The story of the star-crossed lovers, Austin and Julien, was based on White’s own relationship with Hubert Sorin, who contributed the sketches to their book Our Paris: Sketches from Memory (1995) shortly before the young French artist’s tragic death. The relationship between Austin and Julien resembles the tempestuous one between the twenty-three-year-old Proust and the composer Reynaldo Hahn, who was only eighteen when they met.
[T]heir affair displayed the chief characteristics of love in a Proust story or novel: wild attacks of jealousy, recriminations and disputes, brooding and hurt feelings, and ecstatic reconciliations, all endured under the sign of love-as-war and courtship-as-strategy.
To this description can be added the specter of AIDS. Perhaps such ambivalent feelings are common to homosexual relationships. White makes it clear that AIDS imposes monogamy on homosexuals for safety’s sake.
Proust’s masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981), was published in seven separate volumes between 1913 and 1927. (Proust died in 1922.) White is following in his master’s footsteps by publishing a series of related autobiographical novels, beginning with A Boy’s Own Story (1982), followed by The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988), The Farewell Symphony (1997), and The Married Man. One difference between Proust’s rambling autobiographical Bildungsroman and White’s is that Proust, who wasted a fortune on young male lovers, never came out of the closet. In fact, the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past turns out to be just about the only “straight” character in the novel.
The most striking feature of White’s fiction is his constant use of Proustian metaphors and similes, which make both writers’ novels seem like poems in prose. White quotes Proust as saying: “Truth—and life too—can be attained by us only when, by comparing a quality common to two sensations, we succeed in extracting their common essence and in reuniting them to each other within a metaphor.” It is difficult to discuss White’s fiction without offering a few examples of Proust’s indelible influence.
The following is part of a description of Austin’s anxiety as he tries to get Julien admitted to the United States: “As Austin waited for Henry to call him back, his mind raced like hands playing scales—methodical and irritating.” Here is White’s description of autumn leaves in Vermont: “They went walking down country roads; Austin felt they were inside a badly bombed Gothic cathedral, half of the stained glass shattered and on the ground, the rest still clinging to the leadings.” He offers this image during the good times when Austin and Julien are living in central France: “Around noon the heat became more intense and the world seemed to hold its breath like a child hiding in a dusty closet.” The following passage is from their time in Venice: “A standing gondolier glided past, but neither the canal nor his barque were visible and he looked as though he were a moving target in a shooting gallery.”
The story is not sufficiently dramatic to make the book a page-turner. There is little suspense; the reader knows early on that Julien is going to die. The petty conflicts White introduces are never sustained. Austin has problems dealing with both his present lover, Julien, and his former lover, Peter, both of whom are younger and crave attention and pity because of their illness. Austin has problems getting Julien into the United States, but he knows so many important people that such problems are taken care of offstage without his intervention. He has problems with spoiled, hostile, lazy American students when he returns to the United States to teach a course about eighteenth century French furniture, but he is not dependent on teaching for a living and actually seems relieved when he gets fired.
What White has to offer is not drama but a graceful and interesting style as well as an insider’s view of gay society. One does not have to be gay in order to find White engaging and instructive. The thoughts, feelings, and problems of homosexuals are of importance to everybody because homosexuals are out of the closet with a vengeance, including White himself. One of his most admirable traits is his candor. There is no shortage of controversies concerning gays: gays in the military, gay marriages, gay troop leaders in the Boy Scouts, gay-bashing, gays in the clergy, and many other conflicts. The heterosexual majority is being called upon not only for tolerance, but also for understanding, compassion, and justice. White is not writing a mere fantasy or romance in The Married Man but an exploration of the international gay subculture. He is well qualified to do so because of his maturity, intelligence, education, and talent. Yet while he is generally regarded as the leading gay writer in the English language, he is also one of the best writers in the English language, without any qualifying adjectives.
Sources for Further Study
The Advocate, June 20, 2000, p. 138.
Booklist 96 (May 1, 2000): 1654.
Library Journal 125 (May 15, 2000): 123.
New York 33 (June 26, 2000):142.
The New York Review of Books 47 (August 10, 2000): 42.
Publishers Weekly 247 (April 17, 2000): 48.
The Times Literary Supplement, March 17, 2000, p. 21.