Does life need art, as art undoubtedly needs life? At the end of Lolita, we leave Humbert Humbert “thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art,” for this, he believes, is the only immortality he and his beloved nymphet may share. But must a memorial require all the impediments of a fully fashioned, burnished work of art? Why make fancy fictions of life’s ordinary pleasures and poignancies? Why not say what happened?
Edmund White began his writing career as a would-be Nabokovian novelist. The brilliant polish of A Boy’s Own Story transformed the hair-raisingly frank and detailed disclosures of the teenage protagonist’s homosexual cruising into a luminous, Proustian meditation on time, love, and loss. That stylistic density was maintained through the two subsequent novels of what might be called White’s AIDS trilogy, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, the reverberant title of which comes from one of Kafka’s letters, and The Farewell Symphony, in which, as in the witty and plangent Haydn work of the same name, the lovely music fades and finally dies as the players one by one quit the stage: for White, friends and lovers dying of AIDS. These three autobiographical novels are a unique blend of style, wit, compassion, humor, and, above all, devastating candor. They are a testament to, and a threnody for, a way of life which had its extraordinary and painfully brief heyday between the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the onset of AIDS in the 1980s. White manages to be both engagé and artistically pure, although the latter is probably a term he would reject, for he is against purity, at least insofar as it informs puritanism, and he maintains a wary skepticism of the often life-denying requirements of art.
For White, as for so many homosexual activists and thinkers, Stonewall was a coming of age. As White’s biographer, Stephen Barber, puts it in The Burning World, Stonewall “was retrospectively viewed as the crucial formative act of contemporary gay identity in the United States.” Barber gives a succinct account of that seismic event. Even the name of the bar has a mythic, agonistic sound to it. On the night of June 27, 1969, the gay clientele of the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village—owned, incidentally, by the Mafia—rebelled against yet another police raid and took to the streets. The outnumbered police officers called for reinforcements while, as Barber describes, the crowd tried to set fire to the bar:
A squad of riot police arrived and advanced in formation towards the protestors, driving them towards Sixth Avenue; some of the protestors darted into a side-street on the right, Gay Street [what’s in a name?—everything], doubled back along the adjacent Waverly Place, and then triumphantly emerged back in Christopher Street behind the line of riot officers. The spectacle of drag queens dancing high-kicks and jeering in a haphazard line at the rigid line of riot …