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 officers served to shatter the power of the police utterly.
It was a quintessentially gay happening. On subsequent nights there were further demonstrations, at which White, who had been in the bar when it was raided, addressed the crowd, speaking of the need for joint radical action by gays, who must take their place alongside other revolutionaries, such as blacks and feminists. Overnight, almost literally, White had become an activist.
First and foremost, however, he was an artist, and it was probably as much an attempt to protect his art as it was to seek adventure that within six months of Stonewall he had resigned his safe job as a Time-Life staff writer and taken himself off to Rome, where he was to live a hand-to-mouth existence for the best part of a year. “I think I used to be like a dog in the sense that if I came to a new city, I would want to stake out my territory—I wanted to race around and meet everybody, sniff at everybody, pee on everything.” His time in Italy marked an early dose of that Europhilia which was to become chronic in the Paris years between 1983 and his recent return to take up residence again in the United States. Of this move to Paris—where he lived on the Île Saint-Louis, beautifully evoked in The Married Man—he has said:
I loved giving up teaching and becoming a student, learning a new language (though it was often frustrating), reading a whole new contemporary literature—and especially discovering values and attitudes that challenged American views. I like Henry James’ “international theme,” which still strikes me as fertile material. Now I don’t feel either all-American or all-French—and that outsider status is useful to a novelist, especially a novelist of manners.
White, who was born into a solid if stultifying middle-class family in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1940, was precocious both artistically and sexually. In his teens he wrote a novel, The Tower Window, based, his biographer tells us, “on the painful consequences of a rare ‘heterosexual’ date he had with a schoolfriend named Sally Gunn,” while, by the time he left the all-male Cranbrook boarding school in Detroit, “he had accumulated more than a hundred sexual encounters—most of them with boys of his age.” There had been other, more louche connections: “It was while travelling through Mexico on holiday with his father and stepmother that White had lost his virginity, in a thrilling, if sordid, encounter with a middle-aged pianist from the bar of the glamorous hotel in Acapulco where they were staying.” That will have a familiar ring for readers of A Boy’s Own Story.
Like so many other homosexuals of that time and place, White began with the conviction that his desires were sick and shameful. When he was fourteen he confided to his mother that he was gay. Shocked, of course, she arranged for him to see a psychiatrist, who in turn seems to have been even more shocked; according to the doctor, says White, “I was borderline psychotic, unsalvageable, and I should be locked up and the key thrown away.” Later, however, White himself asked his father to pay for a course of treatment with a Detroit psychiatric therapist named James Clark Maloney, described by Barber as “drunken” and “amphetamine crazed.” Little wonder, then, that White has nursed a lifetime loathing of psychiatrists, despite his interest in and admiration for Freud and his work.
White’s first novel, Forgetting Elena, a strange, almost ecstatic meditation on amnesia and eroticism, was published in 1973; its successor, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, the style of which Barber accurately describes as “orgasmic, delirious”—White was drinking heavily at the time, and using drugs—appeared five years later. Throughout the 1970s, when these books were being written, White was deeply immersed in the burgeoning homosexual underworld of New York, with its bars and bathhouses, and was making friends with such key figures as the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; he also got to know Susan Sontag, who was encouraging and helpful, although their friendship broke when Sontag—mistakenly, according to White—saw herself caricatured in one of the characters in his novel Caracole. New York in those days must have had a whiff of ancient Rome in its death throes. Here, from his book of essays States of Desire: Travels in Gay America, is his memorable description of a gay club in the West Village called the Mine Shaft:
Through an archway is a large very dim room. Along one wall in doorless cubicles couples stand and carry on. Elsewhere slings are hung from the ceiling; men are suspended in these, feet up as in obstetrical stirrups, and submit to being fist-fucked. One flimsy wall in the center of the room is perforated with glory holes [through which penises are pushed to be anonymously sucked, in case you wanted to know]. Two staircases lead downstairs to still darker rooms, cold cement vaults. In one is a bathtub where naked men sit and wait to be pissed on. Roosting on a toilet, often enough, is another human pissoir.
A bemused heterosexual may hardly know how to respond to the description of such a spectacle. It was only when the AIDS epidemic broke that many in the “straight” world were forced to grapple imaginatively with the phenomenon of promiscuous homosexuality. Before that, we did not know, or averted our minds from the knowledge, that in the course of their active lives a large number of gay men will have thousands of sexual encounters, many of them anonymous and, it must be assumed, loveless, though not, it must also be assumed, joyless; that extreme violence, or the possibility of it, or at least the simulation of it, is a rich spice in many homosexual encounters; that the trappings and many of the practices of political fascism—the uniforms, the beatings, the glorying in domination and subjection—may be delightful components of a healthy sex life; and that having as much sex, as often as possible, with as many partners as one can accommodate, represented for the gays of the 1970s what White’s narrator in The Farewell Symphony describes as a “noble experiment” and an “American utopian experiment” that was brought to an untimely and tragic end by the onset of AIDS.
There are heterosexuals, it is true, who have multiple partners, engage in sexual violence, and fancy themselves in leather trousers: the photographs of Helmut Newton are not all that different, in what they suggest if not in what they show, from those of Robert Mapplethorpe. All the same, as White and others would admit—indeed, would boast—those dozen New York years from Stonewall to AIDS were something far from the experience of most heterosexuals.
The Farewell Symphony, as Barber remarks, “holds no regrets” for what happened in the 1970s, and the narrator is defiant: “I assumed there was going to be a future and that it would get more and more extravagant. We saw gay men as a vanguard that society would inevitably follow. I thought that the couple would disappear and be replaced by new, polyvalent molecules of affection.” Perhaps that is what would have happened, without AIDS. Some readers, however, may tend to endorse the remark, which Barber quotes, by the gay English artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman—who later was to die of AIDS—after he had viewed the New York world of gay sex in its days of glory in the mid-1970s: “This life could become as wearying as a treadmill in a rodent’s cage.” Certainly, sex, mere sex, is not White’s only, or even main, subject. In the post-AIDS debate about whether homosexual artists should seek to as-similate into heterosexual society or come out in distinct and militant ways, White, as Barber remarks, is adamantly of the latter persuasion. Yet such a politicized stance bestrides more than one world. As White has written in his essay collection The Burning Library: