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:
The power dynamics between populations, the jousting for position within a group, the struggle for dominance in a couple, even the empowering awareness of individual oppression—by all these definitions, politics has been a constant theme in my work….
And yet, as he declared in an interview, “I do think that sex is something worth dying for.” Once again the workaday heterosexual may blink in bafflement; and also, perhaps, a little envy. To be willing to die, for that…?
After all this militant clamor and striking of revolutionary attitudes, it is disconcerting to find oneself sinking into the satin-and-goose-down coziness of the opening chapters of White’s new novel, with its title redolent of a “woman’s movie” of the 1940s. The Married Man has all of White’s directness and candor, but far fewer of the unrelenting descriptions of gay shenanigans that so startled early readers of A Boy’s Own Story (White does like to lull us with innocent-sounding titles). He is quite open about his intentions here. In a pre-publication interview he admits:
I decided to downplay the explicit sexuality of my earlier books in order to open this one up to the general reader. Many of the characters are themselves heterosexual; the basic situations are easy for anyone to identify with; and there’s a lot of humor and irony and cross-cultural satire designed to appeal to any educated reader.
With the result, the publishers tell us, that The Married Man is a selection of the Book-of-the-Month, Quality Paperback, and Reader’s Subscription book clubs. It is only fair, however, to caution eager book-club members: The Married Man doesn’t stint entirely on the humdrum details of la gaya vita. Here is the main character, the wanly named Austin Smith (“Mother” in this exchange), being regaled with an account of a passing spot of low-jinks enjoyed by his bodybuilder friend Gregg:
“Mother, I was in the Parc de Vincennes this morning and I saw this hot kid, a real pervert, you could tell by his hungry, pervy eyes that he had a hungry hole, we went up a deserted path, just the occasional jogger, and the kid starts playing down there and tout d’un coup don’t you just know your daughter was fisting that sick pig right there in broad daylight!”
“Leave it to Mom for the practical questions. No, that little Jean-François must douche every morning just in case….”
White is frank: “I’ve written little other than autobiographical fiction in the last 25 years,” he has remarked, and certainly the facts of White’s life in the ten years since 1989 as recounted in Barber’s biography testify that The Married Man is a very thinly fictionalized version of the long and devastating affair he had with Hubert Sorin, whom he first met in 1989 when the book opens, and whom he lived with until Sorin’s painful death from AIDS in Morocco in March 1994. In a departure from previous novels, White has chosen to write this time in the third person, although Austin is firmly at the center of the narrative, never offstage. In Austin, White has said, “I greatly enjoyed creating a portrait loosely based on myself—with all my foibles, some of them even exaggerated for comic effect.”
Austin, who earns his living writing on antique French furniture for international glossy magazines, does resemble White, at least as he is known from interviews, essays, and autobiographical sketches: relaxed, loving and lovable, formerly promiscuous, frank and generous. In his benign, cheery mischievousness, Austin/Edmund resembles that gay exemplar of an earlier age, Christopher Isherwood, a comparison that White would most likely welcome. There is, though, a darker side to Austin/Edmund that reminds us of another iconic figure, Jean Genet, on whom White has written a large and serious biographical study. Yet for all the seeming confessional openness of this and previous novels, the reader itching to know intimately the “inner” Edmund White will be disappointed. White himself has cited an observation of him by a friend: “You’ll tell anyone anything about your sex life, but the life of your mind is a closely guarded secret.” The novelist goes on wryly to remark, however, that perhaps his friend might “be surprised by how little of that life goes on at all.”
In The Married Man, the Hubert Sorin character is called Julien—the name of Sorin’s own brother—or Big Julien, to distinguish him from Austin’s previous lover, Little Julien, a slightly psychotic sub-Nietzschean whom Austin loved and feared in equal measure, and whom he still desires. Austin meets Big Julien one day at their local gym in Paris, where Austin is described as being “twenty years older than everyone else.” Julien is poised, ironic, endearingly humorless, handsome in a compact and slightly oleaginous way, and has “a deep, resonant voice, the sort of ‘voice from the balls’ that so many Latin men cultivate.” He is also married, to the formidable Christine, with whom he used to enjoy a vigorous sexual relationship, although it has come to an end now, since they are on the way to splitting up. Julien is from Nancy—Austin dubs him and his gay brother the Nancy Boys—scion, he claims, of a down-at-heels aristocratic family. Austin is enchanted:
Here was a man, a married man, not corrupted by gay life, not standing around a smoky bar with a shaved head, an ear stud or cursory job and a cynical smile already leaching the freshness out of his face [what price the “noble experiment”?]. Here was a good man coming to him without intimate tattoos, pierced nipples or other body modifications.
However, Julien, as it will turn out many pages later, is not quite what he presents himself to be. He has his secrets, which he tries to take with him to the grave. But then, Austin is not entirely open either. He is, as Edmund White himself has been since 1985, HIV-positive, and he takes his time about informing Julien of the fact. Conceive of his surprise and dismay, then, when Julien undergoes tests and discovers that he is suffering from full-blown AIDS, and will die before very long. Austin inevitably wonders if it was he who passed on the infection, as he had already done to a previous lover: “Maybe his virus was benign to him but lethal to everyone else.”
Austin moves for a year from Paris to teach in Providence, Rhode Island, where the rapidly failing Julien eventually joins him. White, who taught at Brown University in the 1980s, pokes some appalled fun at American proponents of political correctness, and also at his landlord, whose house’s interior he and Julien and their pet basset hound manage almost to destroy. Julien is unhappy in America, where he has nothing to do except walk the dog and pose in the local cafés. Austin long ago had quietly brought an end to their sexual relations, a matter on which the novel is uncharacteristically vague: is it solely because of Julien’s illness, or is it an obscure piece of power-play?
For all his apparent honesty and openheartedness, Austin has a sinister depth to him that the reader is never allowed to plumb. Toward the end of the book, when Julien is on his deathbed in Morocco, and Austin is “huddled over” him, the dying man’s last words are a scream, “He’s killing me!” Julien apparently flings the words at the Arab ambulance driver who is ineptly attempting to give him an injection, but, interestingly, they are spoken in English, a language Julien has always been uncomfortable in, and one cannot help recalling White’s own observation on his concern in his work with “the struggle for dominance in a couple, even the empowering awareness of individual oppression….”
White has observed that in going to live in Paris he was “closer to that generation of black Americans who came after the war than I am to the earlier generation of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.” One of those black writers he mentions is James Baldwin, and indeed The Married Man, with its mixed cast of gay and heterosexual characters, and its tone of elegy for a lost time, does resemble Baldwin’s novel of the 1960s, Another Country, while lacking the ponderous self-consciousness of that book. White and Baldwin are alike in their espousal of a cause, although Baldwin chafed under the yoke of being identified with the civil rights struggle, while White’s response to the question of whether he found it difficult to write about AIDS is direct and uncomplaining: “I had no choice.” As the years have gone on, and White has sunk into late middle age with an apparent ease that is astonishing, given the losses he has suffered, and the fact that he is HIV-positive, his commitment to his self-appointed role as the chronicler of the end of a world has strengthened to the point that it may have begun to inflict damage on his work.
Even in his most uncompromisingly “gay” fictions, such as A Boy’s Own Story, he was a meticulous craftsman. The tactile richness of his writing from the 1970s and early 1980s was wonderfully seductive. Stephen Barber puts it well when he says that “White’s texts have a luxurious and suggestive visual feel to them,” and goes on to add, perhaps more tellingly of the later fiction, that “their own quality of slightly indolent construction blurs their visual focus to a degree….” Barber describes White’s working methods: he writes for an hour or so in the morning, lying in bed, and spends the rest of the day as he pleases. The resulting work is remarkably accommodating and democratic. As White’s friend, the English scholar and novelist Marina Warner, put it in an interview with Barber, “There’s absolutely none of the painfulness and laboriousness of writing there—he’s an effortless and commanding writer.”
Unfortunately, in The Married Man, he is also sometimes a sloppy and imprecise writer. When he speaks of an apartment “many stories high,” for a moment one finds oneself confusedly trying to picture so lofty a ceiling; when Julien displays hostility to one of Austin’s former lovers, we are told that “Austin wanted to die,” an unforgivable exaggeration in a novel so much concerned with actual deaths. Such lapses are unfortunate, for when White sets his mind to it, as he does frequently amid the soft, plump sprawl of The Married Man, he can write with evocative exactitude. His account of Julien’s death in Morocco, for instance, is pristine in its purity of expression and the utter lack of sentimentality or poetic posturing that a lesser novelist might have allowed himself; it amply illustrates White’s belief that “what art is primarily about is beauty, and what beauty is about is death.”
For Stephen Barber, White the writer can do little wrong. The Burning World is not only a fine and informative biography, to which this review is indebted for many of its facts, but also a passionate advocacy of an artist beset by “the burning necessity to transmit sensations, histories, cultures from a life that has encompassed some of the most extreme upheavals of the contemporary world.” If the book becomes a little breathless in places—White the “beautiful adolescent” has, among other gorgeous attributes, “deep, dark eyes, a wryly pouted mouth always teetering on the brink of a beguiling smile, and fine hair slicked across from a side parting”—nevertheless it provides a sober, carefully judged portrait of a writer of whom the often misplaced adjective “important” can justifiably be employed.
Another, more intimate, portrait is provided by White’s nephew, Keith Fleming, in his affecting memoir, The Boy with the Thorn in His Side. Fleming, who has worked as a singer and guitarist and as a teacher, is the son of Edmund White’s sister, a troubled woman who suffered bouts of alcoholism and nervous illness. After his mother’s marriage broke up, Keith and his two siblings decided they wanted to live with their father and his new wife, the latter of whom, on Keith’s telling, turned out to be a wicked stepmother of fairy-tale proportions. When Keith persisted in fighting with her, his father sent him into a hospital for psychiatric treatment.
Hearing the echoes from his own boyhood, Edmund White intervened, and persuaded Keith’s parents to let him come and live with White in New York. When White met him at the airport he was appalled. In a recent, generous review of Fleming’s book, White tells how “the minute I looked at him I realized what his problem was—the horrible, oozing, quilted acne on his face.” He sent the boy to a dermatologist, enrolled him in a private school, bought him new clothes, and “indoctrinated him with all my silly, snobbish New York ideas about how to behave.” For all his self-mockery, White cannot disguise the fact of his kindness and concern for his nephew, which the nephew gratefully acknowledges—although he does have a sharp tongue in his head: “Every time I saw [Uncle Edmund] from behind he reminded me of a faithful farm horse plodding along.” Although, as White in his review is careful to point out, neither he nor his roommate nor any of their “tricks and lovers” ever appeared naked in front of Keith, the uncle was quite open about his sexuality. When Keith “asked him why he bothered conforming to the reigning gay clone look of short hair, flannel shirt unbuttoned at the top to expose chest hair, and leather bomber jacket, he charmed me by answering simply, ‘Because if I didn’t, I’d never get laid.”‘ Keith Fleming was never, it would seem, a thorn in his uncle’s side.
August 10, 2000