Dominique Nabokov

Edmund White, New York City, May 2006

In Chapter Four of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma the novel’s hero, Fabrizio, on his travels in Europe, comes across some kind of skirmish or military adventure. When he is injured, he is looked after by a local family until his wound begins to heal. And then in the next chapter he is briefly preoccupied by what he witnessed, which was either something very large or very small:

Was what he had seen a battle? And, secondly, was that battle Waterloo?… He was always hoping to find in the newspapers, or in the accounts of the fighting, some description that would enable him to recognise the places he had passed through….

But soon other things begin to distract Fabrizio, and he continues on his journey away from what might have been the Battle of Waterloo without thinking too much about it. Both he and his creator are more interested in the vagaries of love than the details of the battle, even if it was Waterloo. The large matters of history fade as the novel proceeds, to be replaced by preoccupations entirely private but rendered by Stendhal with enormous zeal and energy, as though the world depended not on the result of a mere battle but on something more vital—a happy outcome for our wayward and engaging hero in his love life.

The tension between public life—how politics and social change impinge on character—and the intimate spaces within the self that can be affected more deeply and seriously by what might seem like small and private events is something with which every novelist has to grapple. There is another tension too in the world that any novelist creates: it is the tension between memory and imagination, between the need, which is urgent for some novelists, to use, recount, or even transform real events, and the duty, on the other hand, to invent pure fictional space in which everything is imagined and invented. For most novelists none of these tensions is ever fully resolved, and many novelists indeed find them stimulating and useful. Even a novelist whose work seems pure and untarnished by mere personal experience, such as Samuel Beckett, created consternation in his family when he used the life of a cousin in his first book of stories and also offered an odd comfort to his readers by using his own life, indeed his own birth, and his family in a late work such as Company, composed forty years later.

In any reading of the work of Edmund White these questions about real events and real people arise, sometimes at the simplest level. In an autobiographical essay written in 2002, for example, White recounts an episode from a creative writing class at the University of Michigan conducted by Allan Seager, who announced: “The nouns in a paragraph should be arranged like the heads in a painting by Uccello.” White, the student, responded by asking if he meant “Utrillo.” Seager replied: “Aw, get out of here.” This episode is also used in White’s novel The Beautiful Room Is Empty, published in 1988:

I took a creative writing course from a published novelist, who told me during a private conference, “You should arrange the nouns in each paragraph like the heads in a painting by Uccello.”

“Utrillo?” I said brightly.

He turned away in disgust.

In finding connections between the work and the life, it is easy to misread White’s major novels—A Boy’s Own Story (1982), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988), The Farewell Symphony (1997), and The Married Man (2000)—as autobiography thinly disguised as fiction, or indeed merely fiction that uses the facts of the life of the author, and the texture of that life, as the basis of the narrative, and does nothing else. Such a reading would ignore the stylistic differences between the books themselves, and pay no attention to them as exercises in pure style, each with its own systems and cadences mirroring differences in the sensibilities that they portray and the worlds they dramatize.

Nonetheless, it is hard not to feel that the further apart the life of Edmund White is kept from the novels he has written, the purer and more serious the fiction becomes. This is especially true with what I consider his finest novel, The Married Man. In it White dramatizes with considerable subtlety the conflict between two ideas, allowing his characters to embody these ideas and remain also filled with unpredictable and sensuously imagined life. The first idea is that the personal is political (“which,” White wrote in 2002, “may be America’s most salient contribution to the armamentarium of progressive politics”), that before you join a demonstration for human rights you put your own house in order, that honesty and integrity in the domestic sphere are more important than large questions of public morality.


This idea became important for gay men in the United States from the early 1970s onward. In The Married Man Austin Smith arrives in France all the more in possession of this idea because he is almost unaware of it. He meets Julian, a younger man, who is French, and who believes that the self is there to be invented, that evasion and deceit are fundamental to survival, and that full honesty in either the public or private sphere would make life impossible. Both men have their charms, and they enjoy each other; but they come tragically to misunderstand each other, or at least Austin does Julian, as much as any Jamesian hero or heroine a hundred years earlier came to misread elegance for morality, or came to see style and presumed it contained goodness.

The less you know about the author Edmund White, the more intense and rich The Married Man becomes, the more heartbreaking the final episodes, and the more complete the novel seems in its moral shape. It is a work of art rather than another volume of autobiography. Thus it was not helped (nor, it should be added, is it fatally damaged) by the appearance of a biography, Edmund White: The Burning World by Stephen Barber, published a year before The Married Man in 1999. Both books tell the story of the death of the French lover of the American protagonist in North Africa. In each case, the death is frightening, the dying horrific.

But White is in full possession of a prose style that is deceptive in how it functions. His writing can feel like conversation or someone thinking clearly and honestly or taking you slowly and effortlessly into his confidence. The cadences of his writing are close to the rhythms of speaking, but there is also a mannered tone buried in the phrasing, which moves the diction to a level above the casual and the conversational. Thus there is every difference between the death of the character Julian in The Married Man and the death of White’s lover in The Burning World. Despite this, however, if you have read the novel having previously read the biography, you may feel that it might be more rewarding for future generations were the novel to stand alone. For the lives depicted in the novel to have the completion that can only happen in fiction, it might be better if they were surrounded with mystery.

White’s style, however, depends on a sort of candor, a strange knowing mixture of innocence and fascination with stripping the secrecy away from the story as it unfolds. As a writer of personal essays and biographies as well as novels, he has, it seems, no interest in hiding the sources of his inspiration or shrouding himself or anyone else in mystery. Since he was brought up in a painful time when gay men were required to keep their sexuality a secret, secrecy has little allure for him. He likes revelation, and the pleasure he takes in it adds great energy to the narratives he creates both in biography and in fiction. As a good midwestern American, he believes in plain, personal honesty; as a writer steeped in French life and literature he also loves intrigue, gossip, the spilling of well-cooked and richly spiced beans.

Like Stendhal’s Fabrizio, White witnessed a skirmish, and in some of his fiction and his other writing he has charted what that skirmish looked like and what it meant. In his essay “Writing Gay” he wrote:

I decided to have my narrator-protagonist enter directly into a major historical turning point—the beginning of gay liberation. That breakthrough occurred in June 1969 at the Stonewall Uprising, the first time gays resisted arrest en masse and rose up against the cops after the raid of a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village. As it happened, I had witnessed this event firsthand and it had had a direct impact on me.1

The narrator-protagonist in question is the gay boy in The Beautiful Room Is Empty, who comes from the Midwest to New York and starts to hang out in bars in Greenwich Village. He has all the hunger for life and self-obsession that Fabrizio has, and enough insouciance to make him a most unlikely revolutionary:

On early summer nights in the city I drifted down Christopher Street to a new dance place, the Stonewall, which had the hottest jukebox. The clientele was a bit tacky, all those black and brown boys and drags who’d attracted me at Riis Park, but they were the best dancers, the sharpest dressers, the most generous lovers.

And then on the night that Judy Garland died, a revolution began that was to change the lives of gay men in many parts of the world. When the cops tried to clear the bar, the clientele decided not to go peacefully. White’s protagonist moves between enjoying all the fun and attempting to make clear how serious the fun might be. “Then I caught myself foolishly imagining that gays might some day constitute a community rather than a diagnosis.” He watches:


The riot squad was called in. It marched like a Roman army behind shields down Christopher from the women’s prison, which was loud with catcalls and the clatter of metal drinking cups against steel bars. The squad, clubs flying, drove the gay men down Christopher, but everyone doubled back through Gay Street and emerged behind the squad in a chorus line, dancing the can-can. “You-hoo, you-hoo,” they called.

White realized that he had witnessed an important moment in history, and this for him would become both a gift and a problem. He would over the next four decades become a passionate and graceful witness to his own life, to the life of New York itself, and to the changing mores of what became the gay community. In The Farewell Symphony he would write an elegy to the generation destroyed by AIDS. In his biographies of figures such as Genet, Proust, and Rimbaud, he would create a dotted line to the gay past. In My Lives: An Autobiography he would manage to embody his own time, using a candor at times exquisite and, for a reader like myself from a country where people tend to keep things to themselves, quite exhilarating.

The problem White faced as an artist was what to do in the light of Fabrizio’s example, how to move away from the skirmish that might have been the battle, how to allow his characters to become distracted by more pressing matters than a revolution that may or may not have seemed like one at the time, how to move back into the private world of shadows and strange desires where the novelist holds sway. White’s new novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend, represents a sort of liberation for him as a novelist who no longer feels that it is his task to chart a movement or dramatize large forces in history or politics, but rather to enter vividly into the spirit of two characters and allow them to breathe and live. For White in his new novel the political bows to the personal and walks off the stage; we are left with Jack Holmes, who represents no one except himself, and is all the more interesting for that, and his posh friend Will Wright, whom he meets in New York.

In his essay “Writing Gay,” White makes clear that while A Boy’s Own Story might read like autobiography, it takes, in fact, real liberties with life for the sake of art. In The Beautiful Room Is Empty White’s protagonist muses on the difference between life and art:

Because a novel—these words—is shared experience, a clumsy but sometimes funny conversation between two people in which one of them is doing all the talking, it will always be tighter and more luminous than that object called living…. Living is all those days and years, the rushes; memory edits them; this page is the final print, music added.

Thus what is on the page becomes a set of distilled metaphors; the novel is a way of dealing with who the author is not, who the author did not become, while using aspects of the author’s life; it can contain some of the details and outlines from life, or indeed life’s shape, but with new textures and contours, or a new ending, less random, more true to some dream, some ideal, something more fully imagined and oddly present than the life that the mere facts might imply or point toward.

Jack Holmes arrives in New York from the Midwest almost in the same way and in the same year as the author did, and he lives in the city with the same mixture of curiosity, wonder, openness to cosmopolitan experience, and interest in baroque forms of etiquette that White describes in essays and other pieces of fiction. And yet he manages to become a wholly new and fresh creation, as indeed the area around Cornelia Street, Bleecker Street, and Sixth Avenue becomes vivid in these pages. Perhaps the fact that Jack has no real literary talent emerges in itself as a sort of saving grace; it allows him to live more fully, and notice things and relish them for their own sake. He wants to be “a minor adjective, not a major noun.” His ordinariness makes him vulnerable, makes the reader curious about him. (It should also be mentioned that he has a large penis, and, once he gets over his initial shyness, this seems to help him enormously as he makes his way in the city.)

In creating him, White has as much recourse to books as to experience, and this gives his narrative a real density and weight. It is possible, for example, to find in the exploration of bohemian Manhattan elements and echoes of James Baldwin’s Another Country; in the dramatization of suburban life there are elements and echoes of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain; in the exploration by an outsider of class and privilege there are elements and echoes of The Great Gatsby, Brideshead Revisited, and The Line of Beauty. It is also possible to find traces of The Age of Innocence in the way a changing city and a disappointed sensual hero are drawn. Jack himself comments on the idea of a novel as a version of earlier books, when he says about his friend Will’s novel: “That’s what originality is. A slight variation or a new combination.”

White is close to John Updike in his interest in describing sexual intimacy and sexual attraction. Once Jack gets going in the city, his appetites and activities are described with wit and graphic gusto. He never ceases, however, to desire his straight friend Will, whose sex life and unsettled urges are given almost equal attention. Falling in and out of love keeps Jack and Will’s minds off larger matters such as the Kennedy assassination or the Vietnam War, to which glancing attention is paid, or maybe these are smaller matters since the quality of Jack’s longing has something monumental, fascinating, and almost heroic about it, and the quality of Will’s needs and antics follows closely behind.

The first and third parts of the novel are told in the third person from Jack’s perspective; the middle part (and the final pages) by Will in the first person singular. But over all these narratives hovers Edmund White the novelist and phrase-maker who seems to be enjoying himself. A middle-aged German woman has a “general air of peace, as if she were a retired baker once famous for her cherry strudel.” A New York debutante is described “with her fragile beauty, her fine porcelain, her satin hostess gown, and a freezer full of crab claws.” When Will, who lives with his family and children in Larchmont, has an extramarital affair with Pia, an Italian girl, they meet in Brooklyn because “no one ever went to Brooklyn; it might as well have been Akron.” One of Jack’s lovers, a boy called Rupert, gloried in the role “that Jack was conferring on him and that corresponded neatly to his inner girl.” Rupert manages to refer to himself at one stage as “Miss Me.” As Jack climbs the social ladder in New York, he is seen at the best table at a fund-raiser “right next to Alice Tully.”2 When Will, in the last few pages, tells his son, “You’ll find out that in the end that’s all anyone has, family,” his son responds, “That’s the most depressing thing you’ve ever said.”

Jack Holmes and His Friend is a comedy of manners, which ingeniously uses the system of doubling the gay hero by offering him an alter ego who is straight. This allows White to move with relish between a man who makes his friends his family and a man who makes a family. When Will briefly leaves his wife, Jack reflects:

I know Will thinks I introduced the worm into the apple when I brought Pia out to Larchmont. Actually I invited her to go with me as protection. I didn’t want to be their little capon they could coo over, the sensitive, sad, sweet little faggot they could pity. I wanted to bring a fascinating, sexy, European woman into their little suburban House of Usher—and if she wrecked their marriage, she just had to give a little push to a structure already hollowed out and ready to topple.

White allows both men to suffer and enjoy themselves in equal measure, sometimes on the same page; he enjoys watching wisely from the margins as both grow older and make compromises in a changed New York. He gives Will lines that may well describe White’s own extraordinary career as a chronicler of his age, a subtle reader of signals, and someone who has helped match the time he has lived in to his own particular sensibility as an artist. “I think,” he tells Jack,

gay guys are surrounded by enemies. Not really, but anyone could turn on you. So you gotta be alert. You can’t ever let your guard down. So you get real good at figuring people out. Other people. You pick up on every little signal no matter how faint.