Edmund White, outcast survivor.
At 63, White has left a trail of books in a range of genres: his many novels, including the great "confessional" trilogy (A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony); the giant, scholarly Genet: A Biography, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award; a little gem of a biography on Marcel Proust; and even The Joy of Gay Sex, written in the late 1970's when he was just a horny thirty--something living in the Village or on the Upper West Side.
The latter book was written when he was still a budding writer living in New York. It was the 70's. After working at dull editing or writing jobs by day, he'd return home to sleep until about midnight, and then be out the door in a black leather jacket to cruise the bars and bathhouses in this pre-AIDS era, when William Blake's dream of liberation was an everyday enchantment for daring homosexuals. During that period he also wrote Nocturnes for the King of Naples--the mysterious and lush lament of a young man for his older love--while living with the actor Keith McDermott, who held the role of the teenage boy in Broadway's Equus opposite Richard Burton and later Tony Perkins. The narrative trick between art and life in Nocturnes, which White discusses in a 1996 "interview with himself," was that "the narrator was supposed to be a repentant Keith writing a long love letter to me after my death as he now realized too late that I had been the great love of his life after all. But the older man--the 'you'--was also based on my idea of Frank O'Hara (whom I had never met) and (to just add to the mix) none other than God." So much for confessional literature.
In an essay on Lolita, "Nabokov's Passion" (New York Review of Books, 3/29/84), White celebrated Humbert Humbert's "desperate aspirations," and held them up against Charlotte's "pious expectations of the monogamous and totally fulfilling marriage in which sex, sentiment, and even religious faith coincide." In the taboo world that Humbert occupies, the price one pays to preserve passion is living outside the tribe. But living apart from conformity is only the start. White writes in this essay: "Many writers proceed by creating characters who are parodies of themselves or near misses of fun-house distortions, or they distribute their own characteristics across a cast of characters ... one thinks of Proust, who gave his dilettantism to Swann, his homosexuality to Charlus, his love of his family to the narrator and his hatred of his family to Mlle. Vinteuil, his hypochondria to Aunt Leonie, his genius to Elstir and Bergotte, his snobbism to the Guermantes, his Frenchness to Francoise." Of Vladimir Nabokov he writes: "[I]t was Nabokov's particular delight to invent sinister or insane or talentless versions of himself, characters who are at least in part mocking anticipations of naive readers' suspicions about the real Nabokov."
A BOY'S Own Story was the first book in the "confessional trilogy," to be followed by The Beautiful Room Is Empty and The Farewell Symphony, which critics have hailed as books that speak for a generation of gay men. Actually, White had written an earlier version of the second book in the mid-60's, even before his first published novel, 1973's Forgetting Elena. He had sent the manuscript, which he later described as "unfocused," to about thirty New York editors. One of them confided to White that he liked the novel but was afraid to promote it because he feared his colleagues might think he was gay. That editor, White reports, one day committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a subway train.
The Beautiful Room Is Empty is driven by the narrator's several passions--for friendship, for sex, for writing and self-discovery. Its plot turns on the push and pull of friends and potential lovers. There's Maria, the painter and uncompromising socialist whose gossipy intelligence and curiosity are reminiscent of Fanny Trollope in White's latest novel; poor Annie, a fellow psychiatric patient of Dr. O'Reilly, who's of no help to anyone and ends up a mess too; Lou, an older man he'd met on the Chicago beach, an advertising guy who loves jazz, sex, and heroin, hates "squares," and soon becomes the boy's first gay (well, bisexual) confidante and friend; and Sean, a tortured soul with whom he bumps shoulders one day and immediately falls in love. Sean doesn't want to be gay, and all the therapy in the world can't prevent him from disappearing, as do other romantic or transforming possibilities in the young narrator's life. The nameless young man is becoming a disappointed soul when, one night on Christopher Street, he literally stumbles into a great reckoning--the Stonewall Riots.
An important notion emerging in this book, as well as in the last in the trilogy, is the need for the outsider to make passionate, often transitory, contacts with others, including the evanescent trick or one-night stand. "The appeal of gay life for me," says the young narrator near the end of The Beautiful Room, "was that it provided so many glancing contacts with other men." Indeed the overriding creative tension in White's work is this struggle to find passionate contacts and at the same accepting an essential separateness. After tricking in the university bathroom stalls, he reflects: "I was alone with my sexuality, since none of these men spoke to me, nor did I even know their faces, much less their names. Their most intimate tender parts were thrust under the stone partitions, like meals for prisoners, but if I poked my head under the partition and glanced up at them, they'd hide their faces with their hands as a movie star wards off a flash."
The narrator doesn't feel sorry for himself and understands that when a passionate moment dissolves, it remains in memory as an occasion to celebrate: "Anyone who ever let me in his body or arms I still feel grateful to. That's why so many of my friends are old lovers. And that includes, these days, dying and dead friends as well, to whom the flesh, my flesh, still connects me." White once remembered that Genet, who had a lot of casual sex in his life, said this: "I have never experienced my sexuality in a pure state." White guesses that Genet meant "he'd always been a little bit in love with everybody he'd been to bed with." More than just a defense of promiscuity, this statement reveals a restlessness that is derived, like Humbert's "desperate aspirations," from a need to keep alive the search for passion in life and art.
The third novel in the trilogy, The Farewell Symphony, moves in an almost vortex-like spinning movement. It's crowded with characters, some who pop in quickly and disappear, some thinly disguised literary or artistic friends of renown. It's here that White plays mischief with the Nabokovian view that art is not autobiographical in the simple photographic sense. On the surface it's a roman a clef, and White doesn't hesitate to offer up his friends and acquaintances, notably: Eddie, a famous poet (James Merrill); Joshua, a literary scholar (David Kalstone); Max Richards (Richard Howard), another influential poet who helps the narrator in his obsessive drive to get his first novel published; Kevin (Keith McDermott), the actor who shares an apartment on the Upper West Side with the narrator and is the object of his unrequited love; Gabriel (Keith Fleming), the 15-year-old nephew who is saved from a long stay in a psychiatric institution. There are old friends like Maria, his mother and sister, and encounters, through memory or abrupt appearances, with Sean, Dr. O'Reilly, and others from his past. There is the muted presence of his French lover Brice (Hubert Sorin), who reappears as Austin, the architect and the focus of White's next novel, The Married Man. With this torrent of real people one might wonder where the fiction lies.
White didn't write the last novel of the trilogy, which is both celebratory and elegiac, to be a documentary of his life, the way, for instance, the film The Brink of Summer's End is a look at Paul Monette's actual experiences. Near the end of The Farewell Symphony, the narrator says, "I didn't want to be a historian but rather an archeologist of gossip." In Venice with his dearest friend Joshua, who is dying of AIDS, the narrator describes the beauty of this ancient place: "Venice was both stone and water, permanence and transience, the fluid element shaping but never wholly dissolving the solid, and this very ambiguity had always vouchsafed that no matter how much Joshua submitted to time's corrosives he would endure."
White's creative process in the trilogy is the equivalent of Venice's fluid ambiguity. A novel is both stone and water. The facts of experience are the stones of the city and White's attempt to revisit and reinvent them with all the photographic and manipulative tools possessed by a writer is the water shaping, but never wholly dissolving, the solid.
FANNY: A Fiction has a narrator who fine-tunes that voice into a thing of brilliance. The novel is a wild departure into history and away from autobiography. And yet, the narrative voice is again that of a "fictional memoir," only this time the narrator is someone else, namely Fanny Trollope. She was a popular Victorian literary personality, the author of over 100 books, and mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope. White's Fanny starts out as an insistent chatterbox forging through fleeting moments of insecurity as if she were swatting a fly. Soon she meets Frances Wright, a social reformer and firebrand, who captivates her heart and persuades her to visit America.
In America, nothing is as Fanny had expected. Wright turns out to be a crusading conformist, a hypocrite whose idealistic preachings about race and class are never realized in practice. Having grown accustomed to living her life through figures she'd imagined larger than herself, Fanny Trollope is transformed into a thinking, compassionate, high-spirited woman, while Fanny Wright dissolves into a minor and uninspiring presence. The education of Fanny Trollope occurs in a whirlwind tour from New Orleans to Cincinnati to New Harmony, Indiana, and to far-off Haiti. Her story unfolds against a dizzying backdrop of characters who include Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Washington Irving, Robert Owen. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Browning, and at least a hundred other famous and not-so-famous historical characters of 19th-century England and America.
Transformation is a powerful force in fiction, and few writers understand its melancholy aspect better than White. The nameless narrator of the trilogy shares something crucial with Fanny: both stumble into transforming experiences, and both discover that the accompanying joy and wonder are only temporary. Fanny discovers this in the single most passionate moment in her life--a brief but impossible romance with a freed slave named Cudjo who, for her, holds a power greater than America itself. Sounding like the restless and passionate outsider of the trilogy, this once gossipy woman says, "I couldn't share my happy news with anyone, not even the flaming radical Frances Wright.... No, I was alone with my America."
What gay writer doesn't feel alone in the country that he inhabits? "Outcasts always mourn," Oscar Wilde has for his epitaph. "The whole trouble with Western Society today is the lack of anything worth concealing," Joe Orton wrote in his diaries. Jean Genet in A Thief's Journal said, "Like beauty--and poetry--with which I merge it, saintliness is singular. Its expression is original. Yet it seems to me that its sole basis is renunciation."
At the end of The Farewell Symphony, White concludes that if a writer is lucky there is the possibility of real communication. But the artist is still, at his core, an outcast and a rebel: "I wanted to see if the old ambition of fiction, to say the most private, uncoded, previously unformulated things, might still work, might once again collar a stranger, look him in the eye, might demand sympathy from this unknown person but also give him sympathy in return."
White recently reported that he's working on his memoir, to be called My Lives, a book of three chapters: "My Hustlers," "My Shrinks," and "My Women." He's putting together portraits of gay men from Oscar Wilde to Elton John, and he's planning a novel that turns his imagination to the work of Stephen Crane.
Gary Zebrun, an editor and writer based in Providence, is the author of the recently published novel Someone You Know (Alyson).
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|Title Annotation:||Essay; gay author|
|Publication:||The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2004|
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