Life on the Town

Michael Wood

  • The Farewell Symphony by Edmund White
    Chatto, 504 pp, £16.99, May 1997, ISBN 0 7011 3621 9

This long novel is haunted, dedicated to the dead, but quite without nostalgia, almost without grief. It starts with an intimate loss (‘I’m beginning this book on All Saints’ Day in Paris, six months after Brice’s death’), and with a visit to a commemorative plaque in the Père Lachaise cemetery. The narrator looks at a photo left there, and thinks it may represent ‘one of the other dead young men’. A few pages later, recalling his seemingly interminable early sexual adventures, he says: ‘I suppose most of them are dead now, all those young bodies I touched and undressed and tucked in when they fell asleep.’ ‘They were all dying,’ he says of the men he used to know on Fire Island. ‘They all died.’ The echo of the chiming roll-call at the end of Remembrance of Things Past is quietly deliberate, but of course the characters in Proust died of time, not of Aids. White wants to register the disaster, but refuses to memorialise the dead only as victims. The title of the novel, as we learn on one of the last pages, comes from Haydn: ‘I kept thinking of Haydn’s The Farewell Symphony. In the last movement more and more of the musicians get up to leave the stage, blowing out their candles as they go. In the end just one violinist is still playing.’ They ‘get up to leave’. They steal away, are not stolen. The narrator also recalls Diaghilev’s last secretary, a man in his nineties, saying: ‘You must understand I don’t want to meet new people. I prefer the company of the dead.’ The narrator comments: ‘And although I’m not quite there yet, I know what he means.’ What the narrator knows is not only the allure of memory and the past, but the curious fact that the dead, if properly entertained, make excellent company.

The narrator didn’t just tuck those young bodies in, of course, and he doesn’t pretend he did. The Farewell Symphony gives a new meaning to the notion of the consenting adult. People here don’t merely consent, they scarcely wait to be asked. They throw themselves nightly into what White calls ‘fucking and sucking’, and an impressive range of other bodily exploits, with what would seem like a violent frenzy if it didn’t seem like a norm, what people ordinarily do when the bars in New York begin to close. White pictures the heterosexual as hesitant and slow, all prelude and chase, while the homosexual cannot ‘risk feigning rejection. Everyone had to be unambiguous, as glowing as a peacock’s tail and as towering as a stag’s antlers, secondary sexual characteristics evolved on the principle that more is more.’ ‘Sex is an appetite that must be fed everyday; even a thousand past banquets cannot nourish the body tomorrow.’ I’m sure White knows what he is talking about, and that we are not meant to read this as fantasy, but the sense that no one in this novel says no, that no cruiser ever comes home alone, is more dizzying than the figures the narrator, mildly boasting, tosses away: ‘I’d had sex with my first thousand men but that was a statistic that might sound like an achievement more to someone else than to me.’ Sure, but someone is counting. ‘If I’d had sex, say, with an average of three different partners a week from 1962 to 1982 in New York, then that means I fooled around with 3120 men during my twenty years there. The funny thing is that I always felt deprived, as though all the other fellows must be getting laid more often.’ Apart from the sense of deprivation, itself a form of luxury, this is a louche utopia, one of the few places in the imaginable world where desire does not mean disappointment, indeed hardly knows what disappointment is.

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