James Wood

  • The Burning Library: Writings on Art, Politics, Sexuality 1969-93 by Edmund White
    Picador, 385 pp, £20.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 330 33883 8
  • Skinned Alive by Edmund White
    Chatto, 262 pp, £12.99, March 1995, ISBN 0 7011 6175 2

Edmund White has always struggled between appeasing the gods of his art and paying off the princelings of politics. Endearingly, and sometimes infuriatingly, he insists on doing both, and the result often leaves his pockets rather empty. Thus in his book of selected journalism, The Burning Library, he can move from a sublime celebration of Nabokov’s ‘greatness’ to a demand that ‘even the hierarchy inherent in the concept of a canon must be jettisoned.’ It is how he is able, in a piece about Robert Mapplethorpe, to argue that ‘passion, like art, is always irresponsible, useless, an end in itself, regulated by its own impulses and nothing else’ and to propose in another that the best gay writing should be a combination of confession, reportage and witness.

His deepest aesthetic impulse, one suspects, is for a priestly withdrawal, surpliced in the vestments of concealment; but his heart, his politics and his obvious humanity keep him very much a senator of the loud city-state that is gay aesthetics and politics.

White’s journalism is often strange because it appears to borrow crazy opinions without wanting to own them. Its pulse rate is slow. It is always humane, intelligent, but without serration. There is hardly a critical word for anyone in The Burning Library. Like his fiction, it is loose, free, occasionally idle and sometimes beautiful (White has a Nabokovian capacity for the splash of metaphor). Unlike his fiction, it has no talent for intimacy. His style is not very natural. The sentences refuse to lie down, and often he turns the page into a lecture hall. Even the best essay in the book, his fine celebration of Nabokov, has a kind of aural clatter: ‘I may also seem to be saying that if Lolita, the supreme novel of love in the 20th century, is a parody of earlier love novels, we should not be surprised, since love itself – the very love you and I experience in real life – is also a parody of earlier novels ... If I made such an assertion, or if I attributed it to Nabokov, I would be subscribing to the approach to literature and art advanced by Roland Barthes.’ White’s journalistic style is frequently lustreless, in striking contrast to the gloss of his fictional prose: ‘In another passage the harsh power of clichés is invoked.’ He can be pedagogical while being platitudinous: Christina Stead ‘resists the evil reductionism of our culture and never “totalises” the self (an ugly but useful word)’; ‘In great fiction the language is not only satisfying in itself, but it also fulfils larger purposes of design.’

This suggests that White is not a very natural critic, which matters little because he is so clearly a natural writer. His reports on gay identity and sexuality collected in this book are generally much more robust and engaging than his criticism of other writers. They tell a story – both personal and collective – of tentative beginnings, discovered confidence, sexual freedom and increasing politicisation. Aesthetically, the shift of the book is away from the high art of Nabokov towards a literature of witness and anti-canonical sweat. We watch a civilian militarise himself.

In the first piece in the book, ‘The Gay Philosopher’, written in the late Sixties, White provides a journalistic account, in effect, of the world of his autobiographical novel of childhood, A Boy’s Own Story, when he writes of the damage done to homosexuals by society’s determination to see their sexuality as an illness, a crime or a sin. White was 29, and had himself been in ‘corrective’ analysis. ‘Obviously if homosexuals regard themselves as “sick”, and most of them I know do, that belief cannot help but have a disastrous effect on their self-esteem.’ He toys with a notion that only a few years later will become axiomatic, that of the homosexual ‘as a member of a minority group, like the Jew or Negro or possibly the worker. Employing this metaphor can produce a whole range of fascinating insights.’ Eight years later, in his essay ‘Fantasia on the Seventies’, White is appraising a decade in which, apparently, only half of the Sixties capital had made any interest: there is lots of sex, but political militancy has proved unsuccessful. ‘Sexual permissiveness became a form of numbness, as rigidly codified as the old morality. Street cruising gave way to half-clothed quickies.’ Life was psychically easier – ‘We don’t hate ourselves so much’ – but ‘gay liberation as a militant programme has turned out to be ineffectual, perhaps impossible.’ In 1983, as Aids is just beginning its destruction, White writes in ‘Paradise Found’ that ‘today, 14 years after the Stonewall Uprising and the beginning of gay liberation, there is a great deal more self-acceptance among gays, even a welcome show of arrogance.’

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