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.

Perfection, then? Well, no, because sex may be easy, and friendship, contrary to all heterosexual wisdom on the subject, often one of the consequences of sex, but love is all but impossible. And sex, since 1981, is known to be potentially lethal; hence all those deaths. In his Introduction to Monopolies of Loss, Adam Mars-Jones argues against the automatic linking of Aids and homosexuality, ‘as if epidemic and orientation were synonymous’, and wonders whether ‘the truly responsible thing to do now would be to write sexy nostalgic fiction set in the period before the epidemic, safeguarding if only in fantasy the endangered gains of gay liberation?’ He is being ironic, and says no in answer to his question. But the question is important. Denial and apocalypse cannot be the only, or even the most responsible, modes for dealing with sexuality and disease, and neither Alan Hollinghurst nor Edmund White is simply writing ‘sexy nostalgic fiction’. They are writing about a reckless release from a host of taboos, about a quest for pleasure that could often seem manic, and that was always dangerous – the danger was part of the allure – even before the arrival of Aids. And about the (implied or declared) demise of that release and that quest, as well as the literal death of so many of the questers. The trick, to use a fading word, is to avoid apology, not to betray old enjoyments; but not to get truculent or weepy either, all grief for the good old groping days. Both White and Hollinghurst manage this with extraordinary consistency, although White’s narrator is garrulous where Hollinghurst’s is showily concise, and we should guard against the assumption that all bathhouses, like happy families, are alike.

Love is White’s great theme, as it is Gore Vidal’s in Palimpsest. Lost love, old love. No amount of remembered or actual sex can make up for it. Writing about Hervé Guibert in this paper, White praised an evocation of ‘an impossible love, a love between two unfortunates, a love that contains large measures of need and hate – true love, in short’; and in The Farewell Symphony he piles it on, further Proustian intonations blossoming like orchids: ‘Nothing in all the world – not even old age, sickness and death – is as painful as one-sided love, which is a foreglimpse of the other three. Love was the great bitter school for me.’ This is on the subject of the insufficiently responsive Sean: ‘I suppose all my life has been led in the aftermath of this love.’ Certainly the novel is notionally shadowed by Sean, since even the recently dead Brice (‘Brice had been the first man I’d loved at the same time he loved me’) can’t compete with the memory of Sean, who died around the same time. ‘I’d always thought I’d get back to Sean ... the person whom I’d loved the most intensely and who awakened in me if not the widest, then the deepest feelings.’

I don’t want to sound cynical about this, and of course you can’t argue with true – that is, impossible – romance. But these are just assertions in White’s book, claims for the importance of love rather than renderings of an important experience. ‘Love, in fact, can be defined as precisely that state in which every moment matters.’ Amen, but that again is an assertion, a definition. Sex, on the contrary, cannot be defined, only resurrected in its multitudinous, crazed, sumptuous, even monotonous splendour. What The Farewell Symphony shows us, against White’s overt theory and plot, and against all its own tearful music on this topic, is that love can’t compete with sex, at least in a novel. Love is just moping, and sex is life on the town.

Here is a passage which takes us deeper into these things, into what we might think of as the resentment lurking in romance, the acknowledgment that romance is prompted by everything it doesn’t want to be:

I suppose my impossible loves, soaked in tears and mimicking the religiosity of a saint, were acceptable to me because they were medieval and only marginally sane, whereas domestic love – with its adulterous melodramas, cosy compromises, sexless cuddling, petty spats – offended me precisely because it stank of the possible, of what could be done, of what everyone did.

Compare the energy of the distaste for that stink of the possible with the pale hauteur of the bitter school and the deepest feeling. White himself, in his book of essays The Burning Library, says that literature should be ‘ideally energetic’; but sometimes idealising is what drains the energy away.

Most of the energy in The Farewell Symphony is concentrated in a series of sustained ambiguities about sex. There is no moralising, of course, and, as I have suggested, no nostalgia. But there is a consistent uncertainty about what can be claimed for all that indefatigable activity which, combined with the fertile recreations of the activity itself, produces the nervousness which runs beneath White’s generally poised, even rather bland sentences. ‘Funny,’ the narrator says. ‘At the time it would never have occurred to me I was addicted. I didn’t imagine for an instant that I was a prisoner of sex.’ ‘None of our friends would have said we were “obsessed”. That was a word heterosexuals used, or older, envious homosexuals. We thought having sex was a positive good, the more the better.’ ‘I craved love, sex, fame, money, food and drugs, and yet I never suspected I was addicted to these things because my speciality was hopeless love.’ And most revealing: ‘Sometimes I’d picture myself ... as a neurotic incapable of reciprocating affection, which was probably truer then than I believed and less a permanent defect than I feared.’ Each of these propositions is perspectival: what occurs to one, what our friends think, what I suspect, how I picture myself. In each case, there is an implication, and in the last case an assertion, that the truth is different from the image; but there is also the dizzying sense that even the truth is not quite right, needs a little tuning. All right, I was addicted, we were obsessed, I was incapable of affection. But not really or exclusively addicted or obsessed, not permanently incapable of affection. I don’t regret anything, even though I can see much was regrettable. When Orpheus looked back he lost Eurydice, and when Lot’s wife looked back she was turned to salt. Perhaps their looks were too straight. White’s hesitations allow him to celebrate what may have been madness, and to question the celebration at the same time.

Forgetting Elena, White’s first novel, which is all about disguise and decorum, a picture of the gay world of Fire Island as if it were a medieval Japanese court, all indirection and elaborate manners, with a dose of Kafka’s guilt and doubt thrown in for good weird measure, indicates precisely what the refusal or sublimation of addiction looks like. Scarcely anything could be more horrible than the moral elegance of the monsters in this remarkable book. ‘I was careful,’ the narrator says, ‘to register the surprise I usually work so hard to conceal,’ and in The Farewell Symphony the narrator describes a similar novel as trying ‘to show the anguish of being a frightened, crafty being in a hostile world of sensual delights’. The surprise, usually concealed, is now carefully expressed: whatever is natural about the response is buried under a bravura of control. Even the world of sensual delights is hostile, and in such a context it is plausible that sexual freedom, as White says, should come to stand for ‘freedom itself’. In fact the relation of discipline to abandon, which seems so onesided in The Farewell Symphony, is very complex in the rest of White’s work. In this book an older writer says to the narrator: ‘Your first novel, this so-called first novel of yours, is so good it must be your fourth or fifth?’ The narrator answers: ‘Fifth.’

We can’t really think of The Farewell Symphony as a roman à clef because the keys are too easy to find. If a person is described as ‘the poetry editor of a famous magazine, which represented the wedding of New York glitz and sophistication to solid investigative journalism’, you don’t have to scratch your head too hard to come up with the New Yorker. A distinguished musician, called Homer in the novel, says exactly what White, in his Introduction to a 1994 reprint of A Boy’s Own Story, says Virgil Thomson said to him. A well-known poet, who figures largely in The Farewell Symphony, makes a Spoonerist joke on the subject of a Japanese painting – ‘It’s the usual swirls before pine’ – which White himself, in The Burning Library, traces to a poem by James Merrill. And the narrator of the novel has had jobs and written books identical to White’s own. As I have suggested, White is particularly interesting on the novel’s analogue to Forgetting Elena, but he also makes mild jokes about all the doubles of his early work, ‘my Post-Modern metafiction, which already in the Seventies was a disappearing art form.’

White says in a prefatory note that the book ‘is not a literal transcription’ of his own experience. The characters are ‘stylised versions, often composites, of people I knew in those years’. My impression is that the stylising is often quite minimal, but I have no inside information. We can leave the details to White’s old friends. Is there a difference between an ‘autobiographical novel’, which is what White calls this book, and a disguised autobiography? I suppose a novel might be more worried about shape than about disguise, and an autobiography might be more concerned with fidelity than shape, but it’s a pretty close call. The important thing here is the claim to experience, the inference that these things, or something like them, actually happened, were not invented. Proust said of his novel Jean Santeuil that it was not made but harvested (‘Ce livre n’a jamais été fait, il a été récolté’), and we might think of Edmund White as an author both of made books (Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, Caracole) and of harvested ones (A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, The Farewell Symphony). The distinction is not absolute, of course, but a matter of emphasis: even made books need a bit of harvesting, and even the harvest has got to be arranged in the barn. The second set of novels forms a trilogy, athough not a chronological sequence: a sort of composite portrait of a section of gay life in America. ‘Gay’ here means both homosexual, which White defines as ‘an erotic tropism’, and adhering to ‘modern American gay culture, which is a special way of laughing, spending money, ordering priorities, encoding everything from song lyrics to mirror-shiny shoes’. White wrote these words in 1983, and the codes have presumably changed a little. A Boy’s Own Story (1982) is about the arrival at adulthood, and ends in an ugly, delicious moment of betrayal; The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) presents, as White says in The Burning Library, ‘a gay hero so self-hating that even the most retrograde reader would become impatient with his inner torment and welcome with relief the Stonewall Uprising, which is the concluding scene in the novel’. The Farewell Symphony starts in 1994, and loops back into the early Sixties, taking us through the Seventies and Eighties. Although the narrator spends time in Rome and Venice, and eventually, like Edmund White, moves to Paris, the book centres excitedly on New York, capital of contemporary art and constant sex, and native country of what White’s narrator calls ‘exigent, hysterical, invasive’ friendships. The narrator recounts the illness of his mother, the repeated suicide attempts of his sister; his own happy intervention in his young nephew’s life. He keeps coming back to Brice’s death, the recent death he can’t cope with, and to the old loves he can’t redeem; and of course to the boys and the men who offer themselves like acres of candy to the child who has given up all restraint. What is most moving here, and far more persuasive than the theme of lost love, is the notion of forgiveness, of the self and others. A pardon, as legal experts know, doesn’t declare innocence, in fact often implies guilt. But it is something, as Auden would say, that history can’t offer and people can. In an interview reproduced in The Burning Library, White calls it ‘the pederasty of autobiography’: ‘the older self actually loves the younger self in a way the younger self never could have felt or accepted at the time.’ And in The Farewell Symphony White’s narrator extends the same rare but possible love even to an old impossible lover: ‘I was glad I’d lived long enough to forgive him – not through any deliberate act of generosity but through the involuntary wisdom conferred on all of us by time, as though with age we all become morally as well as literally far-sighted.’ It is because the wisdom is involuntary that we can’t claim it as ripeness or virtue, only watch its strange and far from predictable effects.

What happened to the grief that ought to be here? The mourning for Brice and Sean, and all the dead young men? There is an extraordinary passage in Forgetting Elena, published in 1973, when no one had died, so to speak, which answers this question, and suggests that perhaps only the volubly indiscreet know what discretion is: ‘I hate the way these phantom things are starting to play around with the grief in the air. They should contain themselves and let the man who’s grieved feel the grief, should he know what he’s feeling and should that happen to be grief.’