When Soft Voices DIe

The Farewell Symphony by Edmund White.


HE BEGAN his literary career as the very model of the novelist as creator of austere, impersonal “made objects”; he has ended up as one of America’s premier practitioners of the novel as forthright personal confession. Edmund White’s first two novels, the taut, enigmatic, visionary Forgetting Elena (1973) and Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978), don’t even look as if they were composed by the same man who wrote A Boy’s Own Story (1982), the plainly autobiographical and erotically frank account of a gay teenager’s sexual awakening, whose form is as familiar and conventional as its content was (in 1982, anyway) explosive.

Indeed, it could be argued that A Boy’s Own Story has less in common with White’s earlier novels than with his first two nonfiction works, The Joy of Cay Sex (1977), a bow-to guide written in collaboration with Charles Silverstein, and States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980), which relates White’s cross-country sybaritic exploits. Both books, with their easy equation of male homosexuality and promiscuity and their mockery of monogamous gay couples, were disastrously timed: soon after the appearance of States of Desire, men who led the kind of no-holds-barred sex lives extolled in its pages had begun to die of AIDS. The author of these books—not White the literary artist but White the candid reporter and celebrator of gay carnality in all its manifestations—is essentially the White of A Boy’s Own Story and its sequels, in all of which sex remains constantly at center stage.

The first of those sequels, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, appeared in 1988. It has now been succeeded by The Farewell Symphony, which White’s publisher describes as “the final volume of his autobiographical trilogy.” It is a curious book. On the one hand, it feels far less like a novel than do the trilogy’s first two volumes; its shape and texture are decidedly those of a memoir, not a work of literary fiction. On the other hand, White’s seemingly more assured embrace of the memoir form is part of what makes this rather long book far more artistically satisfying than its predecessors.

The Farewell Symphony takes us from the 1960s to the height of the AIDS crisis, and shuttles us back and form between New York and Paris (the two cities in which White has lived most of his adult life), all the while chronicling the narrator’s handful of passionate loves, his several long-standing (mostly literary) friendships, and his countless one-night stands. Among the friends are characters obviously based on Alfred Corn, J,D. McClatchy, Howard Moss and other noted writers, alive and dead, who are or were part of White’s social circle. White portrays some of these men so brutally that one wonders whether he has decided to settle scores here with deceased friends and to drive living ones out of his life once and for all.

White seems especially to enjoy tweaking gay men whom he considers effete and pretentious. At one point, for example, the narrator visits a “twittery old man,” obviously the late novelist Glenway Wescott, who explains why gay novelists should not write about gay life: “it spoils everything if our… our Athenian pleasures are described to the barbarians. I think our world is amusing only so long as it remains a mystery to them.” Eddie, an extremely rich poet based on James Merrill, lives in a world so to totally removed from the concerns of ordinary “barbarians” that when a friend reports that he is now earning $50,000 a year, Eddie blinks and “says, “Is that considered a lot?”

White’s narrator spends less time among these upper-crust characters, however, than among the men he picks up in bars, alleys and pissoirs. (The reader of this book has frequent occasion to recall that White is the biographer of Jean Genet) To White’s credit, his portrait of a coarse, illiterate hulk whom the narrator meets and couples with behind a parked truck is every bit as rich as— and decidedly more respectful than—his portraits of Wescott and Merrill; indeed, the pillow talk of the narrator’s unlettered, unpretentious sex partners is rendered as vividly and credibly as that of any of his belletristic chums. Nothing human, we are plainly meant to understand, is alien to him.

THE BOOK’S TITLE is borrowed from that of a Haydn symphony in which, White notes, “more and more of the musicians get up to leave the stage, blowing out their candles as they go. In the end one violinist is still playing.” An apt image for a book in whose last quarter several of the characters die of AIDS. Yet this book is about life, not death. And, poignantly, it’s about aging: “Once I might have picked up men who attended my readings, but now most of them trembled when they came up to get their books signed (so venerable had I become in just a few … well, it seemed like a few minutes, but it must have been several years) … In the past I’d received fan letters asking me for sex; now the letters asked me for advice on how to find a young lover.”

A friend of mine never refers to The Beautiful Room Is Empty by its real title but instead mockingly calls it “The Beautiful Book Is Empty”—the point being that White’s narrative, though elegant, doesn’t add up to anything. This is, to an extent, also a problem with The Farewell Symphony, which recounts a great deal of experience yet offers relatively little mature reflection on its meaning. Yet it is, in the end, something more than a series of lubricious anecdotes signifying nothing. The book has a point, a purpose—and one that strongly recalls another recent gay novel, Andrew Holleran’s The Beauty of Men.

Both books are sumptuously written, low on plot, and full of matter-of-fact anecdotes about anonymous couplings in public places; both hold one’s attention with their rich, affecting portraits of manifestly autobiographical narrators. Holleran’s book depicts an aging gay man who led a glamorous life in 1970s Manhattan and is now terrifyingly alone in rural Florida; in White’s book, an obscure editorial drone with a busy sex life becomes a celebrated HlV-positive author who lives alone and largely in the past. Both books paint a haunting picture of loneliness at the end of the gay fast lane. White, who like Holleran was once widely seen as a prophet of gay sexual liberation, has now written, like Holleran, a beautiful book which, intentionally or not, mounts a powerful critique of the lifestyle both men once eulogized.