Edmund White

Daniel Reitz interviews Edmund White, author of 'The Farewell Symphony,' 'A Boy's Own Story' and 'The Beautiful Room is Empty.'

Published October 15, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

edmund White's sprawling new novel, "The Farewell Symphony," is a nostalgic tour through the promiscuous 1970s and 1980s and an elegy to loved ones dead from AIDS in the 1990s. Equal parts erudition and rough sex, it is an epic of contradictions. As it happens, "The Farewell Symphony" is also the final chapter in an autobiographical trilogy -- the earlier, widely acclaimed "A Boy's Own Story" charted White's gay adolescence, and "The Beautiful Room is Empty" was an account of his early adulthood. Taken as a whole, these three books chronicle not just White's own sensual education but an entire generation's immersion in the sexual excesses of the last three decades.

First published in England last year, "The Farewell Symphony" has already created a major stir. The book provoked a vehement response from Larry Kramer, one of America's most strident gay activists, who was turned off by the book's multiple sex scenes. ("Surely life was more than this, even for -- especially for -- Edmund White," Kramer wrote. "He did not spend 30 years with a nonstop erection and an asshole busier than his toilet.") Reaction to the book in the U.S. has also been mixed. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, James Wolcott called White a "wan exhibitionist ... presenting his posterior to posterity before it sags." Many other reviewers -- and White himself -- defend the book as an honest chronicle of an era.

White himself is highly personable, charming, polite, well dressed. He speaks quickly, well and in great bulk, revealing a wide range of knowledge, as befits a man whose career has embraced everything from a major biography of Jean Genet to several novels and books of essays and short fiction to "The Joy of Gay Sex." Like his work, the man is an epic of contradictions: He can talk as knowingly about fisting as about Flaubert. At 57, he is an expatriate who has lived in Paris since 1983. He told me he's restless to come back to America again -- which he will, to teach at Princeton in the spring.

I'm curious about the passage in your book in which the narrator, who is HIV-positive, rapes a young guy in the heat of a sexual encounter.

Is that in the American version? I don't think it is. It was in your proof, but I took it out.

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Did you? Well, in that passage you wrote, "Corrupted by a life of pleasure-seeking, coarsened by an anarchic indifference to other people's welfare, I'd been unable to restrain myself."

(Laughs) Well, I published that in the English version, and I got so much crap for it that I took it out of the American version. I thought: I just can't face a month answering that question. I thought, straight people will say to me, "How does it feel to be a criminal?" I just lost my nerve.

Do you think Larry Kramer's recent attack on you and your novel in the Advocate has anything to do with the fact that you make no bones about all that pleasure seeking?

He attacked me because of that, sure. We have an old history. We were founders of the Gay Men's Health Crisis. I've never been an admirer of his writing. Way back in the mid-'80s I wrote a piece about AIDS in art that was in Artforum, and I called his play ["The Normal Heart"] a melodrama -- which I think it clearly is, with the deathbed marriage and so on. And he was furious with that. Then we were together in January for an AIDS and literature conference, and they asked me to make the keynote address, and he was very irritated that he hadn't been asked. Then he attacked me from the stage but while patting my knee under the table so that nobody could see, sort of like, "This doesn't really matter." He's one of those people who off-stage is very friendly but onstage is a bear. Now I'm just fed up with him. I figure that the good thing about his article is that I no longer have to ever speak to him or pretend I like his work.

His attacks do seem off the mark. He lambastes you for being irresponsible in writing "The Joy of Gay Sex" on the eve of a plague, for instance. But as you've pointed out, that book was published in 1977.

Yeah -- as though anybody would even know they were on the eve of something. I mean, it's not as though it were the French Revolution where you could see it coming. With the AIDS crisis, there was no way of seeing it coming. It just came one day. So even if you published "The Joy of Gay Sex" on the day before, you couldn't be held responsible.

There's a trendy new lesbian and gay activist group called Sex Panic. Kramer himself, along with various other writers like Andrew Sullivan, Michelangelo Signorile and Gabriel Rotello, have been attacked by this group, which claims that these writers are guilty of reactionary, authoritarian thinking with regard to AIDS prevention, promiscuous sex, recreational drug use, etc. And Kramer himself has said that "nature extracts a price for sexual promiscuity." Do you think it's a fair criticism to level at Kramer that he's become hysterical and dogmatic?

It's interesting that you can go from being a radical to being perceived as a reactionary within the space of a year, but I think it is true. Larry Kramer's writing in his novel "Faggots," which was published in 1978, was already very sex-negative. The problem with American puritanism is that it can actually promote unsafe sex. Because if you say that the only kind of safe sex is monogamy -- if you tell a 20-year-old that, he's gonna say, "Well, I'll never meet those standards because I want at least 10 years of fooling around, so forget it."

There does seem to be nostalgia for the pre-AIDS days -- nostalgia in those who lived it and envy in those who didn't. Brad Gooch called it "The Golden Age of Promiscuity" in his last novel. Was it so golden?

Well, my character, the narrator, never went to Studio 54, never could get laid enough, never met the right guys, was sort of a doofus. There were plenty of people who weren't A-list. I was certainly not. It was extremely competitive. I remember once being out on Fire Island at the height of the season in the summer of '77 and saying to myself, "This is a race that no one is winning." In New York -- not so much in other cities -- not only do you have to be beautiful and a sex machine and popular, but you also must be rich. I always thought that the burdens that were placed in traditional society on either women and on men all fall on gays -- that they have to be as beautiful as women and as successful as men.

You've said the more sex you had ...

The more you want. And I mention that a shrink who worked with gay males said that was the one complaint he heard the most -- that people weren't getting laid enough, people who were having sex three and four times a day. I also said that I think that a life entirely devoted to pleasure is rather melancholy.

What amazes me is the amount of time and energy it must have taken to have that much sex. How could you possibly write as much as you did and have as much sex as you had? Didn't one or the other have to suffer?

No. I was always so poor, and I was writing to survive. I worked for Time-Life Books from 1962 to 1970, and when I quit I went freelance. Except for teaching gigs here and there I never really had a job again, so I had to write to make a living. Most of it was ghostwriting textbooks and other really crappy jobs. When I began to have something of a name, I began to do journalism -- Condé Nast pays the bills very well. And then I had this burning ambition. That would keep me going, too. I mean, there are a lot of hours in the day.

But have you ever felt that the pursuit of your intellectual life and the pursuit of your sexual life created conflict?

In the '70s, gay male life in New York was both very sexual and very brainy. It was a hinge between the '60s and the '80s. The old-style homosexual felt that he had to be very cultured and know something about Maria Callas or Nietzsche -- it was an elitist world. Then there's the populist world of gay life today, which is very gym-oriented. I meet tons of gays now who don't read at all, which would have been if not unthinkable among working-class gays ... well, there weren't many working-class gays who called themselves gays in the '50s and '60s. What you had was a kind of shadowy army of working-class guys who fooled around with each other but didn't really acknowledge their homosexuality publicly because they couldn't afford to, economically or socially. Then you had a tiny elite who lived in New York and Paris and places like that who could afford to call themselves gay but only among themselves. They would have little parties and the price of admission to that world was to be very cultured. In the '70s you had a newly emerging clone culture that was body-oriented and had rough sex and all that, but they were also still drawn to an older generation of cultured gays and so they thought that they had to do both. That made it a very dynamic and interesting period.

Have you been marginalized for being a gay writer?

If anyone has benefited from the label "gay writer," I have. Maybe I wouldn't have been known at all if I hadn't been called a gay writer. I think I really rode that wave, which in a way I also created. The very first novel I ever wrote, in 1954, when I was 14, was a gay novel, and my nephew, who's my biographer, said, "If you'd published that then, it would have been an absolutely unprecedented work." He's read it, it still exists. But I didn't have the nerve to even submit it. People often say to me, "You'd have a much bigger audience if you wrote heterosexual novels." The truth is, I did write two heterosexual novels, "Caracole" and "Forgetting Elena," and they were enormous flops commercially.

There's a disturbing line of thought among some younger gay people, but also an older generation that should know better, that protease inhibitors are the new miracle drugs that make AIDS a manageable disease. The necessity of condoms, the reported dangers of oral sex -- to them it's all been taken care of with these drugs.

Several doctors have said to me that the biggest problem is convincing young people that there is life after 40. If you say you're going to be dead by 40, they say, "So what? There's no gay life after 40, anyway." Especially in France, but even here. You can easily be a gay in his 20s and never meet a gay over 40 because you don't see them in the bars. They don't go out, they're not part of your world, and if you do see them, you consider them pathetic.

In the book you talk about the debate of monogamy vs. promiscuity, which seems a never-ending argument for gay men. What is the continuing struggle about?

It's based on an even deeper thing between assimilation and the idea that gays have a special destiny. A tremendous number of gays are especially vocal now, like the group that you mentioned, who would like to have gay marriage instituted so that gays could adopt children and live in the suburbs and be indistinguishable from their neighbors. And there are other people like me who feel that gays have a different way of living than straights, and more power to them, because the heterosexual institutions are inferior and don't work, anyway. In the 18th century, the idea was that you married somebody who'd be suitable to have children with, for your economic advantage and for your dynastic ambition, and that was it -- there was no question of love. It was only in the 19th century that people married for companionship, so you were trying to marry your best friend, and you were trying to bring together sex, friendship and love. I think that it doesn't work. And that's why there's a more than 50 percent divorce rate. And virtually anybody who can afford to get divorced does divorce. It's only the people who can't afford it who stay married. To hold that up as an ideal for gays is absurd. Why do they want to imitate an institution that doesn't work?

And are intellectuals really the best sex, as you say? Are Susan Sontag and Alfred Kazin that hot-to-trot?

I'm sure Susan is; I don't know about Alfred Kazin. I mean, Susan used to be a good friend of mine. We had a falling out. But I think she must be a very passionate woman. I based a character in "Caracole," a character called Mathilda, on her, and I was surprised she disliked it because to me it seemed like a very flattering portrait. I portrayed her as somebody who was both very brilliant and very passionate, and that seemed an ideal combination, and a rather unusual one.

Why is gay culture in general -- literature, movies, theater -- so bad? It's embarrassing sometimes to go to these gay film festivals and see these terrible movies, and you see such terrible gay theater in New York and L.A. It makes me feel marginalized by association.

A lot of people of talent haven't really come into these fields. They've stayed away because they felt it was minor and it was going to cripple their chances for success. For instance, it's interesting that only now that gay literature has been around for so long have some really big guns come into it, like Allan Hollinghurst, who I think is England's best writer, straight or gay. He's completely explicit about the homosexuality but he also has this enormous culture which lends resonance to his work and makes it the most important writing being done today.

In spite of itself, your novel is very elegiac, almost old-fashioned in a way, with its extravagance of detail. You yourself seem steeped in an old-world elegance. And you live in Paris. So where does the raunch and debauchery fit in?

Hmmm ... well. Sade was a marquis. It's nice to live in the country of Celine, Sade and Genet because, for one thing, you don't think that you have to be a nice person in order to be a writer. You certainly don't have to be politically correct. It's a country that celebrates transgression as a literary principle, probably because, otherwise, people are so conformist that they would have no bumps in a completely smooth road.

Do you consider this book to be a culmination of your life's work?

I do, yes. I've been more attentive to the reception of this book than any other, partly because I feel I put so much of myself in it. When people say they don't like the book, I feel like they're saying they don't like me. When Julian Barnes wrote a bad review of "Caracole," we went off to dinner that night and laughed about it. I didn't care because I saw it as an objective work of art that you could take or leave. Obviously I had a lot invested in it because I spent five years writing it, but on the other hand, I could be objective about it. "The Farewell Symphony" I'm not at all objective about because, first of all, I feel it's a good book. It's also new in many ways that are sort of unsettling. You mentioned that it has an old-fashioned quality, but it also has a very modern quality. It combines a high cultural context with a lot of heavy-duty sex. But the sex isn't really pornographic because it's not meant to arouse. It's meant to be a description of what people do when they have sex. It's a panorama of two decades, and it is very much a statement of what I became. If "A Boy's Own Story" is about what I was as a child and what was imposed on me by adults, this is a book about what I freely chose to become.

Can we continue to explore AIDS in fiction or have we reached an impasse?

That's a very good question. I think it'll probably be parallel to the Holocaust. There was a glut of Holocaust books, mostly nonfiction, after the war, and then there was a long silence because people had just had it. Now in recent years there's been a re-exploration of the whole subject, and some very good novels like "Schindler's List." AIDS inspired a flurry of novels, from early on, on the heels or even during the event, more than any other phenomenon I can think of. Usually works of art trail way behind. DeFoe's "Journal of the Plague Year" was written 100 years after the plague. But because AIDS is such a devastating thing, and so many gay people are writers and artists, there's been this enormous artistic response to it. I think it's frivolous to hand out grades to these works of art that are being done. It'd be like people coming out of Auschwitz with little scrawled pictures of dead bodies. What if they'd been bad drawings? Who cares? They're precious documents. And I feel that way about AIDS writing. Maybe 30 or 50 years from now there will be the great AIDS novel written, but for the moment it's a different kind of phenomenon. It's an effort to memorialize those who died, to put down what really happened, and to make sense or a work of art out of all this suffering.

By Daniel Reitz

Daniel Reitz, a frequent contributor to Salon, is a writer living in New York. His film "Urbania," based on his play, "Urban Folk Tales," will be released in August.

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