Friday, July 17, 2009

Our Edmund White

Last night the American author Edmund White gave a reading, along with local writer Claire Robson, at Little Sister’s. White is in town as part of a research project sponsored by Robson and Professor Dennis Sumara, of the Department of Curriculum Studies at UBC, that is looking at memoir writing and community formation among older lesbians in Vancouver. As part of their research, the group had read White’s classic autobiographical novel A Boy’s Own Story to parse in part the relationship between sexual content and style in that book.

To make a long story short, mostly by luck and happenstance I was invited to say a few words of introduction about White’s work in advance of his reading. As White is one of my favourite authors, someone whose work I greatly respect and admire, this was a major literary fantasy come true. Even better was the fact that White turned out to be a genial and gracious person, and seemed genuinely taken and touched by my remarks (he’s asked for a copy, at any rate). I reproduce them here for those unable to attend last night’s event:

Taking a page from his 2006 memoir by way of pluralizing the possessive pronoun of its title, I want to talk to you very briefly about “Our Edmund White”—that is what White, as one of our foremost authors, has gifted to our community. To do so means, necessarily, to follow the very model employed by White in My Lives: that is, to speak serially and to eschew chronology; to make connections across time and space, both in terms of the corpus of White’s writing as a whole, and the larger category of gay writing more generally.

However, you’re not here to listen to me, and so in order to waste as little time as possible, I will concentrate my remarks primarily on White’s experiments in autobiographical fiction, which resulted in the acclaimed trilogy of novels comprising A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony. Together these novels chronicle, via their impish and by no means wide-eyed and innocent narrator-protagonist, what it meant to grow up gay in postwar Middle America, while at the same time offering a firsthand account of a community in social and erotic formation post-Stonewall, and threatened with near-total destruction and eclipse post-AIDS. By choosing to make art out of his life (and, concomitantly, life out of his art), White has consciously placed himself within a long tradition of queer writerly self-fashioning, beginning with Oscar Wilde, and extending through Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Proust and Jean Genet (all of whom are the subjects of acclaimed biographies by White), as well as Christopher Isherwood (with whom White has important affinities, not least in terms of autobiographical method) and even more contemporary writers like Augusten Burroughs (whose respective portraits of his divorced parents owe something, in terms of retrospective irony and scabrous wit, to White’s earlier explorations of familial dysfunction and Oedipal desire run amok).

If, on occasion, White has been critiqued for the too-painful honesty of these works, for failing to set limits on what—or who (including the dead)—can and cannot be talked about in fiction and prose memoir (near the end of The Farewell Symphony, for instance, we are told by the narrator that he can’t tell the story of his lover Brice’s passing—and of the “angry hateful” final words uttered by him—only to get a version of this very story, albeit with the names changed, three years later from White in The Married Man, which serves as a kind of coda to the series); if, in other words, White’s resolute refusal to censor himself as a writer sometimes strikes a raw nerve, it needs to be noted that White always reserves his harshest scrutiny for his fictional alter-egos: the betrayal of his music teacher, Mr. Beattie, at the end of A Boy’s Own Story, for example, is clearly shown to emerge from the narrator’s own self-loathing; and for sheer self-exposure nothing quite matches the frank portrait of White’s own unruly desires on offer in the “My Master” section of My Lives. Just as the portraits of the bitchy and narcissistic Baron de Charlus, the flighty Duchesse de Guermentes, the social-climbing Madame Verdurin, the feckless Charlie Morel, and the dissembling Albertine and Robert de Saint-Loup in Proust’s Recherche tell us more about the guileless Marcel than they do about a social set he at once sees himself above and apart from, so do White’s at times barely disguised versions of the more outrageous denizens of a gay Faubourg Saint-Germain scene of 1970s and 1980s New York serve as an indexical accounting of his own place in the world and his responsibilities (including their paradoxes and shortcomings) to others. And just as Marcel discovers in the library of the Princesse de Guermentes at the end of the Recherche that it is only through literature and art that one can stop Time and reorder memory, so too does White suggest at the end of The Farewell Symphony that writing offers a way of completing the work of mourning.

Saying what cannot or what is not supposed to be said in fiction is not just part of a self-consciously queer writerly aesthetic; it is also, for White, part of a readerly ethic, a way of speaking to and hailing a community of readers who will recognize in the address a shared connection. As White explains, again near the end of The Farewell Symphony, “I wanted to see if the old ambition of fiction, to say the most private, uncoded, previously unformulated things, might still work, might once again collar a stranger, look him in the eye, might demand sympathy from this unknown person but also give him sympathy in return. These secret meetings—unpredictable, subversive—of reader and writer were all I lived for.” In other words, literature as a form of cruising.

I have been enjoying secret, unpredictable, subversive meetings with the writing of Edmund White for more than two decades now: from his early experiments in allegorical fantasy and baroque style (Nocturnes for the King of Naples, Forgetting Elena, Caracole) to his more recent explorations of historical meta-fiction (Fanny: A Fiction and Hotel de Dream, about the lost gay masterpiece by the tubercular American writer Stephen Crane, and the role a capricious and moralistic Henry James might have played in losing it); from his pioneering contributions in queer ethnography and self-help (States of Desire: Travels Across Gay America and the first edition of The Joy of Gay Sex) to his equally important work in a genre it only seems appropriate to call the city memoir (Our Paris: Sketches from Memory, written with Hubert Sorin, The Flâneur, and the forthcoming City Boy); from the Francophilia that dominates his choices of biographical subject (the aforementioned Genet, Proust, and Rimbaud) to the steadfast and stalwart Americanness that comes out in the biographical portraits of Uncle Ed on offer in nephew Keith Fleming’s The Boy with the Thorn in His Side and Original Youth: The Real Story of Edmund White’s Boyhood. I have thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of these private literary encounters with Edmund White, and it is a pleasure and a thrill to finally be making his public acquaintance here at Little Sister’s—where so much of that work was purchased.


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