BOOK REVIEW / Sex may be political, but gays have more fun: 'The Burning Library' - Edmund White: Chatto, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THESE 'Writings on Art, Politics and Sexuality', ranging chronologically from 1969 to 1993, fall into two groups, the first dealing with art, specifically contemporary literature, the second with sexuality, specifically the gay experience and lifestyle. And politics? Although White constantly invokes the term in some version of the feminist slogan 'the personal is political', it remains a token presence in a book whose tone throughout is one of celebration and eulogy rather than confrontation or debate.

The pieces on sexual issues present a set of variations, modulated by the date of writing, on the theme that gays have more fun. Not only are serial affairs the condition to which all men and an increasing number of liberated women aspire, we are told, but gay lovers conveniently become close friends the moment passion fades. So, far from being a promiscuous exception, gays are at the cutting edge when it comes to redefining human relationships, since, as White puts it in one of his less felicitous sentences, 'every homosexual must think everything out from the bottom up'.

The same applies to the terms on which the gay couple cohabits. 'Even the word lover is too rude for all the gradations of commitment and intimacy; one friend uses an ascending scale of Trick, Number, Fuck Buddy, Lover and Husband.' There are also social advantages: 'We are never sad tourists stranded behind the high walls of the Hilton compound. Look for us dancing upstairs at the tiny Cafe de Paris in Malaga; there you'll find us in the embrace of a Moroccan man who works on the ferry-boat from Tangier. And by the end of the week we know a few words in Maghrebi, the local Arabic dialect.'

Many of these pieces were written in the 1970s, when Anita Bryant's anti-gay crusade posed a real threat in America, and a dose of corrective propaganda was certainly in order. Less easy to accept now are the barely veiled sneers at the straight world: 'My friendships have had an importance for me that friendship doesn't seem to have for most straight people.' 'It seems that gays are more capable than straights of distinguishing between sex and love.' 'Straight life combines the warmth and Gemutlichkeit of the 19th century bourgeois (the woman) with the steely corporate ethos of the 20th century functionary (the man).'

If a straight writer were to utter such patronising, self-congratulatory generalisations about gays, he or she would rightly be laughed off the page, as would anyone who indulged in such breathless gush as this about a partner of the opposite sex: 'For the past five years I have been friends with 'Hank', a tall, dark hunk from Colorado with a mixture of Spanish and Irish blood, a boxer's body and the soul of a saint. He's someone who will go to bed with anyone; as he says he practices the 'generosity of the body'.'

The best pieces in this group demonstrate that White's genius is for anecdote, not analysis: unsettling encounters with Truman Capote and William Burroughs, and a hilarious account of the seedy end of the gay pornography market. The literary section of the book consists for the most part of reprinted reviews. White's approach, to use Leavis's distinction, is one of appreciation, not criticism. What he says of A W Symons applies perfectly to White himself: 'This engaging critic stood in an equally benign relationship to his subject and to his reader. Although he often laid claims to being systematic . . . he could do nothing but alternate admiration with intuition.'

Like Symons, White has done much to champion virtually unknown writers, particularly in America, but in collected form his unflagging enthusiasm and unstinting praise ultimately debase the critical currency. The most negative remark in the entire book is a delicate allusion to Cormac McCarthy's 'occasional excesses'; in the face of White's habitual excesses ('in a thousand years people will know of the Palestinian exodus only in his version', he writes of Jean Genet's Prisoner of Love) one longs for a little more edge, some perspective, a focal distance between the writer and his subject. There are some good lines ('There are no second acts in the lives of American writers because everyone gets drunk during the intermission') and a few gems of preciosity ('The woman and I spoke the same language, knew the same people; we both considered Marcella Hazan fun but no substitute for Simone Beck'), but all too often White writes like the PR person of every author's wet dreams.

The title of this volume is explained by a sentence printed on the back of the book jacket: ''When a person dies, a library burns.' It is a beautiful phrase: balanced, euphonious, allusive, haunting. But which library is referred to? My collection of spavined paperbacks? The redolent, thumb-smudged volumes of the Islington Public Library? Or are we, despite that coy indefinite article, talking about the burning of the Library of Alexandria? I've really no idea, but it is a most beautiful phrase. Nevertheless, one can't help feeling that these generous, accomplished, rather bland essays might more aptly have been called Edmund White Enjoys.

(Photograph omitted)