Books: a book that changed me

NEIL BARTLETT on Edmund White's `Forgetting Elena'
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The Independent Culture
When did you first read it? I still have my 1973 copy and I can still remember very clearly how I acquired it. I had read about it in the papers, but when I went to buy it, I found that I had to order it. I was shaking as I did so. This was the first time that I had ever walked into a bookshop and deliberately ordered a book by a homosexual - and not a dead or "classic" one - and I somehow thought that the bookshop assistant would know what the book was about, and why I wanted it, and I shook because I was battling an odd and exciting mixture of shame and defiance as I handed over the money.

Why did it strike you? The elegant, upmarket pages of that expensive first hardback edition are now well thumbed, well-travelled, but Elena remains for me an entirely accurate picture of how it felt to be me, growing up. Which is odd, because nothing could be further from my constrained South of England adolescence than the life of White's amnesiac hero, inexplicably stranded at the heart of a relict demi-monde that seems to be half 1970's Fire Island, half classical Oriental court, described in prose as moody and hesitant as a small-town teenager and as extravagantly esoteric as a jaded Manhattan pervert. The writing is painfully deliberate - glamorous, elegant, preposterously self-conscious - and yet the strangeness, the isolation and the cost of this young man's life were all vividly real.

With hindsight, I'd say this is the book that allowed me to write. Everything in it is real, but it's summoned in a language and in a story that has nothing to do with the short-cuts of social realism. The prose is not trying to explain anything away. It is as baffling as its hero is baffled, as sexy as he is; it recreates rather than describes confusion, sensation, revelation - the choice of the right word is, like the making of the right move, difficult, erotic. It made me think that it might be possible to make works that pursue unrealised, unadmitted desires - my desires - not just the expected ones that more reasonable forms of writing predict. It made me unafraid of my own subject matter, because it made my own life seem fantastic. The purpose of fictions is to make what we think familiar, strange.

Neil Bartlett stages Benjamin Britten's song sequence `Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo' at the Lyric Hammersmith, April 8-11.