Books: A life of courage and regret

Edmund White: The Burning World by Stephen Barber Picador pounds 20
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'I longed for the courage to do something reckless, and the years in which to regret it." So confesses the nameless narrator of Edmund White's The Beautiful Room is Empty as he looks back over a key period of his youth, and we are in little doubt that he is speaking for the author himself. White, like his protagonist, was to find that courage, and to find it young, but - as Stephen Barber's biographical study of him shows - he has not spent the subsequent years regretting this.

Never to deny one's affirmative desires - that has been his unfailing creed, and in his 20s he was able to enter a milieu, at times heady with its sense of revolutionary discovery, which encouraged him to pursue courses wholly opposed to traditional counsels of restraint and self censorship. There must have been, later on, only too many temptations to succumb to regret. The free gay lifestyle, which White found so suited to his own physical and emotional temperament, found itself challenged from within, by the body itself. Aids, that vast terrible cashing of pre-dated cheques, brought victims and witnesses not only a present of pain and distress but a shifting of the landscape of the past, undermining its most striven- for and cherished features. And obviously, for an appalling number, "years in which to regret" (or otherwise) were cruelly withheld.

Stephen Barber quotes Edmund White writing shortly after beginning work on his last novel The Farewell Symphony: "The 1970s were a period that had its own direction and would have developed in quite a different way without Aids. I feel it wasn't a mistake, that it was a noble experiment - people were trying to get away from the traditional couple towards a community of sexual partners, lovers, friends. An American utopian experiment." For Barber, White's career as man and writer can be seen as both paradigmatic and seminal; he at once represents a generation, a whole movement out of middle American standards and is himself a long-standing influence, a role-model. And in no respect is White more important than in his relationship to Aids, from which he has lost intellectual comrades-in-arms as well as men personally dear to him - above all his partner, French architect and artist, Hubert Sorin - and by which he himself has been threatened; he was diagnosed HIV Positive in 1985. White has celebrated a world entirely ignorant of the very possibility of such a "plague", has chronicled its mounting impact and toll, has documented its ravages - on the particular individual as well as on community and culture - and, finally, has enhearteningly sought fresh perspectives in which to view it; now a certain restoration of the pre-Aids belief in a sane breadth in sexual/social life is possible. Barber writes: "If, as White believes, Aids has been a futile genocide issuing from some unknowable and void source (lacking even the bogus dignity of a God-given plague) then its witnesses and survivors have an urgent and communal responsibility to themselves - to collect together the traces of lost lives, through writing, and through an excavation of the nature of memory itself."

Barber's book is subtitled The Burning World both as a tribute to White's own collection of critical essays, The Burning Library, and to indicate the near-apocalyptic conditions in which White's hard-won ideas were put to the test. He calls it a "biography"; I believe it to be something rarer than this. It is simultaneously a presentation of Edmund White's actual life and oeuvre, with specific details and analyses, and of a more general creative spirit - which can stand in for us all - being acted on by a time, a society, a culture and in turn giving back to it, even affecting it. So that, very unusually, as we read, we can imagine a man different from the biographical subject who would have had other reactions and impulses. And this is continually to see Edmund White himself in a new and transfigurating light.

Stephen Barber is a cultural historian of real distinction, with books on Artaud, post-war France and the European city to his credit, and he gives us here superb, rich, unjudgemental portraits of multi-stranded societies at given times: the New York of Fire Island, Christopher Street, and that turning-point in gay history, Stonewall; the France, in particular Paris, of Mitterrand's 1981 victory and afterwards; the earlier France of Genet, to whom White devoted so many writing years; even the Britain, Thatcher-dominated and Thatcher-resistant, in which White's autobiographical novel, A Boy's Own Story was launched with such spectacular success (1983). In all these cases we become the comprehending witnesses of encounter: between White the man and the complexities of the time and the place; between White the writer and these complexities - and between both Whites.

Not that Barber neglects orthodox biography, not least the task of making clear to us his subject's origins (even though White has written so extensively about these himself). If we look once again at The Beautiful Room is Empty we find that the narrator wants "to redeem the sin of my life by turning it into the virtue of art."

The vocabulary is significant here. Born, raised and educated in the Midwest, White did not (it would seem) directly suffer from any Moral Majority or Christian Right; his was "the affluent Midwest of new Cadillacs, Negro maids and wineless six o'clock dinners", a thoroughly philistine society using conventional religion lazily but pervasively to protect itself from disruption. Precociously moved by the arts and vitalised by his own sexual urges, the young White found himself impelled, in his longing for normality and sinlessness, towards middle-class America's "other" religion - Freudian psychoanalysis. This made him feel no better; homosexuality was a sickness the cure for which was long, humiliating and expensive. Only when freed from these two oppressors (and perhaps White feels more bitterly towards the second of them) could he live and create as himself.

Barber in his opening sentence calls White "one of the most extraordinary writers of our time" but does not (deliberately, one assumes) attempt to place him. This abstinence raises difficulties and a paradox. For all his knowledge of and friendship with avant-garde writers (the notorious Guyotat) and post-structuralist critics (Foucault, Kristeva), White is for the most part a very conservative writer. The graceful style of A Boy's Own Story was what mainly enabled its large readership to absorb provocative subject-matter. The mesmeric The Beautiful Room is Empty has unflagging life, moves one, and is intricately wrought; technically, intellectually, it is undemanding. These two books form with The Farewell Symphony a trilogy at the centre of White's achievement and reputation, as the earlier more individualistic and baroque Nocturnes for the King of Naples is not. Barber is right to insist, that, though closely and demonstrably related to White's life, the three novels contain much from his imagination, but essentially they are surely more memoir than novel. Order is imposed on the experienced world by the regulating mind, not the other way about as in more experimental, adventurous fictions.

It is, in truth, the writer and not the writing that is extraordinary - in the purity with which he has maintained a life in desire. The writings themselves are basically testimonies to that purity. Barber has written a brilliant and often profound book in celebration of this rare quality, and in places - I think particularly of his harrowing account of Hubert Sorin's death from Aids in Morocco - he rises to heights of which his subject (and friend) must surely himself be proud.