Goodbye to all that

THE FAREWELL SYMPHONY by Edmund White, Chatto pounds 16.99

"Nothing is more obdurate to artistic treatment than the carnal," E M Forster wrote to Siegfried Sassoon in 1920, "but it has to be got in, I'm sure: everything has to be got in." Forster himself didn't get the carnal in, not even into Maurice, the novel he locked away for 50 years and which was published only posthumously and post-Wolfenden. But Forster's successors have done a little better. Freed from the laws which forced gay writers into silence or coded "sensitivity", they've recounted with libidinous candour the love that men can feel for each other's bodies.

Alan Hollinghurst's deeply English but bravely carnal The Swimming-Pool Library, in 1988, was some kind of turning-point ("Seeing again how his cock was held in his little blue briefs I was almost sick with love, fondled it and kissed it through the soft sustaining cotton"). But even before that there was Edmund White, with the autobiographical fiction of A Boy's Own Story (1982) and The Beautiful Room is Empty, a sequence that now concludes with The Farewell Symphony, a novel both tender and brutal in its honesty: "I moved easily from one man to the next, my hand sifting through long hair, my lips grazing a soft moustache, my cock engulfed by a hot mouth that like a glass-blower's would make grow and glow through its motion a shape and an urgency."

A male heterosexual who finds such passages of joy (to use Thom Gunn's phrase) interesting and even enjoyable may start to wonder about himself: so, they were right, I must be poufy after all. But the answer may be more banal, the excitement a literary one. After the limp exhaustion of most contemporary male writing about sex with women (a tiredness that has made an increasing number of novelists, Salman Rushdie and Nick Hornby among them, pull the blinds down if they feel a sex scene coming on), White and Hollinghurst look fresh and energetic.

The energy is partly the elation of breaking new ground. Ten years ago, if not now, a gay novelist could feel uninhibited by precedent. The tradition of Forster and Firbank is eloquent, but it includes very little speaking, plain or otherwise, about the male body - about foreskins and shafts and scrotal sacs, about nipples "the colour of a drop of blood when it tinctures a basin full of water" and "balls light and tender as seedless grapes or big and veined like walnuts", about skin as "warm to the touch as a clay pot left out in the sun". The territory has always been there, but White was one of the first novelists to report what it looks and feels like. The image is often flattering, rose-tinted with desire, but not always. "His mouth tasted slightly sour, like a mildewed washcloth," he writes of one lover. And of another: "his skin no longer looked like sugar dissolving in a spoon but had taken on the grainy, tobacco-stained hue of old piano keys." Flab, bad odours, bald patches and excess body- hair are here, too, part of the truth that can't be left out. These hymns to Him are more tactile than anything since the "Song of Solomon".

Not everyone can appreciate such writing, even when it avoids the horny cliches and come-on lyricisms of the flesh. There are those who dislike carnal prose in general, and those who'll be turned off by the particular carnalities here described, as well as those, especially women, who can't help but feel excluded. But White isn't only preaching to the inverted. His ideal reader, he says, was until recently "an imaginary European heterosexual woman", who functioned as a filter, a corrective, someone with whom he couldn't exchange knowing looks. And even now that Aids and activism have made him turn for readers to "other gay men, young and old", he remains faithful to "the old ambition of fiction", to collar strangers and look them sympathetically in the eye.

To win over strangers, you mustn't be too strange yourself. Though White depicts himself as uncertain and sometimes isolated when young, and still deeply conscious of belonging to a minority, he comes across as gregarious, engaging, good company. There's a Whitmanesque generosity about him, both physical and spiritual, and a lack of snobbism, however refined his aesthetic taste. There are elements in his work of Proust and Henry James, but he hasn't their physical recoil and fastidiousness. He's uncertain, too, and not afraid to admit it, turning his confusion into wise, wistful oxymorons about love and loss, polygamy and monogamy, Europe and America, and the vanity of human wishes. Some of the best sections in The Farewell Symphony narrate, not picaresque adventures in the flesh trade, but his relationship with his mother, father, sister, nephew and several women who unwisely fell in love with him. He's also fascinating on the subject of his literary ambition. For many years he ached to be published, as if it were a kind of canonisation and only then he'd be redeemed and vindicated. Once successful, he felt more isolated than ever and began to write "out of a mild curiosity about what I'd invent rather than from a searing need to impose myself on the world".

"Happiness writes white," said Montherlant. But this White (who once co-authored The Joy of Gay Sex) is very good at writing happiness, at recapturing sexual delights, delicious meals and funny conversations, always with that elegiac undertow that reminds us they can't last. His metaphors, whether pared or (more usually) lush, suggest a poet manque. And the best of his analogies are reserved for touch: "warm showers of sparks trailed his hand, as though my flesh were the phosphorescing sea in August".

White's poetry would get the better of him if it weren't that he's also an astute social commentator, an "archaeologist of gossip", and an unblinking eye-witness to the changing moeurs of gay men over the past 40 years. In the 1950s, White thought he was the only one; by the late 1960s "we were everywhere, an army, the coming thing"; in the 1970s, the "clone" look developed - moustaches and white T-shirts - and White, in love with idiosyncrasy, hated it, though not as much as he hated the "puritanical disease" that came along in the 1980s. It's all here: the tricking and cruising, the tops and bottoms, the remaking of Fire Island and Manhattan. At one point in The Farewell Symphony White describes a club in New York called The Mineshaft, at the centre of which is a wall with saucer-sized holes at waist height - "glory holes"for a transaction between faceless guys and unseen mouths. To hets, it's a vision of hell: even at our most perversely polymorphic, we don't come near to this. And yet the rampancy and neediness and addiction are recognisable enough.

White estimates that in 30 years he must have had 3,120 partners, on the basis of three a week. But he is also irresistibly drawn to the notion of the couple. A central theme of The Farewell Symphony is the pull towards sensation, novelty and plurality on the one hand and, on the other, a stable relationship with Mr Right ("I wanted to be his wife in the most straitlaced of marriages"). Both, to White, are impossible ideals, which doesn't make them any less worth pursuing. He is an American optimist but also a homosexual pessimist, who knows (and wishes women would, too) that "of course men betray you, of course love is an illusion dispelled by lust, of course you end up alone". Promiscuous yet uxorious, his book recalls both the high points of casual sex and the four enduring loves in his (or his narrator's) life: Sean, Kevin, Joshua and Brice.

Brice's death from Aids not only begins and ends the book, but casts a shadow on everything in between. It is, as White puts it, what makes a Gorky comedy about an endless summer house party end up as a terse Greek tragedy. Little is said about the illness. Little needs to be said. Implicit in all the carnal pleasures is the day of their curt removal. As well as Brice's death there are others, briskly catalogued or tearfully mourned. The novel attains a mythic quality, a legend of Paradise and Paradise Lost. For a brief, glorious period, its protagonists dwell in an Edenic community, "redolent of summer camp", where sex is "a game of touch-tag"; then comes the Fall. That almost every contemporary gay novel has this story to tell - the growth and decimation of a community based on sexual preference - doesn't make it any less compelling. It is a tale full of love and pathos, and Edmund White is its master chronicler.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own