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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935