Sex in the afternoon

The Married Man by Edmund White (Chatto, £16.99)
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The Independent Culture

Shortly after reading his 1997 novel, The Farewell Symphony, I begged a trusted friend: "Please, if I should ever turn into Edmund White, shoot me."

It wasn't that I didn't rate his artistry. Anyone who can render 20 years of meaningless sex in the Parisian afternoon even more tedious than 20 years of meaningless sex in the Parisian afternoon actually is, must be possessed of a great talent. Nor was it that I didn't rate him as a person: I met him once at a dinner party a few years ago and found him, like his prose, disarmingly charming and candid. No, it was the idea of Edmund White that I couldn't bear.

I found it almost as unappealing as much of the serious book-reading public appeared to find it aspirational. After all, as Austin, the middle-aged American living in Paris with a snobbish disdain for Americans (who, like all White's protagonists bears more than a passing resemblance to White) puts it rather smugly: "the best people are Europeanised Americans."

Edmund White is a literary brand which promises salons, boulevards, and buggery in garlic-scented backrooms; a high-brow Anglo tourism of Gallic low-life with plenty of disposable income and an indispensable sexual identity. A Queer as Folk for those who won't watch television (and have never heard of Manchester). George Orwell once complained that, to Americans, Paris represented a cross between a brothel and a museum. Plus ça change. For American and British fiction aficionados, White represents a cross between a bathhouse and a museum.

The jacket blurb to his new novel reads like an especially precious article from Conde Nast Traveller. It gushes about how Austin and Julien, a young architect, "dash between Bohemian suppers and glittering salons ..." and how their quest for "health and happiness drives them to Rome, to the shuttered squares of Venice, to Key West in the sun, Montreal in the snow and Providence in the rain - landscapes soaked with feeling which lead, in the end, to the bleak, baking sands of the Sahara". If only we could all arrange for the scenery to match our moods so tastefully!

Oddly, apart from the hint about a quest for "health and happiness" and a cryptic "dark cloud on the horizon", there is no mention that this is an AIDS novel. A slightly ironic coyness, given the Anglo/Protestant habit in White's work of decrying the tendency towards "closetness" in Latin countries. It's a shame, because even though AIDS novels are hideously unfashionable these days, The Married Man is a good one - as AIDS novels go. Largely because it avoids the sentimentality and melodrama which kills most of the others as effectively as PCP.

If The Farewell Symphony was a confession of sorts of a plague survivor's guilty if entirely predictable and human irresponsibility (in it White seemed to admit that he has HIV and that he had deliberately unsafe sex with a bisexual man after learning of his status), The Married Man is an admission of a plague survivor's guilty responsibility. Set in the early Nineties, before the arrival of the Protease Inhibitor cavalry, The Married Man tells how an ageing but immature writer for glossy magazines abandons his life of selfish indolence to take on the crushingly heavy responsibility of caring for his terminally ill bisexual boyfriend - whose condition he may have brought about - not out of love but duty. It anatomises unflinchingly not only the progress of the disease which turns Julien into "a death's head shaking on a stick", but also his own ambivalence, self-delusion and questionable motivations. Its autobiographical nature is advertised by the fact that Julien's end parallels almost exactly that of Brice at the end of The Farewell Symphony.

Perhaps corruption of the flesh and of the soul are handled so well here because White is an undisputed master of a slightly sickened-sickening sensuality - managing to evoke tastefully the distasteful truth of our own desire (in The Married Man he appears to have controlled his habit of taking a sniff of self-justifying Seventies gay lib poppers every few pages). In one passage he describes a 24-year-old lad with "an intense stare and the strange smell of an old well, as though his fillings had started to rust in an excess of saliva". And later, Austin reminisces about "the hot, bitter taste of his anus, like stale cucumbers..."

Despite his tendency never to use one adjective when three will do, White can be very droll and to the point when he allows himself to be vulgar, especially in his observations of national foibles. Illustrating what he aptly describes as the "sing song complacency" of the Dutch he recounts an experience in a Amsterdam bar where "a lantern-jawed, gum-chewing blond with bad skin had asked him in a bored voice, 'And would you like to be beat?' just as if he'd been saying, 'And would you like more fries?'."

White was accused of being "self-obsessed" by some when The Farewell Symphony was published. Part of the (self-obsessed) reason I read The Married Man was to reassure myself I hadn't turned into Edmund White in the intervening years. The answer I found within its unflinching pages surprised me, even if it was perhaps intended to: no, I told myself, you haven't turned into Edmund White. And you never will. You don't have enough heart.