BOOKS / Life before the Flood: Charming, open-hearted and HIV-positive, Edmund White believes that there is more to gay culture than the shadow of Aids. He has spent seven years writing a life of Jean Genet

Alan Jenkins
Sunday 30 May 1993 00:02

ONE OF the last things Jack Lang, Francois Mitterrand's glamorous minister of culture, did before leaving office was to make Edmund White - most European of American writers - a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The certificate is on the mantelpiece in White's study, half-obscured by postcards and invitations, but White is visibly, boyishly proud of it. Back 'home' in the United States - though home for the past 10 years has been mostly in Paris - the honours have been slower in coming, and even among his most devoted readers and former associates there are those who can't forgive him for the way he has used his remarkable talents: 'Larry Kramer attacked me recently, in an article, saying that there is only one subject for a gay person to be writing about now, and that's Aids. Whereas Ed White, for instance, has wasted the last seven years writing about Jean Genet, of all things.'

White pronounces that last bit with a campy, drawling inflection that makes you wince for Kramer. 'I appreciate what he's saying, but it's a reduction of the whole of gay culture to a single issue, a medical emergency. And it's terrible to think that homosexuality was only de-medicalised for a brief period, about 20 years. What I wanted to do was remind people how much more there is to gay culture than disease, how much more there has been.'

While that 'much more' blazes out of all White's books, the medical profession has cast its shadow over them, too. In the American Midwest of the 1950s, what the teenage White got up to with 'hundreds of men, probably 500 by the time I was 16 - older middle-class family men who had sex with me in their cars full of children's toys' - was a crime, a sin, at best an illness. 'Sick with desire' White may have been; sick, he obviously was. In the figure of O'Reilly - the whisky- and amphetamine-crazed shrink in The Beautiful Room is Empty, the second volume (following A Boy's Own Story) in his trilogy of autobiographical novels - White has his revenge on the psychiatrists who tried to 'cure' him.

Now illness is back for real, and to stay. White was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1985. Most of the men who made up his world in New York in the 1970s are dead or dying. 'Edmund's address book,' says Adam Mars-Jones, a close friend whose stories are printed alongside White's in the collection The Darker Proof, 'is a graveyard.' Hubert Sorin, White's French lover of four years, has Aids. The couple travelled recently to Montpellier to consult a doctor who had reportedly achieved good results in helping Aids patients. 'He turned out to be a complete charlatan,' White recalls. 'He said he couldn't cure Hubert's Aids but he could cure his homosexuality.'

White is working now on the final volume of the trilogy, to be called The Farewell Symphony, after Haydn: 'It will bring the story up to date, the story of the last 20 years - all the fun we had, interspersed with what's happening now. But none of the people it's about are around to read it. I sometimes think - why am I doing this? Sort of sifting the ashes.' So White, who was, he says, 'liberated malgre moi' to become a celebrant and creator of the freedoms gay men enjoyed in the 1970s, is now their elegist. It's hard to imagine a more clear-sighted or gifted one.

Nor have his nearly seven years' work on Jean Genet been exactly 'wasted'. The biography is a thorough and absorbing account of Genet's life and times, shaped not just by chronology but by exhaustive reference to Genet's background, influences and connections, to historical and political developments large and small. Its grasp of Genet's intuitions, beliefs and imaginative vision, and of the 'legend' he created out of himself, is dazzling.

All the same, White's American editor initially had her doubts: 'She didn't want to publish it. It has a heavy sociological bent - it was interesting to see Genet in the light of the French public welfare system, the reform school system, his army life, Paris between the wars, the political chaos of Europe, which he traversed as a vagabond, and the radical movements he was involved with in his last years - the Black Panthers, the Palestinians. Americans don't see people like that - as figures in a landscape. They see people as close-ups of a unique face. It's a very romantic, heroic view of the individual, but one which I find deeply, dangerously apolitical.'

This sounds like an oddly engage remark, coming from White. In the world of his fiction, the pleasure principle takes the floor: opulent high style, gorgeous conceits and suave irony subdue pain, loss, neurosis and even violent death to a background murmur. It's an aesthete's vision, rendered with a moralist's intelligence. White presents passion analytically, but without losing any of its heat; he is a great dissector, as well as a great depictor, of desire.

His heroes are Nabokov, Stravinsky, Balanchine; Wilde, Firbank and Proust hover behind his prose. 'Maybe,' he says, 'I belong to the last generation that regards art as sacred.' (Harried by Bill Buford to simplify a piece for Granta, an exasperated White shot back: 'Don't you realise I'm your first 19th-century writer?') White was in his thirties when he wrote A Boy's Own Story. Now he is 53, and the years spent on Genet's life have left their mark.

'I think that's the natural trajectory of a life - from an intensely subjective vision of experience to a wider political awareness.' It was certainly Genet's: from the rhapsodic - but, as White reminds me, 'sociologically accurate' - novels, through the dark provocations of the plays to Prisoner of Love, his great homage to the dispossessed: 'Poetry, for Genet, went beyond politics, but he knew that it's politics which changes the world.' White finished the book more deeply convinced of Genet's genius and integrity; he began it as a labour of love: 'Bill Whitehead, my editor in the States at the time - he's since died of Aids - commissioned the book. He asked me if I knew anyone who could do it. I'd loved Genet's novels since I read them in the Sixties, and I volunteered.'

He also loved the 'honest work' aspect of biography: 'Writing a novel is very indulgent, very narcissistic. With biography you have a subject, and there are standards to judge how well you've succeeded in capturing it. Fiction is very nourishing to the self, it's a way of being in touch with the part of you that's still a child, the part that dreams, that is genuinely creative, bringing something into the world that didn't exist before and that only you could have done - for better or worse. A biography could have been done by somebody else, and probably will be. So it's less gratifying. And in a primitive sense it was less congenial to me: I like to write longhand, curled up like a little wet bird in a corner. Working on a novel I'll stay in bed in the morning and scribble a few little things and I'm done for the day. You can't write a biography like that.'

Both Genet and White are writers of what White calls 'auto-fiction', and both have suffered from the confusions it invites. A story of White's that appeared in an issue of the magazine Grand Street was subsequently reprinted by the Guardian as 'straight' autobiography, though there's nothing straight about it. 'Genet reinvented his experience, of course,' says White. 'But there have been books which set out to 'unmask' him, which treat him as a liar, by people who forget that the books he wrote are novels. And they forget that in fiction you change things for artistic reasons, not moral ones - not to show yourself in a better light but to make your experience more representative, or to make a more beautiful work of art.'

Biographer and subject have that much in common, but little else. 'He didn't like homosexuals,' White points out. 'Most of his lovers were heterosexual men whom he married off when he was tired of them - he didn't like Americans, he didn't like white, middle-class, educated people.' Of Genet's three cardinal virtues - theft, treachery and homosexuality - only the last appeals to White, who likes to please, has charm and generosity in spades, is warm and open and witty and (very) sociable, and makes a cult of friendship and good manners. His subject, in contrast, betrayed, abandoned, turned against or stole from virtually everyone who helped or befriended him, Cocteau, Sartre and Giacometti included. More important, Genet, who called himself 'a monstrous child', wanted to remain a marginal figure, in permanent and furious opposition, cut off from society, even criminal society.

'He wrote to get himself out of prison,' White says, 'then when he'd succeeded, received a pardon and was beginning to be known as a writer, he couldn't write any more. He was cut off from the beginning, by his genius and his homosexuality. But he always saw himself as a singular being, outside the tribe.' In fiction Genet intensified the violent strangeness of his experience and desires - to unsettle, to repel and to seduce the reader (whom he imagined as heterosexual). White, though, thinks of himself as a kind of spokesman: 'I always saw myself as a representative member of my generation of gay men, and wrote in a way that made me more so.'

This has involved quite a bit of toning down. How representative is a 16-year-old boy who's had up to 500 men? As a search for father-love, it seems a bit extreme. But the father-love itself seems a bit extreme, too. Of White Senior, a Texan cowboy turned businessman, a misanthrope who slept all day and stayed up all night so he wouldn't have to see people, his son says: 'I always wanted to be his lover. When I was 12, 13, I would sit on the floor outside his bedroom and have powerful fantasies that he would come out and embrace me and we would begin this fantastic love affair.'

In fact, their only contact was 'when he beat me', and the only taste they shared was for classical music: 'He was a great collector of classical records, which he played 24 hours a day. The music never stopped.' Nor did the music stop when White was living with his mother (his parents divorced when he was seven). He played the piano, the harp, the harpsichord, and composed; he wrote plays, acted, danced, painted: 'I had no talent in any of those areas, but my mother encouraged my love of the arts. She was a progressive 1920s liberal, a psychologist, very generous, open and kind, a Texan too, but always going beyond the limits of her age and caste.'

There are other things about White's childhood which don't strike you as exactly representative. Aged 'eight or nine', he was taken by his mother on Sundays to sample the various available religions ('this was America, you had to have a religion, so my mother thought we should choose one'), and chose Buddhism: 'There's nothing crudely social about nirvana. It seemed very rigorous and uncompromising.' Aged 10, he was reading the fin de siecle Decadents. White supported his mother financially until she died last year: 'She gave me, very early, a sense of my value as an artist. But she was so convinced I was a genius that I wanted instant gratification, everything had to be good straight off the bat. In the face of the least discouragement I'd stop something.'

He attended 'good' schools, 'was extrovert, won prizes' and then 'went into a terrible decline. I was both a prodigy and a late bloomer.' His first success was with a play, produced on Broadway when he was 22 - 'Some people loved it, others loathed it. It was controversial.' 'Several' subsequent plays, and novels, went unstaged and unpublished. (A more recent work, Trios, will be staged at the Riverside Studios this summer). White was in New York in his twenties, in a well-paid job at Time-Life, and firmly in the closet. The adolescent 'misery' of knowing he was gay but feeling he ought not to be was behind him, but he wasn't going anywhere: 'I wrote overtly gay auto-fiction and drama, and the Sixties were a bad time for that. Straight people enjoyed going to transvestite clubs and seeing themselves in a distorting mirror, but mainstream, middle-class homosexuality was too disturbing. The role-playing is much closer to home.'

Role-playing is of crucial importance to White, in both his life and art, though it wasn't until 1969 - when a police raid on the Stonewall, a favourite haunt of New York gays, provoked a riot - that he found a role for himself: 'I was very middle-class and repressive and frightened of all this exuberance, but I was caught up in it. And I lived in Greenwich Village, a forcing-shed for Gay Liberation at that time.' Also at that time, he finished and published Forgetting Elena, which presents a closed community whose elaborate codes and decorums the amnesiac narrator has to re-learn from scratch. There is almost no overt reference to homosexuality, though 'I was going to Fire Island, a gay resort, and reading the pillow book of Sei Shonagon, and the two things came together. On the island there was a distinct hierarchy of power, money and fame, disguised as a kind of egalitarianism.' A novel of classical rigour and oriental subtlety, Forgetting Elena was praised by Nabokov, and White was launched.

Except for the purposes of his own 'auto-fiction', he has never looked back. Having quit his job, lived in Rome for a year and returned to New York, he spent his thirties reading (he seems to have read everything), teaching at Johns Hopkins, Yale, the New York Institute of Humanities, of which he was director - and writing. The Joy of Gay Sex, a 'recipe-book' co-written with White's psychoanalyst, Charles Silverstein ('it was a sort of coming out to sign our real names to that book. We were recommending honesty, so we could hardly use pseudonyms'), sold in large numbers; as did States of Desire: Travels in Gay America ('it's a museum-piece, it came out in 1980, about a year before the Aids crisis, and it preserves in amber gay life before le deluge').

White now had a large gay following: 'Up till the Fifties I suppose I could have been a coterie writer, like Ronald Firbank, or like Genet when he was first discovered and published by Cocteau - his books were read by rich homosexuals. Then in the Sixties something happened - if you were a novelist and you didn't have a mass readership you were nothing at all. I may never have as many readers as John Updike, but reading him you might as well be reading John Barth or Julian Barnes; there's a mild aesthetic pleasure. If you're a member of a minority group, if you're Toni Morrison or gay, there's a very personal rapport with your readers, highly politicised and very exciting.'

In the 1970s White led the 'representative' New York gay life: lots of sex, drink and drugs, S/M bars, bath-houses. He also lent his voice to the cause, writing articles decrying pair-bonding and 'grotesque homosexual parodies' of the 'anyway unsatisfactory' institution of heterosexual marriage, encouraging 'friendship circles' among gay men. Then, around 1981, gay men started dying. White, with Larry Kramer and three other men, founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis, now one of the most powerful organisations in America: 'But I realised pretty quickly that I'd never write another word if I got caught up in Aids activism, and I also realised that I had a very forbidding, authoritarian personality in a position of power. It was chilling.'

In 1983, at the age of 43, having undergone a traumatic withdrawal from cigarettes and alcohol, he went to Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship. He had a job with American Vogue; he became a student again, going to the Alliance Francaise, reading books and looking up every word. The dollar was strong, the living easy, and 'I had more time for my own writing. It was very rejuvenating.' He wrote Caracole, his best novel to date, and his least popular.

Set in an unnamed city, half-Paris, half-Venice, Caracole is a story of sexual and political intrigue a la Stendhal, and of 'natural' innocence confronting - in John Ashbery's phrase - 'terminal sophistication'. White says that it 'owes a lot to Michel Foucault, who had become a friend. I wanted to write a homage to European literature but also a book that was warm and expressive and absorbing. I also thought it would be a challenge to write about heterosexuality. Not sociologically, I didn't canvass friends or do interviews. I wasn't after verisimilitude, so when people say it's off the mark, that's irrelevant to me.' In fact, its sexual moments are notably better, warmer and more absorbing than, say, John Updike's: 'I felt more expressed by that book than any other; it's not a first-person book, I could distribute my feelings and conflicts among the characters.'

The models for two of them - Susan Sontag and her son David Rieff, who'd been friends of White's - were not exactly thrilled. Rieff turned up at the launch party with a bullwhip, to chastise White for fictionalising him as a sulking, foppish decadent in a more or less incestuous relationship with his stormy, bluestocking mother. 'Edmund just couldn't imagine,' says Adam Mars-Jones, 'that there could be anyone who might not be grateful to appear in a book.'

White was one of the first homosexual men of any renown to speak out about his HIV-positive status, having become involved, through Michel Foucault, with an Aids activist group in France. He is modest about all this: 'In fact I've been quite cowardly. In little ways, I've done things, but I've basically felt that not everybody has to do the same thing.' White's 'thing' now is seeing friends - male and female, gay and straight, rich and bohemian, French and American; caring for Hubert, walking their basset hound, cooking meals in their roomy, white-painted apartment close to the Beaubourg, decorated with Hubert's architectural designs and portraits of White by Robert Mapplethorpe; listening to music, reading, writing.

He has four books due out in the next four years: the Genet biography, a book of essays ('articles really, reviews, that sort of thing'), a collection of stories, and The Farewell Symphony: 'I hope I live long enough to get all this done. The virus changes your relationship to time - intensifies it. You feel you owe it to yourself to enjoy life, but if you're constantly examining your life, you're not really living it. The way to live is to be engrossed in your work, in your love affairs, in your social life, so much so that it never occurs to you you won't live forever. Hubert's health is fragile, and the idea of going on without him is horrible. So I practise a lot of denial. There are bad patches, but I'm not a depressed person. We have an awfully nice life, we treasure every moment.'

The consummate dandy in prose who became, seemingly malgre lui, a kind of spokesman, the man who ridiculed marriage and disdained the nuclear family (but who nevertheless loves, as did Genet, the spontaneity of children, and undertook the upbringing of his disturbed nephew when the boy's mother had a breakdown), has found a new role: the middle-aged bourgeois. He doesn't sound like one, of course: 'I'm just so happy that I've known a great love; I never thought I would.'

He says things like that with absolute sincerity - White, you feel, came into the world sophisticated, but has acquired his innocence. And love, rather than sex, is the great theme of his writing, for all the cruising and cornholing in it: the search for love, anyway. One of his unhappiest memories from childhood is of being sent to bed before the party ended, before he had a chance to see 'how it all turned out'. It makes him think of 'one of the saddest things now, seeing all these lives ended before they've fulfilled their talent or potential'. When you know White, and what he has already achieved, you don't want the party to end, you want him to be around, to see how it all turns out.

'Genet' by Edmund White is published by Chatto on 10 June at pounds 25

(Photograph omitted)

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