The Farewell Symphony by Edmund White

LITERARY REVIEW                                 May 1997

The Farewell Symphony
by Edmund White
(Chatto & Windus 484pp £16.99)

Recalling Manhattan in the late Sixties, the narrator of Edmund White’s new novel writes that ‘more and more gay men were telling me their stories as though the main pressure behind cruising were narrative rather than sexual’. The impetus behind White’s own writing has always been to combine the narrative and the sexual. Along with fellow members of the Lavender Quill group, Andrew Holleran and Felice Picano, he endorsed autobiographical fiction as a means of validating gay experience.

The autobiographical impulse has become increasingly urgent now that the cycle of gay life moves at the speed of time-lapse photography. White – or his narrator (the boundaries are blurred) – describes the process as ‘oppressed in the Fifties, freed in the Sixties, enthralled in the Seventies and wiped out in the Eighties’. As a long-term survivor, he feels that he owes a duty to the dead. Indeed, although he takes his title from Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, he could equally have appropriated Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata, so haunted is his narrative by his past.

This is the third novel in a trilogy which began with A Boy’s Own Story and continued with The Beautiful Room Is Empty. Readers with long memories (the second volume was published nine years ago) will be rewarded with brief mentions of Maria the painter, Leo the poet and O’Reilly the psychiatrist. Wider-ranging than the previous books (it moves back and forth over thirty years and across the Atlantic) and longer than the two combined, it suffers from a lack of both narrative drive and guiding principle. While, it is a joy to be reintroduced to such an exceptional mind and exquisite sensibility, the lack of focus deprives his perceptions of weight. Ideas and images flash past as fleetingly as the passions described in the brilliantly realised paragraphs.

With the possible exception of Alan Hollinghurst, no one writes so powerfully of homosexual practice. Ridgefield, an overly precious poet, reviles Genet to the narrator on the grounds that ‘it spoils everything if our… Athenian pleasures are described to barbarians’, a view which, as the biographer of Genet and the co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex, White clearly does not share. Sex is the fulcrum of the narrator’s existence and he extends its associations in highly specific analogies. He is particularly good on smells, evoking one man’s scent of ‘cured black olives’ and the ‘crushed dandelions’ odour of another’s sweat. His elegant cadences are able to legitimise the most illicit acts, as in ‘he watered my mouth and face and chest’.

Nevertheless, the attitude of the narrator to his promiscuity is confused. He states that, between 1962 and 19S2, he had sex with two thousand people. He insists that anonymous sex is not meaningless and that great intimacy is possible. Later, however, he suggests that it has brought him no happiness, and that he has been ‘corrupted by a life of pleasure-seeking, coarsened by an anarchic indifference to other people’s welfare’. In his saddest insight, he implies that the ‘incest taboo’ at work within homosexuality prevents a successful romantic and sexual bond, and that passion depends on a degree of inequality.

The central issue in assessing the book is the extent to which the narrator can be identified with the author. The narrator declares himself to be ‘an autobiographical novelist’ and, although details differ (he publishes various novels for which there is no actual model), the arc of his experience corresponds closely to White’s. The patina of reality is maintained by the introduction of actual people by name (Peggy Guggenheim; Larry Kramer; Tennessee Williams) and by pseudonym (Virgil Thomson as ‘Homer’). Even one as ill-versed in the intricacies of Manhattan cultural life as I can see how this roman à clef is the key to several doors… and closets.

In spite of the frankness of the sexuality, the question remains whether it would not have been more honest to publish the book as a memoir rather than a novel, since it responds to the autobiographical rather than the fictional imperative. Hence, there are two writers. Max and Joshua, with rich literary lovers; two exotic women, Christa and Tina, in love with the narrator; two unresponsive younger lovers, Sean and Kevin, The overabundance of minor characters and the lack of developed ones may be true to the author/narrator’s life, but it denies the imaginative empathy which is the essence of fiction.

Ultimately, the fascination of The Farewell Symphony lies in its historical record. At a party where the narrator describes a projected novel about Sean, a woman asks ‘Isn’t that what most people call a diary?’ The same may be said of the book as a whole. Fulfilling the narrator’s ambition to be ‘an archaeologist of gossip’, the author proves himself to be the New York gay world’s Pepys.