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Edmund White: a curious union of Yankee and old-fashioned queen

by Gert Hekma in Films & Books , 01 januari 1970

Although biographies should provide the reader with a lot of background information, Stephen Barber`s recently published "Edmund White. The Burning World" fails in this respect. Barber simply does not succeed to dig deeper into White`s life than could have been expected.

Even worse, close reading shows that his best and most interesting passages are merely condensed version of what White has written in his semi-autobiographical books himself (A.O. "States Of Desire", "Nocturnes for the King of Naples", "A Boy`s Own Story", The Beautiful Room Is Empty" and "Farewell Symphony").

Far more fascinating is Edmund White`s new book "The Married Man", in which a prominent part is reserved for a comparison between French and American culture, most of the time with the French winning as far as it concerns White`s basic needs for a fulfilling life. Not only is White familiar with French culture, he also moved to Paris in 1983. Crossing the ocean after more than 20 years in New York, the best city to life if you want to make it as a writer and a Mecca in those days for a promiscuous young queen. He had done all there was to do in New York. Climbed up to the position of a renowned writer, after years of struggling, and furthermore he had not only lived through the most liberating period in gay history, he took part of political activism as well. He`d seen the Stonewall riots, had visited bathhouses, parks, had sex with numerous strangers (and kept count of all of them). In the twenty years before Aids he estimated having had sex with 3120 guys and men. Wrapping it up in a simple sentence: he had been there and he had done it all. Time for a change in his life. Although the gay movement accused him of fleeing the country, White who was HIV+ by that time himself persisted and settled in Paris.


To him Paris represented the ideal sexual hunting ground, which in his case is a world of men who do not identify as gay. Over time these so-called straight men had increasingly crept up on the scale of most desired sexual objects. The French capital offered White opportunities in abundance to chase them: moving like a yo-yo from gay chic to filthy Arabian bath houses and from elitist apartments to "dangerous" cruising areas, picking up regular guys. Again and again "The Married Man" shows White`s preference for European cities, notably Paris of course, but also Berlin, London, Venice (because of its atmosphere of majestic decline) and Istanbul (for the same reason) and Crete. Amsterdam does not appear on his list of favourite cities at all. Yet, his view on the Dutch capital is mentioned in "The Married Man". When White`s lover is about to die, he informs about Dutch policy concerning euthanasia, only to find out that it is only allowed for Dutch citizens who have Alzheimer and that three doctors have to agree and sign for permission (?). White`s reaction: This was the same complacency Austin had met years before in an Amsterdam leather bar, where a man asked him in a bored tone, "would you like to be beat?" just as if he`d been saying "and would you like more fries?". In an interview in Dutch gay magazine Homologie (1984) White is even more outspoken about Amsterdam: "I didn`t see any gay culture in this city. To me it is mainly a dirty place." This might indicate that White is avoiding Amsterdam all together, but that is not completely true. In the 80`s he attended a cultural event in Amsterdam`s famous Concertgebouw, a benefit gala for the homomonument. I had the privilege of accompanying him for a night, but have to admit that it was not a pleasure. White appeared to be obnoxious, bored and not interested at all. If only had I known I should have taken him to one of the cities parks at night, his mood might have brightened up. His performance at the event was not hugely successful, but White turned out to be a real pro in that he proved to be a perfect elocutionist and seemed not to care that attention for him was fading a little. So far White and his dislike for Holland.


"The Married Man" focuses mainly on White`s life after 1985 and especially his love for Sorin, a married man. An ideal lover for White, who liked them as straight as can be. Yet, it is here that White`s self-centered attitude shows most. Idolizing his lover, who appears to be loyal as a dog, White refuses to see that Sorin is lying about many aspects of his life. He was not the son of a prominent figure in society, but just a plain guy. And maybe even more important, Sorin was the faithful husband to his wife (an idea that turned White on) but turned out to be a promiscuous man, always hunting for other male sexual partners. It isn`t until after Sorin`s death, that White finally has to admit that he has been fooled. An almost symbolical event in the sense that White has a tendency to fantasise about his ideal lover and then applying this fata morgana onto real men.

"The Married Man" makes up a fascinating read, telling the story of a Northern American gay man (a real Yankee) who desires to be a cultured European queen.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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