Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Edmund White, an appreciation

by Green Appler Kevin Davis

This month I’m celebrating the publishing event of Sacred Monsters--a collection of Edmund White's “New York Review of Books” essays--and Jack Holmes and his Friend, a romance novel heavily informed by White’s pre- and post-Stonewall Manhattan life.

I have lived vicariously through this pioneer of gay sensibility in literature, who is also a generous, astringent critic with a monumental breadth of literary knowledge, entrenchment in high culture, and even friendships with late 20th century East Coast artistic luminaries.

White, who chairs Princeton’s Creative Writing Department, has lived a rarefied life by his pen in places like Rome, Key West, and the Ile Saint-Louis by cultivating wealthy patrons and grants.

In Monsters, White breathtakingly weaves criticism with biographical details that illustrate the wider story behind 20 artists and writers--Isherwood, Mapplethorpe, John Rechy, to name a few.

In his review of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, a standout, White recalls the death of his lover in Morocco’s Atlas Mountain harrowingly wrought in his The Married Man.

Mr. White, who is 25 years my senior, first educated me at age 16 at San Diego’s Fashion Valley mall Waldenbooks on Christmas Eve, when I read his pointed instructions on the, to me, exotic gay men’s ritual of cruising.

He appeared again in timely fashion, to illuminate both our shared community and his own authentic, intricate emotional exploration when I read The Beautiful Room is Empty at age 27 in (former rare book dealer) Dr. Jack Collins's Queer Lit class at City College. The specific resonant events White illustrates from his young adulthood, are not so appropriate for this family medium though.

Today I still read White like those guys paint the Golden Gate Bridge. I read from one end of his memoir trilogy-- A Boys Own Story, Beautiful Room, and Farewell Symphony -- to the other, and back again. The consequences for me of foolishly opening a White title at bedtime is bleary sleep deprivation upon awakening. I am spellbound, entranced.

I’m not an open-minded, well-rounded reader, though. I tried Hunger by Knut Hamsun, a White progenitor who shares his exquisite cognitive honesty, only Hamsun operates in Nowheresville, Norway instead of Manhattan’s Chelsea Neighborhood, or Venice, and has no leather bars or casual sex to speak of.

I believe if one is lucky enough in life to discover one sympathetic artist applying his talent to elevate the customs and relationships of one’s tribe, well, that’s all I need.

Mr. White played a role in a mortifying event from my halting arts reporting “career.” I was given an open-ended 20 minutes of phone time in connection with a review I wrote of White’s 2006 memoir, My Lives. I crafted sweeping, informed questions, to convey my respect, and then out of nowhere, he turned the tables and asked, “Do you write?”

Flustered, I guffawed merrily. No, I don’t write in the sense that this Guggenheim fellow, and French Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, writes. But, tragically, I responded with one of those tactless, horrifying non sequiturs I’ve been guilty of many times which I now recall like a grisly slow-motion accident. I responded blithely, “Gosh your voice is so effeminate,” and laughed again.

Well, it really was high pitched, not the timbre I expected from one of the Great Men of Letters.

The newly created Magnus Books published Sacred Monsters under the aegis of esteemed longtime editor Don Weise, formerly of Carroll and Graf. Weise, who chose all the collection’s essays, was recently one of “Out” Magazine’s 100 most powerful gay people.

1 comment:

Spiros said...

You "still read White like those guys who paint the Golden Gate Bridge"; in windy places at high altitude?