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Interview by Edmund White with Ryan Prout
SOURCE: "From the Stonewall to The Burning Library," in The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, Vol. I, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 5-8.
In the following interview, White discusses his career and his life as a gay writer.
Cambridge University scholar Ryan Prout interviewed the renowned author while Edmund White was in England last May. White's The Burning Library, a collection of his major essays over a 25-year period, has just been published by Knopf. This even offered an occasion for Mr. White, who lives in Paris, to reflect on his work to date as well as his life as a gay writer and expatriate.
[Prout:] The most recent Cambridge University LesBiGay Newsletter describes you as a "queer hero" and suggests that you might be "A much better model for Cambridge grads than anything the present Cabinet has to offer." How do you feel about being read as a hero and about being a gay role model?
[White:] I'm 54 years old now, and the rate at which time flies by can seem quite amazing, particularly if you don't have children and so you don't have this constant reminder that you're aging. Although it's now twenty-five years ago, it seems like only yesterday that the Stonewall uprising took place in 1969. Just by accident I was in that uprising and almost immediately after it took place I wrote a letter to Anne and Alfred Corn who were friends of mine living in Paris at the time. In this letter, which is reproduced in The Violet Quill Reader, I described the whole event as I saw it then in a kind of semi-comical way. I certainly had no idea that Stonewall was going to be a great turning point in gay history or history at all, or in my own life. But it did have consequences.
I moved to Rome right away, and when I came back a year later I joined a gay consciousness-raising group. I started off both as a writer and as a person thinking that my experience was so peculiar that it wouldn't mean anything to anybody, and now I've ended up seeing myself being almost banally representative of my generation of gay men. It seems to me as if almost everything I do reflects what everybody in my generation is doing, including being HIV positive.
I've avoided that question about being a hero because I don't have any sense of that at all. I think this is because, firstly, I live in France where there's no such thing as a really vital gay movement, and secondly, since I'm not very well known there anyway, I've been protected from the consequences of being a hero, if that's what I am.
I just watched again your interview with Jeremy Isaacs and from that I had the impression that you'd returned to America.
I did go back in 1991 to teach at Brown University. Then, when he became ill and we had no health care for my lover, Hubert Sorin, who just died about six weeks ago of AIDS, we had to move back to France, which was no hardship anyway. We wanted to be back. So I only stayed a year-and-a-half in America.
As The Burning Library shows, you're someone who's deeply immersed in French culture and you've said that from an early age you had always dreamt of going to France. Why is that?
It not only seemed like a great intellectual center, but I think, for me, it seemed like a place where bohemianism and intellectuality and a certain kind of glossy "high society" came together, and indeed they do. In other words, I think in America you find rather dowdy professors who can only talk about their own field and who have no general conversation and no notion at all that what they're doing might be of interest to nonspecialists, and then you have rich people who are very dull and never read a book, and then you have bohemians who are usually not very sure of themselves any more because they've been so overshadowed, if they're painters, for instance, by the marketplace. It's as if whatever bohemian values there were in America, let's say from the beginning of the century to about 1955 or 1960, got wiped out by the values of the marketplace. But in France, it seems to me that the strange confluence of these various elements still exists, a kind of worldly sophistication that joins with a real dedication to the arts and to reading and to making art, and especially to consuming art. I like that about France.
You've also given the impression in previous interviews that it's much easier to be gay in France because you don't have to be gay, that is, a gay life as such doesn't exist there. When I mentioned to a gay acquaintance that you had said this, he suggested that though that may be the case for a well known writer from abroad, it certainly isn't the case for French people themselves, especially those living in provincial France.
I don't think you need to be famous or a writer to have a very nice gay life in France—that is, a gay life of the kind that I like, which is one in which you're oftentimes integrated into the straight world. Now, when I go back to America and I attend an all-male dinner party, it always strikes me as weird. In France, what seems to be more usual, to give you an example, is the kind of dinner party I gave last night where I think all but one of the men was gay and all the women were straight. That seems to be what usually happens.
In your essay "The Joys of Gay Life" you say that one of the advantages to being gay is that we're introspective. Comparing your approach to dealing with the AIDS crisis to, say, someone like Derek Jarman's, I wanted to ask you if an introspective attitude to HIV can enhance gay culture without reducing it to a single issue, which is what you say we must be careful to avoid.
I was one of the five founding members of the Gay Men's Health Crisis in America as well as its first president. What I realized very quickly was that if I remained an AIDS activist I would never write another word. When I look at Larry Kramer I realize that he is a hero. He really has dedicated himself to AIDS activism, a choice which I think is a noble one and one which meant that there are quite a few books which he might have written which he hasn't. I made the other choice. I think what I've been trying to do with the Genet biography, for instance, is precisely to remind people that gay culture can be about things other than AIDS. I remember reading Richard Ellman's Oscar Wilde at a fairly early point in the AIDS crisis. It came to me as a wonderful breath of fresh air because I thought "It's great to be reminded of this important cultural hero who lived long before the AIDS era." Genet, though he died in 1986 and made one or two remarks about AIDS, basically never thought about it and it didn't touch his life.
When I heard you talking about the biography when it was published in this country, it struck me that the fact that you'd dedicated so much time to producing a work on the life of someone else was in its own way just as heroic a gesture as that of someone like Larry Kramer.
Thank you. Larry Kramer was somewhat vexed with me at the time although now I think he's forgiven me. He thought that if you were gay and were a writer or in any way a spokesperson you should feel obliged to talk about AIDS and nothing but AIDS one hundred percent of the time. But I had more the take that I think you're suggesting, which is that it was important that gay culture not be reduced to a single issue. Now I'm writing a novel in which I deal with both the 70's and the 80's, that's to say with the periods both before and after the outbreak of AIDS. So, I suppose there's a kind of natural trajectory to the book. But I'm not really writing it chronologically. I write about the earlier period and then I skip forward to the present. It's a kind of mélange of "before" and "after" because I feel that either period is unendurable alone. If you just wrote about everybody having lots of sex in the 70's and ended a book there, which is what I originally intended to do, I think it would be intolerable. And if you wrote a book only about everyone dying, I think that would also be pretty grim. Something that I do constantly in my own thoughts is to mix the two periods, and the book's form reproduces my own mental experience to produce what I hope will be an interesting approach.
When I first learned the title of the new anthology of your essays and critical work I was reminded of something that Bulgakov said, which was that the one thing that doesn't burn is a document. Would you say something about your views on writing and testimony?
I've heard various sources for the expression on which the title is based. An old French woman who's about 80 now told me that her mother used to tell her when she was a girl, "You must pay attention to what I'm saying because when I'm dead it's as though a library will have burned." And some French people say "Quand une vieille personne meurt, c'est comme une bibiiothèque qui brûle." Other people have told me that the expression comes from Africa and yet other people ascribe it to a particular African writer but they can't remember which one. Marina Warner sent me a citation from a Caribbean woman poet whose use of the phrase suggested it was a local saying. But in any event, wherever it comes from, it seems to be quite a common expression. It suggests that the writer's job is to try to take down some of the experiences of other people before they all go up in flames. And I think, having lived through the AIDS era and having witnessed many of my friends leaving no testimonials behind, I have felt very strongly the oblivion of mortality and that the writer, maybe, can push that back a little bit, at least for a short time.
You once characterized the life cycle of Gay Liberation as being like a May fly's: "Oppressed in the 50's, liberated in the 60's, exalted in the 70's and wiped out in the 80's."
I think that was hasty. It hasn't really been wiped out at all. When I said that in 1988 or thereabouts, it was before I went back to America, and so I wasn't aware of the tremendously vital upsurge of gay culture there that had been stimulated precisely by AIDS activism. In France, Gay Liberation has pretty well died out. Like feminism and other liberation movements, it is subject to a rapid cycle of being "à la mode" and then "démodé." Now you find that in France if you say you're a gay liberationist people will snee: and ask, "How can you possibly do something so démodé?" Identification with the feminist movement provokes the same response. There is no feminism in France. Since they're completely forgotten there, French people can't believe that writers like Luce Irigaray or Hélène Cixous are famous in America. Even Julia Kristeva is seen differently depending on which country you're in. So, living in France I just wasn't aware that gay culture was alive and thriving in America. Now I am aware of it, but I'm not entirely happy with it, as the last essay in the book, "The Personal is Political," suggests.
Obviously, chronology is important in the way the anthology is organized. One of the essays is about Goytisolo and, to ask a Goytisolian question, should we read the collection backwards or forwards? Which way are we going?
I suppose it depends on how much you've thought about these things. To some readers, the beginning could seem terribly basic and they'd want to skip ahead. It's interesting to me that young people, your age, whom I thought knew all about the history of gay liberation and would take it for granted, were surprised that as early on as the beginning of the 70's we were already thinking about all these same issues that are still being debated today. I think that when people see the early dates for some of those essays—"The Gay Philosopher," for example—they're amused to notice that we were already debating gay identity in 1970.
What struck me in reading the early essays was just how late it was in terms of general modern history that things began to change so that 25 years later it would be acceptable for someone like me to say to the powers that be at Cambridge, for example, I want to study questions of homosexuality. I was surprised to realize in reading your essays that it's only such a short time ago that this would have been completely out of the question.
Yes, it's amazing how quickly things have evolved. But there are still many contradictions. My boyfriend Hubert was astonished that I was hired by Brown University because I was homosexual, and that in the same town where the university is located, Providence, Rhode Island, you could be beaten up for being homosexual. He said, "In France we would have neither one nor the other; there's no fag bashing but neither would you ever be allowed to talk about your personal life in the classroom." I think most French people still see homosexuality as being something strictly personal which you shouldn't mention one way or the other, just as you shouldn't mention how many mistresses you have if you're heterosexual.
You talk about writers like Marguerite Yourcenar and Nietzsche, who don't so much evolve as endlessly tease out themes set very early on in their lives. Do you see your own writing as evolutionary? What have been the most significant changes in the twenty-four years of writing covered by the anthology?
I think the evolving consciousness is reflected more in my fiction than in my non-fiction. My first two novels, Forgetting Elena and Nocturnes for the King of Naples, were, broadly speaking, avant garde or non-realistic novels. Forgetting Elena wasn't even openly homosexual, only covertly homosexual and Nocturnes for the King of Naples was similarly very exalted and poetic in its tone. I think it's only really with A Boy's Own Story that I began to write simply and autobiographically about my own experience and about homosexuality. I like to think that I kept in a lot of the complexities found in the earlier novels in treating that theme. A young writer today would probably start off with A Boy's Own Story; and a lot of people assume it was my first novel, when in fact it was the fourth or fifth.
I think it took me quite a while to reach homosexuality as the primary subject matter of a novel. It was partly a question of my own need to undo a strictly personal reticence in talking about that material. I was able to do this in my writing. In Nocturnes, for instance, I dealt with the problems I had with my father on a fantasy level and translated them into extremely different terms that would have been unrecognizable to him. Then, in A Boy's Own Story, which I wrote after his death, I was able to tackle him as a subject much more directly, simply and factually. In the same way, I think Caracole was an attempt to look at the interrelationship between sex and power, but again on a fantasy level in a socalled heterosexual world. It's not a gay book. After Caracole, in The Beautiful Room is Empty, I was able to approach the same subject matter, sex and politics, sex and power, but homosexually and autobiographically.
In other words, I would say that oftentimes I seem to need to go through a stage of trying out new material on a fantasy level before I can deal with it autobiographically. But I like both kinds of writing. When I started off as a writer I was very impressed by a remark of Valéry's (Gide said the same thing in his Journals): He said that if you were a good writer you should lose with each new book the admirers you had gained with the preceding one; in other words, you should be radically changing each time you write. I felt that people would be dazzled by how virtuoso I was and how I never was repeating myself. But, in fact, everybody now discusses my oeuvre, tiny as it is, as though it's totally coherent, which surprises me because I don't see the coherence myself. But I'm happy that people discuss it at all.
From your later essays I have the impression that you think the essentialist-constructionist debate is fairly boring and stagnant. At the same time, though, there seems to be a conflict between positions within that debate in your own writing, a conflict which appears to be quite fruitful for you. Bergman writes that for you "The body is the only way we can have a sense of our being in the world," yet you yourself, when you're talking about the ad hoc-ness of gay living arrangements, for example, say that because these arrangements have no name they're almost invisible. The contest between an ontology of language and an ontology of the body seems to be an important one in your work.
It's funny because I was just talking to some French people about a similar contradiction that I think you can find in the work of Barthes. It seems to me that he's always holding out for the body as though it's something that you can oppose to the doxa and that doesn't seem to me to be rational. But now you're saying to me that I do the same and I think you're perfectly right. I suppose we all have some Edenic notion of something that's going to be unmodified by culture, of something that remains primal and instinctual. Although we've all been trained not to think that way, what often happens is that the target is shifted in order to posit some new thing as the element which precedes culture, as that which is nature. David Bergman may find that process inflecting my writing, but I myself don't see it. What I find is more of an irrational attraction to beauty, to physical beauty. I think that I find beauty to be a self-evident value.
Last night I had a young German woman staying with me at my apartment in Paris. She's a Genet scholar, very Protestant and very German. When I said something about it being obvious that people would fall in love with somebody as beautiful as X she said "How can you say that!" She was quite outraged and she seemed to find that perspective almost immoral. I said, "But you're an artist, aren't you, and don't you respond to beauty?" "Yes," she said, "But intellectual beauty or artistic beauty." My response to that was to say, "But physical beauty is the same kind of beauty." I'm a Platonist in that sense, I guess. I do see a coherence between all forms of beauty. And I find it strange that American politically correct people should accuse me of being a "looksist"—that's their word—as though that were some terrible folly that needed to be eradicated. I have fallen in love with ugly people and I can probably find the beauty in most people. I can even be sexually indifferent to physical beauty but I will always respect it.
In The Burning Library you talk about how those gay people are still imprisoned in so many ways. I wondered if you would expand on that idea and perhaps talk a bit about the differences between America and Britain where gay oppression is concerned.
What happens, I think, is that there's a small group composed of people who are self-identified as gay, who are usually from a middle-class background, who have independent means and who step up the rhetoric. They will say "We must all be gay and in very evolved ways with a very high consciousness" and so on. The trouble with that elevated level of rhetoric is that it leaves behind in the dust the millions of people who are still coming out. I'm actually going out now with a 20-year-old Englishman who's from a working class background and he's completely tormented by the question of coming out. He flies into a terrible fit of anxiety if anybody suspects him of being gay. Of course, he chose the wrong person to go out with! Again and again I see this same battle being fought because a young gay man coming out today isn't being brought up by gay people. He's being brought up by working-class parents in, say, Hackney, so he's got to deal with their values and he's got to work through gay history all over again for himself.
I think we forget that the conservative values of society have to be faced again and again by each generation. It can be dangerous when gay leaders have evolved so far that they've lost touch with this very primary coming out experience. Some evolved and self-identified gay people are very bored with the whole idea of coming out because we've heard too much about it, but it will always be there as a theme.
You say quite defiantly at one point that nobody has the right to deny anybody else's feelings or his or her own account of them. Do you think the way that mainstream society reacts to gay people's experience of grief is another demonstration of how some people's feelings continue to be less respectable than others?
I started seeing a psychotherapist about four weeks before my lover died. He died six weeks ago and I'm still seeing the therapist. One of the things he keeps saying to me is that all the friends around me, most of whom are heterosexual, aren't letting me grieve in the way I want to grieve. He says they either think it's sacrilegious that I'm already going out with somebody else or they think that I'm not being sufficiently courageous if I break down and start crying. In other words, you have to follow the rhythm that the dominant environment dictates. My therapist said "To hell with them, you really have to grieve in the way that you want to and in the way that feels natural to you." I only cite my personal experience there because it's the one I know best, but maybe everyone who grieves finds that there's a program to it. Interestingly, I thought, the therapist told me, "Well, writing is a defense." I dwelt on that idea for a week and it occurred to me that perhaps it's true that writers are somehow able to distance their feelings through writing about them. But, on the other hand, if you are a writer you are obliged to be honest. You can't repeat the standard myths, like the one of the dead beloved that most people resort to. You have to keep even your resentments alive and you probably have to entertain the negative thoughts longer than most people would feel comfortable doing. In other words, if you're a writer I think you take into account and entertain for longer than anybody else would the feelings of abandonment and of anger that you have towards the person who's left you, by dying.
Do you think you will write about your partner?
I'm very eager to, actually, and I'm already taking lots of notes. Joe Brainard is a wonderful American writer who's about to die. He wrote something called I Remember which inspired Georges Perec to write a book called Je me souviens. Now I'm doing something I think of as "Je me souviens Hubert." This is simply a notebook for myself in which I put down all the things I remember about him. Just the little things, like the stories he would tell me about his aunt. But again, it's an example of The Burning Library: it's the details which count, which keep someone alive.
If you had to write a Ph.D. thesis on the works of Edmund White, what would it be about?
About somebody who was subjected to a tension arising from two very different sets of expectations: one set came from a literary community that wasn't particularly gay-identified and the other came from a gay community that wasn't particularly literary. I think the tension has been a fruitful one and an unusual one for a writer. It wasn't until Nabokov praised my first book that a lot of literary people who had previously shown no interest in my work and who certainly weren't interested in homosexuality began to think that I might be a writer worth watching. I was very aware of that. It took me years to get anything published at all, so I was enormously grateful to Nabokov for the interest that he had shown in my work because it got me started as a writer and I was already well into my thirties when that happened. The difficulties I'd had in getting started and Nabokov's interest were very real influences on the way I thought about the work that I was then in the process of doing.
On the other hand, after Nocturnes, I was already very much writing for a gay audience that had almost no books at that point. This was an audience eager for me to write in a kind of programmatic way, presenting positive gay heroes, something I always resisted. But I was aware of it. To me that is what would make an interesting thesis, to show somebody at the crux between a set of aesthetic expectations and a set of political expectations from two entirely different groups.
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