Edmund White | Critical Review by Phyllis Rose

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of Edmund White.
This section contains 1,798 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Phyllis Rose

SOURCE: "Moralists and Esthetes," in The Nation, Vol. 241, No. 16, November 16, 1985, pp. 526-28.

In the following review, Rose discusses the verbal stylization and psychological realism of White's Caracole.

Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier has been called the finest French novel written in English, but Caracole would be my nomination. Its epigraph from The Charterhouse of Parma suggests its literary ancestry. Like Fabrice del Dongo of Charterhouse, like Julien Sorel of The Red and the Black, Gabriel of Caracole is an innocent young man from the provinces who makes the move to the city that so fascinated nineteenth-century French novelists. No wonder. This narrative structure allows the author—along with his hero—to discover piece by relished piece the complexities and sophistications of a world by no means innocent. It worked for Stendhal and for Balzac, and it works for Edmund White. His hero learns about power and love and the ways in which they're connected. So do we. If you want to know about the dynamics of a small, closed social system and if Stendhal's Parma seems too remote, try White's portrait of an imaginary city, part Venice under the Austrians, part Paris and part New York of the intellectual coteries.

All literature looks in two directions, toward the world and back toward itself. It portrays the world (or gives the illusion of doing so) and creates a world of its own. More than most American writers, White is divided between these two impulses, old-fashioned realism and modernist artifice. His first novel, Forgetting Elena, was dazzlingly self-contained—a brilliant, original piece of fiction which created a world that never was. Well, perhaps there was a touch of Fire Island. But Fire Island with a prince, a court, a grand hotel where everyone gathers at night? It was White's distinctive accomplishment to produce the disquieting sense that you knew this world, these people, these feelings, despite their being placed in the middle of an uncompromisingly artificial narrative.

Nocturnes for the King of Naples, his second novel, detached itself even further from conventional plot and character development. As its title suggests, it is a series of lyric pieces, sometimes of breathtaking beauty. After that, White made the surprising move of writing a novel in a completely traditional form. A Boy's Own Story, a novel of growing up, is his most accessible book. The disquieting moments there (unlike the shocks of realism in the earlier novels) come with sentences of such precision and such careful elegance that you remember rudely that you have to do with art and not life.

Caracole seems a return to the mode of the earlier novels. Its lapidary style calls attention to the artifice and hardly encourages immersion in the fictional world White creates. (This style will always reach for "larder" when "cupboard" would do just as well). Nevertheless, psychological realism is as important in the book as verbal stylization. At times Caracole reads like one of those anatomies of love the French like to write—Stendhal's On Love or Roland Barthes's Fragments of a Lover's Discourse:

Edwige felt a physical aversion to Mateo that she couldn't hide and that, once she realized he was in love, she saw no further need to conceal. He had embraced several comforting fallacies. He believed that others love us for our merits and he struggled to prove his to Edwige, whereas the truth is that merit chills ardor. He believed that anyone he loved so well must sooner or later return his devotion, whereas the chief condition for devotion is that it not be reciprocal. He believed that if he insinuated himself into her friendship he'd eventually possess her love, whereas … affection tranquilizes passion.

White understands people well and tells us what he knows in balanced, epigrammatic sentences. He tells us that tastemakers in a great city idolize "either the tentative beginnings of youth or the absolute mastery of maturity," but have little patience for anything in between. He knows how "fame permits someone to be terse, since his remarks are sure to be heard, and beauty allows someone to be silent, since there is no danger of a beauty being ignored," and he understands that "the very sort of canned wisdom we hoot at in a public forum we greet as profound when someone lovely whispers it to us." In observations like this and in the dramatic encounters between the six main characters, Caracole offers a devastating panorama of life in a high-powered city where everyone is on the make in one way or another and where the mixture of greed and vanity is evident in most of the practices of love.

The opening sections are hard going. In a highly wrought novel, they are overwrought. Gabriel at Madder Pink, his family home, is bored, discovers sex, is imprisoned by his father, who bears him a mysterious grudge, is rescued by his uncle from the city and taken away. It is all very dreamy and archetypal. But with the move to the city, the novel seems to firm up. In the "capital," ruled by "conquerors," inhabited by sophisticated but powerless "patriots," Caracole puts down roots in reality.

White has created two splendid characters. One is Gabriel's uncle, Mateo, who rescues the boy from his father and arranges his rehabilitation. The other is Mathilda, the intellectual queen of the capital. (The beauty queen is Edwige, an actress, with whom Mateo is abjectly in love.) Portraits of female intellectuals are sufficiently rare that Mathilda ought to enter literature's gallery of great women characters.

Commanding in intellect, Mathilda fears that her "self," which she would be embarrassed to associate with her body but would not associate with her mind, is unlovable. When she and Gabriel are alone in her country home on the point of becoming lovers, she says, "I must bathe," and he understands that she means, "I am unworthy," at the same time that, in another way, she considers him unworthy of her. Few writers have depicted this mixture of self-loathing and arrogance as well as White, and fewer have had the imagination to attribute such complexity to a woman. A moralist among esthetes, an esthete among moralists, Mathilda is never less than complicated. She is embarrassed by her wealth but likes beautiful objects, so she excuses them as ethnographic finds. All life is research to Mathilda. Her dandified son acts out the impulses she has forbidden herself. Too radical in thought to allow herself to respect the social conventions she in fact respects, she encourages Daniel to respect them for her. He functions partly as a companion, partly as a research assistant, going into low-life parts of town at night and bringing back prize pieces of reality to spread before her.

Mathilda loves the opera and always goes early, a habit she explains by invoking a "bourgeois anxiety" about being on time:

To confess to "bourgeois anxiety" hinted at an appealing modesty—and concealed her real motive, which was to see and be seen. Although she presented herself as a withdrawn, morose intellectual, she had an infallible sense of theater.

Indeed, Mathilda, so much a product of her reading, has learned emotions either from novels or from even more melodramatic operas:

The only emotions she could name, recognize and reproduce were the violent ones. As a result, she smiled ironically or with embarrassment at all her impulses toward expression, but there was no impulse that wasn't operatic in its irrationality and grandeur. When other people perceived her as being guarded, even sour, they mistook her choking back of instinct as contempt for instinct.

Mateo, who brings Gabriel back to life, is an aging Don Juan transformed by his disinterested love for his nephew. His friends are puzzled by the trouble he takes over the boy:

If the boy had been a girl, a pretty adolescent girl, the public response might have appeared to be the same though it would have been entirely different. People would have rushed to congratulate him on his magnanimity in order to hush amused suspicions no one dared to voice but by which everyone felt titillated.

Thoroughly urban and urbane, Mateo enjoys "the game of trading favors and coercing courtesies" and finds the trade-off of influence for intimacy at which he is so adept "worldly, fair, even (if seen in the right light) cheerful." Yet he fears his specialized career of sexual conquest has left him unable to love, has "warped his responses as surely as some cultures stretch necks, lengthen earlobes or bind feet, distortions that cannot later be undone, that leave the victim incapable of a normal life." This courtly man is powered by a core of self-loathing which he structures his day to avoid. If he sees enough people and generates enough chatter, by evening he can manage to forget his fears enough to greet a stranger. But his terror of boring others ends by making him seem silly, and to Mathilda he is "someone so hounded by an inexplicable need to make it up to everyone that he'd ended by displaying a suspect courtesy matched only by his suspect compassion."

White's portrait of a narcissist taking on the care of someone else and helping his own soul in the process is done with tender and loving realism. I insist upon the psychological realism because of the strenuous artifice of so much of the book. White's work appeals to me precisely because of its unique mixture of artifice and realism, but for the same reason he is not everyone's cup of tea. Americans do not take readily to a lapidary prose style or to self-consciousness in literature at all. Over time, John Updike has established his commitment to golf-playing suburban reality, but at the start of his career even he was attacked for preciosity. Nabokov had to make his name synonymous with sexual perversion to neutralize his reputation for contrivance. If, as is the case with Edmund White, the writer has identified himself as homosexual, the offense is compounded and the work likely to be thought effete.

White's gorgeous style, his verbal intricacies and subtleties, will seem suspect to people brought up on Hemingway. The liaisons in this book will be seen as suspiciously heterosexual, forced and unearned, simply because the author is homosexual, just as people said the bickering couple of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was really a gay couple in drag—as though there were a difference between bickering gay couples and bickering straight ones. For this reason I could have wished the presentation of the book a little less gay. I wish it didn't have the title it has, smacking of Ronald Firbank and furbelows. I wish the beautiful young man by Piero della Francesca did not grace the cover. If I read the situation correctly, Americans will be too eager to dismiss White's work as merely gorgeous anyway.

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This section contains 1,798 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Phyllis Rose
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