Edmund White | Critical Review by Adam Mars-Jones

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Edmund White.
This section contains 2,816 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Adam Mars-Jones

Critical Review by Adam Mars-Jones

SOURCE: "Passion, purity, innocence and (European) experience," in Times Literary Supplement, March 14, 1986, pp. 265-66.

In the following review, Mars-Jones lauds White's Caracole and says, "This suavely alien world can give intense and almost continuous pleasure."

Caracole is less a novel by the author of A Boy's Own Story, as the cover announces in justified eagerness to close a sale, than a novel by the author of Forgetting Elena. In that book, Edmund White described the experiences of a man who comes to consciousness in a sophisticated society, its physical details (shared houses, beaches, tea dances) suggesting an American resort, but its culture having a rigorous obliquity reminiscent of Imperial Japan's; each gesture in the world of that book had a prescribed meaning which the hero had to work out for himself, without ever admitting to being in the dark. It was the richest and most mysterious example of the amnesia novel, a sub-genre which includes Martin Amis's Other People and Eva Figes's Nelly's Version.

In Caracole the society is again a collage, but this time the sources are European. Venice and Paris are the most obvious models for the city in which most of the action takes place. A European setting, however gorgeously transformed by fantasy, is appropriate to the development of White's thinking: he sees experience as by nature European, that is, as layered and multiform, any seeming grossness being merely a ganglion of subtleties not yet teased into clarity. Even in its slang the book turns its back on America, and opts for pallid British forms: "tart", "twit", "trendiness", "infamous bounder" even.

The city is occupied by "the conquerors", who drain it of resources while paying lip-service to its cultural eminence. The six principal characters of the novel make various shifting compromises with the authorities, none of them identifying wholeheartedly with the invaders but all putting up no more than token resistance; they are certainly too sophisticated to throw in their lot with the patriots. Their lives intertwine in a plot that suggests operetta, but is carried off with considerable intensity and something very like conviction.

The story begins, though, far from the city, on a decayed estate called Madder Pink, where the teenager Gabriel tries to keep his collapsing family (mother fat and catatonic, father indifferent, children hungry) in some sort of rudimentary working order, and also carries on an affair with the tribal princess Angelica. These fifty pages are the least confident in the book, and give the novel an uncertain start. White inserts an occasional sentence of stylized spondees ("Just come day, go day", for instance) to enact the stopped flow of primitive life, but otherwise his style makes no concessions to a rural setting, where it is spectacularly out of place.

Any bumpkin can find things beautiful; an aesthete consults ideas of beauty. Such a temperament is likely to regard unmediated nature as downright sloppy, and if called on to represent it at any length will improve on it beyond all recognition. There are passages in the early part of Caracole where the sentences stretch on in their even glory as far as the eye can read, like virgin forests of topiary.

The social world of the country should present fewer difficulties; no human arrangement is actually unsophisticated, although dominant groups can sometimes succeed in dramatizing other groups as defective. It's only in a court or a city, nevertheless, where everything already represents a conscious choice on someone's part, that a ravishing rhetoric like Edmund White's can plausibly be housed in a character. But here in the country the point of view, nominally Gabriel's, can see in someone's ineptness "a charming rubato in the hesitation waltz of sincerity". Only in a city or a court is a taste for practical anthropology a part of the survival skills of the tribe; but here a tribesman attending Gabriel during his tribal marriage to Angelica, asked to explain a particular passage of ritual, shrugs and says: "'These ways … beautiful, no? I love the old ways. Very religious.' He kissed his bunched fingers with a loud smack: 'Very folkloric!'" The tone of the book can't accommodate this strayed Firbankian giggler. For his only other speech, a page later, the tribesman is a duly reformed character, purged of camp and using the ritual language of marital innuendo. He promises Gabriel much work for his broom, many juicy figs.

The most successful dramatization in the book of the contrast between city and country isn't in the first section at all, but in a splendid paragraph describing the Great Return to the People, when, one summer, intellectuals from the capital trooped into the fields to identify with the peasants and their labour. The noble experiment lasted barely a week. The city women offended the locals with their "pedantic licentiousness"; the farmers needed their sleep, but the intellectuals wanted to stay up all night, "flushed with compassion". They didn't realize they were consuming more food than they were producing "until they were unexpectedly greeted not with gratitude but a bill".

By burlesquing the assumptions of the intellectuals, and not approaching the country direct, White can prevent his prose from turning everything into a fête champêtre. Otherwise his version of pastoral is rather too much like one of those high-toned theatrical productions which feature real turf or real water on stage. His relentless tours de force of epiphanic description fit one of his descriptions of Gabriel: "he had succeeded in subjecting the involuntary to his will, a success that surely counted as a failure".

Caracole comes into its own from the moment that Gabriel is rescued from Madder Pink and moves in with his uncle Mateo in the capital. The major fascination of the book is its abstract worldliness; this may be a confected society, but its mechanics are convincing. Familiar elements stand out disturbingly without the protective colouring of naturalness. Bohemians refuse to commit themselves even an hour in advance, their social lives being utterly expressive and impromptu, but turn up doggedly to every rout. Musicians at a reception mutate awkwardly from performers to servants as soon as they stop playing, "still amphibious, half guests, glasses of champagne empty in their hands and deliberately not refilled".

White has a particularly delicate perception of role-playing, of the way an identity must be built up from the registers available (many rewarding parts inevitably being pre-empted by others), and cannot be plucked from air. He insists, not on the coexistence merely, but the interdependence of real and factitious emotion.

White's literary personality dominates the book. Every sentence in a novel carries an implied promise, the promises in aggregate making up what we call readability. The plot of Caracole is soundly constructed, but its promise is not Relax, I'm telling you a story, but rather Relax, I the writer am here in everything. Every page, consequently, is a riot of nuance.

Not all of this prodigious activity can be laid to the account of the characters, though each of them has show-stopping arias of introspection. Gabriel, in particular, can seem like an idiot savant, his naive disclaimers recast in a style of lavish brilliance. There is in any case something odd about using him as an innocent eye, to whom the city's artificiality is patent, when Caracole so consistently portrays innocence as tactical. Perhaps the disparity between character and narrative voice should be invisible by convention, "like the hands of puppeteers", as the narrative voice observes in a slightly different context; but if so the convention should be evenly enforced, and not blurred by an intermittent psychological realism. White is something like a ventriloquist who cannot at the last moment bear the dummy on his knee to have tones less rounded than his own, since they are what he has spent his life perfecting.

The point of view shifts round, from Gabriel to Mathilda, the city's reigning intellectual, with whom he has an affair, to her son Daniel, tortured poseur, to the actress Edwige, with whom Gabriel also has an affair, but it is always most at home with Mateo. Mateo's life as a self-doubting socialite and anxious gallant is disrupted by Gabriel's arrival and the need to look after him. His avuncular feelings become deeply affectionate, and Gabriel returns them; but Mateo has also, unknown to Gabriel, set up Angelica in a little flat of her own, and after a period of intimate unease has become her lover.

Mateo's position, both in and out of society, both in and out of love, his manipulativeness always bound in with his altruism, brings out the best in Edmund White. His fondness for the character is signalled obliquely by an opening blast of irony, which never returns so rawly: Mateo is disappointed that Gabriel isn't handsome—he would have been flattered by a resemblance. The character has received the prescribed dosage of irony, and can now be taken seriously.

White in any case takes care to restrict the operations of irony. A charming passage describes how Gabriel sees irony looming darkly in everything his sophisticated uncle says, obliging Mateo to disengage from real and earned emotion out of politeness. At the crisis of Mateo's affair with Angelica a distinction is drawn, as a gloss on that little incidental smile that in highly conscious people accompanies a strong emotion", between cheap irony, which disowns experience, and the expensive kind that acknowledges it. Irony is too general a structuring element in the world to be a satisfactory response to it.

It is necessary for the book's balance, and even existence, for emotion to be refurbished as well as stripped. The ink in White's pen is not only a solvent but an emulsion. The habit of scepticism, as the narrative voice observes apropos of Mathilda, "like a design of oblique lines, needed to be placed against the grid of love's credulity".

Love in Caracole is "a progressive illness, one that starts as self-hallucination, an act of parody, and ends as a wholly real, involuntary malady that kills us or something vital in us". Love is an invented contract that binds no less for that. It must be said, though, that the rhetoric in the book that reinstates purities and passions is generally less successful than the rhetoric that breaks them down, which has a special brilliance—as if an acid was leaching glitter from the metals it attacked.

There is after all no overriding logic that insists on love presiding over the other illusions. One of the book's epigraphs, from Middlemarch, is bravely borrowed: "It is so painful in you, Celia, that you will look at human beings as if they were merely animals with a toilette, and never see the great soul in a man's face." The borrowing is brave because everything in Edmund White's literary personality concentrates on the way that behaviour is mediated by convention, precisely by a toilette; why should a soul make its appearance on a face, of all places?

In a recent and eloquent tribute to Christopher Isherwood, White pointed out the paradox of a man who as a matter of religious conviction disbelieved in the unity of human personality (described by White as "a useful illusion for a novelist") choosing as his literary form the dynamic portrait of an individual. Something similar happens in White's own case. He questions the unity of personality not on religious principle but from minute social observation. The moment when a character enters a fixed relationship with the world is always an ominous one in his writings. Edwige in Caracole is murdered, but she has never stopped negotiating her value, while Mathilda, becoming wholly the avenging lover, dies into a role she mistakes for an identity, taking a passing resemblance for a definitive portrait. It's significant that both this novel and Forgetting Elena end with the hero occupying, however accidentally, a public position, as if the book's freedom to speculate depended on its hero's non-alignment.

This amounts to an odd sort of Darwinism, as if evolution was the survival of the socially flexible. But there is no doubt, despite the book's attempt at musical balance, that White loads the dice in favour of Mateo and against Mathilda, whose portrayal has a certain sourness, both vague and pointed, as if she was a minor character in Fr Rolfe, being given a drubbing under cover of prose-poetry. Edmund White is nevertheless a full-time aesthete and only a part-time moralist, a busier bee than wasp.

In the long run, it is Caracole's texture that will make friends, or lose them. Every melodic line is fully ornamented; the conceits are as vital to the progress of the book as they are in a Craig Raine poem, or a Tom Robbins novel, come to that. This style is more than most a matter of taste. White's rhetoric has a Jamesian fullness, but none of James's leisure; it has more in common, perhaps, with Proust. A sentence like this could easily find a home in Caracole:

A quelques pas, un grand gaillard en livrée rèvait, immobile, sculptural, inutile, comme ce guerrier purement décoratif qu'on voit dans les tableaux les plus tumultueux de Mantegna songer, appuyé sur son bouclier, landis, qu'on se précipite et qu'on égorge à côté de lui.

The playful memorializing of a casual posture as characteristic.

At his feeblest, White goes in for elegant variation saying "adipose cummerbund" for spare tyre or having a character eat raven instead of crow. The sheer density of invention attests a bottomless terror of saying the obvious. It sometimes seems that this is a sensibility which would find anything as straight-forward as an oak an embarrassment, unless it had a galaxy of truffles stowed away in its roots—or failing that a patch of discoloured bark like a mole under an armpit.

White's rhetoric is sophisticated, but it is also highly specialized. A conceit in a Craig Raine poem taps energy from the incongruity of its materials, and teases the reader with apparent irrelevance for maximum, and delayed, impact; a conceit in a Tom Robbins novel conveys, rather complacently, the absurdity of comparing anything with anything else in a rich, unrepeatable world. White's conceits, by contrast, have a curiously homogenizing effect; they smooth out differences and seal similarities. When Gabriel imagines Angelica's heart, "as stately as a frog at night", the reader feels a twinge of hilarity and then thinks better of it, guiltily ignorant of frogs at night. When Mateo compares Gabriel with a potato, which, "washed, bruised, forgotten and cast under the sink, will sprout horribly in the dark, rampant with life since it is not only a comically banal vegetable but also a seed", the conceit elevates both potato and Gabriel, buoying them up in the same super-saturated medium.

When White's conceits overreach they go authentically gaga. Here is Gabriel reminiscing in the middle of coitus ("sting" is his countrified word for orgasm):

Not that he himself was repelled by the odor, far from it. It was the smell of a stable, of his own long-ago stings in the thunder-box back at Madder Pink, the smell of steam lifting off those black sacs of roe he'd produced, that pair of blood sausages on a frosty morning in the echoing immensity of yet another day, as though time were a freezing mansion and he its caretaker bravely rubbing a fire into life with hard black and fluid white emissions, the demideuil of being human.

More often, the conceits retain a decorum which only the scenes of sexual exchange, notably successful in themselves and quite unlike the home life expected of a co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex, do anything to disrupt. Here is Gabriel with Angelica:

He understood why people might give their favourite goddess eight arms and four faces. Those weren't enough but they did at least suggest the way a girl could crowd a hollow with herself—a pair of arms reaching out to clasp him as she turned her head away in profile, lips lifted, eyes downcast; another two hands to push her hair back from eyes that opened, brightening; two arms to hang at her sides and a face to lower in submission until he butted her side again and moaned and sank to the ground below her, frustrated and yearning; then one more glorious face to swim down towards his, her lips full, her breath fast and shallow, her last two arms pressing his head against her one and only but wildly beating heart.

This is lovely, but also supremely calculated. The project may be passion, but the doing of it is scrupulous. The dizzy rhetoric describes exactly the promised eight arms and four faces, no more, no less; every extravagance is carefully budgeted, and the cadenza is also an inventory.

These quibbles are certainly churlish; but a reviewer is not merely a churl but a hired churl. There are things in Caracole that would win anyone over. This suavely alien world can give intense and almost continuous pleasure. Edmund White is a great dandy, and Caracole is a dandy novel.

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This section contains 2,816 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Adam Mars-Jones
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