edmund white, “caracole”

Edmund White
(Plume, 1986)

Edmund White’s narrative works might be divided into four categories: first, the obliquely fabulist early novels which are relatively forgotten (Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples); second, the autobiographical fiction he’s best known for (A Boy’s Own Story on); third, the memoirs (My Lives, City Boy); and fourth, the historical fiction (Fannie: A Fiction, Hotel de Dream). There’s a rough chronological progression across these forms: autobiographical novels lead fairly naturally to memoirs. His biographies might be lumped in that third category; and it’s a small jump to go from writing biography to fictionalizing biography in his historical fiction. This isn’t a straight progression, of course: not everything fits into this rough schema. Caracole came out in 1985, after White had moved into autobiographical fiction; however, it hews much more closely to the mould of his first two novels. After reading White’s other works, however, one finds the autobiographical elements in this book can’t entirely be ignored. In City Boy, for example, White notes that his portrayal of Susan Sontag and her son in this book led to a break with them: reading it now, in the light of White’s subsequent autobiographical work, it’s hard to avoid this element of the book. A cosmopolitan uncle who rescues a nephew from an intractable home situation clearly has parallels in White’s own life in the 1970s; but most of the other characters in this book resist immediate identification.

This is not a roman à clef: this is the straightest of White’s books, and pseudoreality prevails, as it does in Proust’s The Captive and The Fugitive. At the same time, one understands, reading this book, why White would have shared an issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction with Samuel R. Delany, as this isn’t a world away from the spirit of Delany’s Nevèrÿon fantasies. The setting is a city: White’s description of the book in City Boy suggests that it’s nineteenth-century Venice, but abundant indirection makes it clear that the city is not entirely a resurrected version of that city, though it is marine, does have carnivals, and many of its characters sport Italian names. Bits of Rome’s geography are recognizable, and there’s a distinction between a lazy South and an industrious North. The first chapter begins in a crumbling rural villa, a setting almost Southern gothic; mention of conquerers suggests empire, but not quite a recognizable one. Christianity doesn’t seem to exist, perhaps a nod to Carlo Levi’s “Christ stopped at Eboli”; those outside the city are described as living in tribes, and there are other kingdoms. Courtliness is emphasized inside the city; but the interactions of the characters might be those of New York in the 1970s. This is an imagined world: though one that, like all fiction, takes the outside world with it.

The first chapter depicts the novel’s young protagonist, Gabriel, in his decaying home in the countryside; he lives with his corpulent mother and feral younger siblings, visited occasionally by a distant father. In the woods, he finds a girl, Angelica; he marries her in her tribe’s ceremonies, but is discovered by his father, who, in cahoots with his mistress, confines him in a cage. Angelica summons his powerful uncle in the city to rescue him; Mateo, a senator, brings Gabriel to the city and teaches him the ways of the court. White’s defamiliarization of the world goes down to the level of language. Here, for example, Gabriel’s early playmates (“sons of the old rural gentry”) are described:

One of them had a clay pig, small enough to fit into his pocket; it whistled one dry, low note when blown on the snout. The other knew the names of stones but he was the hardest to understand. Someone’s youngest brother he called “the Least One.” If he doubted a story, he said, “I don’t confidence you.” Windows he called “lights” and their hiding place in an oak bole he spoke of as the “plunder room.” Where the creek fanned out into a hundred rivulets, this child said, “That’s where it turkey-tailed,” and if a grown-up showed him special attention he’d ask later, “Why did he much me?” Both of Gabriel’s companions spoke in doubled nouns (“biscuit-bread,” “ham-meat,” sulfur-match”). Nor did they grasp what Gabriel meant when he said once, “Have a nice weekend.” After a while it turned out their families worked every day and the notion of a weekend was beyond their means. (p. 7)

This linguistic slipperiness carries into the courtly world, where it is carefully cultivated and put to use:

When Mathilda asked Mateo to bring Gabriel to his very first reception at her house, Mateo assumed she was merely being polite out of consideration for him, Mateo. More than once she’d assured him she knew what it was like to be stuck with a child in their nearly childless world of artists and intellectuals; after all she (with Mateo’s distant if affectionate assistance) had raised a child, Daniel, who was now thirty and looked so nearly as though he were her brother that her maternity would have been suspect had not their celebrated, even infamous past together been so well documented. Nevertheless Mathilda was delighted when naïve or provincial people mistook Daniel for her brother or lover, and to increase the confusion she often referred to him coyly as “the darling.” This coyness was so unlike her that people expected to catch a sardonic smile and were shocked to see instead the sort of smile people wear when they speak of their pets. What few people knew was that an older child, a girl, had died when she was four. This loss had poisoned Mathilda’s joy in motherhood at the same time it had intensified her love for – no longer “my son” but “the darling.” (p. 93)

The civilization that White depicts is a mannerist one: this is a book less baroque than rococo. Cultivating relationships is important, but most important is to find a language in which that relationship might be depicted. In the first chapter, Gabriel’s relationship with Angelica jumps from animalic sex to a declaration to his mother that he intends to marry her (whatever that might mean to the two of them) to a marriage in her tribe’s rites, which he does not understand; then he is taken away from Angelica entirely and begins to desire her while building fantasies around an invented woman. On Mateo’s unrequited love for an actress:

Love 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. Mateo could never quite understand when or why he’d fallen so terminally in love with Edwige, but he suspected that whereas when could be answered, as least theoretically, why could not. Nevertheless he speculated at such length on his own condition he sometimes imagined that the function of love was to be a point de repère, an enigma so bright it distracted attentions from bigger fears. (p. 84)

The novel proceeds in a spiral fashion, jumping back on itself as it moves between its characters – or more precisely, between the relationships between its characters. Among its other meanings, caracole is “snail” in Spanish and Portuguese; in architecture in English, it may mean a spiral staircase. The most common English meaning is a half-turn on a horse; the OED qualifies this by noting that “Many writers have used the word without any clear notion of its meaning”.


“What Gabriel had to realize was that aristocrats, unlike intellectuals, had no desire to improve or prove themselves. In the world of the salons there was no future, only the present. One looked at a painting, one consumed a lime ice, one played a round of cards, one talked, walked, shopped, rode a horse, cooked up a practical joke. The absence of time was paradisal, if paradise is conceded to be splendid but dull. No one struggled to memorize the names of foreign painters, to question the meaning of money or society, to talk amusingly, to stand at a viewing distance from the moment.”

(Edmund White, Caracole, p. 259.)

edmund white, “city boy”

Edmund White
City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ’70s
(Bloomsbury, 2009)

The first question that arises with this book is why. Edmund White has already written a biography, of a sort (My Lives); more to the point, he’s also fictionalized the period in time in which this book is set in his autobiographical novels, A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony, the books for which he’s probably best known. Why then do this as non-fiction rather than fiction? One might suspect this book of being a cashing in on the present popularity of the memoir; but White has been studiously playing with the boundary between fiction and non-fiction since A Boy’s Own Story, where he began the project of fictionalizing his own life. Most recently, in Fanny and Hotel de Dream, he moved to a project of fictionalizing American literary history (the lives of Fanny Trollope and Stephen Crane, respectively); in the latter, he went so far as to fabricate apocrypha for Stephen Crane. This book, then, should not simply be taken as a clef for his romans à clef: it needs to be observed in context.

The trickiness afoot commences with the first, one-sentence paragraph in the book:

In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon.

A fine beginning; this is what those of us who weren’t in New York in the 1970s assume about life then. But this might be instructively compared to “Uncle Ed and My Life with Him,” an essay by White’s nephew Keith Fleming. Fleming lived with his uncle in the 1970s; this is engagingly fictionalized in The Farewell Symphony and described at length in City Boy, as well as in Fleming’s own memoir, The Boy with the Thorn in His Side. In the section excerpted on White’s website we find this description:

The first book he had suggested I read had been Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son, and I instantly recognized my uncle in Chesterfield’s dictum that a gentleman never rises later than ten in the morning, no matter when he might have gone to bed, and that his day should be divided evenly between study and pleasure, which mutually refresh each other.

Lord Chesterfield certainly shows up in City Boy: on p. 27, White talks about how much he liked his writing, though White doesn’t mention what time Chesterfield thought a gentleman should rise. If one actually looks at Chesterfield, things become even more complicated:

But then, I can assure you, that I always found time for serious studies; and, when I could find it no other way, I took it out of my sleep, for I resolved always to rise early in the morning, however late I went to bed at night; and this resolution I have kept so sacred, that, unless when I have been confined to my bed by illness, I have not, for more than forty years, ever been in bed at nine o’clock in the morning but commonly up before eight.

How do we resolve the disjunction between Fleming’s account and White’s broad statement? Assuming that Fleming is accurately remembering his uncle’s habits, the “everyone” in White’s line must not include him, as we would have expected. If Fleming is misremembering Chesterfield but correctly remembering that this passage made him think of his uncle, White’s behavior is even more atypical of 1970s New York. Memory and truth are complicated; and this is a book that needs to be read carefully.

Looked at from the New York of 2010, the period from the 1960s to the 1980s in New York can’t help but seem a golden age for the arts, which we observe from mannerist decline. It’s not easy, for example, to think of a New York novel from the past decade that’s likely to hold its own in twenty years. But that past is a hard thing to nail down: talking to people who were in the New York art scene in the 1960s, one quickly realizes that any two accounts of the same events in that period are bound to be contradictory. White’s strategy, then, is to approach the same events several times, using different techniques. Reading his novelizations, the uninformed reader won’t always match names to characters correctly; the names remain ciphers, and what the reader is left with is the relationship between the characters. With names attached, as in City Boy, it becomes a record of the celebrity: this is what Richard Howard did, this is how Susan Sontag was, this is the sort of person that Harold Brodkey was. Both ways are valid ways to tell a story which is important; however, the fiction read before the memoir is going to have a different effect than the fiction after the memoir. Perhaps this is what White is getting at when he says, after a description of James Merrill:

Having actually known such a person doesn’t give one a special purchase on the reality. In fact familiarity can lead to slightly idiotic complacencies. The French critic Sainte-Beauve wrote that he couldn’t see why everyone made such a fuss over “Beyle” (Stendhal), since good ol’ Beyle would surely have been the first to laugh at his exaggerated posthumous reputation. Even so, everyone wants to hear the story just because it “really” happened, and yet in truth its reality – fragile at best and now largely mythologized into a new shape – is scarcely telling. (p. 86.)

The project of going back to the same history again and again makes sense with this in mind. City Boy is a blunt representation of reality; but it’s also a more measured one given that more time has passed since White’s last attempts to write about the period. This is maybe counterintuitive: The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) was written at a moment of crisis; while panic about AIDS in the U.S. was calming by the time that The Farewell Symphony appeared in 1997, its repercussions were still being strongly felt. If one were attempting simply to document what was being lost (a charge frequently leveled at autobiographical fiction), it would have made more sense to work in the memoir form then. But obfuscation allows for better representation.

A case might be made that one of the most interesting works of fiction in the past few years is White’s contemporary James McCourt’s Now Voyagers, a sequel to Mawrdew Czgowchwz, his novel of gay opera devotees in New York of the 1950s besotted with Irishness. Now Voyagers is an enormous, fantastically intricate book; it’s one of the most explicitly Joycean American novel that I can imagine (and McCourt has promised a sequel). But one senses, reading it, the heartbreaking feeling that this is a book that might never actually find a readership: it’s a document of a vanished age, in a vanishing language. I can sense how well it’s done, but my knowledge (of opera, of Irishness, of gay life in the 1950s) isn’t enough to really understand McCourt on his own terms; I can only admire his language. Now Voyagers is reminiscent of White’s first few novels, especially the elliptical allusions of the first, Forgetting Elena, which seems underrated despite Nabokov’s approval. White seems to have moved in the opposite direction, providing easier ways in to the past. I’m not sure, though, that this is an outright rejection of his earlier experimentation: rather, he’s continuing to play with style across what we think of as fiction and non-fiction.


“. . .  since in America curiosity counts as a social grace. Tina was highly evasive in answering me, since in Europe satisfying curiosity of my sort counts as a betrayal. Americans serve themselves and their friends up as stories, laced with pathos and spiced with scandal, the dish piping hot on demand. A European discloses himself, if that word can be used to suggest a series of locks opening and shutting, the whole slow and cautious. For an American a confidence is an ice-breaker and we describe our grandmother’s suicide with the same desire to appear amiable that a European employs in commenting on the unseasonably warm weather. We forget what we’ve told to whom, whereas Europeans tremble and go pale when they decide to reveal something personal. In Europe an avowal counts as a precious sign of commitment; in America it maounts to nothing more than a how-do-you-do.”

(Edmund White, The Farewell Symphony, p. 87.)

this page is the final print, music added

“Because a novel – these words – is shared experience, a clumsy but sometimes funny conversation between two people in which one of them is doing all the talking, it will always be tighter and more luminous than that object called living. There is something so insipid about living that to do it at all requires heroism or stupidity, probably both. Living is all those days and years, the rushes; memory edits them; this page is the final print, music added. But for an instant imagine the process reversed, go with me back through the years, then be me, me all alone as I submit to the weight, the atmospheric pressure of youth, for when I was young I was exhausted by always bumping up against this bug lummox I didn’t really know, myself. It was as though I’d been forced into solitary confinement with a stranger who had unaccountable tastes, aversions, rhythms.”

(Edmund White, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, pp. 176–7.)

giving it all away

“But perhaps more essential, in The Beautiful Room Is Empty (the rather enigmatic quotation is from Kafka) are [Edmund] White’s descriptions of the discovery of the world of art, a subject not often explored by American writers. The novel begins not with a discussion of the young man’s sexual awakening but of his hunger for books, music, painting, information – commodities almost all Midwestern writers report being starved for. . . . The narrator is an interesting rarity, a budding artist and intellectual in Michigan. Normal Mailer, writing | somewhere of James Jones, speaks of ‘the terrible inferiority complex of the midwestern writer,’ meaning perhaps the feeling many Midwesterners have of coming upon culture suddenly or by accident, whether by going East to school or to Europe in a war, and having the impression that they were just now being let in on something other people had always known. . . . Though every American region has its apologists, the Midwest, which has produced so many of our greatest writers, has the fewest, is the most resolutely ‘a country where no one else was like me.’ Writers who start out there have tended to move (as White, who lives in Paris, has done) and not to take their flat, unromantic heartland for a subject. Just as blacks, from Baldwin to Baker, have found a more agreeable life in Europe, so the Midwesterners – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gellhorn, Jones, Herbst, to name a few – have their own set of circumstances to flee, those White describes so well.”

(Diane Johnson, “The Midwesterner as Artist”, pp. 71–72 in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1996)