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He's a Pillar to Some, a Source of Strife for Others

Books: Award-winning author Edmund White's new work sparks a firestorm in the gay community with its celebratory depictions of promiscuity.


The night Princess Diana died, writer Edmund White wept in front of his television in the Paris apartment where he has lived for 14 years.

"I find myself having a lot more emotion about it than I thought I would," he says with an air of slight surprise, leaning back in a deep, comfortable chair at a friend's house in the Fairfax district. He's on a flying visit to Los Angeles, first stop on a 16-city tour across the U.S. to promote his latest novel, "The Farewell Symphony" (Knopf).

"A cockney woman reached out to touch Prince William's hand, and she said to him, 'Your mother's beauty lives on in your face.' Isn't that like a line of poetry? It's like something Yeats would say. It just made my hair stand on end."

Anecdotes about Princess Diana are not perhaps what one might expect in a conversation with White, who was once named "Nabokov's favorite American writer" for his elegant, allusive, literary style. Winner of numerous awards, including an Award for Literature from the National Academy for Arts and Letters, White was one of the first gay contemporary novelists to receive widespread recognition for his work.

His new novel is a panoramic view of American gay life from the 1960s to the 1990s, a picaresque story in which the hero has many adventures, sexual and otherwise. It has sparked controversy in the gay community for its celebration of so-called serial sexuality in the era of AIDS, and astounded some reviewers with the hero's casual mention of having 3,120 sexual partners in 10 years--a far cry from the late-night shenanigans of an emotionally troubled princess and her one playboy.

Yet there's something entirely apt about White gleaning scraps of poetry from an ordinary woman's reaction to Di's untimely death. In his five novels and many short stories, death and beauty are natural partners, elegy and romantic lyricism the forces energizing even the most graphic sexual act, especially in his fantastic, otherworldly, early novels "Forgetting Elena" (Random House, 1973) and "Nocturnes for the King of Naples" (St. Martin's, 1978).

At the same time, White's down-to-earth Midwestern sensibility and a long association with journalism and nonfiction (most notably a widely praised biography of French writer Jean Genet) have sharpened his eye for the telling detail, attuned him to sociological resonances (like mass grief for Princess Di), and pushed him further in the direction of fictional work that's so factual and autobiographical it's hard not to read it as memoir.

"The Farewell Symphony" is the final part of a trilogy that also includes "A Boy's Own Story" (Dutton, 1982) and "The Beautiful Room Is Empty" (Knopf, 1988), covering White's childhood in Cincinnati and youth in New York. This third novel has so many real-life characters--mostly writers and artists, some named, some thinly disguised--that Christopher Benfey writing in the New York Times Book Review called it "a roman a clef" that "doesn't take a locksmith to turn the key."


Is it entirely autobiographical?

"Very much," says White, digging into a turkey sandwich at a Russian deli. So true to life is the book, he notes, that lawyers for Knopf ordered 150 cuts of potential "actionable" passages before they would allow publication. The original English version is uncut.

With receding silvery hair and portly build, White looks, at 57, quite different from his descriptions of his pumped-up, slim-waisted 1960s hero and more like the suave-mannered, "fat, sleepy old man" of the 1990s who begins the book, six months after his lover Brice's death from AIDS.

Brice is based on White's real lover, French architect Hubert Sorin, who died of AIDS complications in 1994 at age 32 in Morocco, exactly as painfully described in the book. "He wanted to go on this last trip. I mean, he didn't call it the last trip, but he was certainly very ill by that time. It was terrible. He looked a hundred years old. He finally died in Marrakech, and then I had the nightmare of trying to get his body back to France. It was kind of hell for me. I think for him it wasn't. I mean, I think it was better for him than dying in a gray little hospital room in Paris."

A number of critics have noted the book's tantalizingly brief treatment of Brice, whose death serves as a trigger for the unnamed narrator's recollections about his earlier years, while the relationship itself remains unexplored.

Part of this omission was practical, says White, who learned 15 years ago that he is HIV-positive but has had no symptoms of the disease. The book was so "crowded" with characters that he didn't just want to tack Brice's story on to the end. "I want to write another book about him. There was also the thing that I really wasn't ready to talk about Hubert's death that much. I felt very numb. And that's continued and is very worrying."

White talks matter-of-factly, as if he were examining a curious scientific specimen.

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