Thursday, August 15, 2013

Edmund White's "City Boy": five choice excerpts

It was a brave new world that Edmund White conjures up retrospectively in City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and '70s. The Big Apple was a vastly different place then—more like the Gotham of Tim Burton than the more-or-less shining metropolis we know today. White's gay identity was being shaped and his literary chops were being honed as he rubbed shoulders with hoi polloi and movers/shakers alike. In this passage he speaks of his friendship with the New Yorker's poetry editor Howard Moss and of his fondness for British novelist Elizabeth Bowen (hear hear!)!
He was especially close to the great Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, who'd lived and taught briefly at Princeton in the 1950s. I'd been reading her since college days, and once I gave up my determination to be "experimental," her influence became palpable in my work. Probably no one would notice the connection (people seem almost blind to quite obvious influences), but her technique of making neat, short moral observations about her characters was something I started shoplifting in my autobiographical novels from A Boy's Own Story on. What E. M. Forster was for most writers of my generation, Bowen was for me; I never took to Forster's combination of closetedness, snobbishness, and blending of fable and Edwardian morality, whereas Bowen's quiet passion and sense of the tragic appealed to me. For me she was genuinely tragic in the sense that in The Death of the Heart or The House in Paris, her best books, the protagonists face a dilemma and either choice they might make is bad — very bad. She didn't have an affected prose style like Virginia Woolf nor did she overestimate the importance of "moments of being." She had no religious preconceptions like Graham Greene (though Greene I'd rank as a novelist right after her). Her ethics were all subtle and situational. I heard Ian McEwan say recently that modernists such as Joyce and Woolf have cornered so much critical attention that they've eclipsed all of the (superior, to his mind) realists such as Bowen and Rosamond Lehman. I should mention here that my lifelong love has been Henry Green and that his novel Nothing is the only book I've read ten times. His stylishness and his ear for dialogue are celebrated, but one should also include his appreciation for the sensuality of women, the comedy of adultery, the absurdities of class.
Bowen, with acolytes
 Here White compares writing portions of The Joy of Gay Sex to Method acting:
I first had to establish who I was. In this case I thought someone kind but with an edge, someone worldly but patient, someone breezy most of the time but capable of being solemn. A slightly less clever but still amusing version of Cocteau.... Someone who can whip off an epigram but is never a bitch, who thinks in paradoxes but doesn't insist you admire his wit.
Speaking of wit, there's no dearth. Witness the bon mots that fly at the Cipriani pool in Venice:
At the pool everyone was so old that Gore Vidal had reputedly referred to it as Lourdes. It was there that Marguerite Littman ... said to Tennessee Williams as they looked at a cadaverous girl shambling past in her bikini, "Look, anorexia nervosa!" to which Williams replied "Oh, Marguerite, you know everyone."
I love White's description of "life-size stucco angels swooping down out of the ceiling like dive-bombers" in Venice's Albrizzi palace. 
As time went by, White began teaching college writing classes himself, and his comments on that process are typically astute:
Although purists laugh at the idea of treating characters as if they were real people responsible for their actions, everyone does in fact respond to fiction in exactly that way. Stories generate interest precisely to the degree they manipulate readers' sympathies. Chekhov's stories, for instance, are endlessly rewarding because it's so hard to figure out who's bad and who's good in them. This ambiguity doesn't lead the reader to abandon his or her judgmental instincts but to refine them and to broaden his or her sympathies. Expecting readers to put aside their good-guy/bad-guy criteria is absurd. As David Hume says, the mind of man when confronted with anything "immediately feels the sentiment of approbation or blame; nor are there any emotions more essential to its frame or constitution."
White interviewed Jasper Johns for Horizon in 1977, eliciting the following anecdote:
When he was young, he'd gone out in a truck with a dealer to Utopia Parkway in Queens to help pick up some boxes made by Joseph Cornell, the American surrealist, for a new exhibit. Cornell was apparently quite fussed and ran out to the truck to say, "You didn't tell me what you wanted—a few masterpieces and the rest minor works or what—so I just did all masterpieces."
 White photographed in Paris in 1988 by Sophie Bassouls
For pungent observations on Susan Sontag, George Balanchine, Bruce Chatwin, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lillian Hellman, and myriad other cultural icons, White's your man! 
Further reading: A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood; Art and Sex in Greenwich Village: Gay Literary Life After Stonewall, by Felice Picano.


  1. WOW!! You've given me a veritable syllabus of things to explore:) I'm off to track down Henry Green's "Nothing." Judging from your track record, it'll be fantastic!! As Molly Monday would say - "Happy Little Friday (Thursday)!"

  2. And think of the fun you'll have when some nosy parker asks what is it you are reading! Save me a copy please, Wilhelm!

    One would think that the name Utopia Parkway would elicit a flood of daydreams about an ideal place, but one look at its strip malls and gas stations reminds one more of an asphalt-covered Yonville, where an urban Mme. Bovary might suffocate.

  3. Great post today. I have been wanting to check out the book "City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and '70s" for quite some time now.