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.
"I suppose it's what normal people do for overcoming pain--you just sort of let a veil drop over things. I was thinking it may be very healthy as a survival technique, but it's a disaster for a novelist, because you really want to stay in touch with all those feelings."
White adds that in writing--only in writing--feeling starts to come back. And he plans to start his Hubert novel as soon as he's finished his current project, a short biography of Marcel Proust.
Spelled out at more length in the book are his explorations into family and friendship, including a brief period of bringing up his teenage nephew Keith Fleming (now grown, married and writing White's biography). Readers were introduced earlier in the trilogy to his coldhearted father, his oppressive mother, their divorce, and his sister, struggling to come to terms with her lesbianism. In "The Farewell Symphony," the sister is still struggling and his father dies (a somewhat pathetic old man), while his mother drops into mental illness and then also dies.
All true? "Oh yes," White says with a smile of some finality.
He's clearly happier talking about other aspects of the book: the meditations on writing and the evocation of the famous Violet Quill Club of the '70s, which nurtured a number of gay writers now long established, such as White and Andrew Holleran; the emergence of AIDS; and all those brief intimacies with men that sparked his current verbal feud with playwright Larry Kramer.
Kramer wrote a diatribe against White and against sexually oriented gay literature in general as "irresponsible" in a recent issue of the Advocate, a national gay magazine. White responded with an article in Out, another national magazine, referring to Kramer only as "one of our prominent gay prudes" and defending "the new lyrical sexual realism" as a respectable literary activity, dissecting "what actually goes on in the head of someone while he is having sex."
"From the very beginning," he says now, "gay criticism has had a Stalinist side to it." Just as Chekhov was frowned upon by some of his radical 19th century contemporaries for not providing a more explicit social message in his writing, modern gay novelists are told off "for not presenting young gays with positive role models." Absurd, White says. "No one ever attacked John Updike for misleading young heterosexual boys toward debauchery."
Inspired by the courtly "pillow books" of 11th century Japan, which described serial relationships between courtiers and ladies-in-waiting, White wanted in "The Farewell Symphony" to show that "anonymous sex is not nearly as dry and mechanical as people imagine, or heartless, in that you can have these incandescent moments of communication with another person."
White laughs a little self-consciously when asked about his 2-year-old relationship with writer Michael Carroll, whom he met when Carroll, 32, was teaching in the Peace Corps in the Czech Republic. He wrote a fan letter to White, who invited him to visit in Paris. "He did. We fell in love, and then a few months later he moved in."
And now? "Yeah, well, we're happy together. Each relationship is different." This cool tone is belied by his pride and excitement when Carroll, hovering in the background, answers the phone to find he's just had a story accepted in an anthology.
The couple will be moving back to the U.S. soon, possibly for good, since White's been offered a teaching post at Princeton in the spring. France, where he lived far longer than he anticipated, has grown stagnant and sad, he says.
Knopf rejected his last three book proposals, he says, and he may need to support himself by teaching instead of living totally by his pen, as he has in recent years.
At A Different Light Bookstore, where White gives a reading, lack of support is not an issue. A long line of fans waits patiently to get books signed, from John Harris, a 47-year-old editor at the Getty who admires the elaborate style of White's early work, to David Zucker, a 19-year-old student who says that the honesty of "A Boy's Own Story" helped him come to terms with his own homosexuality.
Outside, there's a candlelight vigil for, of all people, Princess Diana, which nevertheless seems like an appropriate coda for White's Los Angeles visit, not so far removed from the spirit of the poem by Ausias March, a 15th century Catalan poet, with which White opens his novel:
Only those who are sad
or else have been sad at some time
need bother with my works.