Proust on poppers
THE MARRIED MAN, by Edmund White (Knopf), 321 pages, $38 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Where are all the older gay men? Muscled out of the smooth-chested, youth-obsessed party circuit that is the modern queer male world, society's elderly homos remain, alas, at home.
At least there they can read about themselves in novels by Edmund White, their unofficial chronicler, who's just followed up his acclaimed autobiographical trilogy with The Married Man, a richly textured novel about love, sex and mortality.
A sort of gay response to Thomas Mann's Death In Venice, the book opens breezily enough with a pickup scene in a Parisian gym, where the middle-aged American furniture scholar Austin meets the younger, and married, French architect Julien. The two exchange numbers, and before long they're embarked on a love affair that takes them through chatty dinner parties, an amicable divorce, and then, when AIDS rears its head, some abrupt changes of locale and sentiment.
White's working on an ambitious Jamesian canvas here, introducing us to half a dozen cultures in just over 300 pages. And he succeeds. The prose is poetic yet controlled, erotic and sensuous. Think Proust on poppers.
Austin can't enter a room without White describing, in a gently ironic way, the room's contents and, especially, its people. Sometimes irony gives way to satire, as when Austin moves back to the States after a long absence and encounters early-90s-style academic political correctness.
If the multiple shifts in geography confuse and seem like a novelist's stratagem to write off expensive trips to Cancun, Key West, Venice, Rome and Marrakesh -- I'm not exaggerating -- they do eventually capture the characters' restless search for lost time.
Essentially, the novel is a gay love story, not just between Austin and man-with-a-past Julien but between Austin and his small circle of ex-lovers and friends, male and female. It's about the mystery and transience of life and love. It's about living fully in the present.
What's most refreshing, though, is that White, who just turned 60 and reads Wednesday at Harbourfront Centre (see Readings, this page), never apologizes for the age and erudition of his characters.
As Virginia Woolf once wrote about Middlemarch, this is a novel for grown-ups.