- Edmund White
- My last highlight
- Number of highlights
The Gotham was one of the great bookstores of my life.
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.
To us New Yorkers, San Francisco seemed eerily quiet, the streets empty, the lights doused after ten o’clock, the restaurants full of health food and skinny, blond hippie waiters on tranquilizers.
As Stan used to say, “Half the people in New York if they were anywhere else would be either interviewed or arrested.”
In the late 1970s and early eighties when we were first friends, however, he was trying to be gay, though without much success.
Everyone smoked all the time, and when you French-kissed someone, it was like rubbing one ashtray against another.
The residential floors were really like a giant sauna. Every time I’d emerge from my room to take a shower, even if it was at two A.M. on a stifling night, a grizzled, potbellied resident would come hobbling out and be standing within seconds under the adjoining spray, soaping himself up and staring at me fixedly, as if the secret to success in cruising were simply transmitting a strong enough signal, the more blatant the better.
In that era, before there was any degree of widespread gay self-acceptance, it was extremely rare to find a gay couple who lived together openly as lovers, who’d acknowledged their homosexuality to their parents and friends and colleagues, who had a sense that they constituted a real romantic pair capable of being faithful to one another or if not sexually exclusive at least committed in some sense for the long haul.
Stan and I took our “affair” so lightly that we had no idea of fidelity, though we didn’t discuss the rules of our relationship. We had no idea of growing old together. We never spoke to outsiders of our “partner” (the term didn’t exist then). Another gay friend might ask, “Are you and Stan lovers?” to which I’d respond, “Sort of.” It was all pretty murky, even to us.
Over that bedrock of the Italian Village was scattered the more recent topsoil of stores offering hookahs and shabby finery and light boxes and paintings that one could make oneself by splashing acrylics on a revolving potter’s wheel—the centrifugal force threw the shiny colors out in crazed patterns. The smell of incense and patchouli filled the air.
As I came home in my suit and tie, weaving my way through the motley throngs, skinny kids in fringed leather coats would growl at me, “Go back to the suburbs.” Which made me indignant, since I knew they were probably living with their parents in the suburbs and had to sneak out of the house with a paper bag full of their trendy new clothes.
Chaikin had worked out a kind of theater that would suddenly lurch without transition into enactments of repressed feelings. A man picking up his dry cleaning would suddenly click into a slow-motion rapturous embrace with the woman working in the shop.
As a gay man I didn’t think that I was American or that I belonged to a society worth defending. Of course I wouldn’t have said such a thing out loud; I didn’t want to sound disgruntled. But truthfully I felt powerless to affect national policy, and I also knew that any policy that might be devised by any government present or future would contain a clause condemning me as a homosexual. There was no “gay pride” back then—there was only gay fear and gay isolation and gay distrust and gay self-hatred.
This austere self-abnegation appealed to me. Her beliefs in no way served her personal goals.
When we’d get on a bus, an old man would sneeze theatrically. I asked my Puerto Rican friend why he sneezed. “The word for gay is pato, ‘duck,’ and he’s sneezing because one of our feathers got in his nose.”
Maybe my book was bad, I conceded, or too weird, but hundreds and hundreds of bad books were published every year.
He said he was “allergic” to cigarettes. In fact, he probably just didn’t like the smell of smoke, but in those days the smoker had such unquestioned rights that people who objected had to invent a medical excuse.
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.
One day, four years before Forgetting Elena was published, Howard said to me, “I’m terribly embarrassed, but I’ve never read any of your books. Where should I start?” I said, “But that’s because I’ve written several but not one of them has ever been published.” He looked at me with compassion and said, “That must be terribly painful for you.” I felt wonderfully understood and I nodded.
For New Yorkers the streets were considered “backstage,” and even beautifully dressed women wore gym shoes on the street and put their heels on only when they arrived at the office, a dinner party, or the theater. For Romans the street was the stage.
Also, it seemed to us as if everyone in San Francisco were doing yoga and reading Krishnamurti, gardening and obsessing about the presentation of his or her macrobiotic diet on an artfully misshapen, partially glazed Korean kiln-fired plate.
As Marilyn told an ex who said he wanted just to be friends, “Practically anyone can be my lover, but it’s very difficult to be my friend.”
Our happiness together remains one of my most vivid and fructifying memories; when we are young and literary, we often experience things in the present with a nostalgia-in-advance, but we seldom guess what we will truly prize years from now.
French people dismiss the cultural chatter and self-centered attitudinizing of Paris as parisianisme. A similar noise is generated by hip New Yorkers, though we don’t have a word for it and perhaps we haven’t isolated it yet as a reprehensible phenomenon. This “newyorkism” is so opinionated, so debilitating, so contagious with its knowingness, its instant formulas that replace any slow discoveries, that only people who are serious and ponderous can resist its blandishments, its quick substitutes for authenticity. No wonder the psychiatrist had said one should write first thing in the morning—before the tide of newyorkism swept over one, washing away actual honest thought and replacing it with trendy pronouncements.
In 1978 I met William Burroughs, who’d lived abroad (in Morocco, mostly) so long that he seemed more a myth from the past than a living writer.
We were all fascinated by every word the sphinx pronounced. Burroughs had a way of muttering that, as the evening wore on and joints were brought out, became completely incomprehensible. He produced none of the usual little social smiles or encouraging nods. He seemed remote and indifferent though cordial in a ghostly way.
hollowed-out figure. Usually I felt some connection with another gay man. Not necessarily a vital link, but a real one, such as one might feel with another American in Berlin, say, neither more nor less. With Burroughs, however, there was no conspiratorial wink and his sexuality seemed like something that might take place only once every hundred years, like the midnight blooming of a century plant.
When Nabokov wanted a job teaching Russian literature at Harvard, the man who turned him down said, “Would you ask an elephant to teach a course in elephant science?” To which Nabokov replied, “Yes, if he were a highly articulate elephant.”
Europeans often ask what is actually taught in a creative writing class. Funny, I think, they don’t ask the same question of drawing or musical composition instructors. Literature is at once more banal and more sacralized than the other arts—or, better, since everyone can write a letter or a theme paper, it’s assumed that what separates great “authors” from mere writers is some magical and unteachable talent.
I’d had lunch with Puig, who’d won me over with his strange mixture of seriousness and campiness. “I spent the whole day yesterday at the baths, Edmund, looking for a husband.” Long, sad look. “I didn’t find one.”
I started to go out with him though it was understood that he and Louis Keith Nelson were a couple and would stay together. Back then, in the 1970s, these questions of fidelity and couplehood didn’t come up and we wouldn’t exactly have known how to respond to them. Introducing the issue now slightly falsifies the quiet, natural way in which we assumed everyone would have multiple sex partners, that jealousy was definitely not cool, and that new people could be regular fuck buddies or part-time lovers, that the molecule could always annex a new atom. Of course everyone tacitly feared that a new dalliance might take a lover away forever, but this seldom happened. It was as if the three elements (love, sex, friendship) that straight people centered on one other person we gays distributed over several people and this distribution was a more solid form than companionate marriage.
Typical of Gunn’s late strong work are these lines, with their beautifully subtle enjambment, written to Mike Kitay: Nothing is, or will ever be, Mine, I suppose. No one can hold a heart But what we hold in trust We do hold, even apart.
Robert told me that he’d been “into shit before it got too dangerous when everyone started having amoebas.” It was because he gave up shit, he told me, that he got “into niggers.” Several
In those days an empty loft was the height of chic, and it was hard to know if a loft-dweller was really poor or just an artist pretending to be a minimalist.