To the trio of avowedly autobiographical novels—A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony, each rather less impressive than its predecessor—that chronicled Edmund White’s life through the mid ’80s, the author now appends The Married Man. In it he tells the story that leaked into The Farewell Symphony and shadowed that book’s headlong hedonism of the ’70s and early ’80s before it smashed full-throttle into AIDS. Farewell‘s opening pages find White in Paris, mourning Brice, a lover of five years (now six months dead), and wondering if he’d “have the courage to tell his story in this book. The French call a love affair a ‘story,’ une histoire, and I see getting to it, putting it down, exploring it, narrating it as a challenge I may well fail. If I do fail, don’t blame me. Understand that even writers, those professional exhibitionists, have their moments of reticence.” White tests that reticence at the end of the book, launching compulsively into the events leading up to Brice’s death before cutting himself short and admitting that he “can’t go on.”
But, of course, he must go on. After noting, in Farewell, that “Brice had been the first man I’d loved at the same time he loved me,” how could he not? In The Married Man, Brice becomes Julien, both substitutes for White’s real-life lover Hubert Sorin. Here, he’s an architect and sometime artist who is 28 and married when he meets Austin Smith, 49, at a Paris gym in the book’s opening pages. Austin, White’s stand-in, is an HIV-positive American writer in exile from the “graveyard” of New York who has “reinvented himself” in Paris with only partial success. Just recently over a four-year affair with another young Julien—a cold, ambitious little sexpot who ditched him for a wealthier man—Austin is both realistic about his prospects as an aging gay man and determined to do better next time. “For in sex he was now less interested in a trophy-boy and more attracted to the man who might bring him pleasure. He wanted pleasure, not prestige.”
Though this new Julien doesn’t seem likely to give Austin either, he encourages the writer’s tentative advances, assures him that he no longer sleeps with his wife (even if they’re not quite ready for a divorce), and, in no time at all, goes off with him for a romantic weekend in the country. “In these posthumous, post-diagnosis, foreign days,” White writes, “Austin no longer expected anything to work, certainly not to be ideal,” and he undertakes the affair with a combination of chill wariness and flaring hope. So he—and the reader—couldn’t be more surprised when, after he finally confides his HIV status to Julien, the boy not only increases his affections but promises to take care of Austin no matter what happens. Before either partner has entirely grasped its narrative thrust, Austin and Julien’s histoire turns into a marriage.
“A love affair between foreigners is always as much the mutual seduction of two cultures as a meeting between two people,” White notes, and The Married Man is full of wry, biting observations about French manners and American mores. But White is no less trenchant when he takes on the differences between queer and (provisionally) straight men. If Austin is excited by what he perceives as Julien’s lack of gay guile, superficiality, and cynicism, he’s not thrilled by his casual arrogance, selfishness, and misplaced sense of entitlement. For all its effusiveness and genuine warmth, their relationship has an uneasy edge. Perhaps because Austin never entirely comprehends the nature of Julien’s affection—perhaps because no lover ever can—he often seems to be standing slightly outside their life together, aloof and suspicious, as if anticipating a betrayal.
White anchors Austin and Julien in a wide, fully realized net of friendships and relations; he sends them, often disastrously, on the road—to Venice, Key West, and, for an extended stay, Providence, Rhode Island, where Austin takes a teaching job that seems mainly an excuse for White to satirize the American mania for political correctness. But the more this fragile couple strikes out into the world, the more the strain on their relationship shows. The betrayal Austin feared is precipitated by a trip to Cancun in the company of Austin’s HIV-positive ex-lover, Peter, a self-absorbed, guilt-tripping brat. Rather than creating a bond of sympathy with Peter, Julien’s recent discovery of his own seropositive status only makes them both more aggressively competitive, with Austin caught uncomfortably in the middle. But when Julien says of Peter, “I just hope I have the satisfaction of seeing him die before I do,” Austin is so horrified that he vows to withhold anything deeper than “familial” affection from his lover, no matter how long their life together lasts.
Even before this rather baffling turning point, Austin’s conflicted reserve makes his affair with Julien seem less a love match than an experiment in devotion, an unlikely folie à deux. Since White isn’t a first-person presence in The Married Man (as he was in his autobiographical trilogy), he has some crucial, critical distance from Austin, space in which to tease his own relentless, uptight self-consciousness. But too often White inhabits Austin so utterly that he neglects to make him more than a clever commentator, assuming we comprehend the depth of his feelings when he’s only sketched them in.
Even more damaging to the book’s narrative, however, is the sense that it’s been driven more by White’s need to record the events of his life with his French lover than by his desire to shape a novel. This is a problem for any writer dealing with largely autobiographical material, but White’s already proven he can solve it in A Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty. Here, he often seems incapable of getting beyond the accumulation of petty details and pointless incident. White is too elegant a stylist to allow the book to feel compulsive or confessional; he’s never mawkish, rarely self-serving. Yet he fails to reimagine or transform his romance, not because he’s reticent (he’s hardly that), but because he can’t seem to stand back from the truth and craft it into engaging fiction. Though he turns Julien’s death—which, like Sorin’s, occurs on an ill-advised vacation in Morocco—into a terrible and compelling tour de force where every moment counts, White bloats The Married Man with so many other all-too-real moments that its narrative splinters and breaks, and his sad histoire gets lost in the wreckage.