As a longtime fan of Edmund White's writing, I'm always puzzled by criticism of his books. The language he uses, some complain, is dense, overly poetic, difficult to follow without a dictionary. His plots are minimal and, where plots do exist, they're overtly manipulated by the authorpossibly to appear more postmodern. The situations he presents, while apparently simple, turn out so intellectually or emotionally contrary that they hinder readers from getting involved. He uses too many untranslated French words and phrases, leaving readers feeling that he writes only for the literary elite.
These same reproaches will be launched at White's new novel, The Married Man. Some will be legitimate. It would be astonishing if an author of White's age and experience suddenly transformed himself in midstream. But although his latest offering is very much "The Mixture as Before," most of the carping will be unjustified, even meaningless. The Farewell Symphony signaled a reining-in of White's prose to the Gallic lapidary, a switch of his plotting to the more straightforward and chronological, a reduction of his situations to easily comprehensible affairs and friendships. White's new novel goes even further in all of these areas and in its concentration. As a result, it's a fairly easy read.
Austin is an unassuming American scholar, a specialist in 18th-century French furniture living on the Ile de Cité with a social circle made up of gay and straight Parisians and expatriate Americans, and attracted to French men half his age. Freshly broken-hearted from an affair with a sexy gold-digger, he meets Julien, a lean, handsome architect in the throes of divorce. An unlikely affair begins, and even more surprisingly, continues. The patrician Julien, who doesn't consider himself gay, deigns to enter into Austin's life, fulfilling his sexual and psychological need to be dominated. The first third of the novel deals with the complex, often comic steps in this fitting together of oddly paired mates. White's portrayal of Austin's social set in Paris, their national and individual vagaries and confrontations, is lovingly detailed. The "head-shots" he provides of the dozen minor characters surrounding the central couple are clever, believable, and at times hysterically funny. Seldom since Proust and Madame Verdurin's "little clan" has the social intricacy of such silliness been so well handled.
But clouds hover on the horizon. Austin has been boringly HIV-positive for years, when Julien also tests positive for HIVwith a surprisingly menacing viral load. Peter, Austin's last American lover, who still lives in Austin's Manhattan studio, joins the new couple during a trip to Venice and restakes his claim on Austin's heart. Financial considerations force Austin to take a job teaching at a New England university. Julien attempts to join him, but is stopped at airport immigration and sent back. After much red tape, he manages to get into the U.S. just in time for a recession and no hopes of employment. Idle, Julien pouts, becomes insufferably French, and pampers their basset hound. In this third of the novel, White handles his themes with an unsettling yet successful blend of social satire and a Balzacian focus on large personalities clashing within a framework of domestic claustrophobia.
As alienated and baffled by American life as Julien, Austin drags over French visitors and tries to entertain them with trips to Vermont, Mexico, and Key West. Instead, Julien fights with everyone, banning Peter and infuriating Austin. Julien's health worsens and he is hospitalized. They return to France, where Julien begins to paint again. More friends are banished; Julien goes downhill fast. They rush to the warmth of Morocco but this turns into a series of blunders, something of a death march. During the lowest moments of his life, Austin must face bigotry, ignorance, and intransigent bureaucracy. From the high social comedy of the opening, the book descends to catastrophe, yet it is a tragedy tinged by a barrage of ironies: Austin's mistaken belief that he's betrayed his lover; Julien's final words; and shocking post mortem revelations.
I've mentioned classic French authors, but many characters and situations could also be straight out of Gogol or Kafka, while Austin's abhorrence of the U.S., its "farcical" universities and "Savonarola students," is pure Nabokov. Austin is a snob, if a peculiar one: "Oh, the best people," he says at one point, "are Europeanized Americans," as though he were living inside a late Henry James novel. And Austin's continually bizarre distinctions, which unceasingly deconstruct his life and relationships even as he's constructing them, are right out of Swann in Love. There is an American wideness and inclusiveness, a generosity of spirit that informs White's writing, with its larger-than-life people, its pungent images (huge schefflera plants "as if nourished on plutonium") and its readiness to take any idea for granted, if only for an experimental moment.
Both leads are superbly rendered: the sophisticated, eager to please, always stepped on, secretly resentful and manipulative Austin; and Julien, whose character, delineated in stages as his physical and mental health decline, becomes a disturbingly realistic case study.
Like Diane Johnson's celebrated portrayals of Americans in Paris, Le Divorce and Le Marriage, The Married Man brilliantly depicts the intimate dynamics between lovers and the cross-cultural misunderstandings between the old and new worlds. An irresistibly involving story that will satisfy critics and fans alike, The Married Man is White at the height of his powerhis richest, most accomplished novel to date.
Felice Picano is the author of the bestselling novel The Book of Lies.