Excerpted from The Married Man by Edmund White. Copyright © 2001 by Edmund White. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A: Conversation with Edmund White, author of THE MARRIED MAN
Q: You have long been considered one of our finest fiction writers as well as our pre-eminent American gay novelist. Has becoming a cultural icon in the literary world changed things for you in any way -- perhaps informing the topics you choose to write about?
A: Well, thanks for the compliments first of all. I love writing about gay life because it still feels so uncharted. Every time a writer tackles a new subject, there's an energy bristling off the page. But of course I also like to tackle other subjects -- and my very next novel will be a historical novel, a portrait of a 19th-century female radical.
Q: The Married Man is a departure from your previous fiction (especially the trilogy A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty and The Farewell Symphony) in that, you've shifted from first to the third person. What was the significance of this shift?
A: I wanted to underline the difference between The Married Man and the trilogy, and one way to do it was to shift from the first-person to the third. I greatly enjoyed creating a portrait loosely based on myself -- with all my foibles, some of them even exaggerated for comic effect. The relationship with the reader is different when you write about yourself in the third-person. Whereas everything you say in the first-person is regarded as a sort of confession or self-justification, an apologia pro vita sua, once you switch to the third-person no reader imagines you're attempting to justify the character's behavior. The reader accepts the portrait as something objective -- which is a great relief. In fact, I look at myself as a comic character in someone else's book -- and the third-person approximates that experience.
Q: While the story locale shifts from France and Venice to Providence, Key West, and even Morocco, it primarily takes place in Paris, where the main character lives and where you actually lived for 16 years. What is it about Paris that fascinates you in life and in fiction?
A: Initially I just went to Paris for a year, and on arrival I met an expatriate woman who told me, "I, too, thought I'd stay just a year -- and now it's twenty." I'd gone when I was 43 and at that time in one's life one can either settle in and keep doing the same things, or one can change everything radically. I loved giving up teaching and becoming a student, learning a new language (though it was often frustrating), reading a whole new contemporary literature -- and especially discovering values and attitudes that challenged American views. I like Henry James' "international theme," which still strikes me as fertile material. Now I don't feel either all-American or all-French -- and that outsider status is useful to a novelist, especially a novelist of manners.
Q: Now that you live in the States again, are there things about life in France that you miss? Conversely, have you gained any newfound appreciations for American culture?
A: I never disliked America nor left it for political reasons or as a protest of any sort. I did gain an appreciation of France and the French (who are the most loyal friends and in fact practice a cult of friendship). I'm appalled by the routine anti-French sentiments expressed in America, especially stories of Parisian rudeness which are just part of urban folklore, impervious to experience. It's a form of racism, really. I miss French food, the rapidity and lightness of French conversation, French discretion, the rigor of French intellectual style, the shrugging French sophistication about sexual peccadilloes.
Q: Early in your new novel, the main character, Austin, throws a dinner party for all his young French friends, who are mostly gay men and straight women. Do you see these two groups as a happy alliance of sensibility?
A: Both groups are focused on men, so there's a natural point of alliance, and both know what it's like to be second-rate citizens. And both are well-versed in the arts of seduction. Both have been sex objects (if they're lucky) and fear the end of personal attractiveness. Both have had to come up against that big immovable object, the male ego.
Q: While The Married Man is an often funny love story between an older American and a younger Frenchman, it's also quite heart-wrenchingly sad when AIDS enters the picture. You've seen many friends and lovers die and you've lived with an HIV-positive status for 15 years. Was it difficult for you to write about this?
A: I had no choice. I lived through such painful experiences with my real French lover who, like the character in my book, died in Morocco. I was so haunted by those memories -- and simultaneously so afraid of forgetting a single detail through the natural amnesia of grief and time -- that I felt driven to get it all down. But yes, it was painful -- far more painful than cathartic.
Q: Do you think of other gay men as the primary audience for your book?
A: Not at all. AIDS is something that has affected virtually everyone, and the conclusion of the book, I hope, is a realistic, unsentimental look at how people live through -- and sometimes die from -- the disease.
More important, I decided to downplay the explicit sexuality of my earlier books in order to open this one up to the general reader. Many of the characters are themselves heterosexual; the basic situations are easy for anyone to identify with; and there's a lot of humor and irony and cross-cultural satire designed to appeal to any educated reader.
Q: In the novel, Julien is married but separated -- bisexual, but ardent in his devotion to Austin. And yet the conflict of interest doesn't appear to bother Austin as much as he finds it mysteriously intriguing. Why?
A: Maybe that French discretion and sexual sophistication I mentioned earlier rubbed off on my expatriate, Austin. I think that older gay men are rejected by the ordinary gay community, if not as friends at least as partners, so older men (like Austin, or me) learn to look for love in strange places and not demand that things be ideal.
Q: Even though you see homosexuality as a way of challenging convention, the feel of The Married Man is one of traditional storytelling. How do you resolve this apparent contradiction?
A: In The Farewell Symphony I think I blurred the line between autobiography and novel and rejected the tight-knit plot in order to convey in a modern picaresque the centifugal nature of gay life. In that book, in other words, I rejected novelistic conventions, so suited to heterosexual life, in favor of a bigger, more open and inclusive form, more appropriate to the anthological side of urban gay experience in the 1970s, the main period of action.
But in The Married Man, starting with the title, I've tried to write a novel not of cruising and tricking but about a single relationship. I no longer turned to an open form but to a closed one that observes the unities of character and situation if not of place or time. I thought the most dramatic way to present my subject would be within the confines of the traditional novel. To be sure, there are games in the book -- especially the way the light, anecdotal tone of the beginning in no way prepares the reader for the tragedy to come. These are games involving the contract with the reader rather than the form of the fiction.
Q: Generally speaking, what do you think of gay marriages?
A: I'm all for the fight for equality in marriage because the sanctity of marriage (as a religious rite but also as an economic and legal institution) is the last bastion of heterosexual privilege.
Gays will never be equal until they are equal under the law. In addition, marriage enables gays to leave their property to their partners, to share health benefits, to adopt as a couple -- all important concerns, especially in a world in which many men died young, because of AIDS. I've seen gay guys thrown out of their homes after the death of a partner; they were disenfranchised by the family of the deceased, who often combine homophobia with basic greed. I've seen gay men who've adopted a child as a single parent -- then died and not been able to transfer the custody to their surviving partner.
Having said all that, I myself would never want to marry. I think gays should reinvent social institutions, not imitate the existing, faulty ones -- but that's another long story.