Byline: Kevin West

1,001 Nights With Edmund White

NEW YORK — So what exactly is Edmund White’s new book, “The Farewell Symphony,” published this week? It’s a chronicle of the life of a young writer remarkably like White, who makes his way through the sex clubs and literary salons of gay society in the Seventies and early Eighties. Billed as a novel by the publisher, Knopf, it reads like a memoir — albeit one varnished with fiction.
“This is one of the most fertile grounds of confusion,” suggests the author, on a visit to New York from Paris, where he has lived since 1983. “The French call it auto-fiction — and it’s not about cars. Proust probably started all this. In 1,000 pages, or 5,000 pages, he never calls himself Marcel.”
Sitting in the Knopf offices, surrounded by hundreds of first editions in need of an autograph, White is talkative and plump and amiable, like the best-loved professor on campus. He will, in fact, be teaching creative writing at Princeton in the spring and sometimes considers returning to his home state of Texas to teach in Austin. He’s comfortable with an audience, spinning out engagingly long-winded answers.
“What I like is that everyone grants a writer the right to write his own story,” he says, still considering the question of what genre book he has written. Yet even he admits that a memoir recalling the details of conversations and events occurring many years before strains the author’s credibility — and the reader’s patience. How could he remember all that, the reader is bound to wonder.
“Auto-fiction has the prestige of autobiography and the freedom of fiction,” White explains. “You can use novelistic techniques to create drama.” He suggests that James Salter’s current memoir, “Burning the Days,” is a good example of what he hopes to avoid.
“It’s slightly dull,” White confides, “and Salter is a very good novelist. If he’d called it an auto-fiction, he could have spruced it up.”
In truth, though, asking whether “The Farewell Symphony” is fish or fowl is an academic exercise. The booksellers already have made shelf space for it.
White’s newest completes a novelistic trilogy that includes “A Boy’s Own Story” and “The Beautiful Room Is Empty” — two classics of “gay fiction.” In fact, one could almost say the appellation “gay fiction” was invented to accommodate his writing.
“If anybody’s ever benefited from that category, it’s me,” White acknowledges with a grin. (These days, he sells a lot of books, especially in England.)
“The Farewell Symphony” was enthusiastically reviewed in England when it came out this spring. Early reviews in the States have been mixed, and some critics contend the “The Farewell Symphony” doesn’t live up to White’s previous work. If the writing is sometimes pedestrian and the endless erotic feats sometimes seem like a catalog, the author admits to writing under pressure.
“In some places, it does feel very rushed,” he admits. “I’ve been HIV-positive since ’85 without getting sick, but when I began this book [in 1992], I figured my luck couldn’t hold out.”
After all, the novel is a sort of chronicle of recent gay history — the exuberant liberation of the Seventies, followed by the devastating losses to AIDS in the early Eighties.
It takes its title from Hadyn’s “Farewell Symphony,” in which the score for the last movement instructs members of the orchestra to exit the stage, one by one, until finally only the first violinist remains. As a surviving voice, White says, he feels a responsibility to memorialize the dead — but not with a dirge.
“It’s full of humor and sex and vitality,” he says. “Really, it’s more about the Seventies than Eighties, even if it is framed by the dark specter of AIDS.”
Various commentators have delighted in “unmasking” the thinly veiled characters who populate White’s novel: The character Eddie is James Merrill; Homer is Virgil Thomson and Max is Richard Howard. Other figures, such as French philosopher Michel Foucault, appear as themselves.
The many characters based on White’s surviving friends must like their fictionalized selves because, so far, White hasn’t heard a peep out of those who have a role, or at least a cameo, in “The Farewell Symphony.”
“Thankfully, there’s been only deafening silence,” he says. “I guess I’ll be hearing from their lawyers.”

Lee Holmes Jumps on the ‘Bandwagon’

NEW YORK — “The music was the epicenter of the film,” says newcomer Lee Holmes, who is now on-screen in his first feature role, playing an appealing neurotic named Tony in “Bandwagon.” “It’s like another character.”
“Bandwagon” is about an indie-rock quartet on the North Carolina music scene. With big hopes of stardom spurring them on, they pile into a rusted van — bought with stolen marijuana — and go on tour.
Tony is the first among equals in the band. He’s the singer-songwriter-guitarist-front man for Circus Monkey, but is so shy that he practices in a closet and can’t face an audience.
“They say dreamers are the architects of the future, and Tony’s a dreamer,” says Holmes. “He’s definitely building something. If there were a ‘Bandwagon II,’ he would have become a very different character.”
Holmes boned up for his role by hanging out in bars in Raleigh, N.C.
“Everyone you meet’s in a band,” he says. “When you look at your own group of friends, there’s a certain rhythm between them. In Raleigh, they take those rhythms and decide to form a band.” Additional authentic touches came from the movie’s art director, who once played in a band called “Tinsel.” The credit for Tony’s crazy hair, though, has to go to Holmes.
“That’s bed-head, man,” he says. “You don’t invent something like that.”

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