Review: Hotel de Dream by Edmund White
Published by Bloomsbury
Reviewed by Gregory Woods
Some of this may have been my fault. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle (June 19, 2004), Colm Tóibín said it was a reading of my History of Gay Literature (Yale University Press, 1998)—which he had been asked to review in the London Review of Books—that led him back to Henry James: ‘James loomed quite large in that book, and I had to go back and look up things about his sexuality and how it was both concealed and disclosed in his novels’. The eventual consequence, for which I cannot sensibly claim any credit, was Tóibín’s wonderful novel The Master (2004).
When I first heard of White’s new novel I egotistically wondered whether something similar had happened with White and Stephen Crane, a friend of James’s. After all, I had ended one of the chapters of my History by conjuring up a book combining the virtues of his prostitution novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and his Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) to express how much had been lost when Crane abandoned his ‘gay’ novel. The story is told that he did write forty or so pages of such a narrative, but then destroyed it on the advice of Hamlin Garland and other friends. I am not seriously suggesting that my book, which he has probably not read, gave White the idea for his; but he is answering questions many of us have independently asked on hearing of the phantom Crane book. Like the rest of us, White has asked himself what such a book would have been like, and why its author would have embarked on it in the first place. In his ‘Postface’ to Hotel de Dream he asks, ‘How would a heterosexual man who had wide human sympathies, an affection for prostitutes, a keen, compassionate curiosity about the poor and downtrodden, a terminal disease—how would such a man have responded to male homosexuality if he was confronted with it? How would he have thought about it in an era when homosexuals themselves were groping for explanations of their proclivities?’ (pp.225-226).
White imagines Crane deciding to reassemble the story Garland persuaded him to destroy. Hotel de Dream is delivered in three parallel narratives: that of Crane himself, close to tubercular death, being tenderly conducted across Europe to a sanatorium in the Black Forest by his beloved not-wife Cora, retired whore and brothel madam; that of a boy Crane once encountered in the streets of Manhattan, who wore make-up, sold himself to older men, and inspired Crane to attempt to tell the story of a relationship between such a boy and such a man; and the third, Crane’s novel itself, entitled The Painted Boy. In this, Theodore, a respectable, married banker with no form in such matters, is so taken with a boy he meets in the street that he sets him up in a rented room, has a nude figure of him sculpted, and, ultimately, sacrifices job and family to his evanescent charms.
The main bulk of White’s book alternates Crane’s journey towards his own demise with Theodore’s pathetic decline into social non-existence. By comparison with Theodore’s loss of his lover, job and family, Crane’s loss of life is a relative cheerful affair. White has diligently researched what Crane would have had to research, and provides us with atmospheric and persuasive glimpses of late nineteenth-century gay Manhattan. That Crane knows he is in his final illness, and that he is dictating this novel to a woman who used to be a brothel-keeper, allows White to make The Painted Boy explicit to an extent that would otherwise have been implausible. Crane has nothing left to lose, so not only can he compose what he refers to as his ‘boy-whore book’ (p.9), but he can include thoughtful details on penis size and other matters that look somewhat more Whiteish than Craneish.
Henry James and Stephen Crane
One of White’s early books, co-authored with Charles Silverstein, was The Joy of Gay Sex (1977), in its day a daring and ground-breaking work of celebration, its title recalling not only its heterosexual counterpart by Alex Comfort (1972) but also the 1957 obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the most shocking line of which was taken to be ‘who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy’–its most shocking word being not ‘fucked’ but ‘joy’. While never pretending that sex is untroubled, White has always argued, even when the odds seemed against it, that it could be both copiously entertaining and the source of deep personal fulfilment.
In States of Desire (1980), his remarkable travelogue through gay liberationist and anti-gay America just before the outbreak of AIDS, he wrote: ‘My ideal reader, at least when I write fiction, is a cultivated heterosexual woman in her sixties who knows English perfectly but is not an American’. It was for her sake—or rather, for the sake of his own grip on her attention—that he hoped his books would not be consigned to the gay sections of book shops. She accounted for certain over-refined aspects of his first couple of novels, not least their aesthetic preciousness. Only by turning his attention to another type of reader would he be able to achieve his most striking effects.
The critical commonplace of those days—still not entirely discredited today—was that the liberation of homosexuality was destroying the literature of homosexuality, because what had once been so satisfyingly hidden away in discreet metaphor and expedient obliqueness was now becoming brazen and unapologetic. Where once there had been Proust, there were now writers like Genet and Burroughs. It is an odd rule if you apply it to anything else (American literature would be so much better if it never mentioned America…) and its proponents tended to rely on forgetting that Proust had actually treated the topic in a straightforwardly explicit manner. In a 1980 essay, ‘The Political Vocabulary of Homosexuality’, White argued that, on the contrary, ‘liberation should free gays from tediously repetitious works that end in madness or suicide, that dwell on the “etiology” of the characters’ homosexuality (shadowy Dad, suffocating Mum, beloved, doomed, effeminate Cousin Bill) and that feature long, static scenes in which Roger gently weeps over Hank’s mislaid hiking boot’. Far from hobbling gay writers, the release from (self-) censorship would allow them the freedom to stretch the boundaries of their work. The implicit aim was a point at which it would seem no more limiting to call someone a ‘gay writer’ than to call him an ‘American writer’.
White saw that he belonged to a generation of gay writers who, because they could be open about their sexuality, might actually address gay readers in their own language, using the conventions and assumptions of their own subcultures. They would write about gay life without explaining it to a judgemental, non-gay audience; and they would avoid the language of statute books and medical directories. Where possible, they would be positive about homosexuality, but they would not dogmatically cover up the negatives. If they wrote well, it might even be possible to overcome the indifference or overt hostility of the non-gay reader, yet to do so without apology and without compromising on gay subject-matter. (No more swapping of the genders of pronouns, for instance, and no more speaking of mere friendship when love or physical desire were meant.) As White put it in a 1993 speech, ‘I decided to work on the principle behind the New Yorker that pretends all readers are Manhattanites, a policy that flatters even Iowans’.
That has been White’s great achievement. No writer of his generation has done more to shape a viable future for the gay novel beyond pornography, yet he has done so without airbrushing out sexual detail, whether pretty or ugly. His reputation rests on the trilogy of autobiographical ‘gay novels’, A Boy’s Own Story (1982), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) and The Farewell Symphony (1997), plus the later continuation of his own life story, A Married Man. All the rest of his books are offshoots and byways, albeit impressive ones. For many years he has been the most interesting, adventurous and ambitious of the American gay novelists. Not for him the aimless dispensing of camp froth that has waylaid so many gay writers; nor for him endless variations on the teenage coming-out story. He has far more to say about humanity’s queernesses than most of his colleagues herded together. Like Proust and Isherwood before him he has made fiction and even myth out of the quotidian materials of his own life; like Genet, of whom he has written the authoritative biography, he has transmuted his deepest degradations into a life-affirming poetry. Although he works in a discernibly gay tradition, his preoccupations with love and loss cannot rationally be regarded as any less ‘universal’ than the rampant heterosexualism of an Updike or a Roth.
In The Farewell Symphony, White examines the first years of gay liberation in New York City, and their legendary sexual excesses, with both enthusiasm and scepticism. Since the book is the third of a trilogy, he is able to look back on his (narrator’s) life and evaluate his changing impressions as representative of major social changes for American gay men in general. Whereas in the 1950s he had thought he was the only one, by the 1960s he had come to believe that everyone was one. In the previous decade, people had laughed at the idea of homosexual rights as if at that of safe-crackers’ rights; now they were part of a coherent political platform. And yet, he claims, the only rights gay men really wanted to protect were sexual—above all, quantitative. (‘Even “love” was a suspect word, smelling of the bidet’—by which I think he means women.) In those days before gay marriage and partnership rights, he says, gay men had sex first and then, over conversation, decided whether they could become friends. He and others of his generation imagined that the couple could be replaced by a more general festival of Whitmanly adhesiveness. Yet he keeps insisting, reasonably, that anonymity does not preclude intimacy; indeed, he avers that the most romantic experience he ever had was with a stranger.
Then, of course, everything changed. The last chapter of The Farewell Symphony begins with the sentence ‘Somebody at my gym became ill’. The catastrophe of AIDS begins and the players start to leave the stage. As if summarising the changing moods of the trilogy as a whole, the narrator speaks of gay men as having been ‘oppressed in the fifties, freed in the sixties, exalted in the seventies and wiped out in the eighties’.
It is to White’s great credit that, notwithstanding his productive vanity—always readily acknowledged by him with wry irony—he exposes his own faults with exhibitionistic flair, anal warts and all. The narrator of his trilogy is no sexless observer, as Proust’s Marcel and Isherwood’s Christopher so often seem to be. On the contrary, he commits some terrible sins (if I can borrow a concept from an alien cosmology). Of these, perhaps the worst is when the HIV-positive narrator of The Farewell Symphony rapes a young rent boy without using a condom.
Reviewing A Boy’s Own Story in the TLS (19 August 1983), Alan Hollinghurst ridiculed White’s more extravagant metaphors, associating them with ‘the forced and yet strangely complacent diction of queens’. Such expressions as ‘the terrible, decaying Camembert of my heart’ reduced him to fits of hilarity. Such eccentricities of expression have proliferated over the years, but now, in order to sound a bit like Stephen Crane—who was a precursor to Hemingway, writing in visual images and respecting masculine inarticulacy—White has reined in his wilder excesses. Even so, there are moments when the language of the book falters. Crane would not have used the word ‘sex’ to mean sexual activity (p.8), and it is extremely unlikely that he would have spoken of sharing accommodation ‘with five other male friends’ (p.28)’, rather than just with five friends, their maleness being taken for granted. Although White takes care to point out that some of Cora’s diction is learnt from her lover (‘philtrum’, for instance), there are times when she waxes unconvincingly literate, as when she is thinking of Henry James: ‘all he did was write and contemplate life as obscured by the prismatic interference of the mirrors in her mind’ (p.41). Theodore sometimes seems to know too much about his era in Manhattan. This is a side-effect of White’s trying to keep his readers abreast of late nineteenth-century detail, rather than of any such need on Crane’s part. Although White is aware that this might be a problem—at one point another character has to intervene in Theodore’s information-giving, saying ‘Yes, I know … I, too, read the papers’ (p.181)—he apparently has not felt the need to solve it. At other times, for similar reasons, White includes for our sake a detail that would, for Crane’s readers, have been a statement of the obvious, as when Theodore speaks of ‘The United States, all forty-four of them’ (p.171).
White is rather more sentimentally sympathetic to the foolish Theodore than one would have expected of Crane. In the end, though, his portrayal of Crane is scrupulously respectful, and his attempt to construe Crane’s writing, in terms of both his general style and the specific substance of The Painted Boy, is an impressive tribute. One cannot say the same about his portrayal of Henry James. When Crane dies, his boy-whore book unfinished, Cora sends the only manuscript to James, hoping that he will sympathetically fill in its gaps and try to get it published. But it shocks him and he destroys it. Thus, Hotel de Dream begins and ends with the two burnings of The Painted Boy, Garland’s and James’s. There have been other, minor holocausts in between: thinking it a veiled attack on herself, Cora burns a published short story that Henry James has dedicated to Crane; Theodore destroys the report that a detective compiles for him when he jealously has Elliott followed. Then, when he is stolen from Theodore by a pretty stereotypical Mafioso, Elliott gets a lot more than his fingers burnt. It is as if White is both celebrating and deploring a period when the written word was revered to the extent of being routinely erased for its tendency to scandalise. None of his own career could have happened in Henry James’s lifetime—unless he had adopted Jamesian strategies of indirection and obfuscation. Yet he seems to be blaming James for having submitted to and colluded in such anti-literary social pressures.
Although without the preaching, there is something implicitly preachy about this ending. It conveys a (what?) post-Freudian? post-Kinsey? post-Stonewall? dogmatic attitude to telling the truth about sex—and telling it straight, not slant. We see James almost entirely from Cora’s point of view, and she does not like him. Not only does she think him as ‘queer as a football bat’ (p.38) but she believes he can approximate Crane’s ‘throbbing’ masculinity ‘only through a eunuch’s sly attitudinizing’ (pp.42-43). He emerges as a flaccid monster of inhibition. What is lacking is much sense of why he does what he does—other than because he was a closeted celibate who should have known better. Aimed at the master of the nuance by a writer who is himself mighty respectful of nuance, this makes little sense. White has James acting on a decisive opinion not so much about literature as about propriety. If this leaves James looking mean-spirited, it has a similar effect on White himself. There is something dispiriting about this attack—from such a great distance—on the author of The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl. It is not much fairer than manuscript-burning itself.
Gregory Woods is Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. His critical books include Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry (1987) and A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (1998), both from Yale University Press. His poetry books are published by Carcanet Press. His website is www.gregorywoods.co.uk