Every year or so I dutifully find myself undertaking yet another Edmund White novel, even though I’m well aware it will likely prove to be a frustrating experience for me. What exactly compels this constant return? Mostly because I’m compelled by the manner in which White’s distinctive form of “autofiction” revels in the minute observations that capture the particularities of lived life. His writing is structured by a principle of accumulation as he amasses vast catalogs of the little things—habits and objects and sounds and garments and slang words and bodies— that are individually experienced but in retrospect seem to become so many synecdoches standing in for an entire era. Thus when White writes that “no single song was long enough to sustain our drug-induced frenzy so the disc-jockey often went from one record to an identical cut in another copy of the same record, thereby doubling our pleasure,” he records the kind of vivid offhand details that are usually forgotten yet capture the unique texture of a particular moment in time.
White explicitly makes this an integral aspect of his autofiction. In a passage toward the end of The Farewell Symphony that deeply resonated with me, the novel’s unnamed narrator admits that “official history—elections, battles, legal reforms—didn’t interest” him, and that he “didn’t want to be a historian but rather an archaeologist of gossip.” Major historical and cultural events commence at the peripheries of the narrative, but always seem to remain just out of sight, shifting emphasis instead upon interactions between intimates and friend groups and larger social communities, carefully enumerating all the private little stories and jokes we tell and retell to each other.
And yet such sumptuousness of details can become too decadent, even overindulgent—I always reach a point, usually around the ¾ mark, when it feels like everything really should have been wrapped up already (it makes me empathize with the enervated partygoers in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, compelled to linger long after the fête has reached its end). Endless aggregation of detail, even when meticulously managed, inevitably comes at the cost of narrative momentum, and a sense of inertia and stasis sets in. Which is strange effect, considering how The Farewell Symphony is crammed with so much activity.
At the same time I appreciate how the unnamed narrator allows space for other individuals and personalities to temporarily “take over” the narrative for stretches, brandishing it for their own purposes. Like so many specters summoned via memory’s ability of conjuration, the novel often evokes something closer to a memoir of a community than an individual, and each lovingly-crafted portrait becomes a kind of (futile) attempt at keeping their eventual loss at abeyance.
The novel, in the end, fashions itself into a lamentation for an entire generation of gay men that was quickly and brutally decimated by the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s. In the novel’s closing pages White alludes to Haydn’s Symphony No. 45—more commonly known as “The Farewell Symphony”—a piece famous for its unorthodox conclusion that entails musicians to “get up [and] leave the stage” one by one “blowing out their candles as they go.” “In the end,” he explains, “just one violinist is playing.” It turns out to be a remarkably poignant metaphor for the final third of the novel, when most of the vivid presences who had been wandering in and out of the narrative unexpectedly fall sick and pass away with a shocking, almost surreal celerity. But like Haydn, White opts for quiet exits, with the deaths of even the most significant characters announced in passing statements. Such a tactic might be accused of sidestepping the devastating gravity of the situation, but the effect ultimately effectively conveys the heavy weight of absence. And in the end it is White himself who is left alone on the stage, playing wistfully until, finally, all lapses into silence.
[My thoughts on White’s memoir Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (2014) can be found here.]
White, Edmund. The Farewell Symphony. New York City: Vintage, 1998. Print.