Saturday, April 12, 2008

White Hotel

Edmund White has been one of my favorite authors for many years. I usually read his work, though I admit I didn't make it through his comprehensive biography of Genet. But his books A Boy's Own Story and A Married Man stand out for me. Though it's been years since I read them--the essence remains: literary fiction about memory, with rich description and a sharp sense of place. I met White at a book signing once and asked him about the literary scandal between David Leavitt and Stephen Spender. He was quite jovial and willing to gossip for a few minutes telling me that both David Leavitt and Stephen Spender (who was to die just a year later and was already ancient at the time of the scandal) had called him asking for advice.

Interviews with White
reveal him to be very accessible, campy, forthright, sexually progressive, and outspoken. He is one of the most celebrated "gay" novelists of his generation (he talks a lot about whether this moniker is appropriate), and he currently teaches fiction at Princeton.

Hotel De Dream is his most current book, though in 2007 he also published two more, a memoir and book of short stories. I picked this up when I was in New York this spring and was delighted that it had so much New York history and took place very near Union Square which is where I was staying.

It's a story within a story, and like Leavitt's book mentioned above, this one takes liberties with a literary figure, Stephen Crane. (And he throws in some delightful imaginary cameos with Joseph Conrad and Henry James, too.)

The premise is that while American author Stephen Crane was on his deathbed, he was dictating a manuscript to his (common-law) wife. The manuscript was about a boy prostitute that Crane had met during his walkabouts of the city where he was wont to encounter and document all kinds of street life. Crane was famous first as a gritty journalist and also as a novelist. He is credited for bringing a sort of gritty realism to American fiction, sort of pre-dating Upton Sinclair who would create fiction as agitprop naturalism--man against cruel society. If you read Maggie: A Girl of the Streets or The Jungle in college, it was probably in sociology. These are kind of like novels as investigative journalism, and they were profoundly influential at the time and The Jungle at least had some influence on public health policy.

I keep digressing. I really just want to say that this book is really a fun read, because there are three stories--the fictionalized account of Crane dying and his odd attachment to the boy prostitute he is writing about, the story of the boy himself, and his journey from upstate New York farmland into a seedy but fascinating underground world of turn-of-the-century New York City prostitution, and finally the story of the manuscript itself, which ostensibly was called "The Painted Boy." It's unclear if it ever really existed. There's a great Postface to the book where White says the whole thing is "my fantasia on real themes provided by history." It's interesting to note that Crane's common-law wife Cora Taylor was a former brothal madam. It's not hard to imagine that this subject matter captured his imagination.

This book really stayed with me and made me want to read more Crane. And White. Postmodern fiction is such a fun blend of the real and the imagined, and the imagined real. This book's structure is a delight and it's a good yarn too.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Story of the Story of the Night

One of the best parts of vacations is that you get caught up on reading. There is something infinitely more satisfying about reading a book in a day or two versus spreading it out over weeks, catching a chapter here or there before sleep or during American Idol commercials (as if I didn't have TiVo. Hah!).

Anyway, I recently traveled to Patagonia, Argentina, and then to Buenos Aires. Two days before I left I had a marvelously synchronistic experience. I mentioned to my Irish colleague and friend Annie Galvin that I recently had occasion to dine with my favorite author Colm Toibin, wondering if she knew of him since Annie is a poet, also Irish. She said of course that he was one of her favorites, and she asked if I had read The Story of the Night, his book set in Buenos Aires. Well, I had no idea that he had written a book set in Buenos Aires and it seemed like the perfect book to take along, so I did.

The book starts out sad, and I almost put it aside, thinking that it might not be the right book for vacation. It was the subject matter that was bringing me down: another gay novel with a closeted narrator, a young English tutor, no less, having only covert sexual liaisons and falling in love with his star pupil. But the book morphs quickly from that familiar plot. Soon the narrator meets some American diplomats (CIA?) and starts a new life as sort of translator/fixer for American businessmen who are swooping in on Argentina in the 80's to start privatizing the industry there. You learn a bit about modern Argentinian history (Peronism, the disappeared activists from the Dirty War).

A note about the style. I don't think I've ever read a book with such carefully controlled sentences and precision, or rather, a book in which the tone is so even. It's a true case of form following function, since Toibin is using the actual sentence structure to say something at once about the repressed nature of the Argentinian culture, the personality of the narrator who is outwardly stoic, and the nature of translation in a secret society. The sentences are uniformly simple and declarative, but with a tension and subtext galore--like every sentence is hiding a deeper meaning. So it reads like an espionage novel a bit, though the main movement is personal and intensely romantic in the best sense--true love found in the most unlikely of situations.

As I said, it starts out sad, and truthfully (and I don't think this is a spoiler) it ends somewhat sad too. But it's a rich kind of sad, a satisfying journey. Take this book on vacation or take it to the park--it's a worthwhile read.