Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Edmund White: Skinned Alive

I've just finished reading this collection of short stories by the ever-brilliant Edmund White. I did my gay growing-up on A Boys Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty and I've since covered some of his other ground too but this collection has almost taken me back to those Boy's Own Story days.

Obviously White has some beautiful and stirring turns of phrase - but any good writer can happen on a few of those in the course of a book. What I think White does in amazing way is to condense a whole world of feelings into a short space and to write about them in a matter-of-fact way with no verbal gymnastics and in a way which makes you think, 'yes, I know that's true'. It is fiction that borders on a plays with the documentary.

In the story 'Palace Days', for example, two characters are staying together in Venice. Both are HIV+ and one is very ill, certainly coming towards the end. They have been friends forever and the healthy man ponders the strange situation of the two of them being together in Venice at that time:

"He wanted to know how to enjoy these days without clasping them so tightly he'd stifle the pleasure. But he didn't want to drug himself on the moment either and miss out on what was happening to him. He was losing his best friend, the witness to his life. The skill for enjoying a familiar pleasure about to disappear was hard to acquire. It was sort of like sex. If you were just unconsciously rocking in the groove you missed the kick, but if you kept mentally shouting 'Wow!' you shot too soon. Knowing how to appreciate the rhythms of these last casual moments - to cherish them while letting them stay casual - demanded a new way of navigating time."

I don't know many authors in English who can capture such complex and difficult emotion and put it into one paragraph of simple words.

Of course, one of the other reasons for picking up this book is the cover. A photograph by Herbert List which, among a body of work that includes some very finely erotic images, must be one of the most beautiful. Herbert List is, for me forever linked in time with Edmund White in the late 1980s, a time when List's black and white work popped up all over the High Street in shops like the late, lamented Athena. Ah, those were the days....

I thought I would end this post by having a quick display of List's photos but I discover there is a surprising lack of them on the Internet in any decent size. The best collection in one place I could find was at Manfred Unger's blog but, again, none of these enlarge to any great size.


Matthew said...

I found a signed Edmund White in a second hand bookshop in Dorchester. Proof that things turn up in the most unexpected places.

Matthew said...

(As if to prove my point, the "word verification" part of your comments system just asked me to identify and type the characters "glans".)

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