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[652] Jack Holmes and His Friend – Edmund White

1jack

” Jack didn’t think he was a nonconformist; he simply loved Will. If he could have magically turned himself into a girl whom Will would want to marry, he’d have done it without hesitation. He’d have converted to Catholicism, become a woman, borne Will’s many children, shopped for dresses at Peck and Peck, learned to cook Rice-A-Roni— ” (Part I, 6, p.111)

As the novel’s title suggests, it’s Jack who is initially brought into sharper focus. Raised in an eccentric Midwestern family, Jack has been a bright student and chooses to study Chinese art history in college. We learn nothing about his parents although much dire history is hinted at. Moving to New York after graduating, it is at the high-end, conservative, but also snooty Northern Review that he experiences the coup de foudre that will determine the course of his life (and the book), plunging him deeply in love with the metrosexual Will Wright, a reserved, oddly handsome, and snobbish aspiring novelist who unfortunately lacks the talent.

In the early sixties, when I’d met him, I’d thought of his queerness as a deformity, a scandal, something akin to a heroin addiction or pedophilia or membership in the Communist Party. I’d liked Jack in spite of this, but since I’d known it could get him fired, I’d been determined to keep it a secret. (Part II, 4, p.268)

Will’s unassailable heterosexuality becomes the catalyzt for Jack’s emerging homosexuality—or more like libertine hedonism. Jack sleeps with other men but only sees these lovers as stand-ins, unsatisfactory substitutes for the real object of his desires. Will eventually falls in love with Jack’s close friend Alexandra, a New York heiress and beauty. It’s almost ten years later when the two friends run into each other by chance—and hither begins Will’s narrative. He is bored with the wife, his marriage falters—yet another crisis that heralds his closeness to Jack, who, acting as a bizarre kind of Pandarus, sets him up with the plump, sexually voracious Pia.

As Will indulges in the sexually and socially transgressive delights of his extramarital affair, Jack again finds himself falling in love with his friend again. But this time he’s more mature to handle it. It’s a deep relationship that has matured over the years, ripe with trust. It’s the primary friendship for them both during this period of their lives. This book, despite all the bodily indulgence and surgical details of physicality, is about friendship. White neither sentimentalizes nor overemphasizes Jack and Will’s friendship; it’s complex and filled with tension and unspoken conflict as any close relationship, but because two men speak so un-self-consciously about their bodies, their sexuality, and their preferences, they transcend it all—even in 1960s New York. The female characters fall short: debutante Alex and slutty Pia, are just cardboard cutouts with no more than convenient characteristics. The ending is also hasty and abrupt. The peculiar and persistent nature of male bonding is the the book’s great strength. But it’s obsession with physical aspects of sexuality renders it shallower than Edmund’s earlier works.

392 pp. Bloomsbury. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[376] The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris – Edmund White

” In Paris virtually every district is beautiful, alluring and full of unsuspected delights, especially those that fan out around the Seine in the first through the eighth arrondissements. This is the classic Paris, defined by the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower to the west and the Bastille and the Pantheon to the east. Everything within this magic parallelogram is worth visiting on foot . . . ” (1:17)

Paris’s twenty arrondissements start in the center of the city, where Musée du Louvre stands, and spiral out in a snail shell pattern. Since the sights in classic Paris usually top every visitor’s itinerary, Edmund White lures the reader out of the beaten path into the fascinating backstreets of his personal Paris. The book insinuates into the cracks where the forgotten places most appealing to the flâneur: an aimless, insouciant stroller who, neither burdened by rationing of time nor awash with bonnes adresses, sees all of the city stretching out under his feet.

This book is dedicated to the random wanderings of the flâneur, but his wanderings will take him more often to the strange corners of Paris than to its historic centre, to the strongholds of multiculturalism rather than to the classic headquarters of the Gallic tradition. (2:52)

Consider the whole city, at least intra muros, can be walked from one end to the other in a single day, the flâneur is at an advantage to take in all the rich details and local colors that usually escape the common tourists. A flâneur is more than observant, endowed with enormous leisure. He can wed the crowd but fortify his solitude. In fact, White hints at the necessary change of attitude in order to appreciate the flânerie, which transcends sightseeing, because such a traveler imposes a personal vision with a curious eye.

Although the metro is the fastest, most efficient and silent one in the world, with stops that are never more than five minutes’ walk from any destination, the visitor finds himself lured on by the steeple looming over the next block of houses, by the toy shop on the next corner, the row of antique stores, the shady little square. (1:38)

The Flâneur is a hybrid of memoir, history, and travel essays—the balance of personal reflections and historical facts makes it a very entertaining read. Edmund White reveals the traces left by people living in the margin—Jews, blacks, gays, and Arabs. Entering the Marais evokes the history of Jews in France, a visit to the Haynes Grill in Montmartre recalls the presence of black Americans in the City of Light for a century and a half. Paris actually became an offshore base and headquarter for some of the most important thoughts and acts concerning the increasingly volatile issue of race in America. To the black soldiers, artists, performers, and writers, there was an air of liberty, equality, and fraternity in France that doesn’t blow in the black man’s face in liberty-loving, politically correct, democratic America.

[James] Baldwin did most of his important writing in France, and during the late sixties and early seventies he was severely criticized for living abroad. He wrote one of the first gay novels of the postwar period, Giovanni’s Room, in which the two male lovers are both white, one an American, the other a Parisian bartender; in this lyrical book the verbal beauty conceals a despair about being gay and a self-hatred implicit in his exclusion of black characters—and of anyone less than beautiful. (2:86)

Also subjected to White’s scrutiny are the gays, who are not looked upon as decadent. But the French individualism, along with a corresponding scorn of identity politics (the French abhor having a label for everything and everyone), has made the country unusually vulnerable to AIDS. The Flâneur, in this regard, elucidates on many facets the curious ambiguities that manifest in an overview of French attitudes. That the nation insists on singularity, rejecting any form of ghettoization, becomes the very cause of its reluctance and reticence to recognize the gravity of the epidemic. Now that White unveiled his secret Paris, I risk of following my notes outlining these off-the-beaten-path sights. After all, it’s easy to be driven by the desire to see everything and to get from point A to point B. To be a true flâneur, one has to let go of such desire, and give in to the surprising streets, allowing the sights to settle in you. This jewel of a book will make independent travel more than rewarding. The deluge of references cited at the end is also worth reading.

211 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Flâneur & Art of Travel

The more I have delved into Edmund White’s The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, the more I am convinced that it’s the lost twin of Alan de Botton’s The Art of Travel. They also advocate for an insouciant attitude toward travel. White’s is a special treatise on the City of Light, and he is very generous with the off-the-beaten-path Paris. de Botton’s covers a wider geography.

White states that Paris is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone, for only the pace of stroller can take in all the rich, if muted, details. That can be said for almost any city, but Paris, at least intra muros, can be seen by strolling on a day. The flâneur is endowed with enormous leisure—someone who can take off a morning or afternoon for undirected ambling, since a specific itinerary or goal, bound by rationing of time, is antithetical to the true spirit of the flâneur. Other than Musée d’Orsay, I won’t adhere to a specific itinerary. Spontaneity reigns in this upcoming trip in accord to the sentiment of a flâneur. This is the reason I decide to forego the 60-museum pass because I am not driven by the urge of self-improvement. I want an experience with the romantic city, rendez-vous avec l’aléatoire. It’s great to know (from voyage précédent) that a visitor to Paris will find himself lured on by the steeple looming over the next block and the row of antique stores. I am planning to roam through unknown neighborhoods until I collapse, totally exhausted, and relax in a café with un verre de vin rouge.

In each chapter of The Art of Travel, the author dissects our motivation to depart normality and go (he quotes Baudelaire, whom Edmund White also quotes in his book) “anywhere, anywhere!” de Botton’s anecdotal accounts of his own travels illustrate the theme of each chapter, such as exoticism or escapism, showing the unexpected (but all too common) disappointments inherent in getting away. The book, which begs a re-read and I might as well do on this trip, is a philosophical guide to the budding and seasoned traveler. Where other books on the subject instruct us on where to go and what to see, Alain de Botton tells us how to approach our journeys and some useful tools on achieving a much more meaningful and rewarding experience.

Flâneur

Everything about this book is beautiful: the cute portable size, the cover art, the writing, the subject of the writing. “Flâneur” comes from the French masculine noun flâneur—which has the basic meanings of “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, “loafer”—which itself comes from the French verb flâner, which means “to stroll”. In mid-19th century, a flâneur is highly self-aware, and to a certain degree flamboyant and theatrical. A flâneur actively participates in and is fascinated with street life while displaying a critical attitude towards the uniformity, speed, and anonymity of modern life in the city.

In Edmund White’s opinionated fashion, a flâneur, who ambles through a city without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the place and in covert search of adventure, visits bookshops and boutiques, monuments and palaces, looking through the blank walls past the proud edifices to glimpse the inner human drama.

The book is really every traveler’s dream. Edmund White, who lived in Paris for sixteen years, wanders through the streets and avenues and along the quays, into parts of Paris virtually unknown to visitors and indeed to many Parisians. Through his eyes I’m on an armchair guided tour (soon to be reality) of a great city which focuses on the idiosyncrasies, particular flavor, befuddling history and ultimate addicting charm. I have devoured most of the book over lunch and almost feel no desire to return to work. This book will travel with me to Paris next month. Thank you for your recommendation. Full review shall come later.