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Authors: Edmund White

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The Beautiful Room Is Empty

BOOK: The Beautiful Room Is Empty
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ACCLAIM FOR
EDMUND WHITE’S

THE BEAUTIFUL ROOM IS EMPTY

“Powerful…. As [the protagonist] grows to recognize and act on his sexual impulses, we are led through a gallery of colorful characters.”

The New York Times
“Every line of this exquisitely written, cheeringly humane novel conveys its gladdening sentiments, compulsive narrative and precise wit with elegance and virtuosity.”
—Literary Review (
London)
“White’s gift for dialogue and anecdote and the melancholy elegance of his prose persuade the reader to … delve deeper inside the soul of a man whose spiritual and sexual odysseys chart the development and joyfully confirm the existence of the elusive notion of ‘gay sensibility.’ ”

Publishers Weekly
“Highly recommended. What emerges is the picture of a young man desperately struggling to come to terms with himself, a struggle that is universal even if the context for every individual is different.”
—Library Journal

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Dedication

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

About the Author

Other Books by This Author

Also by Edmund White

Copyright

To Stanley Redfern

 
 
 
 
 
“Ah! Do you have to be sensual to be human?”
“Certainly, Madame. Pity is in the guts, just as tenderness is on the skin.”
Anatole France,
The Red Lily
Sometimes I have the feeling that we’re in one room with two opposite doors and each of us holds the handle of one door, one of us flicks an eyelash and the other is already behind his door, and now the first one has but to utter a word and immediately the second one has closed his door behind him and can no longer be seen. He’s sure to open the door again for it’s a room which perhaps one cannot leave. If only the first one were not precisely like the second, if he were calm, if he would only pretend not to look at the other, if he would slowly set the room in order as though it were a room like any other; but instead he does exactly the same as the other at his door, sometimes even both are behind the doors and the beautiful room is empty.
Franz Kafka,
in a letter to Milena Jesenská
ONE

        I met Maria during my next-to-last year in prep school. She was studying painting at the art academy just across the street from my school, Eton, and she was seven years older than I, but she scarcely seemed to notice the difference. I see her even now striding along in black pants and a man’s white shirt spotted with paint, her hair slicked back behind her ears, squinting into the faint winter sunlight. She’s wearing white sneakers, also spattered with paint, a sailor’s pea coat and no makeup, although her eyebrows have been slightly plucked. She looks very scrubbed and German but also faintly glamorous; the glamour clings to her like the smell of Gitanes in wool. Is it the hard defiance in her eyes or just the slicked-back hair with its suggestion of the high-school bad girl that lends her this dangerous aura?

It’s terribly cold, snow is excitingly in the air like the promise of Christmas, we’re hurrying up the steps leading to the academy’s museum, and she has a cigarette dangling from her small blue hand purely for ornamental effect, since she doesn’t know how to inhale.

It must be Sunday because there are two middle-aged
ladies out for the day from the big ugly city nearby, bundled up in old furs and posing on the steps for a man who is swaddled in a car coat. He’s signaling the ladies to squeeze together, now he’s inviting them to smile, now he’s adjusting the focus and about to snap—when Maria sails between him and his subjects muttering to me, “Don’t worry about this guy. Believe me, he’s not exactly an artist.”

I remember that moment because it was so out of character for Maria. In the 1950s in the Midwest there were very few culture vultures, the Abstract Expressionists were still beleaguered, and those ladies and the photographer were about to go into the school museum to look at the student show and, no doubt, have a good laugh. “Is that a Ferris wheel? A nose? Or did someone just toss his cookies?” they’d ask. The real cards would wonder if the painting had been hung upside down by mistake.

Things were simpler, clearer then. On one side were the painters, a few taunted, poor, scrawny kids, and on the other the philistines, the fat-cat majority. Certainly the painters felt justified at striking back at what they called the “boor-zhwah-zee,” but Maria hated all sorts of cruelty, especially to other women and to animals. A little bit later, just a year or two later, and she’d never have insulted that Sunday photographer. She’d have said, “Who knows, maybe he’s a genius in disguise. After all, Rousseau was just a Sunday painter.” She thought some sort of second American Revolution would have to break out to equalize the wealth, but she prayed it would be bloodless.

A bearded sculptor in his early twenties named Ivan, who dutifully molded and cast big bronze insects, though he far preferred living the life of the artist to making art, had discovered me in the Eton barbershop. The art academy was side by side with the boys’ school, but the students and teachers of the two institutions never mixed, although a few
of the poorer artists worked in the Eton kitchen. The barbershop, the kitchen, the Saturday-night movies when everyone sat on folding chairs on the basketball court of the boys’ gymnasium—those were the only places where the two populations might have spoken to each other, though they never did.

I did. I spoke to Ivan. I don’t know what I said, but he invited me to his studio. He thought I was precocious for some reason; maybe he just picked up on my eagerness to gnaw off the restraints. Through him I met other painters and sculptors, including Maria.

In the long winter afternoons when the skies would turn as cold and silvery as fish scales, I’d sit in the painters’ studios and smell the espresso cooking down in nickel-coated pots on hot plates and try to find in their work what they’d secreted there. At first I’d struggle to see things, guess at what was being masked by all that fudge-thick impasto, that haze of flung drops, but I discovered very quickly how “bourgeois” my interpretations—or any interpretations—seemed to the artists. I also learned to say “painter” not “artist.”

I was so eager to please (an extension of the high-school urge to Be Popular) that after only a few hasty observations of how the painters responded to each other’s work, I’d mastered their technique. I, too, would sit on a high wood stool, itself piebald with spattered paint, and look and look without saying a word. That was the trick : say nothing, show nothing. A senile radio would be muttering to itself. The smell of oil paint and turpentine (for acrylics had not yet been introduced) stung my eyes and made my nose run. Windows climbed one wall, floor to ceiling, and through them I could see the silver-lined gray clouds boiling and descending like a deity about to abduct an extremely willing shepherd.

I looked and looked at the painting, trying to figure out what was there to be seen. Was it a sort of chess problem to
be solved, a visual riddle, or was it a cat’s cradle of tensions (I’d heard someone talking about “push” and “pull”)? Or was I being too “intellectual” (a fault, as I’d gathered)? Should I regard the painting as a spiritual X-ray, a glimpse into the painter’s unconscious ecstasy or agony? Or was it something like a football field on which conflicting teams of thoughts and feelings had skirmished and left this muddy aftermath of the action (for people spoke of “action painting”)?

The painters themselves weren’t quite sure, I realize now. After all, they were students in a provincial school and had nothing to go on beyond occasional visits to New York and perusals of stylishly inscrutable art magazines in which the celebrated genius of the moment intimidated everyone with grim whimsies (“If a bull wants to sit down in my arena, let him!” a gaunt young art widow, herself a painter, had recklessly declared).

One of the student painters I met compared his work to jazz and I dutifully looked at his canvases while listening to the newest bop, those cool blue blips and pop-eyed blasts, muted ballads or zany calisthenics. Another guy, a smilingly ironic man who seemed to be Maria’s lover, said, “It’s a dance. I mean, you know, it’s when, you know, the painter moves toward the easel, like, and that is the real painting, you see, kind of like that.”

No matter what people said or showed me, I just nodded, wisely. If I did venture an opinion, I replaced my native glibness with a slow groping after simple yet oblique words. Groping was taken as proof of sincerity.

But for me the encounter with these men and women and their efforts to explain themselves, with their proud poverty and shared solitude, gave me a view of a bohemian world in which people pursued goals that my father would have despised if he’d ever heard of them. After the stolidity
of my childhood—the affluent Midwest of new Cadillacs, Negro maids, and wineless six-o’clock dinners—the sheer effrontery of these painters staying up all night and stretching canvas tight as drumheads, then thumping them with brushes, crayons, charcoal, finally smearing the whole mess away with rags—that thrilled my timid heart. “Common sense” was the name my father and his friends gave their smugness. They worked long hours, saved their money, minded their own business, and furnished their big houses with wall-to-wall carpeting and heavy, store-bought furniture. The sheer weight of their breakfronts and breakfasts, of their wool suits and wooly ideas kept them safely earthbound. But here were these kids, also Midwesterners, who’d left their Wisconsin dairy farms or Indiana milltowns and the chance to take up solid jobs with a future, in order to come here, to puzzle over French novels, listen to Gregorian chants, cut their own hair, work menial jobs, and stab and daub all night at scary, childlike paintings.

During that first Michigan winter, I scarcely knew Maria. She crept up on me like the sun, at first just a silvering of the hard pond, a gleam shot through icicles, but at last a patch of blue quarried out of gray cloud.

Ivan, the sculptor who’d discovered me, gave me a weird surrealist book to read,
The Songs of Maldoror
by the Count of Lautréamont. I remember I was most impressed by the biographical note that said the author had been not a count at all but a penniless Uruguayan who’d committed suicide in Paris at the age of twenty-four in 1870. I’d sit in Ivan’s studio and read to him from this upsetting book about a long talking hair from a whore’s head or a man who’d coupled in the sea with a shark. I remember a line that said, “I’m like a dog with its love for the infinite.”

Ivan had a bushy, black beard but baby-smooth forearms and chest. He was short, stocky, friendly. Even in the
coldest weather he wore nothing but a blue denim jacket, a red wool scarf, and a leather hat—not a cap but a proper hat fashioned out of rain-stained leather. He smoked sweet, cheap tobacco in a pipe that dipped and then curved up like a pipe under the sink. He liked red wine from gallon jugs and he drank it out of paper cups. And he liked
Maldoror
—so much, indeed, that he felt no need to seek another book. It was his book, as the Bible was his father’s. I’d read it out loud and he’d sip wine from his cup and laugh, showing big white teeth outlined with tobacco stain; particularly good passages would cause him to drum the arms of his chair, hiss, and bounce up and down with the sort of bloodthirsty glee more usual in wrestling fans than readers. He never talked about women, although I gathered he was sunnily sexual with several of them.

Through him I met Paul, my first genius. He was a tall scarecrow leaking straw, the pale, uneven sheaves of his hair. His glasses were round, black, an anarchist’s glasses, but his eyes were those of a nihilist without a program. He was the best painter at the school. Everyone, even the teachers, nervously acknowledged his superiority, and that distinction hovered around him, except Paul was indifferent to it. When I say he was a nihilist, I mean only at the core; on the surface he was scrupulously attentive to every detail, especially if it concerned someone else. He was so little at home in the world that each of its rituals (shaking hands, buttoning a coat, taking a step) required his concentration. He showed a minute interest in other people, tried to understand what they were up to, and the effect was strange, even comical, for his intelligence was so great that it attributed seriousness and ingenuity to whatever it studied—often more than was, in fact, there, so that when he cautiously discussed Ivan’s bronze insects, they climbed a rung up the evolutionary ladder. Ivan would grin and nod and drum the chair arms with pleasure.
Since Ivan believed the best art was the least conscious, it didn’t distress him that he’d never considered any of the intentions Paul ascribed to him.

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