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The Beautiful Room Is Empty – Edmund White

April 14, 2016

TBRIE 3The title comes from a letter by Franz Kafka about the inability of two like-minded people to make contact.

Semi-autobiographical, following “A Boy’s Own Story”, it’s the 1950s, and America is “a big gray country of families on drowsy holiday.” That country has no room for a scholarly teenager with guilty but insatiable stirrings toward other men. Moving from a Midwestern college to the Stonewall Tavern on the night of the first gay uprising and populated by eloquent queens, butch poseurs, and a fearfully incompetent shrink. Throughout most of his story, he has gone to one therapist or another to ”cure” himself of homosexuality.

Moving from the Midwest to New York, he leads a life that revolves around the pursuit of sexual obsession and his burgeoning intellectual relationships: with Maria, a painter and political activist whose bohemianism shields an ambiguous sexuality; and Lou, addict, advertising copywriter, and compelling guru of sensuality. Student life, journalism, literature, art, the oppression of psychoanalysis, and the birth of gay liberation all contribute to this relentlessly paced and poetically imagined testament to an epoch of change.

This book conflates the acts of coming out and coming of age.


‘It felt, at least to me, like a big gray country of families on drowsy holiday, all stuffed in one oversized car and discussing the mileage they were getting and the next restroom stop they’d be making, a country where no one else was like me – or worse, where there was no question of talking about the self and its discontent, isolation, self-hatred, and burning ambition for sex and power.”

“Because a novel  is a shared experience, a clumsy but sometimes funny conversation between two people in which one of them is doing all the talking, it will always be tighter and more luminous than that object called living. There is something so insipid about living that to do it at all requires heroism or stupidity, probably both. Living is all those days and years, the rushes; memory edits them; this page is the final print, music added. But for an instant imagine the process reversed, go with me back through the years, then be me, me all alone as I submit to the weight, the atomospheric pressure of youth, for when I was young I was exhausted by always bumping up against this big lummox I didn’t really know, myself.”

“Until now I’d never had any anxiety about performance [in bed] because I hadn’t realized I was on stage.”

“It didn’t occur to me that this shockingly intense pleasure could be sought after.”

“A gay restaurant? The suggestion that gay men might want to enjoy one another’s company astounded me.”

“Knowledge and intelligence” are not the same. “I wasn’t worldly enough to understand that a friendship can flourish only if watered by tact and pruned by diplomatic silences. With a friend we recognize bounds but within those bounds respond with candour.”

”We maintained, of course, the premise that we were sick, that our experience was limited, that we were missing out on the good things of life, and that our old age would be lonely.”

TBRIE 2“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 ad 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 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 Jesenska)”

“Suffering does make us more sensitive until it crushes us completely.”

“And William laughed with his special blend of mischief, compounded of humour, spite, and sadness in a ratio even he wasn’t sure of but that he mixed by feel.”

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From → Biography, Sexuality

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