Edmund White was born in Cincinnati in 1940 and graduated BA from the University of Michigan. Between 1962 and 1970 he worked for Time- Life Books and in 1982 he became executive director of the New York Institute for the Humanities. Between 1981 and 1983 he taught creative writing at Columbia University. Le Monde called him the most accomplished American novelist since Henry James. His books include Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978), States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980), A Boy’s Own Story (1982) and Genet, his most recent work, published in 1993.
What are your earliest memories, and what emotions do they stir?
My earliest memory is of my third birthday party during the war. My mother forced me to wear an aviator’s cap and a pilot’s uniform for children, and I hated the feeling of the cap and the idea of having to play with other children my own age. I much preferred being with adults. I didn’t like the idea of being forced to do anything. I was extremely attached to my mother, though she was a rather melodramatic and emotional person at that time. Now I think she is much more mature, but then she was going through the difficult end to her marriage, a very naïve woman who had been handed by her father to her husband. She had always been rather spoilt and didn’t even know how to write a cheque. Being aware that her husband was leaving her for another woman made it a painful period for her. Both my parents are Texans. My father was a cowboy when he was a boy and then became a self-made businessman. He was a person almost frightened of fantasy. He despised talking about people or ideas, or about anything imaginary. He preferred to talk about stocks and bonds, or measurements or scientific process. The one exception he made was for classical music, which he adored. When I was very young, we lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, which was a town settled by Germans in the 1840s and so a very musical city. My father loved all that. We went to the symphony every week and often had musicians play in the house. My sister and I both had to learn several instruments, the harpsichord, the recorder, the piano, the violin and so on. No, I didn’t get on well with my father. I was afraid of him. He was very violent. If you spoke at the table he would throw a spoon across and knock you out with it. He was a very eccentric man who disliked people. He slept all day and woke at six in the evening when he’d sit down to a massive breakfast. He then stayed up all night playing harpsichord music till dawn when he’d go back to bed. Since he owned his own business, he was able to do the work at home, then pass everything out under the door to his secretary – which is rather an efficient way to work, but not a very human one. He did it expressly that way because he didn’t like to come in to contact with people. With me he was always disappointed that I wasn’t more athletic, more aggressive; that I didn’t want to take over his engineering business; that I was too cissy, too artistic, too attached to my mother.
When your parents divorced, did it make for a great insecurity?
At first it was a great feeling of release because I didn’t like my father. The idea that we were rid of him, and that my mother, my sister and I could move to another, bigger city like Chicago – which is where we went – was very exciting. I also knew that it was easier for me to manipulate my mother than my father. But the second reaction was a feeling of guilt, because, I suppose, I had wanted to get rid of him. It was almost a classic Oedipal feeling that I had succeeded in killing off my father, or at least in disposing of him. At the time of the divorce we moved into a hotel before moving to Chicago, and while in the hotel I went through a terrible crisis of guilt. I locked myself in the toilet and kept shouting, ‘I did it, I did it! It’s all my fault!’ Finally they had to get the doorman to take down the door to get me out. About that time, when I was seven, I had an ink-blot test, and the person who gave me the test said the results pointed to somebody psychotic. I didn’t see any human beings in the test, only diamonds and graveyards. Those were my two great obsessions.
How far were those early years and experiences formative of your adult persona, or can these links be exaggerated?
The links can definitely be exaggerated. I feel not very much attachment to the child I once was. I have been extremely conscious of childhood influences, but have exorcized them through writing about them. I now feel quite detached from my childhood. One of the wonderful things about being a reader is that it puts you in touch with other lives and standards of behaviour. My own family was quite brutal and given to violence, and it was through novels that I learned about more decent ways of behaving. I wanted to aspire to that, to be like a person in a Henry James novel, not like someone in Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell. I didn’t want to be violent. You have to remember that my Texas relatives were homesteaders – pioneers who, as late as the end of the of the nineteenth century, moved to Texas with their rifles, still fighting off Indians. So we were not very remote from a state of real violence. One of my great-grandfathers was a preacher, and when he was denouncing somebody from his pulpit, the person he was denouncing shot him.
You always insist that you do not conform to the standard Freudian theory: the product of dominant mother and absent father.
When I wrote Nocturnes for the King of Naples, people said this book has a dominant mother and an absent father, therefore, Mr White, you subscribe to the Freudian pattern, don’t you? I replied I had not written the book as an illustration of a psychoanalytic period, but as an artistic reflection of my own experience, which may conform to certain Freudian dynamics but which I don’t feel was universally true for homosexuals. When I first started writing in the early 1970s, people would read a novel which was openly homosexual as though it was a blueprint for all homosexuals, as if it was a statement of principle. I was eager to defend the individual’s right to tell his own story without generalising about others.
Wasn’t the first draft of A Boy’s Own Story written when you were fifteen? Did you write it in diary form, or as a kind of therapy to help you face the difficulties of adolescence?
It was written as a real novel. I began to write it in the first person and in a confessional mode, but I quickly found the book was running away from me and being swamped in detail. I didn’t know how to make it go forward, so decided to go to the opposite extreme and to write it not only in third person, but with a third-person narrator who had no access to the boy’s thoughts. So it was all described in an objective way. It didn’t really work, but it was written as a form of therapy because I felt I was drowning. I had been sent away, or had chosen to go away, to a boarding school, and every night we had two hours’ enforced study. I would get my homework done in the afternoon and then in the evening, between eight and ten, when we had to be at our desks, I wrote my novel furiously until the bell rang. It was always exhilarating. I loved writing it and I felt it was an example of Freud’s idea of the repetition compulsion. Freud noticed that children playing with dolls would often-times repeat with a doll the same terrible things that had happened to them. The mother doll would spank the baby doll. Why would they do that, why recreate the pain, why not make a happy story? He realized that, in repeating the pain, there was pleasure when they became the ones doing the manipulating. They enjoyed their mastery over a painful situation. At that time of my life, to write about the very events which were happening to me but to be the one who controlled them artistically, gave me a feeling of mastery over the situation. At that time of my life I was extremely unhappy. I was besieged by violent, even obsessional, sexual urges that I didn’t like or approve of. There are young homosexuals who have strong desires but never act on them, and who only begin to do something about it later when they are twenty or twenty-two. There are others who become sexual very young, but are very upset about it and find it not easy to deal with. But I was both sexually precocious and guilt-ridden; I had a strong drive to do something about it, but also terrible feelings of guilt. It made me feel I was going crazy.
In the same book you say, ‘It’s the particular curse of adolescence that its events are never adequate to the feelings they inspire.’
I think what I meant is that one often has a big tragic feeling, a feeling that one has lived through bitter and dramatic events, and when, for instance, you read a novel like Wuthering Heights, it is adequate to such feelings; but in the case of a typical teenager, especially for one like me who was rather lonely, who was neglected, who didn’t do much, who just walked around through beautiful grounds filled with mist feeling lonely and melancholy but also tragic, you tend to ask, but what’s so tragic? What have you done? Nothing. Nothing has happened to you, you haven’t done anything. In other words, you have this very strong Hamlet-like response but not to strong events. T.S Eliot talked about the objective correlative: that you have to have objective events adequate to the emotions you hope to elicit. When you write about adolescence, often-times the feelings are extremely strong, but it’s hard to communicate that to a third person, a reader, because the events don’t in themselves trigger such a powerful response for them. The writing itself, though, came all too easily. I wrote from a kind of obsessive interest in confession and with very little interest in artistic expression, so most of my writing of that period is worthless. In fact it was only towards the end of my twenties, after I had written four or five books, that I began to understand that you couldn’t simply babble, that you had to stop and think and arrange things. In other words, when I began to resolve some of my psychological problems and no longer wrote quite so much form the need to confess, I began to have a certain inner calm. I was able to fashion a text like Forgetting Elena, my first published novel, though the first or sixth I wrote.
The hero of A Boy’s Own Story says, ‘I feel sorry for a man who has never wanted to go to bed with his father.’ Isn’t that just the Oedipus complex in reverse?
I don’t know. If I read Freud right, he says the boy wants to sleep with his mother and kill his father, but is so frightened of his father and his father’s revenge that he becomes homosexual as a way of distracting his father’s rage – of convincing his father that he doesn’t really want to seduce the mother and doesn’t even like women. That was Freud’s idea, more or less, but he doesn’t talk about a boy’s sexual interest in the father so much. Yet many of the homosexuals I have known and spoken with intimately have had strong erotic fantasies about their fathers, and have often even slept with their fathers or brothers. It’s not unusual. A psychiatrist once told me that people have a very difficult time talking about incest with members of the opposite sex, such as a boy with his mother, or even a boy with his sister, but between two brothers or two sisters, it’s not very difficult to talk about. Father-son, yes. In other words, between generations it’s difficult, or between two sexes it’s difficult, but the same sex, the same generation, is very easy to talk about. People don’t have strong guilt feelings about that. Anyway, I definitely had strong erotic feelings towards my father, though, as I say, I don’t feel they’re classically Freudian. I think the idea was that whoever was sleeping in my father’s bed was in a privileged position in the family and would gain power. In other words, my father was a tyrant, and at first my mother was in his bed and therefore a privileged person; then my stepmother became a privileged person; then my father had an affair with my sister, and my sister was elevated in the family because of it. I didn’t know about it at the time, but I sensed it because I once walked in on them when my father was brushing my sister’s hair. She had very long blonde hair, and looked quite a bit like his mother, who was very pretty. My father, my sister, and my father’s mother were all blonde, whereas I resembled my mother and my mother’s side of the family, the paternal side of the family being considered the more beautiful. Anyway, my father was brushing my sister’s hair, standing behind her and crying while he did so. It was the only time I saw my father cry. I sensed there was something going on, but I wasn’t certain to what extent. It was only years later, after my sister had a complete breakdown and was in a mental hospital, that I knew for sure. She had tried to kill herself and it all came out, but that was many years later. I guessed she had always had strong guilt feelings about this relationship with my father, maybe partly because she liked it. I think she had loved him very much. It was extremely dramatic when my father died, because we had a farm in the north of Ohio where he wanted to be buried, and that was terribly inconvenient for everybody because it took hours to get there. We finally arrived in the small town with its little farmers’ church, and there he was in an open coffin, which I hate. But my sister went up to the coffin and talked to my father for a long time, rather angrily and crying. She was forty something at the time.
She became a lesbian, you think, because of the affair with your father?
I think maybe. She was married and had three children with her husband, but always had strong lesbian feelings. Finally, maybe, she was able to express it after her breakdown. She seems quite happy now.
You wrote an introduction to Genet’s posthumous Prisoner of Love, but it struck me as rather ambiguous. Did you admire Genet?
Very much. I’m sorry if it was ambiguous. It’s not an obvious book for an English reader, and I am very naïve politically, so I wouldn’t feel too comfortable in saying what I thought about his politics towards the end of his life. But for me his novels are some of the greatest literature written this century. Neve come his plays, then his essays, and least of all his poetry. I never met him. I could have, but by the time I moved to Paris in 1982, he didn’t like to meet white or middle-class people, nor Americans. I was all three so figured it was pointless even to try. Of course, one of the good things about being a biographer today is that you can watch hours and hours of somebody on video. I’ve seen forty hours of him. You get the feeling of how somebody moved and talked and so on.
You are sympathetic to Genet’s idea that any novel which doesn’t set itself up as an Aunt sally is a fake, but isn’t twentieth-century literature riddled with enough irony? Is there no reason at all for commitment, or must every idea self-destruct?
I can’t see any philosophical reason why he should be right, but if you look at the novels you actually like, it turns out he is right. The novels that are very engage politiquement, like Sartre’s, have become very difficult to like – even Malraux I find almost unreadable now. Whereas novels which are deeply ambiguous, like Genet’s are still readable and seem to have a universal interest.
In your introduction you excuse Genet’s acknowledged admiration for treachery by thinking of it as a code word for an incorrigible subjective voice. Do you think that treachery can really be excused by a semantic shift?
Personally no. But it’s very interesting, now that I know so much about his life, to find he was actually deeply loyal to the people around him. For instance, he had a lover in the 1960s, a high-wire artist called Abdullah, who committed suicide. Abdullah’s best friend, though Genet never slept with him and didn’t even particularly know him, was given money by Genet every month till the end of his life – that is, from 1964-1986. Even then Genet made him one of his three principle heirs. And in many other instances you find tenacious loyalty on the part of Genet to his early friends, though he would also excommunicate certain intellectuals, usually women, who tried to dominate him too much. He had terrible fallings-out with friends, but I don’t think you can call that treachery, just an eruption of rage. He liked to present himself as a traitor and to suggest in a dark way, in A Thief’s Journal, that he betrayed people, but when you look for real instances in his life, it’s hard to find them. If you say he admired treachery, though, then I do not think that it is a philosophical position, that he had a kind of love for the unsalvageable person. When he wrote his last play, The Screens, he chose as his hero not a loyal militant Algerian soldier fighting against the French, but the most miserable proletarian Algerian who betrays even the revolution though he doesn’t like the French either. Again and again Genet was attracted to the person everyone else despised, the lowest person. That’s the person he speaks for finally: the person he wants to redeem. I’m not defending him, but I think it’s interesting how his mind works. In Pompe Funebre there is Jean, a real person, his real lover, a communist killed by the milice in 1944 during the liberation of Paris. Then Genet, in mourning, sits down to finish this novel as a monument for Jean, but what does he do? In the novel he glorifies Hitler, glorifies especially a young character called Riton who is in the milice, one of the very people who killed Jean. This idea of embracing evil, of honouring people who are more or less unsalvageable, was very strong in him. It’s partly philosophical choice; he’s partly a Nietzschean. He was certainly very influenced by Nietzsche, and he loved the idea of the transvaluation of all values. Most criminals, when they write, present themselves as wonderful, kind, intelligent and moral. The usual thing for a prisoner who writes is to justify himself in terms of the most conventional morality. What is daring about Genet is that he not only writes about the real evil he’s committed, but exaggerates it and doesn’t apologize at all. From the point of view of homosexual history, that turns out to be something fascinating, because he is probably the first homosexual ever to write without any sense of apology or trying to give a diagnosis of how this strange medical state of affairs came about. Unlike Gide, for instance, who is fairly liberated, or Proust, who distances himself completely from homosexuals so that all the characters in his book are homosexual except him, Genet spoke as a homosexual about actual homosexual life in the Ghetto, and it was something brand-new.
In A Boy’s Own Story you say, ‘I was appalled by my own majesty…I wanted someone to betray.’ Many people who are not homosexual might therefore be tempted to think that the urge to betray is the characteristic of homosexuals.
My feeling is that everything about homosexuality can be explained by two things. One is that it is an all-male culture. In other words, in heterosexual life men are always adjusting to the expectations and values of women, but in homosexual life they are, at least on the sexual plane, interacting only with other men. The other thing is that they are a persecuted minority group. In A Boy’s Own Story, the boy’s urge to betray at the end of the book is morally ambiguous because, on the one hand, the reader applauds, this being the first time the worm turns, the first time this rather persecuted boy, usually passive and always suffering things at others’ hands, decides to do something for himself. It’s a revenge on the adult world, a kind of self-assertion. It’s certainly the end of innocence; but the bad thing, on the other hand, is that the object of this attack is another homosexual. The person he chooses to persecute is one of the few people who has actually been nice to him and who to some degree shares his sexual taste. But that was very characteristic of that period, because homosexuals who belonged to it hated themselves. How could they not? There was no favourable picture of homosexuality available in that culture. A homosexual was either ill, criminal or a sinner. There were only the medical, the legal or psychological models. There was no other way of justifying them sexually. All three of those images are quite pejorative, and so the boy suffers the usual self-hate. Attacking another homosexual was, in a way, proving one wasn’t oneself so homosexual. The one he attacked was the scapegoat.
But, today, do you still find that homosexuals have special characteristics?
I don’t. I know most people do say that, but I think it’s much like anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism and anti-homosexuality resemble each other closely because they tend to look for a unity that doesn’t exist. In his little book on Jews, Sur la question juif, Sartre suggests that the anti-Semite regards the Jew as a synthesis. So if one man says a Jew is not courageous, and another says yes, but here is a Gentile who is not courageous, the first rejoins, ah yes, but the lack of courage of a Jew is different from the lack of courage of a Christian. In the same way, people search for a kind of mystical unity in homosexuals. We all share something which is our condition, but the condition shifts from time to time, so while homosexuals do share something which is their particular social condition at a particular historical moment, I always find it ridiculous when homosexuals talk about ‘we homosexuals’ and mention Plato or Michelangelo. Even if they had homosexual sexual practices, the nature, formation, and contours of their personalities, their mentality, must be entirely different from now. A homosexual living on a Greek island today is entirely different from a homosexual living in Manhattan. So which homosexual are we talking about? I suppose you could say that certain middle-class homosexuals living in London at the moment bear certain resemblances to each other because their condition is a shared one, but only to that degree.
Do you think of your work as political in the sense, as you explain in the Genet introduction, of heightening consciousness by making people more aware of different convictions and lifestyles?
Yes, I think my books are political in the same way that they put you in the shoes of another person, but I also think that my most recent work, The Beautiful Room is Empty, is political in an even more direct sense in that I wanted to show the beginning of homosexual liberation and the period of oppression just before it happened in 1969. There are many people who have grown up or become homosexual since then, and I wanted to show them what things were like before, and to end on a very positive note with the idea, the feeling of liberation. Therefore I chose as my hero someone who is extremely middle class, quite repressed, rather self-hating, and a reluctant revolutionary. I wanted even the heterosexual reader to say to himself or herself, oh come on, get on with your life, stop tormenting yourself about all these ridiculous scruples. It pleased me very much to see a review by a New York Times reviewer, a heterosexual male, who said in effect, I am heterosexual and I barely understand all this stuff, but for Christ’s sake, Mr White, get on with your life. That is exactly what I wanted the reaction of the reader to be. I wanted the reader to be more liberal than the boy himself.
And do you find the ordinary reader today more liberal?
It depends. You see, I’m from the United States, which is a very religious country, and I have all these Texan relatives who are Baptist and are convinced I’m going directly to hell. The ordinary literary reader living in Paris, London or New York is quite liberal, as they have been for a long time. But I’ve had people from America writing letters denouncing me, telling me I’m going to hell and so on. America is an extremely religious country. I feel more like an outsider in America than I do in Europe. That’s the odd thing. In London I have so many friends who are writers, and I feel so warmly accepted that I don’t feel like an outsider at all. If I have a new book out in London, maybe the Independent will do a review, The Times will do a review and the Literary Review will say this is one of the best books of the year and so on, which is very thrilling, whereas in America, if they review me at all, it’s almost entirely in the context of where are homosexuals now and what’s happening to them in this age of Aids? In France, if they were taking a poll of important people, asking what do you think of nuclear power, they might ask a hundred people and I might be one of them, but in America The New York Times would never asked me about nuclear power, only about homosexual rights. I feel very ghettoized in America, but that’s not a problem peculiar to me, it’s peculiar to human life. America is nothing but ghettoes. There is no general reader in America, no general culture. It’s all lobbies, ghettoes and special-interest groups. The reason I’m returning to America now is partly because I was offered a very good job. I’m about to be fifty and I support my mother, and if she didn’t have me I think she would be in the gutter. If I work fifteen years, then I can have a retirement plan and all those nice things, but also, as a writer, it’s dangerous to be out of contact with your country too long. It’ll be interesting to go back, at least for a few years. If I like it, I’ll stay; if I don’t, I’ll come back here. But it was a wonderful offer: a full professor with tenure in Brown University, one of the best universities in America. I couldn’t refuse. I’m going with a friend, who has just got divorced and wants to start a new life. He’s French, and the idea of moving is exciting for him too, so it’s just a good moment to be going back.
But do you feel more appreciated in England than in America as a writer?
Definitely in Europe; specially in England. But also in France. And five of my books are coming out at the same time in Italy now, and five more or less at the same time in Germany, so I feel there’s a big push going on.
But why should that be? After all, you’re America.
Yeah. Well, I asked Alison Lurie once why she was more famous in England than in America, and she said, ‘Because in America I’m writing about familiar subject matter in an unfamiliar style, that is an English style, whereas for English people I’m writing about unfamiliar subject matter, that is American life, in a familiar, that is English, style.’ I think that’s true of me too to some degree. In other words, there is something exotic about those rich American children that I write about, but it’s in a reflective, more European, more literary style of writing. It’s not the sort of Raymond Carver minimalism that people have come to expect from Americans.
In A Boy’s Own Story you say: ‘It seemed to me then that beauty was the highest good, the one thing we all want to be or have, or failing that, destroy.’ Why should a young homosexual feel like that? Is it a thoughtlessness of youth which imagines it will never be old, or is it a more specifically homosexual fear?
I don’t think it’s a fear, and I don’t think it’s homosexual. I think it’s artistic. Artists are susceptible to beauty, including physical beauty, which in real we all react to. Yesterday I had a party where there was a beautiful young man, twenty-two years old, and all the men and women were reacting. He is also an aristocrat, so that helps, but, you know, he’s blond and his father is the governor of Bermuda and so on. He didn’t have to say a word and everybody found him enchanting, everyone was giving him their phone number, men and women both. People do respond to physical beauty very strongly, but when they write, they pretend they’re much more moralistic, that they have better values; that is, that they prize nothing but intellect and virtue. But artists are people who love beauty, and one of the forms of beauty, maybe the main form, is physical human beauty. It’s not any accident that the Greeks made statues of beautiful athletes and goddesses. I’ve had Americans criticize me, saying, ‘Oh, you’re always talking about physical beauty,’ because oft-times I’ll say about somebody, she is very intelligent, and this and that, and beautiful. ‘Oh’, they say, ‘why do you mention beauty?’ Feminists especially, of course, hate that. Yet I mention male beauty as much as female beauty, so it’s not that I’m especially keen on female beauty. Anyway, I do think that physical beauty is an important thing that artists respond to.
How do you view feminists?
Having lived in France now, where feminism is scoffed at and completely over as a movement, it’s hard for me to remember it’s still taken so seriously in England. Recently, when I was a judge on the Booker Prize, there were two women on the panel who had strong feminist sentiments. I found it difficult. I was even shocked by some of the things they said. For instance, to be against a novel because one of the characters is female, masochistic and shown as liking to be mistreated, seemed to be a very shocking response. On the other hand, I consider myself a feminist, but I think of myself as not applying those principles to novels but to actual life. For instance, after a long debate in my mind, I feel I’m against the idea that Moslem girls should wear the fular here in France, because it is mainly men who are deciding that women should wear it. The women have not been asked at all. It is a way of separating those girls from other girls, marking them and oppressing them. It really is a continuation of male domination. I think that’s all right within the context of the Moslem world, but here in France it goes against two things: the secular aspect of the schools and the idea of women’s right, which is very important if you are a member of French society. If you were a highly devout Catholic, you would have a hard time living in Syria, just as if you were a highly devout Moslem you would probably have a hard time living in France. So I would say I am a feminist on questions of economics and legal rights, but I don’t like feminism much when it’s applied to art.
Has women’s liberation helped gay liberation?
What we’ve witnessed in this century is a shift away from an ethic of responsibility to an ethic of pleasure. I’m not talking about aristocrats, but aristocrats have always behaved according to their ideas of personal pleasure, but in other centuries ninety-five per cent of people were farmers. They needed children to work in the fields, they were watched closely by their neighbours, they were obliged to conform and were obsessed with performing their duty to the church, their family, their parents, their children. The whole idea was of self-sacrifice to help the next generation and fulfil your duty, which was clearly defined and ordained by God; nobody doubted it. You still see that in Third World cultures, but once it shifts you have a kind of aristocraticization of middle-class life, hence the vast armies of people in the major cities of Europe and America who have adopted the ethic of self-satisfaction and pleasure. They divorce when they’re no longer in love, get rid of their children if they feel they’re cramping their style. They do exactly as they please, treat their lives as a work of art, and are mainly interested in self-fulfilment. That’s when homosexuality becomes much more important, because if those are your real feelings, then you are going to act on them.
But hasn’t feminism driven some men towards homosexuality?
I don’t think so. That suggests that men have more choice than they really have. If a man is really attracted to a woman physically, so that he gets an erection when he looks at her, then even if she’s a difficult bitch, he’s not going to become excited by a man. Oddly enough, I think women have more choice than men. I do feel that there are women who, for political reasons, have decided to be lesbians, but I don’t feel that there are any heterosexual men who, for political reasons, have decided to be homosexual.
Is homosexuality on the increase, or is it that people are now liberated and have come out of the closet?
It’s that it’s more visible, but there might have been many before who, if they were marginal cases, would have worked very hard, with their psychoanalysis or their priest, to remain heterosexual if at all plausible. I know of several examples in my father’s generation of women who married men who really were homosexual, but the men did not act out their homosexuality. They lived with their wives and were sadists. They tortured their whole family. They were alcoholic, disagreeable, wife-beating monsters because of their repressed homosexuality.
Has American society yet absorbed the idea of homosexuality? Can it now be regarded as part of the make-up of the nation, or is it accepted de jure but not de facto?
It’s accepted neither de jure nor de facto. It’s become a powerful special-interest group in certain cities, especially in the west where there aren’t other ethnic groups to compete. In New York, where strong Jewish, Italian, Polish and Irish ethnic groups, and now Puerto Ricans control the city, gays do not represent a very powerful vote even though they are numerous. But in places like Houston, Texas, or Los Angeles, which are newer cities and where ethnic groups are less well organized and the largest ethnic groups are comprised of either blacks or Mexicans, who tend not to vote very much, gays have become more powerful in local government and have even helped to elect a woman mayor in Houston. So in certain regions, gays have gained a lot of clout. In response to Aids, gays have become very well organized, and activist groups, like ACT UP in New York, have done a lot to change legislation, to streamline the availability of new medicines for the critically ill. Before, people who were ill were being told that they couldn’t try a new drug because it hadn’t been tested long enough to see if it was safe, but if you are going to be dead in a month, what difference does it make. Now all that’s been streamlined and there is much quicker access to the drugs, even to dangerous ones, if one wants to try. This has been something achieved by ACT UP, and they’ve gotten much better funding for people who are ill, for home care, for medical bills and so on. So gays don’t represent a powerful special-interest group in certain regions and certain aspects of American life. But whereas in France a recent poll showed that sixty per cent of heterosexual French people regard homosexuality as a normal variation of sexual behaviour, probably less than ten per cent of Americans would say the same.
Why could no publisher be found initially for A Boy’s Own Story in Britain? Was the country simply not yet receptive enough for gay literature?
Well, A Boy’s Own Story was quickly accepted in the United States, but in Britain, where I already had one or two books published by Andre Deutsch, they didn’t like the book. Deutsch rejected it, and then it went to several other publishers and was rejected. It was finally accepted by Picador, who decided it was good and made a big fuss over it.
As a title, A Boy’s Own Story looks deliberately provocative, did you feel it necessary to provoke a response when you wrote it?
Actually, you know, the title has slightly different echoes for an American. For the British, of course, it’s clearly provocative because it makes you think of A Boy’s Own King Arthur, a Boy’s Own History of England, the Boy’s Own Paper, but in America, at the turn of the century, there was a series of first-hand oral reports given by juvenile delinquents to an important Chicago sociologist that were printed in a book called A Boy’s Own Story, which was the context in which I first thought of it as a title. I wasn’t really thinking of British books so much. Later I thought it would be amusing to take this very strange boy and place his story, which was anything but the typical Boy Scout’s story, in this very traditional context. Susan Sondheim, who was a very good friend of mine at the time, hated the title because she felt it made light of the book, that the book was better than the title and the title was ironic in a light way, but I liked it.
Is she no longer a friend?
She’s no longer a friend because she felt I portrayed her as a character in one of my books, which I didn’t mean to do, but she’s been angry with me ever since, though I still admire her and like her. I felt she was over-sensitive, and for somebody who has always been an advocate of the freedom of speech, she reacted in an odd way.
Much of your work, I think you acknowledge, is autobiographical. Can you tell me something of the relationship between the life and the fiction?
First of all, I’d like to say that Caracole, which is not at all autobiographical in the obvious sense since it has no-first person narrator and no character obviously based on me, is, I feel, my most autobiographical novel. This is because it’s the only novel I have written in the third person in which the narrator has the ability to get into the minds of all six characters: three woman and three men. I felt fully expressed in that book, in the sense that I felt I could exaggerate different aspects of my own personality and project them onto those six characters and dramatize my own inner conflicts in the bi-play between them. If you write a so-called autobiographical story, like A Boy’s Own Story or The Beautiful Room is Empty, then you are stuck with only one character, the narrator, and you don’t really have that kind of full expressivity. Certainly in any autobiographical novel you’re always shaping it primarily for novelistic purposes. A real autobiography, written by, let’s say, a famous general like Eisenhower, is written by somebody you can assume the public is already interested in. He doesn’t need to create interest, he can assume it on the part of the reader. But a novelist, and especially a novelist who is not well known or who is only well known for his novels, has to create interest in the book. Therefore it has to operate as a piece of literary machinery to create interest and satisfy the reader’s normal anticipations. A lot of shaping has to go on. Say, for instance, that you have had three boyfriends in a six-month period. It’s much better to have them become one boyfriend, because otherwise the reader gets confused with too many names, too much coming and going, too much shifting of stage machinery. I also tended with A Boy’s Own Story to make the character more normal than I actually was, because in real life I was more competent than the boy. I was less timid, had had more sexual experience and more artistic success at an earlier age. My boy in the book tends to be a bit timid, unsure of himself; more, I think, like most gay people that I’ve interviewed and talked to. I spent years and years in group therapy with other gay men, listening to their stories. The psychiatrist once said to me, ‘Don’t tell your story to this group because it upsets them too much.’ I had poems published when I was young, I had a play produced on Broadway when I was twenty-two. In other words, I was not quite as defeated, retarded or slow as the boy in my book, but I wanted to create somebody I thought the reader could identify with, somebody a little more timid. The brassiness in Americans seems very foreign to English readers, especially to English children, who tend to be rather more supervised, but even though I changed all those things, many English readers still said to me, ‘I find the amount of freedom the boy had absolutely astonishing.’ That shocked me, because I had thought of him as being rather oppressed, but English children, brought up in a traditional way, tend to think that the boy has an enormous amount of freedom. So, to return to your question, I’ve changed many things to simplify them, to make them more shapely, to make them more novelistic, but also to make their character more representative.
‘I never doubted that homosexuality was a sickness’, says the boy in A boy’s Own Story. How long was it before you began to feel differently? Is it just social programming, or does it represent some deeper and more permanent fear?
Many Americans are phobic about sex itself, not just homosexuality, so many times, when American homosexuals are coming out and trying to accept their homosexuality, they find they have an even bigger problem, which is to accept their sexuality at all. And it’s a universal problem, it seems, among certain kinds of Protestant and Irish Catholic Americans. That’s one thing, but I feel myself to be very involved with the history of Gay Liberation, and deeply indebted to it because the kind of self-assertion, the kind of political activism that emerged in 1969, was liberating for me personally. Oddly enough, I was the co-author of a book called The Joy of Gay Sex in 1976, published by the English publisher Mitchell Beazley. I wrote it with my own psychotherapist, but that was pure accident. He had already been chosen to be the doctor half of the team when they were looking for a writer. They auditioned ten writers, who all had to write sample entries. They liked mine the best, so chose me, and then I found it would be with my own psychotherapist. He said to me, ‘You must choose either to continue to be my patient or to be my collaborator, but you can’t be both.’ I chose to be his collaborator because I needed the money badly and felt it was towards the end of my therapy anyway. But I told Mitchell Beazley that I didn’t want to sign my own name because I thought it wasn’t a work of any literary interest and would hurt my literary career. The book, though it had some rather juicy sexual drawings in it, wasn’t in fact very sexual in the end, but tended to be more about life-style than sexual activity. More than half of the entries were about such things as coming out, dealing with your parents, taking a lover, telling a fellow officer worker you were gay and all that kind of stuff. And the more I worked on it the more I said to myself, ‘It’s completely hypocritical of you to urge everybody else to be honest and open and then sign a false name.’ So I put my own name on the book, and it was the first major thing I had written that was specifically and openly homosexual. That had a tremendous liberating influence on me. I was rather old, I was thirty-six, and it is shocking to admit how many years of therapy and struggle it took me before I could accept myself. Now I really do.
I can’t imagine myself going to a therapist and talking to him about a problem. Why did you find it necessary and were you helped?
It was very destructive at the beginning because the therapist acted as an agent of repression rather than liberation. It was only when I was in my late twenties and I chose to go to a homosexual therapist – a therapist who has, I knew, openly homosexual and felt relaxed about it – that I began actually to make some progress. But, you see, in choosing him I had already made progress. In other words, up to that point, as late as the age of twenty-nine, I was still engaged to a woman, trying to go straight and get married.
But you needed therapy because of your homosexuality?
Nothing else. Although it had such consequences that it made me quite crazed in other way too. I mean, I was full of nervous tics, constantly shaking my head and bobbing. I couldn’t sleep at night. I would eat too much or too little. I had all kinds of anxiety attacks where I would hyperventilate and almost pass out, all kinds of strange psychological and psychosomatic symptoms. My sister too. Then in both our cases, when we came to accept, really accept, our homosexuality, we relaxed and all these other psychological problems disappeared.
Did your father know that you had homosexual tendencies?
Uh-huh, yes. And he hated it. He hated it and wanted me to stop.
Did you ever go through a period of your life when you could make love to a woman and enjoy it?
Yes. I was always afraid, though, of being somehow captured by women, maybe because I had a mother who depended on me very much when I was a child. After my father left us, even before, my mother would often say things like, ‘Oh, I wish you were grown up, I would marry you.’ I felt suffocated by her need for me. After that, I would tend to choose similar women, women who were very needy, partly because I didn’t have very much self-confidence. So a woman who was overweight, or who had extreme psychological problems and who was very dependent on me, reassured me in one way though in another it reminded me too much of my mother and I felt suffocated by that very need that I liked and trusted. It was all rather upsetting to me. I have the feeling that if I had been able to work out those problems, I might have had a more bisexual life. Certainly the interest in men was very early and strong, but there was a genuine interest in women that got stifled at some point along the line, mainly because I was afraid of them, afraid of failing sexually myself; because often-times I would be impotent with women. Never with men.
You spoke of A Boy’s Own Story as ‘the laying to rest of a section of my life’. It suggests a sort of therapy in which you spoke to a public, arranging and qualifying your life for inspection. Would that be a fair analysis?
Yes. I suppose it’s a very American and especially a very Protestant thing, the idea of bearing witness to your life. In America we have revival meetings where everyone becomes hysterical and saved through Jesus. They run to the alter and confess their whole lives. Europeans find it very amusing that Americans have this tendency to confess, but I think I’m typically American in that sense. I can only say in my defence that I feel that very few people have ever made this particular confession before in this particular way, and that it has meant a lot to a lot of readers. I still get letters from readers, and it’s reassuring for people to realize that someone else has had the same experience.
When A Boy’s Own Story was published, the New York Times review claimed that you had ‘crossed The Catcher in the Rye with De Profundis – J.D. Salinger with Oscar Wilde’. Was that a claim you were happy with?
I found it an odd remark because it seemed to me that, from a technical point of view, the trick of The Catcher in the Rye is that he is still an adolescent, so it is a brilliant act of ventriloquism, whereas with A Boy’s Own Story I felt it was important to have the narrator much older than the protagonist. In other words, the same man is speaking, but he is speaking about himself twenty years before. I felt that the life portrayed in A Boy’s Own Story was that of somebody who was in such pain and who hated himself so much that if the reader was to come away with a feeling of consolation he could only get that through an indirect contact with an adult narrator who did accept himself. In fact, somewhere in the book the narrator says that even though he hated himself, he now loved the boy he was, and it’s almost as though it’s autobiographical paedophilia. We love the self we once were, but that self-acceptance trails behind our actual life by about twenty years. And it is true that I do now feel a kind of pity and sympathy with that boy who at the time thought of himself – as I thought of myself – as a kind of monster. But now I see that, given his situation, he wasn’t so bad, he was rather normal. In that sense my book had an entirely different strategy from The Catcher in the Rye, which is a teenage boy speaking to you in his own voice, which was not at all my goal. As far as Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis is concerned, I feel it’s a very elegant piece of blackmail directed at Lord Alfred Douglas. He wants to wring his heart and preach at him, and finally punish the ideal reader of this long letter, who was Lord Alfred Douglas. I don’t feel that my book is at all interested in targeting, punishing or manipulating a particular reader. I suppose what the reviewer had in mind is that it is a cross between a teenage narrative and a homosexual narrative, but then it would have been simpler to say it.
If you were to relive your youth, how differently would you relive it?
Given the circumstances then, I was fairly courageous and probably did as best I could, but I would like to live now and lose less time feeling guilty; to have more fun having sex and being more self-accepting sooner. I don’t feel I was deprived of sex, because I had a lot of sexual experiences, but I feel I was deprived of love, because I was unable to sustain a long-term relationship – even a six-month relationship – because I hated myself too much. In other words, many homosexuals from that period, and even homosexuals now who hate themselves, can perform individual sexual acts, but don’t want to have the piece of evidence that proves they’re gay sitting around day and night. If you have no lover around, then you can say to yourself each morning, well, today’s a new day, everything’s indeterminate and maybe I’ll be heterosexual later, who knows? So the kind of commitment to homosexuality that an actual lover represents was very hard for me then, and if I had to live everything again now, I hope that I would come to self-acceptance earlier and be able to experience love younger.
Many reviewers point to a vein of poetry running through your prose. Is that a deliberate or unconscious device?
Oh, like many writers of prose I started off writing poetry, and I probably still read more poetry than most prose writers. I read French poetry, English Poetry and American poetry. Ezra Pound said poets should be at least as good as prose writers, and I feel that prose writers should be at least as good as poets. There’s a great deal of careless prose writing, especially now in the age of the word processor. A lot of people have a good plot which is destined ultimately for the movies, and the style is ramshackle, just a way of conveying the plot as quickly as possible. That’s a betrayal of the artistic possibilities of prose. I like a finely worked style. It’s where the English often-times lose patience with me, because they’ll say it’s too self-conscious or over the top or arty. That’s why I’m happy Quartet is publishing so many foreign works, especially French, because I find English prose a little sterile in its sociological preoccupations with class, with region and its obsession with realism, especially in showing small pictures of small lives. I find all that tiresome.
You have taught a lot of creative writing. Is it really possible to teach people to be creative?
I’m about to start teaching creative writing again, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and one of the things I’ve been thinking is that when I was a boy beginning to write, the only idea that one had of serious literature was The New Yorker. The New Yorker story was a kind of formula that aspiring young writers held in mind as a goal. Of course, now it seems terribly demonde, and I think it would have been useful if somebody had put Proust in my hand at that age – read this, forget about the New Yorker. Young writers now have Raymond Carver and other minimalist writers. I love Ray Carver, by the way. He was a good friend of mine and I admire him as a writer, but he pulled those stories out of his guts and invented the style. He was a working-class man who was an alcoholic, who suffered tremendously but who finally tore those wonderful stories out of himself. But because it is a very plain-spoken style, it is an easy one for people to imitate, and now you see rather spoiled middle-class kids who want to be writers but have never suffered a second in their lives, writing as though they’re tortured. They don’t know any other way of writing because it’s all they see around them. So one thing that the creative writing teacher can do is expose the student to world literature. I always ask students, ‘What have you read, and what are you reading now,’ and it’s very interesting. Many of them don’t read at all, and I can say in my whole long life of knowing writers, and I’ve known hundreds, I never met any good writers who didn’t read, except Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. And they both read when they were young. Every other writer I know reads all the time – maybe not always fiction, maybe autobiography, history or whatever they’re interested in. Every writer worth his salt is interested in innovation, and there are two sources: one is by imitating life, that is to say writing about situations that have never been written about before in ways that have never been used before; the other is through parody of other literature. That is a deliberate act of influence and I think you choose your influences very carefully.
There is a school of thought which says there are profound links between homosexuality and artistic talent. Indeed some people would claim it is difficult to find one without the other.
I think that’s ridiculous. Clearly you can find many great writers and painters who are heterosexual. It does tend to vary according to the arts, and to the period. For instance, very few architects are homosexual, but maybe it’s partly because the engineering, technical aspect of architecture has become so important. I find that most homosexuals don’t like spending years and years studying maths, science and engineering. When I was a boy in the 1950s, the whole world of American painting was extremely macho, and if you were a homosexual you had to hide it because you wouldn’t be considered a serious artist. If you think of the generation of De Kooning, Pollock, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, they were all heterosexual. You barely find a woman and certainly not a gay man. Now, with the Hockney generation, you find many homosexuals, but I think it varies according to the period and the ethic of the period. If gay men tend to be sensitive to the arts, it’s partly because they are participatory outsiders. If you are a complete outsider, like a gypsy who doesn’t ever get into the inner structure of society but lives as a complete marginal, it’s rather difficult to be a writer, or you can only write about that small world. If you’re a complete insider or a successful Wall Street broker who was head perfect at Eton, it’s hard to question the mechanics of your world, but if you’re a Jew who passes as Gentile or a gay who sometimes passes as heterosexual, you can enter into the world without ever feeling completely part of it. You feel very much like an outsider, but are a participatory outsider; you participate in the system. It’s no accident that Proust, who was half-Jewish and at least half-homosexual, should be the person really to have written about the mechanics of the inner world of the French ruling class.
But people with great artistic talent nowadays often are homosexual.
There are many exceptions. For example, of the hundred and two books we read for the Booker Prize, I think only two had any overt homosexual consent. It was a shockingly low proportion, and the only one that was good was Sibyl Bedford’s Jigsaw, where she was quite open about her own lesbianism. Just numerically, there you have a spread of all the best English fiction of one whole year, and very very little of it was homosexual at all.
Would you want to claim heightened sensibility, as many homosexuals do, and if so, is it cause or effect?
I think you could claim heightened sensibility, which is the heightened sensibility of an outsider, and it’s definitely an effect. It’s an effect of being homosexual, nothing mystical, nothing innate.
From what you have written, the various psychological explanations for homosexuality seem inadequate to you. Can you suggest any reason why people should be divided in this way? Lesbians often point to the brutality and self-regard of men, but presumably a different explanation is needed for male homosexuals.
I think, as I said earlier, that women can choose to be lesbians. There are many women who felt they never had a choice, that they were born lesbian, but I’ve also known many who have actually chosen to be lesbian for political reasons – disappointment in marriage or disappointment in contact with men, or because of their political feminist convictions. But I have never known a man make a similar claim. I read a poll that Playboy magazine conducted of their readers, asking what is your secret fantasy, what would you like to explore that you’ve never had the courage to explore? Many women readers responded that they would like to explore lesbianism, but no heterosexual male reader said he wanted to explore homosexuality. So either they’re not admitting it or, as I suspect, it’s more clear-cut for men. I think it’s linked to masturbation. I think that when you masturbate alone, you have fantasies, and those fantasies guide you to what your real desires are. In that sense masturbation is psychologically productive, because it allows you to locate what you actually want to do sexually. But many women, especially of your generation and mine, did not masturbate until they were in their thirties or early forties, and it’s only at that point that they discover they’re having persistent lesbian fantasies. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.
You mean boys masturbate at an early age, women don’t?
I don’t think that’s the case now, but it was the case before, at least among traditional cultures or people who were from a religious background. Many girls simply didn’t touch themselves until they were older. As a political statement, I would say that no explanation is necessary, and that just as we don’t search for explanations for heterosexuality, so we shouldn’t search for explanations for homosexuality. To search for an explanation is to fall into the trap of regarding it as a pathology that needs an explanation. Curiously enough, the translator who is translating Genet material of mine into French, and who is heterosexual, said, ‘I find reading your work so odd because you name heterosexuality as a condition, and every time you present a new man, you say he’s a heterosexual. Heterosexuals themselves never think in those terms. They think of themselves as being a kind of universal nameless class, and then everybody else gets names as exceptions.’
But don’t people want to know more about homosexuality because it’s perverse?
Yes, because it’s different and because it can be threatening. They begin to think, maybe this will happen to me or my children, and what are the early signs? How can I be sure I’m not that way? It’s interesting. My friend who is just getting divorced – I’m his first male friend – has always lived as a heterosexual, with the wedding ring and so on, and he was telling me that in his milieu, which is architecture, many men joke about wanting to have homosexual adventures. It is constantly on their minds, always being brought up but in a joking fashion. They don’t act on it, but it is a thought that passes rather frequently through their heads. In my own case, homosexuality struck me as a source of freedom. I knew I didn’t want to be bourgeois, didn’t want to have a family or the expenses of a family, didn’t want to have a wife or children dependent on me, didn’t want to need a full-time job. I wanted to be a writer. I never felt I was rich enough to have children, nor did I want to be rich enough to have children. I wanted to be free as the wind and not to recreate the same kind of stifling manly situation that I suffered from as a child. When my father would come and visit me at university, the minute he left I would rush off to pick somebody up to have sex with. I needed to touch flesh, to prove to myself that I wasn’t like him, that I wasn’t going to be like him. In other words, I was fleeing into a kind of freedom that, for me, homosexuality stood for: the opposite of everything my family stood for.
If you had a choice, would you opt for homosexuality or heterosexuality?
I would opt for bisexuality, because it would be very exciting to be able to experience everybody and everything. I wish I had more flexibility as a heterosexual. I mean, I wish that part of me were developed because first of all I love women and the company of women and think it would be fun to explore that more. Also, women are very tolerant of older men if they’re successful, but men are not very tolerant, so I think that if the world were ideally arranged, you would, if you’re a man, be homosexual when you’re young and heterosexual when you’re old; and the exact contrary if you’re a woman, because lesbians tend to like older women and heterosexual men like younger women, so a woman should go from being heterosexual to being lesbian.
With people’s awareness and acceptance, however partial, of more sexually explicit writing, a certain kind of literature, which might be called the literature of concealment, has disappeared. Do you think that more relaxed attitudes have always been good for literature?
Yes and no. One of the most exciting homosexual stories ever written is one that’s not at all homosexual, ‘The Secret Shower’ by Conrad or another, ‘The Pupil’ by Henry James. Those writers wrote about highly charged erotic situations that were never specific. Even, let’s say, the paedophilia that is concealed in The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is absolutely thrilling and hair-raising, so it’s true that that has a kind of artistic value which is no longer quite so possible; though in my novel, Forgetting Elena – even though there’s no specific homosexuality – the atmosphere is heavily charged with a kind of mysterious and repressed homosexuality and I think the book works perfectly all right, although it was written after Gay Liberation. So it’s still an option if one wants to write about things in that way. I’m now editing an anthology of homosexual fiction for Faber, and the contribution by the youngest of all the writers is a throwback to this earlier period. In other words, it is about the relationship between a white man and an American Indian out west, and there’s a strong homoerotic pull between them, but neither of them appears to be conscious of it. It works as a very exciting homosexual story of friendship, but definitely physical.
In The Darker Proof, the volume of short stories you wrote with Adam Mars-Jones, there seems to be a note of defiance in the face of Aids. Is this defiance aimed at those who would smugly and piously claim that Aids has nothing to do with them, or is it perhaps stalking the spectre of death itself?
I think both. I have a very peculiar reaction to Aids that nobody else I know has, and that is a feeling of rage and humiliation. I’m a very proud person and I hate to have people condescend to me, but I have felt since Aids came along that many well-intentioned and perfectly nice heterosexual people look at me pityingly. I was very early in coming out as somebody who was HIV positive. I gave interviews early on, and I even wrote in Life Magazine recently that I am HIV positive. Now I find that many people have this way of looking at me as though they know I’m going to be dead in two years, and it’s as though that proves that everything I was saying earlier about the importance of expressing yourself homosexually was a mistake. It’s as if the Establishment, or heterosexuals or square normal people, are having the last laugh, and it absolutely infuriates me. So in these stories I’m interested partly in showing the kind of heroism, and even the high spirits, with which homosexuals are sometimes responding to the disease. I’m also very interested in showing that it’s not just people who are always at the baths having sex twenty times a day who are getting it. In fact it’s a single exposure that causes it. The viral nature of the disease wasn’t known till 1984, and by that point the disease had already been very widely spread. It first started appearing, as far as we know, in 1981, so there were three or four years of sexual activity when we didn’t know what safe sex was. Now we know how the disease is transmitted, and of the younger generation, the people who have come out since 1984, only one per cent has reported being positive in the United States. It’s a very low percentage. In other words, safe sex is really working, while for the older group there was no such thing as safe sex. People said you shouldn’t use poppers. Now it turns out that that had nothing to do with it. People said you shouldn’t have too much sex, or you should know the name of your partner. All of which is ludicrous, since it’s a question of a single exposure and you can get it as easily from your lover in bed at night in your home as you can at the baths or in the back room. It had nothing to do with the promiscuity, it had to do with the nature of sexual contact.
How much does it worry you?
It worries me constantly. Every time I make plans I make them with a double accounting system. In other words, I can tell you in one breath that I’m going to teach so that I can have a retirement plan in fifteen years, but the other system of accounting says I’ll probably be dead in four years, which is a statistical possibility, and a very strong one, because I know I’ve been positive since 1985, which is from the beginning of the tests. The view now is that ninety to a hundred per cent of the people who are positive will develop the disease. They used to say ten per cent, then it was twenty-five percent. All you can hope for is either that they’re wrong or there will be a vaccine for people who are positive but don’t yet have the disease.
Does that fear make you reject sex, or doesn’t it make any difference?
I never have non-safe sex, but that’s for the other person’s benefit, not for mine. I continue to have a lot of sex, so it doesn’t make any difference that way, but it makes you wake up in the middle of the night thinking you’re going to die. I’ve lost some forty friends, you know – almost my whole generation. We were a group of gay writers, in New York together, and now I’m trying to organize all of their papers for Yale University before the last of us dies, so they can have something to study for the future.
Why is it that homosexuals get the virus, and lesbians don’t on the whole?
It’s the nature of the sexual contact. It’s spread by blood and sperm. A homosexual man, or any man, can get fucked in the ass, so he receives sperm, and the nature of the anus is to absorb fluid to make a hard stool, so it absorbs instantly anything that’s put in it. Drug addicts, for instance, will often put drugs up their ass to get high very quickly, or if you give yourself a wine enema you will get high very quickly because it doesn’t pass through your liver first. It’s very vulnerable tissue; whereas the nature of the vagina is not to absorb but to conduct the sperm all the way to the uterus. The anus being highly absorptive, a man can get fucked in the ass, can get Aids that way, and the can turn around and fuck somebody else in the ass. The nature of homosexual men is that they can both receive sperm and give sperm. The nature of a heterosexual man is that he can give sperm but can’t receive it. The nature of a woman is that she can receive sperm but can’t give it. So it’s almost a fact that, mathematically, a homosexual man plays this pivot role of both giving and receiving sperm, and it’s that which makes a homosexual especially vulnerable.
What has been the social impact of Aids? I know what liberal response is proper, but is it not time to curb freedoms as Aids spreads through the population? The Soviet Union, for example, has a very small-scale problem, seemingly because homosexual acts are still illegal there and are heavily punished.
Western Europe, at least, is not likely to be very repressive about Aids because there was a period when the disease was heterosexualized, that is to say, it was being presented as a strong heterosexual possibility and people started getting very frightened. Now it appears that the target populations are Black Africans, mainly heterosexual, gay men and intravenous drug-users, and the ruling class in Western Europe isn’t very interested in any of these three groups. If they all die, nobody cares. That’s the ignoble side of it. The noble side is that people like the Minister of Health here in France have realized that forbidding homosexuality or closing bath-houses is not really very efficacious in stopping the spread of the disease. It can take up to ten years before it manifests itself, but there’s no way of knowing who has it. For a while, the Bavarians were trying to give people instantaneous tests before they crossed the border, and other people, like the Finns, were insisting you had a blood test before you went to their country; and India was saying that to have longer than a six-month visa, you had to have blood tests. All of that was quite ridiculous, and in Western Europe it was decided it was against human rights, so now the European Community, with the reluctant acceptance of Britain, which is always more primitive in these matters, has decided it is unenforceable and we must spread health information to encourage prevention and, secondly, pay for research. Trying to stop people from having sex is pointless.
It’s almost twenty-five years since Viscount Montgomery said of homosexuality: ‘This sort of thing may be tolerated by the French, but we are British, thank God.’ Presumably you would agree we have moved on since then, but do you think that the underlying attitude of the majority of British people remains the same?
Yes, I think England is especially backward in the acceptance of homosexuality. But again it extends to sexuality in general. For instance, all the business that was going on two or three years ago with small children, the witch-hunting of parents in Cleveland and all. In France people laughed. They couldn’t believe something like that could possibly happen. One of the main reasons why England is so primitive is its press. In France we don’t have a popular press, a gutter press. There are no headlines saying ‘Mother Tortures Baby’. In Britain you have almost nothing but. Even The Times runs sensational headlines. The level of British journalism is appalling, and it’s interesting, going back to the question of Aids, to find the countries that have behaved the worst have been the United States, England and Germany, those being the three countries which have a great gutter press. The countries that have behaved the best have been those in the Latin world – Spain, Italy and France – which don’t have a gutter press to stir up all this anxiety and craziness.
And aren’t we in Britain much more hypocritical about sex in general than people in Europe?
Absolutely. In France, if you go to a dinner party among middle-class or educated people and you start whispering about somebody’s divorce or somebody’s adultery, everyone looks at your askance. But in England I’m shocked even by my friends and about how much they gossip, especially about sex. Somebody said something very amusing recently: that in America people talk about money in order to avoid talking about the real secret, which is sex, whereas in France everybody talks about sex in order to avoid talking about the real secret, which is money.
In your view, are you born homosexual or do you become homosexual? Is it nature or nurture?
In my own case I feel it was nature, because one of my earliest memories, during the war, when I was less than five years old, was of sitting on the lap of a pilot who was a friend of our family and being absolutely enthralled by him as a man – I mean feeling weak at the knees with admiration for this huge man with golden wings on his shirt. It wasn’t the usual little boy’s desire to want to be the man. It was the desire to have him, somehow. Admiration of a little boy for a soldier is perfectly normal, but this was something slightly different. Certain societies favour the expression of homosexuality, but the urge toward homosexuality may well be determined biologically.
Now for the important question. What is it about the homosexual that makes him generally more promiscuous than the heterosexual? Where does the compulsion spring from? It’s something everyone wants to know.
It goes back to what I said earlier. Almost everything about homosexuality can be explained by its status as an all-male world. For instance, a study done on lesbian couples, gay-male couples and heterosexual couples, showed that if you took a certain age group, say thirty to thirty-five, the lesbian couple has sex once a week, the gay-male couple has sex three times a week, and the heterosexual couple had sex twice a week. In other words, heterosexuality is what needs to be explained in that it is a compromise between a powerful male sexuality and a weaker or more restrained sexuality. Many heterosexual men used to say to me before Aids, you guys are really lucky because you can get laid all the time and don’t have to spend a fortune taking somebody out to dinner four or five times, then sitting around and hoping she might put out. You see somebody in the street, you ask him for a light, you go home with him and you have sex immediately. That was the great advantage of homosexuality before Aids. You didn’t have the braking effect of female socialization, but you had the affectionately enhancing effect of male on male. Men were doing exactly what they wanted to do, and what they would be doing with women if they could. I think very few heterosexual men, if they’re honest, would say oh, I like having to court a woman for a month before I can go to bed with her. If you read erotic fantasies by heterosexual men, it’s often-times where women are on heat. Many erotic movies are about women who have hungry pussies – they are on heat, they can’t have enough. In fact they don’t exist very often. There are nymphomaniacs, of course, but never enough.
But there’s another thing which is inexplicable. However heterosexual I may be, it’s unlikely I will go to a public lavatory and wait outside for a woman to come out and proposition her. But there are very distinguished men who, before sexual liberation, ran the risk of arrest by visiting lavatories. There’s a comparison there.
That has partly to do with the repression of homosexuality. Many of those men were married and did not have a homosexual lifestyle, but did have strong homosexual urges and no normal channels for expressing them. They were afraid to be seen in a homosexual bar or pub; they couldn’t take a lover because they had a wife. I have in those furtive situations met men who turned out to be married. I used to cruise all the time, but found it was most compulsive before I accepted my homosexuality, which was when I went to a Freudian woman Viennese psychiatrist when I was twenty years old. My biggest problem was that I was so sexually compulsive, and I asked, ‘What can I do to cure this?’ She said, ‘If you can speak to your heterosexual friends a little bit about why you are homosexual, and if you could be more open about it and could integrate it into your life, you would find you would become less compulsive.’
So in your present settled situation, would you ever dream of cruising?
Yes, of course I would cruise. Just as I can imagine how it would be if you were in an airport bar and a very attractive woman sat down next to you and you bought her a drink and started talking to her; and then it was announced that all the planes were cancelled and that you would have to stay in Paris another night. If she invited you back to her apartment or you invited her to your hotel for another drink, what would happen next?
Yes, but I wouldn’t go looking for it.
Well, I don’t go to bars and I live with somebody, but I can’t say I would resist temptation a hundred per cent if it presented itself.
You say in A Boy’s Own Story: ‘Sex seemed a strange thing to me, a social rite that registered, even brought about, shifts in the balance of power.’ What is the relationship between sex and power?
A sub-text in many sexual acts, even ones that seem quite affectionate, can be sado-masochism. There was a famous American psychiatrist called Stoller who began to record the sado-masochistic fantasies of patients who called themselves sado-masochistic, but he was a good enough scientist to realize that he should record the sexual fantasies of regular people too, and found that they also had fantasies of submission and domination to a shocking extent. The truth is that even when the sex act, viewed by a camera or a voyeur, looks fairly peaceful, if you were reading the text going on in the head of the man or the woman or the two men or the two women you might find there were themes of submission and domination; that they were very fluid in that sometimes one might begin as a submissive one and end as the dominant one. Many of the themes of childhood, the feelings of wanting to control and fear of losing control, get played out in the adult sexual act. It’s part of what makes it exciting. Stoller found that the reason couples get bored with each other is that they get to know each other too well and know that the other doesn’t really represent any threat. The ideal sexual moment is when people are comfortable enough with each other to feel free to express their fantasies but don’t know each other so well that there’s no longer a mystery.
That’s true. Can you suggest something of the homosexual attitude towards women? It must be a different kind of relationship in general from that which obtains between heterosexuals, even when there is no overt liaison, nor any likelihood of one.
Friendships between heterosexual women and homosexual men can be some of the strongest in the world. It approaches Hegel’s idea of the brother/sister relationship, because it’s a sister that you’ve chosen. It’s one of the purest relationships because it is completely disinterested. There’s no sexual tension. You don’t want anything from the woman and she doesn’t want anything from you. What you want is each other’s friendship. That can be very complex too, and it can be involved with social ambition, working together, all kinds of things, but nevertheless I would say it approaches a state of purity, because for homosexual men every other man is potentially a sexual partner.
Has it ever happened that you befriended a woman and she fell for you?
Yes. That’s painful. I try to be very clear from the very beginning, though now that I’m well known as a gay writer I don’t even have to. But before I would always try to be very clear that I was exclusively homosexual so that at least I was being fair and honest about what was possible. It does happen, but less often, I find, because I tend not to make a mystery of my life and I will often introduce a woman friend to my boyfriend very early on. Therefore it would have to be somebody very unbalanced and strange who would let herself go so far.
I understand that you are also occasionally attracted to heterosexuals. How do you deal with that? It is possible for you to seduce the heterosexual?
[Laughs] Yes, well, that’s maybe one reason why I like Genet, because Genet never had sex with homosexual men, only heterosexual men. They were always working-class boys who were in some way dependent on him for money, but he would always arrange for them to have girlfriends. He would even choose their wives and so on. It was the sort of thing that used to happen a lot in the Mediterranean world, especially Greece; the older man who had the younger boy, then set the younger boy up in the world. Many younger heterosexual men admire me as a writer. They’re curious and they want to have an edge on you. I’ve been seduced more by heterosexual men than I have seduced. I don’t think I’ve seduced them very often. But if they want to seduce me; It’s OK.
To come back to Genet and the subject of Prisoner of Love. How do you feel about the Palestinian cause? Are you sympathetic?
It’s a very awkward question. I’ll tell you why. It’s because American publishing is entirely pro-Israel. Recently I was asked if Genet was anti-Semitic, and I said yes and no, but yes to some degree. The publisher said, ‘Well, why are we even bothering to publish your book? Nobody will read it in America.’ So there’s a commercial part of me that thinks I have to be very careful how I respond to your question, but the truth is I’m very sympathetic to the Palestinians.
You can sympathize to the Palestinians without being anti-Semitic. I’m certainly not anti-Semitic.
Nor am I. I’m not even anti-Zionist, but all the contact I have had with Palestinians has been very good. I’ve found the Arab people that I’ve met are most cultured, even their attitude towards literature is extremely sophisticated. For instance, a book like Prisoner of Love would have been a very easy one for the Palestinians to claim and try to use as a political weapon but, in fact, when I was recently at the Institute of the Arab world here in Paris on a panel with the head of the Palestinian Review, he said that he thought the book should be considered a work of art and not a political text; that, of course, it did have a political aspect, but it would be very difficult to decode a clear political message. It’s very ambiguous politically. The thing about Genet is that he himself was a homeless person and hated France. He thought that he was an orphan. He was always rejected by everybody, and the two political groups he identified with were the Black Panthers and the Palestinians, both of whom had a government but no country. He once said that the day the Palestinians recovered their land, then he would no longer love them. It was very important to him that they were marginal homeless people like himself.
He identified with them?
Absolutely. He hated France and never thought he was French. When he was a child, he had a persistent fantasy that he was Polish. He loved it when people told him he looked Polish.
Could you write a novel without any trace of homosexuality in it?
I’ve already done it, and that’s Caracole where there are no homosexual characters. Mind you, it’s been a very difficult book to sell because our society is one which packages everyone, and so people were very puzzled by it, especially in the English-speaking world. Why would a homosexual writer write a book where there are no homosexual characters? I found it exciting and liberating to write. For one thing, in this book I wrote compulsively about heterosexual sex, which I have very little experience of, so it was all my fantasies, and I found that very exciting. Several heterosexual readers have told me they found it exciting too. It was a pure act of imagination, projection and voyeurism.
What’s the greatest ambition left to you?
I want to finish the cycle that has begun with A Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty. I want to write two more volumes, one about the 1970s, the heyday of gay life, then one about the 1980s, about the Aids period. So I want to finish that as a cycle, and I certainly want to finish the Genet book. After that, we’ll see.
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED WINTER 1989