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Forgetting Elena Combining glittering wit, an atmosphere dense in social paranoia, and a breathtaking elegance and precision of language, White s first novel suggests a hilarious apotheosis of the comedy of manners For, on the privileged island community where Forgetting Elena takes place, manners are everything Or so it seems to White s excruciatingly self conscious young narrator who desperately wants to be accepted in this world where everything from one s bathroom habits to the composition of spontaneous poetry is subject to rigid conventions A big gay thought experiment Reminded me of Jared French s painting, State Park. The novel is structurally and thematically interesting there s a brilliant patterning of motifs but these things can t thread the component parts together It s a novel of manners The narrator has no apparent backstory and an almost pathologically selective memory He wakes on an island in a cottage shared with other men, all of whom are subject to some unwritten code of behavior Consequently everyone is dissembling and false It s strange It doesn t surprise me that Vladimir Nabokov and his The novel is structurally and thematically interesting there s a brilliant patterning of motifs but these things can t thread the component parts together It s a novel of manners The narrator has no apparent backstory and an almost pathologically selective memory He wakes on an island in a cottage shared with other men, all of whom are subject to some unwritten code of behavior Consequently everyone is dissembling and false It s strange It doesn t surprise me that Vladimir Nabokov and his wife liked the book It has the same sort of absurdist underpinnings as, say, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight There s also some discussion of poetic form which would have pleased the painstaking translator of Alexander Pushkin s Eugene Onegin and other Russian poets I mean, this guy is in a serious fugue state He doesn t know what his precise relationship is to other people He doesn t know his last name is it Valentine He doesn t know if the woman he s dealing with is his lover or his sister Lying in her cottage naked, he s unsure of what to do When she sucks his limp cock, he thinks of it as a kind of dumbshow p 92 The ensuing sex is amusing It s what a virgin might think on his first experience of sex, having never heard of it before It was for me a slog I was thinking that, fortunately, because it s short, it s a slog I can afford, since I admire White s other work so But if it s 184 pages it reads like 368 I don t think it s the best book to start with if you re new to the author My favorites by Edmund White include Hotel de Dream, The Beautiful Room is Empty and The Farewell Symphony I read Forgetting Elena because a student wished to write a paper on this book, and because I knew completely nothing about White When I mentioned some features typical of queer literature she looked at me, puzzled, and said But this is his debut He wasn t writing about homosexuality at the time Forgetting Elena is a very queer book disguised as a parable It is set in a mysterious, mostly male, island community New England meets the Caribbean , with elaborate, but unclear, dress code one I read Forgetting Elena because a student wished to write a paper on this book, and because I knew completely nothing about White When I mentioned some features typical of queer literature she looked at me, puzzled, and said But this is his debut He wasn t writing about homosexuality at the time Forgetting Elena is a very queer book disguised as a parable It is set in a mysterious, mostly male, island community New England meets the Caribbean , with elaborate, but unclear, dress code one of the characters is criticized for choosing outfits that are misguided and primitive ignoring any sort of look we might want to achieve as a group The main focus of the community, apart from sunbathing by day and dancing in the nearby hotel by night, is the study of forms earnestness is the least desirable trait, sprezzatura the most desired one.This community seems to be partly influenced by the 19th century dandy culture gardenias and all , partly by the courtly tradition spontaneous poems , partly by Chinese Japanese Culture the Old Code, peony bowls at Elena s house , and partly by Ronald Firbank This soup has a very delicate flavor I would tell you its odd ingredients, the woman replies, slipping a hand under Maria s dress and fondling her small breast, but you d think I was being pretentious I suppose it s good we avoid all ostentation Maria licks the woman s forearm with her delicate pink tongue.We enter this world with the unnamed narrator, who suffers from memory loss, but of a peculiar, unrealistic as in symbolic , not poorly conceived kind He does not remember his name, or age, or place within the community, and tries to establish his position in relation to other men in every interaction he is extremely self conscious, and wants to blend in His desire to measure himself against the others Herbert, the leader, in particular, but also other influential men does seem to have homosexual undertones when I m with Herbert again, I ll attune my harmonies to his I ll forget the womanHe forgets cultural constructs of masculine and feminine beauty he does not know whether he is attractive, and Elena s looks are equally a puzzle Do these men think that the woman is beautiful Her eyebrows are curved and thin that must be desirable, for surely she plucked them to look that way Her mouth is small Should it be large Do they adore her for her wit, in spite of her looks I like her looks.More than that, he forgets about sex The description of his genitals and masturbation early in the book is very curious it s not defamiliarization per se, but description of something that seems barely familiar to the narrator The same applies to heterosexual sex, when the narrator draws conclusions from the placement on genitals on his lover s body.The only thing for me to do is experiment I only want to please I put my hands around her waist and lock them Yet this isthan a pointless exercise,than a parallel for searching one s place in a society that wasn t made to accommodate you but then, maybe it was When one realizes rules are arbitrary, one may start to rebel, negotiate, rewrite the code Do you imagine it s always been like this Like what That no one has ever followed the rules Perhaps all those noble people in history had no sense of propriety and did just as they pleased White is very perceptive Let me leave you with two quotations I do catch a charming inflection in her voice, the sort of story book tone adopted when addressing children Yet there is nothing condescending or false in the voice It s simply the way a mature woman speaks to an adolescent when she feels comfortable with him and realizes that for her comfort to continue she must go insisting, in every intonation, that she is much older, he much younger If he s feeling guilty, put on a fast record and start dancing by yourself in the dark Or turn on a dim light, be very matter of fact Do you want some water An aspirin What time should I set the alarm for That will show him you expect nosweet nothings Or if he s feeling too crowded and possessed, too married, then tell him you need your sleep, would he please leave, you ve got a rendezvous with another man tomorrow at lunch Or if the tristesse is simply what every animal feels, then there s always scrabble, or a rubber of bridge Everything you need to know about E White was said better than I ever could by David M elsewhere To paraphrase, his earliest works demonstrate that he could have been a modern Proust had he chose to stick to this path Whether that is our loss or not, be thankful that what exists in his baroque style is out there I am Off to Fire Island pssstI think the book is, like, a metaphorsssshhhhhh

  • Paperback
  • 192 pages
  • Forgetting Elena
  • Edmund White
  • English
  • 04 March 2017
  • 067975573X

About the Author: Edmund White

Edmund White s novels include Fanny A Fiction, A Boy s Own Story, The Farewell Symphony, and A Married Man He is also the author of a biography of Jean Genet, a study of Marcel Proust, The Fl neur A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, and, most recently, his memoir, My Lives Having lived in Paris for many years, he is now a New Yorker and teaches at Princeton University He was also a member of The Violet Quill, a gay writer s group that met briefly from 1980 81.


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