Last night I finished reading The Farewell Symphony, the final novel in Edmund White’s ‘gay trilogy’ which tells the (semi-autobiographical) life story of a gay man growing up in America. There is so much I could say about the trilogy – it was a hugely rewarding experience in many different ways – but for now the main thing on my mind is the ending. I had actually started reading the final chapter while lying in bed last week, and had to stop on the first page when it very quickly became clear that it was going to be overwhelmingly concerned with the arrival of AIDS (I wasn’t in the mindset for it). AIDS has had an ominous presence throughout the novel, hanging over the tales of lives without responsibility with a tragic sense of inevitability. The mentions of it are infrequent – the narrator occasionally breaks off from his tale to return to his present, where it is clear that his boyfriend has died from the disease – and they pierce the narrative like stones shattering holes in a window.
Sure enough, the final chapter was heavy going and profoundly moving. In the space of 30 or so pages we go from a man at his gym falling ill with a mystery illness to his group of friends being completely decimated by the disease, including most of his great loves. The speed of it is devastating and really hammers home how quickly everything changed. Can we even begin to comprehend what it must have been like back then (which seems so long ago in so many ways and yet was so recent)? I was in tears by the end and thought about my group of friends and how lucky we are to be living in an age where there is not an expectation/resignation that some of us will die before we hit 40.
It was a very hard-hitting aspect of one of the most fascinating threads of the trilogy: how much life has changed for gay people in the past 50 years. Despite the differences in geography and time, there was a real sense of a shared history and of so much owed to people who had bravely dared to be unapologetic about who and what they were. Alongside this was a sense that this community had always and would always be different in some ways – different, and not lesser – and that this was something worth celebrating.