This long novel is haunted, dedicated to the dead, but quite without nostalgia, almost without grief. It starts with an intimate loss ('I'm beginning this book on All Saints' Day in Paris, six months after Brice's death'), and with a visit to a commemorative plaque in the Père Lachaise cemetery. The narrator looks at a photo left there, and thinks it may represent 'one of the other dead young men'. A few pages later, recalling his seemingly interminable early sexual adventures, he says: 'I suppose most of them are dead now, all those young bodies I touched and undressed and tucked in when they fell asleep.' 'They were all dying,' he says of the men he used to know on Fire Island. 'They all died.' The echo of the chiming roll-call at the end of Remembrance of Things Past is quietly deliberate, but of course the characters in Proust died of time, not of Aids. White wants to register the disaster, but refuses to memorialise the dead only as victims. The title of the novel, as we learn on one of the last pages, comes from Haydn: 'I kept thinking of Haydn's The Farewell Symphony. In the last movement more and more of the musicians get up to leave the stage, blowing out their candles as they go. In the end just one violinist is still playing.' They 'get up to leave'. They steal away, are not stolen. The narrator also recalls Diaghilev's last secretary, a man in his nineties, saying: 'You must understand I don't want to meet new people. I prefer the company of the dead.' The narrator comments: 'And although I'm not quite there yet, I know what he means.' What the narrator knows is not only the allure of memory and the past, but the curious fact that the dead, if properly entertained, make excellent company.
LRB 22 May 1997 | PDF Download