A Brilliant Neglected Novel About the Search for a Lost Older Lover

Edmund White’s “Nocturnes for the King of Naples” opens with the most remarkable account of cruising I know. By cruising I mean a specifically gay male practice of organized promiscuity, a form of sexual sociality at once universal—existing, in remarkably similar forms, in rural American truck stops and among Roman ruins—and, as White chronicles it, specific to a particular time and place, the Chelsea piers in nineteen-seventies New York, part of the extravagant, unprecedented gay world that flourished between the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the onset of the AIDS crisis. In the nighttime scene that opens the book, men brush past each other in the dark, alert in their animal bodies, their senses sharpened by hunger; they send up cigarette flares, displaying themselves against the night sky; they pair off or remain solitary, unchosen—like the narrator, who lingers until sunrise, when finally he finds a man to go home with.

It’s a bravura opening; it’s also disorienting, and readers might be forgiven for needing some time to find their footing. This is in part because the novel dispenses with preliminaries: there’s no welcoming exposition, no helpful signposts or introductions, just a nameless, faceless first-person narrator in the grip of an as-yet unexplained desire. What’s more, White’s disarmingly gorgeous prose everywhere works transformations: on just the first page, the rotting industrial warehouse the men populate becomes a theatre, a museum, a cathedral, a bird. The landscape beyond the river is a body struck by a whip, an image of pleasure or penitence, we can’t know which, or even whether the distinction can be drawn. Usual relations of cause and consequence are scrambled, made mystic, so that wind conjures flame from a match; banal gestures become lavishly, ravishingly beautiful, making drama of perception, as when the light from a man dragging on a cigarette is described as “molding gold leaf to cheekbones.”

And then, with no more warning than a section break, we’re somewhere else, somewhen else, at a party where a father fails to recognize his son. A “you” is addressed but not identified; we’ve still learned next to nothing of our narrator. The novel’s first chapter, with its leaps and lunges, is characteristic of the novel as a whole, the movements of which are dictated not by logic or chronology or narrative consequence, not even by trackable associations; instead we drift along more mysterious currents of memory and desire, deep in the narrator’s consciousness. (Or his unconscious, “which doesn’t recognize any of the ordinary dimensions such as time, distance, causality.”) Not for nothing does White label the book’s eight chapters “nocturnes”: their movement is oneiric, with harmonic progressions that, unassailable in nighttime, can seem inscrutable by the light of day. We can seldom be sure where we are; throughout the novel, as the narrator is drawn from one remembered scene into another, deictic, anchoring words—here, now, there, then—point in all directions. White’s style, with its recondite vocabulary (internodes, tepidarium, ciliary), its wordplay (“the wan dawns of Don Juans”), its wildly ornate metaphors, can have a narcotic effect; and one very pleasurable way to experience the novel is simply to give oneself over to it, to enjoy its textures and scents, without any arduous grasping after clarity.

But the novel rewards alertness. Beneath its lush, impressionistic surfaces are solid structures, and for a careful reader the story becomes clear, or nearly so. (Some of the book’s mysteries remain unsoundable, at least for me, which is a quality I prize: one can return, again and again, to the inexhaustible text.) The narrator, who we will learn is now in his late forties, remembers a relationship with a much older man—the “you” the novel addresses, at least most of the time—that he recognizes as ideal only after it is lost. This “you” is the “King of Naples,” though that phrase appears only in the title: a distinguished, cultured man held in esteem by a court of distinguished, cultured friends, the “saints” who will continue to cross the narrator’s path long after the relationship’s demise.

This is a relationship of a kind we’ve grown suspicious of, though one that has long been endemic to gay male culture: it’s as much educative as erotic, and fraught with power differentials of various, unstable kinds. The older man saves the narrator—they meet in Spain, where the narrator, seventeen years old, still a high-school student, has fled his despotic, drug-addled father—and supports him, financially and otherwise, training him both in gay life and in the ceremonies of high culture. The narrator feels at once grateful for the older man’s protection and trapped by the safety he provides: “you were the living barrier between me and the danger I didn’t want to digest, only devour.” He is constantly aware of the older man’s “full, powerful life,” and aware of his own power, too, the power of beauty, of the beloved: “If I would touch you, as I did once in a while (just a touch, nothing intimate), you’d get excited.” He torments the older man, binding him to chastity while bringing home other men; the older man’s acolytes, those distinguished friends, try to remind the narrator of his place.

The narrator leaves the older man for Robert, a tall, handsome lover closer to his own age; but the unconscious, a psychiatrist tells him, “can’t distinguish between abandoning someone and being abandoned by him,” an ambivalence the narrator will indulge. The narrator sees his younger self as fickle, with “nothing definite in me beyond one surge of emotion after another”; his relationship with Robert soon sours, and he returns to the home he shared with the older man to find that he has been replaced: the bathroom’s monogrammed towels bear a new set of initials. So begins a sense of loss the narrator suffers from and, one suspects, cherishes, nurtures, the source of an abjection that can seem at times, in the book’s windswept lyricism, almost ecstatic. So begins also a different kind of education, a career in love that will reach its climax in a lavishly arch fantasia, as the narrator and his lover reënact scenes from the narrator’s past in a theatre they’ve made their home. This sequence, which comes in the novel’s fifth chapter, offers the narrator an experience of unrequited love that allows him fully to understand the older man’s grief.

“Nocturnes for the King of Naples” is an account of the narrator’s search for the older lover he has lost. This search is geographical, and will take him to the places they travelled together: Rome, Spain, and what I take to be Fire Island. It’s also sexual, the narrator’s promiscuity a process of seeking the lover “in the bodies of hundreds of men I’ve ransacked, tearing them open as though surely this one must be concealing the contraband goods.” Most profoundly, it is a search through the past, the narrator scouring his avowedly fragmentary, unreliable memories for fragments of the “you” he addresses. And so we see his childhood on a landed estate surrounded by slums; his father’s abandonment; his mother’s wild grief and eventual suicide; the boarding school from which his father’s current paramour summons him to Spain, where the narrator joins a bewildering, Bacchic court; his father’s death. The beauty of White’s style can make it possible to miss the starkness of the trauma the narrator suffers from the loss of his parents, which nevertheless brands him; it is there to be found on every page of the book.

The father is another great masculine presence hovering over “Nocturnes,” a foil for, but also perhaps a further aspect of, the beloved “you” the narrator continually addresses. Especially because, as we will learn—this might be a spoiler, except that White’s novel can’t be spoiled, as its interest lies elsewhere than in plot—the older lover has died; the narrator has been directing his plangent confessions to an absence that can accommodate the names of “lover” and “father” with equal ease. And maybe a third, too, since another name for this absence might be “God.” The devotional quality of White’s novel may be the biggest surprise for a reader encountering it in 2024, especially a reader familiar with White’s later, more famous, resolutely secular work. “Nocturnes” is steeped in religious imagery and citations. The narrator compares himself to Gregory of Nyssa, reading over his past with the fervor Gregory brought to the Song of Songs. The text is loaded with allusions to scripture, to the Psalms, to the story of David and Jonathan, to the Gospels; also to Sufi poetry, to Saint John of the Cross, to Dante.

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