Caracole by Edmund White

The Tennessean, November 17, 1985, page 9-D.

CARACOLE. By Edmund White. Dutton. $17.95.

Edmund White Luxuriant Writer
New Novel ‘Caracole’ Crafted in Lyrical Prose

Reviewed by JOHN BETHUNE

“He was that most delightful of all things—an artist who makes small but daring experiments within an exhausted tradition.”

Thus the sophisticated dilettante Mateo explains to his innocent country nephew his admiration of an obscure painter.

Whether Edmund White intends any of the characters in his luxuriant new fiction, Caracole, to reflect his own views is, by design, impossible to tell. But Mateo, who declares that “genius works best with worn-out things,” neatly expresses the esthetic principles of this curious exercise in decadence.

The events in Caracole—readers should be forewarned that relatively few events punctuate its lyrical prose—take place in an unnamed, imaginary country faintly reminiscent of Balzac’s France or Stendhal’s Italy.

At the center of the story is Gabriel, a carbuncular adolescent whose semi-aristocratic family has gone to ruin. After an awkward sexual initiation with Angelica, a girl from a local tribe of immigrants, and an unexplained imprisonment by his demented father, Gabriel is rescued by his uncle and brought to “the capital.”

A strange cross between Byzantium, Rio and Venice, the capital is a cultural and commercial metropolis in the hands of foreign conquerors.

Enveloped in the capital’s fervent sexual and political intrigue, nonstop intellectual discourse and perpetual carnival atmosphere, Gabriel grows into a world-weary maturity.

On one level, this is a traditional (or worn-out?) story about the passage from innocence to experience. But Caracole is really about language rather than events, art rather than character.

When Gabriel first meets the older woman who will become his mentor and lover, White’s description characteristically turns away from the personal and towards the painterly elements of the scene:

“She was slumped low in her chair, the white of her bodice planting a faint flag in the polished red granite floor. The open window behind her palette-knifed a gob of intense, pulsing pigment onto the stone.”

Throughout this book, as here, it is not the people who seem alive, but everything else.

For lack of a better term, the publisher has labeled Caracole a novel. But the obscure if resonant title—get out your Webster’s—suggests rococo horseplay and self-conscious artifice rather than novelistic realism.

Caracole bears less resemblance to a novel than to a masque or opera, both forms that inherently emphasize music, poetry and spectacle at the expense of plot and character.

In Caracole, the sensuous attractions of language and artifice overwhelm any possible interest in the characters and their fates.

White courts this imbalance partly for the sheer pleasure of language, but also because he mistrusts traditional characterization. The artist, he seems to suggest, can never reveal the person but only describe the mask.

Despite his mistrust of a decadent genre, White seems to have abandoned the novel with a suppressed pang of regret. His characters are like so many Pinocchios, creaking with eagerness to spring into life and having to settle for a few tantalizing tugs on their strings.

In the course of writing such novels as Forgetting Elena and A Boy’s Own Story, White has developed a considerable reputation as a stylist. In Caracole, style itself seems to be his subject.

The delightful painter Mateo describes is simply Edmund White with a brush.

“Our man could make his portrait of Mrs. Edwin Smith . . . into a bravura exercise in rendering every aspect of a pearl without ever once dipping his brush into merest grey, blue or white.”

Perhaps it is no loss to sacrifice a Mrs. Smith (or as Faulkner said, any number of grandmothers) on the altar of style. But in this book of polished surfaces and gaudy masks, some invisible demon is at work, making us look up from our delicate pearls now and then to wonder, for an instant, just who this Mrs. Edwin Smith is.

It is White’s peculiar demon, and for all the brilliance of his craft, he has yet to wrestle with it.

John Bethune is a writer in Sewanee, Tenn.