On Genre expectations.
The Beautiful Room is Empty has sat on my bookshelf for years. I finally decided to read it when I was researching the genre of Künstlerroman. Künstlerroman means ‘artist’s novel’ in German and is closely related to the genre of bildungsroman, where a novel focuses on the growth of a protagonist usually through youth. In the case of künstlerroman the novel focuses on the development of the protagonist into an artist.
The Beautiful Room is Empty is a great novel that explores psychoanalysis and sexual repression within 1950s and 60s America. Themes of social class and gay experience predominate and the fact that the characters are artists seems to be secondary to that. I was hoping to learn about the development of the character as an artist, but the character arc was more about the protagonist’s changes in emotional and sexual maturity. I’m not entirely sure that it does meet the genre of kunstlerroman, given that most of the artistic successes outlined in the text are those of the unnamed protagonists friends, rather than the protagonist himself. I think the novel would be much better categorised as a bildungsroman.
So while it didn’t answer my question about the style of Künstlerroman it did teach me about fine writing. White has woven some really delicate expressions into many of the pages. He creates an image through personification and turning descriptive assumptions on their head. There is a strong sense of place and atmosphere with descriptions like, ‘a senile radio would be muttering to itself,’ (p3) and ‘I remember running with him down the street one grey winter afternoon when the sun, discouraged by a cold reception, had withdrawn.’ (p28) One of my favourites is ‘In Evanston I stood in the old bay window and looked out at Lake Michigan beating itself up.’ (p29) And ‘ On the floor a bum, reeking of sweet red wine, is sleeping it off, snoring loudly, a sound that draws a red line under the conspicuous silence.’ (p143)
There is also a wonderful sense of how the narrator sees the world:
‘The streets had been cleared, traffic lights lidded in snow burned like mad eyes, Christmas shoppers submitted to their forced labour, there were other cars cruising around as old and as dirty as ours, everyone seemed busy and indifferent – the rich anonymity of the city.’(12)
‘On this hot July night the streets were thronged with people. Here a crowd circled a sidewalk artist sketching a solemn young man with waved hair and spotty skin. The sitter was posing as though his profile were about to go on the coin of the realm. He was the only one who could not see how the sketch was coming along, this disappointment being patiently prepared for him.’ (133)
I love this last image of disappointment being patiently prepared, a larger metaphor life in some ways with tragic/comedic elements.
Edumund White The Beautiful Room is Empty, Picador 1988.