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Windy travelogue got up as 'biography'

Fanny: A Fiction

By Edmund White

Ecco, 384 pp., $24.95

At 63, American novelist Edmund White can look back on a lengthy career highlighted by stylized 1970s gay-themed novels like "Forgetting Elena" and "Nocturnes for the King of Naples." In 1982, he added "A Boy's Own Story," an ultimately bitter gay coming-of-age story. Diagnosed HIV-positive in 1985, White announced the news and incorporated the theme of AIDs in much of his subsequent writing. He has fortunately remained in good health and highly productive, with his latest novel a first attempt at historical fiction.

"Fanny: A Fiction" is set in the 1820s and '30s, describing two real British women named Fanny. One, Fanny Wright (1795-1852), was a radical socialist who fought for free love and the abolition of slavery in America. Fanny Trollope (1779-1863) was a prolific writer and matriarch of a large family, including son Anthony, who himself became a famous novelist.

As described in Pamela Neville-Sington's solid biography "Fanny Trollope: The Life and Adventures of a Clever Woman," she was intrigued by Fanny Wright's attempt to found a utopian colony called Nashoba outside of Memphis. Mrs. Trollope even joined the colony with some of her children (excluding Anthony) but was quickly disillusioned, and eventually wrote a highly critical memoir, "Domestic Manners of the Americans" (1832).

These historical facts are the basis for White's novel, which presents itself as a posthumously published "biography" of Fanny Wright by Fanny Trollope, with the author's queries to herself left in brackets, much like poet James Merrill's "The (Diblos) Notebook," which includes lines crossed out by a self-editing author-protagonist. However, some basic problems quickly arise in White's conceit. First of all, "Fanny" is not constructed like a biography at all, but like a travel narrative, as shapeless and lacking momentum as an earlier White title, "States of Desire: Travels in Gay America." The narrator, Fanny Trollope, often rings false as a character. She repeatedly describes herself as ugly, "a funny little snaggle-toothed old woman," in a way that few real women would. She states that she identifies with Shakespeare's Falstaff, unlikely in a 19th-century matron but more believable of White himself, who like the critic Harold Bloom combines literary celebrity with physical heft. Fanny Trollope is also given a totally fictitious and unbelievable love affair with an African-American slave, described in prose that descends to the "Mandingo" level: "biceps round and black as cannonballs, a furry chest thick with muscle."

Throughout, the prose style is lumpy, based on Mrs. Trollope's actual habit of using foreign phrases in books, exaggerated until it reads like an unconscious parody of E. F. Benson's "Lucia" books, in which British characters speak garbled French and Italian to each other. Some of Fanny is splashily overwritten in late Truman Capote style: Fanny Wright's complexion is described as "pale and lucent as opals" while her eyes are "surprisingly expensive-looking in that pale face, like maharani emeralds floating up out of a dish of thin milk."

Like Capote, White is also adept at name-dropping, and the narrative is littered with cameo appearances by historical characters like Thomas Jefferson, Stendhal, Washington Irving, and Robert Browning. None of these rings true or conveys the impression of living beings, and the pace is stately, like an anemic Merchant-Ivory film. Floating through this swollen narrative, some readers may recall that White's first book, now a collector's item, was "When Zeppelins Flew" (1969), which he co-authored with a military historian.

Though White was gifted at transmuting his own life experiences into fiction in the '70s, his grasp of history and nonfiction has been shakier. In 1993 he published "Genet: A Biography," using an army of researchers, and producing a lumpy and unsatisfying book. Historical fiction has been best addressed by writers who are themselves great readers and researchers, with expert knowledge of the subjects they address, like Dorothy Dunnett and Peter Ackroyd. White is clearly not at that level, although in an afterword he somewhat plaintively claims that he read "ten books" about Haiti for a digressive section of "Fanny" that involves a visit to that country, as well as "three books about blacksmiths and their art" (Fanny's dubious African-American lover is a blacksmith). However many books he had to read, mastering facts to elaborate on them creatively has never been White's strong point. His 1997 novel "The Farewell Symphony" was named after the work by Franz Josef Haydn in which the musicians leave the stage one by one at the end "until just a single violin is still playing," as White put it, to evoke the image of a gay man who has outlived his friends. Unfortunately, as a few reviewers pointed out, Haydn's Farewell Symphony in fact finishes with two violinists onstage, not one.

You don't have to be a literalist or pedant to feel that the metaphor is ruined for anyone who appreciates accuracy in art.

White's many fans may prefer to reread his earlier achievements "Forgetting Elena" and "Nocturnes for the King of Naples," or what is probably his best book in many years, which he edited rather than wrote, "Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS," an occasion for others to express themselves on the tragic epidemic.

Benjamin Ivry is author of several biographies and has translated many books from the French, most recently Andre Gide's "Judge Not" (University of Illinois Press).

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