THE MARRIED MAN IS Edmund White's latest installment in his series of "auto-fictions," as he and the French call novels that flirt with autobiography. The Married Man differs from its predecessors. From A Boy's Own Story to The Unfinished Symphony, White's first-person narrator was his protagonist. In The Married Man, White steps backward into the third person, perhaps to protect himself from scrutiny. Likewise, White's prose usually makes a glittering surface. In this book the prose is muted, as though not to intrude on its great subject; but that discretion only becomes apparent when he allows the prose to dazzle.

The novel tells the story of Austin, an American furniture scholar living in Paris, and his love for young Julien, who is a married man. Chapter one begins, "Austin was twenty years older than everyone else in the gym--and the only American." These two themes--middle age and foreignness--will shape the book. Austin's version of being middle-aged is to insulate himself against the condition. Paris itself serves as one such insulation. Still, we see Austin uneasily inhabiting the very youth culture his generation invented. (I remember myself at 21, wondering why people over 30 bothered to buy new clothes.)

Austin lives in Paris, and White "does" Paris, rendering its inhabitants with social comedy and the city itself with lyrically precise descriptions. "A love affair between foreigners is always as much the mutual seduction of two cultures as a meeting between two people." Julien is "old France." "He spoke in a deep, resonant voice, the sort of 'voice from the balls' that so many Latin men cultivate." Their romance deliciously frames the comedy that one culture makes of another. And White's eccentrics are eccentric by virtue of being typical. A similar pleasure lies in White's delight in "unpacking" the implications in a word of slang. In fact, Austin conflates language and destiny. "Austin was alive for the first time since his high-school days to the question of his 'destiny.' Yes, he probably would die soon, probably in France in a charity ward since he didn't have French insurance.... He had a panicky fear that he'd forget French, that his brain would start bubbling like an alphabet soup...."

Austin and Julien travel; they end up in Providence, Rhode Island where Austin teaches, and some painful episodes describe Austin's relation to the students at Brown, whose political correctness is one more manifestation of harsh American vulgarity, as opposed to the French "lightness" Austin admires. The two men visit Venice, and White's rendering of Venice is as rich as Proust's, a description of place that is also a summation.

You could say middle-aged Austin knows himself, is no longer "finding himself." He is no longer driven to heroic excesses of pleasure, or to seek recognition in the mirror of a community. But, as poet George Oppen said, "The old are new to age as the young are new to youth." Austin's mode of self-discovery is to nurture others. In their first encounter, Austin rescues Julien, and Austin goes on to rescue him from everything but death. The losses caused by Julien's failing health progress with unrelenting formality--from the first suspicious rash to the final collapse. At the same time, Austin cares for his previous lover, Peter, who is also sick with HIV: "His eyes shone a paler blue as though the sea were now flowing faster and shallower over whiter sand." Austin experiences, in the words of the French philosopher Simone Weil, "a panic of altruism." Sickness and death form a strange theater in whichever more far-flung experiences are mounted on a shrinking stage. The story takes on a breathless quality, as though the men are trying to grasp experience itself, framing it in one last look.

White's greatest achievement in The Married Man is his portrait of "the whole man" in love, never neglecting parts that don't jibe: the campy tattletale sessions with friends, the petty insecurities, the absolute commitment and unceasing doubt, the dream of complete union, the myriad distortions, and the stubborn perseverance of feeling. Typically, even Austin's altruism is questioned: "He knew that the minute someone became ill he began, secretly, to withdraw larger and larger sums of love from that person's account. Oh, Austin went on being kind and confiding and amusing, but he no longer counted on that person for anything except gratitude."

For Austin nothing is certain; he constructs experiences for himself with a kind of desperation. Even his love is parsed out--romance here, sexual heat there, loyalty somewhere else, all a tangle of need and doubt. In the end, his triumph comes from recognizing a yet deeper estrangement that cancels all the rest when the self opens to the mystery of the other--even in death. "It was as if they'd fused, as if Julien had been an alien who'd snatched his body, encoded his nervous system, and changed his blood type.... He wouldn't be able to go on living now that the alien inside him had died."

Edmund White reads Thurs June 8, 7 pm, at Bailey/Coy Books, 414 Broad-way E, 323-8842, free.