Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 02 Sep 2020

Rereading Edmund White (again)

Edmund White, the great chronicler of gay life, novelist, critic, educator, memoirist and biographer, is now eighty and in poor health following several strokes and a massive heart attack. But his spirit seems undimmed and his appetite for life, literature, gossip, human peculiarity and perhaps above almost all else the erotic, appear as strong as ever.

I must admit, I am not a great fan of White the novelist, although I respect the view of some critics who argue that with each successive novel he has attempted a new kind of ‘gay literature’. I think it might be more accurate to say that with each book – both fiction and non-fiction – he aims to construct a new kind of ‘gay aesthetic’.

I recently reread his early autobiographical novel (it was his third, I think), A Boy’s Own Story, a coming of age novel about a young boy from the American Midwest growing up in the 1950s, who is seeking to establish not just a sexual identity but an intellectual and artistic identity too. He hankers not just for ideal men who will help him find love and erotic fulfillment and overcome his own self-loathing, his sense of himself as corrupt and diseased, but also for an intellectual, bohemian and cosmopolitan life completely different to the repressive and stultifying atmosphere of 1950s America.

When I first read this novel some time in the late-80s I remember thinking it was marvellous, but I’m afraid that this time I couldn’t finish it. White is a great prose stylist but this novel is frequently overwritten, its metaphors just a touch too strained. There are other problems too. The narrator – the ‘boy’ of the title, and one has to assume White himself – is too self-conscious and his relentless self-examination exhausted my patience barely halfway into the book. The other characters – his unhappy, alcoholic mother; his strange nocturnal businessman father (we never find out what he actually does but he works through the night, neat, swiftly written formulae filling sheet after sheet of paper); his imperious, domineering older sister and a cast of extravagantly odd outsider characters – all seem not quite real, not quite present.

But rereading this did help me realise that I much prefer White’s non-fiction to his fiction – and there is an awful lot of it to choose from. One of his earliest books, States of Desire: Travels in Gay America, an unflinching, almost New Journalism-style account of pre-AIDS gay life in American cities in the 1970s, remains one of his best, I think.

His memoirs document his own literary, intellectual, artistic and erotic passions. Of the two I have read – My Lives and City Boy – the first is the better. Indiscreet, unashamed, crammed with anecdote and incident and gossip, these books are a window on a very particular kind of life – what I think can only be described as ‘gay high society’.

However, these too make evident a further weakness, and one that seems increasingly pronounced in White’s later work: he is a dreadful name-dropper, something of a snob, and he really does rather love the acclaim and prominence that fame has brought him. And I don't begrudge him this – he has worked fantastically hard, producing enough books to constitute a lifetime’s work for several writers, not just one.  

Interestingly, White may well say that any preoccupation he does have with fame, with wealth and ‘society’, is far from new – indeed, was clearly signalled even in his early novels. For example, the child-narrator of A Boy’s Life, despite being a shy hopelessly clumsy provincial misfit, secretly sees himself as mysteriously powerful and magnetically charming, an aristocrat of refined tastes and sensibilities who will one day assume the sort of life that destiny has quite rightly marked him out for.

But even with these caveats, Edmund White at his best still makes for fascinating reading. His prose can be marvellous and he has been (probably less so now as he enters his eighties) an indefatigable researcher, and this shows to great effect in his biographies (Genet, Proust, Rimbaud). Even when he is essentially recycling previously published writings – as in the quite recent The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading – there is more insight and intelligence and style than many writers manage in a lifetime.

It must be acknowledged that White’s long march from criminalised, pre-Stonewall, pre-liberation oppression and outsiderhood to being the rather grand old man of twentieth and twenty-first century gay literature is an extraordinary achievement, and one he has every right to feel a degree of self-satisfaction with. But some gay readers, I know, now criticise White for being an essentially old-fashioned figure, a gay stereotype of the 1970s rather than an exemplar for gay life in the twenty-first century. I think this rather misses the point and ignores everything that most characterises the man. An old Kirkus Reviews piece from 1994 puts it better than I can hope to. Writing of one of White’s earlier collections of non-fiction, the piece says that the essays are “aesthetically, not ideologically, driven”, their homosexuality “presented as a fact to be examined…not as an issue to be propagandized”.

I think this could apply to almost everything White has written and touches on a deep truth about him. Circumstances may have demanded that he take his place at the barricades of gay liberation, but in fact he belongs to a much earlier generation and milieu. Aristocratic in spirit if not in fact, his principal model is surely Proust and the international cultural beau monde White now belongs to would certainly be recognisable to Proust.

It has taken a long and superhuman effort but Edmund White is where he always intended to be.


Alun Severn

September 2020