Gossip & Insight

Discovering Edmund White
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Edmund White, ‘City Boy’ cover

In City Boy, his memoir of New York in the 1960s and ’70s, Edmund White claimed that Susan Sontag “wrote best about subjects she was most ambiguous about”: the subjects, like camp, that activated the “push-pull dynamic” he thought central to her personality. He noticed that “around aesthetes she became moralistic and around moralists she embraced art and frivolity.” After they became friends, White told Sontag that he wanted to write a book about this impulse of hers, which he would call The Dandy and the Rabbi. It’s the type of observation that I can’t resist—a telling literary insight, yes, but also gossip, shared in the midst of revealing that he would have Sontag over to his apartment for dinner, or mentioning what books she might buy him when they spent the afternoon together.

I’m a devoted fan of White’s work, and have read nearly all of it: his early fiction (like all true White admirers, I have a special attachment to Nocturnes for the King of Naples); his autobiographical trilogy of novels that will stand as a lasting record of gay life and death in the second half of the twentieth century (A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony); his forays into biography (most impressively, his authoritative life of Jean Genet); and his wide-ranging critical essays (The Burning Library). But it’s his memoirs I love the most, and that I especially recommend.

Why? I’ve always thought White’s line about Sontag was a clue to understanding his own work. He thought writers were most compelling when exploring a subject they were of two minds about: when they could see it from one angle, then another. And in reading his memoirs, it’s clear he’s alive to such ambiguities, perhaps especially within himself. Maybe that’s why he’s written four of them.

City Boy (Bloomsbury, $16, 304 pp.) is the memoir of White’s I’ve read the most—my favorite—and the best to read first. How could it not be? Like many of my generation who moved to New York to pursue the literary life, I look back with envy at the period White describes, especially since I don’t have to deal with the crime or piles of garbage on the streets. This was the New York in which a real bohemian culture still existed and rents in the West Village were affordable, when you could eat cheaply in diners, when there were diners and not just high-end coffee shops.

White arrived in New York in 1962, and City Boy takes you from his first days in the city through the early 1980s. He seems to have met everyone worth knowing: not just Sontag, but also James Merrill, Robert Mapplethorpe, Fran Lebowitz, Richard Sennett, and many others (including Michel Foucault, when he visited the United States). White was actually there for the Stonewall uprising, and much of the book is about the gay scene in New York during these decades, which he writes about in unrelenting detail: the wild bars he frequented, his cruising, his lovers. Though it may not be to everyone’s taste, his name-dropping is one of the great pleasures of City Boy.

City Boy is also about making it as a writer. At its outset, White has just graduated from the University of Michigan, and has no connections in the New York literary world. But by its conclusion, he’s published A Boy’s Own Story, his breakthrough novel. When that book came came out, Sontag told him, “You’ll never be poor again in your life.” She was right; he hasn’t been. He had arrived.

His descriptions of his mother’s devotion to Mary Baker Eddy, or her doomed romantic pursuits after she and his father divorced, may make you wince

The next memoir of White’s to read is actually the one he wrote first, My Lives (Ecco, $16.99, 384 pp.). Unlike City Boy, it’s arranged thematically and not exactly chronologically. It begins with a chapter titled “My Shrinks,” a revealing account of his years on the couch, much of them spent trying to stop being gay. It’s followed by “My Father” and “My Mother,” which chronicle his formative years. White is unsparing in these chapters—he begins “My Mother” this way: “I suppose it’s the nature of mothers to make their children wince.” And his descriptions of his mother’s devotion to Mary Baker Eddy, or her doomed romantic pursuits after she and his father divorced, may make you wince. By the time you’re done reading about White’s family, “My Shrinks” begins to make more sense.

The rest of My Lives covers the women in White’s life, the hustlers he’s paid for, the blondes he’s loved, his passion for Europe, and his years writing Genet’s biography. But the most famous, or infamous, chapter in the book deals with a sadomasochistic affair White had in his sixties with a man half his age. If he’s sometimes unflattering in the gossip he shares about others, no one can protest that he spares himself. Somehow, though, My Lives works. The layering of each thematic chapter on top of what came before makes it utterly absorbing. I’ve never read a memoir quite like it.

In 1983, White moved to Paris—and stayed there for the next fifteen years, which he writes about in Inside a Pearl (Bloomsbury, $16, 273 pp.). He doesn’t exactly romanticize the city, noting the “strange” language spoken quickly, the daily rain during winters, the expense of living there. Much of the memoir involves Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, a Frenchwoman married to the author of the Babar the Elephant children’s books, who would become one of White’s closest friends, initiating him into Parisian society and culture; and a French lover, Hubert, who would die of AIDS. Perhaps most of all, Inside a Pearl is fascinating because of the way White teases out the differences between France and the United States. On nearly every page there’s a telling observation, and at the end, he claims it was only by living there that he “discovered” that he really was an American.

White’s newest memoir, just out this year, is The Unpunished Vice (Bloomsbury, $17, 240 pp.), an account of his reading life. It begins with White, now in his seventies, recovering from a heart attack, finding himself unable to concentrate or read at all. Though he eventually regains this ability, its temporary absence provides White with a hook to talk about the writers and books he’s loved the most and what he’s learned from them, the elements of enduring literature. I can’t help but think that White, now nearing the end of his life, wrote this while pondering how he measured up. In a telling aside, White admits that he used to wonder: By writing about gay life, would he be deprived of “real” subject matter? It’s the question, the ambiguity, that somehow has informed nearly everything he’s published. He came to realize that the essential experiences—love, pain, death—touch every life. White wrote about a social revolution while testing himself against Proust, Tolstoy, and Nabokov. It’s worth reading how he did it.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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