BLOOMSBURY £17.99 £16.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

My Lives by Edmund White

Justin Cartwright considered himself a fairly worldly fellow - until he read this unflinching chronicle of sexual misery

It is an autobiography in which homosexuality is central: it is treated as something heroic but also obsessional and at times degrading. I suspected as I read it that White had drawn inspiration from the transgressive life of Jean Genet, whose biography he wrote. And indeed very near the end of this book he says of Genet: "He wrote about those subjects in gorgeous language that transformed degradation into saintliness." And he goes on, talking of Genet, Proust and Gide, "they convinced me that homosexuality was crucial to the development of the modern novel because it led to a resurrection of love, a profound scepticism about the naturalness of gender roles and a revival of the classical tradition of same-sex love that dominated Western poetry and prose until the birth of Christ." Proust and Genet "depended on the monstrous perversity of modern homosexual love to animate thir moral universe". They had "a big, fresh, genuine subject" where white heterosexual male writers were "simply fine-tuning an examination of adultery or proving their masculinity". He also found the poetry of abjection inspirational.

I have to say that this thesis is not wholly convincing, but in a sense that is beside the point: White, like most writers, has taken inspiration from the struggles, both artistic and personal, of great artists and used them to validate and elevate his own rapprochement with life, and to understand and lend dignity to his own journey from the Mid West to New York and on to Paris and London. I don't think any writer's life is ever the triumphant progress the jacket blurb suggests, and White's from gay schoolboy in 1950s Cincinnati, Chicago and Detroit, to internationally known and admired writer, HIV positive by l985, Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and teacher at Princeton, has certainly been bumpy.

There is something wholly admirable about the unshrinking way he describes his family and his schoolfriends, and his earliest sexual experiences. His father was "a dogmatic bore at home, when he was with other businessmen he put on a shit-eating grin and attempted feeble, long-winded jokes which lent his face a sly, shifty look". And he reveals that his father tried to seduce his sister. When his father left the family home to set up with his secretary, young Edmund was plunged into an uncertain world: "like my father, my mother had few friends. She seldom called anyone, never had a long chat, a casual exchange of gossip and intimacies... My sister and I were both weird and had few friends, though were always desperately in love... Only decades later, when I'd become worldlier and better-liked, did it occur to me that both my parents were in truth unfit for society... Just before he died I realised belatedly that my father had been one of the most boring men ever to draw breath and that people had fled him."

One of his mother's colleagues - she became a psychiatrist - said: "Your mother really is crazy, you know." White's descriptions of the two households, his father's with his new wife, and his mother's, are among the most heart-breaking accounts of family life I have ever read, rivalling Coetzee's Boyhood, and of course utterly compulsive reading as a result.

It was this consequent search for love, against a background of intensive psycho-analysis, which led young Ed to discover hustlers, dirt-poor white boys who hung around and performed tricks in cheap hotels or cars. It is at this point that White's policy of total disclosure of voluntary degradation and self-loathing comes into its own. He himself hints that it might be a case of TMI - too much information. I cannot even begin to estimate how many penises are described in this book, nor how many acts of fellatio, subjugation and - later - sado-masochism are listed. But it is clear that White is determined to transform degradation into saintliness. It is astonishing in its frankness. I think of myself as fairly worldly too, but I had no idea of the extent of obsession, betrayal and physical degradation that White describes in his world.

The only moment I think he loses his way is towards the end in his account of his recent desertion by "T", a young actor-director in New York. There is absolutely no degradation White is not prepared to accept in his love for T, who he knows has had enough of him: "Physically I had nothing to offer - I was old, fat, winded, impotent most of the time, hairy and with big breasts and a small dick. I was huge - only five foot nine inches but 260 pounds. Jean Genet once looked at Rembrandt's painting of the nude, sagging Jewish wife and said 'That's me. That's the way I look'." There is something sophomoric about his anguish, his broken heart, his months of lying in bed weeping, that no doubt a few years would have lent distance to.

This is an astonishing and wonderfully well-written biography, revealing a capacious mind and a generous and remarkable person. While it is a consciously gay autobiography, it is unmistakably art and will be read for that.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album