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.