Edmund White: A boy's real story

Edmund White, genial godfather of gay fiction, has written a memoir that trumps even his novels in its searing frankness. JOHN FREEMAN meets him in Manhattan

Friday 26 August 2005 00:00 BST

To appreciate the irony of this juxtaposition a few numbers might be useful: 100, for instance, is roughly how many men White says he had seduced by age 16. Another important number - 20 - captures how many years he has been HIV positive and healthy. So far, White is one of the lucky few in whom the virus does not progress, leaving him stranded in the so-called post-Aids world with a legion of memories and a sense of carpe diem . "In spite of what my doctor says, I have never been able to refuse a second piece of cake," says the portly 65-year-old. "Even when I know it's bad for me."

White's triumph over self-censure has been a beacon for many, but it also makes for a difficult interview. We are speaking on the eve of publication for his memoir My Lives (Bloomsbury, £17.99), but what exactly does one ask a man who has admitted to lacing up his mother's corset and picking her blackheads? How do you get someone to "open up" when he has waxed poetic about being urinated on in a bathtub, or tied up in a dungeon? "I am very exhibitionist in my writing," says White, almost by way of apology for one of the awkward silences which yawn in these moments. "But I'm actually quite shy about my life in person."

This is actually true. White is somewhat bashful and, surrounded by the pungent fug of a soft-cheese dip, the author of A Boy's Own Story and other novels proves an excellent source of gossip, literary conversation, and good humour. He talks quickly and fluently in a high fluty tone, and will follow a debate down any rabbit hole. He is not, however, such a terrific expert on being Edmund White.

That knowledge has been funnelled into his books, and My Lives appears to be the one he has built toward for the past 30 years. "Alan Hollinghurst said he thinks it is my best yet," White blurts out at one point. The puppyish glee makes the boast forgivable. You almost want to buy him an ice-cream cone in congratulation.

And the Booker winner is right. This is White's best book, the one which channels his finest writing yet manages to close down the flesh buffet before it goes to stink. Part of the success comes from the structure. My Lives proceeds in long, set-piece chapters with titles like "My Mother", "My Europe" and "My Genet". The result is an even more personal, lyrical glimpse of his life and times. If his autobiographical novels were a blueprint of his memory, this book is its to-scale model. "I could have written a whole other book like this about entirely different subjects," says White, dressed in khakis and a short-sleeve check shirt. But he did not want to fall prey to the confessional. "I felt if I went chronologically, I'd get bogged down in childhood and that's part of our culture of complaint in America. This endless wailing about your childhood."

White would have had plenty of reasons to gripe. As My Lives reveals, he grew up in the heartland of America long before casual bigotry against homosexuals became the White House's re-election tool. White has more claims to being Texan than the current President. Both sides of his family hail from the Lone Star state, where one grandfather was a member of Ku-Klux-Klan, and the other a grope-prone, one-legged misfit.

Some of the details found their way into A Boy's Own Story, which has become the Ur-text for the coming-out story. But not all. My Lives makes apparent how much he toned things down. In A Boy's Own Story, "I tried to make the boy more normal than I was - in real life I was precocious both intellectually and sexually... I had tried to normalise him a little bit".

Over time, White's fiction caught up with the ecstatic (and frantic) way that he was living his life. After two formative decades in New York, he moved to Paris and his novels followed him. A Boy's Own Story led to The Beautiful Room is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony in 1997, which White thought would be his last novel. He made this series an autobiographical quartet in 2000 with a plangent novel about his lover Hubert Sorin's death from Aids: The Married Man.

It says something about the power of the first person that, even though White has published two collections of essays, an award-winning biography of Genet, a short life of Proust, two memoirs of life in Paris, two collections of short stories, a book of travel and a historical novel, he remains known for his autobiographical quartet. One reason for the success of these books is White's ability to isolate memory from history. He is careful not to romanticise the gradual closing of this gap between how he lived and what he could write. A lot of self-hatred and self-doubt had to be cleared, and these elements of his persona are evident in My Lives. "I think most people have a tendency to rewrite the past in light of what happened later," he says. "So, for instance, if let's say you were a Stalinist in the 1950s, now you'd say you were a socialist. I run into that a lot - where people just don't own up to what they fervently believed."

Although he hinted at homosexuality in his first two mandarin novels, Forgetting Elena and Nocturnes for the King of Naples, White has been relatively stalwart in his advocacy in print - and person - since. His second book with a trade press was The Joy of Gay Sex, which he wrote with his therapist. After that came States of Desire: Travels in Gay America, which read like a Varieties of Religious Experience for a generation just beginning to identify as gay. In 1982, along with Larry Kramer and a few others, he founded Gay's Men's Health Crisis in response to the White House's lack of concern over the disease later named Aids.

The only time White erects a hard edge in the conversation is when the name of someone who has turned their back on this progress comes up. A good portion of White's gossip has to do with correcting people's corrections of the record. After explaining that Harold Brodkey was a big influence on how he wrote sex scenes, White reminds me that the late New Yorker and short-story writer was "99 per cent gay". "And then he appeared in New York magazine with Ellen Schwamm with their matching haircuts and everything, and homosexuality became something he 'experimented with' in the 1960s," White says dismissively.

My Lives does not serve up quite as much dish as White does in person, but there is some worth reporting. Susan Sontag makes a brief appearance at a dinner party (before dropping White for the portrait of her in Caracole), as does French philosopher Michel Foucault. White describes rescuing Foucault from a bathhouse in New York, where the professor had had a bad LSD trip. "I think it's really interesting to talk about Foucault in one chapter and smelling poop in the basement in the next. It seems to me that life is just that complicated."

White knows (and fears) that his incontinent sense of humour will probably "earn him a lot of teasing". Last November, critic Mark Simpson attacked White for his "gayist" ideology. He went on to blame White for the exportation of "Gayism - an American invention and export," which he described as "not the antithesis of the American quest for self-revelation and perfection but the gym-buffed embodiment of it."

Since White's partner of ten years screens such attacks, he does not often hear them directly. But that does not mean he has become out of touch or fossilised. "I think Alan Hollinghurst's novel [The Line of Beauty] is a perfect example of a post-gay novel," he says, speaking to the idea that in the future there may not be such a thing as "gay" fiction. "I think he would have written the same book were he straight." For White, a similar swap seems unlikely - in fact, after My Lives, it seems entirely beyond the realm of possibility.

Edmund White will be appearing today at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Biography: Edmund White

Edmund White was born in 1940 in Cincinatti, Ohio. He studied at the University of Michigan, worked for Time-Life Books in New York, and made his fictional debut with Forgetting Elena (1972), followed by Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978), A Boy's Own Story (1982), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988), The Farewell Symphony (1997), The Married Man (2000) and Fanny: a fiction (2003). His non-fiction includes the co-authored The Joy of Gay Sex (1977), the travelogue States of Desire (1980), the award-winning biography Genet (1993) and The Flâneur, a book about Paris, where he lived for many years. His memoir My Lives appears from Bloomsbury next month. Now resident in New York, Edmund White teaches at Princeton University. He is a commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in France.

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