Karl Ove Knausgaard aside, it’s hard to think of a contemporary novelist who has explored his life as thoroughly as Edmund White. Although he tackled historical topics – most notably the 19th-century duo of feminist Fanny Wright and author Fanny Trollope – in his 2003 novel Fanny: A Fiction, White’s enduring theme was the diversity of desires, primarily those of his own cultivated gay milieu.
In a prolific career spanning nearly 50 years, his best work remains the autobiographical trilogy of A boy’s own story (1982), The Beautiful Room is empty (1988) and The Farewell Symphony (1997). It sketches the trajectory of a gay man, now based on his author, from growing up and getting out in the 1950s, through enjoying the newfound sexual freedoms of the 1970s, to the horrors of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.
White also wrote straight autobiography City boy (2009), Inside a pearl (2014) and, most comprehensively, My lives (2005), with his graphic description of self-humiliation, which to taste was either bravely taboo-breaking or in vain shocking.
In White’s latest novel, A Past Life, he broadens the autobiographical facets of his fiction by including a character named Edmund White who plays sadomasochistic games, which is recognized in the “My Master” chapter of My lives.
It begins with 72-year-old Sicilian prince Ruggero Castelnuovo and his much younger American wife Constance deciding to write the stories of their early lives for each other’s entertainment. Their decision to go through childhood and begin adolescence betrays their own – and their author’s – predominant emphasis on their sexual history.
Modesty is not Ruggero’s strength. He repeatedly boasts of his virility, describing himself as “always interesting, rich, talented and attractive”. He tells his teenage mess with his cousin Giuseppe; his student relations with the anorexic Lucia and the future priest Cesare; and his unpleasant marriage to Brunnhilde, who is in the name of Wagner rather than passion, and bears to him two sons, to whom he is indifferent.
Constance grows up in the less glamorous neighborhood of Bowling Green, Ohio. After being orphaned at the age of 12, she goes to live with her mother’s Mauritian friend Marie-Louise and her husband Felix, who abuses her; it is the most powerful version in the book. After earning a scholarship to Princeton, she first married the WASP (and waspish) Fen, and then the novelist Howard Burch, whom she met while jogging in Central Park. With his arrogance, closed homosexuality and failed Proustian novel, Burch has a noticeable resemblance to the late Harold Brodkey, an important figure in City boy.
The novel’s heterosexual scaffolding is gradually removed to reveal the novel’s true purpose: a version of Ruggero’s relationship with White. Ruggero, who, at the age of 13, was afraid that he would be “forgotten by posterity”, is in his seventies most afraid that “he will be remembered mainly as the man who ruined Edmund White’s life”.
One of the peculiarities of the book is that it takes place mainly in 2050 – though little is made of this, except for the strange joke allusion to the past, such as White’s improper references to himself as “the forgotten gay novelist of the twentieth century”. ”. Which begs the question why anyone should care if Ruggero ruined the life of such a neglected figure.
Ruggero recounts how, after writing a long fan email to White, they quickly exchanged passionate messages and, in Ruggero’s case, photos of his penis and statements such as “At the moment, I feel like my whole happiness is just depends on you. ” Even with the whims of the heart, his obsession looks more like that of an unsophisticated 20-year-old than a middle-aged Sicilian aristocrat in the form of Lampedusa’s prince Fabrizio Salina.
Many novelists appear in their fiction, but it is usually in the Christopher Isherwood mode, by which they use the literary “camera”. White reverses the process here and depicts himself through Ruggero’s lens. He lingers on the description of his deterioration – “the rolls of fat, the tiny, functional penis, the limp breasts and the huge nipples with a history, the bizarre smell of skin fungus. . . ”- with as much pleasure as his alter ego enjoys being brutalized and humiliated by Ruggero.
Among the many puzzles of the book is why Constance, who allegedly wrote his last chapters, should choose to focus on the relationship between her ex-husband and a man who died before they met. She has long been set aside, just as the original premise of the related histories has been discarded. As if to preface criticism on the well-known material, Edmund White maintains the character that “writers who have long since begun to repeat themselves in the tooth”. It’s hard to deny that Edmund White the author is a major offender.
A Past Life by Edmund White, Bloomsbury £ 18.99 / $ 26.99, 288 pages
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