Edmund White’s Own Story

The author talks about his frank new memoir

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

—Oscar Wilde,

“The Importance

of Being Earnest.”

“Forgetting Elena,” his brilliantly impressionistic debut novel about a young man without qualities won praise from Nabokov, and his landmark 1982 novel “A Boy’s Own Story” is universally recognized as a gay-themed coming-of-age classic, with a hero that holds his own alongside Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield.

In 2002, The Modern Library published a 20th anniversary edition, with an introduction by its author.

“When I wrote ‘A Boy’s Own Story,’ I was resolutely hostile to any external censorship,” White explains. “I had then—and still have—a philosophical devotion to the truth and a conviction not only that it will set us free, but that it is itself desirable and preferable to all comforting lies. For me, this conviction is both moral and quasi-scientific, an urge to study social phenomena and intimate responses that have never been identified before.”

Indeed, nothing human is alien to White. Now, with his “My Lives”—a genuine page-turner—we get an intimate glimpse behind the screen of his fiction, and at the dark Eros that is his muse; as it turns out the master submits, willingly, to his own master—in the Sadean and Shakespearean sense. All this is told with the seductive zeal of a gay male Scheherazade; it has the cumulative effect of an heady thousand and one Arabian nights; open-heartedly confessional, it’s bound to irk the more conservative critics and give Log Cabin Republicans serious agita.

This sort of uncompromising non-fiction is more appreciated in Europe—where it is a literary and intellectual tradition—particularly in France, where White, an avowed “Voltairian atheist,” spent a good part of his professional life. In fact, the iconoclastic spirit of Andre Gide and Jean Genet—of whom White has written the definitive biography—runs all through “My Lives.”

Just as the book ends, White acknowledges his long close friendship with Marie-Calire de Brunhoff, and proposes, “this odd memoir will contain several surprises for her… At least, I hope so. Being predictable is the one unforgivable sin in a friend,” he adds on a Wildean note.

White’s long-time readers won’t find anything to grouse about in this generous, Proustian catalogue of his constituent lives—as a son, writer, lover, flaneur, bon vivant, friend, and, yes, sex slave. There’s a good deal of deep dish served as well, as White tells a few tales out of school. In the chapter titled, “My Blonds,” he discusses past lovers, who are either like, “Blake’s sword-wielding angels” or bed-bug crazy. There’s lots of Rabelaisian humor, as well, including a bawdy anecdote you won’t find in the recent prissy memoir, “Tab Hunter Confidential.” This involves White’s Aryan actor/room mate, Keith McDermott and his sexual “idyll” with “the still handsome Tab Hunter” who, once in the saddle, is overheard bellowing from the boudoir—“Go on boy, sit on that big Daddy dick!”

White’s self-exposure to public and critical scrutiny places him in his most vulnerable position in a chapter titled “My Master,” in which, like an experienced verbal ecdysiast, he gradually exposes his obsessive sexual trysts with a dominant young Adonis, and exalts in his groveling submissiveness. For a walk on the wild side of sexual experimentation, you couldn’t ask for a more erudite, cultured, and accommodating guide.

“Sixty-five is the right time for casing a backward glance, while one is still fully engaged in one’s life,” the author observes. Certainly all the years and money White spent seeking conversion therapy taught him a thing or two about confronting his demons. In the opening chapter titled, “My Shrinks,” he details with caustic candor the travails of growing up feeling bent, during the rigidly conformist, soporific, and structured Eisenhower era, and his wacky encounters with quack Freudian analysts in the hope of curing himself of his emergent body-snatching queerness. In “My Father” we meet the workaholic, withholding, misanthropic parent recognizable from “A Boys Own Story;” and in “My Mother,” the pint-sized virago Delilah, whom he escorts around Chicago restaurants and lounges on her quixotic man-hunting quests, like a juvenile Sancho Panza.

White shared his thoughts about “My Lives” from his home in Chelesa, where he lives in apparent poly-amorous domestic harmony with Michael Carroll, his partner since 1995, who also appears in the book.

Michael Ehrhardt: Did you find it exciting re-living your sexual experiences in “My Lives”?

Edmund White: Well, I didn’t exactly get a hard-on while I was writing it. I’m not really exhibitionistic—or voyeuristic, for that matter. Not in the sense that Proust was, anyway

ME: Did you have any pause about being so candid?

EW: Not while I was engaged in writing the book. It was exhilarating…

ME: Parts of the book remind one of Proust’s “The Captive” and “Sodom and Gomorrah.”

EW: I suppose there’s a similarity in the relationships, like in all relationships—but it certainly wasn’t intentional.

ME: It’s a very audacious memoir. You might be criticized for being lurid, rather than literary. Jean Cocteau said that the tact involved in being daring is knowing just how far is going too far.

EW: I suppose you’re referring to the chapter on “My Master.” I really don’t know, now that I’ve finished it, if I went too far. It’s a fait accompli. Perhaps, I have gone too far there, and I’ll get a lot of flack over doing it. Maybe, in retrospect it was a little tacky to discuss that area of my life. It just seemed right to give the truth in all its details, come what may.

ME: And that’s liberating, I guess. Throwing caution to the winds?

EW: Oh, yes. Also, I thought to a few years back, when I gave a reading in Germany—in Munich—a young man stood up and burst into a rage against me, saying, “You always write from a smug, remote, and safe distance in your past! Why don’t you ever write about any of the angst in your life now—in the present?!” Well, that stayed with me, and I thought that now, when I had the chance, I should address that and write something more immediately relevant—I should write about something more recent, from the front line of my life. I wanted to write “My Master” while it was still fairly recent.

ME: Of course, you’ve covered a lot of the territory in “My Lives’ in your previous fiction, embedding your own experiences in it, the way Proust did. You’re inevitably referred to as “America’s Marcel Proust.” But wouldn’t Andre Gide be a more suitable comparison?

EW: I love Gide! In prep school I read “The Counterfeiters,” and his coming out book, “If It Die.” And “The Immoralist”.

ME: “Lafcadio’s Adventures” [a.k.a. “The Vatican Cellars”] still holds up very well. Talk about “The DaVinci Code!”

EW: Yes, it’s very contemporary. Just like his “Corydon,” which became the founding text for gay liberation.

ME: It’s hard to imagine Gide writing about man-boy love back in the 1920s. That was very courageous.

EW: Very. His friends were horrified that he’d publish those dialogues. Not that they minded Gide’s pederasty; they really didn’t want him to discuss it in print. They thought it would marginalize him, like Oscar Wilde, who helped to bring him out.

ME: Or drag him out.

EW: Yes, in Algeria.

ME: Despite his courage, didn’t Gide have rather limited views on homosexuality?

EW: Well, that depends on what you mean by limited. He liked young boys, yes.

ME: His ideal model was the Greek man-ephebe. They discarded boys as soon as they grew a beard.

EW: He was from a Protestant Calvinist background; and it informed a lot of his earlier views. But he later became very progressive. He was a Communist early on, but then, in the ‘30s, he published “Return from the USSR”—which was a denunciation of Stalin—after he came back disappointed in the Soviet Union.

ME: Getting back to you and “My Life,” were you influenced by Ned Rorem’s Paris and New York diaries? Those were a queer literary landmark.. You mention Ned only once, briefly in your chapter on Paris. Is that what they mean by the “anxiety of influence?”

EW: I’ve written about Ned before, in “Arts and Letters;” actually, I didn’t meet him until the ‘70s, and we’ve become good friends over the years. I think we were both very much influenced by Gide. Ned’s book “Lies” is very moving. I wrote the introduction to it. I said that I supposed we like each other since I was someone younger who was interested in his world—of Cocteau, Poulenc, and Virgil Thomson. Paris in the ‘50s.

ME: While reading “My Lives,” I couldn’t help thinking of the Toni Bentley book, [“The Surrender”]; she’s the ex-Balanchine dancer who wrote about the joys of anal sex, and how it empowered her. In fact, you share the same publisher. Talk about “Dancer from the Dance!” She writes that a lot of people don’t get how submission to a lover could be such an empowering thing. She said she found God! Do you think it’s easier for a woman to discuss sexuality in our society, than for a man? Think of “Brokeback Mountain” versus “Vagina Monologues” and “The L Word.”

EW: Well, women get penalized for being openly sexual, too. Certain things are still taboo. But if you read publications like “Nerve,” there’s still a lot of talk about straights and strap-ons.

ME: Is writing a memoir a good opportunity to even scores, set records straight, indulge in a bit of mythomania?

EW: I haven’t fabricated anything or told any lies, it that’s what you mean by mythomania. I have made enemies over my lifetime, but I don’t talk about them in the book. Instead, I have a chapter on “My Friends,” as a tribute to them.

ME: What’s your next, or latest project?

EW: These days I spend a lot of time at the library, where I’m currently working on a book about Hart Crane.

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