My Lives: An Autobiography
Gay lives today, at least in most western
democracies, have lost their heroic dimension. Bravery and
originality are less evident in a culture of general acceptance,
and in London, Paris or New York we are so unignorable as
to have become unremarkable. That gay life has a complex,
brilliant and tragic history seems often unknown to gay
men born, as it were, after the war, when many rights had
been won, and the terror of Aids contained. Edmund White
is sometimes called a chronicler of that history, since
his autobiographical novels have described a gay life closely
bound up in the slow progress from repression through liberation
to the catastrophe of Aids and on into a survivor's world
of revised expectations. But "chronicle" is a
dull and misleading word to describe his intensely personal
books, which embody his conviction that homosexuality entails
a redefinition of love, dismantling received ideas about
"the couple, manhood, love and sexual roles",
and freeing the gay novelist to write about "a big
fresh genuine subject" in often quirkily original ways.
It is this originality that gives White's novels both their
psychological urgency and their languorous charm.
In My Lives he has turned to autobiography in a comparably
inventive way. It is such a vital and engrossing book because
White has evidently written in it precisely what he wanted
to write. He has a luxuriantly observant memory, and his
past is evoked with keen feeling as well as a pervasive
self-deprecating wit. The book is arranged not chronologically
but by subject: "My Shrinks", "My Hustlers",
"My Friends" and so on. There is no dutiful résumé,
and wide areas of his life and achievements go undescribed.
It has no chapters called "My Work", in any of
the senses of that word; it is difficult for a writer to
discuss his own writing without showing off, and My Lives
is the least boastful of autobiographies.
If his homosexuality is the governing theme, the sexual
impulse itself is the animating principle. The book turns
on the illuminating paradox of homosexuality being a struggle,
a source, at different times of his life, of "terrible
pain", as well as the most irresistible natural compulsion.
White calls himself a "sex-addict" who has "never
failed to act on my erotic impulses", and it is integral
to his personality as a writer that the compulsion to tell
has been as strong, in its way, as the compulsion to act.
There is nothing furtive or titillating about his memoir.
He may speak of his "few heterosexual readers"
but his book is based on the premise of the intrinsic human
interest of gay sexual behaviour, as well as that of his
own very particular sexual psychology. As with other kinds
of addiction, the compulsion is not concerned always, or
even primarily, with pleasure, but rather with the satisfaction
of its own mechanisms, the constantly renewed state of anxiety
The chapter "My Blonds", about earlier love-affairs,
has a certain vagueness of romance to it; but it is in "My
Master", about a much more recent episode, that White
has written the most remarkable chapter in a career dedicated
to sexual truth-telling. It describes his masochistic relationship,
in his early 60s, with an actor in his 20s, called here
T, and it is written with what at first seems reckless candour.
"TMI!" he imagines a friend saying. Too much information
- about just what T did to him and just what he did to,
or rather for, T. The record of the affair, the routines,
the tensions, the dream-like advances into new sexual possibilities,
"arbitrary and drenched with emotion", is built
up with a steady insistence; and it works, as a narrative,
it compels and alarms, because of its completely authentic
subjectivity: everything we learn of T is coloured by White's
adoring advocacy of a young man whose charm, we can't help
feeling, may be largely a thing of his own imagination.
The self-prostration of the older slave finds a fascinating
counterpart in the self-exposure of the memoirist, and the
objections we might feel to sexual bragging are undercut
when what is bragged of is a kind of abjection.
For White sex is a primary mystery, but he can see the funny
side of it. He is funny about S&M and the inconvenient
disjunctions of fantasy from normal day-to-day life: ordered
by a "master" on a website to relocate to Cleveland
and live in a cage for the rest of his life, he thinks:
"But I must finish my semester at Princeton, then there's
Rome in June and Provence in July ..." When a 29-year-old
Latvian commands him to eat biscuits from a bowl and have
a dog's tail permanently attached to his backside, White
thinks "that sounded tempting", before more practical
considerations intervene ("These men are serious").
White is serious too, but he is "a masochist who doesn't
like pain", and when T starts to close the relationship
down the comedy dries up with the rapture. What follows
is an account, more naked than the sexual descriptions that
precede it, of the two months that White calls "the
most lacerating of my life". As a young man, he says,
"my sense of self could survive rejection since it
was built on it"; but at 64 he finds the burden much
greater: "He made me feel I'd crossed that terrible
line into old age." No other writer of White's eminence
has described his sexual life with such purposeful clarity.
So unusual is it that one feels in writing about it a challenge
to the norms of what one can say about the private life
of a living writer.
This chapter is so strong and so unforgettable that it risks
eclipsing others that are equally fine but quite different
from it. "My Father" and "My Mother"
are masterpieces of a complex, and often difficult, kind
of portraiture, in which the personality and history of
the writer are also intimately involved. They confront the
currents of desire and disgust that run between parents
and children, young Edmund's longing to be seduced and penetrated
by his father, his suppressed revulsion at having to strap
his mother, who weighed 12 stone and was five feet tall,
into a nightmarish corset called the "Merry Widow".
But they also create vivid and complex images of the parents
as individuals, in all the particularity of their separate
worlds, homes and habits. They divorced when Edmund was
eight. His father, a successful broker of chemical equipment
in Cincinnati, married another woman and led a life of sterile
bourgeois comfort, while his mother, a child psychologist,
carried on alone, in a fervour of self-motivation and increasingly
drunken romantic fantasy about possible new men in her life.
White recalls the embarrassment and complicity of their
visits to bars and restaurants where his mother might get
picked up by a suitable man; it is part of the poignancy
of this chapter that he sees how like her he has been at
various times and in various aspects of his life.
Sometimes the chapters are not quite about what they claim
to be. "My Europe" is really just about Paris,
where White lived for 13 years, with inset portraits of
two friends who died of Aids: the writer and editor Gilles
Barbedette, and Michel Foucault, whom White again exonerates
from the charge of having knowingly passed on HIV. The experience
of Parisian life is for White one of deepening engagement
with "the nuance and staggering complexity of the most
civilised people on earth", and an evolution of his
writer's sense of people not as types but as unique individuals.
"My Friends", which for so sociable and generous
a figure as White might have been a book in itself (and
might aptly have been the name of one or more of his novels),
is really all about himself, about his need for friendship,
the way friendship can grow out of lust, and the exhilaration
"almost to the point of hysteria" that he feels
at the end of an evening spent with friends. His account
of himself is clear, humorous, never coy. He knows that
his "painful honesty" is the source of his humour.
And we feel strongly, at the end of this remarkable book,
that it is more than that: it is the source of everything,
however artful and luscious, that he has ever written.
Saturday, September 17, 2005
An excerpt from My Lives.