I got to meet White in person a couple of years later at his apartment in Chelsea. Right after I came in, he asked me to help him with a problem he was having with an open Word document on his laptop. I solved the problem in about two seconds. And then I saw the Manhunt page he had open in the background. He clicked through and showed me all the profiles of various possible tricks, namely young men who were particularly interested in responding to messages from an older man. I was there for four hours. He spent them trying to get me to read Joy Williams. He bought a copy of A Way of Life, Like Any Other off of Amazon at my suggestion. He told me old stories about a Hungarian trick (I had just gotten back from Hungary). He complimented me far more than I deserved -- "I bet all those boys really liked a big masculine guy like you" "what an astute thing to say about Hollinghurst" -- and mentioned the famous authors who had sat at the dining table where we were eating dinner. Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo. And in the end, he asked for a sexual favor, which I refused as politely as I could. A few years later, I saw his profile on a dating site, all several hundred pounds of him, laid out nude, a parody of a voluptuous model in a Pre-Raphaelite painting. I sent him a message on there letting him know I liked his recent book. He thanked me. That is the extent of our relationship.
Considering what he's revealed in his books, I doubt he would be embarrassed by a single detail here. I've told this story to many people who know him and every single one of them has stories that are more interesting, often more humiliating about him.
Things have changed since this interview was published. His beloved nephew Keith Fleming who wrote a sweet mini-memoir about his uncle for Granta and later on an ill-received mini-biography of him, has died. White has drawn direct and indirect portraits of Fleming throughout his career, since his 1985 novel Caracole. He dearly loved him. He has not, to my knowledge, written about his death. Of his many losses, that may have been the worst.
It's a little depressing to read this interview all these years later. I am a less energetic, less ballsy interviewer these days. I was still nursing wounds from my childhood at the time that have since healed. I care more about minimum-wage laws than gay marriage. I'm more likely to dislike someone who complains about poor people asking for "handouts" than people who complain about "faggots." I liked White's last novel Our Young Man, but it didn't alter my perception of New York or gay life. It would have changed my 25-year-old self's life. Your 30s are different than your 20s.
Interview: Edmund White
The iconoclastic novelist talks about his new memoir
By Paul Morton
“My friend and colleague Edmund White told everyone he was gay in the 1950s when even straight people were in the closet,” Joyce Carol Oates recently told an audience. It is not an artistic necessity for gay writers to leave the closet. Some found a wealth of material by stunting their sexual impulses. If Henry James had lived in a less repressive era, his prose may not have percolated with the same repressed desire or contained the same ambiguities that make his novels immortal.
But White has made a career out of not being in the closet. His prose is sensual and intelligent, a little “high faggot.” His most famous book, A Boy’s Own Story (1982), is a fictionalized study of his childhood in the Midwest. It was followed by two sequels. The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988) takes place in the ’50s and ’60s and ends with the Stonewall uprising. His best work, The Farewell Symphony (1997), is an elegy for the ’70s hedonists who were doomed to fall to AIDS in the ’80s.
After a career exploring so many crevices -- his other work includes biographies of Genet and Proust, two “abstract, Apollonian” novels in the ’70s that earned the admiration of his hero Vladimir Nabokov, and, in 2003, a novel about Frances Trolloppe, a British writer who traveled America in the 1810s and ’20s – he is returning to the familiar ground of his own life, with his memoir My Lives.
“[T]here’s something narcissistic about his writing,” White’s friend, the novelist David Leavitt wrote me in an email. “Its narcissism, in fact, is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness, which is why his new memoir is creating such a brouhaha. Yes, he’s incredibly frank in describing not just his sexual adventures, but his desire for degradation. In France, this kind of writing has a long tradition, leading up to Catherine Millet. For Anglo-Saxons, it’s just possibly ‘too much information.’”
White, who is 65 and has seen many friends die before their time (he was diagnosed with HIV two decades ago, but has, miraculously, never suffered any AIDS symptoms), now seems less interested in contemporary reactions to his book than in how it will be read after he enters his eternal sleep. Here he is at his wryest, saddest and most transcendental:
“I thought you, the reader of the future, the solitary twenty-year-old in Kansas, might be able to hear my voice, scratchy and bleating as it may be, as we can still hear Caruso’s. Like Walt Whitman I wanted to excite at least one young man not yet born; the kid in Singapore or Salt Lake City who gets an erection at the thought of humiliating his teacher.”
This interview was conducted by email over a period of a few weeks in January and February. Though he answered most of my questions, there were a few areas I was surprised to find off limits. He did not wish to discuss his celebrity friends - Susan Sontag, Salman Rushdie, and Raymond Carver – nor his current live-in partner Michael Carroll. He did talk about much else.
After a writing a trilogy of autobiographical novels which covers approximately the first 50 years of your life and which totals about 1000 pages in length, why did you need to return to such a familiar subject and approach it as non-fiction here in My Lives?
Anyone who reads My Lives will see that though it presents some of the material from my novels in a different light, many of the subjects are entirely new. I feel confident that I could write another book of the same length without repeating myself. Unlike many writers I’ve had a busy life, participated in many movements and events and known nearly everyone.
In A Boy’s Own Story, which was based on your childhood in the ’40s and ’50s, you consciously removed all references to the era. In revisiting those experiences here as fact, you have chosen an opposite tact, making references to the difficulties faced by “part-time homosexual(s)” in the “Eisenhower years.” Why the change?
I felt, when I wrote A Boy’s Own Story that I wanted to write about something fairly unchanging and “eternal,” a middle-class white childhood. The moods and mental states in childhood are nearly overwhelming and constitute the most important aspect of early experience—they seem to be infected not at all by the time or place. Childhood is a subject I avoid in My Lives; it is about social processes and attitudes (towards psychiatry, for instance, or homosexuality) that change constantly and have a very brief shelf life.
In “The Joys of Gay Life” that you wrote some 30 years ago, you listed these blessings of homosexuality: “our understanding of other minority groups, our need to express ourselves in the arts, our ability to think out in fresh terms such crucial things as love and friendship, our skill at surviving in a changing world.” I don’t think you could read a utopian line like that in My Lives.
No, but that article was a sort of manifesto written at a moment when gays needed to be reminded of the advantages of being gay. I don’t doubt even now that those advantages obtain; in My Lives I wasn’t presenting a campaign platform but rather a slightly shoddy record of what happened.
In your chapter, “My Shrinks,” you seem to have something of an agon with Freud. His reductive approach to human nature disturbs your novelistic sensibility. Was there anything about his work that excited you as a writer?
Well, first of all Freud was a most persuasive polemicist and presenter of his own ideas. He knew how to anticipate and overcome most objections to his rather far-fetched theories. His grounding in mythology naturally made him seem linked to artists and works of art. Most important, his intense scrutiny of an individual life—and his conviction that such study is necessary and valuable—parallels the artist’s commitment to observation.
Where does Freud go wrong?
A system is humane to the degree it is non-judgmental and open to variety. Paganism is more humane than the monotheistic religions and astrology is more humane than Freudianism. In astrology there are many character types – thousands -- and one is no better nor worse than another. (“Oh of course you get angry, you’re a Taurus with a moon rising in!”) Freudianism, by contrast, has a narrow typology of oral, anal and genital characters and the last one is more “mature” than the other two. It is developmental rather than panoramic.
“When two men live together they cohabit with their two careers, and the career is the only thing each man thinks defines him.” Only a woman, you believe, can complete a house. Is the new stage of gay liberation, the fight for marriage equality, folly?
I think I am equally pessimistic about heterosexual companionate marriage, which strikes me as an institution that doesn’t work. The idea that the same person can inspire a life-long passion (a contradiction in terms) and can also be a perfect friend and co-parent seems foolish and nearly absurd. Friendship normally tranquillizes passion—and becoming a parent ensures the crib death of passion.
Having grown up in a failed nuclear family, what model do you propose?
Well, precisely! There should be no single model but many. My sister, for instance, is a (non-practicing) lesbian who has three children she’s given birth to and a rainbow tribe of adopted children. Her new family of eight is Vietnamese and Ethiopian as well as American black - and several were born HIV-positive (though all but one has thrown off their positive status). This is a happy functioning family, made up of one grandmotherly but very dynamic white woman and her many children of color. I wouldn’t recommend them as a model to anyone and who knows if their methods (warmth and firmness, tight work schedules and a strong religious faith) would work for anyone else.
You recount a scene of Michel Foucault suffering a bad LSD trip at a gay bath in Manhattan. You call him and his like, “intellectuals, but not feeble ones who’d chosen the mind over the body.” Is this an ideal you wish for yourself? Does the modern American university, like Princeton where you currently teach, stunt the intellectual’s purpose?
I’m not sure Princeton is relevant. I suppose I admire intellectuals who are fully sexual—and I’ve always believed that the smartest people are the best sex.
You write admiringly of Jean Genet as a man capable of completely reinventing himself. I think it’s clear from reading this autobiography and your trilogy of autobiographical novels that you never reinvented yourself, but became more and more the strange intelligent character who had the bad luck to grow up in the Midwest. Why can’t you say the same of Genet?
Genet was a foundling raised by peasants in the Morvan, one of the most backward regions of France at the time. He quickly became a juvenile delinquent and soon enough a (bad) thief and army deserter and prostitute and jailbird, but in spite of his background he wrote some of the most exquisite prose and advanced some of the most transgressive ideas in modern French fiction. After writing five novels in five years he put fiction aside and then reinvented himself as a playwright—and his plays in no way resembled his novels. He invented the Theater of Ritual (in which there is no homosexual or obviously autobiographical content). Then, after two decades of silence he ended his career (and life) by writing Prisoner of Love, in an entirely new style, a book that is intimate and philosophical and highly political and utterly free of the rich figurative language that defined his fiction. I have not had the luck to go through so many metamorphoses, though I’m now turning to the theater and working in a vein I have not previously explored.
You are returning to the stage for the first time in forty years after a few unsuccessful productions in the ’60s. Was this just reinvention? Why are you returning?
Aaron Copland once told me that in old age one should not compete with one’s younger self. Well, I’m still very vigorous as a novelist and essayist-maybe more vigorous than ever-but I do enjoy moving into other domains. Perhaps the presence of my multi-talented friend Joyce Carol Oates has inspired me to be more productive and more various.
You have often mentioned the unconsummated incestuous desires of your family. You desired your father. Your father desired your sister. Your mother desired you. Usually, you write about these scenes comically, letting the tragedy bubble forth at one cringe-inducing moment. Other than Eugenides’s Middlesex, I don’t know many modern novels that have dealt with incest without veering into the gothic. What made you frame incest as a dark comedy of manners?
My life handed it to me as a subject. I think it was a very painful theme in my sister’s life, but in mine my mother’s unhealthy curiosity about me and attraction to me made me feel important—and frightened me at the same time. When I was a boy she and I were extremely close—we’d “merged.” Later I put some distance between us and even found her intensely irritating. I was often cruel to her, egged on by various psychiatrists. The Devouring Mother was very much a “period” trope in the 1950s. As to comedy, I wonder if two of my heroes—Nabokov and the poet James Merrill—didn’t influence me to see the grotesqueries of my life as funny. If tragedy is a close-up, comedy is a long shot—perhaps a safer distance from which to contemplate one’s own fate.
In writing about your father in My Lives, you find yourself thinking about mortality. You don’t seem to mind the fact that your father is dead, but that he, a human being who once existed, won’t be remembered within another generation’s time. Of course, he will live on in your books, as an anti-intellectual, homophobic, racist monster.
When my sister read my memoir she said that I’d let our parents off lightly. My nephew, Keith Fleming, in his book about my first sixteen years, Original Youth, has a lot of good things to say about my father and quotes a neighbor boy who said that Mister White had been a very benign influence. The truth is that my father was a misanthrope and narcissist, who had no friends and rejected those who courted him, even if he cared intensely about something more abstract, Public Opinion. I suppose I wanted to be a portraitist like Goya, who took pleasure in showing even his aristocratic and royal subjects in all their greed, idiocy and monstrousness. The funny thing is that he got his sitters to pay for these paintings and even to revel in them.
In “My Master,” in which you recount a relationship with a younger man you began a few years ago, you cast yourself as an aged Portnoy. It’s a funny chapter, somewhere between optimistic and depressing. On the one hand, it’s nice to see that a 64-year-old man can have the youthful vitality of a schoolgirl. On the other, it’s awful to see that even at that age one can be trapped by un-requitable desire. What were you trying to say here?
Years ago I gave a reading in Munich and an aggressive, spotty young man in the front row attacked me saying that I was writing about very old memories which no longer threatened me. Why didn’t I write about more recent anguish—a real angstliteratur? I felt that in “My Master” I wanted to cut through the possible smugness of the other chapters for a report from the battlelines of my current life. It seems to me that the desire of the aged is nearly always treated comically (Falstaff and the Merry Wives); I wanted to admit that it can be funny but also painful and as irrepressible as adolescent desire.
There’s no logic to this, but in some ways I found “My Master” upsetting in ways your work on more devastating subjects (your friends who fell to AIDS, homophobia in the ’50s) were not. I think when you write about the traumas of the past, you offer the comfort of closure and sometimes of triumph for having survived. By tackling the problems of your present life you show how many of the things you have spent a career writing about may not be resolvable.
You are completely correct. I have a tragic vision of life, which means that all the available alternatives at any given juncture are unsatisfactory.
You write of your friend Jim Ruddy, the real life inspiration for the object of your affections Sean who appears in The Beautiful Room is Empty and The Farewell Symphony. Your non-fiction depiction seems devoid of the transcendental moments of beauty you created in your novels. Was it easier to write about him in a fictionalized form?
Perhaps I’ve exhausted him as a subject, though he has served me as a muse for so many years that I wanted to acknowledge his importance in my life.
You based the straight boy Tommy the narrator falls for in A Boy’s Own Story on your real life long-term friend, who I’m happy to see ended up living a long and successful life as a businessman and family man. You have a deep friendship with him, now only lightly tinged by sexual overtones. How do you balance the sexual and the platonic in writing about friendship?
Just as any actual friendship is such a balancing act between desire and affection. Many of my newer friends, especially the younger men among them, initially attracted me, though I’ve chosen not to act on impulses that might have driven them away. But the desire remains ever present.
In a 1988 interview with The Paris Review you named Cynthia Ozick as your favorite living American writer. Ozick’s prose is crisp and cerebral and she often works best in short forms. Your sentences are long and sensual, even feminine. She hates leaving her house. Your gregariousness is well known. How did you grow to admire a writer so different from yourself?
I admire many artists whose lives and temperaments are unlike my own. Maybe we are most attracted to alternative lives…. I like Bunin, who was proud, reserved and paranoid. I reread Flannery O’Connor all the time, but she was a hermit, as was Emily Dickinson, another favorite. If I share many qualities with the great poet James Merrill, I’m the first to recognize that he was more refined, more elegant, more joyful in his art than I ever will be. Alan Hollinghurst is a reserved, even shy man, but to me he is the greatest living gay author. I can’t bear the politics of Ezra Pound, Yeats, Nabokov—but I bow down before their writing.
Among the more oppressive lines used against gay men and women of your generation was the suggestion that the homosexual life could never be a complete one. Is the title of your book an answer to that?
I hope that the whole book does disprove the assumption, explicitly stated in the first chapter, that the great writer could only be heterosexual.
Have you ever wondered what kind of writer you would have been had you been born heterosexual?
If I’d been heterosexual I don’t think I would have been a writer at all-no subject matter. Poor straight middle-class white men, as it is, have precious little to enact and all too much to defend. As Nicholson Baker has said, the heterosexual male writer works at a severe disadvantage. For instance, whereas in my memoir I demonstrate that freedom means having nothing left to lose, the straight male writer must present himself as strong but sensitive, sexual but responsible and mature, boyishly charming but courageous in a manly way, etc. That makes for a lot of posing and insincerity. Maybe Sade was the only truly honest straight man.
You say you are like an artist returning to the same subjects for his canvas, not unlike our most celebrated novelist Philip Roth who has explored his Jewishness with the same fascination as you have your homosexuality. Some critics, notably Stanley Crouch, have called this a problem of narcissism.
Oddly enough I don’t see my autobiographical fiction nor my memoirs as self-centered--I suppose because there are so many portraits rendered in every chapter of other people. While writing my trilogy I had to remind myself to put myself in as a sort of fil conducteur leading the reader through. Roth also comes up with minor characters, of course, but he doesn’t seem to need to remind himself to include his own views. I am a great admirer of Roth, especially for his narrative drive and unfailing vigor. Of course he was fortunate enough to be born a Jew, even if he was handicapped by his heterosexuality.
In The Married Man (2000), you wrote about your “AIDS restlessness.” Your reflections in My Lives suggest that it has subsided.
I suppose that what I had in mind was a feeling of imminent mortality—and an accompanying desire to write and travel as much as possible. Now I teach and can’t travel all that much; when I’m not teaching, during the summer holiday, I usually want to stay in one place and write. I don’t take myself too seriously, but I do feel that for better or worse no one else could write my fiction. It’s what I do. So I like to get on with it.