Edmund White has been HIV positive and healthy for 20 years. So far, he 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, 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 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 funk 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 humor. He talks quickly and fluently, 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 funneled 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 in congratulation.
Besides, Hollinghurst, the Booker winner, is right. This is White's best book, the one that 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. 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 issues like gay marriage became election levers.
As it turns out, White has as many claims to being a Texan as the current president. Both sides of his family hail from the Lone Star state, where one grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and the other a one-legged misfit.
Some of the details found their way into A Boy's Own Story, which has become the original version of 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 normalize him a little bit."
Over time, White's fiction caught up with the frantic way 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 mournful novel about his lover Hubert Sorin's death from AIDS called 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 romanticize 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 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. In 1982, along with Larry Kramer and a few others, he founded Gay Men's Health Crisis in response to the White House's lack of concern about AIDS.
My Lives does not dish up quite as much dirt as White does in person, but there is some. Susan Sontag makes a brief appearance at a dinner party, as does French philosopher Michel Foucault who White rescued from a bathhouse where the professor had a bad LSD trip.
White knows (and fears) that his incontinent sense of humor 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 10 years screens such attacks, he does not often hear them directly. But that does not mean he has become out of touch or fossilized. "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.