‘Is your autobiography really necessary?’ Something along the lines of that war poster which asked a similar question about railway journeys should be tacked up above the desk of every self-respecting author. Edmund White is one such, and we are already entitled to feel that we know an awful lot about him. He has skilfully fictionalised episodes from his youth and mature adulthood in A Boy’s Own Story and The Married Man, he has made hay with characters based on his friends in Caracole and mapped out his socio-sexual milieu as a gay American during the 1970s in States of Desire. What more can he possibly have to disclose?
My Lives, as it turns out, is hardly full-on autobiography. Readers wanting the total balance sheet of successes and failures will be disappointed. Which particular heartbreak made White cry on Gloria Vanderbilt’s shoulder or how exactly he got invited to Elton John’s 50th birthday are questions left unanswered. His preoccupation has always been with style and nuance, with seeking out le mot juste and framing his theme within an overall handsomeness of design. Thus this book’s form matters as much as its content in deepening our perspective of the author.
Presented as an album of sketches from various angles, the work seems to replicate White’s somewhat disingenuous view of himself as a flibbertigibbet, restless, intellectually shallow, for ever in search of reassurance. Having discarded the help of psychotherapists in determining his true nature for us, he turns for assistance to his dead parents. Those famous gay graffiti, ‘My mother made me a homosexual’, ‘If I give her the wool will she make me one too?’, might have been devised for Edmund and his bizarrely dysfunctional momma Lilah Mae. In contrast to her husband, whose unforgivable sin was to bore his children, she was at least entertaining even when drunk or embarrassingly distressed by other people’s reluctance to celebrate her oddity. Lilah Mae’s relationship with little Eddie, whom she wanted to make cultured and artistic, had its Oedipal dimension, consolidated by his seduction of her lover’s son, a muscley blond named Bob. White père, however, clung to the notion that what really made his boy a sissy was not having enough to do with his hands, as though ‘I’d at last turn towards women if only I could be made to mow one more lawn, fill one more wheelbarrow with pine needles, whitewash one more damp warehouse wall’.
Occupational therapy of the other kind has furnished an inexhaustible wellspring for White’s success as a writer. In a rare moment of priggishness he refers to the sort of vulgarity which portrays sex as ‘not a mystery but a cosy, funny pastime’. Whatever the seriousness of his engagement with erotic experience, comedy undoubtedly sharpens the lines of his rueful self-portrait as a slave to a well-hung actor with whom he falls painfully in love. And as he falls to his knees ‘like a praying Muslim’ before yet another golden-tressed ephebe with ‘lips as red as candied currants’, isn’t there a hint of cosiness in the whole here-we-go-again process of self-abasement?
Hetero humbug routinely blasts these candid sexual avowals as being proof of gay men’s unregenerate self-indulgence. In his closing pages White trumps this cliché with a plausible metamorphosis into the fastidious Puritan self-improver driven by ‘a very American earnestness’. True, some harmless name-dropping (‘now I’m a massive Edwardian gentleman joking with Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie’) reminds us that for all his ardent Francophilia he is at heart a New Yorker, allured by the phosphorous gleam of celebrity. Part of him would clearly wish to have changed places with his friend David Kalstone, that dashing boulevardier commemorated in The Burning Library and here offered another spin around the ballroom. It is this cleverly calibrated balance between a delighted knowingness and an enduring innocence which ultimately justifies My Lives. Autobiography, the book reminds us, is an art like any other, and its author remains an artist to his marrowbones.