Long ago, I interviewed Edmund White and found that the photographer assigned to the job was the incomparable Jane Bown — a bit like having Matisse turn up to decorate your kitchen. After we talked, Jane shot. She managed to convert a tiny hotel courtyard into a sort of antique Grecian glade. In her pictures, White peeped through the foliage with the smile of some demonic faun come to spread ribald chaos in the service of the great god Pan.
I remembered that look when, in this patchwork of pieces about his life as a reader, he discloses that a heart attack followed by surgery in 2014 had one weird outcome. Temporarily, he felt ‘no desire to read’. The prolific author, critic, memoirist, biographer and teacher who had first slipped through a ‘magical portal’ into books as a ‘fierce little autodidact’ in the postwar Midwest now shed all sceptical curiosity. Instead, he just told ‘tall tales’ prompted by florid post-operative dreams. One of these involved a naked dance audition for Rudolph Valentino, idol of the silent screen, in his ‘black sombrero and sideburns’. After the dance, hopefuls were required to ‘leave on the floor an inked impression of our anuses’. During this convalescent semi-delirium, White describes himself as ‘a sly imp of the perverse’.
Surely, that sly imp has always danced across his prose, in fiction and memoir alike. As a peerless chronicler and interpreter of gay American life before, during and after the age of Aids, as a connoisseur of French (and so much other) literature and as Princeton professor of creative writing, White never lost touch with that spirit of antic mischief. The strain of Bacchic merriment makes this loosely structured miscellany of reflections on beloved books and author friends much more fun — and more surprising — than a leisurely ramble through favourite works by a 78-year-old giant of letters has any right to be. After his post-surgical holiday from literature, for instance, White recovered his relish for the printed word not thanks to some staid pillar of the curriculum but with the oblique short stories of the Turkish writer Sait Faik Abasıyanık. Cue a shrewd digression (one of many) on the value of ‘vagueness’ in fiction: ‘If you say “She owned a beautiful painting,” no one can challenge you. If you say “She owned a Modigliani,” half your readers will say “Ick”.’
Many of these essays showcase White as the hard-working novelist-critic imparting enthusiasms, discoveries, even secrets from his workshop. For him, Anna Karenina ranks as ‘the greatest novel in all literature’. His favourite work, however, ‘has always been Lolita’. The ‘Europeanised American’ (White) bows to the ‘Americanised European’ Nabokov, that ‘lepidopterist of the spirit’ whose keyhole exactitude stands at the far end of the novelistic spectrum from the ‘vagueness’ he lauds elsewhere.
Eclectic, even eccentric, White’s personal canon happily digests such contradictions. He re-reads only two works of fiction every year: first Proust, perhaps predictably, although he also snipes that Proust had ‘a lot of genius but no talent’ compared to (another favourite) Colette, with her ‘narrow genius but a very deep talent’. Annually, he also revisits Nothing by Henry Green. Who knew? The dandy novelist appeals for his ‘cattiness, strategic artifice and stylish doubletalk’. White also loves Elizabeth Bowen (‘way superior’ to Woolf and Forster), Rebecca West and Penelope Fitzgerald, that unerring ‘archaeologist of the sentiments’. Again, this strand of his taste hardly matches the high-modernist, avant-garde loyalties of the earnest Midwesterner who (as he admits) likes to ‘rustle my ruff to prove that I belong to the cultural elite’ and scolds ‘Brits’ for their deplorable failure to worship cubism or Balanchine.
Consistently, however, White has been a professor of desire: ‘I’ve always associated reading and writing with sex.’ Literature as an erotic pursuit threads through the memoir-based chapters here. Even as he cruised public toilets in his youth, thoughts of Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle would never be far away. ‘Shameful appetites’ forever mingled with ‘the life of the mind’. Aged 14, White would spend afternoons rubbing legs under the desk in the school library with a red-headed football player named Danny, a regular jock who came in from the pitch ‘smelling almost rank with sweat and hormones’ — a kind of same-sex Midwestern riposte to the Paolo and Francesca episode in Dante’s Inferno.
Lovers seeded many of his literary passions, such as Charles the suave ad man (‘right out of Mad Men’) who turned him on to Ezra Pound, an enduring companion. White has no time for orthodoxy and uniformity, sexual or cultural. A touching tribute to his husband, the writer Michael Carroll, notes their utterly different bookish affinities. Carroll, from ‘resentful Scotch-Irish stock’ in rural Tennessee, loves Richard Yates and John Cheever, distrusts White’s ‘blasé airs’, ‘hated my snobbish, condescending friends in Paris’, but still makes his own art ‘with monastic zeal’.
Controversies behind him, White fears the fate of a harmless living legend, ‘amusingly historical, like Quentin Crisp’ or, worse, ‘alarmingly jolly, like Falstaff’. For all their geniality, these essays show there’s little chance of that. He can salute, for example, the sulphurous fascist fellow-traveller Curzio Malaparte, that brilliantly warped ‘participant-observer of sadistic power’. He can even tell you what his pal Joyce Carol Oates does for a treat when she has written well: ‘She rewards herself by vacuuming the house.’ That they don’t teach you at Iowa Writers’ Workshop.