Monday, May 29th, 2023

Edmund White, Reader

Approximately midway through his charming, aphoristic, and erudite The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading (2018), Edmund White writes: “I may never be so well-known as John Updike, but to my few readers I’m indispensable.” I am one of those readers. The only thing that kept me from nodding in agreement is that I think Updike is rapidly fading from (collective) memory.

It seems to me that I have read about thirty memoirs by White, as well as two books by his nephew, Keith Fleming, so am quite familiar with the trajectory of his life as a self-hating homosexual youth,* happier Parisian (despite the tragedy of a lover dying of AIDS), and overweight elder statesman of gay letters (something of a blurb slut). I am not the least surprised that the modern Japanese writers he revere are the kinky Tanizake and Kawabata (though I think there is some Mishima he would like—if not The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, then The Sound of Waves, probably After the Banquet and Madame de Sade).

White details the relationship at a distance with Vladimir Nabokov and celebrates Kinbote in Pale Fire as an “unrepentant homosexual” (obviously, I read the book at too young an age, and White convinced me that I need to reread it!). His enthusiasm for the fiction of Jean Giono provides another reminder that I should try to read something by Giono, though where to start is not clear (Hill?). I have not read any of Rebecca West’s fiction either.

I do not think that Ronald Firbank’s books are as forgotten as White asserts they are. I have to say that if I had not read them, what White writes about them would not inspire me to do so (failure as an advocate by White is rare, in this book or elsewhere!). I have also read Henry Green (though not Nothing), a lot of Colette and of Cocteau (and one more translation of Tales of Genji than White!). I’m certain that White did not read Umberto Saba’s Ernesto when he was growing up, since the book was not published in Italian until 1975. There are appreciations of his long-time Princeton colleague, Joyce Carol Oates (perhaps the only American writer more prolific than White), Alison Lurie, Michael Ondatjee, and periodic mentions of John Irving, Richard Howard and James Merrill. One enthusiasm I do not share is for the WWII novels of Curzio Malaparte (his house on a small peninsula of Capri is another matter!)

I am convinced that White is right that “people interested in putting together a very restricted canon of great books don’t really kike reading; true readers, among whom I have the impertinence to include myself, are always sniffing out more and more titles.”

Some of the discussions (and the inclusion of Ezra Pound’s lengthy poem “Cathay”) go on too long, and there are some repetitions from chapter to chapter that show that neither author nor editor read the whole book straight through as a book, but these are very minor irritants. What White writes about some of his favorite writers and about his own fiction-writing are very interesting. How he can be a slow reader, as he claims he is, is mystifying for someone who not only has read so much, but has had active writing and a lot of sex and romances.

OK, leaving aside the autobiographical fiction, White had only published four previous memoirs, not thirty.

*He recalls that in his first, unpublished novels, he “wrote about myself with frigid disdain in the third person as a lamentable character,” and had a lot of psychotherapy.

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.