Edmund White, the author who has been hailed as the godfather of modern gay American literature, has just turned 82. “On Facebook yesterday, it announced my birthday,” he tells me over video from his apartment in Chelsea, Manhattan. “I saw a lot of people saying: ‘You mean to say he’s still alive?’ Americans are so rude and awful. They seemed to be disgusted that I’m still alive.”
The subtitle of his new novel wryly pushes back at this impertinent ageism. A Previous Life: Another Posthumous Novel is White’s 29th book in a career that, alongside fiction, has included memoirs and biographies of his heroes Jean Genet and Marcel Proust.
Witty, self-lacerating and wildly entertaining, the novel pulses with a rambunctious energy. It concerns the life of Ruggero, a septuagenarian bisexual Sicilian aristocrat with an enormous penis. I laughed at its social comedy, admired White’s craftsmanship and was left wide-eyed by Ruggero’s raunchy adventures with innumerable lovers, including an elderly writer named Edmund White (yes, we are in the realm of autofiction).
Ruggero makes droll observations (“in Sicily all plants flourish if the servants remember to water them…”). He was based on a real person: “I had an affair with the guy I call ‘Ruggero’ that ended very unhappily,” says White, who is in an open marriage with his fellow writer Michael Carroll.
“I wanted to use the Ruggero character’s emails verbatim [from the real-life Ruggero’s emails]. He said he would allow me to quote them directly if he was in no way identifiable in the book. I kept my part of the deal.” Then, White adds mischievously: “He hasn’t spoken to me for a year because I told his lover he and I were still having sex.”
Born in 1940, White grew up in Ohio and Texas, before moving to New York in the 60s. From his acclaimed autobiographical novel A Boy’s Own Story (1982) Onward, he has accomplished writing about sex.
“I’m a literary exhibitionist but in person I’m pretty shy,” he says. “You would think people were timid in the past about writing about sex and now they are brazen. It’s the opposite. My generation were brazen, partly because we confused gay liberation with sexual liberation. My mother used to say: ‘You’ve done so much for your people,’ as though I were the king of Ethiopia or something.”
White has been HIV-positive since 1985 and was one of the co-founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organisation, which supports those with Aids and fights for justice on their behalf. Did the pandemic stir memories of the AIDS epidemic?
“Yes, although the difference is that Covid affected everyone and no one group has been stigmatized. There was so much anti-gay sentiment in the 80s. For instance, the mother of a newborn wouldn’t let you handle her baby.”
Even today, White feels anxious about his work’s reception, taking aim at a novelist who reviewed A Previous Life negatively and with whom he previously shared a publisher (“They dropped him because he didn’t have enough readers and so he has reviewed me in bitter terms twice”), before admitting: “I think, maybe because I was attacked for being a gay writer early on in my career, I still read my reviews with a kind of unbecoming desperation.”
The Edmund White character in A Previous Life is an “old pudgy man with skin tags and diaper rash” who calls aging “a curse.” Was White exaggerating for comic effect? “I was never a beauty, but I was passable. I’m not used to being considered a second-class citizen. That is painful, but not particularly. I’ve had a heart attack and two strokes, but right now my health is good, so I don’t really feel old age is a curse.”
He has almost finished writing his next book or, as he puts it, chuckling, “another posthumous novel.”
“It’s a tragedy about an older man in love with a 20-year-old ballet dancer,” he says. “I’m not ready to close my shop yet.”
WHAT I’M READING NOW
The Little Ottleys By Ada Leverson
“She was the model for the sphinx in Oscar Wilder’s poem. It’s a delicious book.”
WHAT I’M READING NEXT
Elizabeth Bowen’s back catalog
“I belong to a book club of two with [the Chinese-American writer] Yiyun Li. We Skype every day at 5pm. We just read The Death of the Heart and The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen. Both are masterpieces, so we plan to read more next.”