White truths: why novelist Edmund White believes love is worth dying for
Candour and honesty define the life and work of Edmund White, the prolific American novelist with a genius for expressing the agonies of human sexuality
American novelist Edmund White photographed in Dublin in June 2014. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
If survival is an art, it is one that the American writer Edmund White, famous since the publication of the powerfully autobiographical A Boy’s Own Story in 1982, has mastered with impressive panache. Genial by nature, he is the most disarming individual; brilliant company, funny, informed, astute, kind and quick-witted, an intellectual who does not take himself seriously.
His gaze is direct and mildly unflinching as he continues to look at the world through slightly surprised, all-seeing hazel eyes. Often he allows a sly pause during which he waits for a reaction. White enjoys being slightly shocking. When he laughs, it is because he is genuinely amused. Few smiles are as beguiling as his; it is yet another of White’s many gifts. As is the sense of humour that has helped him through life in general and the further adversities of gay life in particular.
He is also one of those people who, after a 20 year absence, will resume a conversation as if he had merely wandered out to buy milk. Few individuals possess such a generous capacity for friendship.
In 1985 he was handed a death sentence when it was confirmed he was HIV-positive, he has since survived two strokes, the second of which caused him to have to re-learn speech. “I’m slower, I forget words, I’m . . . well . . .” he rolls his eyes and laughs, “shaky on my feet, I have a stick.” He gestures to the cane as if it were a eccentric companion that has attached itself to him.
White is not complaining; he is too busy thinking, responding. The 16 years lived in Paris set him apart from American writers and also made him a very important voice in American literature. He is the supreme observer who has also drawn on his own experience.
Above all, he is a truth teller. “That is right, I know that. I’ve always been impelled to say the truth. When I was 14, in 1954, I already wrote a gay novel, though I’d never read one. I felt that life handed me a great subject, gay life, that had scarcely been examined, and I was impelled to record it in all its strange detail. I’ve always seen writing as a way of telling the truth. For me writing is about truth. I have always tried to be faithful to my own experience.”
By now he has been back in the US for about as long as he lived in Paris. How much did America change while he was away? “America is still weird, I mean I’ve always thought America was a bit weird” he laughs at that before sighing: “It’s gotten slicker and dumber.”
The writer in America, he says, has no public role. “The talk shows in the States want celebrities, not authors. In France it is different; writers are called upon to comment on everything. They have a very public role there. America is different; we have great writers but very few good readers, far fewer good readers than in France where there aren’t that many great writers, well, not now . . . You know, there I am in Princeton, teaching writing to these smart kids, who don’t actually want to write. They are too smart to become writers; they want to become rich.”
His candour about his sexuality has, at times, caused him to be all too quickly defined as a gay writer as if he is a specialist campaigner. He is confessional and has written several highly readable works of gossipy memoir, including City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and 1970s, yet the essential essence of White, is his astute social and cultural commentary.