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.
Added to that he is a natural stylist, his prose is effortlessly graceful, if precise, and his narratives are diverse and sensual. Along with this there is superb autofiction such as A Boy's Own Story and its sequels, The Beautiful Room is Empty and The Farewell Symphony, a remarkable book – who other than White could have made 500 pages of gay sex so compelling?
He is also the author of a major biography of Jean Genet, as well as a monograph on Proust. He has written on Rimbaud and hopes to write a book about Baudelaire.
Another of White's novels, The Married Man is a powerful love story, based, as is so much of his work, on his life. But then, White's work is real. He enjoys waving his hands about and denying that he works hard or that he ever takes any notes, but White lives every minute as a writer.
His genius for evoking life rests in his empathy and his ability to express the agonies of homosexual love, with its fleeting encounters, as precisely as those of heterosexual romantic grief, because that is what they are – agonies. “Women seem to like my work”, he once said to me, and it is true. White feels it is because women are drawn to the analysis of the states of sexual and romantic desire and rejection that White describes so well.
Also significant is the fact that his fiction is character-driven and is placed within mainstream literature. As a writer, he has broken down barriers, he writes about people in search of love. Whether gay or straight, it is irrelevant. What matters is the depth of feeling, desire, loneliness, despair, that White conveys.
There is no denying that White enjoys playing the role of the nice guy, and during his time in Paris this would have been extended to nice American guy. In his most recent book, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris, he describes a dinner party during which the conversation sounded as competitive as a college exam. He is also self-effacing about his linguistic abilities. "When I spoke French I felt I was a rat in a maze, guided by a single point of light in the right direction but constantly going down blind alleys . . ." Setting out to learn French at 42, he says, was an ordeal.
For all the camp kidding, he is serious, sufficiently serious, and even heroic to the point of accompanying his dying lover, Hubert Sorin, on a dramatic final journey across the Moroccan desert.
Sorin was the individual upon whom Julien in The Married Man is based. White's heart has tended to direct his life and he has no regrets; he believes love is worth dying for.
His journey began in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1940. By then his Texan father, an erstwhile cowboy, had become a successful entrepreneur. However, material wealth could not sustain the marriage and White's parents divorced when he was seven. His mother took him and his sister to live in a Chicago suburb, returning to Ohio for summer vacations with his father. He was frightened of his father, most specifically his father's disappointment in him.
Having so often said that he became a writer in order to tell the truth, or at least, his truth, White reasoned in City Boy: "if I had been straight, I would have been an entirely different person. I would never have turned toward writing with a burning desire to confess, to understand, to justify myself in the eyes of others . . . I wouldn't have been impelled to live in New York and choose the hard poverty of bohemia over the soft comfort of the business world."
On the page it can appear harder than the cheerful, forthcoming White allows it to be in person. He is happy discussing books, places, reputations and friends. Few writers speak as readily about books and White seems to have read everything. He laughs at this and for a moment looks like a teenager accused of having secretly studied for an exam everyone else agreed not to take seriously.
"I like to read novels by younger writers to find out what's going on." He mentions the British novelist Alan Hollinghurst. "He's one of my favourites because he has such a rich sense of history and our place in it, and he's the most polished stylist alive. I like Martin Amis because he's so funny and aware of the great social issues. Ishiguro's books I find so fresh and well-thought-out; Never Let Me Go seemed such a fine book about something we all face: death. In America I like Ben Lerner, especially 10:04 . . . It's funny and philosophical – two qualities that rarely go together except in the best instances as in Lolita." He could add some of his own work to that but he doesn't.
White seems to be as at ease with his work as he is with himself. Referring to Adelle Waldman's bestselling debut, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which charts the self-obsessed journey of a male writer engaging in cruelly-casual sexual encounters, White asks "why is there no one writing about gay life with the same acuity and sophistication?" Well, there is: Edmund White.
Gender and sexuality are prevailing themes explored by many. A topic that he considers to be constantly overlooked is religion: “Particularly in America. I think religion is very important in America and no one writes about it.”
White enjoys giving the impression that he is benignly watching the world go by, but he in possession of a formidable intelligence, as his Genet biography shows. Having established that he set out to tell the truth as a writer, how would he explain his vision of his work?
"When I was young I wanted to lose with each book the admirers I might have gained with the proceeding one; I was that eager not to repeat myself. Now I've seen certain patterns emerge; a criticism that is guided by appreciation and often a desire to restore faded reputations such as Jean Giono, Ivan Bunin, Knut Hamsun. Then I turn to autobiographical fiction, then historical fiction" (Fanny was based on the life of novelist Anthony Trollope's mother, and Hotel de Dream is a dramatisation of an episode late in the brief life of writer Stephen Crane).
“I have also written fantasy as well as biography and autobiography.” He refers to a tension “between the assertion of the ego and an escape from the self.” For a writer who claims to spend a great deal of time just living, he has been very productive.
"For years my fictional project was relatively straightforward, to rearrange the incoherence of my life into patterns of significance. But more recently I've been writing 'real' novels, mostly invented in order to explore aspects of gay life hitherto ignored." In Jack Holmes and his Friend he looked at a friendship sustained between two men; one gay and the other straight.
In Our Young Man, the novel he is currently working on, he says he is trying to explore what he describes as the prevailing gay myths of youth and beauty. "My hero is a male model" says White: truth-teller and master of several genres, who, however unlikely it may appear, is one of contemporary literature's most heroic figures.