I have a thing about Edmund White. There’s a moment when you’re about nineteen or twenty and you read something and you know that that’s how you want to sound on the page, and then you spend years trying to figure out the construction of that voice. Trying to make it possible from the fingers and thoughts you’ve got to produce something like what you’ve read and adored. Sitting in a tiny unheated flat reading his biography of Jean Genet was a watershed for me: here was a book as exciting and thrilling and interesting as I hoped the world would be. When I read that book I knew what I wanted to be: a writer like Edmund White.
Not a writer like Genet mind (though I can’t believe anyone who’s invested the time in reading The Thief’s Journal wouldn’t come away without the urge to just invent a whole other life), but a writer like Edmund White who can see the path by noting the cracks in the pavement, who can make the slow turning of the earth a loving journey, who can describe the svelte viscosity of the puddles left by morning rain. That was what I wanted, what I still want. Reading Genet France was comprehensible, the literary world was obtainable, and the metropolitan was not a closed conspiracy from which I was excluded. Everything was within reach; I could speak on subjects unrelated to rural New South Wales.
In that winter of despair I read everything I could get my hands on by Edmund White, which was harder than you’d think in those pre-internet days. In those days libraries weren’t just a place to use a networked terminal. The first thing I found was States of Desire: Travels in Gay America in a small second hand store on the north coast of NSW. It cost me a dollar. You might think it hard to believe but States of Desire struck me as a kind of western, a set of frontier stories where lives are invented and constructed in ways my little country boy self. As it turned out a different kind of episteme was changing and the book is now a kind of documentary of the closing of the frontier. In his own way White is a Frederick Jackson Turner figure, enabling the imagining of many different ways of being.
The Burning Library similarly set my imagination ablaze, road-mapping a host of authors I’d yet to read and offering a great sweeping topography of ideas to explore when I thumbed my way through the library catalogue. When White wrote about Nabokov, Foucault, Capote, and Isherwood they all became signposts to worlds of greater complexity and significance. My curiosity was set ablaze and literature seemed like a place I wanted to be, and if lucky, a place I might get to stay. The Flaneur is great book that led me to love cities and pedestrianism in a whole new way, it met up with De Certeau and Bachelard the uses of space for joy. It’s a book made to read in the bath, it always makes me forget where I am.
I also read the autobiographies: My Lives and City Boy as they came out. They’re OK, for a while. They tell a story and since he can really write they are funny. But oddly they aren’t affecting. I’m sure that they have their admirers but I found myself holding back, as if the architecture of his life has no windows. We could be inside within him but without enough distance, the reader is too close to see anything. There’s a certain interest in reading about all famous people, all the people he slept with, and the construction of identity (and contexts for that construction) but he doesn’t provide the sense of openness about himself that he can when he writes about others. He is interested in the writing when he writes about himself, not the readers’ curiosity.
I also read The Unfinished Symphony and The Beautiful Room is Empty and admired them. But they didn’t move me. None of White’s fictions have moved me, not like the non-fiction. Recently I picked up The Married Man at a market for two dollars in hardcover and I’ve spent the last few nights lazily wandering through it, safe in the knowledge that every couple of pages there’s something that will take my breath away. It is a lot like some of the other works of fiction, indeed there are moments where you think haven’t I read this before? And the answer is yes, it’s in one of his autobiographies or it’s an anecdote he told in the course of telling someone else’s story. The recycling isn’t so bad, we all do it, but it feels a good deal less than intimate, like regifting an unwanted present.
But going back, reading Genet (and to a lesser extent Rimbaud: Double Life of a Rebel) my sense of wonder is undiminished. When White writes about the world he can make it big and complicated and heartbreaking and joyous. This is what I’m aiming for, here on the Folly: curiosity, intimacy, joy. These are what I’m still aiming for.