A PREVIOUS LIFE: A Novel
by Edmund White
Bloomsbury. 288 pages, $26.
EDMUND WHITE’S captivating new novel—he’s written more than a dozen since his debut fiction Forgetting Elena was published almost fifty years ago—begins with an echo of Henry James: “She came back into the room where the fire was blazing and looked with admiration at the familiar face.” This literary gambit suggests that we’re about to encounter a quasi-Jamesian world of high culture, subtle romantic intrigue, and psychological gamesmanship.
What goes on here? The year is 2050, a future time when polyamory is chic, nobody is interested in the gay liberation movement of the 20th century, Central Park is a shadow of its former glory, and someone is writing the biography of a dead, mostly forgotten gay novelist named Edmund White. Henry James, move over.
Enter Ruggero is a handsome, courtly, well-endowed (in both senses) Sicilian magnifico and a renowned harpsichordist—“a Turk from the waist down and a Greek god from the waist up.” Now in his seventies, Ruggero was once “the universal ball,” as one of his admirers says. “Everyone wanted you.” From his teenage years, Ruggero has thrown himself into “unbridled passion, instantaneous, unapologetic desire.” A character who watches him having sex remarks: “I felt I was watching a living pornographic film directed by Caravaggio.”
Back when he was in his forties, Ruggero initiated a correspondence with the American author Edmund White, 36 years his senior, an exchange that led to a love affair. Ruggero is viciously candid about Edmund’s lack of physical appeal: “the rolls of fat, the tiny, functionless penis, the sagging breasts and the giant nipples with a history, the bizarre odor of skin fungus, his lack of basic hygiene, the rotting teeth and horrible breath, his leaking bladder leaving dark droplets on the pale carpet.” The eccentricity of Ruggero’s choice—“I who had buggered so many beautiful boys and fucked so many beautiful girls”—surprises even Edmund, “an old chubby lover on a cane.”
Given the aged Edmund’s physical limitations, it comes as no surprise that the lubricious Ruggero eventually takes up with another lover, the beautiful Butt Boy. Still, his relationship with Edmund continues to roll along, only without the sex. But now Edmund is dead (a heart attack, we’re told) and the aging Ruggero and his much younger wife Constance, a mixed-race American from Baltimore, agree to write their memoirs—“confessions,” Constance calls them—which they read aloud to each other. We learn of Ruggero’s first adolescent homosexual experimentation with his cousin Giuseppe, his later homosexual dalliances, his see-sawing between men and women, and his feelings of being stifled in heterosexual marriages “in which family men were slated to abnegate the fulfillment of their desires in favor of their duties to their children and their wives.”
Desire has always been one of White’s literary preoccupations and never, I think, has he explored all the many manifestations of amorous desire with more candor, luscious description, and good humor, than here in a novel that he has confected, astoundingly, in his eighties. White’s career-long investigation of homosexuality, his acute appreciation of the particular nature of gay relationships—“winging it at every moment”—reaches a kind of Olympian serenity here. Lovers come together for a while and then move on. The world somehow survives.
Constance, too, has been through her share of lovers, marriages, and infatuations. She’s passionate about Ruggero, a man older than her father would be if he had lived, but also anxious that she can’t measure up to Ruggero’s intelligence and cultural sophistication. Anxiety—especially about the many May-December romances that populate this novel—is another theme that White explores. When Constance’s own young lover comes to dinner, she has to explain to him that Ruggero is her husband, not her father. Like so much in this novel, it’s a moment fraught with both poignancy and comedy (Henry James again, but with a lighter, postmodern touch).
There is plenty of good fun in this devilishly clever entertainment. (Nabokov’s Ada came to mind several times as I read.) There’s a hilarious, and vicious, send-up of the novelist Harold Brodkey (“a hapless amateur”), and tongue-in-cheek nods to David Sedaris and Garth Greenwell. There are even a few glancing barbs at White’s real-life husband, the writer Michael Carroll: “redneck,” “impatient,” “irascible.” Ouch!
White’s understanding and portrayal of women and female sexuality is superb—as strong as David Plante’s or Reynolds Price’s, to name two of his homosexual contemporaries. And he writes so well about sex—with a delicious balance of exquisite graphic detail, keen wisdom, and good-natured irony. In his first letter to Edmund, Ruggero writes: “Your writing deals with all the aspects of beauty and its powerful, almost devastating effects on people’s lives in a sensible way.” These flattering words are a spot-on assessment of White’s own aims in this novel.
As a prose stylist, White is a master. What he says about Ruggero’s conversational style—“full of radical shifts in register from hieratic to demotic, serious to frivolous, flipping lightly from a big subject (the Czech baroque) to a small one (the best way to cook perfectly round potatoes fondant in the oven)”—very much describes his own literary mode. It’s a style I’d call Classical High Gay. It will delight some readers and probably turn others off.
I don’t know to what extent A Previous Life is a roman à clef, and I’m not sure it matters. What White has given us here is a supremely satisfying divertissement, one that delivers on multiple levels. It’s a comedy, a satire, a meditation on aging, an homage to the long lineage of gay novels that have come before. And it manages to achieve a kind of wistful wisdom about the nature of relationships, both gay and straight.
Late in the novel, Ruggero meets Colin, a thirty-something “boy” who’s writing a thesis on Edmund White, “the forgotten gay novelist of the twentieth century.” Hilariously, Colin says he has only read one of White’s novels, A Previous Life. “It’s old-fashioned metafiction and White himself is only a minor character.” Already in the not-too-distant future of 2050, one of the darling fictional trends of our time, metafiction, has become “old-fashioned.” As will we all, alas, our love affairs, our passions. Remarkably, A Previous Life makes something exuberant out of this unavoidably sad fact of life. Like the work of another octogenarian artist, Giuseppe Verdi, White’s novel emphasizes the burla, the joke, that is life. Not everyone can, like White—the “fat, famous slug”—chuckle at the stupendous absurdity of it all. A Previous Life is the kind of novel that Henry James might have written had he been more fun.
Philip Gambone, the author of five previous books, is currently at work on a new collection of short stories about the lives of older gay men.