Edmund White is perhaps not a name many will recognise. Although he co-authored The Joy of Gay Sex with Charles Silverstein and has published 12 novels, three volumes of memoirs, and biographies of Jean Genet, Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud during a career that has so far spanned four decades, culminating in his appointment as professor of creative writing at Princeton, he remains relatively obscure.
Despite the New York Times describing his semi-autobiographical novel A Boy’s Own Story as a heady blend of J.D. Salinger and Oscar Wilde, his output is consistently left off “best of” lists and, as I found out as I tried to get material for this article, in many cases is actually out of print in the UK.
This seems strange to me. The themes he deals with, mostly overtly same-sex love, but also abandonment, loneliness and, for me most strikingly, the nauseating excitement felt by individuals perched on the edge of adulthood, seem universal. On another level, the gulf between how many of his characters live their lives as chaste and closeted, spurned by a world that cannot accept them, and his own bohemian lifestyle, raises questions of how the gay community relates to the spectre of HIV/AIDS, a world away from the cosy parochialism of his early fiction. It is White’s vast range of subject matter that I find so fascinating.
Take, for example, A Boy’s Own Story. Quite apart from the somewhat heavy themes it tackles, the work deserves a place in the canon for the beautiful and arresting quality of the writing. The images of metaphors are at once so strange and alien but at the same time emotive and somehow familiar that this novel instantly sticks in the memory. It charts the development of a young nameless boy from childhood to adolescence as he grapples with what it means to be male, the repression of his homosexual feelings and the struggle to find a place in a world that rejects him.
So far so predictable, you might say, but it is White’s masterful ability to make what his young protagonist experiences so relatable, often only with the addition of the tiniest of details, that raises this novel above a clichéd coming of age story. The description late in the book of the forbidden but irresistible attraction he feels towards his gym teacher and the bumbling, embarrassingly naive, way in which he declares his love, will surely provoke smiles of recognition in many readers. The way, too, in which the boy’s relationship to his mute, cold, but ultimately well-meaning father treads familiar ground, but is depicted with such sensitivity and grace that it as if White is writing just for you. At its core, the novel said to its readers: you are not alone.
This is powerful stuff, but admittedly was even more powerful when the book was published in 1982 and spoke directly to the generation who grew up in the 1960s and heard few comforting voices. But other areas of White’s life and work fulfil a similar role to the generation of young gay men and women who grew up never knowing a pre-AIDS world. White was diagnosed with HIV in 1985 and has been consistently unapologetic about his promiscuity and HIV status. In a recent interview, as well as in his 2009 memoir City Boy, he sees writing about his HIV status as a public act of education which aims not only to eliminate stigma but also to increase awareness of the huge spectrum of HIV infection and the myriad misconceptions that surround transmission. (White himself is what is termed a “long-term non progressor,” or someone whose disease advances extremely slowly.) His influence, if he could reach a wider audience, would be immeasurably important: there are few other public figures tackling such issues in such a forthright and unabashed manner.
In this way, White’s work tackles the full spectrum of gay experience, from the first uncertain steps to dealing with the shadowy threat of AIDS. As a literature student I was plagued by the question: what’s the point of studying books at all? Edmund White is one of those rare writers provides a definitive, irrefutable answer.