It is conventional for people now to have lives rather than a life, but it is not always clear whose lives they are. They can, of course, be claimed – you can call them, as Edmund White does in this autobiography, ‘my lives’ – but there are always counter-claims. What seemed most intimately one’s own can turn out to have been someone else’s all along. Being possessive doesn’t make one self-possessed, and White makes great play in this fascinating and archly mischievous book with ideas of ownership, sexual and otherwise. By calling his first chapter ‘My Shrinks’, and the following chapters ‘My Father’, ‘My Mother’, ‘My Hustlers’, ‘My Women’, ‘My Europe’, ‘My Master’, ‘My Blonds’, ‘My Genet’, ‘My Friends’, he keeps reminding us that his story about himself is always a story about other people. And that most of these other people, beginning, naturally, with his parents (and with his shrinks), were so self-absorbed that the young Edmund could never really make them his. He was involved but never included; he was always part of someone else’s project and grew up – turning a predicament into a wish – craving the desire of others. He ‘wanted to be indispensable’, and his parents’ high-maintenance egotism left him with a virtual passion for what he calls passivity. ‘His words,’ he says of one of his hustlers, ‘gave me an instant erection – the bliss of total passivity edged with the fear of total passivity.’ It would not be true to say that White’s autobiography is mostly about other people; but what fascinates him about other people is the nature of their self-regard, the ways in which they are caught up in who they want to be.
Like all the best autobiographies My Lives is about something and not about someone. White’s preoccupation here, as in much of his fiction, is with betrayal: whether it is possible to betray oneself, and whether it is possible not to betray other people; and how, if at all, these things are connected. So it is not surprising that Genet is the subject of one of his finest, most measured books, or that Genet, a man who lived a radically unprecedented gay life, posed a particular kind of problem for him both because of that life and because he wrote about it at once so lyrically and so starkly. Genet has none of White’s blithe fluency, or his cunning naivety, or indeed his charming lightness of touch. But like White Genet took being gay as an opportunity, if not the opportunity to revise the possibilities of relationship. It was, among other things, the anonymity of intimacy, the idea that so-called relationships were the place where one needn’t take anything personally, that Genet was fascinated by, and that White finds both alluring and rather horrifying. White likes Genet’s theatricality, but not his moral recklessness. ‘Most of us are authentic through lack of choice,’ White remarks in My Lives; but Genet, as Sartre noted, made choices look like chances to undo morality as traditionally conceived, and this, at its most extreme, White can’t take. In his introduction to Genet’s Prisoner of Love he admits that he has never been able to understand Genet’s ‘purported admiration for treachery . . . I recognise that a prisoner might be forced to betray his friends, but how can one be proud of such a failing?’ It’s not odd to be puzzled by this, but Genet’s sense of the ethical necessity, indeed the ecstasy of betrayal goes to the heart of something in White’s writing, particularly in My Lives, that his apparently baffled question obscures. At its most minimal, Genet’s wish is to erase the debt between people, to suggest that there might be a better bond in relationships than fidelity and obligation. That there might be something between people that only treachery makes possible; something, for want of a better word – and this would not, of course, be Genet’s word – more authentic.
Growing up an orphan as Genet did – and White, strangely, despite his mother’s clamorous love for him, sounds like he was an orphan in his own family – may be a reason for having these kinds of thought, but that only makes them more pertinent. How, White asks, could one be proud of one’s disloyalty? And the answer might be, one could be proud of it if it was part of one’s project to find the impersonal rather than the personal in intimacy. Loyalty may be the traditional bond, but it may not be the only one; trust may be cherished, but what if it is something of a protection racket? This, at least, Genet needed to consider for his own reasons. And White himself can’t get away from these issues, even though he often prefers them ironised (‘I began as more privileged and I ended up as less radical than Genet,’ he writes in My Lives, keeping open the possibility that he began as radical as Genet). What is remarkable about My Lives is not that it is Genet-lite, but that it engages with some of the most recalcitrant issues in so-called relationships without resort to fake candour or fake seriousness.
The issue of friendship, and the need to say something new and useful about sexuality, are at the centre of My Lives, as they are in much of White’s writing. And no one is going to say anything new about sexuality unless they can say something new about jealousy, about the wish to possess and be possessed. If his chapter headings draw camp attention to this, White’s story of growing up gay in the Midwest of the 1950s has more to do with a struggle to dispossess himself. It wasn’t another family he was looking for, or a better family, but something other than a family from whom or from which to get what he most wanted. It is, of course, extremely difficult to talk about desires and fears and longings without talking about families; and at the point at which families were beginning to disintegrate, and more and more people were beginning to find desire in the family a problem, psychoanalysis turned up to get everyone talking about sexuality as homesickness. It is a good bad joke for White to have begun his life story with his shrinks because, not unlike his parents, they all seem to have conspired with him to try and talk him out of being gay. ‘In the mid-1950s,’ he tells us, ‘that was the word, back then, “homosexual”, in its full satanic majesty, cloaked in ether fumes, a combination of evil and sickness.’ With its combination of theology and medicine psychoanalysis did what it could to get White on the straight and narrow but he seems, rightly, to have treated it as something to use as and when it suited him. It seems to have left him at once psychologically minded – ‘masochism gives the slave something sexy to do with his abjection’ – and wary of taking it too seriously. His mother, herself a child psychologist, discovered, he writes, ‘the only effective cure for mental illness: room service’. Living in France in the 1990s he takes against Lacan with unusual virulence: ‘I despised Lacan, a double-talking charlatan . . . he wrote incomprehensible gibberish when he wasn’t spouting dangerous untruths or tricking truisms out in fancy words.’ In the American grain White prefers the camp plain-speaking that he writes over Lacan’s camp baroque.
One of the many exhilarating things about My Lives is that White, seemingly from very early on despite the inevitable confoundings of growing up as he did, always knew what he preferred. ‘I wanted to talk,’ he writes, ‘to my own kind of funny disabused American gay man’: a therapist ‘who’d laugh when I laughed and who developed his ideas by moving from anecdote to anecdote, like a long-armed ape brachiating from branch to branch’. This is perhaps as good a definition of a certain kind of therapist, ‘my own kind’, as one could find: someone who knows he is an ape, can tell a good story and enjoys being amused. But this is not the impersonal intimacy that Genet was interested in, or that Lacan promoted through the rigours of his analytic practice. It is the difference, at its most extreme, between wanting to make the world your own, and wanting it to be nothing to do with you. White prefers the first version, but is interestingly mindful of the second.
What is called in theory but not often in practice the ‘object of desire’ can seem at once utterly familiar and wholly alien. The best chapters in the book are ‘My Hustlers’ – ‘the excitement of ordering up an unknown guy on the phone’ – and ‘My Master’, which is about White’s thrilling sado-masochistic relationship with a young actor. He writes both poignantly and excitingly about sexual encounters, and these chapters are at once gripping and complicated in their emotional nuances. Some reviewers have implied that there are too many ‘cocks’ in the book, lovingly and lustily described, but it is not clear how many cocks would be the right number in an autobiography. Reading this book makes one realise how few descriptions there are of genitals in most autobiographies, given the part they play, so to speak, in people’s lives. White describes his preferences very well; and because he is something of an essentialist My Lives is full of definitive statements about his own and other people’s characters (and genitals) that are often calculated to make the reader wonder what he may be up to. He refers at one point to his ‘sunny and perilously unsuspicious nature’ and his ‘painful honesty’, knowing that such remarks are likely to make the reader suspicious; anyone who writes such a literary autobiography with so much play-acting in it must realise that ‘painful honesty’ is going to sound like a deliberate false note. White’s very un-Genet-like wish to be endearing is always contending with his wish to wrong-foot the reader; he wants his readers to be his friends but he also wants them to notice how naive they are. So in ‘My Master’ there is a scene in which White begins to ‘push’ his young actor lover towards sadism and at the same time towards defining what it means to be an artist. He tells the young man that he has a kilt fetish and leaves a kilt and a cat-o’-nine-tails draped over a chair in expectation of his arrival. White, naked in the bedroom, is eager to see what happens:
At last he opened my door. He was bare-chested and barefoot, just the kilt around him, the front of it severely tented by his erection. He looked as triumphant as a warrior. His legs appeared hairier than usual and his feet strong and prehensile. He had the splayed whip in his hand. His face had been copied in white steel, all the mitigating laugh lines and worldweariness whited out in this new, simpler mask. Of course he’d known what to do! He was an artist, not some middle-class twerp who wanted to be normal.
Artists are people who more than get the point; who enjoy the game, unlike the middle-class twerps who find their pleasure in refusal. But the artist, in this picture, is, oddly, both excited and inspired by being part of someone else’s project. The artist can take a (sexual) hint and do something with it. He is the person who enjoys being Whited out, who relishes the opportunity not to be inhibited, and doesn’t mind that he has been cast. It is as though White believes that the artist is the person who, by accepting his fate, can make something of it. We are all actors in other people’s plays but some people are less grudging about their performances than others. And White, the other artist here, gets hairier legs into the bargain. Consensual sadomasochism, whatever else it does, formalises all this.
In that moment both people, whether or not they are captivated by each other, are captivated by the game. The only betrayal would be to refuse to play; and hustlers are the people who, by definition, agree to play the game and with whom, at least in principle, there can be no betrayal because there is no attachment beyond the contract. The hustler too is someone with whom one can be that kind of artist. And White has riveting accounts of how riveting these contacts were for his adolescent self. But the connection he is unwilling to make explicit in this book is the connection between himself as a ‘sex-junkie’ and himself as a writer. He identifies himself very clearly and a bit too insistently as abject, ‘selfish and egotistical and too afraid of failure’, ‘a passionate buffoon, a pudgy Pagliacci’, ‘ugly, skinny, unathletic, worthless, uninteresting, stupid and smelling bad’. But his ambition to be a writer, to be an artist is every bit as strong as his wish to be loved and sexually punished, and mocked. If the bohemian project of the 1950s and early 1960s, which he evokes so vividly – the period between Modernist art and gay liberation – was committed to sexual and artistic (or self-) liberation, White was someone who found himself separating sex from love (which he craved), and writing from both. ‘I was a specialist,’ he writes, ‘at separating sex from love’; and he was a writer for whom, as he makes quite clear, one essential connection never quite made sense:
Proust says that love is the perfect training for a writer since it makes us jealous and alert and suspicious and leads us to submit the beloved to a circular analysis that later we can apply to any literary subject. I was never jealous, or very seldom, and I hatched no stratagems for winning someone back; I can’t claim I was perfecting my powers of observation.
‘Never’ and ‘very’ in the last sentence seem to overstate the case, but White wants to distance himself from something here, which is, as often with White’s shrewd prose, not as clear as it looks. Proust says love is good training for writing because it makes us jealous, which in turn makes us more attentive and analytic and observant. But if White was never or very seldom jealous, what kind of writer does that make him? I think this has always puzzled him in part because he has written so well in so many genres. And in My Lives he wants to be as casual as possible about aesthetics (‘What I really liked in art was entertainment’) and pragmatic and opportunistic about taste: ‘My taste, probably like everyone’s, was assembled out of a hundred chance remarks made by friends who possessed the authority of glamour or conviction or strong personal style or experience.’ White doesn’t want his writing to have the franticness, the obscure intensity of his sexuality. He ‘detests’ what he calls ‘vulgarity’: ‘anything that suggests sex is not a mystery but rather a lazy, funny pastime’. His writing is rarely a lazy, funny pastime, even though sometimes it aspires to be, and often is very amusing; but he is perhaps too determined that it shouldn’t be a mystery. After gay liberation and before Aids ‘sex was so available,’ White writes, ‘it was disappointing.’ White’s writing is only ever disappointing when he tries to be more available than anyone can ever be in a book.
In the surprisingly few glimpses White gives us of his struggle to write and speak – ‘I had no interest in the patient acquisition of proficiency’ – he makes it as clear as he can that clarity has always been his aim, even though, inevitably, it is an artful clarity. That he describes himself as ‘someone who stammered as a child’, who ‘still gropes for words and has always been guilty of malapropisms in English’; as someone who was prone to ‘unnecessary elaborations’ and ‘came to despise non-essential verbal ornaments, though the reader may still decide that I am guilty of inconsequence’ tells the reader that White knew what kind of writer he wanted to be: that his writing could be self-fashioned in a way that his sexuality could not be. But the reader may decide that he was more interested in inconsequence than he wanted to be, that his earlier instinct for incoherence has been sacrificed for something more fluent and plausible. Reading novels as a younger man he ‘knowingly chuckled when a character was described as foolish or naive but here I was: I was naive, I was foolish, which until this moment I’d never suspected’. Being knowing about one’s naivety is, in the best sense, having it both ways. But it was the progression from defensive self-consciousness to apparent directness that White was after. ‘I’d be looping forwards and backwards in my indirect parenthetical, self-commenting style, a way of talking I abandoned much later when I gained confidence and could risk simple assertions.’ He is assuming here that the reader is at one with the writer and his intentions when in fact a simple assertion by a writer can sound very complicated to a reader. White as ‘an aesthete and a sex addict’ likes the simple assertions, the orders of his desired sadist in his S and M encounters, and he aspires as a writer to the aesthetic equivalent. S and M certainly doesn’t work if people aren’t clear about what they want; in S and M there is no groping for words, or ideally for anything else. Writing as S and M has to rid itself of types of ambiguity that always threaten to waylay the ritual.
But S and M, as White acknowledges, ‘is highly cerebral’, which presumably means a bit over-organised. And one of the powerfully affecting things about My Lives is his frank dismay and disappointment about sex, which his exhilaration can’t dispel. He can make sex, or rather memories of sex, sound like an anti-depressant: ‘I medicate myself on memories of T pissing in my mouth’; and he can make sex sound like something he has seen through, or seen to be more complicated than he wants it to be. ‘I would be horny,’ he writes of one period of his life, ‘if that meant lonely and anxious to such a degree that only sex could lift me out of this mire with enough immediacy and absoluteness.’ As a writer White is always interested in the complications in his life that he can’t stand, the ways in which he loops backwards and forwards when he would rather go straight ahead; the ways in which sex doesn’t necessarily do the trick, and which makes it more addictive. So the nagging wish to be straight that runs through the book, and the sense of an abiding loneliness despite the gregariousness of his life makes the book more elegiac, less celebratory than I think he wanted it to be. He writes of a girlfriend who came to visit him in college and with whom he was impotent:
Today there are pills for that and behaviouristic exercises; I sometimes wonder if I’d be married today if I’d been able to perform then and with other women? And if so would I be happier than I am now?
It seems to me that two men can never achieve the degree of tongue-and-groove intimacy of a man and a woman. Two men can be best friends, but that’s a comfortable arrangement compared to the biological fit – or is it just the reciprocal role-playing? – of a man and a woman.
It was the risk of comfortable arrangements that disturbed Genet and that White is so interestingly exercised by. Presumably in the future heterosexual autobiographies will express a comparable nostalgia, a comparable regret for the unlived gay life. Or at least for the always unmet cravings for intimacy that the life one has actually led leaves one with. Since everyone has had, whether present or absent, a loved and hated parent of each sex it is unlikely that so-called sexual identities are going to resolve themselves easily either side of the line. It’s just that there are fewer accounts of what heterosexuals feel they are missing, or have lost by not living a gay (or more bisexual) life. For White, always torn between nature and performance, between biological fit and role-playing, friendship is the only place you don’t have to make the absurd choice between men and women. And it’s also the place where comfortable arrangements can be made, and loyalty has to substitute for excitement.
As a younger man White longed for love and marriage. ‘I’d sit on the bus and look at the man across the aisle from me and wonder if I could be happy for the rest of my life with him. I’d imagine exchanging vows with him – the idea of true love excited me. Marriage got me hard.’ The ambiguity of the last line – one of White’s many good lines – is a clue to the riddle of this intriguing book, in which the confusions and contradictions are always more illuminating than the clarity. White wants to believe that hard cocks tell the truth; that if you can believe in nothing else you can believe in them: they will tell you what you really want and who really wants you. They are the ultimate simple assertion. They don’t need verbal ornamentation or elaboration. ‘That must be the goal,’ he writes with his familiar wish to be gay, in the old sense of the word, ‘to be worldly without being blasé, to be innocent without being naive – to know everything and take nothing for granted, to know the value of everything and the price of nothing.’ Another goal might be to give up on the idea of knowing everything. Even hard cocks can’t do that.