John Updike once said that as a novelist grows old and declines, he’s not haunted by death, but rather his own past. That meant, above all, his previous work: “He is burdensomely conscious that he has been cast, unlike his ingénue self, as an author who writes in a certain way, with the inexorable consistency of his own handwriting.” Updike would know, though I’m still dubious of the distinction. To get older is to experience a great narrowing. The past accumulates, and every decision forecloses some other possibility — that is, some other future — until, eventually, there are no more. Death is when the past is all there is.
What about the novelists who never really decline? For some of them, death turns the past into fresh material. Their friends and colleagues die, and with them the bonds of discretion; confidences are free to become characters. That’s true of A Previous Life, the 82-year-old Edmund White’s new novel, and one of his very best. It draws from the lives of the famous and fabulous people White has known, which he finds an ingenious way to deploy: much of A Previous Life consists of the “confessions” that a husband, the Sicilian aristocrat Ruggero, and his younger American wife, Constance, write (and then read to each other) about their sexual and romantic histories.
Fans of City Boy (2009), White’s account of New York City in the 1960s and ’70s, might notice that, in A Previous Life, the wealthy Ruggero sets up a foundation to handle requests for money from the poor artists who frequent his salons, which allowed him to relieve any awkwardness by telling them to just “submit a proposal” — the precise solution arrived at by White’s rich friend, the poet James Merrill. Later in the novel, Constance marries a writer obviously modeled on Harold Brodkey, a cult figure in New York literary circles when White arrived in the city who supposedly was going to be the American answer to Proust. He wasn’t, and he wasn’t exactly straight, either. White met Brodkey after sleeping with one of the two men who lived with him, a domestic arrangement first described in City Boy and faithfully reproduced in A Previous Life.
None of this, though, is enough to explain why A Previous Life dazzles. It is far from the first time White’s memorialized departed friends; he’s done so for decades in both his memoirs and fiction, in part because many of them were gay men who died from AIDS. Through a stroke of epidemiological luck, White escaped their fate. He’s been HIV-positive since the mid-1980s, but the virus progressed slowly enough that he lived until effective treatments were discovered. I’ve often wondered how this untimely confrontation with mortality influenced the trajectory of White’s work. His reputation is as a “gay novelist,” and for good reason: his autobiographical trilogy (A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony, published in 1982, 1988, 1997, respectively) spans from White’s Midwestern adolescence in the 1950s through Stonewall, New York in the swinging ’70s, and, finally, the devastation of AIDS. Taken together, they constitute one of the most original, compelling contributions to American fiction in recent decades — a literary depiction, from the inside, of gay life and death in the second half of the twentieth century.
The second half of White’s career has been astonishingly eclectic and productive.
But White had initially resisted writing “gay fiction” at all. It was a professional liability to do so, especially early in his career, and he feared that the material of his life wouldn’t be “universal” enough, that he’d be relegating himself to a literary ghetto. His first two novels, Forgetting Elena (1973) and Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978), while not not gay, are elaborately constructed texts in which the precise sexuality of those involved can be concealed or at least confusing. (No less a straight man than Nabokov failed to detect that Forgetting Elena was inspired by Fire Island.) But by the time White finished his trilogy, he had helped elevate gay fiction into art — and survived a plague.
It seemed to liberate him. The second half of White’s career has been astonishingly eclectic and productive — an inventive spree blessedly unencumbered by any sense of obligation to just keep playing his greatest hits. And why not? After being given the gift of unexpected life, why wouldn’t he take risks, experiment, or simply revel in the ability to keep writing and creating? White’s output during this time includes four memoirs, multiple collections of his essays and reviews, two “historical novels” (Fanny in 2003, Hotel de Dream in 2007), and two novels that revisit gay New York (Jack Holmes and His Friend in 2012, Our Young Man in 2016). It’s his two most recent efforts, though, A Saint from Texas (2020) and now A Previous Life, that outstrip them all. They are funny, sexy, absorbing novels that show White trying on different voices and characters, and they’re unlike anything else he’s written.
In both A Saint from Texas and A Previous Life, White makes use of a dynamic pair of characters to drive the plot. With the former, the story is about twin sisters born to a wealthy, new money family in mid-twentieth century Texas; one of them becomes a nun, eventually working with St. Oscar Romero in El Salvador, while the other moves to Paris and marries a titled aristocrat. With the latter, it is Constance and Ruggero, and their alternating confessions, that structure the novel. White seems to thoroughly enjoy inhabiting these different identities — to not have to be himself, in a way. I don’t feel very qualified to say how successfully he wrote from a woman’s point of view, but he seems to have done so playfully, with a measure of self-awareness. Constance is not a stilted, predictable stock figure. If White has her lean on a trope about “femininity” in one moment, he often qualifies it the next, or shows her upending the stereotype at a different point in the novel.
What sets A Previous Life apart from White’s other novels is that it takes place in the future — about 30 years or so, in 2050. That provides enough distance for Constance and Ruggero to speak and write about our present moment in the past tense; the pandemic, Me Too, and Trump all become part of a recognizable “era” the main characters have lived through. In the world to come, being gay is rather passé and being fluid is in, a source of amusement for White (and occasionally snarky commentary) — regardless of gender or pronouns, everyone seems at least a little bit bisexual, which makes the fulsome forays of his latest novel’s characters all the more believable.
After dispensing with a convenient excuse for why Constance and Ruggero decided to write their memoirs (Ruggero breaks his leg while skiing in Switzerland, and amid the tedium of his convalescence they light upon the idea), White begins to unfold their histories. Constance’s story begins in Ohio, where she is abused by a man in the family who adopted her after her mother died. She has a relationship, of sorts, with a gay Asian-American roommate in college, later takes up with the Brodkey stand-in in New York (she’s an aspiring writer herself), and experiments with lesbianism. Ruggero, a world-class musician who also possesses a doctorate in philosophy and a model’s good looks (how nice for him), first fools around with his cousin, Guiseppe — who is also gorgeous and well-endowed. He’s had relationships with women, been married, and has two children he never sees. Even so, it seems to be his affairs with men (including one who became a Catholic priest) that are the most passionate in their making and shattering in their demise, including, above all, his romance with the novelist Edmund White.
Constance and Ruggero had decided that transparency had been the undoing of their previous marriages — and so much of what they share, especially in the particulars, is new to the other. Along the way, there are slights and grumbling, defensiveness and the knowledge of deception. Unsurprisingly, there are copious descriptions of bodies and sex, with White’s usual attention to detail in offering the precise dimensions (sometimes down to the centimeter, which left this reader scrambling for a conversion table) and qualities of a variety of penises. There are three-ways and kink, hesitant playing and ferocious sex, and he luxuriates in conveying it all.
But none of this proves as significant as Ruggero’s dalliance with White, which picks up just over halfway through the novel, and is the great fulcrum on which the rest of it pivots. It might strike some as self-indulgent for White to have inserted himself into A Previous Life, or proof that he’s fretting about his “legacy” — perhaps, as his character muses, he’ll end up “a writer no one’s ever heard of except for a few old queens.” In other words, writing “Edmund White” into the novel is an old man’s act of desperation.
To the extent that’s true, it’s not the only thing going on. In the New York Times review of A Previous Life, it’s suggested, not unreasonably, that “Ruggero seems to be a stand-in for White’s real-life chum Giuseppe Gullo, a Sicilian oncologist who plays the harpsichord and a ‘fan who became a loving friend.’” The novel, however, is not dedicated to Giuseppe; it’s dedicated to “Quinn, and to the memory of a great love.” Indeed, while reading A Previous Life, I had the nagging suspicion that Ruggero was not simply one person, but included elements of various late loves White has experienced — a suspicion reinforced by the details that seemed to be drawn from the sadomasochistic dalliance with a younger stud he details in My Lives, his 2005 memoir. (White is married to the writer Michael Carroll, but they have an open relationship.)
In that case, the novel isn’t just a love letter to a younger boyfriend who eventually spurned him; it’s also a love letter to love, which White explicitly links to writing. “Having a lover is like writing a novel. It ties your days together. It’s a project.” Both can be acts of desperation — to find connection in the face of finitude. They will inevitably fail. But our hope that they won’t is what allows us to move forward, to imagine the possibility, until the end, of something new. What better way to stand against the past’s triumph over the future than to remain capable of falling in love?
Matthew Sitman is a writer in New York City, and the cohost of the podcast Know Your Enemy.