A Previous Life by Edmund White review – salacious confessions

Edmund White’s latest book – his 30th, by my count – bears the subtitle “Another posthumous novel”. This alludes not only to the fact that White has continued to write prolifically after suffering multiple strokes, but also to those critics who have dismissed his most recent novels as an old-school irrelevance to the brave new world of contemporary queer fiction. The acerbic preface to this new one suggests that we’re about to read an autobiographical account of an affair, written by a ravaged old queen who must surely be White himself. However, the opening pages of the book itself plunge us straight – no pun intended – into a turbulent, picaresque and obviously fictional narrative.

The year is 2050; a married couple are holed up in a remote Swiss chalet while the husband recovers from a skiing accident. To while away this enforced convalescence, they decide to write a pair of complementary memoirs that will describe their previous sexual careers with absolute honesty. In order to make the game more exquisite, they will take it in turns to read these confessions out loud – meaning, of course, that we will be allowed to eavesdrop. We quickly discover that this is no ordinary marriage. The wife, Constance, is in her early 30s, while her husband, Ruggero, is at least four decades older; she is an African American orphan, while he is a legendarily well-connected (not to mention well-hung) Sicilian aristocrat who also happens to be a world-famous baroque harpsichordist. Oh, and the sometime lover of a deceased and forgotten gay novelist called Edmund White.

In the course of their readings, the couple work their way through pretty much every available combination of gender and lifestyle. Ruggero tends to focus on the visible and physical (he is obsessed with his prowess) while Constance – true to her name – is more concerned with the workings of fidelity. As the confessions unspool, the cracks in their marriage begin to show. Things get particularly sticky when we’re made privy to an email-by-email account of Ruggero’s obsessive two-year affair with the then octogenarian White.

At this point, the Chinese boxes of White’s metafiction become ever more fantastically interlocked. Constance consults White’s (real) archive in Princeton to determine the (fictional) truth of Ruggero’s account of their affair; meanwhile, we are given a voyeur’s-eye view of Ruggero’s sado-masochistic romps with his besotted geriatric plaything. Of course, we can’t help but remember that it is White penning these pitiless descriptions of impotence and age, and it is perhaps in these truly hard to read passages that we glimpse the driving impulse behind the book. No matter how elaborately cultured or crudely pornographic the prose gets, it still crackles with a heartfelt insistence that the old and hungry have as much to tell us about the dynamics of sex as the young and sated.

A fugue-like ending leads the central couple down ever stranger perspectives of self-discovery, into relationships that no one (least of all themselves) could have seen coming. If we really want to continue to put fiction at the service of liberation, White seems to be suggesting, then we might need to risk imagining ourselves in each and every sexual and emotional position in the book – no matter how abject or alien those positions might be.

Back in the now-distant 1970s and 80s, White’s dazzling first quartet of novels forever enlarged what gay writing might do with its then newly found freedoms. With this latest report from the frontiers of desire, he has triumphantly dared to continue that project. A Previous Life is elegant, filthy – and quite possibly the queerest thing you will read all year.

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