An interview with Edmund White

On Genet, AIDS, and compassion in literature

Daoud Najm

Edmund White is far removed from the idealized image of the classic literary man, one we might imagine sitting beside the fireplace in his library, a vast bookcase gesturing towards the breadth and scope of his intellect. By contrast, White is a writer who places little importance on objects, books included. When Leah Price questioned him about what would happen to his library upon his death, his response was that "my books will be scattered just like my clothes and furniture".

This is a man who, for many years, was very candid about his preference for a nomadic and bohemian lifestyle, one that privileged travel and living abroad over material accumulation. If White is not a great collector of things, we are still able to, through his memoirs, glimpse some of his rich experiences (My Lives, 2006; City Boy, 2009). It is through these books that we can discover, rather dumbfounded, this man's personal journey through the seeming immensity of a United States in its heyday.

Born in Cincinnati in 1940, White currently resides in New York City and teaches creative writing at Princeton University. After having spent much time working as a journalist, White published Forgetting Elena, his first novel, to great critical acclaim. White soon followed this with numerous novels, essays and biographies, including the highly celebrated Genet, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Though a renowned journalist, a political activist during the Stonewall riots and the Act Up! and AIDES movements, and a novelist who has portrayed with frankness and remarkable concision the gay experience in the United States, Edmund White is also a great lover of French literature. He is currently working on a collection of personal tales of Paris, where he lived from 1983 to 1990.

–Daoud Najm

I.               Paris, France

ASYMPTOTE: Paris was something of a childhood fantasy for you, and you eventually decided to make it your home for 15 years. One could say that you experienced a life that was quite different from what you had initially read in the works of Loti or Colette. Now that you are back in New York City, what role do your childhood fantasies play?

Edmund White: Well, that's a little tricky as a question, I haven't really thought about it. When I came back here I certainly saw America with new eyes and was very shocked by it. I didn't have the knack for making friends here and I talk about that in my new Paris memoir. For instance, the cliché is that Americans are very friendly on the first meeting, but there's no development. I found that to be true; I had a very hard time making friends or being able to tell when people were sincere. I think people think they're sincere, it's just they're not as cautious as French people are in relationships. In French you have so many different words: copain, ami, très ami, the vous and tu thing. All that marks all the different stages of commitment. And there's nothing like that in English. Americans like to think everybody's their friend. But in France people say, "Non non, nous ne sommes pas amis, mais des connaissances," or "C'est un pote, mais pas un ami." They're very quick to make that distinction and very firm about it, they seem to have it very well worked out in their heads. As for my childhood fantasies, France was sufficiently like my fantasies that I'm able to still have them. I mean, in other words, I can imagine this place where there are lots of great readers and people are rather erudite and have a wide general culture. I think that's different from America. In America, you have academics who are specialists and who don't feel comfortable, even talking about their specialty; they want to talk about football or something stupid. In my memoir, I said that my conversational style changed in Paris and when I would come back to America I would do what I used to do in Paris, which was prepare two or three subjects...

ASYMPTOTE: In the introduction to your Rimbaud biography you discuss a form of reconnaissance. Now, when you first encountered his works, you desired escaping to the city as he did, is that reconnaissance always the way you approach an author that you read for the first time? Or was it specific to your childhood?

EW: I think it was specific to my childhood. If you were trying to come out in 1954, which was the Eisenhower era when there were no gay books and there was so much hostility against homosexuals, you were immediately sent to a psychiatrist to cure you, which was my case. Reading a homosexual poet, if you will, like Rimbaud, when you're 14 years old in a very oppressive society... Are you Egyptian, or what?

ASYMPTOTE: I was born in Lebanon, I left Beirut for Montréal with my family when I was eight...

EW: But maybe because you're from a slightly more traditional society, it might be equivalent to the kind of upbringing I had as far as being very oppressive.

ASYMPTOTE: Yes, to some extent. I have to admit that I had it pretty easy, but I have friends for whom it wasn't easy at all... And I actually had a question about cultural differences like this: What stands out in your works for me is that you refuse to show a clichéd Paris. You prefer to confront your American readers with a Paris they don't know or may refuse to know, one embedded in the colonial past, with the African immigration, the Jewish community, the fear of ghéttoisation. Do you feel like an educator in that sense?

EW: Americans have a romance with Paris; they all love Paris and any book that has the word Paris in it sells very well in America. Even my little book, The Flâneur, because it's about Paris, sold better than any of my other books, which completely amazed me. The Paris that Americans know is what I call 'matronly Paris' you know, Paris la matronne, c'est-à-dire, the Paris of the Eiffel Tower, of the Louvre, of the luxe, the Ritz Hotel... They don't know the banlieues very well, or places like Belleville.

ASYMPTOTE: You write in My Lives that originality comes to life outside of the limits of habit, that one has to experience the unknown. How did living in Paris transform your writing?

EW: Well, it gave me a lot of material for A Married Man, many of my stories, this new memoir and the old one, The Flâneur. All that is stuff that I derived from my experience in Paris. I say in my memoir that le style blanc in French was something that affected me. I also became very impatient with people in France who had a very elaborate way of talking and could never seem to get to the point, because the language was such a struggle for me; I didn't learn it until after I was 42. And when you learn it so late, it's very difficult. When I used to go to dinner with Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, and people like that, they were so eager to anticipate any possible objection that they could barely make the point clearly. So I came to prize clarity more than anything, including in my own writing. It also made me less snobbish in some ways. The Beautiful Room Is Empty was the second book I wrote in France and it's my probably most American book. It has no French words in it.

ASYMPTOTE: I was just about to say that Paris might have made your writing more 'American', in the sense that it's a very concise and limpid way of writing that is perhaps particular to the way we perceive the American contemporary novel...

EW: ...which used to be the French way of writing. Before I moved to France, I had a snobbish longing for France and if there were some way of saying something in French I would put it in French between quotation marks. After I lived there, I hated that and I was always very careful because my friend Harry Mathews used to get mad at me for talking franglais and he would say to me and Marie-Claude de Brunhoff (my best friend), "Would you two stop that!"

Harry, who's an avant-garde writer, has lived in France since 1952 or something. He hates that people mix the two languages because he thinks you lose both of them. But of course, it's very easy to say quand même, because there's no expression like that in English, just like with lots of other shorthand things.

ASYMPTOTE: There seems to be a French holy trinity that emerges in your works: Proust, Rimbaud, and Genet have all been an object of your biographies. This being said, it seems you have a kind of predilection for Genet, seeing that he takes a unique role in your work. Is it safe to say that it's because you spent eight years writing his biography or is there something else about Genet that commands your attention?

EW: I think Proust is actually more important to me. Proust and Genet are similar in that they wrote autobiographically, that is, they wrote autofiction. In his letters to friends, Proust would often say, "Have you read my autobiography?" He would treat it as an autobiography, even though it's so very thoroughly revised and not really very lifelike at all. The same thing with Genet; even though he called one of his books Journal du Voleur, it's not really true. He'll say he lived in Spain for two years and he only lived there two months. He makes up so many things, but I try to defend him in my book, saying that his experience of being poor in Spain at the height of the Depression—where you would fight every day to just get an onion to eat, that kind of begging and starvation he was reduced to even if he was only there two months— was such a painful experience that saying 'two months' would be inadequate; you have to say two years.

Proust affected me more because he is extremely companionable as a writer. He holds your hand. He tells you everything. He lives with you through the book, whereas Genet has a very adversarial relationship. In Notre Dame des Fleurs, he talks about you in the same way Nabokov does in Lolita. The 'you' is a jury. In Genet's case, it's a jury of heterosexual male bourgeois readers who hate him and hate what he's writing about. He's constantly trying to seduce that reader, or offend him, or deal with him in some way. I think that Proust's relationship to the reader is much more avuncular.

ASYMPTOTE: What about the moi social and moi de l'écrivain distinction, the critique that Proust made of Sainte-Beuve's biographical readings, what role does that play in your own writing when it comes to separating the two?

EW: To me there's a very clear distinction between autofiction and autobiography. I've just finished my third autobiography, the first two being My Lives and City Boy. I try, in those books, to be true and accurate. I believe in truth, I don't buy this bullshit that everything is fiction, I think that's silly. Most people know that the truth is something like a horizon; it's something you head toward. Maybe you never get there, but at least you have a sense of direction.

Whereas in calling A Boy's Own Story and the other books in that trilogy novels was very liberating because, for one thing, if I had ten lovers I could reduce them to one. If I had lived in one place for five years, I could have it happen over five months. I was myself very precocious, both sexually and intellectually, but the character in A Boy's Own Story is much more normal than I was. He's rather shy sexually and he's not terribly intellectual. I felt like if I had portrayed myself the way I really was, it would be very off-putting to people and they wouldn't be able to identify with that character. Because it was a novel, I was free to change all kinds of elements without having anybody accuse me of lying.

ASYMPTOTE: A lot of American critics compare your work to Proust's. Do you think it has to do with the way your writing deals with your life?

EW: They probably don't mean anything more than that I write about my life and bring much of my internal life as well. And, to some degree, I write about my own development as an artist. In that way it's a little like Proust, I suppose. I do write a lot about love, too, but it's also quite different. It isn't really like Genet, which is so original... I think the first great critic who wrote about Genet, I can't think of his name right now, said: "The thing that is remarkable about Genet is he's maybe the only great writer who's not universal." When you read him you don't say, "Ah, yes, I've felt that many times." You feel that he felt those things but that you haven't, and I think that's true.

ASYMPTOTE: It seems to me that your readings of Proust, Rimbaud, and Genet are political in the sense that you are particularly attentive to homosexuality while in French authors (I'm quoting The Flâneur) "the label of 'gay fiction' evokes only a tired smile." Do you think that things have changed in France?

EW: It's really a matter of doing things differently. But I do think that the French are addicted to universalism and they don't like identity politics and they would get angry if you wanted to talk about a writer like Angelo Rinaldi as a Corsican writer. They would say, "Oh, no, he's a French writer. What are you talking about?" In other words, even Hector Bianciotti was not an Argentine writer, but a French writer. They were all members of the French Academy.

Universalism started out in the 18th century as a very progressive movement because it was designed to say that racial and even gender differences were not so important; what was important was that you were a citizen, so it was very abstract. You were this abstract being, a French citizen. That was a good way of fighting against prejudice, but I think now it's become a prejudice itself. For me, universalism is a way of suppressing minority voices in France.

ASYMPTOTE: If I'm not mistaken, praying in public is forbidden in France. It is basically on the opposite side of the American idea of freedom of speech, two very different ways of perceiving the public space...

EW: Americans would be very shocked if they knew about the foulard being forbidden for Muslim girls in France. I always thought they should be forbidden to wear a cross, too. I remember once going to la Grande Mosquée for lunch with a friend of mine who was a model for Dior and she had a big cross on. They made her take it off, and I was very pleased that they did.

It's mainly just a cultural difference, but, on the other hand, there is the matter of treating feminism as a fad that came and went in the 1970s, or treating even the gay rights movement as a fad that came and went very quickly in the early 1970s. This is typically French, to treat everything as l'air du temps instead as a serious intellectual movement, and being very bored with it because it's last year's fad or last decade's fad. In America, we're too serious or politically correct and these movements become too powerful, but I feel that in France they're dismissed too readily.

II.             The AIDS Crisis

ASYMPTOTE: You fled New York City during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s to go to Paris. Did you see differences in the mobilization against AIDS in Paris and New York?

EW: Oh, yes, I was active in both. I was the first president of the Gay Men's Health Crisis here in New York. Right across the street from where I live now is the historical plaque where we first met. Back then I was a good friend of Michel Foucault's, and when he died his lover Daniel Defert asked me to come to the first meetings of AIDES in France, and I did. But I recognized right away that my experience was so different. The difference in mobilization, as you say, is that in America we assumed that we were real pariahs and rejected by society, so the only thing that we could think to do was to give a disco party to raise money for prevention, research, and various activities.

In France we went straight away to Édith Cresson, who was prime minister under Mitterrand and she immediately endorsed the cause. The positive side is that the French went to the top and gave people orders and they were able to, partly because of Michel Foucault's prestige, establish the rights of AIDS patients in the mind of the nation right away. And yet, gays themselves, and the state too, were so worried about an anti-gay backlash that they instructed journalists not to mention the at-risk groups until maybe the 20th paragraph of a long story, so gays were insufficiently warned in France.

In England, Mrs. Thatcher had scare tactics and terrible posters showing people dying right away, and there was a constant drumming away on the fact that black people and gay people were the major at-risk groups. Even though England and France have about the same population size and are organized in the same way, with most people living in the major cities, England had one-fifth the number of AIDS patients that France did. But I also think it's because the English don't have as much sex as the French...

ASYMPTOTE: I was wondering if a novel can add any meaning to this terrible and terrifying experience. Why have you preferred fiction to non-fiction, or the novel to the testimony, in writing about AIDS?

EW: Yes, that's true, I haven't dealt with it very much in non-fiction. It's partly because the very first AIDS writing I did was in an anthology with Adam Mars-Jones that was called The Darker Proof, published in paperback by Faber and Faber in England. Adam wrote two or three stories and I wrote two or three. The reason we wrote fiction—this was in the 1980s, The Darker Proof was one of the first books to come out by gay people about AIDS—is that we felt that the whole disease was an effort to re-medicalize homosexuals, gay people who had been sous l'égide du médecin depuis cent ans, ils risquaient de devenir encore un sujet médicalisé. I think we thought that writing fiction was a way of putting flesh on these bones; I mean talking about real people having real experiences, not just being subjects of a medical experiment.

ASYMPTOTE: How do you retrospectively perceive the epidemic of the 1980s and early 90s? Are we mystifying this period and its tragic effects by making it a thing of the past? Do you believe that our contemporaries are dazed and apathetic to the actual effects of the virus?

EW: In the gay community, at least the urban gay community, most gays are à la page. I mean, they know how to get treatment even if it means going to free clinics. They know where those clinics are and they do exist in big cities like San Francisco or New York. But if you're talking about, let's say, rural black women in America, then you're absolutely right, it depends on the population. That population probably isn't reachable through literature in any event. It would have to be through television or some other form of communication because writing doesn't reach, let's say, rural black women. So, I don't know... The truth is that for people who are receiving treatment, you very rarely now see a nécrologie of people dying from AIDS in a newspaper like the New York Times. It used to be there were a 100 people a day who had died of suspicious reasons like tuberculosis, or all these things that nobody used to get and suddenly were very present. Sometimes, they would say AIDS-related causes, but usually it would go for something like "he had, uh... cancer."

ASYMPTOTE: What about shame and AIDS? Do you think people live without being ashamed of their HIV positive status today? How do you think you are perceived as, not only a gay author, but also an HIV positive author?

EW: On Wikipedia, it says right away that I'm HIV positive and I've always talked about it very openly since I was diagnosed in 1985. I was the first well-known person in the whole world, or at least in the gay community, who talked about it openly. For me it was a parallel cause to coming out; it seemed to me about the same dynamic as coming out and the same soulagement personnel. And I paid for it, for being so open, especially in online dating. Guys can figure out right away who I am and then they look me up on Google and they see that I'm positive and they make a big stink about it. Sometimes I try to say, well, I have zero detectable virus, you are probably safer with me than with a stranger...

ASYMPTOTE: Most people, I feel, don't know what it means to be undetectable.

EW: No, they have no idea. The thing is that, obviously, I have protected sex and even if I didn't, if there were some 'accident'; first of all, I'm a bottom. You very rarely get it from bottoms. I don't think I'm contagious, but people don't seem to know about that. They still live in the past.

III.               Love and Writing

ASYMPTOTE: I had a question about memoirs versus the journal intime, the diary. You said that you've never written a diary. Would you have created My Lives and City Boy had you faithfully kept a journal?

EW: Borges said that writing is as much about forgetting as remembering and that was the idea behind my first novel, Forgetting Elena. The fact that I never kept journals was useful to me because it meant that I only remember certain things. Then you can only write about a few things, presumably the most important or the ones that match your sensibility. I don't see those autobiographies as being like a journal intime, because that would imply something about life led day by day and I don't think you get much of that in my writing; in City Boy, I don't say what happened this day or then that day, it's much more general.

ASYMPTOTE: You have adamantly attacked psychoanalysis and some of its charlatans, which begs the question, why focus so much on something that you disapprove of?

EW: Because I devoted maybe 20 years to being psychoanalyzed. If it's such a large part of your life, even your intellectual life (I read a lot of Freud and Lacan, and so on), you can't just forget all those influences; it does affect the way you think about things. I think of fiction as kind of competing with psychoanalysis; Proust never read any Freud and didn't even seem to be very aware of him and yet Proust is a much more profound psychologist than Freud. And it's not as though you have to read Freud to have psychological insight; Proust could be at least as subtle and as accurate as Freud, if not more so: because he was not blinded by theory but was very faithful to experience.

ASYMPTOTE: In the early 1990s you were interested in dramatic writing. Are you still interested in theatre or has writing memoirs allowed you to renew the way you approach your work?

EW: No, I like writing plays and I had a play on four or five years ago. It was called Terre Haute, but Americans say "Terra Hote." It was about Timothy McVeigh and Gore Vidal, who were friends. I've written another play since then, but nobody much likes it. I'm trying still to get it done and I do want to write another play. I like writing them, they're very different from autobiography and I don't write very close to my own experience; I write about other people, I've never written an autobiographical play.

ASYMPTOTE: Why is that, you think?

EW: When I was writing my Genet biography, there was one moment when I was making pronouncements about Genet and I realized I was just making stuff up. For instance, somebody said to me, "Why did Genet never write in a major play about homosexuality and yet his novels are all about homosexuality?" And I said, "Because he was too embarrassed to see homosexuals on stage." Then after I went home I thought, "Where did I get that? I made that up. That's ridiculous."

The next day I read an interview with Genet in a Spanish magazine called Trofeo and he said he'd never written about homosexuality except in one-act plays because he was too embarrassed to see homosexuals on stage. So that was a lucky strike for me. It's true that I was maybe voicing my own feelings because I don't like to see two men doing a pas de deux on stage.

ASYMPTOTE: How can you describe what love means for you these days—it being one of your most cherished topics—do you think it has allowed you to become the writer you are today, just as you confided in your memoirs that Michel Foucault became intelligent because he experienced love?

EW: Yes, he told me that story once. I've never seen it repeated in a biography or anything, so maybe he never told anybody else that story. I remember it very clearly. I think there are two kinds of love. There's the Racine kind of love: l'amour fou, passion that is oftentimes very destructive. Maybe people need it, if their life becomes too safe. Certain painters I used to know would work on a painting too long and become very tired. They would ask a friend to come and destroy the painting, and it would give them something new to work with. Love of the Racine type plays that same role: it wrecks your life, so you have to start anew, with a new project of putting it back together.

And then, there's the other kind of love, which is the Corneille kind of love, the esteem-love, it's very different. I've been with my lover, Michael Carroll, 18 years and it's not l'amour fou but it is l'amour estime. He helps me in everything and he's 25 years younger than I am, but he's very devoted. I was sick in June and in the hospital for seventeen days.

My speech is a little funny now, but I'm ok. Michael took care of me. He was there for hours everyday and now he's editing my Paris memoir. He goes with me to France every year. You know, he's totally devoted.

ASYMPTOTE: You have this way of portraying characters—no matter how ugly or cruel they may be—in such a tender way that I'm reminded of Chekhov. Where does this compassion originate? Is there a link between your refusal to write experimental novels and the humanity that you draw upon from classic literature?

EW: That's very kind of you. It is important to me that you say that, sometimes people think I'm very bitchy. My mother was a very religious person and she worked with mentally-retarded people her whole life, including brain-damaged people and their children. She would bring them to live with us so she could study them. She ran a medical clinic in Chicago called The Levinson Foundation, and I think maybe her compassion rubbed off on me a little bit. I hope.

ASYMPTOTE: No matter how harsh you could be with Susan Sontag, for example, you give it back to her in a way that is simultaneously marvelous and tender. I feel it's a very balanced way to tell the truth because it's tender and cruel at the same time...

EW: Yes. Some cruel writers like Céline are terribly funny and I laugh so much with Céline. He's so wicked and evil, but very very funny. Maybe I'm a little boring next to that. I like the comparison with Chekhov, who is one of my three or four favorite writers.

He was an unusual kind of writer because he took lots of notes and that's why the characters, I think, are very contradictory. He didn't start with some idea like Balzac, who would think, "Oh, this is a monomaniac who is only interested in money" and then give him that one trait and then everything will be about greed and money. Chekhov's characters are never monomane, they're always very complicated and subtle because he took notes and because he had the power of observing people from a doctor's point of view.

ASYMPTOTE: Michel Foucault says that sadomasochism is a forme de souci extrême de l'autre. In the past few years, masochism—your version of it—often appears in your work as a mix of humiliation and gratitude. What do you mean by this?

EW: I like Foucault's definition better. My major emotion in love has always been gratitude. I could never believe that this beautiful man who is so desirable could ever like me or even tolerate me. I'm always surprised by that. Right now I have a very young guy who comes every morning at 8am and who's maybe 30. He's gorgeous and has a lover who is 72, which is my age. He likes old men, so he's a gerontophile. It just astonishes me, my good luck in meeting him.

I agree with Deleuze that masochism and sadism are nothing but two sides of the same coin, yet entirely different things. Foucault was a masochist, but we never discussed it. He didn't like to talk about ideas except with students. At one point I wrote an essay, years ago, where I was trying to say that masochism was a containable, small, miniaturized version of a lot of the complexes that haunt our society, a lot of which are about domination and humiliation. It seems to me those themes play out through society. Most S&M people are very mellow because they've gotten all of that out of their systems; they've identified these forces within themselves and they've acted on them in the very safe region of sex, which kind of dramatizes it, too. It is a way of containing and miniaturizing those larger social forces.