A PREVIOUS LIFE
Another posthumous novel
By Edmund White
When a story is set decades in the future, it usually features disruptive technological advances, dystopian states, pandemics that have gotten out of hand. That is, if civilization already exists.
Edmund White’s new metafictional novel, “A Past Life,” is largely set in 2050, and its future is very similar to our present. Covid seems to be over. People keep connecting on Facebook. Museums and theaters still exist, at least in the form of a revival of Matthew Lopez’s 2018 play “The Inheritance” in London. Academics — yes, there’s still academia — researching and writing intellectual works, including, it turns out, a biography of White himself, even if “scholars have worked more on Sedaris.”
White — who is best known for 1982’s “A Boy’s Own Story” and whose work often reflects his life — wanders in and out as a character in “A Previous Life.” Here he plays with the current trend of autofiction, as the book’s characters and plot echo Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde” and Choderlos de Laclos’ “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”.
White’s Marquise de Merteuil is Constance, a failed 30-year-old American writer. His Vicomte de Valmont: Ruggero, a 70-year-old Sicilian harpsichordist who calls his penis Bruce and “has always been the strongest, most attractive example of whatever age he was.”
Ruggero and Constance are married and “both agreed shortly after they met to never talk about their past lives; transparency had destroyed their previous marriages.” At the opening of the novel, Constance reconsiders this plan. She wants their relationship to become deeper and more meaningful. She suggests that they share their “confessions” in the form of explicitly detailed written diaries of their sexual past. (Cue de Laclos.) When Ruggero breaks his leg while heli-skiing in Switzerland, there’s no better time for the couple to cozy up in their chalet and recite from their respective memoirs.
Constance’s sexual history begins at age 12, when she is abused by an elderly male guardian in Bowling Green, Ohio. At 14, Ruggero admires his cousin Giuseppe’s buttocks, “football round, radiant white, beckoning the slit and hairy and unsuspecting.” Soon the two boys are experimenting with each other.
Due to its scenes of couples and threesomes, gay and straight, you would think that the relationship between Constance and Ruggero is the real focus of the novel. But Constance is haunted by the shadow of a past Ruggero had 30 years earlier with, yes, the author Edmund White, when Ruggero was 41 and White 80. It first begins as a romantic meeting of the ghosts when Ruggero discovers White’s work. and sends a fan letter. Their involvement turns libidinous and then sadomasochistic until Ruggero leaves White and breaks the older man’s heart.
Ruggero appears to be a stand-in for White’s real-life friend Giuseppe Gullo, a Sicilian oncologist who plays the harpsichord and a “fan who became a loving friend.” In turn, “A Previous Life” sometimes reads like a morning page fever dream, an erotic distraction between the two that we are invited to experience voyeuristically. White jumps from rhapsodies on Shostakovich to explanations of sexual intercourse using various synonyms for parts of the male anatomy. Of the three “treasure trails” mentioned in the book, one is “generous.” Another is slim and silver. A third, despite ‘strong legs covered in gold dust’, is ‘paradoxically’ not there at all.
By setting the book in 2050, White is able to voice his concern for his legacy, the fear of becoming “a writer that no one has ever heard of, except a few old queens.” That seems unlikely, especially given the breadth of his canon, his sometimes impenetrable scholarship, and his immersion in the international community of thinkers. (When you write about White, it’s hard to avoid ambiguities.) In 2019, he received the National Book Award’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Needless to say, in all of White’s travels, after all he’s seen and surveyed the wide range of his work, it’s heartwarming to know that at the age of 82 the writer still believes in love, passion and struggles with the stamina. of telling stories. “The thrill of fiction,” writes White, somewhere between an aria on Sicilian masculinity and an allusion to ancient Rome, “is that it gives us the illusion that life is legible, character integral, cause and effect logical, love central and break the pace.” Let’s hope it still exists in 30 years.