Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Edmund White - 'My Lives'

I'm stumbling over writing this one, and have now left both the book and the quotations I noted down at my other home (cumulatively, my girlfriend and I have a house, it's just that some of the rooms are five miles away from the others), which doesn't help. And look, in this blog which I'm trying to keep reasonably free of references to myself, how quick I am to mention my girlfriend when discussing an account of a gay life. As if to draw attention to my generous indulgence of this way of living which deviates so far from my own experience. And to reinforce the position from which the indulgence is granted: that of the heterosexual, monogamous male. All powerful, all dull, in the patriachal model of society no-one believes in anymore. Yet as I get older I find myself, hedged in by circumstances which haven't quite gone my way (neither are they completely awful), falling back on this flimsy defence. Because I am English and can construct a sentence. But I don't really want to revert to type, and that's why I need books like 'My Lives' to shake me from complacency.

Edmund's father is rather like that, though he remains unshaken. In another 'Blind Assassin' coincidence, he made a fortune in manufacturing during World War II, only to lose it all afterwards, ending up broken by the inconsistency of the world's favours. Just like Laura and Iris's father. He belives in the practices which have made him successful, to the exclusion of almost everything else (the only real exception is sex). Because he knows how to balance the books and wear a respectable suit, he doesn't bother about people: he has no friends, is devoid of curiosity. His task is to get the things he knows done, not to find out about new ones.

Edmund's mother is the opposite: the tragedy of her life is that she lacks her husband's (later her ex-husband's) certainty. When there's a man around, she doesn't need to supply this herself, and is OK. Studying and working in Psychology also gives her a framework to cling to (as well as supplying Edmund with in-house analysis of his homosexuality, which he sees as a curable disorder all through adolescence). She is curious, to a point - enough to study Psychology, enough to feel a sometimes desperate need for a male companion, but Edmund, whilst clearly very close to her, is scornful of her intellect. It's hard to tell what motivated him to put the following story in his book: once, as a fat alcoholic, she fell in her house and was unable to get up again. She was also unable to empty her colostomy bag and, realising after 48 hours that her own faeces were starting to back up and would poison her if the bag didn't burst, she prayed, promising God that she'd give up drink if he would burst it and save her life. The bag did burst, and she became a teetotaler.

My knee-jerk reaction to this: how disgusting! Demeaning! Why say that about your own mother? Well, partly because it's true, but that hardly covers it. It tells as few other anecdotes could (here's hoping, at least) what kind of a state she was in: it's an effective crux in the 'My Mother' chapter. Mostly though, it's an example of Edmund's rejection of his father's values of order and tidiness. He refuses to tidy up his life, because his life is all about the fascinating mess which occurs when people freely interact. Not when he was (as he still is, of course) living it, and not now that he's come to tell it.

He is equally blunt about his own life, usually in relation to sex. The chapter 'My Master' is a painful account of an affair which began and ended only a few years ago (concurrently with his 'real' long term relationship, and with the full knowledge of his partner). Edmund's account of his retreat to the internet after the break-up, dividing his time between incessantly checking his email (for the 'I'm sorry. I've made a terrible mistake' message which inevitably never comes) and crusing gay message boards, is completely without gloss or glorification. If this seems a little less pungent than the colostomy story, there are details of sex acts with T. (the only un-named person in 'My Lives') which make up the shortfall. Rarely can an elderly man's affair have been so filled with youthful excitement and pain, and Edmund begins the chapter castigating himself for this, as though he hasn't progressed at all since he was 16. But when he was 16 he would have been incapable of writing something as vital as 'My Master'.

There is another side to this abjection. T. is the master, Edmund the slave, the role he has preferred all his life. In giving us so much in his autobiography which might have remained private, he is being both generous and selfish, since what turns him on is to give up power, make himself vulnerable. It's a neat paradox but not, perhaps, an uncommon one. It's also an impulse which, in inviting reaction, draws people in and makes possible a life full of interest and friends.

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