I enjoyed reading Sacred Monsters (Magnus Books), a collection of twenty-two essays on various authors and visual artists written by Edmund White and published in various journals since 1980. This compilation of reviews and criticism seems like an extension of White’s memoirs, telling stories about his subjects who are “above criticism” as well as about himself. In most cases, the summaries of the authors’ novels and stories are perfect distillations of facts and effects, the exact amount of information required to understand or recall a plot or an image and, more importantly, to point out its meaning.
Edmund White is known for writing in a number of genres using his personal life and memories as a springboard. Early on he became famous for the autobiographical novels A Boy’s Own Story (1982) and The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988) and later for the true to life novels The Farewell Symphony (1997) and The Married Man (2001). More recently White has written a couple of gossipy memoirs, My Lives (2005) and City Boy (2009), and very recently, another novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend (2012).
Like his memoirs and autobiographical novels, these essays are full of scandalous stories, sexual rumors, and stunning personal details, all told with White’s proud ability to reveal the most interesting facts about himself and others.
Over the years, White has written numerous articles on the classic authors of the major canon, five of which are included in Sacred Monsters. While reviewing Hermione Lee’s full-scale biography of Edith Wharton, White presents a lively discussion of Wharton’s works and draws attention to many surprising gay connections in her life. In a review of the publication of some of the letters of Henry James, White discusses James’ views on travel and art, and incorporates notes about the health tips that the James family shared, including personal information about James’ bowel problems.
While usually thought of as a gay author and critic, White delivers pure criticism and commentary on a number of straight authors. Writing about Ford Madox Ford, White provides fascinating biographical stories and details of long novels that few have read. His comparisons of Ford to Henry James are interesting but his comparisons with Proust do not seem especially helpful since, as White points out, Ford co-wrote three novels with the very non-Proustian author Joseph Conrad. White offers stimulating comments on Marguerite Duras’s switches between writing novels and screenplays, and recalls the conveniently forgotten fact that she was a censor for the Nazis during their Occupation. He offers astute insights on Nabokov’s uses of obsession both in his short story, “Spring in Fialta,” and in his novels, the masterpiece Lolita, and his final work, the autobiographical novel Look At the Harlequins!
Because of his stature in the gay community, White has met most of the major gay contemporary authors, but he offers enlightening analyses of both his acquaintances and friends, and of the authors he has not met. He notes that John Cheever’s “finest” achievement” is the novel Falconer, which includes a homosexual character. He makes much of Tennessee Williams’ oppression and resulting self-hatred, yet points out the great art that Williams created, despite living in an era of severe homophobia, by returning to the characters he knew. White depicts an enchanting life of Howard Sturgis in “Portrait of a Sissy,” selecting the perfect sparkling details. While discussing Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky, his commentary does not contain any literary references but shares a brave recollection of a trip he took to Morocco with a lover dying of AIDS. He describes Glenway Wescott with rich biographical details and personal recollections (including gossip about his penis size and beautiful bottom). When White recalls a meeting with Truman Capote, he presents it in the style of Capote’s reporting that summarizes Capote’s capricious career. This very dishy essay delivers details about Capote’s odd behavior during his decline and culminates in the arrival of Robert Mapplethorpe to photograph White and Capote together. White also gives firsthand commentary on the friendly poet James Merrill (who “saved” White several times via grants from the Merrill Foundation) and the hustler/memorist John Rechy.
In this collection White’s criticism of visual artists is also very illuminating. White reviews Allen Ginsberg’s photography, rather than his poetry, with great understanding, making him less literary and more artistic. Subsequently, in follow-up essays White reviews David Hockney and Robert Mapplethorpe in a more literary light, finding meanings that other visual critics might miss. White is also especially helpful in pointing out Mapplethorpe’s role in the gay rights movement.
I do have a few warnings about the essays. Sometimes White’s descriptions contain an overabundance of insider literary references for casual readers; the essays often rely heavily on references to other writers and works. These essays can strain to make a point for readers who don’t know Tolstoy or Trollope well. Also this collection is heavily biased toward male authors; White must have reviewed at least a couple more lesbian or female authors that could have been included. White returns to his two favorite authors Henry James and Proust too many times, quoting and comparing, even if the payoff is minor. If you haven’t read all of James or if Proust isn’t your favorite novelist, it can feel off-putting.
But these are minor quibbles. The essays are generally filled with fascinating gossipy details and remarkable asides. They reflect White’s masterful ability to effectively pull ideas out of novels, stories, and art, while simultaneously showcasing a personalized purview of his own life and passions.
by Edmund White
Magnus Books Hardcover, 9781936833115, 258pp November 2012