An Intoxicating Chronicle of Desire: On Edmund White’s “A Previous Life”

"A Previous Life"

A Previous Life is unlike anything Edmund White has written, In fact, for the first thirty pages or so, I was sure the work couldn’t be White’s. But then the hallmarks of his style emerged: the easy juggling of plotline intricacies, the multi-character interactions, the trademark allusions to world art, classical composers, opera – White could handily depose Ken Jennings on Jeopardy so vast is his knowledge of culture, politics, history.

At the center of his story: a married couple, Ruggero and Constance, two people very much in love who nevertheless want and need to explore other desires. This opens the door to multiple characters, each a composite drawn from those people White has known, or now knows. White is possessed of sprezzatura, that magic act of inhabiting so fully his characters, their milieus, the reader is easily, instantly drawn to them. For example, with an economy of brush strokes, White paints an indelible portrait of Ruggero’s grandfather; I will remember this fellow for years to come. There are unafraid depictions of the first stirrings of male-male adolescent lust, a lust never to be recaptured, the way a kid’s first Christmas morning or the first springtimes of our lives can never be recaptured no matter how hard we try. Yet White recaptures them in sentences so exquisitely executed, they shimmer like the first rush of blood from a fresh wound.

White is a magician at encapsulating complex emotions in a brief sentence or two: “We were as formal as strangers at a funeral, mourners who’ve heard of one another but never met, our grief all that we shared…”

In White’s examinations of the various forms love can take, gender is fluid; sexuality, more fluid. In fact, gender goes the way of the wind as characters dive in and out of their desires: hurting, forgiving, hurting, forgiving, learning, understanding, not understanding, in an endless roundelay of sexual exploration. White has never been shy about tossing a paragraph or more of pornography into his literature; he knows sex can get messy. For what does most love become but a happy ascension into utter degeneracy?

White even incorporates himself as a character in his book. In lesser hands than his, this could have been a crashing conceit. In this master writer’s hands, it is playful, mischievous, epiphanal. Bravo!

With A Previous Life, the author has bottled the genie of that most elusive of literary forms, the dual memoir, a splendid, refreshing, freewheeling elixir. This treatise on love and lust, on the limitations society imposes on the aged, the limitations we, the aged, impose on ourselves, celebrates aging’s refusal to let go of the rope of love though the rope is beginning to tatter. The book is racily articulate, intimately sophisticated and knowing, fully actualized, its architecture sound, superb even, its themes timeless. It goes down easy; I stayed drunk on its many pleasures for days.


A Previous Life
by Edmund White
Bloomsbury Press; 288 pages

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