A PREVIOUS LIFE by Edmund White (Bloomsbury, 288 pp., $26)
"A Previous Life," Edmund White’s 30th book and 13th novel, is a deceptive puzzle. Underneath the sumptuous scenes, rarefied cultural circles and vivid erotic encounters, there is a deep and complex meditation on mortality, memory and loneliness. In White’s universe, the superficial and the profound are both found in the aesthetic.
Like Philip Roth or Charlie Kaufman, White takes a meta-approach, creating a character named Edmund White who has written a book titled "A Previous Life." It's a device that allows for unforgiving, hilarious introspection and self-abasement. Though the novel dwells in fictional places, the verisimilitude is unflinching.
There is a sense of dangerous memoir and personal revelation, an author on the verge of telling too much about too many as the voices and names and faces and lives of secondary and tertiary characters emerge from the shadows of Italian villas, French chalets, New York brownstones, and Fire Island bungalows.
The story, which is mainly set in 2050, centers on Ruggero, a Sicilian aristocrat; his younger American wife, Constance; and Edmund White, with whom Ruggero once had an affair. Though Ruggero and Constance’s previous marriages had been ruined by a surplus of honesty, the couple agree to write about their past sexual and romantic episodes, thus the revelation of Ruggero’s hot fling with White.
Ruggero and Constance’s accounts get into their childhoods, families, glories and humiliations. Their recollections parry — respond to each, spite one another. A wounded competitiveness takes shape, but there is also growing compassion and concern.
"No wonder Constance is so insecure around me," writes Ruggero. "She may be young, but she’s already lived through so much exploitation and abandonment. She’s been raped by an abusive ‘uncle,’ she’s been robbed by her first husband and humiliated by the second."
The life in "A Previous Life" is so vibrant that everything from Greco-Roman lore to the Renaissance and on through all movements in art, philosophy, and society leading to the 19th century are present in White’s 21st century. Not just present, but rich, vital, and necessary. And since the novel is set nearly 30 years into the future, contemporary news like the coronavirus pandemic is old history that is reflected on.
Amid the rigorous discussion of antiques, classical music, ancient civilizations, Mediterranean mythologies, and high contemporary culture, there are considerable sexual exploits that are titillating but never vulgar. One of White’s innumerable gifts is that he can write frankly and graphically about sex and still find nuance, sanctity, and elevation.
Though his prose moves the compelling plot along swiftly, White surreptitiously whittles away toward a psychodynamic core. It’s easy to forget how fulfilling and inventive his ideas and characters are as his language and storytelling have never been simultaneously more satisfying, precise, and alert. There are lines that you will reread multiple times for the pure joy of their music.
In White’s novel, Fire Island takes on mythic dimensions. The Pines is heaven and hell on the beach, in the woods. "Everything was seductive. The clandestine lovers, tentative and delicate like deer. The passing boom of big New York gay male voices joking and laughing. [An] exciting and depressing" [place] "where everyone was as masculine or muscular as a gigolo on the Riviera but here they were lawyers and doctors or real estate scions. To bring all these interchangeable Princes Charming together, each of whom had thought he was unique before and each of whom longed to be the chosen one, the Cinderella, and to show them they were all alike or even interchangeable members of the chorus." [Fire Island] is "a race that nobody wins, no matter how much facial surgery you have, no matter how much weight you lift or lose, no matter how great a fortune you earn, you’ll always be one year older than you were last year."
The fixation on physical beauty in all its forms, human and inanimate, is rooted in an anxiety centering on deterioration and death. "I suppose death is the mother of beauty because only evanescent things move us, they alone tell us in confidence that they are sublime."
White’s 2020 "A Saint From Texas," about twin sisters, may arguably be his best work of fiction, but "A Previous Life" might be his true masterpiece.