Review: A story of warmth but no light | Book reviews and short stories
CLAUDE PECK Star Tribune
“A Past Life” by Edmund White; Bloomsbury, 288 pages, $26.
He is handsome, rich, athletic, very intelligent (as he often reminds us), polyglot, sexually irresistible, gifted in music.
Ruggero, the bisexual Sicilian harpsichordist at the center of “A Previous Life,” Edmund White’s latest novel, is also, well, boring.
Scarcely more interesting is his dying wife, Constance — biracial, 40 years younger than Ruggero and hopelessly, “obsessively,” codependently in love with him.
In 2050, the two decide that each will write an unredacted, brutally honest memoir.
“Our confessions,” said Constance. “In an edition of one, for the eyes of another. To be burned after a single reading.”
The setup is intriguing. Will they be honest with each other in their memories, or will they abstain? Will we have to worry about it?
White moves nimbly between the voices and songwriting rhythms of Ruggero and Constance, drawing us into their colorful stories, which lean heavily towards the carnal.
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White, who deserves his status as an icon of gay literature, has always written candidly about sex. In “A Previous Life,” he approaches bisexuality with explicit enthusiasm but emerges with what are little more than stereotypes: that a bisexual woman is fluid with her partners, that she with people who are emotionally attracted to him, regardless of gender, and that a bisexual man is just masking his basic homosexuality.
Ruggero’s past affairs with men and women include one with an octogenarian gay writer named Edmund White. However, this can hardly be called meta or novel, as most of White’s work to date – fiction and non-fiction, including some of my favorite books – has been autobiographical.
White is married, decrepit, smelly, helpless and overweight, but he somehow wins the heart of Ruggero, who is in his prime at 41. Their relationship blossoms, then dies when Ruggero begins dating a younger man, provoking White an embarrassing amount. of jealous rage. Old age reached without much perspective drawn from the experience is depressing to behold.
White remains a secondary character. Constance intelligently arises from hardships (abandoned as a child by her playboy parents, abused by her monstrous uncle). She’s had two failed marriages with men and a love affair with a lesbian that gets a totally unsympathetic and weakly comedic characterization.
After meeting the sexist Ruggero at a dinner party in New York, Constance goes all out for him, possibly her worst choice yet. She should have run away when she complimented her beauty and he replied, “You haven’t even seen the best part yet, the part below the belt.”
Disconcertingly, White allows Ruggero to remain unevolved. He is conceited and narcissistic as a young man, middle-aged, and in his middle years, never seeming to realize how his superiority complex cuts him off from mere mortals, makes him a boring boor with no sense of humor. .
When Constance shares with White’s biographer her written recollections of the Edmund-Ruggero affair, he offers this withering return:
“I wonder why you don’t speak more clearly of Ruggero’s obvious narcissism and cruelty, his determination to do exactly what he wants at all times, despite the veil of modesty and thoughtfulness thrown over his terrible selfishness. valued.”
Claude Peck is a former editor of Star Tribune. He lives in Minneapolis and Palm Springs, California.