Edmund White has written biographies of Jean Genet, Marcel Proust, and Arthur Rimbaud. He has also written several novels; the most recent is Jack Holmes and His Friend: A Novel. He teaches creative writing at Princeton. His latest book, States of Desire Revisited: Travels in Gay America, has just been published.

Forster in Love: The Story

E.M. Forster and Mohammed el-Adl, Alexandria, circa 1917
How many great writers of the last 150 years have turned out to be gay! In England they range from Oscar Wilde to Virginia Woolf to Christopher Isherwood to Alan Hollinghurst (though Wilde’s grandson once told me that Oscar should be considered “bisexual”); in France, from André Gide to Marcel …

I Do, I Do

Theodore Olson and David Boies, who led the victorious challenge to California’s ­Proposition 8, which had declared that only marriages between a man and a woman were legal
Why did mainstream America come to accept marriage equality? Gay leaders had made a convincing case that gay families were like straight families and should have the same rights. The American spirit of fair play had been invoked.

The Great Jean Giono

Jean Giono, Manosque, Haute-Provence, France, circa 1950s
Jean Giono (1895–1970), whose complete works are available in an eight-volume Pléiade edition, had a long writing career, from his first novel, Colline (translated into English as Hill of Destiny), in 1929, to his last, L’Iris de Suse, published in 1970, the year of his death. During several crucial periods …

The Lost Novelist

John Horne Burnes, circa 1947
For a while in the 1940s John Horne Burns was widely considered one of the most promising American novelists, and his best-selling war novel, The Gallery, intimidated Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Joseph Heller. Then after not one but three dud novels he committed suicide at age thirty-six (or rather …

Proust the Passionate Reader

Marcel Proust on vacation with his family, circa 1892
Proust was a great reader, as are all his characters. He wrote, “Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated—the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived—is literature.” Books are often the subject of his characters’ conversations and disputes. Certain authors are associated with …

‘Why Didn’t You Kill Him?’

A.M. Homes, New York City, 1998
A.M. Homes loves crises in suburbia. She begins many of her books in medias res and never lets up. Her dialogue is extremely funny, worthy of a stand-up comic—rapid and raw. The action is unrelenting and endlessly inventive. Just when the reader thinks she can’t top that, she does. May …

Is There a Good Way to Be Gay?

Paul Cadmus: Finistère, 1952
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the early 1960s I used to gather some of my fellow students into sessions held on the balcony of the Pancake Palace. There, as we chatted, I would in effect teach them how to camp—how to reverse genders systematically, how to drop hints one was gay (called “dropping beads”), how to refer to oneself (as Auden does in a poem) as “Miss Me” or “Your Mother” (Auden was once confused with Robert Frost in the club car to New Haven by a Yale undergraduate who sent him a note via a waiter; he passed back a note that read, ”You’ve spoiled Mother’s day”).

Bold When It Counted

Richard Seaver and Samuel Beckett, Paris, mid-1970s
No child daydreams about becoming an editor. A writer, perhaps. An inspiration, maybe, in the sense of a muse. How do people become editors? Richard Seaver suggests that editors are people who admire writers. He grew up near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and at the University of North Carolina wrote a thesis …

A Hungry Little Boy

A supper to celebrate Saint Hubert, the patron saint of hunters, at the restaurant Véfour
The preconceived notion might be that Balzac was a gourmand, a modern-day Gargantua, excessive in his feasting as in his writing and his socializing and his consumption of coffee and his pursuit of titled women. Just look at Rodin’s nude study of him, with his Jovian girth and prominent belly.

The Rogue Genius

Curzio Malaparte with an Ethiopian soldier, Ethiopia, 1939
Nearly everything about Curzio Malaparte—who wrote Kaputt and The Skin, two of the most memorable books about World War II—was bogus, starting with his name. He was born in the town of Prato in Tuscany in 1898, the son of an irascible German (and Protestant) father, Erwin Suckert, and a …

Paul Bowles: The Desert and Solitude

Paul Bowles making mint tea at a friend’s house in the Medina of Marrakech, 1961; photograph by Allen Ginsberg
In an essay about the Sahara, “Baptism of Solitude,” Paul Bowles tells us many interesting things about oasis towns (where the fertility of cultivated plants is all-important and birds are hated as seed-stealers) and about the Touareg, a desert-dwelling tribe whose name in Arabic means “lost souls” but who call …

The Panorama of Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford, 1915
Ford Madox Ford was a man full of contradictions. His name sounded thoroughly English and he considered himself to be the last Tory; during World War I he said that he never felt so calm as when he wore the King’s uniform. In fact, however, his father was a German …

The Beats: Pictures of a Legend

Jack Kerouac; photograph by Allen Ginsberg, 1953. Ginsberg’s caption reads: ‘Jack Kerouac wandering along East 7th Street after visiting Burroughs at our pad, passing statue of Congressman Samuel “Sunset” Cox, “The Letter-Carrier’s Friend” in Tompkins Square toward corner of Avenue A, Lower East Side; he’s making a Dostoyevsky mad-face or Russian basso be-bop Om, first walking around the neighborhood, then involved with The Subterraneans, pencils & notebook in wool shirt-pockets, Fall 1953, Manhattan.”
Allen Ginsberg’s snapshots of friends—the subject of the exhibition at the National Gallery, Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg—are fascinating since few of them are well-known and they often show their subjects in their youth—a fresh-faced, toothy, nerdy Ginsberg, for instance, long before he became the bearded guru, and a melancholy, poetic William Burroughs before he became the saurian undertaker seen in familiar portraits.

The Beats: Pictures of a Legend

Both Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs discovered late in life that making works of art is the way to get money. Literature just doesn’t do it. Speaking engagements pay, but eventually they become tiring—or one exhausts the market. Neither of the two had ever been money-mad, but old age requires a bit of a cushion. Burroughs turned to painting. He would set up paint cans in front of blank canvases and then shoot at them; the splatter was the art. Although these paintings are his best-known artworks, they make up only a small part of his output: he did twenty-four shotgun paintings in 1982 and a few more before he died in 1997. According to his friend James Grauerholz, Burroughs turned out more than 1,500 artworks between 1982 and 1996—including stencils and targets, which were almost all brightly colored abstractions—and had his work exhibited in several museums and more than eighty galleries worldwide. As Ginsberg said:
If you’re famous, you can get away with anything! William Burroughs spent the last ten years painting, and makes a lot more money out of his painting than he does out of his previous writing. If you establish yourself in one field, it’s possible that people then take you seriously in another. Maybe too seriously. I know lots of great photographers who are a lot better than me, who don’t have a big, pretty coffee table book like I have. I’m lucky.

More Lad Than Bad

Martin Amis, 1978; photograph by Angela Gorgas from ‘Martin Amis and Friends,’ an exhibition of her work at the National Portrait Gallery, London, last year
Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow begins as a beautifully poised, patient comedy of manners, in the tradition of the nineteenth-century English novels that Martin Amis’s college-age hero, Keith Nearing, is reading; then, in the last third, the narrative skips ahead and thins out and speeds up and starts to destroy itself joyously, like one of Jean Tinguely’s self-wrecking sculptures—or like civilization itself in the twenty-first century.

Among Leopards and Princes

A still from Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation of The Leopard

A still from Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation of The Leopard

Everything in Palermo is slow except the traffic, which is as confusing as a video game and just as fast. But otherwise things pour as slowly as honey from a spoon. My bag was lost for twenty-four hours until a high official of the arts festival I was attending took the matter in hand; then it was found instantly. It had been at the airport all along. I won a nice little literary prize, the Premio Mondello, but I received it only after enduring a two-hour press conference in the morning and a three-hour ceremony in the afternoon, complete with local violinists sawing their way through a Baroque concerto in the beautiful convent cloisters of Palermo’s Galleria D’Arte Moderno. At one point, ten high school students got up to vote for another prize; each delivered a long-winded discorso, a sort of high-tone book report and a preparation for a lifetime of prolixity. That evening there was a banquet for thirty at which every other Sicilian man seemed to be a prince.

The Strange Charms of John Cheever

John Cheever standing above Sing Sing prison in the town of Ossining, New York, where he lived from 1961 until his death in 1982; from ,Harry Benson: Photographs, just published by powerHouse Books
Stendhal once said that writing should not be a full-time job, and John Cheever’s unhappy life seems to lend substance to his remark. He had too much free time, too much creative energy, too many hours to feel lonely or to drink or to get up to sexual mischief that …

The Wood God in Valencia

Vicente Molina Foix is one of those cultured Spaniards who seems more French than Iberian. A distinguished novelist, he knows everything about everything though he’s jokey and not at all pedantic and has the exquisite manners of an old-fashioned French aristocrat (come to think of it during the late Middle Ages there were French Counts of Foix in an independent fiefdom in the Pyranees just north of Aragon). He has written poetry, translated Shakespeare, taught for three years at Oxford, worked as a film critic and published a score of novels; his best known work is El Abrecartas, an epistolary novel that covers the twentieth century in Spain and includes among its many characters the Nobel prizewinning poet Vicente Aleixandre (who late in life was a friend to Molina Foix). There are also letters back and forth from Aleixandre and Lorca.

Sensual in the South

Reynolds Price near Hampstead Heath, London, summer 1956; photograph by William Blackburn from Price’s memoir Ardent Spirits
Reynolds Price once said in an interview: I think I had as miserable an adolescence as any human being can ever have had—at least outside the novels of Dickens…. My problems were simply the problems of being an unpopular kid in a small town who was always being beaten up—partly …

The Loves of the Falcon

Glenway Wescott at ‘La Cabane,’ 1928; photograph by George Platt Lynes
I met Glenway Wescott in the fall of 1970. Richard Howard and I were spending a weekend with Coburn Britton, the founding editor of Prose, a thick, beautifully produced “little” magazine that was publishing reminiscences and meditations by Wescott. “Coby” had an old apple farm in New Jersey where we …

In Love with Duras

Marguerite Duras was a huge presence in the 1980s and early 1990s when I lived in Paris. She was very old—in her seventies—and very alcoholic, and her disintoxication cure in late 1982 at the American Hospital was much written about (not only by journalists—she wrote about it, and her companion …

The Making of John Rechy

John Rechy’s latest book is a memoir that reads like a novel, complete with cliff-hanging chapter conclusions, long dialogue scenes, a regularly repeating leitmotif (of a mysterious, glamorous woman), and a clear progression of accumulated effect. Fair enough, since he’s stated that he believes there’s something fictionalized about any memory.

Portrait of a Sissy

The novel Belchamber, first published in 1904, is the portrait of a sissy and as such it was initially disliked by everyone, including Henry James and Edith Wharton, who should have known better.[^*] Curiously, the author, Howard Sturgis, was a beloved, amiable sissy who made no effort to hide his …

Sons and Brothers

We now have the first two volumes of what will eventually be a 140-plus-volume set of the complete letters of Henry James. The entire collection of some ten thousand letters will be published by the University of Nebraska Press over the coming years. (The largest previous collection was Leon Edel’s …

The House of Edith

The main impression one has of Edith Wharton after reading this full-scale biography is what a dynamo she was. Whether she was writing her novels or organizing her research for them, setting up hospitals in France during World War I, motoring or sailing about Europe with friends, laying out impressive …

The Tragedy of Central Europe

In November 1956, the director of the Hungarian News Agency, shortly before his office was flattened by artillery fire, sent a telex to the entire world with a desperate message announcing that the Russian attack against Budapest had begun. The dispatch ended with these words: “We are going to die …