It is conventional for people now to have lives rather than a life, but it is not always clear whose lives they are. They can, of course, be claimed - you can call them, as Edmund White does in this autobiography, 'my lives' - but there are always counter-claims. What seemed most intimately one's own can turn out to have been someone else's all along. Being possessive doesn't make one self-possessed, and White makes great play in this fascinating and archly mischievous book with ideas of ownership, sexual and otherwise. By calling his first chapter 'My Shrinks', and the following chapters 'My Father', 'My Mother', 'My Hustlers', 'My Women', 'My Europe', 'My Master', 'My Blonds', 'My Genet', 'My Friends', he keeps reminding us that his story about himself is always a story about other people. And that most of these other people, beginning, naturally, with his parents (and with his shrinks), were so self-absorbed that the young Edmund could never really make them his. He was involved but never included; he was always part of someone else's project and grew up - turning a predicament into a wish - craving the desire of others. He 'wanted to be indispensable', and his parents' high-maintenance egotism left him with a virtual passion for what he calls passivity. 'His words,' he says of one of his hustlers, 'gave me an instant erection - the bliss of total passivity edged with the fear of total passivity.' It would not be true to say that White's autobiography is mostly about other people; but what fascinates him about other people is the nature of their self-regard, the ways in which they are caught up in who they want to be.
LRB 3 November 2005 | PDF Download