IT IS hard to believe, but Edmund White has just turned 80. The author of literary biographies, memoirs, and 13 novels, including the iconic A Boy’s Own Story (1982), which has earned him the title “paterfamilias of queer literature”, he remains as puckish, wise, gossipy, and insightful as ever, as this latest book shows.
The novel is narrated by Yvonne (pronounced “Why-Von”), and yet the title refers to her twin sister Yvette (pronounced, you guessed it, “Why-Vette”). They are brought up in a hillbilly family in 1950s Texas, although their dour father later becomes an oil tycoon, and they long to escape. Yvonne wants to live the lurid, glamorous high life in Paris, while Yvette has a crush on God, and is instead drawn to the austerities of a Colombian convent.
The pages take us through the decades. Yvonne’s worldly ambitions begin to choke, as she marries Adheaume (“It took me a while to understand how awful he is since he’s a French baron and I’m a cowgirl”), and encounters the particular envies, cruelties, and hypocrisies of the well off.
In parallel, through letters and narratives, we hear of the life of Yvette, studious but tormented, and glimpse the shadowed consequences of sexual abuse by her father. In their own ways, both women defer self-awareness to pursue imagined lives — and life, which is not for beginners, got in the way.
“We read Proust because, despite his intelligence, he holds reasoned evaluations in contempt and knows that only the gnarled knowledge that suffering brings us is of any real use,” White writes in his great study of the French author. We read White for similar reasons.
The conceit of biological twins helps White to voice his own divided self, which we have come to know and admire. Like Plato’s charioteer, he is continually grappling with the horses of intellect and desire, as well as reason and libido, art and sex, erudition and scandal, and, in the words of A Boy’s Own Story, “density and tedium”.
Yvette is fascinated by Christ’s double nature, but the novel is equally preoccupied with all our doubled selves and how we can end up feeling that our real life was one that we never lived.
Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.
A Saint from Texas
Church Times Bookshop £17.10