Edmund White: ‘My earliest reading memory is a lady toad with a nasty temper’

·4-min read


My earliest reading memory
When I was four or five we had a cottage in Michigan and the previous owners had left some books behind. I was besotted with a children’s book about a lady toad with a big calico hat and a nasty temper.

My favourite book growing up
A book I found in my public grade school library, illustrated, about American history. I was nine and it was in Evanston, Illinois. All I can remember is a passage about Ben Franklin in Philadelphia who, exceptionally, wasn’t a Quaker: “The friendliest friend in the City of Friends wasn’t a Friend at all.” It was a big format book with plasticised covers. I liked it because it was clever and gave me talking points.

The book that changed me as a teenager
I was 12 when I read The Catcher in the Rye. That and the movie Rebel Without a Cause, which I saw when I was 15, were the first works of art that spoke to me in my own language. That both were “rebellious” without being political suited a teen in the Eisenhower years.

The writer who changed my mind
When I was 16 and a very horny if guilt-ridden gay boy I read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which excited me because it was about homosexual desire, unsatisfied, which seemed right. I was being psychoanalysed, hoping to go straight. I read it on Walloon Lake in Michigan with lots of knotty pine staring at me.

The book that made me want to be a writer
When I was 17 at my Midwestern boarding school I wrote an essay on Proust. I had a theory of my own: that homosexual lying, in which one heterosexualises one’s experiences and makes one’s boyfriends into girls (the so-called Albertine strategy), is a crucial step in the novelist’s development (which would explain why there are so many great gay fiction writers). To reinvent one’s own experiences and to supply the new version with convincing details and to make all those substitutions consistent (and to remember them) is already the first major step in creating, as Proust did, a sublime autofiction. Of course that theory was (and is) very self-serving.

The author I came back to
I’ve read Proust several times in my life. As a teen I was pretty much faking it, only read part of it, pretended I could read French, drew the wrong conclusions from it (it is a damning critique of snobbism but reading it made me more snobbish). In my late 20s I read Proust with a group of New York friends and we drew life lessons from it and recognised our acquaintances in his characters. Finally I wrote a short biography of Proust in Paris in 1998, my last year (of 16) of living in France. This time I read Proust for the first time in French.

The book I reread
Henry Green’s Nothing. First as an 11-year-old in Evanston after discovering Green’s books in the open stacks of the public library. I liked the look of them and what I thought was the simplicity of their style. Now I read it every two years as an old man. It makes me sick with laughter. It is about late-middle-age love, blithe selfishness, the rekindling of old passions, sly maneuvering among privileged adults – a treasure house of sharp dialogue and vicious scheming that leads to complete contentment.

The book I could never read again
I have a book group of two with the novelist Yiyun Li. I suggested we read Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, which I’d read as a student and thought was terminally sophisticated. When we tried it a year ago I thought it was antisemitic (Father Rothschild!), heavy-handed and unfunny.

The book I discovered later in life
Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. I’d “read” it in my 20s in a desultory, uncomprehending way, but now I loved the Parisian social scenes, the seamless use of history, the progression d’effet, the cynicism about romantic love. I could see why Ford Madox Ford had memorised it entirely and he and Conrad studied it religiously.

The book I am currently reading
The Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne, about the ancien régime, the revolution, Napoleon, the restoration, the fall of the Bourbons in 1830, etc. As a Parisian lady who knows everything about court life (Bourbon, Napoleonic and Orleanist), who is a brilliant observer and has a historian’s memory and a gossip’s relish for detail, she is the perfect witness of a chaotic moment. Now I read it between midnight and 2am.

My comfort read
In my homebound loneliness, reading is my chief comfort. My comfort read is Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his illegitimate son, a dolt who he was trying to turn into a gentleman with reams of useful advice. It’s the only foreign book of manners that the French thought worth reading. Among other things it is a relic of an age when educated people spoke German, French, Italian and English and knew ancient Latin and Greek.

• Edmund White’s latest novel, A Previous Life, is published by Bloomsbury. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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