‘The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading’
By Edmund White
Are you turned on by secretly perusing the dictionary? Do you drool with desire over the smell of library books? Probably not, in our Grindr, YouTube, Internet meme age. You likely don’t think reading is sexy or transgressive. But you will after dipping into “The Unpunished Vice” by Edmund White.
The word iconic is an overused cliche. Yet, there’s no other way to describe White, 78, our most eminent queer writer. The number of literary prizes he’s received is mind-boggling. This year alone, White, a memoirist, essayist and novelist, was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Career Achievement in American Fiction and the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Visionary Award.
But White, growing up in the Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s, didn’t start out as an esteemed openly queer man of letters and literary activist. (White was a founder of the 1980s queer writers group The Violet Quill.) When White grew up, homosexuality was illegal and considered sinful or, at best, a sickness. If you were caught having queer sex, you were arrested. You wouldn’t have thought about leaving the closet or meeting folks who were out. This wasn’t good for White, who liked boys.
In “The Unpunished Vice,” an essay collection that blends memoir and literary criticism, White vividly evokes how reading has informed and nourished his life and work.
You couldn’t make up White’s life if you tried. When he was 12, his mother gave him a biography of Nijinsky, the queer Russian ballet dancer. “Was it just that he was an iconic artist … and she wanted to stoke my artistic fires?” White wonders, “Or was it innocent compliance with a sissy steak I’d already manifested?”
When he was a child, words were magical and sometimes sexual for White. His mother was a psychologist. During an era when no one spoke and rarely wrote of sex, especially queer sex, White eagerly looked up “penis,” “intercourse” and “homosexuality” in his mother’s medical dictionary. These words “were exciting just because they appeared in print,” he writes.
As a teenager, White was a Buddhist. He embraced Buddhism so he could “root out” his desires for boys. At his boarding school in Michigan, White was disappointed when he met a boy from Thailand who’d been a Buddhist monk for a year. He’d never meditated he told White, and the older monks had only wanted to play cards and feel up boys. It was a time, White writes, when “the three most heinous things in America were heroin, communism and homosexuality.”
White spent one summer at Walloon Lake in Michigan. His father made him do yard work for a month. Loading a wheelbarrow with pine needles on a hill would, his father believed, cure him of being gay. White got through it by reading “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann, a tale of a man’s infatuation with a 10-year-old boy. White read it secretly at night in his bedroom. “Teenagers … are particularly prone to the seductive power of dark narratives,” he writes.
White’s longing for travel and the queer writer’s life writer has been amply satisfied. He’s lived in Paris, traveled to Istanbul and written 28 books. His works range from “A Boy’s Own Story,” one of the first novels about coming out, to “The Farewell Symphony,” a seminal novel about a lover dying of AIDS to biographies of Genet and Proust.
“The Unpunished Vice” gives us engaging glimpses into White’s reading and writing life. He and his husband, the writer Michael Carroll, are an amusing couple. Carroll, 25 years younger, can’t stand opera and ballet — the culture White adores. Most moving, is the essay on White’s recovery from a 2014 heart attack, during which he has torrid dreams about silent film star Valentino, but no interest in his life-long passion of reading.
A few of the essays on writers such as the piece on “Anna Karenina” are a drag. They read like lectures. (White recently retired from teaching at Princeton.) And while White’s stories about his writer friends are fun (who knew Joyce Carol Oates dances in the corridors at Princeton?), the name dropping’s a bit much.
But don’t be put off by this. “The Unpunished Vice,” is a good, sexy read.