Edmund White: “My first memory of reading is a toad with a bad temper” | Edmond White

My first memory of reading
When I was four or five, we had a cottage in Michigan and the previous owners had left books behind. I was fascinated by a children’s book about a toad with a big calico hat and a bad temper.

My favorite book growing up
A book I found in my public elementary school library, illustrated, on American history. I was nine years old and it was in Evanston, Illinois. All I remember is a passage about Ben Franklin in Philadelphia who, unusually, was not a Quaker: “The friendliest friend in the City of Friends was no friend at all. It was a large-format book with laminated covers. I liked it because it was smart and gave me talking points.

The book that changed me as a teenager
I was 12 when I read L’Attrape-coeurs. 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 teenager of the Eisenhower years.

The writer who changed my mind
When I was 16 and a very excited albeit guilt-ridden gay boy, I read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which excited me because it was about an unfulfilled homosexual desire, which seemed right. I was psychoanalyzed, hoping to go straight. I read it on Lake Walloon in Michigan with lots of gnarled pines staring back at me.

The book that made me want to be a writer
When I was 17, at my boarding school in the Midwest, I wrote an essay on Proust. I had a theory of my own: that the homosexual lie, where one heterosexualizes one’s experiences and transforms one’s friends into daughters (the so-called Albertine strategy), is a crucial stage in the development of the novelist (which would explain why there is has so many great writers of gay fiction). Reinventing one’s own experiments and providing the new version with compelling details and making all these substitutions (and remember them) is already the first great step towards the creation, as Proust did, of a sublime autofiction. Of course, this theory was (and is) very self-serving.

the author I came back to
I have read Proust several times in my life. As a teenager, I pretended to pretend, I only read part of it, I pretended to know how to read French, I drew the wrong conclusions (this is a damning criticism of snobbery but reading it made more snobby). In my late twenties, I read Proust with a group of New York friends and we learned life lessons and recognized our knowledge in his characters. Finally, I wrote a short biography of Proust in Paris in 1998, my last year (of 16) living in France. This time I read Proust for the first time in French.

The book that I read
Nothing from Henry Green. First at age 11 in Evanston after discovering Green’s books in the open stacks of the public library. I liked their look 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 to laugh. It’s about late-middle-age love, light-hearted selfishness, the rekindling of old passions, underhanded maneuvers between privileged adults – a treasure trove of sharp dialogue and vicious intrigue that leads to the complete contentment.

The Book I Could Never Read Again
I have a two-book group with novelist Yiyun Li. I suggested we read Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, which I had read as a student and found extremely sophisticated. When we tried it a year ago, I thought it was anti-Semitic (Father Rothschild!), brutal and not funny.

The book I discovered later in life
The sentimental education of Flaubert. I had “read” it in my twenties in a disjointed and incomprehensible way, but now I loved the Parisian social scenes, the transparent use of history, the effect progression, cynicism about romantic love. I could see why Ford Madox Ford had it all memorized and he and Conrad had studied it religiously.

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

My comfort read
In my loneliness at home, reading is my main comfort. My heartwarming read is Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his illegitimate son, an idiot he was trying to turn into a gentleman with loads of helpful advice. It was the only foreign manners book that the French considered worth reading. Among other things, it is a remnant of a time 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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