Edmund White's Top Ten List

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Edmund White (1940 - ) is an American author whose novels, memoirs and essays have helped define, illuminate and expand the concept of gay culture. His novels include Forgetting Elena (1973), whose excruciatingly self-conscious young narrator desperately wants to be accepted in this world where everything is subject to rigid conventions; Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978), which details the narrator’s life through a paean to a deceased lover; a tetralogy of autobiographical novels, A Boy’s Own Story (1982) The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988), The Farewell Symphony (1997) and The Married Man (2000), as well as Our Young Man, follows the life of a Frenchman as he goes from the industrial city of Clermont-Ferrand to the top of the modeling profession in New York City, becoming the darling of Fire Island's gay community and A Saint from Texas (2020), which chronicles the fates of twin sisters, one destined for Parisian nobility and the other for Catholic sainthood. His works of nonfiction include The Joy of Gay Sex (1977, with Charlie Silverstein), States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980), The Joy of Gay Sex (1977) and The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris (2000). His memoirs include My Lives (2005), City Boy (2009), and The Unpunished Vice: A Life in Reading (2018). His many awards include the 2018 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction and the National Book Foundation’s 2019 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Learn more here.

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna’s adulterous love affair with Count Vronsky—which follows an inevitable, devastating road from their dizzyingly erotic first encounter at a ball to Anna’s exile from society and her famous, fearful end—is a masterwork of tragic love. What makes the novel so deeply satisfying, though, is how Tolstoy balances the story of Anna’s passion with a second semiautobiographical story of Levin’s spirituality and domesticity. Levin commits his life to simple human values: his marriage to Kitty, his faith in God, and his farming. Tolstoy enchants us with Anna’s sin, then proceeds to educate us with Levin’s virtue.

2. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27). It’s about time. No, really. This seven-volume, three-thousand-page work is only superficially a mordant critique of French (mostly high) society in the belle époque. Both as author and as “Marcel,” the first-person narrator whose childhood memories are evoked by a crumbling madeleine cookie, Proust asks some of the same questions Einstein did about our notions of time and memory. As we follow the affairs, the badinage, and the betrayals of dozens of characters over the years, time is the highway and memory the driver.

3. Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973). Widely known for her extraordinary novels, including The Heat of the Day, The House in Paris, and The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen was also a master of the short story. Whether placing her reader in a remote Irish castle or a seaside Italian villa or bomb-scarred London during the Blitz, Bowen was famous for scene setting of almost hallucinatory vividness, but her ability to evoke inner landscapes of spellbinding intensity was even more remarkable. Frustrated lovers, acutely observed children, and even vengeful ghosts inhabit her tales with an urgency and emotional complexity that make it clear that the drama of human consciousness was her central subject. Bowen’s best known stories, including “Mysterious Kôr,” “The Demon Lover,” “Summer Night,” “Ivy Gripped the Steps,” and “The Happy Autumn Fields,” are enduring testimony to Bowen’s reputation as a creator of finely chiseled narratives—rich in imagination, psychological insight, and craft—that transcend their time and place.

4. Nothing by Henry Green (1926). Green was the pen name for British industrialist Henry Vincent Yorke, whose kaleidoscopic, impressionistic novels (including cryptic plots and sentences without articles or verbs) have drawn comparisons to fellow high-modernists Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and Monet. Nothing, which consists almost entirely of pitch-perfect dialogue, tells the story of Jane Weatherby and John Pomfret, the husband of Jane’s best friend with whom she had a torrid affair. Divorces ensued. World War II happened. Prewar partying gave way to postwar austerity, and Jane and John’s now-grown children, Philip and Mary, both as serious and sober as their parents were not, seem earnestly bent on marriage, which John and Jane consider a mistake. The two old lovers conspire against the two young lovers, and nothing turns out quite as expected.

5. The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (1956). (See Margot Livesey’s Appreciation below.)

 

6. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). While liberal rebels roam the hills of Sicily, and rumors spread that Garibaldi’s army is poised for invasion, the old prince Don Fabrizio struggles to manage his vast and now threatened estates. “I belong to an unfortunate generation,” he says, “swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both.” While charting what he sees as nineteenth-century Sicily’s necessary movement toward science and liberal politics, Lampedusa uses the admirable prince to suggest the traditions and values lost in the process.

7. The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (1943–48). Serialized during wartime, this epic novel chronicles the decline of the Osaka family and the transformation of traditional Japanese society. As their fortunes wither, elder sisters Tsuruko and Sachiko try to preserve the family name and marry off the talented, sensitive Yukiko. All the while the youngest sister, Taeko, aches for freedom from her sisters’ conservatism. Tanizaki uses detailed descriptions of Japanese traditions, such as the tea ceremony, to underscore their fleetingness in an era of rapid modernization.

8. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922). Filled with convoluted plotting, scrambled syntax, puns, neologisms, and arcane mythological allusions, Ulysses recounts the misadventures of schlubby Dublin advertising salesman Leopold Bloom on a single day, June 16, 1904. As Everyman Bloom and a host of other characters act out, on a banal and quotidian scale, the major episodes of Homer’s Odyssey—including encounters with modern-day sirens and a Cyclops—Joyce’s bawdy mock-epic suggests the improbability, perhaps even the pointlessness, of heroism in the modern age.

9. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (1996). The Mulvaneys are blessed by all that makes life sweet. But something happens on Valentine’s Day, 1976—an incident that is hushed up in the town and never spoken of in the Mulvaney home—that rends the fabric of their family life...with tragic consequences. Years later, the youngest son attempts to piece together the fragments of the Mulvaneys’ former glory, seeking to uncover and understand the secret violation that brought about the family’s tragic downfall.

10. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72). Dorothea Brooke is a pretty young idealist whose desire to improve the world leads her to marry the crusty pedant Casaubon. This mistake takes her down a circuitous and painful path in search of happiness. The novel, which explores society’s brakes on women and deteriorating rural life, is as much a chronicle of the English town of Middlemarch as it is the portrait of a lady. Eliot excels at parsing moments of moral crisis so that we feel a character’s anguish and resolve. Her intelligent sympathy for even the most unlikable people redirects our own moral compass toward charity rather than enmity.

Bonus Pick: The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal (1839). (See Francie Prose’s appreciation below.)

 

Appreciation of Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows by Margot Livesey

I don’t know why I waited so long to read The Fountain Overflows. There was a copy in the library of my Scottish school; after all, the novel sold 40,000 copies in 1956, the year it was published. Perhaps it was even in my father’s library, squeezed between, say, Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow and Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, two novels I adored. The book was around but the truth is I didn’t want to read it, in part because I associated it with Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West’s massive tome about pre–World War II Yugoslavia, which I didn’t want to read even more. I finally succumbed only a few years ago at the urging of a dear friend.

Some books, much lauded on publication, rapidly gather dust, but luckily for me The Fountain Overflows remains as lustrous and passionate as when West penned the last page. The novel tells the story of the Aubrey family living in Edwardian London. Mr. Aubrey is a charismatic and unreliable journalist; Mrs. Aubrey, a former pianist, is an awkward woman of immense moral intelligence. Around these two orbit the Aubrey children: the musical Mary and Rose, the awful Cordelia who wants to be musical, and the beloved Richard Quinn. The story is told by Rose.

One scene captures for me West’s genius. A man comes to complain to Mrs. Aubrey about her husband having an affair with his wife. After she has done her best to cheer him up, Mrs. Aubrey takes refuge in Madame Bovary and, by the time her husband arrives home, is absorbed in the novel. Together they praise and criticize Flaubert. Only then does she recall what brought her to pick up the novel in the first place. “I am really very heartless,” she cried, rising to her feet. “But art is so much more real than life. Some art is much more real than some life, I mean.”

And this is exactly how I feel about The Fountain Overflows; it is more real, and more pleasurable, than most life.

 

Appreciation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma by Francine Prose

Opening The Charterhouse of Parma is like stepping into the path of a benevolent cyclone that will pick you up and set you down, gently but firmly, somewhere else. You can still feel the tailwind of inspiration, the high speed at which Stendhal wrote it, and you can’t help admiring its assurance and audacity.

Stendhal marks the boundaries of the more traditional nineteenth-century novel, and then proceeds to explode them. Just as Fabrizio keeps discovering that his life is taking a different direction from what he’d imagined, so the reader keeps thinking that Stendhal has written one kind of book, then finding that it is something else entirely. Stendhal writes as if he can’t see why everything—politics, history, intrigue, the battle of Waterloo, a love story, several love stories—can’t be compressed into a single novel. The result is a huge canvas on which every detail is painted with astonishing realism and psychological verisimilitude.

First you are totally swept up in Fabrizio’s peculiar experience of the Napoleonic wars, then moved by the Krazy Kat love triangle involving Fabrizio, Mosca, and Gina, and throughout, astonished by the accuracy of Stendhal’s observations on love, jealousy, ambition, and of how the perception of biological age influences our behavior.

I love the way Stendhal uses “Italian” to mean passionate, and how he falls in love with his characters, for all the right reasons. One can only imagine how Tolstoy would have punished Gina, who is not only among the most memorable women in literature, but who is also scheming, casually adulterous, and madly in love with her own nephew. Each time I finish the book, I feel as if the world has been washed clean and polished while I was reading, and as if everything around me is shining a little more brightly.