Reviewed by Rod McLary
Edmund White is an American novelist and essayist perhaps best known for his three auto-fiction volumes A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty and The Farewell Symphony. Each describes a period in the author’s life as he traverses the stages of being gay from boyhood to middle-age. White said in a 2006 interview that [w]riting has always been my recourse when I’ve tried to make sense of my experience or when it’s been very painful.
Using the quote as a starting point, one could easily interpret A Previous Life as an attempt to make sense of the sexuality of old age especially when ‘it’s been very painful’ as it is expressed in this novel. Set in 2050 and subtitled ‘Another Posthumous Novel’, the central thread of the story is the relationship between the protagonist and the author told from the perspective of each – and by others as the novel progresses.
Ruggero Castelnuovo – ‘he was in his seventies but still slender and handsome with his strong profile’  – is married to Constance who is about forty years younger and of African-American heritage alongside Ruggero’s Sicilian heritage. On the basis that transparency had destroyed their earlier marriages, they vowed never to speak to each other of their past lives. But they decided to write their confessions in an edition of one, for each other’s eyes alone  and read them to each other six months later.
Thus begins what is essentially a catalogue of sexual behaviour in all its permutations – often graphic, sometimes confronting, but always written with the elegance and style one would expect from an author awarded in 2018 the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Literature. This award is given to a living American author whose scale of achievement in fiction, over a sustained career, places him or her in the highest rank of American literature [Pen America].
In a chalet in The Engadin in the Swiss Alps, Ruggero and Constance begin their readings. Turn and turn about and chapter by chapter, they disclose to each other – and to the reader – their sexual histories beginning in early adolescence. To add a further frisson and to conclude each ‘separate’ disclosure, the responding thoughts of the other are provided. These thoughts demonstrate considerable insight – and a counter-balance to the often self-serving nature of the disclosures – into the inner life of the discloser; for example, on one occasion, Constance’s response is ‘He [Ruggero] has such a vile idea of women’ .
In a rather deprecating self-reference, Edmund White inserts himself into the novel as a lover of Ruggero – albeit an inadequate one given his age and sexual incapacity – but one which ends in heartbreak. Their affair begins when Ruggero emails Edmund expressing admiration for one of his novels and a desire to meet. Edmund responds by asking for X-rated pictures and thus the email correspondence transfers to a physical relationship. He on one occasion emails Ruggero and asks rhetorically: ‘How could we have had more fun, more intensity, more scalding pleasure?’ . The later abandonment of Edmund by Ruggero to take up with a much younger lover reverberates through the novel. As Constance says of Ruggero: ‘Poor Edmund should have been worried by so much egotism and so little reciprocal curiosity’ .
In an intriguing twist, Constance after reading and being dissatisfied with the portrayal of the Ruggero/Edmund affair in a biography of White is challenged to write her version. This allows her to access all the correspondence between the lovers and in turn leads the reader to a deeper understanding of the affair and differing perceptions of Ruggero. Through the exposure of the correspondence, the reader has the advantage of perceiving the relationship from all angles – Ruggero’s, Edmund’s, Constance’s [first as a player and then later as a biographer], and then those of the peripheral players.
All in all, A Previous Life is a remarkable book – one which consistently surprises and delights the reader as the narrative arc unfolds and the perspective changes. The language and style are both imaginative and elegant even when describing, often in some detail, the various sexual liaisons of the protagonists. It is a book well worth the reading.
Edmund White is an award-winning author. His work has broken down boundaries of class, sexuality and power. He has been awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
A Previous Life
by Edmund White
ISBN 978 1 5266 3226 5