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The Unpunished Vice by Edmund White


The subtitle of this book, 'A Life of Reading', tells you all you need to know about the subject matter. Most of Edmund White's life has been spent in close proximity to a book, either as a reader, a writer or as an acquaintance of writers and creatives artists of all descriptions.

Some readers may find the style of this book a little too arrogant. White can sound pompous or pretentious, but he knows his trade well, and is full of interesting anecdotes. He has also been around for a good while, he frequently reminds us that he is 78, and consequently he has met many of the great names in twentieth century literature. Some of what he says is witty and sometimes he goes out of his way to try to shock us in a world where shock is an increasingly rare commodity. I liked one of the quotes from the start of the book, "If I watch television, at the end of two hours I feel cheated and undernourished...; at the end of two hours of reading, my mind is racing and my spirit renewed."

We hear a good deal about White's own homosexuality, and even an occasional heterosexual dalliance, between the stories about books. His openness about being gay has led to one particular unforeseen consequence; "Almost every literary gay book gets sent to me for a blurb, and I've become a true "blurb-slut." It's a bit like being a loose woman; everyone mocks you for your liberality - and everyone wants at least one date with you."

The book’s title pages lists 27 previous books by Edmund White, and these include novels, essays, and memoirs, as well as biographies of writers such as Jean Genet, Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud. Some of the titles also take in White's homosexuality, such as 'Travels in Gay America'. White spent some years living in France, and Paris in particular, which may have become a little cliched for Americans after writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller and James Slater. But White has a genuine love for the country and also its literature. He makes one very astute observation, when his very worldly agent says that he doesn't know any of the names White mentions in a book about Paris; "The English Channel is one of the widest bodies of water in the world." For my own experience the cultures of Britain and France both stop at the coast and eye each other suspiciously.

This is a very readable and enjoyable book. There are good recommendations on every page and because White is so infectious with his enthusiasm, you feel compelled to go and search out the books he compliments. For myself, I dug out the copies of ‘Angelo’ and ‘The Horseman on the Roof’ both by Jean Giono, whom White obviously rates very highly but feels Giono’s time has not yet come. White is a big fan of Nabokov, and in particular Lolita, but in the final chapters he tells us that “The greatest novel in all literature is Anna Karenina.” And just as you think he is being pompous, he self-deprecatingly adds “I’ve read it ten times, though I’m none the wiser for it.” On that recommendation, perhaps it is time to give it a try.


Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Bloomsbury, RRP $36

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