He's handsome, wealthy, athletic, highly intelligent (as he reminds us frequently), multilingual, sexually irresistible, musically gifted.
Ruggero, the bisexual Sicilian harpsichordist at the center of "A Previous Life," the newest novel by Edmund White, is also, well, dull.
Only slightly more interesting is his late-in-life wife, Constance — biracial, 40 years younger than Ruggero and hopelessly, "obsessively," codependently in love with him.
In 2050, the two decide that each will write an unexpurgated, brutally honest memoir.
"Our confessions," Constance says. "In an edition of one, for each other's eyes alone. To be burned after a single reading."
The setup is intriguing. Will they be honest with each other in their memories, or withholding? Will we be made to care?
White nimbly switches between the voices and writing rhythms of Ruggero and Constance, drawing us into their colorful stories, which lean heavily toward the carnal.
White, who deserves his status as an icon of gay letters, always has written frankly about sex. In "A Previous Life" he tackles bisexuality with explicit gusto but comes away with what are scarcely more than stereotypes: that a bisexual woman is fluid about partners, sleeping with people she is drawn to emotionally regardless of their gender, and that a bisexual man is just masking his basic gayness.
Ruggero's past affairs with men and women include one with an octogenarian gay writer named Edmund White. This hardly qualifies as meta, or a novel twist, however, as most of White's work to date — fiction and nonfiction, including some of my favorite books — has been autobiographical.
White is married, decrepit, malodorous, impotent and overweight, yet he somehow wins the heart of Ruggero, who is in his prime at 41. Their relationship flowers, then flames out when Ruggero starts dating a younger man, sparking in White an embarrassing amount of jealous rage. Old age achieved without much experience-derived perspective is depressing to witness.
White remains a secondary character. Constance arises intelligently from hardships (abandoned as a girl by her playboy parents, abused by her monstrous uncle). She has had two failed marriages to men and a love affair with a butch lesbian who gets an entirely unsympathetic and feebly comic characterization.
After meeting sexist Ruggero at a dinner party in New York, Constance goes all in for him, perhaps her worst choice yet. She should have bolted when she complimented his good looks and he replied, "You haven't even seen the best part yet, the part below the belt."
Confoundingly, White allows Ruggero to remain unevolved. He is vain and narcissistic as a young man, in middle age and in his dotage, never seeming to realize how his superiority complex cuts him off from mere mortals, makes him a boorish bore with no sense of humor.
When Constance shares with White's biographer her written memories of the Edmund-Ruggero affair, he offers this withering feedback:
"I wonder why you don't speak more clearly about Ruggero's evident narcissism and cruelty, his determination to do exactly as he pleases at every moment, despite the veil of modesty and thoughtfulness thrown over his terrible egotism. And then Edmund's tiresomely low self-esteem."
Claude Peck is a former Star Tribune editor. He lives in Minneapolis and Palm Springs, Calif.
A Previous Life
By: Edmund White.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 288 pages, $26.