In his landmark 1982 novel A Boy’s Own Story, Edmund White wondered: “What if I could write about my life exactly as it was? What if I could show it in all its density and tedium and its concealed passion?” It seems now a self-consciously prescient remark, setting out his stall as a writer; in his long career White has crafted novels and memoirs of intense beauty and passion out of the raw experience of life.
He had already written a few books, including a debut novel the hard-to-please Vladimir Nabokov thought was “marvellous” and a 70s gay sex manual that is still in circulation, but it was A Boy’s Own Story that really inaugurated White’s literary project. It was the first in a series of autobiographical works in which his alter ego came of age in the homophobic midwest, joined New York’s gay underground, became a fixture in the salons of Paris and survived the traumatic Aids crisis.
There was also a boom in autofiction, a literary impulse that has been in favour in White’s secondary homeland of France at least since Proust (of whom White has written a biography). The sexual candour of contemporary fiction, and not only of gay writers such as Alan Hollinghurst, owes much to White.
White’s new novel suggests something of a departure. A Saint from Texas is, on the face of it, about a pair of twin sisters from a hillbilly family suddenly enriched by oil. Yvonne and Yvette (mispronounced, thanks to their nouveau riche origins, “Why-von” and “Why-vette”) have nothing in common, except the desire to escape: Yvette, because she abhors the consumerism and racism of 50s America, and Yvonne, because she craves European glamour. Yvonne harnesses her fortune to become a Parisian socialite, while Yvette renounces hers to become a miracle-working nun in Colombia.
There’s no obvious Edmund White doppelganger here; instead, his personality is interestingly split between the twins, the book’s two conflicting voices – Yvette bookish and tormented, Yvonne worldly and ambitious. Yvonne narrates their lives with a wit reminiscent of the raconteur behind White’s frothier nonfiction, especially the eye for comic detail, such as the “campanile-shaped pizza oven” at Yvonne’s Venice-themed debutante dance. But Yvette’s voice also intervenes in letters and dialogue, and there we find the high style of White’s novels, full of sombre metaphors in which the body is painted as a “dying animal” and living compared to “sluicing through time like a keel through water”.
Strongly hinting that the novel is a coded commentary on his divided self, White also invokes Plato’s allegory of the charioteer driving two steeds, one representing the intellect, the other desire – the two forces dominating White’s life and art, as they dominate Yvette and Yvonne. This theme of duality pervades the novel, from the conceit of biological twins to Yvette’s fascination with “Christ’s double nature as man and God”.
In interviews, White has remarked on his fascination with “the doubling of spiritual and carnal love”, which reveals a lot about this richly symbolic novel. Religion gives White the language to explore his mystical view of sex. When Yvette quotes from Thomas à Kempis’s 15th-century The Imitation of Christ (“Enlarge Thou me in love, that I may learn to taste with the innermost mouth of my heart how sweet it is to love”), it’s obvious what White is really thinking about. Such sensual passages betray how much the libido is sublimated into religion, especially Christianity, which disavows the flesh yet makes a cult of the crucified body. Yvette’s late lesbian awakening is, paradoxically, born of her feverish monastic life.
A Saint from Texas makes explicit what was once only hinted at, namely how potent an influence religion has been on the imagination of the quintessential gay writer of our time. White’s second novel, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, opened, memorably, with an audacious description of a cruising spot as a cathedral, and had hidden inside it a poem inspired by Jalaluddin Rumi, the Muslim mystic.
But beyond this blurring of sex and spirituality, White’s self-conception as a writer seems to be theological. In an essay for the London Review of Books, White pronounced, enigmatically: “Today the artist is a saint who writes his own life.” He meant, I think, that a saint is one whose life is glorified for its miracles, and to write about any life, to confess it “in all its density and tedium”, is ultimately to have faith in its miraculousness too. Yvette’s faith is evoked so convincingly because White has all along been writing with his own sense of life’s grace.
• A Saint from Texas is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.