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.
In How Proust Can Change Your Life, the philosopher Alain de Botton zeroed in on how Proust played out a preoccupation beneath society observations: the art of suffering successfully (echoing the Stoic notion that chasing pleasure and avoiding pain often leads to ruin). White wrote an acclaimed biography of the French author, so it is little surprise that A Saint from Texaspicks up this Proustian theme masterfully. The Crawford sisters are dialectically opposed in outlook: Yvette renounces the sensual thrills of youth whereas Yvonne defers the turn inward eventually forced by anguish (“suffering was on every side and probably lay in wait for me, but not yet, oh Lord, not yet”). White shrewdly traces the repercussions of their choices across the decades. At once in thrall to the shimmering artifice of glamour yet also incisive about the tragedy of human existence, A Saint from Texas is a worldly-wise delight.
A Saint from Texas is an imaginative, entertaining novel seasoned with penetrating social observation, as one would expect from this beady observer of US and French society. White has consummate control over plot, pace and narrative tension, and if the novel never quite reaches the heights of his greatest books — A Boy’s Own Story (1982), or Hotel de Dream (2007) — it makes for a superior sort of beach read.