Culture

Edmund White
Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris

Edmund White once found himself in a typically Parisian situation. At dinner one evening, in an elegant apartment in an expensive arrondissement, a celebrated painter and her movie star husband openly discussed whether White, then infamous for his novels of gay life but not yet comfortably ensconced in the wider canon of contemporary American literature, was intelligent or not. Sitting across the table and in clear hearing of the exchange, White recorded the moment as one more instance of calculated impertinence by certain privileged French men and women: an adjunct to their sophistication, their keen conversational sallies.

Readers of Inside a Pearl may wonder whether there wasn’t something more to it than that. It’s not that White’s memoir of his Paris years, a period of residence running from the early ’80s (when AIDS was in its awful infancy) until the late ’90s, is thoughtless or inane. Pages so studded with cross-cultural noticings, illuminating French and Anglosphere worlds with equal acerbity and insight, give lie to that claim. The problem is rather with the indiscriminate quality of the novelist and biographer’s attentions. White’s memory is voracious; it is also capricious, oddly affectless, tactless and sometimes cruel in retrospective arrangement.

Some will enjoy the vicarious schadenfreude that results. Electing to spend paragraphs on the dress sense of the Aga Khan’s brother, or the shrewish utterances of the elderly Lauren Bacall, or the penis dimensions of various Parisian gents, inspires a prurient fascination, although of the highest-toned kind. Meanwhile, the deeper substance of White’s life during those years, whether emerging from the author’s own HIV-positive diagnosis, or observing the final days of his friend, philosopher Michel Foucault, or the seven-year effort by White to complete his magisterial biography of Jean Genet, is given equal billing with the slightest gossip. Profound flotsam and facile jetsam bob with equal buoyancy in the author’s sea of recall.

There are certainly guilty pleasures to be had here. Duchesses roam in gangs in Edmund White’s Paris, while dandified aristocrats of his acquaintance have the Spanish king’s tailor flown in from Madrid to fit their suits. Even rent boys and lovers are as creative as they are handsome or well hung: furniture designers from Toulouse or Swiss art collectors with women on the side (but a copy of White’s A Boy’s Own Story in their briefcase). Despite his modest Midwestern beginnings and his Stonewall-era sexual bravado – origins and attitudes utterly alien to the locals – and an initially halting command of the French language, White swiftly manoeuvres himself to the centre of an intricate social web made up of the beautiful, the gifted and the grand.

It is an atmosphere so dandified that only the acidity of White’s remembrance neutralises the sometimes sickly odour of Gallic chauvinism and self-regard. Yet the vigour and evident pleasure he brings to the process begs its own set of questions. The grand dames and barons, the film stars and models, the authors manqué and their mistresses, need to be pulled into close proximity before the knife may be plunged to the hilt, as White does with some regularity. In his case, one wonders, why
not simply remove oneself from the crime scene and its impeccably dressed cast of victims.

White sees himself, albeit with some ritual demurrals, as a latter-day Proust: he aestheticises and eroticises all those who happen across his path; he attempts to meld the roles of prose writer, scholar, satirist and social butterfly. Yet he achieves none of the grand synthesis of Proust, just a series of distinct observations that arrive one after the other like buses, as if the memoir’s organising narrative principle was taken from Frank O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” poems (indeed, the volume is so carelessly edited that information imparted by White is often repeated within pages).

When White visits the Middle East –
then, as now, a concatenation of thieving autocracies and intra-tribal rivalry – accompanied by his young lover, the author’s responses are incisive yet circumscribed by self-absorption. Politics only enters into the equation when a “handsome Sheik” with a “handlebar moustache and a posse of thugs” attempts a half-hearted abduction of his boyfriend. Literary observation is restricted to a sentence concerning Genet’s adventures with young men in Syria during the 1930s. Most damningly, any emotional current is cut with the information, relayed paragraphs later, that the couple had
broken up soon afterward. “The funny thing is that just before he left me I’d been ready to break up with him … I guess in the battle of love the vanquished is whoever gets dumped first.”

These are hardly the diaries of Gide or Roland Barthes, but there is value here nonetheless. White tells the story of American composer and part-time Parisian Ned Rorem, who would return to his favoured city every decade or so to “declare once again that Paris was finished – the way an angler might say of a lake that it was fished out”.

Beneath all the social tinsel, behind the candelabra of White’s erotic adventures, Inside a Pearl challenges this truism of Gallic decline. It argues that the postwar downgrading of Paris as a city of culture has more to do with France’s loss of financial and military might than with the actual quality of the nation’s creative achievements. As White’s endless rollcall of writers and filmmakers, actors and eccentrics makes abundantly clear, the French capital remains a dynamic artistic centre, and a beautiful one at that. When an American complains
of Paris to White, the author, long habituated to the city’s bookshops, museums, cafés, replies: “I like it. [It’s] as if I’d already died and gone to heaven. It’s like living inside a pearl.” AF

Bloomsbury, 272pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 15, 2014 as "Edmund White, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris". Subscribe here.