Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris
By Edmund White
261 pages, $26.
By Colin Dabkowski
News BOOK REVIEWER
In the mid-1980s, as the AIDS crisis was cutting a path of destruction through New York City’s creative community, Edmund White decamped for Paris.
Not that any city on earth was impervious to the ravages of the disease. But for White, whose novel “A Boy’s Own Story” is perhaps the best ever written on the gay experience in America, Paris seemed to offer the best chance for the 40-something writer to grow into himself before the disease caught up with him.
White’s latest memoir, a sequel to his 2009 chronicle “City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ’70s,” is “Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris.” It is an alternately banal and beautiful account of his many years in that most refined and particular of European capitals, each one lived as if it were the very last. Because each one very well could have been.
“Even though AIDS had since intervened, I imagined that being in Europe constituted an AIDS holiday,” he writes, “a recess from the emergencies of the disease.”
Fortunately for readers, the recess is still going.
Unlike hundreds of his friends, White survived his positive HIV diagnosis and went on to a remarkably prolific career that includes innumerable magazine pieces and reviews, several well-received novels and biographies of Proust, Rimbaud and the great writer and outlaw Jean Genet. Between assignments and novels, White lived the sort of culturally and sexually promiscuous life many Americans wouldn’t even dream of, let alone wish for themselves.
Though living in Paris, with its organic arrondissements and peculiar traditions arising from centuries of history might have felt to White like being “Inside a Pearl,” reading the book feels more like digging for clams at low tide. Much like “City Boy,” the book is full of glorious nuggets of insight and intrigue (and the odd piece of irresistible celebrity gossip) surrounded by too much empty padding.
Even so, if viewed as a rambling love letter to his adopted city, the book is a sensuous and gratifying read.
There’s something beautifully contradictory about White’s professed love for the neatly delineated world of Paris, a place that on the surface seems antithetical to his own beautifully messy (i.e. American) approach to life, love and literature.
Upon his arrival in Paris, White traded heavily on his role as fascinating oddity for a culture ever-obsessed with the new: Here was a Texas-born gay writer at work on a biography of the French cultural hero Jean Genet, equally at home cruising for tricks along the Seine and at a dinner party with the leading literary lights of Paris. He spoke charmingly stilting French, cycled through French boyfriends as often as some people change their socks and collected at least as many famous friends. And his most famous book, the autobiographical novel “A Boy’s Own Story,” unlike his sprawling and complex social world, was a polished pearl of language reduced to its essence and stripped of all excess fat.
This was a figure any decent Parisian would make a point of getting to know, and so they did.
In France, as in America, White gravitated toward figures on the cultural margins and they returned the favor. Many of the most interesting ones seemed to be variations on some aspect of Genet, who died in 1986 three years after White first arrived in Paris, and whose definitive biography he spent the better part of a decade researching and writing. These people seemed to materialize from the Parisian mist, like figures in an Atget photograph, in form of the hustlers he picked up in parks or among the city’s boundary-breaking avant-garde literary set.
In Paris, White fluttered into social and literary circles that included what would seem to be every noteworthy writer, actress and academic to have set foot in the city in the late 20th century. This means that at points, “Inside a Pearl” can seem like an exhaustive and exhausting catalog of his friends and acquaintances, which range from Michel Foucault and Martin Amis to various boyfriends, tricks and chance encounters.
White spends much of the book on personal observations about the differences between American and French culture and literary society, a subject to which he brings his characteristic wit and gift for original insight. Depending on your disposition, the fact that these potent doses of wisdom are scattered across vast expanses of name-dropping and inconsequential bits of gossip will either delight or rankle you.
Across some 250 pages, I found that my mood vacillated between one reaction and the other – from deep admiration for one beautifully wrought sentence to frustration at the next casually dishy one. Occasionally, he mixes the two styles, attempting to adopt two poses in the same paragraph in a sort of annoyingly cubist approach to memoir writing.
But he is brilliant on the peculiarities of French, and specifically Parisian, culture. After saying toward the start of the book that he doesn’t like to generalize about cultures, he then goes on to generalize about French and American culture in some hilarious and frequently insightful ways.
He writes beautifully, for instance, on the Parisian distaste for American feminism and other progressive causes which remain radical in the United States but appeared outmoded to the French by the ’80s. He delves deeply into the sexual habits of Parisians, who love to flirt and abhor any attempt to be too definitive about their sexual identity for fear of ruining the game, but who are also terminally frank in other matters.
“I remember a celebrated woman painter and her movie star husband once discussing in front of me whether I was intelligent or not (they couldn’t make up their minds about that conundrum),” he writes.
Perhaps best of all, White articulates the European thirst for the new which is both annoying and intoxicating to many Americans, whose cultural appetites are much more subdued and unadventurous by comparison:
“The French are immersed in ideas and pride themselves on being rational,” he writes, simplifying a bit too much. “They can almost instantly discard a prejudice and embrace a new, better idea. Americans mostly cling to familiar ideas and repeat them year after year. Only the French change their minds.”
Throughout the book, he also offers fond reminiscences of so many of his friends who were claimed by AIDS, from onetime boyfriends to famous acquaintances such as the great philosopher Michel Foucault:
“Toward the end of his life Foucault thought the basis of morality after the death of God might be the ancient Greek aspiration to leave your life as a beautiful, burnished artifact. Certainly in his case his gift for friendship, his quick sympathy, his gift for paradox, his ability to admire, left his image as a man, as an exemplary life, highly burnished. The people who said his promiscuity or his death from AIDS diminished him were just fools.”
Whatever one might think of White’s dishy, occasionally profound and overstuffed latest book, we’re lucky the man is still hard at work. With “Inside a Pearl,” admirably, he makes no attempt to burnish his own extraordinary life into something slicker than it was.
Colin Dabkowski is The News’ arts critic.