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Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris – E. White

June 26, 2016

IAPEdmund White moved to Paris in 1983, wanting to leave New York City in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Michel Foucault told him that he didn’t believe there was a disease that targeted gays – but he later died of it.

White was forty-three years old, couldn’t speak French, and only knew two people in the entire city. But in middle age, he discovered the new anxieties and pleasures of mastering a new culture. When he left fifteen years later to take a teaching position in the U.S., he was fluent enough to broadcast on French radio and TV, and in his work as a journalist, he’d made the acquaintance of everyone from Yves Saint Laurent to Catherine Deneuve, though he admits he didn’t recognise rock stars or models at a party of Elton John’s 50th birthday. Notwithstanding, he does a lot of name dropping.

He’d also developed a close friendship with an older woman, Marie-Claude, through which he’d come to understand French life and culture in a deeper way.

The title evokes the Parisian landscape in the eternal mists and the half-light, the serenity of the city compared to the New York White had known (and vividly recalled in City Boy). White fell in love with the city and its culture: both intoxicated and intellectually stimulated. He became the definitive biographer of Jean Genet, wrote lives of Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud and he received the French Order of Arts and Letters.

This book recounts gossip and enchantment. There is some stuff about paedophiles and I’m surprised there hasn’t been any legal action.

Proust gets mentioned a lot because White wrote a biography of him. There are moments, such as a sketch of the ancient Rothschilds “tottering forth for yet another dinner party – beautifully dressed, slender, on time, impeccable”, when the writing appears to be slipping into a parody of Proust.

Sex laces its way through the book, until the advent of Aids. He tells the story of his lovers who fall to the disease, two of them weirdly yoked together with him as their health rapidly declines. Though he – a “slow progressor” – remains healthy, they die. “Even though I’m an atheist, for a long time I lit candles in every church I visited.”

IAP 3At the centre of the book is his friendship with the literary critic Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, who embodies much of what it is about the French that White loves, staying with her on the Île de Ré the epitome of French rural life. But like many of the relationships described in the book, it comes and goes rather fitfully. Promising character studies often just stop, pushed aside by someone else whose story is, for the present, more interesting.

I can’t see why he thinks that chicken cooked in peanut butter is some sort of culinary faux pas.

He gets things wrong: .When my born-again cousin Dorothy Jean came to Paris, I took her to a museum entirely devoted to the work of Gustave Moreau and pointed out a painting of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes. “It’s a biblical scene,” I said optimistically.

“That’s not in my Bible,” she scoffed.

And it isn’t in the protestant canon.

But there are many wonderful moments: the distinguished, discreetly gay homme de lettres Bernard Minoret meets une tante (an old queen, as White tells us), who asks “Do you know my nephew?” “Yes,” replies Minoret, “he was my nephew last year.” He begins to embrace the quintessentially French idea of the milieu, an attachment to the group rather than to individuals, and he knows which side he comes down on in the choice between “healthy but bland America, deep but diseased France”. On the other hand, perhaps, as he says, “I’m the kind of guy who’s always wanted to be elsewhere.”

We’ve learned to be wary of those who ‘teach writing’ and justifiably so:

  1. 97, ” . . . he’d sold another Hubert Robert painting so that for another six months he could invite his likable band of layabouts out to dinner for another month.” (What was it, six months or one month?)
    p. 112, “We were bitten alive by bedbugs . . . .” (Were you dead to start with? Were the bedbugs? What does this mean?)
    p. 112, ” . . . and Petra astonished us all.” (Not another word about Petra or how it astonished them.)
    p. 149, ” . . . like many oily-skinned Mediterraneans he had some interesting facial scars and the odd boil on his back.” (Yes, so many have that odd boil.)

IAP 2Quotation:

She was worried about being unmasked as a fraud. When she failed to pick up on how blasphemous The Satanic Verses would be consid­ered, she tormented herself endlessly about this lapse in judgment, and yet I doubt if many or even any literary scouts like her around the globe had foreseen this horrible development. Certainly Salman himself hadn’t, but MC took the fatwa as a very public exposure of her incom­petence. I assured her that no one could blame her for not anticipating the evil whims of some flea-bitten cleric in Iran, but at the same I wondered whether or not she might have been more sensitive to cultural clashes if she’d come from a religious melting pot like America instead of the completely secularized France.

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