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Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris, by Edmund White, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99/RRP$26, 272 pages
With typical knowingness Edmund White describes himself as “an archaeologist of gossip” and, for many years (1983-99 to be precise), Paris was the site of the dig. But far from being the centre of attention, White soon discovered that the studies of gay life that had brought him such recognition at home did not have quite the same effect on his new hosts.
The Ohio-born novelist, memoirist and biographer was now following in the shoulder-shrugging tradition of Marcel Proust, André Gide and Jean Genet (about whom White was inspired to write a gloriously empathetic biography). “Nor did the French like the whole idea of ‘gay fiction,’ though they’d invented it,” writes White. “France was opposed to the notion of identity politics and even more so the literature of special interest groups.”
So it was without chagrin but with a newfound sense of freedom that White, armed with a contract from Vogue and invitations to freelance for other American magazines, embarked on his French literary life at the mature age of 43. Engagingly written and full of gusto, Inside a Pearl is a book about France in which the “foreign” writer has sought to understand and, indeed, adapt to the interior lives of the French, as opposed to coolly keeping his distance.
Most revealing in this sense is White’s friendship with an older French woman, Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, who for a long time was married to the moneyed son of the creator of Babar the Elephant. Together they come to see themselves as a sort of double act, with White playing Valmont to Marie-Claude’s Marquise de Merteuil. It is all good-natured, salacious fun until Marie-Claude’s husband leaves her for another woman and White is left to witness his friend’s rapid mental disintegration.
One of Inside a Pearl’s many guilty pleasures are the thumbnail portraits that White provides of Paris-based celebrities. We are treated to a “paranoid” Milan Kundera, a “heavily doped” Yves Saint Laurent, and a bizarre meeting with Christian Lacroix and his wife in the walled garden of their rented villa in Arles.
There are also descriptions of White’s sojourns in London, where he becomes part of a literary whirl far more concentrated than the one in Paris. “In France writers were so lavishly hosted by ‘society’ that they seldom clustered in one another’s company except in small bunches of two or three friends,” he notes. “But in England the aristocrats were interested only in other aristocrats.”
Curiously, Julian Barnes, often held up as the most Francophile of English novelists, is the subject of some scorn. White suggests that Barnes is only interested in the French “as a way of criticizing [his] compatriots through counter examples” and then, after some kinder words about his work, provides a withering piece of portraiture: “Julian is a headmaster’s son and has that gooseflesh, underloved, boarding-school look, complete with horsey face and long, blue nose.”
Written in a fluent stream-of-consciousness style, Inside a Pearl pays little heed to chronology. Stylistically it keeps things lively, though there is a recycled feel to some of the anecdotes, as White’s autobiographical novels often draw on similar material.
More generally, White gives the impression of someone for whom writing prose is as easy as it is amusing. It is therefore rather surprising, though typically honest, of him to reveal that this has not at all been the case: “I laboured over my manuscripts and walked around town sounding out phrases, but I wanted to pretend it all came effortlessly to me; that was my myth of myself.”
Often compared to Nabokov, especially early on in his career (his first novel “Forgetting Elena” was one of Nabokov’s contemporary favourites), over time White has developed into one of America’s least fussy great writers. The transformation is one that White believes stems from him having lived in two languages for many years – something for which he acknowledges his debt to “diseased but deep France”.