Account of a not so young man in Paris

A wonderfully eccentric, conversational and personalised cultural history of Paris

American author and literary critic Edmund White  in Paris. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

American author and literary critic Edmund White in Paris. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Sat, Feb 1, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
Inside a Pearl - My Years in Paris


Edmund White


Guideline Price:

The title should make admirers of Edmund White smile. Paris may well be White’s pearl, but he in fact is the real pearl, moving around inside an aloof and unforgiving social hub.

Few living writers are as able as White to evoke life as a busy, complex, deeply silly and at times moving experience. He sees everything and reveals even more. This wonderfully eccentric, conversational and personalised cultural history contains the essence of Edmund White. Beneath the affable charm he is a profoundly clever and shrewd individual, candid, kindly, witty, vulnerable and as tough as old boots, the consummate witness and the world’s most entertaining supper guest.

His readers will be familiar with the basic story: White at 43, no longer young but always willing, set off to Paris and stayed there for 16 years before returning to the US, where he continues to teach at Princeton. He became famous on the publication of A Boy’s Own Story, in 1982, yet by then had already won the favour of Nabokov with his first novel, Forgetting Elena (1973). By the time The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) was published, White, a pioneering Aids campaigner, was acknowledged as a gay writer firmly placed within mainstream literary fiction.

It was an important recognition. The third of his autobiographical novels, The Farewell Symphony (1997), a powerful lamentation, showed exactly how good a writer he is. Who else could have made 500 pages of gay sex riveting? Only White. Other fine novels followed, including The Married Man (2000), possibly his best book, and, most recently, Jack Holmes and His Friend (2012). In between there was a superb biography of Jean Genet.

White is a serious and gifted novelist and essayist. He enjoys taking people by surprise and plays the pudgy nice guy. In Paris he was obviously the pudgy nice American, ever willing to suffer humiliation in the pursuit of fleeting sexual love. Two things are certain: his literary facility and his ability for friendship.

This is a book about language barriers and human interaction on all levels, as well as the way in which life and death intervene. Inside a Pearl further confirms that White appears to have known everyone and that, should he be settling scores, the job is done effectively and with all-saving humour. He rarely sounds peevish, even when complaining about the low esteem writers endure in the United States, “a country of great writers and no good readers”, whereas, according to him, France had few good writers but a standing army of great readers.

Rat in a maze”
He also makes clear that the French are competitive

. A Parisian dinner party sounds as nerve-racking as a college exam, particularly for the non-native speaker: “When I spoke French I felt I was a rat in a maze, guided by a single point of light in the right direction but constantly going down blind alleys . . .”

He had decided to stay a while in Paris after the success of A Boy’s Own Story. But it was nothing to do with writing: “I’m the kind of guy who’s always wanted to be elsewhere.” He had also met a fascinating older woman, Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, a self-educated original who moved in arty circles. They first met in New York in 1975, and White recalls having thought: “She seemed more interested in me than I merited, and I wondered if she’d mistaken me for someone more important.”

They would become very good friends – and remain close even after her husband, the Babar heir, left her for an American writer and went to live in the US. It is through de Brunhoff that White comes to know so much about the French and becomes increasingly aware of exactly how American he is. She is as much the presiding presence of the book as is White; she was certainly a soul mate. The narrative also compares Britain and France, or rather literary London and Paris, and White’s experiences of both. It is personal yet it is also bolder, more keen-edged reportage than might be expected.

Many of the leading writers of White’s time make an appearance, and White always grasps the irony: “I got to meet many American or Canadian writers in Paris I’d never encountered in New York. Foremost among them was Raymond Carver, whose granitic integrity as a man reflected the way I read his books – which had seemed mannered and faux-naive until I knew him.”

White was often called upon to introduce visiting US writers. He recalls “publicly presenting” Peter Taylor to Carver. White then mentions being invited by Carver to join him and Richard Ford, along with Thomas McGuane, on a salmon-fishing expedition in Oregon. “I was flattered but said I didn’t know what to wear.” While in Paris White was also to meet Mavis Gallant, “one of the few English-language writers who dared to write about French people interacting with other French people”.

Not every writer is at the receiving end of White’s warmth and goodwill, yet his portrait of Martin Amis, a friend, is as touching as it is accurate. “Martin was compelling with his smoker-drinker’s chuckle, boyish curiosity and disabused world-weariness – a fascinating combination. He seemed remote, as if entirely self-sufficient, a bit like a friendly emissary from another planet.”

White remembers that after he suffered his first stroke, Amis and his wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, were his first visitors, complete with home-cooked meals.

Although it may seem this is merely a relaxed, readable and admittedly gossipy account of a period of White’s life, it shows how closely he watches, how well he listens, and it is equally easy to understand why he is such a good novelist – this is relevant, as White’s strongly autobiographical fiction is almost exclusively character-driven.

That point leads to one of the most poignant sequences, his account of his relationship with Hubert Sorin, the real-life person who appears as Julien in The Married Man. “This is confusing,” he begins as a strange prelude to what follows, a simple, factual report of a love that began unexpectedly and ended dramatically in the desert. At its close White, never a sentimentalist, reflects on the lies his lover had spun. Yet his love for Hubert is real: “Even though I am an atheist, for a long time I lit candles in every church I visited.”

Entertaining and wry, White is worldly-wise and wise. This book is a far more appealing account than My Lives: A Memoir (2006), the only one of his books that has disappointed me. Reading it yet again reiterates the singular flair he brings to even the briefest aside. He is very quick and is blessed with good comic timing and delivery, as when noting of the white shirt Hubert was wearing in an old photograph that it was “the sort Rodolfo might wear in Act 1 of La Bohème”. Edmund White misses very little about either himself or others.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent