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Edmund White's Paris Life
on February 13, 2014
Edmund White is in luck. According to him-- and he now is fluent in the language he could not speak when he moved to Paris in 1983 in part to get away from the AIDS crisis in New York City-- there is no word in French for name-dropping. Names drop on practically every page in his latest work of gossipy nonfiction INSIDE A PEARL: MY YEARS IN PARIS. (Is it name-dropping I ask if you are as well-known as some of the people whose names you scatter in your narrative.) Mr. White either is friends with, knows or at least has met dozens of the famous or near-famous: Yves Saint Laurent, Lauren Bacall, Catherine Deneuve, the writers Peter Taylor, Salman Rushdie, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Julian Barnes, Raymond Carver, Ian McEwan, Louise Erdrich, Bruce Chatwin, Martin Amis, Stephen Fry, Alan Hollinghurst, John Hawkes et al. The list seems endless.
Mr. White says in the beginning of this memoir that he "discovered" France through Marie-Claude de Brunhoff whom he met at a party in New York in 1975. Over the years they became good friends and she is the one person with her white cigarette holder and flowing skirts that shows up again and again while other characters come and go, among them his many sex partners and lovers. He figures that by the early 1980's he had slept with 3,000 men and says later in the book that "I had lots of sex in Paris. Like everyone." And there apparently is no detail of his sex life too private to write about. But there is so much more here as Mr. White discusses French culture, literature, art, architecture, cuisine, the differences he sees between Americans and the French (for example, we always want to know, upon meeting someone for the first time at a party that we arrived at on time, where he is from and what does he do , questions that the always-late Frenchman would never ask and does not like to answer).
Anyone familiar with Mr. White's considerable body of work knows that he is a master of the English language. Examples, always apt and sometimes beautiful, abound: When an American complains about Paris, he says, "'I like it. To me it seems so calm after New York. As if I'd already died and gone to heaven. It's like living inside a pearl.'" And "the rains never let up, but they were gentle mists, really, as if the landscape were sprayed with an old fashioned gold-mesh atomizer attached to a cut-glass perfume flask the color of amethyst. As if we were living inside a pearl." A woman friend of his he describes as having "lovely, fair features, as cleanly drawn as those on a freshly minted dime." And Mr. White tells us that the British writer "Adam [Mars-Jones] had provided his very high-grade seed to a lesbian who'd selected him to fertilize her."
Just when I had decided that I could not read any further in this densely-written book with names of people and places bombarding me, White, who tested positive for HIV in 1985 and has lost countless friends to AIDS, writes about the death of his dear friend Marie-Claude from cancer in a paragraph that moved me tremendously: "I was dry-eyed. My mother had died; John Purcell had died; my best friend, David Kalstone, had died; perhaps a hundred other friends, French and American, had died. James Lord had died, and even for him I was inconsolable. Numb. I was alive in order to--well, to teach, to trick, to write, to memorialize, to be a faithful scribe, to record the loss of my dead." That passage alone would make INSIDE A PEARL a book not to be missed.