Inside a Pearl: My Years in Parisby Edmund White
When Edmund White moved to Paris in 1983, leaving New York City in the midst of the AIDS crisis, he 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
When Edmund White moved to Paris in 1983, leaving New York City in the midst of the AIDS crisis, he 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 to Michel Foucault. 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 book's 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 headily in love with the city and its culture: both intoxicated and intellectually stimulated. He became the definitive biographer of Jean Genet; he wrote lives of Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud; and he became a recipient of the French Order of Arts and Letters. Inside a Pearl recalls those fertile years for White. It's a memoir which gossips and ruminates, and offers a brilliant examination of a city and a culture eternally imbued with an aura of enchantment.
In this third memoir, acclaimed novelist, essayist, and biographer White (A Boy’s Own Story) reflects on his sexual conquests, his self-discoveries, and his observations about the differences between the French and Americans in the city of Proust, Genet, and Foucault. White arrives in Paris in the summer of 1983, takes up residence in the apartment of an N.Y.U. professor who sometimes also used it, and stays there for the next 15 years. In what becomes a tedious memoir, he chronicles his one-night stands (“What men like about anonymity is that it allows free rein to any fantasy whatsoever”) and his longer-term relationships (Hubert “loved me, and since I already thought I was impossibly old for the gay life, I felt grateful and happy,” he writes, adding, “Gratitude is my chief erotic emotion”). In flat prose, White recalls his acquaintances and friendships with Ned Rorem, Michel Foucault, and his longtime companion, Marie-Claude. He admits that during his sojourn in the City of Light, his “sex life had come down from the paradise of promiscuity it had been in the 1970s.” White does provide insightful glimpses of Paris in the late 20th century and relays his own ambivalence toward the city after all these years. (Feb.)
A memoir that engages on a number of levels, as a pivotal literary figure recounts his productive Parisian years. When White (Jack Holmes and His Friend, 2012, etc.) began his 16-year Parisian residence in 1983, he was flush from the success of both his breakthrough novel, A Boy's Own Story (1982), and a Guggenheim fellowship, and he was well on his way to establishing himself as the pre-eminent gay American writer of the era. "A Boy's Own Story was presented to the world as a novel rather than as a memoir, but not out of a sense of discretion or modesty," he writes. "It was just that back then only people who were already famous wrote their memoirs." He continued to publish autobiographical novels but extended his literary reach to encompass biography and memoir (this is his third). The anecdotes and observations of the writer as social butterfly sustain plenty of interest, whether he's overhearing Tina Turner tell Julian Barnes how much she loves his novels or describing being in the "historic, if tedious, company" of heiress and art patron Peggy Guggenheim. Some revelations are considerably more shocking, such as the story about the French actor and American writer who had sex "in an oven at Dachau while they were both tripping." However, the broader cultural context elevates the memoir above gossip, as he writes of the onslaught of AIDS, then considered an American curiosity from which one could find refuge in Europe, and of the different attitudes and temperaments of the French, British and Americans. He ruminates on growing older and corpulent in a culture that prizes fitness and youth and of losing so many lovers and others to the scourge of AIDS. He also writes of his development as a literary stylist, one who "became simpler and more direct because of living in two languages." Some of White's observations on rape, feminism and promiscuity continue to shock, but the writer refuses to sentimentalize or pull punches, even (or especially) when the subject is himself.
“[A] beautifully written memoir. . . Inside a Pearl refers not only to Paris, with its mists and mysteries. This pearl is somehow a kind of snow globe as well, a transparent sphere that encloses a miniature world. White shakes this luminous object. Snow shimmers everywhere. And then the snow settles.” New York Times Book Review
“Stealthily affecting . . . With a feather dipped in acid, White recounts his off-page encounters with a glittering 1980s beau monde . . . Characteristically vivid when it comes to eros White is just as unsparing when the pleasure-seeking gives way to the loss (including the death of his lover, Hubert, of AIDS), and to his own increasing sense of vulnerability and mortality.” The Washington Post
“This rumination on his beau monde cohorts finds the writer acclimating to a slightly more sober lifestyle, but the memories of high-profile artists, fashion designers, actors and socialites are loose-lipped, uproarious tales of the louche and famous.” T, the New York Times Style Magazine
“What is fascinating about Inside a Pearl [is] its game effort at self-examination and its commitment to warts-and-all sharing about sexual aging, social arrivism, and the brutal sadness caused by AIDS . . . His portrait of Marie-Claude de Brunhoff . . . is one of the most affecting depictions of the contours of friendship between a gay man and a straight woman in recent literature.” Bookforum
“A memoir that engages on a number of levels, as a pivotal literary figure recounts his production Parisian years.” Kirkus Reviews
“White is renowned for the purity of his style and for his frank depictions of sex, and he is in peak form here . . . He is wise in his portrayal of the French.” Booklist
“Edmund White is the preeminent gay man of letters of our time . . . Revelations come wrapped in revelations . . . The book is a joy ride from first to last.” Bay Area Reporter
“A glittering, delicious, tender, and funny memoir about his fifteen years in Paris.” Nashville Scene
As a major destination for artists and writers over the years, Paris never ceases to capture the imagination. White (Princeton Univ.; A Boy's Own Story; Genet: A Biography; Marcel Proust: A Life) follows in this vein, presenting the City of Light as a serene haven in sharp contrast to the bustling New York City, where he previously resided. In Paris, he managed to learn the French language as well as master the culture with the help of his friend Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, the one person constant in his peripatetic social life. Leaving New York in 1983 at the height of the AIDS epidemic, White recounts the sad stories of his many gay friends and lovers claimed by the disease. VERDICT This book succeeds as a gossipy and enlightening account of living as a gay man among the French intelligentsia, although it is marred by excessive celebrity name dropping. White's skillful writing rescues the book from being just another account of an American in Paris. Of particular interest is the penetrating look at how the French view themselves as the cultural elite of the world. Recommended for memoir enthusiasts and lovers of Paris. [See Prepub Alert, 8/5/13.]—Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
- Bloomsbury USA
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- 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Meet the Author
Edmund White is the author of two previous memoirs, My Lives and City Boy, and a previous book on Paris, The Flâneur. His many novels include the autobiographical A Boy's Own Story and, most recently, Jack Holmes & His Friend. He is also known as a literary biographer and essayist. White lives in New York and teaches at Princeton University.
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