And life in the City of Light
that includes Claude Picasso, Peggy Guggenheim, Nigella Lawson (his date for the 1989 Booker Prize dinner), Michel Foucault, Louis Malle (over lunch, White suggests the topic for the director’s next and best-known film, Au revoir, les enfants), Kristin Scott Thomas, Alan Hollinghurst (“perhaps … the most consistently polished writer in the UK today”), Azzedine Alaia, and Bruce Chatwin (a one-time lover).
Part of the pleasure of Inside a Pearl comes from observing White’s attempts to comprehend the French and their temperament. They prove paradoxical in ways that only one who attempts to infiltrate their language can truly appreciate. “It was all beginning to sound like Flaubert’s dictionary of cliches,” he writes about his early days. (“Blondes are hotter. See brunettes. Brunettes are hotter. See blondes.”)
Of the debates over buildings from the era of Francois Mitterrand — the Louvre Pyramid, for example — he writes: “In France I quickly learned that everything is political, even an opinion of a building.” Still, time spent in Paris is, he believes, “like living inside a pearl”.
In a city where women dress up to take out the rubbish because they are on stage the moment they step outside, White’s closest friend is Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, then wife of the son of the creator of Babar. The pair play games of psychological and sexual intrigue — White’s Valmont to de Brunhoff’s Marquise de Merteuil — which becomes essential for his “geisha-like, easygoing nature” to exist alongside his “ability to find almost any man sexy”.
Through postcard Paris and into its lessfashionable arrondissements, we follow White’s adventures in the homosexual scene during the escalating AIDS crisis. White was co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York; in France, the HIV-positive writer helps to establish AIDES, a similar organisation.
This memoir is most enticing in its unguarded and unpretentious depictions of a nonnative attempting to negotiate the milieu of the French. He does so, always, with playful touch.
“The easiest social situation, I found, was talking to one person who was in love with you, someone who was studying your face for the slightest frown of confusion,” he writes. “The eyes, I figured out, always betray a failure to understand. If I didn’t want to flag my distress in a small dinner party or provoke a tedious explanation made merely for my benefit, I lowered my eyes like a Japanese bride.”
Inside a Pearl belongs on the shelf next to another captivating and whimsical memoir of Paris, this one by a neglected prose writer who, like White, records all he observes with the soul of a poet. Along with Departures, Paul Zweig’s under-appreciated, resplendent 1986 memoir of his own search for life and love in Paris, Inside a Pearl ranks among the best attempts by outsiders to capture the sensual pulse of the city.
These are celebrations, their authors indispensable guides who help us comprehend what it means to discover another culture and fall in love with a city and all the contradictions of its denizens. Kevin Rabalais is a novelist and critic. He was recent resident of the Australia Council for the Arts Keesing Studio in Paris.
Edmund White in 1997