And life in the City of Light

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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