It’s hard not to feel mildly depressed while reading this gossipy, celebrity-packed and immensely entertaining memoir of Paris in the 1980s and ’90s. You may have made partner at Covington & Burling; you might have sold your start-up for half a billion dollars; you could even have won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. But isn’t your life pretty dull and lackluster, really, just long hours at the job, a drink at night, maybe an hour or two of television on the weekends? There’s nothing glamorous to it at all, nothing remotely resembling life “inside a pearl.” You work, pay the bills, send the kids to college, grow old.
While Edmund White worries in this memoir about aging — a serious matter for a sexually active gay man — the truth is he’s been a golden boy from the get-go. His first novel, “Forgetting Elena,” was praised by Nabokov. In the freewheeling ’70s he co-authored “The Joy of Gay Sex” and then produced a corresponding travelogue of his own impressive erotic adventures, “States of Desire.” In his hot youth, he lived in Manhattan, had sex with, by his own estimate, thousands of men and was mentored by poet Richard Howard and critic Susan Sontag. The latter, he claims, subsequently engineered a Guggenheim for him, which allowed him to move to Paris in 1983, where he lived on the chic
During this time, as “Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris” tells us, his friend Marie-Claude de Brunhoff — married to the author of the later Babar children’s books — introduced him to the city’s intellectual and international set. He ate at La Tour d’Argent, Le Grand V
Partway through these reminiscences, White confesses what any reader already knows — that he may seem “gushy” on the outside but that inside he is entirely “cold and calculating.” A self-described “snob,” as well as a gossip and name-dropper, he very nearly makes even Truman Capote look like a recluse. Coupled with “City Boy,” his New York memoir, “Inside a Pearl” deserves a place next to Rupert Hart-Davis’s “Hugh Walpole” and Ned Rorem’s early diaries as a portrait of the artist as a talented young gay man on the make.
A rich lover, White tells us, “invited me once to Gstaad, but since I don’t ski and was in the throes of writing my best short story, ‘An Oracle,’ I shut myself away in the chalet and didn’t even attend Liz Taylor’s party.” The key words here — Gstaad, best story, chalet, Liz Taylor — aren’t likely to appear in the same sentence in your memoirs or mine. White travels to the Cannes film festival, to the Berlin film festival, to North Africa, to Egypt and makes “hundreds of visits to London.” There he pals around with the writers Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Marina Warner and Alan Hollinghurst, as you knew he would. Back in France, he interviews Yves Saint Laurent and Catherine Deneuve; tells us about visiting Milan Kundera and being chummy with Italo Calvino and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Naturally, he knew pretty-boy travel writer Bruce Chatwin: The photographer Robert Mapplethorpe “first sent him to me in New York and we’d had sex immediately, standing by the front door, half undressed.” On holiday, White vacations near Philippe Sollers and Julia Kristeva, France’s most famous intellectual couple of the time, and in Paris the daughter of painter Frank Stella types up his manuscripts. All this “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” stuff never ceases to fascinate, yet after a while, so much luxury, so much privilege, so much of the best of everything does start to grate. Readers are likely to alternate between envy for White’s Cinderella existence — Wouldn’t it be dreamy to go to the ball oneself? — and barely suppressed Puritan outrage: Come the revolution, all this will go!
In structure, “Inside a Pearl” is as digressive and relentless as cocktail chatter; it sometimes sounds as if it were cobbled together from old articles supplemented by tape-recorded reminiscences. There’s a fair amount of repetition and even the occasional grotesque sentence, like this one about Kundera: “He wanted someone to translate two of his political essays from French (which he’d recently begun writing in, too) into English.” Too, too much.
But, to be fair, life hasn’t been all truffles and champagne for Edmund White. In New York, he fell into alcoholism, eventually giving up drinking in 1982. He grew obese in his 60s, then lost weight so that now, at 74, he looks pleasantly portly. Far worse than either of these, though, he has had to endure the deaths of many friends and lovers from AIDS. White himself was diagnosed with the disease in the 1980s, but turned out to be a very “slow progressor.” It was his lover Hubert who died; their years together, recounted in these pages, were later transmuted into one of White’s best novels, “The Married Man.” More recently, he’s bounced back from some minor strokes. I saw him not long ago on YouTube talking smartly about Colette and her astonishing vocabulary.
He should know: White claims in these memoirs that he himself learned French so well that “soon my vocabulary was better than that of most of my French friends.” Whatever the truth of that, this visiting American certainly observes his new country closely and offers shrewd mini-discourses on various aspects of French culture: the ideal of correctness, the taste for scandalous conversation, the acceptance of love affairs as a restorative and prop to family life, the hunger to be intellectually and fashionably au courant.
Besides being rich in wicked anecdotes, “Inside a Pearl” is often lightly comic, sometimes even self-mocking. At one point, our hero, who has taken to buying designer suits and Church’s shoes, returns to New York and a macho friend smells the fragrance White has dabbed on: “Cologne! What’s happened to you? Paris has ruined you. You’ve gone completely ‘Cage aux Folles.’ ” White recalls that Marie-Claude de Brunhoff always ended phone conversations with the words “Avanti, popolo!” — “Onward, people!” the opening words of a communist anthem. In Venice, Peggy Guggenheim would sometimes sell tickets to her own museum, and “if tourists asked her if Mrs. Guggenheim was still alive, she’d assure them she wasn’t.”
In his last pages, White betrays his age by going on and on about his lack of fame in the United States, grousing that if anyone nowadays knows his name “he was usually a middle-aged gay.” That’s not quite true, but close enough. Still, what can you do? Even the most golden lads and girls all must, as chimney sweepers, come to dust.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
INSIDE A PEARL
My Years in Paris
By Edmund White
Bloomsbury. 261 pp. $27.50