An Unsentimental Education

In his first purely autobiographical work, My Lives (2006), amid chapters titled “My Mother” and “My Friends” and “My Master,” Edmund White nestled “My Europe,” a bit overpromising in its scope since for practical purposes it was the story of the time he spent in France. White moved to Paris at age forty-three in the summer of 1983, a newly minted literary celebrity on the strength of his novel A Boy’s Own Story. By the time he returned permanently to the States fifteen years later, the sun had more or less set on Paris as the desired destination of young (or at least youthful) writers and artists who had just begun to savor success; by 1998, few seemed as eager to learn the language as White did when he set off on his adventure, and for a new generation of younger creative types, Berlin had ensconced itself as the European city that combined both inexpensiveness and cosmopolitanism. Dismaying as it may seem to many (not least to Parisians), by the time My Lives appeared, White’s France was already slipping away. With the publication now of his new memoir, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris, White’s France of the 1980s seems almost as much a relic as the New York of the late ’60s and ’70s, which he explored in his second memoir, City Boy (2009).

White got out of New York just when the “Fun City” years were coming to an end. Loose and edgy, dirty and dangerous—a fantastic cocktail, in other words, for a budding novelist and youngish gay man—his post-Stonewall Gotham was charged with libidinal energy that a rampant virus would suddenly threaten. It’s never entirely clear what White expected to find in Paris. He provides several different reasons for his uprooting himself, all of which partially explain but never make completely clear such a severe life change—there was, at the time, a European misconception of AIDS as an American disease, but this didn’t last long. He arrived with a Guggenheim and a gig with Vogue that helped pay the bills and brought him into contact with a Europe he never could have expected, despite all his charm, to woo; in tow was a boyfriend who couldn’t speak French and “thought of the language as an annoying habit contrived to irritate him.” By the time of his departure, he had survived the virus for a decade and reinvented himself as a man of letters, authoring a biography of Genet that is still the standard both in English and in French. It’s not a mean accomplishment for a figure who, after writing about Rome in the early 1970s, was chastised by his friend Richard Howard for treating one of the monuments of Western civilization as a “slightly kicky version of Scranton.”

In other words, the White of Inside a Pearl is no naïf, and while the book fails to expend much of its page count on either the permutations in gay identity that were so important to City Boy or White’s own intellectual development overseas, it charts in great detail the networks he finds himself a part of. Despite his claim that the one important cultural fact about Parisian intellectual trends is that they don’t last (“If I had one generalization about the French, I formulated it thirty years ago and still believe it despite its eugenicist sound: they evolve faster than any other people, and what was true of them a decade ago is no longer true”), his Paris still sounds resoundingly as if it had changed little since the Belle Époque. Cliques turn around powerful, usually dapper men surrounded salon-style by epigones who rise and fall through verbal wickedness and sex appeal, though more frequently the latter.

To a remarkable degree, intelligence and cultural prestige continue to circulate thanks to the ministrations of a few power brokers—some terrifying snobs, others charming and welcoming, like his great friend Marie-Claude, whose spirit warms large passages of the book. Much of the bildungsroman of City Boy was fueled by White’s sense that, when it came to brainpower and cultural knowledge, everyone would have to take a kind of final exam at the end. In France, a few highbrow and academic celebrities (Julia Kristeva, Alain Robbe-Grillet) put in cameos, but the mature White isn’t nearly as anxious about his intellectual ranking; he’s less eager to narrate, say, how his Genet biography came to be than where he met the people he had dinner with who knew the widow of Genet’s doctor, and how he was able to cadge a set of X-rays of the writer’s kidneys. (The exception is his amusing concern with his progress through the French language—beginning with a comically awful stab at an interview with Eric Rohmer—and his motley circle of early social companions chosen on the basis of how clearly, slowly, and precisely they spoke French. Apparently old women make good speaking partners for expats.)

Paris, 1983.

At any rate, this memoir is a story of social channels and charismatic coteries. The most significant figures organize whole chunks of chapters: long-term lovers, some of them familiar from White’s autobiographical novels; or the polymath aesthete Bernard Minoret, who never has the catalogue of aristocratic European lineages “far from his reach”; or the imperious and rich Giacometti biographer James Lord, an ambiguous subject for White, who seems to relish his bitchy touch at the same time that he is repelled by his alcoholism. But often more minor figures take up an inordinate amount of space. White seems to have met everyone in Paris (and a lot of people in London, Berlin, Venice, and elsewhere) and is as generous on the page to even passing acquaintances as he is famously generous in real life. This means that there are a Balzacian number of figures who pop in and out of Inside a Pearl, and they are often difficult to follow. White doesn’t help with the occasional clunkers of somewhat odd identificatory sobriquets. There is “a distinguished novelist, who’d won the Prix Goncourt for his Les États du désert and who titillated his many readers with his delicately erotic fiction”; or “the rich British Picasso collector”; or “the most intellectual of all French film directors”; or “one of France’s top poets.” Or there are simply the painfully synecdochal, e.g., “MC might have over some of her English-speaking friends, such as James Salter’s daughter, Nina, who was a book editor.” (The cringe factor of ID’ing the guests according to their connection to the more famous gets worse when thirteen pages later White “reintroduces” “James Salter’s expat daughter Nina.”) Or just the weirdly unhelpful string of modifiers meant to give color: “her shy, mannish, but beautiful daughter”; “a small, perfectly formed young man, and hairless.” It may sound desperately nitpicky (or is it cherry-picky?) to point out how much these kinds of flourishes dampen the prose in the book, but they occur so frequently in Inside a Pearl that they become impossible to overlook—and for a writer with the rare gift for zooming in on the one detail that floods an entire image, they add up to a boggy effect.

The strange editing persists throughout the book. Characters who are introduced at great length (but who nevertheless seem oddly tangential to White’s experience in the story) show up a few pages after they’ve left the stage with another little introduction. (Weren’t we just introduced to Diane Johnson a couple of pages back? Weren’t we just talking about Harry Mathews?) Did no one notice during the stages of the book’s production? Anecdotes often come to an end midpoint, with a kind of where-was-I digression. Or there are strange couplings of the specific, the vague, and the banal. In Berlin with his partner (nicknamed “This”), he writes, “Years later, after the Wall came down (on November 9, 1989), This and I ate at a trendy restaurant facing the splendors of the French Cathedral, the neoclassical Huguenot church on Berlin’s most beautiful square, the Gendarmenmarkt.”

All of this is irksome because White is a better writer than this, and the lapses subtract from what is fascinating about Inside a Pearl, particularly 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. White conveys a genuine enthusiasm to soak in as much European experience as he can, and his writing about friends sometimes achieves an intimacy that is lacking in other parts of the book. His portrait of Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, a Parisian artist and a reader for Knopf White had met in Manhattan in the 1970s, spans the length of the book, and Inside a Pearl reads as a sort of memorial valentine to her (she died in 2009). It’s one of the most affecting depictions of the contours of friendship between a gay man and a straight woman in recent literature, and the story stitches together a sometimes meandering tale.

City Boy, the memoir that preceded Inside a Pearl, also wore its editing lightly, but the chatty tone and sometimes difficult-to-track story line contributed to the intimate and casual pitch of which White at his best is a master. The previous work benefited as well from the social and developmental arc it followed—not long before Stonewall to not long after AIDS, not long before White finds his footing in the city to not long after he’s become a literary name to reckon with. Inside a Pearl lacks the power of that narrative span and lacks the earlier book’s fire, but it contains its own quiet pleasures. You don’t have to find a pearl inside every shell to relish the oysters.

Eric Banks, the former editor in chief of Bookforum, is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.