Saturday, August 16, 2014

Inside a Pearl by Edmund White

Inside a Pearl is preeminent gay author Edmund White's gossipy memoir of his years as a writer in Paris. He moved there in 1983, when he was 43, and ended up staying for about seven years. White rambles down many conversational pathways; anecdotes about famous people and his commentary about art, culture, sex, and the differences between European and American society kept me fascinated.

I flagged over 50 passages. The difficulty now is to just set down a taste of them here. In the following example, White gives some insight into a writer's choice between autobiographical fiction versus memoir.

   "When French friends read in translation A Boy's Own Story, bizarrely what struck them most was how little supervision I'd had as a teenager. I'd never thought about that. Both the British and the French praised me for my honesty and courage in relating my sexual 'secrets' in that book. A fellow American would never have singled out those qualities, since we Americans all like to bray our secrets to complete strangers on a plane or at the next table.
   To be sure, 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. It was just that back then only people who were already famous wrote their memoirs. The victor of Iwo Jima had the right to sign a memoir, but not a battered housewife. The man who invented the rubber band could give us his success story, but not a child who'd been locked in the basement for a decade. All this would change by the end of the 1980s, when suddenly youngsters would ask me with a hint of superiority why I hadn't dared to call my book an autobiography."

Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, two decades senior to White, was a close friend and helped him to integrate into French society. She was the wife of Laurent de Brunhoff, son of the creator of the Babar stories. MC crafted fantasy tableaus in diorama boxes, work that I imagine to be like a blended combination of the two women artists in Claire Messud's novel, The Woman Upstairs.

White worked hard to become fluent in French. The following passage was one of many that had me adding books to my TBR.

   "The best description of what it's like to speculate about what other people are saying in a language you're trying to learn comes from Ben Lerner's hilarious recent novel Leaving the Atocha Station (in which the narrator moved to Madrid): 'Then she might have described swimming in the lake as a child, or said that lakes reminded her of being a child, or asked me if I'd enjoyed swimming as a child, or said that what she'd said about the moon was childish." Neophytes in a new language live from one hypothesis to another."

In New York, White had been president of Gay Men's Health Crisis, the biggest and oldest AIDS organization in the world.

   "Paris was meant to be an AIDS holiday. After all, I was of the Stonewall generation, equating sexual freedom with freedom itself. But by 1984 many gay guys I knew were dying in Paris as well -- there was no escaping the disease. Michel Foucault, for one, had welcomed me warmly during a brief visit in 1981, but he and Gilles Barbedette, a mutual friend and one of my first translators, had both laughed when I'd told them about this mysterious new disease that was killing gay men and blacks and addicts. 'Oh no,' they said, 'you're so gullible. A disease that only kills gays and blacks and drug addicts? Why not child molesters, too? That's too perfect.'"

After Foucault and Barbedette died of AIDS, White helped start up the French AIDS organization AIDES:

   "But I only went to a few meetings. Everything in France was different and beyond my competence. Whereas we in America could only think of having a disco benefit to raise money for research and treatment and prevention, in France AIDES had the cooperation of Mitterrand's minister of health, Edith Cresson. We brought our very sense of marginality and pessimism to the disease, whereas the French made everyone recognize it was a national disaster."

When we are in Paris, my sweetie and I stay at a B&B run by an elderly couple, Christian and Cynthia de Monbrison.
Christian de Monbrison, our B&B host in Paris 
Christian has very strong feelings about art and nearly became incensed when he heard we planned to see the big Miro exhibit at the Pompidou. ("That is not art!")

 When White told James Lord he was writing an article on Cy Twombly, "James looked livid and half levered himself out of his chair.
   'You what? But, my dear, he's a fraud! Are you going to treat seriously those wretched daubs he's managed to fob off on the public?'
   I told him that a Twombly recently went for a million dollars and James said wearily, 'He gave me one, but I put it out in the trash.'"

White encountered so many interesting people.

   "I was skeptical about [Christian Lacroix's] reputation as a heterosexual (at last, a couturier who loved women -- as if the others didn't), and I was curious to meet him. As it turned out he was a soft-spoken art historian born in Arles who'd married his wife, Francoise, in 1974. In the walled garden of their villa they were attended by two young brothers from Champagne who were kept in the nude."

And speaking of champagne:

   "And for some reason the French didn't think of champagne as a 'real drink.' Friends who knew I was a reformed alcoholic still offered it to me. 'What? Not even a little glass of champagne?' The French, otherwise, were more polite than Americans about not pushing alcohol, maybe thinking I was on a 'cure' for my liver -- a common occasional privation for the highly disciplined French."

   "Slowly I was learning that Paris had invented le luxe. Europeans, unlike Americans, were not content to hang valuable paintings over store-bought furniture or leave the interior of a closet unfinished: few Americans would spend forty thousand dollars on the detailing of a closet, which no one would ever see and within a decade would be condemned as demode and replaced."

One of White's boyfriends was an interior designer. He calls him "Brice" and says he's currently alive and well in Paris with a career in furniture-making. "Beside his flower-petal couches were side tables of glass posed on metal daisies." This gave me a little shock of recognition because I might have seen some of those pieces in a shop in Paris.
Furniture spotted in a Paris shop.

 "My little Brice was an antic soul, so funny and cute. He liked to give theme parties. When he repainted the toilet he gave a soiree chiottes (a 'crapper evening') where we ate chocolate pudding and used toilet paper for napkins."

About another of White's boyfriends: "No matter how wifely his fantasies, every man is brought up to be the first violin."

   "Older gay men called their companions their 'nephews.' One time I was with Bernard when he ran into a tante (queen) who said, 'Do you know my nephew?'
   'Yes,' Bernard replied, 'he was my nephew last year.'"

Stories from the inside of literary prize judging panels always intrigue me:

   "When I was a Booker judge the year of London Fields, I tried to get this masterpiece of Martin's [Amis] on the short list because I was sure it was the one recently published novel that people would be talking about fifty years later. The two women on the jury, while admitting the book's superiority, threatened to resign if the novel was nominated because of its supposedly politically incorrect view of women. David Lodge, our chairman, caved. I tried to no avail to argue that the violently misused heroine was an allegory for Mother Earth, who was being ravaged -- and that it was an ecological parable."

   "Certainly my style became simpler and more direct because of living in two languages. As a reader I became more and more impatient with empty locutions and action-free descriptions, not to mention nuanced interior monologues. French -- with the notable exceptions of Proust and Saint-Simon -- doesn't tolerate long sentences and sinuous syntax. Le style blanc (the white, or transparent style), which is the French ideal, sounds a bit like translated Hemingway minus the hypnotic repetitions, which Hemingway picked up from Gertrude Stein."

   "MC and I met Ed Hemingway, the writer's grandson, who resembled the grand old man except that he was without a beard and was twenty-one. In Paris he was arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour but was let off when the gendarmes looked at his passport and saw his historic last name. They saluted him and let him go. Only in France... just as Cocteau had argued at Genet's trial for theft that Genet was a modern-day Rimbaud, and you didn't put Rimbaud in jail."
Sacre Coeur in Paris

"Paris was full of things an older person likes -- books, food, museums. Years later when an American complained of Paris I said, 'I like it. To me it seems so calm after New York, as if I'd already died and gone to heaven. It's like living inside a pearl.'"

I guess that's why I like Paris too. And I like Edmund White's memoir because he talks about books, food and museums, in addition to a whole bunch of rather odd people. Inside a Pearl makes me feel like I've been given the opportunity to listen to him during a leisurely afternoon in his living room.

No comments: