Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris – E. White

IAP(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Edmund White moved to Paris in 1983, wanting to leave New York City in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Michel Foucault told him that he didn’t believe there was a disease that targeted gays – but he later died of it.

White was forty-three years old, couldn’t speak French, and only knew two people in the entire city. But in middle age, he discovered the new anxieties and pleasures of mastering a new culture. When he left fifteen years later to take a teaching position in the U.S., he was fluent enough to broadcast on French radio and TV, and in his work as a journalist, he’d made the acquaintance of everyone from Yves Saint Laurent to Catherine Deneuve, though he admits he didn’t recognise rock stars or models at a party of Elton John’s 50th birthday. Notwithstanding, he does a lot of name dropping.

He’d also developed a close friendship with an older woman, Marie-Claude, through which he’d come to understand French life and culture in a deeper way.

The title evokes the Parisian landscape in the eternal mists and the half-light, the serenity of the city compared to the New York White had known (and vividly recalled in City Boy). White fell in love with the city and its culture: both intoxicated and intellectually stimulated. He became the definitive biographer of Jean Genet, wrote lives of Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud and he received the French Order of Arts and Letters.

This book recounts gossip and enchantment. There is some stuff about paedophiles and I’m surprised there hasn’t been any legal action.

Proust gets mentioned a lot because White wrote a biography of him. There are moments, such as a sketch of the ancient Rothschilds “tottering forth for yet another dinner party – beautifully dressed, slender, on time, impeccable”, when the writing appears to be slipping into a parody of Proust.

Sex laces its way through the book, until the advent of Aids. He tells the story of his lovers who fall to the disease, two of them weirdly yoked together with him as their health rapidly declines. Though he – a “slow progressor” – remains healthy, they die. “Even though I’m an atheist, for a long time I lit candles in every church I visited.”

At the centre of the book is his friendship with the literary critic Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, who embodies much of what it is about the French that White loves, staying with her on the Île de Ré the epitome of French rural life. But like many of the relationships described in the book, it comes and goes rather fitfully. Promising character studies often just stop, pushed aside by someone else whose story is, for the present, more interesting.

I can’t see why he thinks that chicken cooked in peanut butter is some sort of culinary faux pas.

He gets things wrong: .When my born-again cousin Dorothy Jean came to Paris, I took her to a museum entirely devoted to the work of Gustave Moreau and pointed out a painting of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes. “It’s a biblical scene,” I said optimistically.

“That’s not in my Bible,” she scoffed.

And it isn’t in the protestant canon.

But there are many wonderful moments: the distinguished, discreetly gay homme de lettres Bernard Minoret meets une tante (an old queen, as White tells us), who asks “Do you know my nephew?” “Yes,” replies Minoret, “he was my nephew last year.” He begins to embrace the quintessentially French idea of the milieu, an attachment to the group rather than to individuals, and he knows which side he comes down on in the choice between “healthy but bland America, deep but diseased France”. On the other hand, perhaps, as he says, “I’m the kind of guy who’s always wanted to be elsewhere.”

We’ve learned to be wary of those who ‘teach writing’ and justifiably so:

  1. 97, ” . . . he’d sold another Hubert Robert painting so that for another six months he could invite his likable band of layabouts out to dinner for another month.” (What was it, six months or one month?)
    p. 112, “We were bitten alive by bedbugs . . . .” (Were you dead to start with? Were the bedbugs? What does this mean?)
    p. 112, ” . . . and Petra astonished us all.” (Not another word about Petra or how it astonished them.)
    p. 149, ” . . . like many oily-skinned Mediterraneans he had some interesting facial scars and the odd boil on his back.” (Yes, so many have that odd boil.)

 IAP 2Quotations:

“You are making no sense, Edmund. No one can understand anything you are saying.”

In the center of the village stood a church that had a bumpy, tapering steeple, half black and half white for maximum contrast and visibility for those at sea. Around the church were the post office, a newsstand, a cafe, and a snack bar. Down by the harbor were a couple of good restaurants and a shop selling expensive nautical wear and equipment (such as a brass circular compass and cut-glass liqueur bottles set in a mahogany caddy that would always right itself when the boat was severely listing to one side).

“For me a current lover has always been like whatever current book I’m writing – an obsessive project orienting all my thoughts.”

“Many French people were difficult conversationalists. Asking them not only where they were originally from but what they did in life was considered rude—I suppose because many of them did nothing (many Parisians are rentiers, people who live off the rents of their properties) or because they weren’t proud of their jobs, which simultaneously supported and interfered with their intellectual and artistic passions.”

I heard an aging French male author, Patrick Grainville, argue that all experience could be reduced to the symbol of the octopus (le pieuvre)­which in his 2010 novel, Le Baiser du pieuvre, embraces a Japanese woman and brings her down to his watery realm. He spoke with such fervor about the sea creature that he seemed to have hypnotized himself into believing what he was saying. As one French critic asked, “Is the octopus a projection of the female sex or should we see in its tentacles a phallic allusion? Definitely, this animal spitting ink—wouldn’t that be a fine metaphor for the writer?”

One day we’d eaten so heartily that I told Marie-Louise I thought I would skip the dessert. We were the only customers. The queen of England was nowhere in sight. Marie-Louise leaned slightly in my direction and whispered, “Then would you possibly be willing to order the dessert with the chocolate leaves ?”

“Sure. Of course. But why ?”

“You could leave it for me. I’ve never tasted it.”

“You’ve worked here how many years?”

“Twenty-five. Madame never lets the servants taste the desserts.”

Another day Marie-Louise had obviously been weeping. She wasn’t her usual brisk, tidy self wearing her fake pearl necklace and with her hair up. Her eyes were smaller and her voice subdued, and I said, “Is anything wrong, Marie-Louise?”

“My brother died yesterday and he’s to be buried tomorrow in Brittany. I asked Madame for the day off. I could make it there and back in a day by train but she said no. ‘Mademoiselle, je ne peux pas vous epargner.’ [I can’t spare you.] It was the first time in twenty-five years I’d asked for a day off. I’d even found a young man in the village to fill in for me.”

This asked me if I’d been “careful” and of course I said yes, though just the night before I’d slept with a young Spaniard who’d worked my nipples so hard they were still aflame and I winced whenever they were touched. But at that time, in the early eighties, there was no test for AIDS and no one knew exactly what caused it. We suspected it was caused by sex, but how? It seemed too unfair to us that a single expo­sure could infect someone; in our guilt-ridden way we wanted the disease to be the punishment for a long life of vice.

But even by those standards I’d been what the French called vicieux (a compliment in the world of gay French small advertisements). I’d slept with some three thousand men, I figured, and big-city gay men of my generation asked, “Why so few?” My figures were based on the rate of three a week for twenty years, between the ages of twenty-two and forty-two in New York, but many of my coevals “turned” two or three “tricks” a night, using the whore’s slang of the period (a “trick” was a once-only encounter, a word I had to explain recently to gay grad students). Truth be told, I would often go to the sauna, where I’d meet a dozen men a night. But to This I pretended to be far more innocent. He was reassured and thought of me as a sort of responsible gay leader thanks to my work with Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

I wasn’t ready to change my ways. I was so used to undressing mentally almost every man I met (and often went on to do so literally) that promiscuity was my first response to the least sign of reciprocity. I loved sex, but I never experienced it in its “pure” state; to me, it was always blended with at least some shred of romantic fantasy.

Neil (Bartlett) also became one of England’s finest writers. He wrote a land­mark book, Who Was That Man?, about Oscar Wilde and fin de siecle gay London. His novels Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, Mr. Clive and Mr. Page, and Skin Lane all had their historical dimensions. He might have dedicated himself just to fiction, but he was also attracted to directing theater pieces of an extravagant, stylized, somewhat campy variety, such as Balzac’s Sarrasine, Racine’s Berenice and Neil’s own adaptation of Camille. A Vision of Love Revealed was based on Simeon Solomon’s 1871 prose poem, and Neil himself performed it in the nude in a warehouse. He did adaptations and translations of plays by Moliere and Racine and farces by Labiche, as well as the English-language premiere of Genet’s posthumous gangster play, Splendid’s, which I had told him about during my research for Genet.

Neil found a lover, James Gardiner, a collector of vintage postcards who produced a book of letters and photographs called A Class Apart that documented an Edwardian affair between an amateur gentleman photographer and his well-hung “butler” who was willing to indulge his employer’s taste for uniforms; the butler wrote touching, misspelled love letters to him when he went off to fight in the First World War. Neil and James bought a bijou residence in Brighton where they entertained me more than once.

When Neil got hepatitis, he had a liver transplant, but at first the new liver refused to kick in. Neil never succumbed to convalescence completely, and even when he seemed close to death kept busy and artistically active—until miraculously, at seemingly the last possible minute, the liver began to function. I’ve often thought of Neil’s courage in facing these travails during my own health scares and emergencies.

Once Neil, when he was still in his twenties, came to visit me in Paris. Because his plane was delayed (this was before the Eurostar Chunnel train running under the English Channel), I told him to take a taxi directly from the airport to MC’s. She had also invited to dinner Yannick Guillou, an elegant, uptight (or guinde, as the French say in reference to spats) Gallimard editor, who played the harpsichord for half an hour each morning before going to work, and who owned a castle in Normandy.

Neil arrived in a black leather biker jacket and jeans with the whole seat torn out and no underwear. Yannick was astonished by this vesti­mentary oddity but charmed by Neil’s Oxford accent, education, and exquisite manners. Neil’s personality was both outrageous and decorous.

Equally odd were the clothes of the gay English writer and critic Adam Mars-Jones, who wore striped military pants and an officer’s tunic. Because in France there was no youth culture, these costumes looked particularly strange to Parisians. But Adam also spoke beautiful French, was tall and slim, wonderfully polite and sortable (meaning you could take him anywhere). He met some of my ladies, such as Didi d’Anglejan, an American who’d married an aristocrat and gained a title. I’d told my ladies that Adam’s father was a judge and a lord—that worked wonders. Nor did it hurt that he’d attended Westminster and Cambridge.

IAP 3 Nigella Lawson has become such a symbol of glamour, the domestic goddess of television, that it feels presumptuous to claim friendship with her. When I met her, she worked as an editor for the Spectator. I was enough older than her and her friends that I played the role of an eccentric uncle. Nigella was very extravagant. I always stayed in Durrants Hotel behind the Wallace Collection off Marylebone High Street, and Nigella (who was named after her father, Nigel Lawson, Mrs. Thatcher’s chancellor of the exchequer) once filled my room at Durrants with a giant bouquet of blue nigellas, a flower sometimes called “love in a mist.”

Later she was the deputy literary editor of the Sunday Times. I remember writing a review for her comparing Joe Orton to Oscar Wilde, both of them living out their homosexuality in North Africa. Of course I recognized there were differences—Orton was working class and Wilde, I said, was upper class. Nigella called me in Paris and asked if I’d change upper class to upper middle class. I’d forgotten that these nuances meant so much to Brits.

Her mother, a famous beauty, divorced her father and married the philosopher A. J. Ayer, the popular author of Language, Truth and Logic. He had been married previously to a woman called Dee Wells, someone I met once at a dinner party given by Natasha Spender, shortly after Stephen Spender’s death. After the early death from cancer of Nigella’s mother, Ayer remarried Dee Wells.

Nigella has sold hundreds of thousands of cookbooks, which contain her airy, lighthearted remarks. She has always rejected the term “professional cook.” She’s had her share of tragedy. Her mother died in her forties, her sister, Thomasina, died in her thirties of breast cancer, and her husband, John Diamond, a journalist, died of throat cancer. I can remember eating with them in Nobu in New York. His meal had to be ground into a liquid he could ingest through his tracheotomy. Nigella said that given the amount of cancer in her family, she was virtually placing a curse on her two children. Once John, who was reduced to writing everything he wanted to say in conversation, heard a maddening voice chattering away on the radio—and he realized it was his own voice in a rebroadcast of an old program. Now he said he regretted the years of what he called wasting his words. Nigella once invited my partner Michael and me over for a lamb roast in her kitchen, where the star guests were Stephen Fry and Salman Rushdie. Before publishing his second novel, Midnight’s Children, Salman had worked in advertising at Ogilvy & Mather as a copywriter and he told us that his great triumph at the firm had been a slogan for a cream cake: “Naughty but Nice.”

Nigella was my date for the dinner, and her father had resigned from Thatcher’s Tory government that very day. Nigella had earlier created a scandal by revealing she voted Socialist.

Alan’s friend and former TLS colleague Alan Hollinghurst was another person who’d once negatively reviewed my work before we met, which didn’t keep me from reviewing his first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, in the Sunday Times, calling it the best gay book yet written by an Englishman.

When I finally met Alan, he struck me as someone rather dignified, but with a slyly frivolous side. Alan’s favorite writer was and is Ronald Firbank, a taste we share. Alan had written his Oxford thesis on Firbank.

Alan knows everything about architecture, one of his specialties at the TLS, and he’s one of the few people I know who thinks London is more beautiful than Paris—it certainly has more varied extant archi­tecture from more different periods. It’s true that what gives Paris its unity—the uniform look of Haussmann’s apartment buildings, the orientation of streets radiating out from monuments like the Arc de Triomphe, and the repetition of its street furniture and Wallace foun­tains—can make it dull to the historical connoisseur. As anyone who’s read his novels knows, Alan has a Proustian fascination with titles and stately homes, although, like Proust, he is also critical of snobbism. I envy him his flat in Hampstead; everything in it peaceful, beautiful, and neatly organized. Now the definition of the professional novelist (especially since he won the Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty), he’s arranged his life so that he has to do nothing but write his next perfectly phrased and carefully considered narrative—usually over the course of five or six years. Perhaps he’s the most consistently polished writer in the UK today. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t travel much.

Bruce Chatwin would come through Paris, suffering from a mysterious “wasting” syndrome, though he never named it. He said it was a rare disease you got either from eating whale meat or from being around Chinese peasants in Fukien. Bruce couldn’t bear to be afflicted with an ordinary disease that was killing everyone around him. He always wanted to be rare, exotic, unique. Robert Mapplethorpe had first sent him to me in New York and we’d had sex immediately, standing by the front door, half undressed. That was what people did in the late seventies in New York. I’d been impressed by Bruce’s odorless body, constant laughter, and jewel-bright eyes, but we never slept together again. Every time I saw Bruce after that, usually while we were dining in an expensive Paris restaurant, I’d recall us that first time sniffing each other’s genitals like dogs—and he’d be regaling the table with his latest anecdote, sounding out and working up a version of the novel he was working Black Hill and The Songlines, his Australian novel. Interestingly, or tellingly, the real-life stories he told me were much gayer in the original than those ending up in the book.

Bruce was a relentless raconteur; you felt that his audience didn’t matter as much to him as his need to polish and reshape the same story at a different table the following evening. He lived in London in a tiny flat on the top floor of an Eaton Square mansion. He was more concerned with the address than with the actual living space.

One evening he had what I took to be a peroxided rent boy with him, but later, I realized was Jasper Conran, the wildly successful cloth­ing designer, son of the famous designer Sir Terence Conran, and favorite of Princess Diana. Bruce and Jasper were lovers, it seemed, for a long time, though ultimately Bruce went back to his wife, who nursed him until he died. Since he was a connoisseur as much as he was a compulsive raconteur and writer, and since he had worked as an auctioneer at Christie’s, he had an almost pharaonic urge to pile up goods to be used in the afterlife; his wife would have to return the extravagant daily purchases.

John Purcell, when he was still my roommate, couldn’t bear Bruce’s monologues, which demanded too much respectful silence and close listening. John wanted to drink and be casually merry with an older man who would ask him questions about himself, and he hated Bruce’s long involved narratives about Australian aboriginals, which amounted to drafts of his next book. His art seemed to be entirely oral, a form of performance art. I assured John that Bruce kept crowned heads mesmerized with his soliloquies. John’s only reply was a spat-out “They can have him.”

Paulin took the novel to task for its “sexual boasts,” and Greer described a sexual scene I hadn’t written. A few years before, A. S. Byatt and Germaine Greer, also on TV, had condemned the erotic pursuits of the narrator of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Folding Star. And now Greer described a moment of “anal jackhammering” on an elevator in The Farewell Symphony that I’d never even imagined, much less rendered. More recently, Greer attacked my Rimbaud biography for its supposed advocacy of anal sex, which she for one was categorically opposed to.

She was worried about being unmasked as a fraud. When she failed to pick up on how blasphemous The Satanic Verses would be consid­ered, she tormented herself endlessly about this lapse in judgment, and yet I doubt if many or even any literary scouts like her around the globe had foreseen this horrible development. Certainly Salman himself hadn’t, but MC took the fatwa as a very public exposure of her incom­petence. I assured her that no one could blame her for not anticipating the evil whims of some flea-bitten cleric in Iran, but at the same I wondered whether or not she might have been more sensitive to cultural clashes if she’d come from a religious melting pot like America instead of the completely secularized France.

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