In the blurb of Edmund White's Inside a Pearl John Irving calls him a "triathlete of prose" because he is a novelist, biographer and memoirist beyond compare. In fact, White, now easily one of America's grand old men of letters himself has several other strings to his bow. He has done the experimental novel, the coming-out novel, the travelogue, is an essayist, a literary critic, a journalist and has even written a sex manual. It would be a glaring oversight too to forget that he was a pioneer of the gay rights movement in the US. and founder of the New York Institute for the Humanities, a think-tank at New York University that counted among its members Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott. White has taught at Yale, Columbia, New York University, Johns Hopkins and is currently teaching writing at Princeton.
The best way of describing Inside a Pearl, his latest offering, is as a work of comparative cultural anthropology in which White recounts his sixteen years in Paris and compares and contrasts the French and American ways of living. White spouts jewels of observation: "In France, seduction is a form of politeness and means no more than any other courtesy," or that "it's a sign of Parisianisme to talk dirty." But as this is cultural observation which emanates from the anecdotal and White is a raconteur of extraordinary talent, among many other things, he does it with his usual style and brings wit and humour to his storytelling.
There is a formidable cast of characters that populate this book from the worlds of literature, art and culture. There are those White covered earlier in his book Arts and Letters in which he wrote of several high-profile figures he interviewed. You encounter some of the flânerie too which was what one of his earlier works was about: "I wandered idly, like a cloud, looking at the used books in the stalls along the Seine, the bouquinistes," and there is more than a little high society tittle-tattle.
Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Pina Bausch, Stephen Fry, Pierre Bergé, Amyn Agha Khan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Azzedine Alaïa, Paloma Picasso, Marina Warner and Michel Houellebecq all make appearances and a few old scores get settled along the way (Germaine Greer and Tom Paulin). White's partners and a string of casual lovers flit in and out of this engaging warts-and-all account of White's Parisian years. Of the many friends, the colourful Marie-Claude, the wife of Laurent de Brunhoff's son who brought out the Babar series in 1930, is the constant till she too succumbs to illness.
An Edmund White memoir would not be complete without his trademark sexual candour and if you have read White before you are unlikely to be shocked, for instance, by what he says when he remembers their first meeting to Bruce Chatwin - during which the two had sex - while sitting in a Paris restaurant: "I'd recall us that first time sniffing each other's genitals like dogs." Sometimes the candour is brutal: "Older people in Paris, a remarkably high percentage of them, keep on having sex, but they have to bring something valuable to the bed, failing the self-evident glamour of youth."
It is often a fast-speed retelling and is whipped along by the loss of friends who fall like dominoes, mostly to AIDS, that cruel harbinger of death but also to other maladies and to old age. But, it is AIDS which, like a beady vulture, patiently circles overhead, ever-ready to swoop down on its victims: White's lovers, friends and acquaintances. Even so, White avoids sentimentality and soldiers on despite his own HIV status.
White says that both Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino treasured lightness in writing and mentions "Le style blanc," a simple, transparent style which is the French ideal. It so happens that he is one of the most readable literary writers with the readability coming with great erudition. He claims that his style became simpler and more direct because of living in two languages.
The book, in several ways, is a love letter to Paris and through White's writing runs a strong sense of nostalgia for the city where he arrives when he cannot even string together a sentence in French but with his strong Francophile leanings he takes on the challenges of language and culture so that when he moves to New York after sixteen years he has a command over the language and feels more at home in Paris than the US. A blurb describes him as - possibly somewhat pejoratively - "the best French writer in English" but when he also gets called "one of the three or four most virtuosic living writers of sentences in the English language" in another he should have little to worry about.