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Edmund White’s ‘Inside A Pearl: My Years In Paris’: Book Review


Reading Edmund White’s fascinating, vital new memoir, which covers the fifteen years he spent in France in the 1980s and 90s, feels a little like attending the world’s most fabulous cocktail party. The pages are filled with impossibly glamorous people doing impossibly glamorous things, from literary lights like Susan Sontag and Julian Barnes and Alan Hollinghurst, to celebrities of a different stratosphere, like Lauren Bacall and Tina Turner and Yves Saint Laurent.

Inside a PearlAt the center of it all is White, who for four decades has been, in both fiction and nonfiction, our preeminent chronicler of gay life. When the period covered by Inside a Pearl begins, in 1983, White has just published his classic novel A Boy’s Own Story, and he arrives in Paris armed with that success, as well as high school French and sixteen thousand dollars from a Guggenheim Fellowship.

He’s wonderful at describing the disorientation of those first months, and especially at conveying linguistic struggles that will be familiar to anyone who has lived abroad: “After I’d present my own carefully displayed sentence like a diamond necklace on black velvet, the other speaker, the French person, would throw his sentence at me like a handful of wet sand. It would sting so badly that I’d wince, and an instant later I would wonder what had just happened to me.”

White quickly finds his feet in Paris, working for Vogue, learning the language, and writing his books, among them a brilliant biography of the gay novelist Jean Genet. Nor were all of his pursuits literary: as in all of his work, White speaks with breathtaking candor in these pages about his sexual life, including innumerable tricks and a number of longer affairs. He can be deliriously indiscreet, as when he talks of first meeting the great British novelist and travel writer Bruce Chatwin, when the two of them quickly found themselves “sniffing each other’s genitals like dogs.”

Inside a Pearl has a loose, associative structure, and you may find yourself frustrated if you read it looking for a clear narrative organizing the book. Instead, there are many small narratives, wonderful anecdotes and asides and ruminations. White refers to himself at one point as an “archaeologist of gossip,” and the book might best be approached as a collection of particularly inspired gossip: sometimes a bit scandalous, almost always good-hearted, and thoroughly entertaining.

This isn’t to say that the book lacks pathos or weight. White weathers the most intense period of the AIDS crisis in Paris, and while he writes that he hoped to find there “an AIDS holiday, a recess from the emergencies of the disease,” he instead finds that “Death was my constant shadow.” One of the founders of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, as well as its first president, White received his own diagnosis in Europe, when he and his lover at the time got tested together. His lover was negative, White was positive; the night after learning his status, he was “in anguish and couldn’t sleep, not because I was afraid of dying but because I knew my wonderful adult romance…was doomed.”

The book’s most moving sequence tells the story of White’s relationship with Hubert Sorin, whom he fictionalized in his novels The Farewell Symphony and The Married Man. When Hubert becomes ill, White cares for him through an agonizing decline. Not least among the torments of White’s long vigil over Hubert’s dying is the fear that he might himself have infected his lover. (Doctors eventually reassure White that this wasn't the case.) Though only a few pages long, White’s account of his final trip with Hubert to Morocco, during which Hubert collapses and eventually dies in a clinic where the hostile nurses are amused by his “pitiful state,” is a devastating portrait of grief.

While White writes both movingly and amusingly of his lovers, his real genius is for friendship, and it’s the portrait of a great friend that spans the book and gives it its greatest sense of coherence. White first met Marie-Claude de Brunhoff in 1975, and it’s her friendship that he credits with his discovery of France. Witty, insecure, elegant, Marie-Claude—“MC,” as White calls her—is a recurring presence in the memoir, as White helps her survive her abandonment by her husband (Laurent de Brunhoff, who continued the Babar books begun by his father) and remains at her side as she battles, at first successfully, the cancer that on its return would cause her death in 2008.

Edmund_white_0MC is an artist—she makes Joseph Cornell-like boxes—but it’s her person and her life that White admires as her greatest creation. In the book’s first paragraph, he says that on their first meeting she “gleamed like the inside of a nautilus shell,” an image that echoes the memoir’s title. It also echoes an idea of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, whom White knew: at the end of his life, White writes, Foucault came to believe that “the basis of morality after the death of God might be the ancient Greek aspiration to leave your life as a beautiful, burnished artifact.”

It’s an appealing idea to anyone who has spent his life, as White has, in the service of art. Inside a Pearl is a beautiful, hugely endearing, often brilliant book, a worthy record of White’s attempt to be true to what he sees as the several purposes of his life: “to teach, to trick, to write, to memorialize, to be a faithful scribe, to record the loss of my dead.”

Previous reviews...
Randall Mann’s ‘Straight Razor’
Janette Jenkins’ ‘Firefly’
Gengoroh Tagame’s ‘The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame’
Jason K. Friedman’s ‘Fire Year’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. He is currently an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Author Edmund White Suffers Stroke

Legendary gay author Edmund White (A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty, The Farewell Symphony) suffered a stroke earlier this month according to a notice to friends on his Facebook page, dictated to his partner Michael Carroll. Carroll indicated that the information could be made public.

WhiteThe setback is apparently the second for the writer, the first having happened last Thanksgiving in Providence.

Of the more recent stroke, Carroll writes:

A word from Ed and me:

Forgive my neglect in reporting on Ed. Ed's condition is more serious than before but his improvement is remarkable on a daily basis. I'm busy but not as busy as the first time around since he's in an excellent facility getting great care and being forced through a great number of daily therapies. He can now raise his right arm fluidly and unhaltingly and his speech is more and more articulate. I'm grateful that it occurred in the hospital, though I do believe they dawdled a bit in getting him stroke-specific treatment. More on that later.

Ed says, "I'm already reviewing a book and thinking about completing my memoir. I'm 2/3 through and hope to finish it in November, even if I have to dictate to Michael Carroll."

xoMC & EW

Towleroad wishes Ed White the best in his recovery.

Edmund White writes of the Crisco-Slathered Gay 70's in City Boy


City Boy, Edmund White's new memoir of life in New York around the time of Stonewall gets a review in the NYT.

Writes White: "I was a living contradiction. I was still a self-hating gay man going to a straight psychotherapist with the intention of getting cured and getting married. There was no ‘gay pride’ back then — there was only gay fear and gay isolation and gay distrust and gay self-hatred."

From Dwight Garner's review:

Orgies; leather bars; tabs of LSD; sex on the balconies of gay dance halls, in the abandoned piers along the Hudson River and in the dunes on Fire Island; group sex with American Indians and Norwegian flight attendants from Minnesota — it’s all here in exacting and eye-popping detail. He captures the “odor of brew, harness, sweat and Crisco” that began to fill gay men’s nostrils in the mid-’70s.

Mr. White was a kind of sexual werewolf. As midnight approached, he says, “my hands began to sprout hair, and my teeth to sharpen.” He sleeps with so many well-known writers and artists that this crackling if lightweight memoir can read less like a prelude to “And the Band Played On,” Randy Shilts’s stately book about the early days of AIDS, than an all-boy update of “I’m With the Band,” Pamela Des Barres‘s trippy and picaresque rock groupie memoir.

He describes a quickie with the travel writer Bruce Chatwin here; a three-way with the poet John Ashbery there. The notches Mr. White claims on his bedpost are vast and crisscrossing, and he likes to run his fingers along them in wistful horndog memory.

Sounds like a page-turner.

Also of note: Marriage equality supporter and devoted fan John Irving supplies the book's cover blurb: "A wise and humane treatise on the delicate differences between love and friendship."

City Boy [amazon]

News: Connecticut, Milky Way, Cheeto, Edmund White, The Killers

 roadConnecticut Governor Jodi Rell signs marriage equality bill: "Rell this afternoon signed Senate Bill 899, which incorporates the findings of the Kerrigan case into Connecticut statutes. That ruling, handed down by the state Supreme Court in October, paved the way for same-sex marriage. Both the House and the Senate spent hours yesterday debating Senate Bill 899, which passed only after an amendment was added that provides an exemption to groups who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

Milkyway  roadThe giant dust cloud at the heart of the Milky Way tastes vaguely like raspberries, smells like rum, scientists think.

 roadGizmodo blogger eats world's largest Cheeto - WATCH.

 roadAlabama House passes resolution in support of Miss California: "The House approved the resolution Thursday by Republican Rep. Jay Love of Montgomery on a voice vote...Love said Prejean stuck to her convictions even if it meant losing the pageant."

 roadGays vs gays on Jamaica boycott: "J-FLAG Programs Manager Jason McFarlane took particular exception to the boycott of Red Stripe beer, saying the brewer has 'unequivocally distanced itself from the hostility and violence typical of Jamaican music towards members of the LGBT community.'"

 roadMomentum in Utah for same-sex marriage, or just optimism?

 roadJesus Luz and Madonna back together.

 roadThe new video from Green Day.

 roadActivists gather strength in Mumbai to pressure politicians to decriminalize homosexuality: "At a 'People's Panchayat' in the capital on resisting stigma and homophobia, the activists said political parties, which have mindset dating back to years, need to wake up to the existence of sexual minorities or face electoral boycott from the estimated four crore population."

Schwarz  roadModeling: Waifs out, muscles in.

 roadLesbian assaulted at Nairobi bar. Kenyan gays demand protection.

 roadAnti-gay forces storm parliament in Uganda.

 roadHow Lorenzo Martone proposed to Marc Jacobs.

 roadStonewall Library and Archive celebrates grand opening in Fort Lauderdale: "In decades past, when gay residents wanted to find books about their community they had to borrow from friends or from a closet where some were stored at a gay-friendly church. The new location is a sign of how mainstream the gay community has become in Broward: the gay library shares a building with a county library and ArtServe and is situated on the edge of a city park where children play ball and seniors gather for tennis lessons. Jack Rutland, library executive director, lauded the city and county for entering a partnership to make the library possible. 'Imagine me saying that 20 years ago,' Rutland said."

 roadJustin Timberlake and Jimmy Kimmel have a golf cuddle.

 roadThe Killers planning release of live DVD and cover album?

 roadJulia Allison blabs about a "screaming match" between Rosie O'Donnell and Kelli.

White  roadEdmund White on Amazon: "I don't think it was a glitch. It's shocking that someone in that organization has the power to [get rid of] gay books. All my own books were [also] affected. I wrote in my name [on Amazon] last week and A Boy's Own Story wasn't there! Only four of my 22 books were there. It was astonishing. Frankly, if one of the custodians of Western culture is a corporation like Amazon, perhaps they should be regulated like the financial world. We need regulation in the cultural world too so that they don't restrict anything, like Amazon did."

 roadCan D.C. clergy stop same-sex marriage vote?

 roadU R GAY: Hamline Univeristy in St. Paul, Minnesota sees anti-gay graffiti.

 roadPedro Almodovar developing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown into a TV series: "Fox TV Studios is developing the English-language hourlong project and has tapped Mimi Schmir to pen the pilot script. Almodovar and Schmir are exec producing...Almodovar will be very involved in "Women," which will be developed with an eye for the international market."

 roadPhotographer David LaChapelle lists Hollywood Hills home for $1.65 million.

John Irving Supports Marriage Equality in Letter to Edmund White


As I post this, the debate over same-sex marriage is underway in the Vermont House.

Via Rex Wockner comes this letter heterosexual author and Vermont resident John Irving sent to his friend, the gay author Edmund White. White told Wockner that Irving wanted it to be made public. You may remember an item I posted in January in which Irving expressed his admiration for White's writing.

Here's the letter:

White Dear Edmund:

It's interesting that, as you and I are comparing our calendars to see when we might get together in Vermont -- and while we are both engaged in overseeing the editing and copy-editing phase of our new books -- my fellow Vermonters are deciding the fate of a gay marriage bill, which I very much support, and which has been supported by the Vermont State Senate (by a wide margin).

Some years ago, I was an outspoken opponent of my fellow Democrat, Sen. Peter Shumlin -- then and now, the President of the Vermont Senate -- on an issue having nothing to do with gay marriage. (It was a tax issue, and a school issue, called Act 60, and the disagreement between Sen. Shumlin and myself was very public. It was unfortunate, too, because we were friends -- formerly neighbors in Putney --and the issue was very divisive.) Not so now, when Sen. Shumlin and I are allies on the gay marriage issue; Peter Shumlin's statements in support of gay marriage have been clear, fair, and admirable -- and I've told him so. Gay rights have long been the "new" -- as we both know, truly not so new -- civil rights. It is heartening to see that the Vermont Senate thinks so.

Continued, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "John Irving Supports Marriage Equality in Letter to Edmund White" »

News: Groundhog Day, Jared Polis, Ibex Clone, Edmund White

road.jpg Punxsatawney Phil sees shadow.

road.jpg Milk buzz at Berlinale. Variety: Milk gaining in Oscar race?

Metcalferoad.jpg Jesse Metcalfe flashes his headlights.

road.jpg Rick Astley writing movie musical: "New York Cowboy will tell the story of a small-town boy who moves to New York City in the 80s. It is not, in other words, an autobiography. My wife's now a movie producer so I read a lot of scripts and I'm really passionate about films," Astley said in a recent interview. 'One day I thought, 'Well, why don't I write one?' And it turned into a musical – but not for the stage.'"

road.jpg Remember Melinda Doolittle from American Idol: She's back.

road.jpg Jared Polis: Congress like going back to college. " New members have a lottery for our rooms (offices). We "rush" for our committee assignments and elect a class president (Martin Heinrich of New Mexico). We wander around aimlessly, clutching maps, trying to find our way around "campus." There are even intramural sports; I played baseball in high school and hope to join the congressional team. And just like college, newbies are often lumped together and collectively, even mockingly, referred to as 'The Freshmen.' Some of the upper classman are a bit snooty and don't talk to us lowly fish, but others are friendly and eager to help."

road.jpg Watch the first episode of RuPaul's drag Race before it debuts tonight.

road.jpg Obama abandoning "war on terror" catchphrase.

Jgfedoraroad.jpg Jake Gyllenhaal: why so serious?

road.jpg Head to head National Anthem: Whitney vs. Beyoncé vs. J Hud.

road.jpg Ted Haggard escort Mike Jones hawking acrylic Mike Jones.

road.jpg Madonna and Jesus, together again.

road.jpg Hate crimes bill introduced in Georgia House: "Rep. Pedro 'Pete' Marin (D-Duluth) had put forth the hate crimes bill, H.B. 111. It would offer sentence enhancement for hate crimes motivated by the victim's 'race, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or national origin.' The legislation would officially amend Georgia's previous hate crimes law, which was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2004 on the grounds that its definition of hate crimes as those motivated by "bias or prejudice" was unconstitutionally vague. Lawmakers had enacted the bill without naming specific categories out of concern that it would not pass if "sexual orientation" was included."

road.jpg Prop 8 backers admit they don't really believe their own arguments.

Nightshiftroad.jpg General Hospital: Night Shift head writer Sri Rao on gay storylines: "The other thing about bringing in new storylines, whether it be gay storylines, or stories about people of color, different ethnicities, unless it comes intrinsically from the writer, the writer living this, what that is, it's not going to work. The only way for gay storylines to really resonate is if gay writers are writing them. I know that is controversial and all the straight writers out there will be like 'you think I can't write a love story because I'm not gay'. I'm not saying that at all, but for the storyline to have heart, someone on the writing team who is gay, or has a very strong personal connection with that, needs to take the lead on writing the heart of that story."

Ibex_2road.jpg Extinct Ibex successfully cloned: "Sadly, the newborn ibex kid died shortly after birth due to physical defects in its lungs. Other cloned animals, including sheep, have been born with similar lung defects. But the breakthrough has raised hopes that it will be possible to save endangered and newly extinct species by resurrecting them from frozen tissue."

road.jpg Male model fix: Philip Fusco.

road.jpg Mexican archbishop bans HIV-positive men from the priesthood: "They undergo tests including HIV, so that someone who is sick can't get in through the cracks. We pay attention to this, we are not asleep, but sometimes things get past us, but if you are sick we do not accept you"

road.jpg DesegreGAYtion initiative launched.

road.jpg NYT on Edmund White's Gore Vidal - Timothy McVeigh drama: "Critical and audience reactions have been encouraging, which is an improvement over the response to his first two plays, written decades ago and largely ignored. With 'Terre Haute' Mr. White is gaining traction as a legitimate dramatist. 'It made me wince a little because I thought it sounded a bit literary sometimes,” he said immediately after the first Off Broadway performance. “But there were certain moments I thought could only be visual.'"

road.jpg Tough guy competition includes run through flames in Borat thong?


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