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

BY GARTH GREENWELL

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.


7,000 Gay Couples Married in France in 2013

Approximately 7,000 gay couples married in France in 2013, France's Insee statistics agency reported on Tuesday, France 24 reports:

2_franceThree out of every five gay marriages involved male couples, it said.

The average age at which gay men got married was 50, while it was 43 for women. The corresponding average age for heterosexual couples was 37 and 34.

The average age difference in same-sex marriages was eight years in male couples and 5.5 years in female couple, against 4.3 years in mixed marriages, Insee reported.

The first gay marriage in France was held on May 29 in the southern city of Montpellier, which has a gay-friendly reputation.

Same-sex marriage still hasn't saved the institution of marriage there overall: "After a steady decline since 2005, the number of marriages increased slightly to 246,000 in 2012 but dropped again in 2013 to 238,000."


French President Joins Boycott of Sochi Olympics

Francois Hollande

First it was Germany's President Joachim Gauck, then EU Commissioner Viviane Reding; now France's President François Hollande joins the growing list of major foreign officials that are boycotting the Sochi Olympics in protest of Putin's anti-gay laws. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe 1 radio:

There are no plans to attend. Top French officials have no plans to be there.

It will be interesting to see what dominos will fall and which leaders will be the next to denounce Russia by way of boycott. For the part of the U.S., there are no present plans for the Obamas to attend which stands in contrast to the Summer Games in London when they announced plans four months in advance. However, a lack of an official statement does not equate an explicit boycott, so we will have to wait and see if our own President does the right thing.


French Court Overrules Restrictions on Gay Binational Couples, Says Franco-Moroccan Couple Can Marry

A French court on Tuesday ruled against the nation's ban on binational marriages involving 11 countries, AFP reports:

MoroccoFrance legalised same-sex marriage in May after months of intense and sometimes violent protests, and the couple -- Dominique and Mohammed -- immediately got to work planning their official union for September in the town of Jacob-Bellecombette in the Alps.

But just two days before the wedding, prosecutors in the nearby city of Chambery ruled it could not go ahead.

They cited a government circular stating that nationals from 11 countries, including Morocco (inset), Poland and Laos, were not allowed to marry people of the same sex in France.

All 11 ban gay marriage and had signed agreements with France whereby a citizens in a binational couple must obey his or her own nation's marriage law.

A Chambery court ruled against that agreement this week:

That court pointed to a clause in the agreement with Morocco that exempts France from having to comply with Morocco's national marriage laws if they are "obviously incompatible with public order." An appeal lodged by prosecutors was rejected on Tuesday, a decision that could create a precedent and allow gay citizens of the 11 countries concerned to tie the knot in France.


France Approves First Gay Adoption

FrOn May 18 this year, France became the 14th country to legalize same-sex marriage. At the heart of France's marriage debate was the issue of gay adoption as the legislation in question legalized not only gay marriage but also gay adoption. After the bill was signed into law by French President Francois Hollande, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Paris to protest marriage equality and the prospect of gay couples being allowed to adopt. Though it has been five months since marriage equality came to France, this week saw the country's first adoption by same-sex spouses. Time reports:

A couple being identified in local media reports as Caroline and Pascale A. were married in June, and on Thursday received approval for one wife’s two biological children, Laure and Lise, to be adopted by the other wife, Le Monde reports. Both children are reportedly the result of artificial insemination by an unknown donor or donors.

The announcement was celebrated by the Association of Gay and Lesbian Parents and Future Parents, which said that from now on, children may hear in school hallways, “Two moms or two dads, it’s possible!”

As previously reported, though same-sex French couples may be able to adopt domestically, they may not be able to adopt Russian children because of Russia's dissatisfaction with France's gay marriage law.


Same-Sex Couples Will Have Equal Access to Fertility Coverage Under New California Law

Flag_of_California.svg

This Tuesday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that would allow unmarried and same-sex couples to access insurance coverage for the same fertility treatments that married, different-sex couples are provided, the AP reported:

The legislation, AB460, clarifies the non-discrimination provision of an existing state law that requires health plans to offer coverage for fertility treatments, except for in vitro fertilization.

Despite the existing law, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said many same-sex couples have been denied the coverage. In praising Brown's signature on his bill, Ammiano said reproductive medicine should be for the benefit of everyone.

"To restrict fertility coverage solely to heterosexual married couples violates California's non-discrimination laws," he said in a statement. "I wrote this bill to correct that."

The new law will take effect in January, and contains language prohibiting insurance plans that offer fertility coverage from discriminating on any grounds, including "domestic partner status, gender, gender expression, gender identity, genetic information, marital status ... sex or sexual orientation."

Fertility issues for same-sex couples can be a hot-button issue, politically: when the French legislature approved a bill legalizing marriage equality in the country, fertility rights were left out of the debate.


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