Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris
By Edmund White. (Bloomsbury, 259 pages, $27.50.)
If Edmund White had used boldface type to mark the names he drops in “Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris,” the extra ink might have doubled the slender book’s weight. White’s jump-around-y sketchbook covers 15 years he lived in Paris, starting in 1983. In it, he is happy to name everyone at a dinner party and then comment on their parents, spouses, lovers, enemies, siblings, agents, psychiatrists and translators.
White was 43 and spoke little French when he went to Paris on a Guggenheim grant and with a contract to write for Vogue on cultural affairs. With plenty of the expected notes about his busy sex life, White also devotes much of his book to short profiles of writers, artists, friends and acquaintances.
Just one person, Marie-Claude (called MC) de Brunhoff, appears throughout “Pearl.” A quirky artist, critic, hostess and translator, MC becomes White’s close friend, and they dine together often and spend time at her ramshackle retreat at Île de Ré, a sort of Hamptons for Parisians.
White is unafraid to generalize, as in: “The French will not admit not knowing something.” “The French rarely descended to the indignity of an example. They couldn’t think with them, and we couldn’t think without them.” “The French are never at a loss for words. They never say ‘uh.’ ”
White wrote a full-scale biography of Jean Genet, as well as shorter biographies of Proust and Rimbaud. I had hoped to learn more in this book about his years of research into these French literary heavyweights, but he barely touches on that. There is much pleasure to be had in White’s discursive company. From heart-rending tales of a partner’s dying of AIDS in North Africa to hilarious accounts of celebrity interviews, his curiosity is matched by his keen observations, erudition, charm and good humor.
Claude Peck, Arts Editor