I bought Edmund White’s Inside a Pearl almost as a reflex action. I was at Sydney’s gay bookstore, The Bookshop Darlinghurst, and like to try to make purchases there to support them. It was on sale. It’s about Paris. I was going on a long trip where I’d have more time for reading. And it’s Edmund White.
But most of the way through the book, I thought: why do I do things based on what I used to do (i.e. I’ve been buying and reading his books for almost three decades)? Doesn’t it show a lack of growth, or even imagination?
These are the things that I liked about the book:
White illuminates different aspects of Paris and French culture in a way that is witty, intelligent and engaging, and in doing so, illuminates American culture, and even parts of NYC, where I’m reading the book.
He often does this by repeating something that he’s learned from someone else, but he attributes it, and that’s a skill in itself. I enjoyed sharing with my husband some of his observations of the French that we’d picked up.
In the meantime, White can often summarise a person, or a situation, with a few sharp words, in a way that I find engaging. A glass-eyed virgin hovers above their guest bed in Provence: ‘We had to put underwear over her head if we wanted to sleep or have sex’. Lauren Bacall is simply a ‘loud, opinionated harridan’ to which he tries to reconcile with his remembrance of her ‘iconic slender body and huge eyes’.
Similarly, he can sketch out character studies in a few paragraphs, and what characters they are! His gossip and observations, rapportage of conflict and jealousy: this is all that Jonathan Galassi’s boring ‘Muse’ wasn’t. The details were witty and true, rather than trite and possibly about someone who we should know, but might not.
But while I was interested in the book to begin with, particularly how his friends, for example, his adored M.C., the first wife of the creator of Babar, represented a particular type of Frenchwoman, the book descended into a clutter of names and celebrities, all of the famous and infamous people White has met and socialised with.
I have a complicated relationship to Edmund White’s writing. I adored the first two books of his gay trilogy so much that they served as inspiration for my own writing. His candidness, his yearning, his storytelling: all of these represented something exciting about my identity as a gay man. And I simply loved his words, long, crafted sentences that didn’t lose their way. It was strange to read right at the end of the book that my observation was right that his style has changed over the years. His current writing is pretty sharp and succinct, which he admits was a consequence of living in two languages and an impatience, as the French have, with ‘long sentences and sinuous syntax’ (though on the other hand, French formal correspondence is so long-winded and courtly compared to English used in the business world).
When living in Brussels, a friend of mine, a journalist John, had also read his earlier book on Paris, Le Flaneur, and we loved his gossipy tales and imagined stalking him in Paris to crash a dinner party, and enjoy the pleasure and intellect with which he engaged his acquaintances.
Yet in the same period, we started a book club and I chose his book of essays: Skinned Alive. My pals David and John just weren’t very impressed; it was not a problem with the writing itself. They just didn’t really like him as a person and what he was saying. I had to admit that it wasn’t a strong work.
Years later, in Sydney, I asked him a question after his reading about the nature of fame. I was perhaps prompted by something he’d said. In front of a sold-out audience at the Sydney Theatre as part of the busy Sydney Writer’s Festival, he remarked ruefully that a famous gay writer is not really famous at all. I think I had him sign a book afterwards, and I gave him a copy of one of my own. Kindly, he emailed me, though I think that evidence is lost in an IT disaster from years ago. He didn’t comment at all about the writing, but simply asked was it really so hard to be an Asian man on the gay scene? This from someone who has lamented so often about how he’s worried about how his ageing and weight gain makes him less desirable, and seems keenly aware of differences in social power and the way homosexuality marks out difference.
These two issues – a desire for fame, and a sort of tone-deafness to issues of power and privilege – kept coming up for me during reading this book.
The endless parade of names seems to be a fascination not only with intellect and literature but with wealth and power. After a while, it was boring. He references endlessly whether people have given him a good review or not for various books (and proudly notes that he’s friends with people who gave him bad reviews).
But perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh. He does seem to be kind to people in his social circle, and introduces his huge cast with admiration, as handsome, or erudite, charming, of fierce intellect, well-dressed or faithful in friendship. But it is a whirligig of social activity and connections: only those who love this themselves will connect with it.
He can criticise friends and acquaintances with simple phrases, too drunk, or crazy or hopeless or lacking in self-confidence, but he stands back at a strange distance, without judgement when talking about certain lovers and issues: French writers who defended pedophilia; a masochist lover who beat up gay men when not having gay sex. He admits being out of touch when criticised about his selection of white authors for a gay short fiction anthology, but considers this is an example of how politically correct America is, not a reason for him to think about diversity and race.
His own relationships of power seem remarkably free of analysis. He’s happy to hire sex workers or buy things for lovers. It’s alluded that a number of lovers were attracted to his wealth and fame. But he doesn’t offer the same observations of himself that he makes of so many other people.
It’s a strange world that he inhabited in Paris: wealthy and famous gay men, and their toy boys and lovers, how each party discards each other for better options (though to be fair, he also describes a share of strange straight relationships). Emotional connection, something called ‘love’ doesn’t seem to figure: ‘in the battle of love the vanquished is whoever gets dumped first’. His longest description of a relationship, with Hubert, reveals little about any shared affection but in the end much of how unpleasant Hubert was. Perhaps his deafest statement was ‘how often straight guys must be accused of rape’ because of being stoned or drunk and assuming other person wants the same thing as you.
The biggest theme in the book, I think, and probably in life, is an obstinate resentment about not being more famous. He laments often about not being recognised in America as writers are lauded in other parts of the world: ‘the writer’s loss of prestige and the public’s neglect’. It comes up over and again, and has obviously been a lifelong issue: not to be satisfied with the fame and success he has, but to want more. He is obviously disappointed that Princess Di’s death consumes the media… and ruins coverage and interviews for his book ‘The Farewell Symphony’.
I started writing notes for this review before I actually finished the book so was surprised at how prescient I was: he ends the book with more lament, of not being considered a ‘good American writer’ in France, of whether he was known by peers, by the elite or by the general public.
In the end, I don’t think this book added much to his considerable oeuvre. Was it a contractual obligation? Or simply a habit: to write. It covers some of the same ground as Le Flaneur, and touches on parts of his life already fictionalised. One could propose that an interesting theme is someone who is caught between two cultures, and how that experience provides insight on both cultures. But what comes through and than dominates that possible narrative is a curmudgeonly dissatisfaction with one’s lot, no matter where one is living. His last comment, that he came to discover he was American when he first moved to Europe, could have aspects of revelation or gratefulness, but after the complaint before it carries an element that is sour and unpleasant.