Edmund White has approached the business of autobiography at a tangent, eschewing the predictable straightforward chronological arrangement and opting instead for a different set of cohering principles.
The first volume in this project, the extraordinary and relentlessly truthful My Lives, was organised by both themes and other people in his life: ‘My Shrinks’, ‘My Mother’, ‘My Hustlers’, ‘My Blonds’ and so on; one’s own life is, crucially, the story of others’ lives too. The second book, City Boy, focused on his years in New York in the 1960s and the 1970s.
Inside A Pearl returns to his fifteen years in Paris, from 1983 to 1998. White has written about Paris before, most notably in The Flâneur and Our Paris, a book co-written with and illustrated by Hubert Sorin, one of his lovers who died of AIDS and who has a role in the latest memoir too. In fact, there are overlaps between these books and, taken together, they form a kind of scalloped arrangement of ornamental parts in an enticingly original piece of jewellery.
One quality that makes the book fascinating is White’s position in the French world, as an outsider who is on the inside. The most immediate point of estrangement is simple: White had no French when he moved to France. He picked up the language slowly, laboriously, but more terrifying was his inability to understand the French when they spoke. It is a pervasive anxiety throughout the book and yet, ten years into his time in Paris, he had written one of his immortal works, the definitive biography of Genet.
The insider view of an outsider yields up scintillating observations about the French and their culture, including some terrific pages on the differences between French and English humour, or the differences between French and American guests at a dinner party. There are throwaway generalisations about the French – such as how they don’t stoop to the indignity of an example when arguing a point – that can result only from deep and long immersion in the country.
The immersion produces an invaluable synchronic picture of French culture. On one hand there is the gossip value – he calls himself ‘an archaeologist of gossip’ – resulting from the sheer number of celebrities he came into contact with. Everyone is here: from Fassbinder to Kristin Scott Thomas, from Calvino to Valentino. On the other hand there are dispatches from the high-literary salons of Paris and his friendships with the giants of French literary culture. The intersections between these two worlds are not as infrequent or unnatural as one may assume.
There is much here of the eating-roast-lamb-with-Stephen-Fry-and-Rushdie-in-Nigella’s-kitchen variety, but there is also his long, tender, beautiful friendship with Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, a relationship that provides one of the load-bearing struts of this fissile book. The other metaphorical underpinning is provided by Proust: Proust is its authorial presence, its soul and spirit and animating breath.
There is at once something artfully canny and beguilingly innocent about Inside A Pearl. Its tone of conversational intimacy, as if White is sitting in your living room, unstoppably pouring out one anecdote after another, linked in a maze, brings to mind his description of the ideal therapist in My Lives as one ‘who developed his ideas by moving from anecdote to anecdote, like a long-armed ape brachiating from branch to branch’. Each life is invaluable to its possessor; very few autobiographies come close to encapsulating that vitality and offering it to the reader as a gift. This book is one such. You want to hold on to him, will him to live more, live longer, and write about more years.