Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris by Edmund White

Writers writing in Paris – Genet, Proust and Rimbaud – are who attracted me to Inside a Pearl and while touched upon they appear infrequently within the pages of the latest memoir by Edmund White. An American writer, White arrived in Paris in 1983 at 43, where he lived for 15 years, penned the definitive Jean Genet biography and wrote about the lives of Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud.

White writes a little about his work, his Vogue writing assignments, about hiring assistants and meeting friends, associates or descendants of these writers, but mostly Inside a Pearl reads like a glossy celebrity magazine that left me wondering how he ever found the time to write.

Luminous characters appear out of nowhere, star in an anecdote or two and are gone again. Susan Sontag, Nigella Lawson, Julian Barnes, Lauren Bacall, Salman Rushdie, Stephen Fry, Catherine Deneuve, Michel Foucault, Yves Saint Laurent, Martin Amis, Paloma and Claude Picasso, Christian Lacroix, and the King and Queen of Sweden are just some of this cast of, seemingly, thousands.

There is a name-dropping aspect to the writing that at times left me wanting a little more depth, but it is the 1980s and the writing is perhaps reflective of the excesses of the time. White’s thousands of anonymous and named gay lovers also grace the pages here, not without devastation as AIDS takes hold and many are diagnosed HIV positive.

At the heart of this memoir is White’s friendship with Marie-Claude, an older French woman who is his guide to Paris, French language and etiquette. White’s observations and discoveries offer a mixture of cultural generalities and astute and wry reflections, while he deftly weaves some dazzling sentences together in this recollection of a remarkable life.

Deborah Crabtree is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.