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Living in a “transitional” city like Washington, DC—especially as a member of the gay community—you get used to having a certain subgroup of friends: the inevitable expatriates. Sometimes these individuals announce themselves openly—we all know people who are at any given time, according to them at least, anywhere from two weeks to six months away from moving to New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland (either one), Austin, or any of a host of innumerable more-attractive international destinations—while others just seem so constitutionally incompatible with their current surroundings that we know it’s only a matter of time before they take flight.
As for the rest of us, we get good at knowing what to say at going-away parties, and, if we’re lucky, get to vicariously lead the exciting and exotic lives of our dearly departed friends through occasional e-mails and status updates. There’s a similar kind of joy in reading Edmund White’s latest memoir, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (Bloomsbury), in which—you guessed it—he recounts in minute detail his many years spent living in France. It may be a cliché to say that great books take their readers on a journey, but in this case it’s also true: the most enjoyable part of reading this memoir is reaching the end and realizing how the seemingly mundane events described over the course the previous 260 pages have fundamentally transformed the author.
White admits he wasn’t sure why he decided to up and move to Paris in the first place: “Oddly enough, people often asked me if as a writer I went to Paris for inspiration. That never occurred to me… And yet in some vaguer and more exciting way Paris was part of my fantasies about my future, which I usually dreamed about while flying home to New York. I’m the kind of guy who’s always wanted to be elsewhere.”
Arriving at his new home, however, he quickly discovers that the reality includes a steep learning curve for a man who speaks no French and has only a handful of friends in the city. But this disadvantage is the perfect starting point for the book’s greatest transformation: the ensuing pages are packed with hyper-detailed descriptions of encounters with a seemingly endless series of real-life characters that teach him more and more about being Parisian and being himself, which at first read like gossip-heavy journal entries, but in reality have a cumulative effect upon on the author—so much so that, by the end of the tale, upon his return to America, White feels more out of place in his home country than he ever did in France.
The narrative is at its best when it sticks to details of one-on-one human interactions, but White admits that he can’t help making broad generalizations about the citizens of his two homes, and then comparing them—usually to America’s detriment. For those of us who read about our friends’ new lives elsewhere, there’s nothing more tedious—and self-doubt-inducing—than constant declarations of how much better the people are in someone’s new city, which, necessarily, implies the inferiority of those residing in the place we’re still living.
Any over-the-top Francophilia, however, is tempered by White’s own self-awareness: Early on in the memoir, he notes, “I’d read somewhere that tracing national character was a puerile pursuit, not one to be encouraged, but one that Americans are especially prone to.” Also noting that the French don’t like it when foreigners try to broadly characterize their culture (ahem), he wonders: “And as I write it, I’m wondering if this book will ever be published in France.”
Regardless of how much his French improved and how comfortable he became in Paris, there is one heartbreaking aspect of his old life that White could not leave behind: the AIDS epidemic. Leaving New York in 1983, the author admits: “I imagined that being in Europe constituted an AIDS holiday, a recess from the emergencies of the disease.” Unfortunately, he’s quickly disabused of this idea as he watches lovers, friends, and luminaries alike succumb to the illness.
In the end, however, this book is more than just a love letter to a city (the title comes from a declaration White once made to an American who complained about Paris: “I like it. To me it seems so calm after New York. As if I’d already died and gone to heaven. It’s like living inside a pearl.”), but to the people who made up his experiences there. Chief among these is Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, his best friend in Paris and a truly exceptional-sounding woman.
In the end, White seems to have gotten what he was seeking when made his move: “Did living in France all those years affect my writing? It gave me a lot to write about.” (This is basically the highest-brow way of saying, “Do it for the story!” you’re likely to find.) For the reader, it’s a worthwhile journey to take along with the author—and a kindly reassurance that you can make a memoir-worthy life in any city, as long as you’re willing to take a chance and connect with those around you.
Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris
By Edmund White
Hardcover, 9781608195824, 260 pp.