I knew about Edmund White as a writer long before I read his books. I knew that he was a gay icon and had written many books, fiction and nonfiction. I knew that he was especially known for his coming of age novel, A Boy's Own Story, written in 1982, around the time that I came out. I knew that he had lived in Paris for a time and had written a biography of Jean Genet, the controversial French poet, playwright and novelist who was born in 1910.
When I heard about White's latest book, Inside a Pearl, My Years in Paris (2014, Bloomsbury), I decided that it was time to read Edmund White. As a lesbian writer, even as one who has known many interesting people, I have very little in common with White. When I started reading Inside a Pearl -- which is replete with namedropping -- complete with a description of one of Elton John's parties, this became clear to me. But for whatever reasons I have long been interested in Paris thanks to Gertrude Stein and the Left Bank Sapphic crowd -- I kept reading. And what I found was an Edmund White I could relate to -- one who could lay his life on the page.
It was when I read about White's experiences as a caretaker of friends and lovers with HIV and being HIV positive himself -- along with the ups and down of his friendships with both men and women -- that I began to relate to him. His vulnerabilities made him human. He ruminates about his decision to live in Paris:
"I asked myself why I was here. Sure, I'd won a Guggenheim and a small but regular contract with Vogue to write once a month of cultural life. Right now I was writing a piece about why Americans like Proust so much. Back in America I'd worked around clock heading the New York Institute for the Humanities and teaching writing at Columbia and New York University. I never seemed to have time for my own writing. When I was president of Gay Men's Health Crisis, the biggest and oldest AIDS organization in the world, I hadn't liked myself in the role of leader; I was power mad and tyrannical... And secretly I'd wanted the party to go on and thought that moving the Europe would give me a new lease on promiscuity. Paris was meant to be an AIDS holiday. After all, I was of the Stonewall generation, equating sexual freedom with freedom itself. But by 1984 many gay guys I knew were dying in Paris as well -- there was no escaping the disease."
White goes on to write about his life in Paris about the friendships that he forged, many through his writing projects, about his lovers -- his "great love" was "from Zurich, the manager of a small chain of Swiss cinemas, whom I met in Venice" -- and his familiarity with French customs. "The French seldom drank after the wine was cleared away with the meal -- wine is a good, not a conversation enabler to be poured hours after the dinner."
He also writes about the European tradition of older gay men calling their younger lovers, their "nephew." He writes about an interaction between two gay men when one says to the other, "Do you know my nephew?" and the other replies, "Yes, he was my nephew last year."
He writes about taking care of his former lover turned friend John Purcell who was in the advanced stages of AIDS. White tells us that he told John he would take him anywhere he wanted:
"India? France? He chose Disney World in Orlando. I thought it might be a hoot, but I found it boring and tacky. At Epcot, we went to some horrid replica of the Eiffel Tower when we'd lived in the real Paris for years."
When White lived in Paris, he took many trips to England. He recounts the conversation at one London party. "Pat (who was notorious is London literary circles for her affair with Jeanette Winterson), looked around and said, "What's annoying about Paris is that every woman looks like a lesbian but none is." White goes on to write, "Pat was one of my favorite people."
In his sardonic style, White introduces us to the cast of characters that he has met and interacted with on the road of life. Not surprisingly, many, such as Susan Sontag, did not like being written about in his previous works and he writes about that also. It is true that Edmund White has been in the company of many well-known people. But Inside a Pearl left me with was a deeper knowing of Edmund White, the gay icon, the writer, the human being.
You can learn more about Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters here.