Monday, April 7, 2014

Notes on Edmund White and Paris

Edmund White

I want to write about queer issues more, but I am hesitant about becoming a confessional blogger. My own gay life might only be interesting if it were heavily fictionalized!

Queers have been in the news in the last few months because of the Winter Olympics and President Putin; idiocy in Nigeria, Uganda, Indiana, Arizona, and Kansas; wedding rights; and—finally—something useful from Attorney General Holder. Putin’s homophobia practically turned the Winter Olympics into the Gay Olympics. Google did a good turn and transformed its logo into a sympathetic rainbow. The Canadians made a funny and suggestive bobsled video. Even the word “bobsled” sounds slightly erotic.… Nigeria will be condemned in the court of world opinion. As will these ignorant national and state governments.

What is everybody so afraid of? The truth. Some forbidden pleasure found in a Boy Scout camp decades ago, a stirring during a wrestling match, or a burning buried deep. As so many friends joke, “Putin is so gay!” But it is a long road from a boarding school romp to suppressing one’s entire sexuality. I am drawn to the writers who write about their path on that continuum. I think that’s what Edmund White’s last novel, Jack Holmes & His Friend, was largely about.

Edmund White has just released a new memoir covering his years in Paris, entitled Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris. Let me say I love Edmund White. I have heard him read, and he seems like the perfect dinner guest. But I only really like about every other book. I love him for what he represents to us middle-aged gay guys. First, he gave us permission to be out, and second, he wrote freely about all kinds of ways of being gay. He’s an erudite man who can write about hustlers, shrinks, parents, and yes, celebrities. This new book feels a lot like dozens of dinner party anecdotes dictated to a secretary and polished up later. He can’t seem to decide if he wants to recount his years in Paris, his friendship with Marie-Claude Brunhoff, or the celebrities he met and supped with. In one of his best chapters, he describes staying in Marie-Claude’s summer house and shares the daily activities to explain what it’s like to summer in France. His friendship with Marie-Claude stands in contrast to the long list of more famous and more infamous interactions. Indeed, I even ordered a rare catalog of her exquisite collage boxes entitled Les Théâtres Immobiles. When he explores the challenges and modest victories of living in France among good friends, I found the book transporting. When the laundry list of celebrities starts falling off the page, I got a little bored.

Given how often White mentions Marcel Proust, I thought it was time to read the short biography that White published in 1999. That moved to the top of the pile on my desk at home.

Some of his earlier books are among my favorites. It was so liberating to read American books that were so openly gay. The cover of A Boy’s Own Story (later the subject of litigation, of course) made muscle T-shirts exciting throughout my 20s despite the fact that I didn’t have big muscles. I reread the book after several decades. It is, as White has said, “polished.” While it’s still sexy, I could savor it more now rather than rush through it the way one did through early or clandestine sex. Some of the passages are so beautiful, so seemingly simple, while others foretell the ending. Being gay doesn’t mean we don’t betray others or ourselves.

His earlier work States of Desire: Travels in Gay America profiles a friend of mine and moved all of us closer to coming out. Not long ago another friend of mine told me that giving him that early book was very helpful as he came out. (Yet another friend said he had an affair with White, but I daresay that wasn’t so unique an experience!)

In 1991, I attended a gay writing conference at the old (and now demolished) Jack Tar Hotel and saw Edmund White cruising me. (It was well over 20 years ago now!) After reading most of his books, I can tell you that’s like watching him take a breath. But we take flattery where we can!

The novels Caracole and Forgetting Elena were like long weird dreams. And the big biography of Genet was exhaustive and exhausting. His more traditional novels are sometimes hard to distinguish from his memoirs. His has mined his own life, and a rich one it has been.

A few days ago, I saw a friend who visits Paris every year, and she talked about making a new friend at a concert in Napa because they were both wearing the same dress from a tiny obscure shop in Paris. She asked me if she should read the book. Yes, if you love Paris, it will remind you of the time you’ve spent there. Even though my reaction to the book was mixed, it did help me decide that we should revisit Paris this summer and feel what he wrote about all over again.


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  1. I really like your blog!

    Good seeing you at the wedding this past weekend. -- John

  2. This is probably the best review of "Inside a Pearl" I've yet come across--though that might be because it's the one that most closely mirrors my own thoughts on it. :) Looking forward to reading through more of your blog now!