Magazine article The Spectator

Adventures in Gay Paree

Magazine article The Spectator

Adventures in Gay Paree

Article excerpt

Inside a Pearl by Edmund White

Bloomsbury, £18.99, pp. 261,

ISBN 9781408820452

Spectator Bookshop, £14.99

In his preface to The Joy of Gay Sex (revised and expanded third edition), Edmund White praises the 'kinkier' aspects of homoerotic life. Practical advice is given on frottage, spanking, sixty-nining, cruising, blowjobs, fisting, rimming and three-ways. Of course, Proust-inspired poetic exaltations to homosexual love have long characterised White's fiction, from A Boy's Own Story to Hotel de Dream. Yet White is no mere popinjay in thrall to high-flown campery; his mind is drawn to some very dark places.

Between 1983 and 1999, as an ardent Francophile, White elected to live in Paris.

His chatty, salacious account of those years, Inside a Pearl, dilates knowledgeably on the gorgeousness of the ephebes to be found along the Seine; but the book is also a serious guide to the city's gastronomy, literature and social customs. If White has nothing much to say on French wines (he is a teetotaller and reformed alcoholic), he does know his restaurants.

In 1956, at his boarding school near Detroit, White had read the firebrand French poet Arthur Rimbaud after lights out. Miserably unhappy, he longed to run away to New York and succeed as a writer; Rimbaud's poetry, with its hymn to the world as an open highway, fired him to do so. Inevitably, with his drunken outcast legend, Rimbaud inspires hero-worship. I wrote a dreadful play about him while at Cambridge in the 1980s, with Tilda Swinton in the role of Rimbaud's mother, which was peevishly reviewed by Andrew Marr for the Scotsman ('This interpretation of the fine poet and darling of teenage depressives will do no good at all').

Here, White combines the scholarship of his biographies of Rimbaud, Proust and Jean Genet with personal memoir.

The result is an exquisitely written work which admirably captures the heady mix of the sensual, luxurious, snobbish and plain small-mindedness that is Paris today, and always was Paris. Tittle-tattle and scoresettling colour almost every page. Mary McCarthy in her Paris exile was 'always cross, as if permanently enduring a bad hangover'. Germaine Greer, irritatingly for White, attacked his Rimbaud biography for its supposed advocacy of anal sex, 'which she, for one, was categorically opposed to'. …

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