Monday, April 28, 2014

Hunt For The Pearl

In one of his other novels, Edmund White dawled on a description with his usual masterful languor and remarked how rendering that particular detail was unimportant, but it was simply his style, for he was only ever a writer of snapshots. And his snapshots have always been worth a thousand pictures. In his new autobiography Inside a Pearl, White, like a firing squad, pelts you with a barrage of balled up snapshots that keep coming until you simply crumple beneath their collective weight.

Exhaustively mentioning everyone he ever met or brushed up against during the years he spent in Paris, a reader would require an encyclopedia of 20th Century arts, celebrity and aristocracy (or by showing off his extraordinary memory, perhaps he just wrote it, glossary-free) to keep up with quick asides about Cocteau's lover and Marie-Helene de Rothschild when they went to the chic club, the one Margaux Hemingway used to pass out in, with Pablo Picasso's mother who, at that time, was married to the inventor of the polio vaccine.

It's all so senseless, including a one-sentence excuse to say the two words Catherine Deneuve (a name also regurgitated in PR materials for this book). If you want to know what Edmund White has to say about Catherine Deneuve, it's this: he interviewed her.

He employs his friendship with Marie-Claude (ex-wife of the man who wrote Babar the Elephant)  as a throughline, much like he did with "Maria" in his classic The Beautiful Room is Empty, but that sweet tenderness is lost in a sea of those superfluous snapshots so wantonly fired. He even seems to lose the plot, as it were, twice describing the attic where MC beavers away at her diorama boxes. For sure there is insight and information to be gleaned here, and his wry observations about French, English and American peculiarities are not just stunning but told with such assuredness that the reader has to accept them as fact.

Some highlights were the brilliant skewering of the Academie Francaise, or the frustrating way the English deplore snobbery to a fault. The unfortunate thing is, Edmund White comes off as a snob here, and his pearls are to be hunted for among all the pretentious name dropping, whereas in previous works they're tripped over constantly. I've come to love him as the humble outsider and all the while reading this one, I couldn't help but wonder if the old goat was still pathetically pining after that wannabe actor, T, who made him a slave in his far superior, elegiac 2006 autobiography, My Lives.

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