Edmund White Revisited

Edmund White’s recently published third volume of autobiography, Inside a Pearl (Bloomsbury), which describes his fifteen years in Paris from 1983 to 1998, has been receiving some wonderful reviews.

Jay Parini’s review in the New York Times gets straight to the point: ‘From the outset, there’s never a shred of embarrassment about White’s sexuality: he isn’t just out, he’s up and away, a dirigible crossing the horizon…’ Yet such frankness does not diminish the writer’s skill. The paper’s critic ends his review with a poetic allusion of his own: ‘The title of White’s memoir, “Inside a Pearl,” refers not only to Paris, with its mists and mysteries. This pearl is somehow a kind of snow globe as well, a transparent sphere that encloses a miniature world. White shakes this luminous object. Snow shimmers everywhere. And then the snow settles.’ Neel Mukherjee’s review in the Independent is equally entrancing: ‘… very few autobiographies come close to encapsulating that vitality and offering it to the reader as a gift. This book is one such. You want to hold on to him, will him to live more, live longer, and write about more years.’

Born in Cincinnati in 1940, Edmund White graduated from the University of Michigan, before working for Time-Life Books mainly writing picture captions from 1962 till 1970.  He became executive director of the New York Institute for the Humanities, and taught creative writing at Columbia University from 1981 till 1983.

Since publishing his first novel Forgetting Elena in 1973, he has written twelve novels and three biographies: on Jean Genet (1993) for which he won a National Book Critics Circle Award; Marcel Proust (1998); and, most recently, a study of the French decadent poet, Arthur Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel (2008).

White has been influential as a literary and cultural critic, particularly on same-sex love, and has published a further six volumes of non-fiction, and written three plays. He was made Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton in 1998, a post he still has tenure over.

I travelled to France to interview the American writer while he was living in Paris in 1989. For the faint-hearted there are elements in the interview that some might find too explicit and macabre to stomach; but Edmund’s sexuality is so intense and varied that anything goes. However, his elegance of phrase and eloquence more than compensate – as this interview demonstrates.

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