A memoir that engages on a number of levels, as a pivotal literary figure recounts his productive Parisian years.
When White (Jack Holmes and His Friend, 2012, etc.) began his 16-year Parisian residence in 1983, he was flush from the success of both his breakthrough novel, A Boy’s Own Story (1982), and a Guggenheim fellowship, and he was well on his way to establishing himself as the pre-eminent gay American writer of the era. “A Boy’s Own Story was presented to the world as a novel rather than as a memoir, but not out of a sense of discretion or modesty,” he writes. “It was just that back then only people who were already famous wrote their memoirs.” He continued to publish autobiographical novels but extended his literary reach to encompass biography and memoir (this is his third). The anecdotes and observations of the writer as social butterfly sustain plenty of interest, whether he’s overhearing Tina Turner tell Julian Barnes how much she loves his novels or describing being in the “historic, if tedious, company” of heiress and art patron Peggy Guggenheim. Some revelations are considerably more shocking, such as the story about the French actor and American writer who had sex “in an oven at Dachau while they were both tripping.” However, the broader cultural context elevates the memoir above gossip, as he writes of the onslaught of AIDS, then considered an American curiosity from which one could find refuge in Europe, and of the different attitudes and temperaments of the French, British and Americans. He ruminates on growing older and corpulent in a culture that prizes fitness and youth and of losing so many lovers and others to the scourge of AIDS. He also writes of his development as a literary stylist, one who “became simpler and more direct because of living in two languages.”
Some of White’s observations on rape, feminism and promiscuity continue to shock, but the writer refuses to sentimentalize or pull punches, even (or especially) when the subject is himself.