The renowned novelist (The Married Man, 2000, etc.) offers an intensely personal portrait of one of the world’s great metropolises.
A big city, White quotes “a reckless friend” as saying, is “a place where there are blacks, tall buildings and you can stay up all night.” Paris fills the bill—and besides, the author adds on his own account, there you can buy heroin, “hear preposterous theories that are closely held and furiously argued,” and see some of the world’s most satisfying architecture. Above all else, White observes, Paris is a walker’s city—not a “village” like Rome or a “backwater” like Zürich, but a city whose bounds can comfortably be traversed in a long evening’s stroll. Himself an accomplished flâneur (stroller) in a city full of them, White offers notes on the grammar of the Parisian street, which is markedly unlike that of a street in, say, New York: “Americans,” he writes, “consider the sidewalk an anonymous backstage space, whereas for the French it is the stage itself.” Passing along arrondissements and îles and boulevards, White takes a sidelong view at French culture, with its marked tolerance for African-Americans but disdain for Africans, especially Arabs, and its astounding history of anti-Semitism; its pretensions to greatness and its frequent attainment of the same; and its seeming invulnerability to shock at any of the flesh’s various gratifications. White, a pioneer of gay literature, spends portions of his book strolling through the homosexual demimonde of Paris, which is at once less self-conscious and more embattled than homosexual communities elsewhere. His book, however, should by no means be confined to the gay-lit shelves, for it provides sophisticated reflections on a city dear to so many travelers that has seen its day but retains its allure.
Even the most sophisticated readers will learn much from these erudite perambulations.