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From 1983 to 1998, the American writer Edmund White relocated to Paris. As a gay man, the move was in part an escape from the scourge of AIDS sweeping through the U.S. At the same time, White was seduced by the idea of French literature as well as Paris' architecture, society and popular culture.
In a newly-published volume of memoir, "Inside a Pearl - My Years in Paris" (Bloomsbury), White wittily and gracefully describes impressions, experiences and memories of a very important and active time in his life. He's the guest of honor Sunday at an author dinner in Mystic's Oyster Club, where he'll discuss "Inside a Pearl" and sign copies.
At the time he went to Paris, White, then 43, was a successful and critically acclaimed author. His novel "A Boy's Own Story," the first of a highly regarded trilogy about growing up gay in the American heartland, had been published to great acclaim - as well as a Guggenheim fellowship. As such, White had considerable cachet as he integrated into French literary and popular society. He didn't speak the language, though, and quickly concluded that fluency was the only way to properly experience Parisian life.
Over time, he became adept at French, which helped shape his immersion into the culture. He made the acquaintance of folks from Yves Saint Laurent and Catherine Deneuve to Michel Foucault and Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, the matriarch of the city's literary elite. He also continued to write, including much respected biographies of the great French writers Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Proust and Jean Genet.
White, who has lived with AIDS for years, also learned that he couldn't escape the spectre of the disease - which adds a melancholy but very real context to what is also a joyous and richly written book.
From San Francisco earlier this week, White answered five questions.
Q: In "Inside the Pearl," you quote George Plimpton's sister, Sarah Plimpton, an American then living in Paris, as saying the city is "the land of the lotus eaters." Is that a way of suggesting the city is addictive?
A: "When I first went to Paris, I had lunch with another American woman friend, and she warned me: 'I came here to stay for one year, and I've been here 20.' It's a very involving city. You always think about Hemingway and Fitzgerald and all those who came to Paris in the '20s. They didn't speak French, but there was a large community of expats and you could drink cheaply and there was no Prohibition. They didn't need the French.
"Now, it's very expensive to live in Paris and there's not a large colony of Americans. When I went, you had to become part of French life or you had no life. And in that way I found it to be a very seductive town - the food, the architecture, the bookstores, the people and the culture."
Q. Along with a request that readers don't take you for a eugenicist, you offer the theory that the French evolve faster than other people. Is that the first time you've written that, and what made you do so?
A. "I've never written that before, but I do think it's true. In America, for example, it takes forever and ever to get a law passed. In France, laws and attitudes change very quickly, and maybe because there's a very large educated class over there. They have, for example, too many doctors - whereas we don't have enough. PhDs are just floating around over there and it's a very literate, educated populace. Now, there's obviously poverty and uneducated parts of France and the city. I don't want to make it sound as though everyone is a college graduate. But there's a segment of French culture that influences decisions and that ripple very quickly through society."
Q. I'm sure there was a nostalgia to re-examining a several-year period in one's life. Or maybe doing so is an exercise in recalling memories that otherwise might have stayed forgotten. Does any of this resonate?
A. "I actually wrote a lot of 'Inside a Pearl' in the hospital a few years ago, after I'd had a stroke. I couldn't walk and I couldn't talk but I could still scribble. It's a great comfort to be able to write, particularly when all else fails (laughs). People who've read my books say I have a great memory, but I don't. As you start to write, sense-memory comes into play and you start to remember more and more. The act of writing breeds that and encourages that, and it's a wonderful thing."
Q. A great number of the people and anecdotes in "Inside a Pearl" are witty and joyously charismatic. But there is also the lurking presence of AIDS throughout the book. From the epicenter - as both a patient and an activist - you survived a plague and lost many friends and lovers. How was it reliving those experiences as you worked on the book?
A. "There was an ongoing sense of tragedy throughout that period. Many of the characters in the book died of AIDS. I had a lover named Hebert for five years in Paris; he was sick with AIDS for four of them and died of the disease. So, yes, there is a very dark side to the book. You know, when I left America and went to Paris, it was with the feeling that it would be an AIDS holiday from what was happening in the States. But it was only a year or two before it hit Europe."
Q. You describe European views of American puritanism, which isn't necessarily just an approach towards sexuality but also our inability to appreciate the idea of luxury - of seeking out fine things just for the sake of the experience. After spending 15 years in Paris, how did that concept translate with you when you returned to the U.S.?
A. "(Laughs) I'll tell you. When my partner and I first got back to America, we rented a car and drove through the South - Charleston and Savannah and New Orleans. And everywhere we went, people would ask, 'Are you on a book tour?' No. 'Are you doing research or visiting relatives?' No. 'Are you giving a lecture?' No. No, no and no. We were just taking a pleasure trip - and no one seemed to understand that."
WHO: Author Edmund White, celebrated author of more than 20 books including novels, short stories, essays and memoirs, the latest volume of which is "Inside a Pearl - My Years in Paris"
WHAT: Author's dinner and book signing
WHEN: 6 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Oyster Club, 13 Water St., Mystic
HOW MUCH: $75 includes three-course meal, a signed hardcover of "Inside a Pearl," and discussion time with White. RSVP required
MORE INFO: Contact co-sponsor Bank Square Books at (860) 536-3795 or banksquarebooks.com