Springtime—which we all have to believe is approaching—is a good time to go to Paris and fall in love. And of course the next best thing to traveling to the City of Love is to read about someone else’s life there. Whether you’re looking ahead to your own trip, or hoping to live vicariously, we’ve found two new memoirs that should satisfy your craving for all things French.
In Inside a Pearl (Bloomsbury, February), author Edmund White shares stories from the fifteen years he spent living in Paris starting in the early 1980s. White—a prolific author of fiction, memoir, and nonfiction, and a cultural critic—was already a well-known writer and interpreter of gay culture when he moved abroad, and his book paints a picture of his particular social circle. This picture, however, doesn’t provide much of a view of Paris; we don’t see White walking the streets and are not given any concrete description of his day-to-day life there. The majority of the chapters begin with a reference to a person—a handful of them recurring characters whom we come to recognize—but most of them new to the reader. The book, then, does not really tell a story of White’s life as much as it creates a web of characters, connected through sex and fame and dinner parties. The memoir will likely not satisfy the curiosity of anyone eager to know more about Paris in the eighties and nineties. On the other hand, it holds nothing back for anyone interested in Edmund White’s sex life, or the various famous people he spent his time with.
Nancy K. Miller’s memoir, Breathless: An American Girl in Paris (Seal Press, 2013) details the six years she spent living in Paris in the 1960s. Miller, now an author and feminist scholar, was in her early twenties then, and the book is about her sexual and her emotional development, specifically as they pertain to relationships. Miller presents us with a floundering young girl, not quite sure what she wants out of life. The young Miller is constantly casting herself in the movies she’s seen and the books she’s read, but seems always to be choosing the wrong stories. Ultimately, she describes herself as a “girl without a plot,” perhaps finally realizing that she hasn’t yet found her story.
Though Miller is a floundering character in the book, she’s a sympathetic one, and the reader becomes easily invested in her story. She is a child of a conventional if not conservative family, coming of age in the 1950s, and as such she was expected to find a husband. She didn’t manage to meet anyone suitable while in college, but certainly she would while living in Paris. Miller, of course, is looking for something more, even if she can’t quite name what that “something more” is. The reader wants her to find it, though we know she’s looking in all the wrong places.
Not surprisingly for two books set in Paris, both memoirs open with sex. (Both memoirs, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, teach the reader the French word for “cunt”—con—and both include vivid descriptions of French prostitutes.) Miller is more generous with the details of her love affairs, whereas White seems content merely to name names. From Miller, for example, we read a description of one determined lover, working tirelessly to cure her of what he deems to be her American frigidity:
“Bernard would position himself above me and, holding himself aloft athletically, move around inside me. This is going to take a long time, I sometimes thought, admiring his stamina as the nights wore on. But what was the point of not being a virgin if you didn’t come?”
While we can assume that White suffered from no such issues, we never get the details of his presumably more satisfying Parisian sex life. Encounters are described in one sentence: “Hubert came to dinner alone and we ended up in bed.” For White, who moves to Paris during the AIDS epidemic, and who seems in fact to be fleeing the disease that claims so many of his friends in America, the sex is not really the point.
It’s a bit difficult at times, though, to determine what the point is. Miller’s memoir is more of a quest, introducing us to a young woman searching for a way to define herself and what she wants out of life. There’s an arc to the story and a sense of resolution at the end of Breathless. Fans of White’s earlier autobiographical novels, or those interested to know more about his life in Paris, may enjoy the memoir but it may not be the best introduction to his work for the uninitiated. Readers more interested in the expat experience in Paris will likely get more out of Miller’s book.
Golden Eiffel Tower: Pankaj Kaushal, http://www.flickr.com/photos/pankaj/
Paris Skyline: Luke Ma, http://www.flickr.com/photos/lukema/
Spring garden: Andrea Anastasakis, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ferbent/
Paris Café: Fermin Ventura, http://www.flickr.com/photos/poblero/