I was quite charmed for about the first hundred pages or so–and then I realized there was about 150 pages still to go. By the last fifty pages or so I was finding it something of a chore to finish, even if I always found the content itself of interest. Which means, unfortunately, that Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris is a case of constantly-diminishing returns.
In my critical writing I always try my best to take the object of analysis at hand on its own terms, attempting to come to terms with what it is, rather than what I want it to be. But in this particular case I can’t seem to get away from complaining about what it seems this book could and should have been: a sparkling and witty little rumination on issues of expatriation and experiencing a particular historic moment through the people who inhabit it. Certainly, all of these elements are present in Inside a Pearl, but as it turns out the most interesting moments of the book are not the familiar (and intriguing but not-so-familiar) names on endless parade, but White’s personal observations on the complicated cultural relationship between France and America.
“The French in general didn’t seem to like such American tales of painful childhoods, White observes at one point, describing an American-born boyfriend who would regale all listeners with tales of his perceived childhood traumas. But “‘everyone had a wretched childhood,’ they’d say airily. ‘We must just get on with it.’ Or they’d say ‘Pas de confessions! (‘No confessions!’).” If this exchange comes off as a bit facile and even a bit smug, White goes on to note shortly thereafter: “anyone French my age would have lived through World War II from start to finish as well as the grim period afterward of material shortages and moral recriminations. How could any American spanking saga or Oedipal epic compare with the chilblains and lost limbs and bombings and concentration camps the Europeans endured?” (14).
It is with observations such as these that Inside a Pearl is at its very best: there’s a certain warmth and generosity in the way White situates the American and French (and sometimes British) cultures next to each other that both acknowledges the reasoning behind such impulses even while never overlooking the humor such cultural friction inevitably causes. I could have read much more of White’s commentary along these lines, employing his personal experiences and namedropping as anecdotal evidence for his cultural observations, rather than tenuously fastening them upon the ceaseless amassing of proper nouns.
Or perhaps the book I am looking for is White’s own The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris? But if so, doesn’t that make this book more than a bit redundant?
I also would have been intrigued to read an account focusing on the individual who looms most prominently throughout the book: White’s best friend, affectionately known by her initials “MC.” Indeed, the first line of the book announces her central importance to everything that follows: “I discovered France through Marie-Claude de Brunhoff” (1), and there are stretches of Inside a Shell that read like a love story–not a love story between lovers, however, but on between intimate friends. I particularly loved an anecdote near the end of the book that describes the way they would lit a fire in the fireplace at her summer home and they would spend hours sitting together on “matching couches,” sometimes even with “a matching book”–a beautiful evocation of intimacy of a particular sort between close friends that frankly doesn’t get represented nearly enough in literature. Perhaps it is for this reason that Brunhoff, an elegant hostess, creator of “Cornell-type boxes” (though, as he quickly notes, “it was impolitic to mention Cornell to her”) and enigmatic individual in general, is the only “name” in this book that feels like a portrait of an actual person rather than a citation (75).
An author of White’s stature who is specifically acclaimed as a master of autobiographical or autobiographically-inflected fictional forms should instinctually know that “and then I met, and then I went” is an untenable narrative structure to hang nearly 250 pages upon. Even the most fascinating of lives–and White’s certainly falls under that category–can’t possibly sustain the reader’s interest when rendered in such a ponderous way. In the end Inside a Pearl is endlessly readable and from moment-to-moment often quite fascinating, but somehow it always feels like a dutiful record instead of an account that captures what it is to vitally alive.
Inside a Pearl: My Life in Paris is available from Bloomsbury Publishing.
White, Edmund. Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris. New York City: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.