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Edmund White: Inside A Pearl - My Years In Paris (Bloomsbury)

When Edmund White, who hails from Ohio, first arrived in Paris in 1983 he was in his early forties, slim, presentable and sporting a moustache - then a badge of honour among American homosexuals - which he soon realised would have to go.

He spoke next to no French and barely knew anyone. However, he was a published novelist and the co-author of The Joy Of Gay Sex, which no one was better qualified to write than him.

Sex for White - as for his father, a womaniser who slept with his own daughter - was, is, a big deal and in unshockable Paris he was as active as a stallion at stud. He was not particularly bothered with whom he slept, and frequently acted as sugar daddy to his lovers. On occasion, he would hide in the bushes in a park until a possible partner hove into view, after which, in less time that it takes to consume a croissant, they'd satisfy their urges.

Readers already acquainted with White will not find this a revelation. The year before he launched himself in the French capital he published A Boy's Own Story, which went largely unnoticed in the US and brought him acclaim in Britain. Whatever its merits - and they are considerable - it was clearly a cathartic experience, not least because it was written in the wake of his father's death. Thereafter White wrote like a man relieved of a strait-jacket, never sparing his own or his readers' blushes.

There are those, of course, who are happy to read details of one sexual encounter after another. It is not a gene this reviewer possesses. Soon, White's exploits begin to lose any allure and one's sense of prurience gives way to tedium. Why, one wonders, is he telling us all of this? What purpose does it serve, other than to make him appear a "frisky old goat", as he was once described by a newspaper? His lovers come and go like sunsets and, after a momentary, sad spasm, he moves on to yet another.

Paris, meanwhile, remains elusive. White's best friend there was a woman of a certain age called Marie-Claude. She was the wife of Laurent de Brunoff, son of the creator of Babar the Elephant. Through her, White was introduced to many French artists and intellectuals, and any notable foreigners who were passing through the Arc de Triomphe. There is much ado about food and drink and fashion, as ever where the French are concerned, most of it banal, perhaps because by then White, an alcoholic, had decided to eschew booze.

Often, in relief, he escaped to London, where among the literati he was something of a celebrity. But as he hints he was never wholly accepted or trusted, doubtless because his tongue was as loose as his zip. "Three times," he relates, "I was on the hour-long TV arts program The South Bank Show. When I was in England it was thrilling to be able to speak my own language, or some version of it." He met Nigella Lawson - "who was named after her father, Nigel Lawson, Mrs Thatcher's chancellor of the exchequer" - who has apparently had "her share of tragedy". He also met Salman Rushdie (but, then, who hasn't?), Julian Barnes ("complete with the horsey face and long, blue nose"), Marina Warner ("very womanly") and Adam Mars-Jones, who "had provided his very high-grade seed to a lesbian who'd selected him to fertilize her". Others who may not be over-chuffed to find themselves featured in these pages include Martin Amis ("famously heterosexual"), Alan Hollinghurst and countless of the fortuitously dead.

Such incontinent, rapacious namedropping is pointless, other than to energise a narrative that is solipsistic in the extreme. One longs to be plonked down properly in Paris, to wander its boulevards and history-clogged back streets in the company of an inveterate flaneur and to be told something piquant about them.

Occasionally White offers an apercu, noting that while the French embrace the avant garde their satire is as cutting as a rubber knife. He frequents the cafes of St Germain where the customers talk tripe and call it philosophy. This is a city, we learn, which bemoans the loss of local shops to chains stores such as Armani, Dior and Louis Vuitton, and whose citizens have no sense of the ridiculous and precious little sense of humour.

But one feels this bores White who is never happier than when looking into a puddle and seeing himself. His weakness, his penchant, is for younger, dominant men, many of whom are none too sharp upstairs and on whom he dotes until they shuffle off to pastures new. Many of them are now dead, as are friends such as Marie-Claude. Would that Inside A Pearl were a better testimony to their memory.

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