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the story behind the book

‘Inside a Pearl’ by Edmund White

david wilson for the boston globe

The writer Edmund White moved to Paris at age 43, in part to escape a plague. “I had been the first president of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis” in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, he said in a telephone interview. “I thought, ‘Oh God, if I stay in New York I’ll just become a functionary, and I’ll never write again.’ ”

What he saw initially as “an AIDS holiday,” he said, “of course caught up with me; all my friends started dying in Paris. There was no escape.”

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In his new memoir, “Inside a Pearl,” White writes about both the beauty of the city and the inescapable sadness of losing friends on both sides of the Atlantic. The title comes from White’s response to an American friend complaining about the rainy Parisian weather.

“Just imagine you’re living inside a pearl,” White told him, “because it’s always sort of lustrous and elegant and soft and filtered and raining and gray.”

White found out he was HIV positive in 1985. “I thought I’d be dead in a year or two,” he said. But he turned out to be a slow progressor, so that, he said, “by the time mine became critical the new cocktail of medications was available.”

Moving back to New York to take a job teaching at Princeton, White has had to reinvent his social life in a city where, he said, “most of my old friends were dead.”

Americans are “extremely friendly right off the bat, but you get most of what you’re going to get in the first meeting or two,” White said. “Whereas the French are very reserved and reluctant; they reserve the word friend for only two or three people — but those people are your friends for life.”

White will read Monday at 7 p.m. at Brookline Booksmith.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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