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Our Paris

Hubert Sorin, who died of AIDS at the age of thirty-two in 1994, was an architect by profession and a married man with children who had left his family to live with his lover, an older American, and who, when illness forced him to abandon his work, took up illustration, penning stark but funny caricatures of friends and neighborhoods. If his drawings resemble those of another artist, I haven't seen them - although sometimes they remind me of the monstrosities in Yellow Submarine. Sorin's style is fully lighted, black and white. Textures might be suggested, but there is no crosshatching or other kind of shading. Instead, there is a kind of exaggeration that is specifically intended to suggest movement, usually of an involuntary nature. Sorin's lover appears in almost every drawing, larger than everybody else, rumpled, and either anxious or enthusiastic. He is the reason that Sorin's drawings have reached a wider public. The drawings appear in a memoir that the lover wrote as a kind of frame. The lover was Edmund White.

The book is called Our Paris: Sketches from Memory (Knopf, 1994; recently republished by HarperCollins). It makes a lovely souvenir. For example, a nighttime stroll brings the author to the Île-St.-Louis when a tourist boat passes on the Seine:

There's no stranger phenomenon that to walk down the canyonlike rue St.-Louis-en-l'Île and to see the lights of a bateau mouche passing between the two islands. There are buildings in the foreground and buildings in the background, the river and the boats themselves are blocked from view, but welling up out of the concealed orchestra pit, as it were, is the splendor of these daylight-bright moving projectors, as flowing and transforming as music. It's like living through a speeded-up total eclipse. The lights are so brilliant that they trace each twig on each bare winter tree against the gliding backdrop of the pale gray house fronts.

Most of Our Paris is about people, seen in short takes that attend a little too closely to, shall we say, provenance, and only a writer of Mr White's skill could deflect the charge that he is writing about trivialities off the top of his head. He wraps up a discussion of the complicated amours among four people - three men and a woman - with a faux confession:

I hope this book is never translated into French, because the French would thoroughly disapprove of this chapter. They dislike name-dropping so much they don't even have a word for it.

The utter absence of remorse is a key to the book. Mr White is no slavish Francophile. Nor will he apologize for a harmless activity that might possibly irritate someone. He is not out to make you like him. As befits a bereaved lover, he provides an attractive portrait of Hubert, who grins handsomely from the dust jacket. My favorite anecdote takes place at a theatre:

Once, soon after I met Hubert, I went with him to hear Alban Berg's Wozzeck at the Châtelet. About twelve rows ahead of us was my American friend Gregory Rowe, a guy who's been in France just ten years but who speaks the language so well he has to show his American passport to prove he's not French. His gestures, his shrugs, his opinions - everything is pur sang French, except his enthusiasm, the last boisterous genetic trait to remain in any native American.
Although Hubert must have been initially attracted to my irrepressible urge to help foreigners out when they're wrestling with a map on a windy street corner or to invite every stray in town to Thanksgiving dinner, no matter how ill sorted, or to scream out Gregory's name across the subdued, murmuring stalls, he was quickly embarrassed by it, in accordance with the law that we are always attracted by opposites and then try to turn them into twins (if we don't succeed we're constantly angry, and if we do we lose interest and find a new partner, even more outrageously unsuitable). I don't mean to exaggerate, but this time Hubert senses I was about to overflow with a truly alarming "Gregory!!" He glared and whispered, "Du calme, du calme." Slowly I subsided. When Hubert saw the look of misery on my face he laughed and said compassionately, "Pauvre petit..."

The vitality of this passage, charged as it were with the energetic scream that Mr White was obliged to suppress, exemplifies both his charm as a writer - the paragraphs are studded with bright observations - and his tragicomic view of life, according to which it doesn't much matter whether laughter precedes or follows tears. His is an exceedingly humane voice, impatient with anything that obscures the uniqueness of every individual, particularly with reductive classifications. The world may be wrought and paid for by people who believe in abstractions - beauty, progress, 'education' - but you don't have to be one of them to appreciate the works that such abstractions inspire. 

Mr White has relocated to New York, something that, given the choice, I doubt that I would do, but his book is a gentle reminder that my thinking so is really of no importance whatever, and that nothing could be sillier than disappointment.

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