Swapping notes on couture with Audrey Hepburn at a Givenchy show, the heroine of Edmund White’s A Saint from Texas bemoans resembling a “cow” next to the waifish movie star. Such casually fictionalised cameos are the hallmark of a delectable seam of literary fiction: inside jobs about high society by gay male authors with the gimlet eye of a gossip columnist.
Often pressing the maître d’ at the Paris Ritz for titbits about socialites, Marcel Proust alchemised gossip into the elegant ruminations of In Search of Lost Time (Proust argued that gossip prevented the mind from “falling asleep” over misleading outward appearances). For Truman Capote “all literature is gossip”, which he proved by stringing together ribald indiscretions about the soon-to-be-former friends he dubbed the “swans” in his unfinished roman-à-clef Answered Prayers. American author Edmund White, a self-proclaimed “archaeologist of gossip”, extends this lineage with A Saint from Texas, which ploughs a furrow somewhere between the two. At 80, after half a century of prodigiously varied output, including memoirs, literary biographies and 13 novels, including the moving gay classics A Boy’s Own Story (1982) and The Farewell Symphony (1997), not to mention dedicated activism, White has undoubtedly earned the right to cut loose with a salacious romp.
Although the title refers to Yvette, the narrator of this decades-spanning saga is her winningly insouciant twin sister, Yvonne. Raised by a dour oil tycoon, both the clever and beautiful Crawford sisters are bent on escaping the parochialism of 1950s Texas, but their temperaments are otherwise poles apart. Yvonne has no patience for such fun-sapping declarations from her pious sister as “Spinoza says we shouldn’t lavish on animals the love we should reserve for human beings”. Fortunately, White chooses the game Yvonne as narrator and we can relish her gabbing on the phone to girlfriends: “Such delicate wordplay, such innuendo whilst sounding technically innocent.”
After moving to Paris to learn French, Yvonne’s buoyancy helps her ascend to exclusive social circles that include Jacqueline Bouvier and the shah of Iran. Having dished about his own Paris years in the droll memoir Inside a Pearl, White has witnessed the frivolous amorality of high society up close: “In France, it seemed people tried to put together ‘amusing’ evenings (one actress, one admiral, one academician, one axe murderer if he’d written a book about it).” If Yvonne’s navigation of pompous hostesses and kinky suitors reads like an enthrallingly lurid tell-all, White might even be said to have gifted his narrator with a queer critical eye for blue-blooded hypocrisies.
Yvette renounces the sensual thrills of youth whereas Yvonne defers the turn inward eventually forced by anguish
Even though Capote weaponised gossip with the self-damaging sensationalism of Answered Prayers, consorting with the upper echelons also taught him a thing or two about unhappiness. So in A Saint from Texas the Parisian adventure palls for Yvonne after she achieves what she thought she wanted: a seat at the top table of French society through marriage to an ostensibly charming baron named Adhéaume. Yet Adhéaume is soon exposed as an ice-hearted blackmailer who sinks her American fortune into the restoration of his dilapidated family castle: “It took me a while to understand how awful he is since he’s a French baron and I’m a cowgirl.” Yvonne’s breeziness is gradually dispelled by an onslaught of misfortune, cruelty and regret.
She still receives the occasional missive from the Columbian convent where her sister has taken holy orders. Yvette has come a long way from the moony adolescent with a “crush on God”. The startling marriage of compassion and acumen within her letters is most evident when she explains how she has come to understand the inner torments of their sexually abusive father.
In How Proust Can Change Your Life, the philosopher Alain de Botton zeroed in on how Proust played out a preoccupation beneath society observations: the art of suffering successfully (echoing the Stoic notion that chasing pleasure and avoiding pain often leads to ruin). White wrote an acclaimed biography of the French author, so it is little surprise that A Saint from Texas picks up this Proustian theme masterfully. The Crawford sisters are dialectically opposed in outlook: Yvette renounces the sensual thrills of youth whereas Yvonne defers the turn inward eventually forced by anguish (“suffering was on every side and probably lay in wait for me, but not yet, oh Lord, not yet”). White shrewdly traces the repercussions of their choices across the decades. At once in thrall to the shimmering artifice of glamour yet also incisive about the tragedy of human existence, A Saint from Texas is a worldly-wise delight.
• A Saint from Texas by Edmund White is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15