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'Those Blessèd Structures, Plot and Rhyme'

January 18, 2007 By:
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A touch of sadness clings to The Company They Kept, an otherwise joyous collection of essays by some of the world's best writers, in which they recount "unforgettable friendships" they've been blessed with. The sadness stems from the fact that this would appear to be the last book project that Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein worked on. All of the writing in the collection first appeared in the The New York Review of Books, which the two edited together for 43 years, right up until Epstein's death last June. The book, issued by their journal's publishing unit, New York Review Books, is an appropriate tribute to this long collaboration, as the volume hums with the thrill of friendship, which clearly imbued their work relations with a special quality.

Aside from that, there's nothing remotely despairing about these 27 reminiscences, except that the writers are often recalling colleagues long-gone but fondly remembered.

Silver acknowledges in his preface that, in principle, an anthology filled with fond recollections courts all kinds of dangers.

"A memoir of a talented friend risks sentimentality," he writes. "It may sound cautious, protective, promotional, false. Yet by some miracle, none of this seems true of the reminiscences from The New York Review collected here. It is hard to say how any of them came about. For the most part they are not the sort of essays an editor can ask for. They are not obituaries, not literary appreciations. In practically every case the writers felt they had to write something about someone they had known very well, and whose work had mattered in their lives, and they told us so. Petty anecdotes and the sly observations that people often make about their friends have little place here; instead, the writers concentrate on moments of comradeship and originality, on a presence and on work that gave pleasure."

As Silvers also points out, these pieces are shot through with affection, without which they'd be "lifeless." And without the keen literary judgments that animate them they'd be well-meaning but "hollow." "In each one, high critical standards count for practically everything but are seldom stated. In such company, it isn't necessary."

Many of the subjects, as well as many of the contributors, are Jewish. In only two cases, though, are both subject and writer Jewish: Robert Oppenheimer writes about Albert Einstein, and Susan Sontag assesses the career of Paul Goodman.

Among the appreciators are Oliver Sacks, Alfred Kazin, Saul Bellow, Joseph Brodsky, Jason Epstein and Stanley Kunitz. Among those who are gone but not forgotten are Amedeo Modigliani, Delmore Schwartz, Isaiah Berlin, S.J. Perelman and Anthony Hecht.

The non-Jews are no slouches either: Mary McCarthy remembers critic F.W. Dupee; Caroline Blackwood dissects painter Francis Bacon; Robert Craft recalls composer Igor Stravinsky; and poet Derek Walcott recalls fellow poet Robert Lowell.

A great many of these writers -- Sontag, Lowell, Jason Epstein, McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick -- were or are fixtures at the Review, either as animating figures in its long and successful history or as frequent contributors. Many of these people -- writers and their subjects -- were also animating forces on the literary left from the 1930s till the present. Their names are associated with such influential journals as Partisan Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Leader and Kenyon Review.

Recalling Another Era

In these appreciations, many stories are told. But what is most often recalled is another era, an entirely different country than the one we live in now and especially another New York City, where reading and books and opinions were valued on the same level as friendship, to say nothing of a devotion to quality in craftsmanship and thought.

Many of these essays are actually as much about the people discussed as they are about how one writer inspired another.

That's why I have particular affection for Sontag's article on Goodman. She was in Paris at the time of his death, trying to clear her head -- trying to see if it was possible to live for a period of time without books, without the voices of others ringing in her head.

If people know Goodman today, it's perhaps as the author of a primal 1960s text, Growing Up Absurd, which was madly pawed over between 1966 and 1975 or thereabouts, but which is little read these days. But Goodman was by no means a one-book writer. He was highly prolific, producing an astonishing number of works in any number of genres: fiction, poetry, history, so- cial commentary and educational philosophy, to mention only a few. It was this steady output that touched and motivated Sontag, even more than the man himself. She had never been close to him, though their paths crossed often.

Before she gets to these matters, Sontag sets the scene (the year is 1972).

"I am writing this in Paris, in a room about 4' by 10', sitting on a wicker chair at a typing table in front of a window which looks onto a garden; at my back is a cot and night table; on the floor and under the table are manuscripts, notebooks, and two or three paperback books. That I have been living and working for more than a year in such small bare quarters, though not at the beginning planned or thought out, undoubtedly answers to some need to strip down while finding a new space inside my head. Here where I have no books, where I spend too many hours writing to have time to talk to anyone, I am trying to make a new start with as little capital as possible to fall back on."

In this monk-like existence, she is not completely cut off from daily life. The Paris Herald-Tribune brings her a "collage" of news: about Vietnam and the normal assortment of items about the celebrity life in America. But the paper also brings her news of Goodman's passing.

The grief she feels at his death, she writes, "is sharper because we were not friends, though we coinhabited several of the same worlds. We first met 20 years ago. I was 19, a graduate student at Harvard, dreaming of living in New York, and on a weekend trip to the city someone I knew at the time who was a friend of his brought me to the loft on 23rd Street where Paul Goodman and his wife were celebrating his 40th birthday. He was drunk, he boasted raucously to everyone about his sexual exploits, he talked to me just long enough to be mildly rude. The second time we met was four years later at a party on Riverside Drive, where he seemed more subdued but just as cold and self-absorbed."

After she moved to New York, their paths crossed again, though always in public -- "at parties given by mutual friends, at panel discussions and Vietnam teach-ins, on marches, in demonstrations. I usually made a shy effort to talk to him each time we met, hoping to be able to tell him, directly or indirectly, how much his books mattered to me and how much I had learned from him. Each time he rebuffed me and I retreated."

It was a complex relationship and Sontag describes all its permutations, and what his "voice" and thinking bequeathed to her.

There are many other similar explications in the book, written by "students" to their "masters": Epstein on Wilson, Kunitz on Theodore Roethke, Walcott on Lowell.

From that last essay comes this passage, which seems indicative of the volume as a whole:

"I was at the Chelsea Hotel in September 1977 when a friend called to say that Cal [which was Lowell's nickname] had died," writes Walcott. "I felt more irritation than shock. Death felt like an interruption, an impudence. The voice was immortal in the poems and others after me would hear it. In his last book, Day by Day, he had made exhaustion inspiration. He had married often but his muse was not widowed. He had been faithful to her in sickness and in health that was generally convalescence. To the last he refused to be embalmed by fame:

"Those blessèd structures,

plot and rhyme --
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
Something imagined, not recalled?

...
All's misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination. ..."

 

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