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Allan Gurganus on James Merrill

Allan Gurganus speaking about poet James Merrill (1926-1995):



Unlikely friends

Writer Victor Lodato has written a nice article in the NYT (2017-02-24, page 17 in the International edition) about his close May-December  friendship with an elderly neighbour, Austin.  An excerpt:

“Is this your grandson?” people sometimes ask Austin when she’s out with me.

I love watching her vanity prick up, the way she serenely tilts her small white head and refurbishes her Southern accent to correct them. “No, honey. He’s my friend.”

At this point, folks usually smile tightly and turn away, perhaps worried there is more than friendship going on between the old lady and the younger man seated at the bar or strolling through the supermarket, giggling like teenagers.

Why we’re giggling, I couldn’t tell you. Often our mirth seems fueled by some deep-celled delight at being together. Friendship, like its flashier cousin, love, can be wildly chemical and, like love, can happen in an instant.

When I met Austin, I was in my early 40s and not looking for a friend. I had come alone to this small Oregon town to finish a book. So when a bony, blue-eyed stranger knocked on my door, introducing herself as the lady from across the way and wondering if I might like to come over and see her garden — maybe have a gin and tonic — I politely declined.

Watching her walk away, though, in her velvet slip-ons and wrinkled blouse, I felt a strange pang, a slow pin of sadness that I suppose could best be described as loneliness. Suddenly I was dashing into the dirt road to say that I was sorry, that she had caught me in the middle of work, but that, yes, I would enjoy seeing her garden.

“Not the gin and tonic?” she said.

“Sure, that too,” I answered, blushing. And before I could suggest a visit the next week, she said: “So I’ll see you in a few hours, then. Shall we say 4:30?”

I had to admire her sense of time. Next week is for someone who can afford to put things off. Austin, in her 80s, surely felt no such luxury.

“I liked your face,” she admitted later, telling me she had spotted me at the mailbox.

As she poured the gin, I told her I had seen her at the mailbox, as well, and liked her face, too.

“I wish I had better eyebrows,” she said. “They used to be fabulous.”

Her garden was astounding, like something dreamed rather than planted, a mad-hatter gothic in which a lawless grace prevailed.

At dusk, the deer arrived, nibbling the crab apple blossoms. We had been talking for hours, slightly tipsy, and then we were in the kitchen cooking dinner. A retired psychologist, Austin had traveled extensively, spoke terrible Spanish and worse French, and was a painter now. She had had two husbands, the second of whom died in this house, in a small bed in the living room.

“That’s what I’ll do,” Austin told me. “This room gets the best light.”

We turned to the windows, but the light was already gone. That we could be quiet together so soon, and without strain, felt auspicious.

“So you’ve run away from home?” she said at one point.

From the beginning, there was something about our interaction that reminded me of friendships from childhood, in which no question was off limits. On religion, she claimed to be an atheist. I admitted to being haunted by the ghosts of a Roman Catholic upbringing. She said her sisters believed in hell and worried about her soul. Austin, though, seemed afraid of nothing, least of all death. I said I was still afraid of the dark.

“Living alone,” she said. “It can make you funny.”

I laughed but changed the subject, telling her I would like to see her paintings.

Later, crossing the road back to my Craigslist sublet, I wondered what I was doing. I reminded myself of my plan: hiding out, staying in the dream of the book. I wasn’t here to socialize. After years of work on a single project, I was in the final stretch. I could finish a draft in a few months and head back home.

Besides, if I wanted a friend during my retreat, I would find someone my age to throw back beers with. Gin and tonics with an old lady in her garden? That wasn’t in the plan.

But there I was the next weekend having dinner with her, and then it was every weekend. Sometimes we went out to a restaurant or hiked in the mountains. Austin’s older friends seemed confused.

“Is he helping you with the computer?” one asked.

When I first started talking about Austin to my own out-of-town friends, they assumed I had found a new boyfriend.

“Austin’s a woman,” I would say. “Besides, she’s in her 80s. She’s just a pal.”

Even as they replied, “That’s cool,” I could almost hear them thinking: “Must be slim pickings out in Oregon.”

What was perplexing, I suppose, was not that two people of such different ages had become friends, but that we had essentially become best friends. Others regarded our devotion as either strange or quaint, like one of those unlikely animal friendships: a monkey and a pigeon, perhaps.

Admittedly, when I would spot us in a mirror, I saw how peculiar we were. This vivacious white-haired imp in her bright colors and chunk-style jewelry sitting with the dark-haired man in his drab earth-tone sweaters and Clark Kent glasses. Maybe I looked like some nerdy gigolo or this elegant woman’s attentive secretary. If we made no sense from the outside, it didn’t matter. We were mostly looking at each other.

One night, Austin chatted about her life as a middle-aged wife in academia. “I completely missed out on the wildness of the ’60s,” she said.

I told her I had missed out, too.

“You weren’t born yet,” she said. “Or hardly.”

Often we cooked together, as we had that first night, after which she would show me whatever painting she was working on. At her request, I also started reading to her from my book-in-progress. We gave each other feedback; our work improved.

When my six-month lease was up, I renewed it. The novel wasn’t finished. Plus, I couldn’t imagine a better neighbor.

Before I knew it, three years had passed. I was writing seven days a week and spending most evenings with Austin. Sometimes she had spells of vertigo now, and when we walked together she held my arm. Often she couldn’t find the right word for something. When she wanted to keep away visitors so she could paint, she hung a sign on her studio door: “Do not destroy.”

Soon the headaches came, and more jumbled language. “I need to screw my calls,” she said, meaning she needed to screen them.

We laughed, then sobered. Tests were scheduled.

Now she is eight months into what the doctors say is a quick-ravaging illness deep in her brain. They say there is no stopping it. A year more, if she’s lucky. Even as I refuse to believe this, I prepare for it.

How? By keeping my promise to her.

A few months before her diagnosis, Austin had attended a wedding. She showed me a copy of the vows, which had been distributed at the ceremony — a detailed list. I read it carefully, at Austin’s bidding. We were sitting in a car, waiting for our favorite Thai restaurant to open.

“I never had anything like that with the men in my life,” she said, pointing to the vows. “We loved each other, but we didn’t have that.” She was crying now, something she rarely did.

I took her hand and said, “Well, you have it with me. Everything but the sex.”

At which point, the monkey kissed the pigeon.

That night, I had an odd realization: Some of the greatest romances of my life have been friendships. And these friendships have been, in many ways, more mysterious than erotic love: more subtle, less selfish, more attuned to kindness.

Of course, Austin was going to die long before I did. That’s not what this is about. This, I have come to understand, is a love story.

Austin continued to paint for several months more, fractured, psychedelic self-portraits in scorching colors. Her best work. Lately, though, she is tired and hardly leaves the couch. I sit with her, at the opposite end, our legs intertwined.

“Read to me,” she says.

When I tell her the book is finished, she tells me to read her something new. But whenever I do, she promptly falls asleep.

I don’t leave, though. I stare out the window. Austin was right. This room does get the best light.

Recently her hair has thinned, but she has a shock of white up front that a friend’s daughter has dyed with a streak of fuchsia. She looks like some punk girl I might have dated in high school.

She had a bit more energy the last time I came to visit and said: “Oh, Victor, I had the most wonderful dessert yesterday. Peaches and Connecticut. Have you ever had it?”

“No,” I said, smiling.


Fast friendships

A message from the Listserve Archive (2014-04-01):

Fast Friendships

April 01 2014

Over the course of my life, I have had a handful of deep friendships that came suddenly and surprisingly and without any warning. They have been with people of different nationalities, ages, and backgrounds. Three are with men, and two with women. In each case, I was meeting with someone for the first time, usually for accidental or inconsequential reasons, sometimes standing in for a colleague. Each meeting I expected to be short and businesslike but each morphed quickly instead into a deep conversation between the two of us. Bertrand Russell described a similar experience in his first meeting with Joseph Conrad:

At our very first meeting, we talked with continually increasing intimacy. We seemed to sink through layer after layer of what was superficial, till gradually both reached the central fire. It was an experience unlike any other that I have known. We looked into each other’s eyes half appalled and half intoxicated to find ourselves together in such a region. The emotion was as intense as passionate love, and at the same time all-embracing. I came away bewildered, and hardly able to find my way among ordinary affairs.” (“Autobiography.” Routledge, 2009.)

The writer George Fowler in his book “Dance of a Fallen Monk” describes a similar first meeting. The intimate friendship between Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lu Carr also developed quickly like this.

It is odd that so much has been written about love, yet so little about friendship – friendship seems to be the elephant in the room. And the few philosophers of friendship – Aristotle, Andrew Sullivan, AC Grayling – seem to believe that friends can only be made slowly. Andrew Sullivan, for example, says that unlike falling in love, it is impossible to “fall in friendship”, a statement that is spectacularly false.

I feel the only way to adequately describe these encounters is from mythology: It was as if we were struck by an arrow fired by Cupid, the Roman god of attraction, or had magic dust sprinkled on us by forest sprites as happens in Shakespeare. But in none of my encounters was there anything sexual or erotic; indeed, none of these friends have the physical qualities that attract me, starting with the fact that three of them are the wrong gender. Rather, our encounters were meetings of minds, as if I was making contact with a long-lost twin brother or sister – someone who thinks very much like I do, but who knows different things, or has had different experiences. Since I long ago realized I think very differently to most everyone about most everything, to find even one person who thinks like me is astonishing. To find several is just awesome. These friends are my life’s doppelgangers, my alter egos.

In every case, the experience was profoundly moving, and we developed into long-term friends. One person has sadly passed on. These friendships have led me to change my views on life significantly, as well as my jobs, and even my career. Their influence on me bring to mind the Zen saying: When the disciple is ready, the guru will appear.

One friend describes us as being virtual siblings, since we know each other as well as close brothers or sisters do, and we support each other loyally and without hesitation, through tragedy and triumph, as if we are family. My life is so much richer for these experiences that began in accidental meetings, that it is hard not to imagine they were shaped by some divinity, rough-hewn by us and all.

Muchas gracias, amigos.


Roberto Lucas Buenasur

Falling in friendship

In Love Undetectable:  Reflections on Friendship, Sex and Survival (Vintage, 1999, page 203), Andrew Sullivan wrote:

If love is sudden, friendship is steady. At the moment of meeting a friend for the first time, we might be aware of an immediate “click” or a sudden mutual interest.  But we don’t “fall in friendship.”

Oh, yes, Andrew, yes we do!   Perhaps Sullivan has had only limited experience of friendship.    On at least five occasions I have met someone for the first time, and during that very first meeting, come to experience an extremely powerful feeling of warmth and friendship.   On at least three of those five occasions, the feeling was reciprocated during that same first meeting, and each of us, without any explicit speaking of it, experienced both this warmth, and, as well, recognized that the other, too, was experiencing the warmth.   This experience, each time, was sudden and completely unexpected, and in one case, there was a full generation difference in our ages.  The five comprise three men and two women.  The closest metaphor I can find for the experience is that of classical mythology: being struck by Cupid’s arrow.  In each case, the person I met became and remains an important friend in my life, as close to me as a brother or sister.  I believe I am the same to them.

I have also fallen in love with members of the opposite sex, and indeed have had the experience of “love at first sight”.   But my experience of sudden friendship at first meeting were very different to falling in romantic love.    In the case of the friendships, the attraction was not physical or visual, but mental, verbal, and perhaps psychological.  It was in talking to one another, in a conversation that quickly went deeper, and deeper faster, than any other (just as it had for Russell and Conrad at their first meeting), that the attraction was manifested, and felt.  Because the close friendships that developed from these meetings have each had profound impacts on my life – for example, in one case leading to a change in career – they seem pre-ordained.  In all five cases, the meetings came about from a rare confluence of circumstances that seems, even in retrospect, highly unlikely.   There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, is all I can think.

Felix Mendelssohn and Eduard Rietz

Th composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) had a close friendship with his violin teacher, Edward Rietz (1802-1832), who was only slightly older.   Rietz died unexpectedly at the age of 30 in Berlin when Mendelssohn was traveling in Paris; Mendelssohn was informed of his friend’s death on his 23rd birthday.   He then wrote to his family as follows:

You will, I am sure, excuse my writing you only a few words to-day:  it is but yesterday that I heard of my irreparable loss.  Many hopes, and a pleasant bright period of my life have departed with him, and I never again can feel so happy.  I must now set about forming new plans, and building fresh castles in the air; the former ones are irrevocably gone, for he was interwoven with them all.  As I shall never be able to think of my boyish days, nor of the ensuing ones, without connecting him with them, so I had hoped, till now, that it might be the same with those to come. I must endeavour to inure myself to this, but the  fact that I can recall no one thing without being reminded of him, that I shall never hear music, or write it, without thinking of  him, doubles the sorrow of such a separation.  The former days are now indeed departed, but it is not these alone that I lose, but also the man I so sincerely loved.  Had I never had any, or had I lost all cause for loving him, I must without a cause have loved him all the same. He loved me too, and the knowledge that there was such a man in the world – one on whom I could rely, who lived to love me, and whose wishes and aims were identical with my own – this is all over: it is the hardest blow that has yet befallen me, and never shall I forget it.

This was the celebration of my birthday.  When I was listening to Baillot on Tuesday, and said to Hiller that I only knew one violinist who could play the music I loved for me, L______ was standing beside me, and knew what had happened, but did not give me the letter. He was not aware indeed that yesterday was my birthday, but he broke it to me by degrees yesterday morning, and then I recalled previous anniversaries, and took a review of the past, as every one should on his birthday; I remembered how invariably on this day he arrived with some special gift which he had long thought of, and which was always as pleasing, and agreeable, and welcome as himself.  My day was very sad; I could neither do anything, not think of anything, but the one subject.

To-day I have compelled myself to work, and succeeded.  My overture in A minor is finished.  I think of writing some pieces here, which will be well remunerated.

I beg you will tell me every particular about him, and every detail, no matter how trifling; it will be a comfort to me to hear of him once more.  The octet parts, so neatly copied by him, are lying before me at this moment, and remind me of him.   I hope shortly to recover my usual spirits, and to be able to write to you cheerfully and more at length.  A new chapter in my life has begun, but as yet there is no title.

— Your Felix. ”

Letter from Paris, dated 4 February 1832, pp. 327-329 in:   Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy [1864/1870]: Letters from Italy and Switzerland. Translated by Grace, Lady Wallace.  Fifth Edition. London, UK:   Longman, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1870. 



George Santayana and Frank Russell

George Santayana (1863-1952) was a Spanish-American poet, writer and philosopher.  He appears to have had a capacity for deep and long friendships.  From this distance, it is impossible to know the exact nature of these relationships, and to what extent, if any, they involved any physical aspect.  But, from his writings (both factual and poetic), we know that these connections were intimate, close, and intense.  Among his close friends were Frank Russell, Warwick Potter, the poet Trumbull Stickney, and his literary executor, Daniel Cory.

In 1886, as an undergraduate at Harvard, Santayana met Frank Russell (1865-1931), elder brother of the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell.   The Russell brothers’ father died in 1876, so that Frank inherited his father’s earldom, becoming the second Earl Russell.   In his autobiography, The Middle Span, Santayana wrote of their first meeting in a chapter on their friendship (pages 44-45):

Because the windows of my room in Hollis Hall looked out directly on the brick path that led from the Harvard Yard to Jervis field, then the college playground; or because, for an undergraduate, I was thought comparatively articulate; or because I was a foreigner and known to write verses; or because the guide to whom the young Earl Russell was entrusted was a good friend of mine, [Footnote;  Herbert Lyman] that exceptional nobleman, grandson and heir of Lord John Russell, was brought to see me, when on being “sent down” from Oxford in 1886 he visited America in charge of a tutor. He was the first Englishman I had ever spoken to or that had ever spoken to me. That of itself would have made him notable in my eyes; but this Englishman was remarkable on his own account.

He was a tall young man of twenty, still lithe though large of bone, with abundant tawny hair, clear little steel-blue eyes, and a florid complexion. He moved deliberately, gracefully, stealthily, like a tiger well fed and with a broad margin of leisure for choosing his prey. There was precision in his indolence; and mild as he seemed, he suggested a latent capacity to leap, a latent astonishing celerity and strength, that could crush at one blow. Yet his speech was simple and suave, perfectly decided and strangely frank. He had some thoughts, he said, of becoming a clergyman.  He seemed observant, meditative, as if comparing whatever he saw with something in his mind’s eye. As he looked out of the window at the muddy paths and shabby grass, the elms standing scattered at equal intervals, the ugly factory-like buildings, and the loud-voiced youths passing by, dressed like shop-assistants, I [new page] could well conceive his thoughts and I said apologetically that after Oxford all this must seem to him rather mean; and he replied curtly: “Yes, it does.  I explained our manner of life, our social distinctions, our choice of studies, our sports, our food, our town amusement.s  He listened politely, obviously rather entertained and not displeased to find that, according to my description, all I described might be dismissed forever without further thought.  Then he sat good-naturedly on  the floor and began to look at my books – a rather meagre collection in some open shelves.  He spied Swinburne’s Poems, and took out a volume.  Did I like Swinburne?  Yes, perhaps he was rather verbose; but did I know the choruses in Atalanta in Calydon?  No?   Then he would read  me one.  And he read them all, rather liturgically, with a perfect precision and clearness, intoning them almost, in a sort of rhythmic chant, and letting the strong meaning shine through the steady processional march of the words.  It seemed the more inspired and oracular for not being brought out by any human change of tone or of emphasis.  I had not heard poetry read in this way before.  I had not known that the English language could become, like stained glass, an object and a delight in itself.

He stayed a long time, until, the daylight having decidedly failed, he remembered that he was to dine at the Jameses’.   My own dinner was long since cold.  He was off the next day, he said; but I must look him up whenever I came to London.  I saw no more of him at that time; but I received through the post a thin little book bound in white vellum, The Bookbills of Narcissus, by Richard Le Gallienne, inscribed “from R.” And William James not long afterwards took occasion to interrupt himself, as his manner was, as if a sudden thought had struck him, and to say to me:  “I hear you have seen this young grandson of Lord John Russell’s.  He talked about you; you seem to have made an impression.” The impression I had made was that I was capable of receiving impressions. With young Russell, who completely ignored society and convention, this was the royal road to friendship.”

George Santayana [1947]:  The Middle Span.  London, UK:  Constable.

G. H. Hardy and friends

C. P. (Charles Percy) Snow (1905-1980) was a British writer and a friend of many people.   He wrote a book profiling eight of his friends and acquaintances, along with Joseph Stalin, called, “Variety of Men:  Statesmen, Scientists and Writers” (Penguin, 1967).   The following paragraphs are from his profile of the English mathematician G. H. (Godfrey Harold) Hardy (1877-1947):

Much of his life, though, he was happier than most of us.  He had a great many friends, of surprisingly different kinds. These friends had to pass some of his private tests: they needed to possess a quality which he called ‘spin’ (this is a cricket term, and untranslatable: it implies a certain obliquity or irony of approach : of recent public figures, Macmillan and Kennedy would get high marks for spin, Churchill and Eisenhower not).  But he was tolerant, loyal, extremely high-spirited, and in an undemonstrative way fond of his friends.  I once was compelled to go and see him in the morning, which was always his set time for mathematical work. He was sitting at his desk, writing in his beautiful calligraphy.  I murmured some commonplace politeness about hoping that I wasn’t disturbing him. He suddenly dissolved into his mischievous grin.  ‘As you ought to be able to notice, the answer to that is that you are. Still, I’m usually glad to see you.’  In the sixteen years we knew each other, he didn’t say anything more demonstrative than that: except on his deathbed, when he told me that he looked forward to my visits.

I think my experience was shared by most of his close friends. But he had, scattered through his life, two or three other relationships, different in kind. These were intense affections, absorbing, non-physical but exalted. The one I knew about was for a young man whose nature was as spiritually delicate as his own. I believe, though I only picked this up from chance remarks, that the same was true of the others. To many people of my generation, such relationships would seem either unsatisfactory or impossible. They were neither the one nor the other; and, unless one takes them for granted, one doesn’t begin to understand the temperament of men like Hardy (they are rare, but not as rare as white rhinoceroses), nor the Cambridge society of his time. He didn’t get the satisfactions that most of us can’t help finding: but he knew himself unusually well, and that didn’t make him unhappy. His inner life was his own, and very rich. The sadness came at the end. Apart from his devoted sister, he was left with no one close to him.” (page 36)