NYRB Reading Week: The Company They Kept

We are poor passing facts,

Warned by that to give

Each figure in the photograph

His living name.

-Robert Lowell

This is bloody crazy of me, but hey I was trying for ambitious when I decided to read a non-fiction for NYRB reading week (head desk). I blame my obsession over balance, if you know what I mean. I’ve reviewed an NYRB Children’s Book and a Fiction, it was (well to my head) logical to pick up a nonfiction. Ok, so I’m making this sound overly dramatic. Before I go on with a review, let me make one simple confession:

I barely know any of the essayist/writers, so much so their friends in this book. I can pretend to be well versed in all literature, but I’d rather set that straight in fear assumptions might be made of my literary knowledge.  This might lead you to ask:

Why, Mary, did you decide to read this book anyway?

Yup, I wrote notes.

Sigh. Because I’m crazy that way. Because I like books about friendships. Because I’m familiar with Albert Einstein, Saul Bellows and Oppenheimer. And because I thought I’m bound to know some of these writers.  Besides, how could I resist a title such as: The Company they Kept: Writers on their unforgettable Friendships. I had a juvenile’s ideation of what that title meant. I thought of some famous writer talking about a childhood friend, only to realize upon finishing the book that the ‘friend’ was always someone famous.

This leads me to my one quibble about this book, its title. It’s misleading in many ways than one. First, not all the contributors are actual writers. Second, not all the people the contributors wrote about were their close friends, and third it was more apt to call this a collection of eulogies, as majority of them are. However, I won’t write this book off for that. After all eulogies have a negative connotation to it.

The quality and feel of the essays can be classified into three: True Warmth, Cool Acquaintances, and Professional Relations. For not all the essays spoke of true friendship, some writers qualified the kind of relationship they had with the departed (yes, they were mostly, if not all, eulogies). While other essayist, without directly indicating their relationship with the other famous person reveal their relationship in their approach towards describing the person.

The first three essays, namely Stanley Kunitz on Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell on Randall Jarrell, and Edward Dahlbert on Hart Crane , were difficult for me to read. The essays talked more of the work/output in relation to the person as opposed to the person in relation to the work. While I understand writers are their work, the tribute didn’t feel warm. They were almost too Professional for me to appreciate, especially since they are the first three essays to a book I assumed to be about unforgettable friendships. There was obvious love for the friend they paid tribute to, but its warmth is lost to me. Dahlbert’s feature on Crane made me feel pity for Crane. If anything, it gave me an impression of a man who was living a difficult artist’s life.

The 14th chapter by Darrly Pinckney on Djuna Barnes was another tribute that made me wonder if it was an actual tribute or forced-fit into the book. While Pinckney tells us of his encounters with Barnes, the essay itself was more on Pinckney’s experience as an African American as opposed to a feature on Barnes.  The succeeding chapter by Maurice Grosser on Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas fell short in giving the reader an understanding why this couple should be considered an unforgettable friendship. Grossmer spoke about the couple and the dynamics between Stein and Toklas, but I was left with nothing more than that. The real stories behind the individuals never saw the light of day.

While these aforementioned essays have value on their own, they felt lost in the book. If anything, these chapters and others I didn’t mention made me feel I was deceived. However, the book did have in its 27 features – stories that oozed warmth and true friendships hence became my favorite essays from the book.

Jason Epstein

Jason Epstein’s tribute on Edmund Wilson was poignant and warm. Though I am unfamiliar with Wilson, Esptein successfully educated me on Wilson’s work and his person.  There was intimacy in their friendship as Epstein narrates visits to Wilson’s house at the height of the latter’s illness.

In his last years Edmund was often in great pain. Once last summer when I visited him in Wellfleet for what I assumed would be the last time, he asked me to help him out of his chair.

Edmund Wilson

There was also an understanding of the work of Wilson and what his gifts are:

His gift was in taking things apart to see what made them work. Yet at the end of this dismantling, something whole, and wholly original, would accumulate…for the last twenty years or so, [Wilson] came to write more and more as if he still lived in the old republic of his imagination, and lately he had come to live there pretty much alone.

Robert Lowell

Derek Walcott’s tribute on the poet Robert Lowell, while alluding to the work and English literary knowledge was still able to speak of a friendship, its vicissitudes with warmth.  Lowell suffered from psychological/mental issues. Walcott tells us that Lowell spent most of his life recovering from, and dreading, mental attacks. While he was a devoted friend to the poet, Walcott at some points had enough of Lowell’s temper and instability. Walcott’s essay on Lowell had in it the tensions of friendship and the beauty of reconciliation that truly gave light to the phrase unforgettable friendship.

Tears edging my eyes when he invited me years later to his apartment…he opened the door, hunched, gentle, soft voiced, while he muttered his apology, I gave him a hard hug, and the old love deepened.

If anything, Derek Walcott’s love for his friend can be felt in the words he chose and in how he wrote the essay for while he brought to surface not only the good, as well as the bad about Lowell, he did everything from the eyes of a friend and not of a critic.

Derek Walcott

On the other hand, Joseph Brodsky’s friendship with Isaiah Berlin seemed shorter compared to Walcott and Lowell’s. However, Brodsky in his tribute to Berlin embraces a moment—the first time they met—and is able to share with his reader the intimacy of that meeting. Brodsky reflects on that first meeting beautifully when he wrote:

Still, it think I was sitting in front of him on that sunny July afternoon not only because his work is the life of the mind, the life of ideas…I believe he wanted to see me not for what I knew but for what I didn’t— a role in which, I suppose, he quite frequently finds himself vis-à-vis most of the world.

Strangely enough, when Joseph Brodsky died he was given a most loving and beautiful

Joseph Brodsky

tribute by his fellow Russian Tatyana Tolstaya. Tolstaya allowed the poet to sparkle even in death, that her essay felt like an ode as opposed to a goodbye.  Of all the truthfully warm essays, this is my favorite. The first few sentences alone swept me away:

When the last things are taken out of a house, a strange, resonant echo settles in, your voice bounces off the walls and returns to you. There’s the din of loneliness, a draft of emptiness, a loss of orientation and a nauseating sense of freedom: everything’s allowed and nothing matters, there’s no response other than the weakly rhymed tap of your own footstep. This is how Russian literature feels now…Joseph Brodsky has left us, and our house is empty.

What more must a poet or writer wish for? In setting up the picture of how great the loss was, Tolstaya made me want to search for Brodsky’s poetry—to know the poet.  Tolstaya didn’t skimp in dragging the reader in and making her understand how important and tragic Brodsky’s death is to Russia. While I am not Russian, I felt, truly, that Brodsky was unforgettable to Tolstaya as a contemporary and as a friend.

After reading this book one thought persisted: death. I wonder does death truly make us perfect. It feels as if our sins are forgiven when death comes to take us.  Maybe that’s the true virtue of mortality. It is interesting how the death of their contemporaries/friends/heroes made most of the writers revisit their first meeting with the departed. I find this is where they drew their stories. It seems beginning and endings are never truly separate. Yet, never truly complete for as Lowell writes in his poem: We are poor passing facts.

There are twenty-seven essays in this book. Outside of Einstein I’ve never read anything of these authors, poets, or intellectuals. Of the 27, I can count with my hands the ones that truly stood faithful to the book’s title. This book is for those familiar with the people written about, for those who want another angle to the writer, poet or intellectual. However, do not expect it to be about writers and their unforgettable friendships. If you do, be disappointed as I was.

10 comments on “NYRB Reading Week: The Company They Kept

  1. myragarcesbacsal

    I have to agree, we truly are in a roll. We’ve reviewed a chapter book, YA fiction, children’s book (tashlin and the coming thurber special), you’ve done adult fiction, and now Non-fiction. How comprehensive!

    Regarding your review, we do know how writers do get to be pedantic on occasion – loving the sound of their own seemingly-profound sentiments – yet failing to capture the heart/the essence of whoever it is they’re giving tribute for – which I find .. sad. Was the book engaging in any way? Or was it just… well, to be blunt, a tad boring? I was even thinking that with its theme being wrapped around death/darkness/loss – should be right up your alley – haahahaha, maybe we could include this as part of our Haunting Tales (but no ghosts/ monsters lurking in the dark, right? tsk… too bad).


    • Mary of GatheringBooks

      I like nonfiction and while some people might find some of those i read snooze inducing, I still like them. It wasn’t really boring. It wasn’t just what I paid for. I mean there were essays that were so engaging. But some didn’t give off anything outside what seemed like a literary critic of the writer and his work, which does not justify there presence in a book whose subtitle is: Writers on unforgettable friendships. I could have kept this book to maybe 10 essays about people really writing about someone as a friend. There was even one whose essay was about a man she never met, only worshiped as an influence in her writing?! Go figure!

      But I won’t blame this book for my ignorance of these literary honchos. I give it credit for introducing me to poets i might seek for in the future. Otherwise, it made me wish I just read another adult fiction for NYRB reading week. I think those who will appreciate this book are those who KNOW the people being talked about…those who study literature maybe. I don’t know. haha.


  2. myragarcesbacsal

    And yes, why do these men look so grim and despondent. Gosh. Is that a requisite to be considered a serious book author? Oh no. I’d fail that in so many respects! =P


    • Mary of GatheringBooks

      Yup. I know. Haha, but then again most of them died in the 80s and so I assume its also a reflection of a time. And a lot of them were coming from war. Brodsky for instance was a strong voice against Russia back in the cold war (if i’m not mistaken).
      But yes, you wouldn’t fit. But you can always make it more broody with photoshop effects. haha.


      • myragarcesbacsal

        Oh No. Not even photoshop can make the bubbling zest and verve tone down a smidgen, I tried. Really. But yes, there would be moments when I shall attempt to adopt this worldly, quasi-author, melancholic mode. I’d wear it like a badge.


  3. Pingback: NYRB Reading Week: A Reflective and Summative Postscript |

  4. Mary, I’ve been seeing this book in the stores, too, and I was supposed to get it, but I realized I didn’t know many of the authors, either. So I didn’t yet. After having read your review, consider me forewarned. Maybe when I know enough of them, I’ll finally attempt to read this book.

    By the way, I found your (Mary and Myra’s) repartee funny! I remember hearing one of my Lit professors saying that writers love having their pictures taken wearing black. Preferably a turtleneck. Presumably to emphasize their serious, broody status.:)


    • Mary of GatheringBooks

      Hi Honey,
      Yup. Its best appreciated when one is familiar with the authors. I’m been seeing a book by Tatyana Tolstaya (an NYRB) in bookstores recently. However, I’m not yet sure how I take Russian Literature. Still hesitant about it.

      hahaha. Well yeah, black turtle necks will make you look severe and serious. This little side conversation makes me want to search every picture of every author I read just to check the preference for their official ‘i am an author’ picture.


  5. This does sound intriguing although I too was surprised to hear that they were eulogies, I moreso expected something more uplifting and forward looking. Of course, eulogies can be uplifting, but they are naturally rather sad! I had had my eye on this too and I still too, I’m especially keen to read the one about Isaiah Berlin – he always sounds like the most wonderful and interesting man. I hope these people’s friends knew how loved and treasured they were in their lifetime, too.


    • Mary of GatheringBooks

      Hi Jane,
      Thanks for dropping by. If not eulogies they were definitely tributes to the dead. It is a nice book and something worth reading if one is familiar with the writers and the people they wrote about. I think, what I lacked, really, was that knowledge hence the lack of appreciation for most of the essays. Yes, Isaiah Berlin does sound like an interesting man…Brodsky talks about the man speaking Russian. I though Berlin was Russian, turns out he wasn’t, so how can’t that bit of trivia not make a man interesting. 🙂


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