This post does not qualify as literary criticism or a formal book review, but I still chose a few more words than my usual post to reflect on an important American writer. Suffering along with every one else during this summer of discontent with 2/7 news of job losses, haggling over health care reform, and a seemingly endless media blitz about Michael Jackson, I chose to retreat behind the comfortable covers of a book in between rain showers and trips to the pool. I can’t afford a trip to the beach or the mountains this summer so this was my little escape even though I have continued writing and querying.
After putting aside Reynolds Price’s latest book Ardent Spirits for more than a month (see post on 6/3) to tend to other matters, I picked it up this week. At 400 pages it’s too long to read in a single sitting. Immediately I was again struck by his fluid, almost lyrical style, that flows with a narrative stream of consciousness that is both easy to read and literate. He is not a pompous poseur in this third volume of his memoirs. The book reads more like an old friend sitting down to tell a long story over a drink. His droll sense of humor penetrates even the most intimate of scenes, and I can almost imagine a sly grin as he wrote. Although my tendency is to wander even when reading a dramatic story, I found myself caught up in his self revelations and didn’t drift off to my usual internal conversation.
He acknowledges an unusual self-confidence for a young man, but in retrospect he doesn’t seem to take himself all that seriously. His candid commentary on his professors and new friends at Oxford was simple, direct, and heart-felt. I don’t share his enthusiasm for English literature or his fondness for the English, and I think I would have been miserable in Oxford. I always have been astounded by his amazing memory for detail and his ability to bring to life scenes with unusually deft succinctness.
The chapters on his travels in Europe in 1955 -57 galloped along at a pace that left only momentary impressions and recounted the little incidents of humor or happenstance that stuck in his mind. He didn’t like Florence, and he loved Rome. So what? Of course, this is a memoir so he is relating not only his opinions but also his personal experiences that color any travelogue. He seemed most strained in his efforts to doing a little “name-dropping” as though that might give more import to his travels. After all, they were just a couple of students on vacation.
His portrayal of Oxford is much more comprehensive so that you feel the cozy, clubby, conversations on highly intellectual topics that were interspersed with many hours of reading and reflection. He seems to have been unusually extroverted for a writer with a large circle of friends and continual social engagements. That can be confusing given the panoply of characters that he briefly introduces.
The second half changes from a travelogue filled with personal impressions and jokes to a more serious tone. He acknowledges his romantic attachment to his straight traveling companion. It was strictly a platonic relationship, and they remained true friends for more than 50 years. He also finally actually got to work on his thesis. He blames the delay on his penchant for procrastination and the lax oversight of the collegial system that stressed independent study, but that certainly was a very different experience than what I had in graduate school. His sole youthful sexual indiscretion in the entire three years is related in only five paragraphs told from a philosophical point of view. This memoir doesn’t offer a lot of lurid detail.
Part two is about the first three years of teaching a Duke upon his return to the states. He comments about how he loves teaching, but he clearly was bored with his social life since this section is very short in comparison with the account of his three years at Oxford. Clearly he was more interested in English literature and English writers and the cultural opportunities offered in England at that time. Durham probably was pretty limiting in the early 60’s even though he mentions frequent trips to Washington, DC.
I find this book interesting in his perusing the craft of writing. He focuses on fiction, which is a specialized genre that I don’t know or understand. His memoir is a chronological series of vignettes, character studies, literary allusions, and personal reflections after 50 years in retrospect. I certainly don’t recall in that detail what I was doing 50 years ago or certainly what I was thinking at the time – if I was thinking at all. I suspect that I was reacting to my situation and drifting along.