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BOOK REVIEW: Remembering those who mattered

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 30, 2009

MENTORS, MUSES & MONSTERS: 30 WRITERS ON THE PEOPLE WHO CHANGED THEIR LIVES

Edited by Elizabeth Benedict

Free Press, $24.99, 278 pages

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

If you are interested in writers, literature and the actual process of writing, this is definitely the book for you. But as long as you are interested in people and how they interrelate, then it still has a lot to offer. How could it not? Thirty articulate, analytical contemporary authors offer up their memories of writers who were special influences on them.

The world being what it is, these exemplars tend to be dead - it's just so much easier to write frankly and openly and unrestrainedly about those who are no longer around. But they do come to light again and anew, summoned up by those to whom they had such meaning and value.

Sometimes the contemporary authors prefer to write about a time or a place or books that influenced them, but inevitably people find their way even into those essays, which are all profoundly personal. The good news is that there are not really any bona fide monsters in this gallery; it is much more about mentors and muses. Perhaps monsters are in the title to make the book seem more exciting, or perhaps it's just the eternally powerful siren song of alliteration.

Editor Elizabeth Benedict sets the tone for the volume in her own contribution " 'Why Not Say What Happened?': Remembering Miss Hardwick." The legendary Elizabeth Hardwick, a fixture for decades in New York intellectual circles and at the New York Review of Books, which she had helped found, comes up in other parts of this book as well. But nowhere is she captured in all her contradictory contrariness as subtly and as insightfully as in Ms. Benedict's essay. Clearly the young writer had enormous respect for her mentor, whom she encountered in Ms. Hardwick's role as a teacher of creative writing, respected her, was in awe of her. The older woman could be enthralling:

"Her languid Kentucky drawl was intoxicating, and her offhand remarks were a kind of performance art." She wasn't all that encouraging about Ms. Benedict's writing, though: "I think you can do the work," she said in her measured way. "I'm not sure now that she believed I could 'do the work,' " writes Ms. Benedict, "but I was too young and grateful to question her."

You see a touching eagerness on the part of the aspiring writer to clutch onto the merest crumb of encouragement, how necessary it was for her to have someone who had made it as a writer cheer her on. And you see, too, how the neophyte is sometimes more important in the dynamic than the mentor, how the energy sometimes flows up more than it does down from on high.

Ms. Benedict must have discerned something not so nice under the surface of Hardwick's performance art, since she found herself, after the older writer's death, looking into texts for insight into what made her tick. What she finds in Hardwick's introduction to her late friend Mary McCarthy's "Intellectual Memoirs" is very revealing - about Hardwick for sure but also about what Ms. Benedict had perceived:

"An evening at the Rahvs' [McCarthy was then living with Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv] was to enter a ring of bullies, each one bullying the other. In that way it was different from the boarding school accounts of the type, since no one was in ascendence. Instead there was an equality of vehemence that exhausted itself and the wicked bottles of Four Roses whiskey around midnight - until the next time."

Ms. Benedict had realized that Hardwick lived her life in a series of hard schools and somehow found it encapsulated in these lines with their indelible images of endless sharp intellectual warfare fueled by alcohol.

Not all the essays measure up to the high standard set by the collection's editor. Some, like that by Robert Boyers on Natalia Ginzburg, are so self-effacing that you long for a stronger authorial presence, while that by Carolyn See is so self-centered that it seems more an exercise in self-promotion with the ostensible mentors (including her father) mere props or enablers whose role is to make her shine forth.

Some, though, like those by Jay Cantor about Bernard Malamud or Sigrid Nunez about Susan Sontag resonate with the deep feeling the author has for the departed friend, influence and mentor combined. Ms. Nunez was Sontag's son's girlfriend. And mother, son and lover all lived together in an arrangement where the unorthodox aspect was clearly especially piquant to the Dark Lady of American letters.

But it is clear that Ms. Nunez's affection for the mother outlasted her relationship with the son. And Mr. Cantor manages to conflate his relationship to his father figure Malamud afflicted by a stroke with his actual father dying of cancer in a very moving fashion which manages to honor both men and reflect credit on himself.

At their best, and there are many fine ones in this volume, what essays like this can do is just that: increase our understanding of both lens and subject in these snapshots of writers who mattered to each other - and whom they manage to make matter to us as well.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.