In Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, Eliot Weinberger writes, “The writing of writers tends to last longer than standard literary criticism, and not only because it is better written. Critics explain their subjects; in writer’s books, the subject is explaining the author.”
A short shelf of writers writing on writers that forever changed how I read those writers:
- Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force
- Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book
- André Gide’s Dostoevsky
- Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop
- Hélène Cixous’ Reading with Clarice Lispector
- John Cowper Powys’ Dorothy Richardson
- Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson
- H. D.’s Tribute to Freud
- T. S. Eliot’s Dante
- Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett
- Dorothy L. Sayers’ Papers on Dante
I’ve been particular with definition here, choosing only single study books written by writers with an accomplished body of their own work. Michael Wood’s On Empson didn’t quite make the cut, nor any of Cynthia Ozick’s writing on Henry James, nor André Bernold’s delightfully odd memoir Beckett’s Friendship. It’s a very personal list; please let me know in the Comments section of any of your favourites.
Nietzsche reflected on the abyss that exists between individuals and wrote that in order for friendship to exist, friends must learn “how to keep silent”. In Beckett’s Friendship: 1979-1989 André Bernold explores the affirmative silence inherent in the work and person of Beckett with whom he was linked in friendship over the last decade of Beckett’s life. Derrida wrote that “friendship does not keep silence, it is kept by silence.”
To Bernold, silence is a defining feature of his friendship with Beckett, a silence broken with brief, staccato conversations as much about overcoats and cigars as about literature. Bernold is consistent with other reminisces of Beckett in noting his generosity and attentiveness but what is moving in this book is the carefully noted accounts of Beckett’s rituals, his handwriting and his preoccupation, for one so taciturn, with voice. The observations are sensitive and avoid drifting into the creepy territory inherent with this sort of memoir.
There are unique moments captured which bring nothing but joy like Beckett’s eagerness to hear about the qualities of voice of Bernold’s professors Delueze and Derrida, and the comment that: “According to Milton, I reminded him, angels do not laugh, they only smile. ‘So what,’ he replied while laughing, ‘they are laughing behind our backs.'”
I was a Beckett nut by the time I was twenty and though I visited Paris often towards the end of Beckett’s life never bumped into him as I hoped. Bernold’s story of the two friends coming together in a dark café in Paris brought together by mutations of thought and silence gains its power from imagining myself into that banquette seat across the table from that famous physiognomy.