Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Good Friends

In the Bookforum article on first novels I mentioned yesterday there is a lovely gem of a paragraph that has had me thinking. Here it is:

The greatest pleasure of Adam Bede, and maybe of most novels, is the excellent company of the author. Our novelists become our friends, and we put up with their foibles because we like them. (And since novelists don't change any more fundamentally than the rest of us do, we can usually figure out whether we like them--if not whether we respect them--early on in their career.) Eliot's presence lends her diction-mangling bucolics far more interest than they have in themselves. The capaciousness of the form allows her to move fluidly between reflection and drama, action and mind; the naturalism she champions answers every one of her demands, so that she slips into this supreme form like a swimmer entering water, and like the water it buoys her. She doesn't question the form--there are no questions to ask, beyond the initial one of whether she can master it. Her questions lie elsewhere, and she's using the novel to address them.
It caught my attention because of what it says about the novel as form and contrasts nicely with my reading of Frank O'Connor about the short story. But what really sparked my thinking was the bit about novelists becoming our friends. I don't know about you but I tend to think of my friendship in terms of particular books. But there are a few authors, the ones I love, who are friends. Margaret Atwood could write appliance manuals and I would still want to read them. I have never spent more "face time" with her than it took for her to sign a book and for me to stutter out how much I loved her writing. Nor does she know me from Eve. But she is my dear friend nonetheless. I suspect the friendship we develop with novelists through their novels is why we flock to readings and stand in long lines for that brief moment of mutual recognition--friends. We can't do without one another; the author needs me and I need the author. Friendships can be fickle. We think it is deep and lasting and then something happens, we change or the author changes, and suddenly the quirky charm has turned unbearably annoying. I have a couple authors on my bookshelves that this has happened with. I don't want to get rid of those books though, even when I look at them and wonder what I was thinking. The books are a reminder, a memento from the happy days we spent together, and never fail to elicit a sigh or a fond memory. Something else I like about being friends with novelists or any writer for that matter, you can be friends even if the author is dead and you don't need John Edward to make contact for you. Montaigne is my friend. So is Virginia Woolf. I have spent more time with them in deep and intimate communion than I have spent with some of my living friends. There are a lot of friends I will never meet in person. But whenever I want to talk, all I have to do is open a book.