Writing is a solitary business. The scaffolding behind a work can appear baffling to the non-writer, as can the idea that, even when not putting a single word on paper, the writer might be at work. It is no surprise, then, that the bonds between writers can provide some of our most complex and intimate records of friendship.
The Company They Kept: Writers on Unforgettable Friendships, Volume II, is the second offering on the subject from New York Review of Books. Across the two volumes, the essays chosen by editor Robert B. Silvers cover friendship in a great range of guises, from the fond and funny account of a May-December love affair between Prudence Crowther and the humorist S.J. Perelman to Anna Akhmatova’s touching remembrance of Osip Mandelstam. We are also privy to the admiration Daryl Pinckney felt for his mentor, Elizabeth Hardwick, who told students, “There are really only two reasons to write: desperation and revenge.” Susan Sontag’s portrait of Paul Goodman centers on her ambivalence toward him; she never really felt Goodman liked her, nor was she especially fond of him as a man, but “Everything he did on paper pleased me.”
Another particular highlight is Gore Vidal’s tribute to Dawn Powell, whom he remembers as “a small, round figure, rather like a Civil War cannon ball.” Vidal had turned to drama at that time and Powell confronted him, amusingly: “How could you do this? ... How could you give up The Novel? ... The security of knowing that every two years there will be–like clockwork–that five hundred dollar advance?” Great names run throughout these volumes: Oppenheimer on Einstein; Murray Kempton on Sinatra; Bellow on Cheever, and dozens more, a rich and varied set of reminiscences.
Few of us are fortunate enough to be the subject of the sort of loving, incisive portraits as those which appear in these two volumes. “A memoir of a talented friend risks sentimentality,” Silvers writes in the preface to the first volume. But to the credit of the writers whose work is featured, and Silvers’s credit as editor, these pieces seldom hit a false note. Here are 10 other literary friendships which are also unforgettable: