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It feels like this letter might hurt a little to write. Not because it's hard to write to you—we've long been correspondents and conversationalists, interlocutors in what I believe you once termed “marathon chats”—but because I'll write this at a time of year that for both of us can be a tender-feeling moment. I'm beginning on May 10th, and in less than a week it'll be the ninth anniversary of Bill's death. As that number gets larger, it makes less and less sense to me. What does nine years mean in relationship to that event? I don't know. I feel like I don't even understand whether that's a long or a short amount of time.
Over the past couple of weeks I've been thinking about the story, sort of famous now among our friends, of the short essay you wrote about Bill's glasses. If I remember right you sent it to me in the fall of 2014; it was a beautiful piece of writing. In it you told about being in your car with Anneka some months after Bill's accident and watching her pick up his smashed glasses from the center console. She asked you whose they were. You'd had them since the days right after he died, when you and Sam and Hannah and Hannah's parents stopped at the site of the accident to see if anything was still there. But, as you wrote about in the essay, you had never quite known where to put the glasses—so they'd stayed in the car, untouched till Anneka asked about them.
The thing about that story is that it hadn't happened to you but to me. It was July 2011 and Anneka was visiting from New Orleans; I didn't have a car, but I had borrowed yours so we could go to Red Hook and do errands. We were in a parking lot when she picked up Bill's glasses (which I had seen there many times, as driver and as passenger, and never touched, and never asked about) and said, whose glasses are these? I was too startled and pained to speak for a moment. And in that lapse she figured it out, said, Oh, and put them back. We sat in silence for a minute before I started driving. I think I retold this story to you after Anneka went back to New Orleans, partly as a way of gently saying that maybe Bill's glasses shouldn't stay in the car, not just for others' sake but for your own. But I also told it to you because I knew that even though it was a painful story, you would be interested in it: the two of us always have had a shared appreciation for that kind of thing, the way small moments speak to something larger. Maybe another way of saying this is just that I feel like you have always been a friend to whom I have a constant impulse to tell things, and from whom I want to hear.
But—as I remember all this, at least—the crazy thing about your essay is that by the time you wrote it, three years later, you had forgotten that I had told you about my moment with Anneka. Or to be more clear: you had forgotten that it hadn't happened to you but to me. You had, as I believe we joked, “stolen my memory.” This struck both of us as funny and amazing. It was funny in part because of the larger roles we each play in our group of friends: I'm a bit of a class historian and you are forever lamenting how you can't remember things. But something about the mistake felt deeper than that. It felt true and sort of beautiful. When Bill died, part of the pain of his death—that he had been a crucial part of a big group of friends whose lives had come to feel entangled—was also what made it possible to limp through the awfulness of the loss. I felt, and still feel, so closely connected to the other people who loved him, and in the time after his death I felt all our stories and all that love accumulate. One example of that accumulation is your own openness about the day he died, and about your bike trip more generally. In a sense I've stolen your memories too, because thanks to you (and Sam and Hannah) I can picture things I was never there for. Some of what you've shared is painful, really painful. But my feeling about it has always been gratitude. (I picture us in Tivoli, sitting on the dock after you returned from the trip, or at night under sharp stars on the road by my parents' house in Santa Fe—and you are telling me about the hospital, the hotel in Searcy.)
I think that sharing stories after a person dies is common, but the extent of our friends' sharing might be rare. It's a privilege both of time and of having generous-spirited people around. There's a shock of loneliness in losing someone you love: you realize what you didn't know about them, how briefly your lives intersected. It's been 14 years since I met Bill, and he's been dead for nine of them—and I knew him for only five years of his 23-year-life. Again, though, I'm filled with a kind of general scorn for numbers as I think about this accounting, though the numbers also scare me. They don't actually match up with my experience of Bill or of his death. But even though I—and each of us—only knew Bill in a specific and limited way, I suppose at this point we've all stolen each other's memories, more or less with permission, and in a way my frame of reference in regard to his life is broader than any other I've got for anyone besides myself. This is something I've thought about a lot—how after death every detail of someone's life becomes a kind of treasure. You see something through that might always be true. But it's so hard to hold onto until someone is absent.
I was thinking about all this recently as I talked to a friend from grad school about the death of my classmate Zoe, who died in late April of COVID complications and of the racial bias that impeded her medical treatment when she got sick. I say classmate, not friend, not out of any sense of indifference to Zoe, but rather out of a sense of shame that I didn't make a bigger effort to be a real friend to her while I knew her. Caroline, the friend to whom I spoke, was very close with Zoe, and she told me as we talked about her experiences over the course of a week or so of mourning. She spoke about being on a Zoom call with Zoe's friends from undergrad and loving the new stories she heard, their newness but also their continuity with what she knew of Zoe. But she also talked about how difficult it is to know who gets to tell—and in telling shape and edit—the story of someone's life after they die. What's emphasized, what's included, what's left out?
Zoe's story is not mine to tell here. But it feels important that it is told and heard and honored. After I got off the phone with Caroline, though, I wondered what “it” even is, what story I am referring to when I say that. There is no one story that can be told about someone—a life looks different to different people, and the language and framing of it vary depending on your vantage. This is an emotional issue and also often a political one, in multiple senses of that latter word. Bill's death, like all losses maybe, wasn't immune from some tension around the way in which that loss and his life were narrated. You know this as well as I do, though you have been far less likely than I have to be caught up in pettiness around it. I bring these complications up to say that I do understand the desire to feel like you have some definite hold on a person's story, or to grasp at a solid understanding of them—isn't that in part what all the memory sharing is about, too? It's so hard to do what actually feels right to me, which is to allow one's understanding to broaden but allow ungraspability to broaden too. I balked at the idea that after Bill's death we'd use his journals as a way of “understanding” his life—they're incomplete images, as each fragment of a self is—and yet didn't I cherish the letter I got from him after he died (never sent, handed to me by his mother in his family's house in Fort Collins) as some small piece of unquestionable reality? I remember very early on—maybe even in his speech at the memorial—Sam saying that our task now would be a simultaneous holding on and letting go. That seems true of fixed narrative as well as of so much else after a loss. But how to hold onto memories and let go of certainty all at once?
These questions about who tells a story have been on my mind in terms of the coronavirus, of how we understand and will understand this time, what's recorded and what's left undescribed and thus designated unimportant. But I've also been thinking about it because of what I've been reading, which has been (whether for COVID-stress-related reasons or not) mostly older stuff. I taught The Portrait of a Lady this winter at Hugo House, and also discussed it with friends in the splinter cell of our main book club (I call the splinter cell the mini big-book club, because it's smaller but all the books are gigantic); now in that same mini big-book club we're reading Middlemarch, in part because in our investigations of Henry James we discovered that he wrote Portrait in conversation with Eliot's novel to some extent. One of the things I've been noticing as I read and talk about these books is the way in which they're both—what, mediated? determined? controlled? by a narrator who turns our attention toward or away from various parts of the story, and who to some extent interprets it for us. Eliot and James's narrators are markedly different—the narrator of Middlemarch is extremely thorough and generous, always asking us to sympathize with the character whom we've just seen in the worst light, while the narrating presence in Portrait of a Lady is more mysterious and capricious about what we see and what's concealed from us—but there's some similarity in the way in which they contextualize the novels, and in their power. The students in the class I taught on Henry James and Sally Rooney were a little baffled by what James was up to with his narrator, and it was interesting to talk with them about that bafflement, especially in the context of having just read Rooney's Conversations With Friends, which features a first-person narrator whose subjective, limited (wonderful!) voice is emblematic both of Rooney's style (she writes in third person too, in Normal People, but still hews pretty closely to a character-wide view even if it alternates between people) and of a general trend in contemporary fiction. Eliot and James's narrators are also subjective and limited after a fashion—as Andrew pointed out in our recent mini big-book club meeting, they too are characters, inventions of their authors—but they have a significantly different relationship to the story being told. They're at some remove from it, as is true of third-person narration in general. (I'm thinking too as I write this of some of our conversations about the Ferrante novels as compared to the very pleasurable HBO adaptations, and the way in which we experience the “story” of those books very differently through the perspective of a camera than we do through Lenù's first-person narration on the page—for instance, the respective beauty of Lila and Lenù is fixed in the TV series, whereas it lives only via Lenù's subjective comparison in the novels.) But—and this is a bit different from how a camera operates in most instances, I think—the narrators of Middlemarch and Portrait of a Lady are also conscious of, and thus make the reader conscious of, the way the story's being told. To a certain extent this means we are also conscious of the fact that the story—any story—is always constructed, that there is always a consciousness, some subjectivity and thus subjective choosing, behind it. This both feels like a complicated idea and something so obvious that it's almost dumb for me to say it! But—to circle back for a moment to the class I taught on Rooney and James, and now to my reaction rereading George Eliot—what's interesting to me is that while I think that at first my Rooney/James students found this kind of narratorial presence jarring and sort of artificial or mannered, in a way for me it actually feels more authentic than a lot of “realist” first-person or close third-person storytelling. I guess in a way these narrators are doing something similar to what the form and conceit of autofiction often does, which is to suggest that the reader is always in dialogue with another consciousness, one that speaks shiftingly through the text at the intersections of author and narrator and character.
The idea of a conversation between writer and reader is thrilling to me, and long has been (you know that—remember our tutorial with Ben Stevens about how all writing is correspondence of some sort?), but the exchange isn't always untroubled or untroubling. You don't meet on equal footing—there's a power in the subjectivity that controls a story, and that power can be concealed, and can be used for cruel or misleading purposes, or just for self-serving ones (as I guess I briefly touched upon w/r/t how narratives around a loss can be shaped). Whenever I think too long about this stuff I feel pretty adrift or muddled: I want to acknowledge the inevitable compromise and power structure involved in all storytelling, and I also have this crazy Pollyanna desire to believe in some sort of transcendence above that compromise.
Maybe all this is why I find myself really interested in and excited about what certain authors do with form and style to try to illuminate (and maybe by illuminating challenge?) the power structures inherent in narration. The book I've been thinking about in this respect is one I often think about anyway at this time of year—Woolf's The Waves. On the 16th, just before all us Bard pals got together on our Zoom call, I spent some time typing up a section of the novel for the students in the “Writing About Friendship” course I'm teaching. I felt, as I transcribed it, an almost crazed attentiveness; everything about that book wakes me up. I still remember reading it for the first time, sitting alone in my Wyoming modular home in the room that looked out onto the hills across the road and feeling so excited about the novel that I would have to stop reading every couple of pages: pause, look up at the bright sky with hawks perpetually circling, and take big breaths. I remember thinking, and saying to people (maybe even you!) that the book felt shocking, in part because it felt like it had come from me and to me all at once—it constantly surprised me but also felt extraordinarily true to my own experience and feeling. The Waves was, and is still, an important book for a lot of our friends, and obviously a huge part of that has to do with the story it tells, which mirrors not only losing Bill but also the way that friendship among us has felt. It is not a book about which I can be objective, if I can ever be objective about anything!
But it was really cool (if also nervewracking) to talk about it with my students this past week, in part because in the role of a teacher I had to be a bit more distant from it. One of the things we discussed is the way in which the form Woolf has invented or made use of allows her the advantages of multiple structures all at once. The narrative is nominally third-person, and not tied to a “limited” perspective—there are those wild and beautiful italicized sections, and also constant reminders via the dialogue tags “said Neville,” “said Rhoda,” etc. that the narrative presence is distinct from any one character—but most of the narration itself is done by the characters in first person monologues. And, too, the book is comprised of scenes (we looked in class at part of the dinner party scene just before Percival departs for India), but as a student pointed out, the “speech” we hear is not scene-speech—it's actually more like the narration of Portrait or Middlemarch in that it describes and comments upon action instead of serving as inter-character dialogue. Yet that narration is tied to specific people, not to a general presence hovering in some way above the text. Except that—and apologies for all these wildly ping-ponging points—as was also pointed out in our discussion, although the characters are individualized via description, their tone and voice are actually to some degree collective: they say different things and have different priorities, but they sound like one speaker. This feels true to close friendship: Molly and Anneka and I have been told a zillion times that we have similar inflections and lilts in our voices, along with all our shared vocabulary. But this, and the other aspects of Woolf's book that I mentioned above—they also allow for the narration of the novel to be fragmented and unified, limited and capacious all at once. It's not unusual for a book to be told in alternating perspectives, but what's different about what Woolf is doing is that her form explicitly points out a myth about the self that tells a story, and thus about the stability of that perspective. Every “I” is also something wider. Late in the book, Bernard (who self-consciously loves to narrate and is speaking to a “you” outside the group of friends at this point) says:
“Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known—it is true; and yet, when I meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call 'my life', it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am—Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, Louis; or how to distinguish my life from theirs.”
The genius of The Waves, or one of its geniuses, is that each “I” in the book is specific (“But we were all different. The wax—the virginal white wax that coats the spine melted in different patches for each of us”), but also cannot exist without—is indeed comprised of—the other selves with whom it comes into contact.
Of course all this, and the book itself, is the work of one “I” (and sounds it—I was just thinking in the past few days about how part of the sameness of the characters' voices is a certain sameness that cuts across all the Woolf I've read—Woolf can't help but sound like Woolf, and I personally count that as a blessing). But to read—to have written!—a book that calls all “I”s into question by way of expanding their definition! The form of The Waves doesn't erase any of the questions I was mulling over before w/r/t the power structures of telling a story, but I love it for its way of engaging with those questions by way of interrelation and opening-out, not by just either accepting or ignoring limits. (And, too, as I work on this in these last days of May, after the death of George Floyd, I'm thinking about how though Woolf is writing specifically about the interrelatedness of friends, the questions it frames about identity—how identity is always contingent, and how we are always comprised of each other, of our relationships—those questions apply to a much wider field than merely friendship. They matter in terms of community, too, and they actually feel quite radical and apt to me. They're good questions to ask now and always.)
I also just love Woolf's form for how true it feels to me, and how it shows something so hard to describe. I know that indistinguishability Bernard is talking about; have the characters from The Waves not stolen each other's memories, and felt their lives broaden out from not only the stealing but the giving-up? That broadening doesn't preclude jealousy or dispute, but it is—the characters feel and say this—something that makes their lives more much vivid. And it's interesting, and again feels true to my own experience, that they see this and articulate it in the context of a death, a loss. I hesitate to say I “learned” from Bill's death, and I'd give any knowledge back to simply still, present-tense, know Bill. But as I mentioned earlier, the expanse and dearness of all our thinking about him has also made me think about—for years now—how we comprehend a self, our self or others'. The week before the 16th Molly sent me this beautiful excerpt from Jen Bervin's Silk Poems, which I am thinking of now. It is not an answer to anything, but here it is:
H E R E
I S T H I S T H I N G
I M A D E O F M Y S E L F
W I T H O T H E R S
A L I V E
I N Y O U
I love this, love the grammar of it: “this thing” made from “myself” but made “with others” and dwelling animate in the addressed “you.” All of these presences are distinct and yet the lines suggest they're inextricably interwoven. (From the narrator of Middlemarch: “I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web.”) “This thing,” the construction we present to the world in story or in ever-changing self, is necessarily named as individual and yet cannot begin or endure without other consciousnesses. This passage feels to me—and Molly said this when she sent it—like it expresses something about Bill (I remember wondering in the week after he died, where is he now?, not out of a belief in any afterlife but because it felt impossible to think about his aliveness and not imagine that it was still somehow in the world). It also feels like what is at the heart of what I love about reading and writing.
And it says something too about what's generated in friendships, even in ordinary moments—in all the years of friendship between you and me, for instance. I was looking back at the journal I kept when I read Middlemarch for the first time ten years ago, and was excited by the fact, pure coincidence, that I started the book just a couple days before what I consider to be the day that we became real friends. We were definitely friendly before that day, of course—we'd been doing ESL tutoring together and chatting when we saw each other for at least a year. But on December 19, 2009, I got on a bus at Bard to go to New York City, where I'd catch another bus and two flights to New Mexico. It was the end of the semester, and the last few days of it had been horrible for me—I'd been desperate to leave, and was looking forward to escaping all the things I normally loved about being at school. But in the midst of a long entry full of complaints, I wrote:
Had a really great ride to the airport because Paul Cavanagh was on the bus with me. Paul is one of those people who I think I've always wanted to sit down and just talk to, but with whom I've never been in circumstances to do so. But today I was. We talked for the better part of three hours… He showed me a quote he had written down in his notebook from a Tarkovsky movie, about how if one could do something identically every day, over and over, then in that ritual itself would be planted some possibility for change. I should look into Tarkovsky… We talked a lot about the loneliness of words… and we talked about headaches, and throwing up in Central America. Or South America I guess it was for him. It was all a real delight. I asked him for his address. And then the girl on the plane—and this is the first time I've ever observed this happening—threw up into her barf bag with no small dignity. It was, after my conversation with Paul, very funny on some level.
When we sat down together on the bus, I think I felt I hardly knew you—and at the end of the ride I thought, okay, I do know Paul a little now. I remember writing you a letter during that break (the very first letter in our correspondence!) because I wanted to tell you about the girl next to me throwing up, how it had echoed our own horror stories of getting sick in transit. I thought you might appreciate that echo; I thought, Paul's interested in stories. And now I can hardly think about certain curious tendencies, certain storytelling aspirations of my own without wondering if I learned them from you to some extent, in all those marathon chats and visits and meals in shared houses. Something of you is alive in me, and always will be.
You're not too far away, I know, but I miss you! Maybe someday soon I can come over to visit in your garden. For now, though, thanks for stealing my memories, and for letting me steal yours for this (and otherwise)! And thanks for being there for me to write towards and alongside. I think I always am.
P.S. I edited out much of that journal entry above because it was just me saying insanely pretentious things about “the perils and trials and doubts of systems of the modern world,” “the reality of distance,” “the pressingness of literature,” etc. etc. while recapping our conversation. I want to say I've changed in the past 10 years, but I'm kind of scared I haven't!
(The photos of Paul and friends—and me!—were taken by my parents and by Anneka, respectively. The photo of text is from The Waves. Love to you all!)