Price of friendship

North Carolina memoirist focuses on key relationships

April 26, 2009 

  • Reynolds Price

    Scribner, 408 pages

'Ardent Spirits," the third volume of memoir from Reynolds Price, may be the most compelling book he has published since "Kate Vaiden" in 1986.

Yet explaining why is not so easy.

Compared with other memoirs, Price's volume is mild fare. There are no scenes of child abuse or repressed sexual memory; no compulsive adultery or family suicide; no financial scandals or gender switching. Rather, Price's memoir is about friendship and "high adult happiness" in a slightly different era and culture -- Oxford, England of the 1950s. The subject may not sound striking, btu Price generates a volume I didn't want to put down.

Part of the allure of "Ardent Spirits" is that Price, as in his two previous memoirs, delivers a story of growth and success. In his first volume, "Clear Pictures" (1989), the North Carolina native depicts those childhood guides -- parents, relatives, teachers -- who taught him how to live, love, and develop his artistic talents. His second memoir, "A Whole New Life" (1994), chronicles his devastating bout in the 1980s with cancer of the spinal cord, which left him paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Surviving that crisis, Price explains how his life became even better, largely because he grew more patient and watchful. In each volume Price emphasizes how his success is dependent on the assistance and generosity of others: kinsmen, friends, doctors and fellow artists.

"Ardent Spirits" begins in September 1955, around the time "Clear Pictures" concludes. The 22-year-old Duke graduate and aspiring writer boards an ocean liner for England, where he will study literature at Oxford. Although privileged as a Rhodes Scholar, Price has little money, no family or friends in England, and a healthy dose of guilt for having left his widowed mother and younger brother back in Raleigh.

Yet Oxford proves the perfect place for nurturing his personal and artistic growth. Within the gothic walls of Merton College, where he must wear a hip-length black gown to lectures and dinners, Price encounters a rich range of friends and teachers. Although challenged by both his work and sexuality (since high school he has been attracted to males), his experience in Oxford is immensely successful. Three years later Price will return to North Carolina with a completed degree and thesis, a handful of professional short stories, a book contract, and a teaching job (the volume's final 90 pages, which extend to 1961, cover his early career at Duke, where he still teaches). Further, and more importantly, he returns having encountered and even befriended some of the most famous and interesting people on the planet: world-renowned poets (Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, Robert Frost), actors (Vivien Leigh, Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, Brigitte Bardot), literary scholars (Helen Gardner, Lord David Cecil), and politicians (Nikita Krushchev, Adlai Stevenson). Not bad for a first trip to Europe by a young man from Macon, N.C.

While Price's early literary success is enviable, his good fortune with friendship is what animates the volume. His portraits of Spender and Auden are particularly rich and colorful. When Auden, at their first meeting, asks who his favorite opera composer is, Price replies Wagner; Auden then grins, shuts his eyes in bliss, and says, "I'm having 'Siegfried's Funeral March' played at my funeral, and I long to direct a production of Tristan and Isolde with two large lesbians -- no man and woman could ever carry on so fervently about one another." Of the two poets, Spender becomes the closer friend, opening his home and introducing the much younger Price to other artists. Before a performance of "Titus Andronicus" in London, Spender sends a note backstage to Vivien Leigh, who greets Spender and Price in her dressing room, then sends them next door to see "Larry." After they knock, one of "the world's famous baritone voices" says, "Come in," and there stands "Laurence Olivier naked as a jay."

Many of these encounters with the famous are brief enough that Price would be guilty of name dropping were he not such an engaging observer. On a first sighting of Spender and Jean-Paul Sartre in Venice, Price notes the "phenomenal ugliness" of Sartre's "frog-eyed, near-dwarf body": "the most famous philosopher of the twentieth century looked to me nothing so much as a Cyclops. His thick glasses gave his cocked eyes the quality of single eye." Of those with whom he develops closer relations, Price succeeds in humanizing the famous, revealing their charms as well as flaws and problems. Auden can be inexcusably rude; Gielgud rehashes a personal sexual scandal at a dinner party; and the married Spender confides in Price his overwhelming love for a younger Japanese man.

These encounters with famous artists punctuate the more extended episodes of friendship Price develops with fellow students and teachers, who welcome him with conversation, wit and humor. One friend finds Price's digs so warm (the southerner cannot abide the cold and damp) that he announces, "Reynolds is growing orchids over there in Mob Quad -- orchids and iguanas." Price is also struggling, mostly under the radar, to understand what he calls his queerness. His attraction to highly appealing heterosexual men tends to lead to romantic failure, though oddly he doesn't seem to mind that much.

What separates this volume from Price's previous memoirs is its candor. At 76, Price seems willing to discuss his sexual orientation and history. We read of his "fervent erotic relation" with an Eastern European man and witness his first and only visit to a queer bar in Chapel Hill. Price's increasing frankness may also have something to do with the fact that many of the people he writes about are now dead.

"Ardent Spirits" is not without flaws: Price's closest friendship with a fellow student feels at times underdeveloped and overly ambiguous, and frequent reminders about the growing civil rights movement back home feel somewhat telegraphed. That said, I am hard pressed to name another literary memoir that yields so much continuous pleasure. Price is one of our finest storytellers, and in "Ardent Spirits" he rises to new heights, delivering a compelling account of a profoundly exciting period in a young man's life, when he is confirmed in friendships and launched as a writer.

James Schiff teaches American literature at the University of Cincinnati and is the author of several books, including "Understanding Reynolds Price" and "Updike in Cincinnati."

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