Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back
by Reynolds Price
Reviewed by Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World
After graduating from Duke University, Reynolds Price sailed off to Oxford in 1955, where he spent three years as a Rhodes scholar. During this time he published his first short story and produced a B. Litt. thesis on John Milton's dramatic poem "Samson Agonistes." He then returned to Duke for a short-term appointment as a teacher of creative writing and literature. Fifty years later, Price is still there in Durham, but now as the very distinguished James B. Duke Professor of English and one of America's most revered men of letters. This engaging memoir, however, covers just six years in a young man's life, albeit a life that was unusually rich in friendships and youthful accomplishment.
At Oxford, Price's teachers included such eminent scholars as the aristocratic David Cecil, who used to grow so excited in lectures that he would spray spittle on students in the front row; the formidable Helen Gardner, an authority on John Donne with a disturbingly flirtatious way of twiddling with the pendants she always wore; and Nevill Coghill, who had once been the teacher of W.H. Auden. During his holidays, Price also managed to meet some truly famous people: He recognized and spoke with the very young Brigitte Bardot, glimpsed philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre on the street and was given a curt bow, and actually exchanged grins with fat Nikita Khrushchev. Following a performance of Titus Andronicus, Price was introduced to Vivien Leigh and a nearly naked Laurence Olivier in their dressing room. He attended a to-die-for performance of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro conducted by Karl Bohm and sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Irmgard Seefried, Christa Ludwig and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He even dined at the home of the great actor John Gielgud. Like so many provincial Americans before him, Price eagerly, relentlessly sucked up as much English and European culture as he could.
Of course, he also fell in love. Twice. Much of this memoir recounts Price's intense friendship with a fellow undergraduate named Michael Jordan, a relationship that taught him "an enormous amount about affection, love, steadfastness, wit, and patience." That friendship continues to this day, though it has never had any physical component. On the other hand, late in his Oxford sojourn Price virtually seduced a somewhat reluctant older East European scholar he calls Matyas. Yet like many of the people Price cared about, Matyas was essentially bisexual and ultimately settled down with a wife and family.
In general, Price is very low-key about what he prefers to call his "queerness." (He notes that a "queer" friend once said: "Please don't call me gay. If you need an adjective, call me morose.") While clearly dazzlingly handsome (as the cover photograph of Ardent Spirits shows), Price claims never to have been a "draw" for men or women. He's never felt comfortable in gay bars. In his fiction he nearly always writes about heterosexual love and family life, insisting that he just doesn't know enough about homosexual couples. Fundamentally, Price presents himself as a generous mentor to the young, a deeply loyal friend and a born teacher.
Back at Duke, though, he discovers that he has absolutely nothing to teach one member of his very first writing class, a 16-year-old girl named Anne Tyler. His other early students include the now well-known poet and fiction writer Fred Chappell and the journalist and environmentalist Wallace Kaufman. Courteously, Price only hints at the jealousies and rivalries of Duke's English department, though he speaks frankly of mentor William Blackburn's eventual paranoia, and repeatedly makes clear his own current disdain for today's cult of theory and cultural studies. Surprisingly, he also questions the value of his own specialty, creative writing:
I never urge advanced writing-study on talented students. I'm more than convinced that the best writing of fiction, poetry, and drama is the result of intense independent work by a naturally gifted man or woman who finds the time... to deepen those skills in the act of probing further down into what will prove to be his or her best subject matter, matter to which only he or she has guided him or herself, not a teacher nor a group of workshop colleagues.
Certainly, this was Price's own method. Ardent Spirits traces his own literary self-formation: a first story and essays published in Encounter (he reviewed Albert Camus and Iris Murdoch with "deplorable condescension"); encouragement from people like William Styron, Stephen Spender and the agent Diarmuid Russell (whose clients included Eudora Welty); and the gradual realization that what he thought was just another story was in fact his first novel, A Long and Happy Life (which won the William Faulkner Award in 1962).
While much of Ardent Spirits feels agreeably conversational and digressive, Price's individual sentences and similes can be striking: "Their mutual devotion was clear as clean water"; a landlady's black tea was "strong enough to ream a radiator"; Bill Blackburn "could scarcely write a postcard."
Still, some of these pages do seem to lack punch, mainly because Price scrupulously sticks to just what he can remember. One wishes that he'd kept a diary and recorded the exact words and witticisms of his brilliant teachers and friends. David Cecil, he does tell us, once warned him that the famously ugly and notoriously sharp-witted Cyril Connolly was "not as nice as he looks." Fortunately, Price does offer some typically winning vignettes of W.H. Auden, who was in residence at Oxford as professor of poetry:
I mentioned my love of Emily Dickinson; he nodded with no enthusiasm -- 'Very little-bitty at times, don't you feel?'... He asked for my favorite opera composer. I said Wagner; he grinned, shut his eyes in bliss, tilted his head back:... 'I long to direct a production of Tristan und Isolde with two large lesbians -- no man and woman could ever carry on so fervently about one another.'
When Auden finally left Oxford, the neat and tidy Price was given a glimpse of the poet's living quarters: "I looked round at two rooms in a state of disarray that I'd never before seen generated by any human being. And Wystan had only been in residence for two months. The desk, the floors, the tables, and every other surface were inches -- if not feet -- deep in abandoned books, magazines, clothing, galley proofs, dirty dishes, whatever. My face may have betrayed my literal shock; but Auden only gave a brisk wave above the chaos and said 'If you'd like to come back later and see if there's anything you want, by all means do.' "
Does the fastidious Reynolds Price come back to rummage through the great poet's trash? You'll have to read the very enjoyable Ardent Spirits to find out.
Dirda -- [email protected] -- writes each Thursday in Style.