24 September 2011

The Followed

Today's post has one and only one purpose: to introduce a concept. And a (blog) label. A concept and a label that didn't exist an hour ago.

Here's how it all began to take form. My intention, formed while sipping the first latte of the day, was to blog today about Marguerite Duras in general and (her screenplay for) Alain Resnais's 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour in particular. Duras, as regular readers of this blog may remember, is one of the writers I refer to collectively as 'the 26': a list of favorite writers that came together for me one day--in one moment, in fact--in 2009.

The 26 are for me an idiosyncratic mini-canon of authors for whom I have enormous esteem. I also have surprisingly clear and relatively unvarying feelings about who 'belongs' and who doesn't. There might be clerical (and other) errors, and changes that come with new experiences (I simply forgot to include Faulkner in the list, and in early 2009 I hadn't read Jo Nesbø yet) but there was at least no indecisiveness on my part: Balzac, a definite yes; Flaubert, no.

I'm very aware, however, that most of the 26 are what we used to call 'dead white European males'. (The only exceptions are Jane Austen, Duras, Thich Nhat Hanh and Ruth Rendell.) DWEMs tend to be included 'automatically' when we start formulating canons, and then the newly-formulated or -recognized canon (at least for some of us) brings up the whole DWEM issue in turn. Today I want to stress the 'D' term: 'dead'. Only two of the original 26 are alive: Thich Nhat Hanh (born 1926) and Ruth Rendell (born 1930). I'm very conscious of a sense that we have a different relationship to writers who are in some broad sense our contemporaries. And what has brought this home to me is not some sense of remoteness from authors of earlier eras but rather a sense that I needed to disclose or explain something about my closeness to Duras.

Marguerite Duras, who was born in 1914, died in 1996. For the last 20 years or so of her life, I followed her.

If I explain what I mean by that, it sounds like a watered-down paraphrase: 'I eagerly awaited each new publication, bought it at the earliest opportunity and read it immediately.' In reality, there was more passion in it. Note that I felt that the fact that I followed her was something that I had to disclose....

I had started reading Duras at some point in the early 1970s, reading with enthusiasm and admiration, reading books from her backlist--the Hiroshima screenplay, Moderato Cantabile, Lol. V Stein, L'amante anglaise--and towards the end of that time, something clicked for me and I had to read... well, of course, everything of hers I'd missed, but, even more passionately, every new volume as it appeared, starting, as I remember, with the screenplay Le camion.

I'm sure it had something to do with the fact that Duras in the 1970s was still perceived as at least marginally avant-garde. The great popular success of The Lover (1984) was still to come; there were even in France virtually no rack-sized paperback editions of her work. She wasn't a classic then.

And the fact that I followed her then, and for so many years thereafter, sets her apart from most of the rest of the 26. Let's risk overstating the obvious: for almost 20 years I 'went where she went'; I never lost sight of her. I didn't literally stalk her; we never met; indeed, I probably continue to have far less interest in the details of her private life (which have filled many books, both her own and others') than do the majority of her readers.

Still, when I came up with 'the Followed' as a term to designate collectively the writers whom I have read or still read in this way, I heard in that term a hint of Vince Kincaid's following of his ex-wife Miranda (in yesterday's excerpt from A Kiss Before You Leave Me) more clearly than the sense in which we speak of followers on Twitter. I want to underscore in 'the Followed' an association with the love you never quite outgrow, and such a love totally out of the context of regularization by corporations (e.g., Twitter) or groups (e.g., the totality of the 'fanbase' of a particular writer).

What writers have you 'followed' in this sense? How did it turn out?


Jim Carpenter said...

The only writer I've ever followed this way -should I be ashamed to admit this? - is Stephen King, and honestly as time has worn on I've been lax on keeping up with him and my enthusiasm has diminished somewhat.

James Hulbert said...

I wouldn't be ashamed at all of following Stephen King--or anyone else, frankly. There are some writers in whom there's a falling off over time and others who seem to get even better. And of course our needs as readers change. Things to think about....