Famous Friendships: Reflections on ‘The Company They Kept’ – A Review by Anastasia Buyalskaya

Oppenheimer Learning from Einstein

It wasn’t until this past year, or perhaps two years ago, that I caught myself saying “I had a friend” versus “I have a friend” to pre-empt an anecdote. The seemingly trivial turn of phrase, masking a melancholy reminder of our certain aging, did not smudge nor devalue the anecdote which followed. On the contrary, the memory lingered in my thoughts for longer – propelled by the revelation that this was defiantly in the past, unlikely to reoccur in any reincarnation given that I had lost touch with the protagonist. Similar meditations have occurred since, and this handful of once-very-close friends still occupy warm corners of my mind, holding the stories which defined our friendship.

It’s a funny thing – that despite good times and a lack of obvious reasons for separation, friendships are sometimes not strong enough to surpass an increase in distance, a change in workplace, or the distractions brought on by time itself. Yet for the handful of connections able to weather those natural obstacles, there exist some corresponding stories that feel timeless in their understanding of the bonds that can form between two people unconnected by blood, chemistry or circumstance.

The Company They Kept provides insight into the curious and varied paths that friendships take. It is a collection of short memoirs by writers, scientists, and other creators, and each story recalls impressions of a friend who was actively present in the author’s life for as long as they physically could be. These obituaries display the results of the quiet reflection and synthesis which come with losing a close companion.

Most of the individuals mentioned are known to the reader at some shallow level of familiarity. Yet the book welcomingly dispels the myths which cloud our understanding of these famous figures. At first, I would begin a narrative by thinking I knew enough about Albert Einstein for example, having read a lot about his accomplishments and discoveries. Yet I would end Robert Oppenheimer’s obituary of Einstein – which includes surprises like “after the war, [Einstein] spoke with deep emotion and great weight about the supreme violence of atomic weapons…he said at once with great simplicity: Now we must make a world government” – realizing that actually, I don’t know very much about Einstein after all. I had company in this sentiment, for despite many years of reciprocated vulnerability and dialogue with their respective subjects, even the authors were occasionally left with questions and unknowns about their close friends.

Reading someone else reminiscing about a friend is fascinating. Some of the descriptions evoke desires of wishing to be remembered in a similar vein: “I can’t think of anyone who gave himself in friendship more generously and whose conversation, and companionship, I enjoyed more,” noted Dwight McDonald on Delmore Schwartz.  While other anecdotes evoke fears of actually being remembered for the moments we are less proud of, but perhaps leave a stronger mark on the mind: “he was drunk, he boasted raucously to everyone about his sexual exploits, he talked to me just long enough to be mildly rude,” Susan Sontag notes on Paul Goodman.

It’s not only the protagonists whom we learn something about. In her essay on S.J. Perelman, Prudence Crowther comes across as an excellent listener with a fantastic memory, based on the small and otherwise easy-to-miss details she recalls about her friend. His unique choice of language for everyday verbs, his “unachieved goals,” his favorite books… not dissimilar to Anna Ahmatova, also featured in the book and described as having “this astonishing ability to retain everything: dates, details of topography, names and personal data of individuals, their family circumstances, their cousins, nephews, nieces, second and third marriages….” The best stories were those where the author clearly emulated these qualities: active listening, conscious remembering, and selfless kindness in response.

The defining moments of the memoirs weren’t always the last experiences between the two individuals. In fact, they are more often the extreme times of pleasure or pain, potentially decades before the subject’s death. Such as when Caroline Blackwood describes Francis Bacon at 40, having returned home from the doctor with a diagnosis of a bad heart, weathered down by his excessive drinking, and watching Bacon pop open a bottle of champagne just as he relayed the diagnosis to his friends. His disdain for authority, doctors, and seemingly anything which impinged on his ability to lead the good life didn’t stop Bacon from defying all warnings and dying instead after a long and fruitful painting (and drinking) career, aged 82.

Also noteworthy were some of the ways in which people initially connected. More often than not, strong friendships were formed by those who found themselves outliers in a larger setting, not members of it. Joseph Brodsky and Isaiah Berlin, of different generations but connected by their Russian heritage and obvious alienation in the UK, met for the first time in an English men’s club in St. James. In a setting where most are from an identical background of culture and privilege, easy communication is often confused for friendship. Yet by speaking openly (and at the time radically) in Russian, not to mention while wearing typically Soviet turtlenecks and certainly drinking tea without milk, the private club created an opportunity for the men to share honestly and without pretense. The characteristics which individually made them uncomfortably stick out of their setting, joyfully bound them together more against this backdrop than it would have in a typical Russian restaurant.

Occasionally in friendship, connecting with one person means necessarily connecting with someone else who is close to them, Maurice Grosser’s obituary speaks about the bond between Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, a connection presumably romantic, yet certainly clingingly intellectual. Grosser’s descriptions paint a duo so inseparable that it seems they had little space for other friends. Despite their famous openness and nurturing for artists and writers of the era, any individual who presented a threat to the relationship (having in some way incited one or the other’s jealousy), was immediately no longer welcome. Very rarely must one pit friendships against one another, but in this story we’re reminded that a friendship comingled with romance or family will inevitably be superior.

Part of my interest in the book included a faint hope for wisdom on creating and maintaining lifelong friendships, though the book seems specially curated to showcase instead how varied and seemingly random good friendships can be. Still, two themes stuck out at me across the stories. Firstly, many of the authors met their subjects for the first time as adults. This was initially surprising and then rather refreshing, given my former belief that close friendships must begin when one is still in their moldable, formative years. Secondly, the bond was typically formed out of a mutual respect for one another’s goals and values. The importance of mutual respect and goodwill towards one another is seen throughout, as these friendships thrived through volatile times because of the trust which makes a good friendship “antifragile.” Proverbial success in friendship happened when both people were open to feedback and debate with the mutual understanding that challenges were an act of love to better the other person – rather than an attempt to shake their spirit.

The authors also provide some valuable lessons for successful friendships: such as Craft stating that his relationship with Stravinsky “endured because of a continuing exchange; because of an ever-increasing mutual dependency; and, above all, because of an affection, which though not always visible to others, was abiding and profound.” Craft reminds us also that age shouldn’t necessarily dictate the potential for friendship, claiming that he never felt a generation gap with Stravinsky, 42 years his senior. Craft makes the case for being more conscious of our limited time with our friends, and doing our best to enjoy relationships in the present. He laments of having so enjoyed his relationship to have thought about preserving anything following Stravinsky’s death: “Of course I did not save everything. No one could have been thinking constantly of Stravinsky’s immortality while living with him.”

In that vein, the book ends without any fanfare or revolutionary reveals. Instead, we’re reminded that these famous individuals, by definition extraordinary to the masses that knew them based on a few distinct facts, were ordinary human beings to those who knew them intimately. That may be the perfect moral for a book on friendship. In a world where we spend so much time seeking to be extraordinary (in our careers, our fashions, and our mannerisms), it’s exactly our friends who create the space where we feel comfortable being rather ordinary. It is our friends who seek interest in our own ordinary days, express genuine concern for our ordinary challenges, and praise our ordinary strengths – which in the end, makes us feel slightly extraordinary to one another.

The Company They Kept: Writers on Unforgettable Friendships, was published in January 2006, and can be purchased online or in certain bookstores.


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