On Friendship, Reading and Connecting
By Catherine Temma Davidson
This morning I finished the last line of The Story of a Lost Child, the fourth and final book of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. It was 5 am; everyone in my house was asleep. With the final image in my mind, I put down the book. I was filled with a feeling from childhood, once common, now rare: a strong desire to believe that Lila, the brilliant friend of the narrator, really exists. I wanted to remain close to her, close to the world of the novel, even as Ferrante’s wonderful book made me question my need to connect through stories, to impose on life’s chaos the order of narrative.
The person I wanted to call immediately was my friend Diane McDaniel. I live in London and she lives in Los Angeles, but we have been reading the story of Lila and Elena in tandem. I gave her the first volume in 2014, after I borrowed it from my mother. That year became one of the worst of her life, from the point of view of Fate: Diane lost work she loved, her beautiful mother died, and she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Yet this year has also given her gifts: loving connections with friends and family, a renewed sense of purpose, and above all, her voice as a writer as she explores her experiences on Medium in pieces full of illumination and insight.
One of the gifts that this year has given me is deeper pleasure in sharing with my friend the work of words. Diane and I first met each other more than twenty years ago in graduate school at USC. Diane was embarking on a PhD in English and I had begun a Masters in Professional Writing. We started gabbing about books and writing, and our conversation continued through roller coaster romances, marriage, children, and on into the pastures and fissures of middle age.
Lately, Diane and I have talked a lot about our new literary crushes: Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard. These epic yet intimate novels seem just the thing at this time in our lives, and we can’t get enough of them. Diane has already finished the last Ferrante; I can’t wait to discuss it with her. For the last week I have sent her snaps of my progress as I moved towards the end. Our shared passion feels like the purest form of escape. But I think there’s more to it.
When I was 28, I uprooted myself from one country and moved to another. One of the ways I coped with losing a real place was by creating an imagined one. I became a writer after moving to London. I’ve also sent hundreds of thousands of emails and pictures across the ocean over the years. These mental connections create a space where I experience real intimacy. Sometimes I think of this space as a stream, a virtual atmosphere that rests above the earth and holds in place the disappointing dust of daily life. Here, I meet not only those I have lost but many others I could never have known — voices living and dead with whom I feel kinship.
I have another friend with whom I share an active reading life: my 85 year-old mother. She is also facing an abyss at the edge of old age. Yet she is vibrant and alive as ever in the the world of words. When my mother and I talk on the phone these days, it is often about books. We send each other recommendations all the time; we share poems. Recently, she wrote her first one, a couplet about creepy Antonin Scalia that sent chills down my spine. We both feel so lucky to have lived this long, to find this pleasure in our friendship on either side of the third age.
Not long ago, I read an essay in the LA Review of Books called “How Vivian Gornick Saved My Life”. I bought a copy of her book, The Odd Woman and The City, for my mother. Like Gornick, my mother grew up the brilliant daughter of a thwarted mother in an ethnic enclave of outer New York; like Gornick, she conquered Manhattan after getting herself into a city college. Unlike Gornick, she did not become a writer, but was a source of stories all her life. My mother loved the book. She shared it with her friends. Now she is tracking down some of the other writers Gornick mentions, names that appear throughout the book like alleys off a main avenue.
One of them is Isable Bolton, the pseudonym of Mary Britton Miller, who wrote her most successful novels in her sixties and who died in 1975, after having been called one of the best women writers of the century. Have you heard of her? Her trilogy was reissued by Virago in 1997; it arrived here yesterday, a thick volume wrapped in green plastic, sourced by my mother on Amazon resellers. I was excited to open it, ready to fill the Ferrante-sized gap in my life. At the same time, I felt the stab of anxiety that seizes me whenever I discover a brilliant woman writer who has been forgotten. Is disappearance all of our fates as Ferrante’s book implies? Yes, of course it is. And yet…
In her essay, “A Stroll through The City” Virginia Woolf takes a Gornick-like walk through London, ending up at a second hand bookstore. There, she takes time to dip into the shelves, venturing down one dark alley after another of writers whose voices rose up and were lost. When she encountered the chaos of the oncoming Second World War and walked into the water, she had no way of knowing whether she would be one of them. For now, at least, her voice in the stream is strong.
For many years, I kept a quote from To The Lighthouse above my computer: “What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.” How many times has Woolf struck a match for me?
Perhaps Ferrante and Gornick are right, and the city, not the stream, is the right metaphor for this space readers and writers share. Like Naples, the city of our shared imagination is located under a rumbling volcano full of fire. Who can forget that — now more than ever? Built on the rubble of the past, facing constant challenges, it is renewed over and over, expanded with new borders, new inhabitants. Although I have spent my life between London and Los Angeles, maybe this is the real city I inhabit.
Now Diane has introduced me to the world of Medium. For a long time, I resisted all forms of social media. I could not see the relationship between the electronic world I feared and the paper one I loved; every time I thought of Twitter, I wanted to run away and write a poem.
Diane, my own brilliant friend, has always been a brave adventurer. When we hike together in the mountains, she goes first. With blogging, too, I am following her, and have been astounded by what I have found: so many interesting minds, sifting through chaos, searching for meaning and structure: so many candles illuminating the dark. As a Californian, I like the anti-authoritarian nature of the blog, its frontier, do-it-yourself ethos. When I am tired of struggling with the big revelations of novel writing, I can enter into this space, see the flickering all around me, and feel myself expand.
Please recommend this essay and share it with friends. Find my personal essays at my Medium profile page.