Familiar spirits: a memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson
Alison Lurie is known for the sophisticated satire and Pulitzer-winning prose of her novels and stories. In Familiar Spirits, she lovingly evokes two true-life intimates who are now lost to her. In her signature mix of comedy and analysis Lurie recalls Merrill and his longtime partner, David Jackson and their lives together in New York, Athens, Stonington, Connecticut, and Key West.Familiar Spirits reveals both the worldly and other worldly sources of what Merrill called his "chronicles of love and loss". Merrill was known for the autobiographical element in his work and here, we are introduced to the over thirty years of Ouija board sessions that brought gods and ghosts into his and David Jackson's lives, and also into Merill's brilliant book length poem, The Changing Light at Sandover. Lurie suggests that Jackson's contribution to this work was so great that he might, in a sense, be recognized as Merrill's coauthor. Her account of Merrill and Jackson's long and inspired relationship with the supernatural and its tragic end will not only surprise many readers, but stand as a poignant memorial to her lost friends.
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LibraryThing ReviewUser Review - LibraryThing
This is an excellently written, at times horribly unfair memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Foreign Affairs. Embarrasingly, I admit to never having heard of her before ordering this memoir. She is certainly an accomplished writer and has a real gift for bringing to life James Merrill and David Jackson. I found her memoir essential reading for anyone interested in the life of Merrill, one of America's best poets of the previous century, and that of his friend, David Jackson, who apparently was a gifted writer in his own right, but unlucky when it came to getting published. Merrill and Jackson's life together makes for very interesting reading. It runs the gamut of emotions, from hilarity to estrangement to a profound sadness. I thought it really conveyed the subjective understanding Lurie had of Merrill and Jackson, and the way that a wonderful relationship can come unstuck. What I did not care for, however, are Lurie's repeated claims that it was Merrill and Jackson's experiences with the occult that led to the relative tragedy of their later lives. Lurie's argument is quite sophisticated, and probably correct to a degree: the Ouija board seemed to consume quite a big part of Merrill and Jackson's time, which might have been more 'healthily' spent, if not more productively. She never directly comes out and contends that the spirits they contacted were malevolent - but there is a suggestion of this. As I said earlier, I am wary of dismissing the reality of the spirits, whether they were benevolent, malevolent or neutral. What I would contend is that Merrill and Jackson's relationship had many other stresses placed upon it. That they - especially Jackson - sometimes claimed to be unhappy with the communications, is certainly true. But things are inevitably more complicated. The poem might also have served as a way for Merrill and Jackson to spend time together, or as a way for Jackson to express his frustrations at being 'left behind' by the publishing world. Of course, I did not know Merrill and Jackson personally, as Lurie assuredly did. But hers is only one perspective on Sandover. Many critics have praised the poem. Lurie makes a snide remark in the memoir that these have been mostly male critics, which seems neither here nor there to me. I see little reason for distinguished critics - and friends of Merrill - like Bloom or JD McClatchy to sing the poem's praises if they do not really feel that it is a worthy thereof. As Lurie writes at the end of the memoir: If you take no chances, make no sacrifices, and reject the irrational in any form, how can you ever 'make it new'? And if you decide to take these chances, will the end justify the means? Unfortunately, we cannot know the answer to any of these questions until long, long afterwards. I mostly agree with that statement, but with the caveat that I doubt we can ever know exactly what led to an artistic truimph, or a human tragedy. James Merrill remains one of my favourite poets, but I know feel that I have a better understanding of his life and untimely death. If Lurie had left it at that, I would have been more satisfied. But I suppose she has her reasons for saying what she does, and I accept that we have a difference of opinion on this matter.
Review: Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David JacksonUser Review - Goodreads
Engrossing memoir, though I was probably looking for a more straight forward biography of Merrill. Fast-paced and never less than interesting, could have been twice as long. Ends with a series of ...