Speaking with the Dead

By Mairead Small StaidDecember 11, 2020

Speaking with the Dead

Stories I Forgot to Tell You by Dorothy Gallagher
Here We Are by Benjamin Taylor

“THE THEATRE OF ALL my actions is fallen,” said Antigonus the Second, according to Plutarch, at the death of his friend and mentor Zenon of Citium. “[T]hey are fortunate who get a theatre where the audience demands their best,” added George Eliot, quoting Plutarch in Middlemarch. This is how the dead speak across the long reaches that divide them from us: through a set of quotation marks or two, through whatever happy accidents — whatever theft or reverence — managed to preserve their words. They are fortunate, we might add, whose listeners take such diligent notes.

The falling of theaters has occasioned two memoirs published this year, Benjamin Taylor’s Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth and Dorothy Gallagher’s Stories I Forgot to Tell You. The latter is addressed to Gallagher’s husband, the writer and publisher Ben Sonnenberg, who died in 2010. “It was never my intention to write about marriage, widowhood, and grief,” Gallagher says, and she hasn’t. She has written, instead, about cats, dogs, pigeons, photography, the architecture of New York apartments, long-dead relatives, typewriters, furniture, and clothes. Why not? “[T]hings are evidence; life accumulates on them, like the snow that falls while you’re sleeping,” she says, and the book is a partial record of that evidence, of her life before Sonnenberg, and with him, and now that he is gone.

Stories is a memoir built of anecdote and digression, paragraphs skipping like stones from one liquid moment to the next. The method is gestural, not comprehensive, and the book clocks in at a slight 94 pages. Gallagher works in swift, fizzing movements; each chapter is a sketch, not a painting. Mockingbirds build a nest on her terrace in a few brief lines and are dispatched (by a hawk, alas) at paragraph’s end. When they return later in a single tangential sentence, the moment is as light as a stray mark, the smudge that makes the picture whole.

Gallagher knows how to do more with less, her phrases laced with humor and just the merest hint of sentiment. Wry and quick-witted, her first memoir, about the deaths of her parents, was titled How I Came Into My Inheritance and Other True Stories (2001). In that earlier work, mother and aunts appear in a present-tense recollection of the author’s childhood, while the death of each woman is confined to parentheses, a New Yorker’s brassy update on Virginia Woolf: “(I buried her ashes just about where the glider stood.)”; “(In her middle age she will be killed by a runaway car.)”

The past is interrupted by the present; a life-drenched reminiscence is undercut by the parenthetical fact of death — but death, too, can be interrupted. In Stories, it is the past that cuts in on the present, waltzing the narrative away into scenes long gone, rooms long left, conversations begun and ended many years ago. Perhaps — for here is one of the participants, chatting airily away — they have not ended after all. “[W]hen I count up [the years,] I see that she has been dead for more than a quarter of a century,” Gallagher writes of her mother. “That’s a dignified slice of time, a strong indication that she’ll remain in that state, no matter how often I call for her. You, on the other hand, are less than eight years old in death, a child, unreliable. For all I know, you might yet decide to turn up.”

This possibility blossoms in the time machine that is a book. Don’t past and present share the same paragraph, the same sentence? “Strangers walk through those rooms now,” Gallagher writes of the home she shared with Sonnenberg. “[T]hey think our apartment belongs to them.” The possessive pronoun asserts itself, clinging to the space even as other words, the words of others, accrue. Despite her husband’s death, life hasn’t ceased its accumulation — on bookshelves and windowsills, tomatoes and tailored suits — and Gallagher takes careful note of each development as if she might be required to report on it.

In this way, Stories is less about grief than it is an enactment of grief, particularly of the habit formed in death’s aftermath of speaking to someone who is not there. “I found that when I was alone I was talking to Ben all the time,” Gallagher writes in the book’s preface. “Five years passed and I was still talking to him.” The book that follows is an attempt to continue that conversation, the most essential one of the author’s life, despite its interlocutor’s absence. “Ever after, you were my first reader,” Gallagher writes of meeting Sonnenberg. “I waited on your opinion. I wait now.”

Another interlocutor is absent in Benjamin Taylor’s Here We Are. “[O]urs was a conversation neither could have done without,” Taylor writes of his friendship with Philip Roth, a relationship as essential as it was uncomplicated. “There was no dramatic arc to our life together,” he says. “It was not like a marriage, still less like a love affair. It was as plotless as friendship ought to be.” Such fine-boned aphorisms stud the text, though Taylor can take credit only for some of them. While Gallagher addresses Sonnenberg directly, Taylor resurrects Roth largely through quotation; long swathes of conversation make up most of the book.

I was skeptical, as I often am when reading scene-driven memoirs, of the pages upon pages of quotation, the whole paragraphs of Roth’s winsome ranting conveyed, supposedly, verbatim. But my doubt was somewhat mollified by Taylor’s mention, in a brief aside, of jotting down a line as soon as he reasonably could — “Maybe write a book about our friendship,” Roth said once, a blessing — and crumbled entirely in the charming face of the quotations themselves. However they were recorded or recollected, the lines inspire gratitude for their salvaging. We are given Roth’s insights on his own work — “I flung my harmless obscenities back at the world-historical ones,” he says, of his 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint — and on the American literary tradition to which he made his considerable contribution. “The disparity between who we are on paper and who we really are is what has dumbfounded American writers and produced, between Emerson and ourselves, a literature second to none,” Roth says. “Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, James […] they’re heartbroken patriots.”

Within these talk-drenched, deftly rendered chapters, the memoirist’s skill resembles that of the ventriloquist. Gallagher possesses this polyphonous tendency too, quoting Sonnenberg or, in How I Came Into My Inheritance, taking whole pages from the writings of others — a mother, a second cousin twice-removed — and tucking them into her own. In both works, the writers throw their voices so skillfully that we might forget the intended recipient is no longer waiting to catch it; the reader, eavesdropping, steps in.

Here We Are is an eavesdropper’s delight. Roth might have disliked gossip (“All the fun of a secret is in keeping it,” he says), but Taylor offers judicious tidbits, hints of love affairs and rivalries, a dinner party with Judith Thurman and Mark Strand in attendance. The reading experience is sumptuous and over too soon, like life at its best; I didn’t want the party to end, the guests to go. “Who does not grasp the fierce impulse to believe?” Taylor writes. “How can this immense datum I am be extinguished?” The immense datum Roth was is immeasurable as any life, and Taylor doesn’t strive for biographical completion: Here We Are is hardly heftier than Stories, running to fewer than 200 pages. The slimness of these books, their sudden ends — one feels almost bereft.

Despite Taylor’s filial love — “He was the chosen parent of my middle age” — Here We Are is not entirely hagiography. Beneath the damning spotlight of quotation, Roth is brutal and unseemly in his still-fervent hatred of his first wife, who predeceased him by 50 years. Everyone who ever wronged him however mildly — ex-wives, nosy neighbors, scathing critics — seems to have made a satirized cameo in his books, the novelist’s go-to revenge. One wants to grab the aging giant by the shoulders and shake: No one but you is writing about them, Philip! I was reminded of a reading at which Nathan Englander recounted a conversation he’d had with Roth when the younger writer asked the elder if one got used to criticism over time, grew thicker skin. And Roth said (as Englander recalled as I remember now): “No — thinner and thinner, until I can hold you up to the light.”

Held up to the light by Taylor, the thin-skinned Roth proves to be translucent as stained glass, a Jewish patron saint of rage and writing. Everything — a bucolic childhood, an aging body, lust and indignation, intellect and humor — shines abundantly through. “There’s too much of you, Philip. All your emotions are outsize,” says Taylor, and Roth replies: “I’ve written in order not to die of them.” Here is the small comfort that comes with an author’s death: we still have the best of him held between covers. The lines Taylor pulls from the published works make one want to read or reread them; his mourning, and ours, is reserved for the man himself, beloved in this rendering and bound, as his books are not, to the particular foolishness and beauty of an era that seems to have ended with his death. “Email me tomorrow, Ben,” Roth says, in 2012. “At my email address up here in the country.”

How Taylor wishes that he could. “I wanted to tell him he was doing fine,” he writes, “that he was a champ at being dead, bringing to it all the professionalism he’d brought to previous tasks.” Like Gallagher, Taylor reserves sentiment for a last resort, preferring bone-dry wit and a glancing punch line. “Philip looked serene on his plinth,” he writes about identifying the body at the morgue, “like a Roman emperor, one of the good ones.” One senses Roth would have appreciated the line. The garrulous writer might have gone silent, but that doesn’t mean Taylor isn’t speaking to him still.

Isn’t this how we grieve, after all? Not solely for the person gone, for the immense and irreplaceable multiplicity that he was, but also for the fine strand that ran between us, the connection as singular as either of its participants. “Dead is dead, I know that,” writes Gallagher. “But where does that leave me? If not you, who will ever know that once I summered in Yalta?” It seems essential that someone does know that — for once, someone did. How is it that they are there, we here? Once, the line was not so thickly drawn. Once, our every tossed-off word was caught, returned.

“Memory is where the living may rejoin the dead,” Taylor writes. “There they anoint us.” Standing in the rubble of a fallen theater, we can still hear the benediction of the vanished audience demanding our best. The thick line that divides us from them grows thin as an eyelid, as a page, thinner and thinner. A light shines through.


Mairead Small Staid is an essayist, poet, and critic living in Minnesota. Her work can be found in AGNI, The Believer, The Paris Review Daily, POETRY, and The Southern Review, among other publications. 

LARB Contributor

Mairead Small Staid is the author of The Traces (A Strange Object, 2022). She has received fellowships from MacDowell, the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, and Phillips Exeter Academy, where she was the 2017–2018 George Bennett Fellow. Her essays have appeared widely, including in AGNI, The Believer, and The Paris Review. She lives in Minnesota.


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