The other day, completing my winter blitz through piles of unread periodicals, I encountered the latest in Jenny Diski's series of essays about her extraordinary relationship with Doris Lessing--which began when Lessing, a virtual stranger, took in the fifteen-year-old Diski after the latter's homelife exploded and she was sent to a mental institution.
Reading Diski's account of her anxious and uneasy adjustment to her new home--why had Lessing taken her in? would Diski ever be clever enough to join Lessing and her friends in convesation?--I found myself fumbling to dredge up details from the previous essay: Diski had nicknamed Lessing "Benny," right, for "The Benefactor?" No: that was what Gary Shteyngart called his quasi-parental figure in Little Failure. And was it Diski who described her fear of seeming stupid in front of her boyfriends and their political and academic families? No: that was the fictional Elena Greco, in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels.
It is, I suppose, a coincidence that several of the things I'm reading right now have some overlapping themes and plotlines. But it isn't such a coincidence that three different accounts of intellectual and artistic self-fashioning should involve similar figures and similar anxieties--even though these stories take place in three different countries and two different generations.
On the surface, Diski's experience seems to be an extraordinary outlier: how amazing for an aspiring writer to be literally (if not quite legally) adopted by a famous novelist! But the young Shteyngart has a similarly complicated relationship with a t.v. writer friend-of-a-friend who takes an interest in him and his work; and though Elena has no single comparable figure, Ferrante's novels show her fixating on various teachers, boyfriends, and classmates as models for the kind of intellectual and public figure she'd like to become.
Indeed, aspects of all three experiences are probably familiar to anyone who has struggled to become anything: how does any of us learn to inhabit a new self, if not in response to others?
Most of us don't have a mentor or a patron, but take our models from among our peers. I sure did: in college, in grad school, and in the interstitial years between the two, I fixated on the people I thought of as truly smart--literary, cultured, whatever--and how they talked about things and moved through the world. I was attracted to but abashed by those who spoke well, who had opinions, who knew stuff about stuff. It amazed me that my peers had things to say (circa 1995, circa age 20) about what Tina Brown had done to The New Yorker, or the politics of senators from states other than their own, or the fortunes of American musical theater over the past twenty years. I studied them carefully and tended to have crushes on the men--perhaps feeling that though I didn't have the requisite talents, maybe I could date my way in.
Self-fashioning is always a complicated and anxious process, but if there's any lesson to be drawn from Diski, Shteyngart, and Ferrante's accounts, it's that it isn't any easier with a fairy godmother (Diski's semi-ironic name for Lessing), or a Benefactor, or any other singular mentor or maestro; the people we model ourselves on are also those we struggle to diminish and separate ourselves from: the erstwhile idol becomes only a t.v. writer or only a high school teacher; not really an original thinker--or simply judgmental, unkind, or limited in all the ways that human beings inevitably are limited.
I was never really friends with any of the people I took as my aspirational models, and I'm not friends with any of them now. They were useful projections and fantasies, but equally useful to be able to outgrow.