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Books Column: Ducks, Newburyport, Steamboat Springs –...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Books Column: Ducks, Newburyport, Steamboat Springs – A bookish tale of long-lost friendship and a missed chance

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

The places books take you – in some cases, almost take you – never cease to astonish me.

The odds that you’ll be struck by truly mind-arresting wonder go up slightly when you live in the world of books. These moments remain few and far between, of course, but something about the staying power of books – how they roll around in your head after you’ve read them, the way they turn strangers’ minds into maps of shared pleasure – is like smelling salts for serendipity. It’s an unwritten law of human nature: the deeper you read, the more often you feel coincidence’s nudge.

My latest – and, perhaps, most electrifying – experience of this phenomenon happened just last week, with the announcement that Lucy Ellmann, a writer whom I’ve been following for some time, won the James Tait Black Prize for her epic, experimental novel Ducks, Newburyport. The detail that stood out for me, eventually causing the eyes of serendipity to snap awake, was that thirty-eight years earlier her father had won the same prize.

Before we get to the magic instant when certain dots connected and I drew the requisite sharp breath of astonishment, however, I need to fill you in on a bit of backstory.

I was raised in a small town in the USA’s Rocky Mountains called Steamboat Springs. In the winter, which was long, we skied; in the summer, which was short, we hiked, camped, fished, played tennis – the complete set of postcards. Steamboat’s version of the American Pastoral went mostly unmolested, year in, year out: what passed for excitement in the village usually amounted to some version of that classic turn of story, “a stranger comes to town”.

One such stranger, who arrived from San Francisco with his mother, became my fast friend during our high school years. Ask me to describe the influence that Brian had on my life, long after I pushed out of the Steamboat chrysalis and fluttered away to more textured parts of the world, and I would answer with – “profound”.

Brian wasn’t like the other kids, you see. He wore a stud in his ear – an accoutrement of urban, West Coast sophistication that set my parents on edge. He kept a menagerie of music at home – from the blues to punk to new wave – that simply didn’t feature in the cultural education of young folks growing up in an American Top-100 idyll like me. Scrawny as he was, he knew how to fight – he needed these skills, due to the earring – and he actively sought out roles that subverted expectations. For example, he played wing for the town’s amateur rugby team. You’d be hard-pressed to find a smaller sport with a bigger chip on its shoulder in the United States, and that suited Brian just fine. He had no time for living in postcards.

Brian was radical and pure-hearted; he brought the wider world to the sleepy, incurious ski town of my youth. We spent hours and hours together, goofing around, talking nonsense, making plans. How I loved him.

He came to Steamboat with one surname and left with another. I can’t recall precisely when he changed over to his father’s, but at some point Brian R became Brian E – E for Ellmann, that is. His father, he told me, was the son of the great biographer Richard Ellmann, famed for his works on Yeats, Wilde and Joyce. The Joyce book was the one that bagged Richard Ellmann the James Tait Black Prize in 1982, some four decades before his daughter Lucy won it.

(Side note: one can’t but help think that Joyce would, in Lucy Ellmann, have recognised a kindred soul.)

My friend’s name-change didn’t mean much to me at the time, except in that, to judge by the way he talked about his lineage – pretty far-fetched for a place like Steamboat – making the swop clearly meant a lot to him (and was a decision that required a fair amount of emotional trouble to arrive at). But learning that Lucy Ellmann was Richard Ellmann’s daughter naturally got me thinking about Brian and his surname again, for the first time in years. Surely, if what he told me about his father was true, Lucy would be his aunt.

And indeed Lucy Ellmann is my old high school friend’s aunt – as I discovered when I happened upon the funeral notice for his father, Lucy’s brother, Stephen Ellmann. The man whose name Brian switched to died of a rare cancer, cholangiocarcinoma, in March 2019. 

I can’t recall whether I ever met Stephen Ellmann – but reading the notice, I realised that I’d had an opportunity to do so relatively recently. One that, sadly, I missed.

Brian, if this column ever finds its way to your attention, my sincere condolences for your loss. May your father’s memory be for a blessing. I have ordered his book.

Here was the first gooseflesh moment. 

The funeral notes mentioned that Stephen, a noted professor at New York Law School, spent his last years writing a biography of Arthur Chaskalson, South Africa’s towering Chief Justice. Ellmann had visited South Africa as recently as 2017 to work on the book. The NYLS held a celebration for it in the US before he died, lauding it as his master work; and the book was launched by Pan Macmillan last November at Exclusive Books’ Sandton City branch, with Ellmann’s wife in attendance. There’s an invitation to the launch on The Reading List, one of the book websites I help run.

When I found that invitation on my website, the hair on my arms stood on end.

Being a former Exclusive Books employee whose responsibilities included launching books, I tracked down some footage of the event. Justice Dikgang Moseneke, whose first memoir I helped launch a few years previously, spoke. So did advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, whose book The Land is Ours I also helped launch. It occurred to me that, had I still been at Exclusive Books last November, I probably would have helped launch Stephen Ellmann’s book, too – and very likely without knowing about the connection between us. After all, the 2020 James Tait Black Prize was almost a year away from being announced. 

I had to sit down. 

I often meet writers from the US researching books in South Africa; but not Stephen Ellmann in 2017. I often attend book launches, even when off-duty, as it were; but not the launch of Arthur Chaskalson: A Life Dedicated to Justice for All. We had just missed each other in South Africa, my Steamboat past and I. A slip of the fingers.

That evening, I told the story to my wife, who immediately recognised Stephen Ellmann’s name, because she does some work for his publisher.  A chance remark from her at any point during the last few years, in other words, might have closed a loop of personal history that had been lying dormant for the better part of my life. It didn’t happen. A slip of the fingers – a detail unmentioned. 

We stared at each other. I was speechless.

The thing is, I’m quite certain I would not be where I am today – who I am today – without Brian’s friendship during those formative pre-varsity years. He taught me by example to seek the alternative, to look beyond the obvious. If I owe anyone my proclivity for learning about other cultures and ways of life – if the nascent personal politics that helped me awaken to possibilities beyond Steamboat are down to any single person – it’s the bestudded punk best friend of my youth.

And thus also, to some extent, his dad, who clearly had an influence on Brian, and who, by all odds, should have – rather incredibly – been part of my life as well. But wasn’t.

The places books take you – in some cases, almost take you – never cease to astonish me.

Brian, if this column ever finds its way to your attention, my sincere condolences for your loss. May your father’s memory be for a blessing. I have ordered his book.

And – want to be friends again? DM/ML

Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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