Monday, January 21, 2013

Daniel Mendelsohn’s moving tribute to literary mentor, Mary Renault

Back in 1983, I wrote a fan letter to an Australian author named Randolph Stow, whose novel, To The Islands, I had read for a university course. This was the one and only fan letter I ever wrote to an author whose work I admired.

I expected a reply from Stow, but as the weeks turned into months, it became apparent that a return missive wasn’t in the cards. It’s possible that Stow never received my letter in the first place (I lived in Toronto, he in Australia).

Daniel Mendelsohn had a more fortunate experience with a fan letter. In 1976, after discovering the novels of Mary Renault, 15 year-old Mendelsohn sent Renault a letter (he lived in New York, Renault in South Africa). To Mendelsohn’s surprise and delight, Renault responded, not with an expected form letter but a personalized letter. 

The young Mendelsohn and the best-selling author carried on a correspondence that lasted eight years. The story behind this unlikely correspondence forms the basis of Mendelsohn’s fascinating article in the January 7 New Yorker. The article is a tribute to Renault: how her fiction and letters inspired Mendelssohn’s career as a writer and helped him grapple with his own sexuality.

Mendelsohn’s article is a touching tribute to a friend and literary mentor, someone who obviously had a significant influence on a young man struggling to find his place in the world, both emotionally and intellectually. Mendolsohn is a fine writer who brings an incredible sensitivity and emotional depth to his work. I look forward to reading more of his work in the New Yorker and elsewhere.

After reading Mendelsohn’s article, I went out and bought two of Renault’s novels, Fire From Heaven and The King Must Die. Renault is best known for her historical fiction novels set in ancient Greece, and I’ll be reviewing one of those novels in the weeks ahead.

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