Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back
By Reynolds Price
Scribner, 408 pp.
At the risk of judging Ardent Spirits, Reynolds Price's third memoir, by something very close to its cover—which features a photo of a darkly handsome, 23-year-old Price gazing smolderingly at the camera—the title and foreword strongly suggest hot content.
The title's double or perhaps triple entendre first summons thoughts of passionate souls, "the intimates who'd lent such usable heat" to Price's early 20s, the years comprised in the book. The second sense of the phrase—"ardent spirits" is Southern vernacular for liquor—evokes intoxication or recklessness.
A third meaning lurks as well, and it alludes to the most bodily of passions. Not only is the word "intimates" tantalizingly placed on Page 3, Price concludes his foreword with this rather delicious threat: "To the best of my knowledge, no lies have been told [...] especially in matters involving sex."
The kinkiest thing in Ardent Spirits occurs soon after, in Chapter 1: "My memories of the start of an erotic life center on a room of my own when I was eleven. It had a floor-length mirror [...] and I launched into the early outskirts of puberty with long reflected games at that mirror—me and my own bare skin in fantastic stories that erupted before long in outright sexual elation." Those erotic mirror-games were the first step in the development of what Price describes, 348 pages later, as "my sexual nature [...] as powerful as any I've encountered at close range."
Were you to read only the book's first and last 20 pages, you'd probably guess that Ardent Spirits was the story of Price's sexual coming-of-age while on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, where he was studying Milton. Liberated from the deeply homophobic mid-century American South and let loose in postwar Europe among plenty of gay and bisexual literati, Price finally had the opportunity to explore a sexuality repressed by everything but his mirror.
But that childhood mirror scene is as hot as Ardent Spirits gets. Two-thirds of the book ambles by, with Price detailing his life and work at Oxford, before carnality resumes. It turns out, though, that the wily old raconteur wasn't bluffing when he vowed that "no lies have been told" about venereal matters: Price was a virgin until he was 25. He decorously calls his initiation by a young Oxford professor named Matyas "my first experience of employing my body in one of its grandest jobs," a typical Price circumlocution (arch but not quite facetious) that allows him to gloss the incident in a single sentence.
Price's coolly related deflowering, however, seems to spark incendiary notions from his pen. A few sentences later, he suggests that "sex between two men is, in one pure sense, the ideal male sex act, productive of possible affection and a quick intense pleasure [and] therefore profoundly different from female [read: heterosexual] sex, likely as that often is to result in the commencement of a child's life." That opinion follows on the heels of a theory, which Price credits to his Oxford mentor (and later close friend) David Cecil, outlined earlier in the chapter:
'[I]n almost all societies, children are raised in the essentially exclusive company of women until they're at least adolescent. Therefore observant men learn a great deal about women before they begin to desire women sexually; female writers are put at a disadvantage perhaps because, while they're reared by women, they happen to be women themselves and thus spend little time in the close company of men till they're courting or married.' I can understand why some women find such an observation difficult to accept; but if they reject it, then it would be interesting to hear why they think there are so few distinguished novels written by women with central male characters.
Such provocative and invidious commentary is almost certainly designed to jar Price's readers. Like Milton, Price is a tactically deft rhetorician, delivering his often-reactionary beliefs in language that is also rather Miltonian in its lofted, ornate, syntactically complex style. Price's prose, like his judgment, is resolutely, even proudly old-fashioned; it tacks like a ship with its sails bellied by fair winds. Late in the book, Price recalls a Random House editor rejecting his first novel, A Long and Happy Life, with the complaint that "the characters never emerged from the sea of words." Ardent Spirits shows Price steadily, maturely navigating that sea, shaping each sentence with the salty glee of a rich old sailor making his own waves and then confidently cresting them. His reckoning may not agree with others', but there's no question that it is authentic and practiced. So is his flamboyant prose style, which, as a reprinted passage from his adolescence shows, Price was evidently born to.
Probably the best way to experience this languorous, deliberate, elaborately written memoir (as Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, "none ever wished it longer than it is") is not to read it straight through but to pick it up occasionally, flip it open and read a few pages: You are almost guaranteed to find a juicy story of celebrity, some vignette or person that wound up in one of Price's fictional works, toasty, tasty old chestnuts of advice for young writers, or a very strong opinion. Some things he hates: cigarettes, television, the word gay (he prefers queer), critical theory and—touché—the "deplorable condescension" of book criticism. Better still would be to hear stories from Ardent Spirits from Price himself, over one of the long, extravagant meals in which the author delights, regaled in sonorous tones with gems from his treasury of recollections. This memoir is steeped in its author's personal charisma.
And that charisma found much of its source at Oxford in the 1950s. There, Price had the opportunity to work with, learn from and in some cases befriend some of England's finest scholars and artists. The venerated writer Stephen Spender became a close ally, and Price also spent edifying time with W.H. Auden. That both of these men were attracted to men is surely no coincidence. Although Price assures the reader that he had no affairs with his mentors, he must have grown more comfortable with his own sexuality by spending time with them.
It wasn't only Auden's and Spender's "usable heat" that Price sought. The great bulk of Ardent Spirits is replete with great people, places and art, and the book's energy and narrative are driven by the young author's dogged pursuit of (and sometimes, it seems, dogged pursuit by) that greatness. At Oxford, he gets his hands on—and briefly loses—a book that Milton himself once owned. For a while, he lives down the street from J.R.R. Tolkien. He goes on an errand one day, a limo pulls up, and out pops Nikita Khrushchev. Price goes to Rome to see the Sistine Chapel by day; at night he watches an early Brigitte Bardot movie and, when it's over and the house lights come up, lo, there is the not-yet-famous Bardot in a row ahead of him. In Stockholm, his hostel is right down the street from Greta Garbo's birthplace. Price and his friends picnic where Dante wrote part of the Commedia and Rilke wrote the Duino Elegies. He escorts Robert Frost to the old poet's reading at Oxford, and he writes rapturously of seeing Gielgud and Olivier and Vivien Leigh onstage, of hearing Herbert von Karajan conduct Strauss in Milan (and Toscanini on the radio), of seeing Rembrandts and Vermeers in Amsterdam. Other shadows of fame and distinction lurk in nearly paragraph of the book: Orwell's widow; Sir Alec Guinness; even a first edition of Blake's The Grave which Price finds gathering dust in, of all places, Durham's Book Exchange, for $5. Ardent Spirits is obsessed—far more than it is with sex—with recording every famous face, museum and street Price encountered during the period it covers.
This obsession is not, however, name-dropping. It is, for one thing, the time-honored way of earning induction into the literary ranks by way of association. For another, and more importantly, it shows the author taking the same stance at Oxford and in Europe that he took in his room at age 11: Price sees the writer and self he wants to become, the elements of his constitution as an artist, in everyone and everything around him. In Ardent Spirits, the whole Old World is his mirror.