Antoine Furetière

1619 (Paris) – 1688 (Paris)

Furetière is known for the breadth of his writing, but renowned for compiling the first dictionary of the French language, regarded as the greatest encyclopaedic dictionary of the 17thC. Close to the greatest writers of the age, Molière and La Fontaine were friends, Racine and Boileau literary colleagues. The Académie française charged Furetière, a member, with lexicographic plagiarism; he lost La Fontaine’s long friendship as a result. Bayle, already exiled, persuaded Furetière to have his dictionary published in Holland and wrote a preface. Published posthumously, it stood the test of time and influence notably better than the Académie’s own effort.

Antoine Furetière knew…

Mary Astell

1666 (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England) – 1731 (Chelsea)

Astell was a significant feminist avant la lettre, whose writings arguing for equality via education were widely noted, including by Defoe, Steele (mockingly) and Samuel Richardson. She studied astronomy with Flamsteed in Greenwich, and tried to persuade her close friend Montagu to publish her ‘Turkish Letters’, writing a preface to them. Astell didn’t engage in London literary society, but associated with a group of independently-minded, mostly aristocratic women, including Montagu and Elstob. It is unknown whether or not Richardson knew her (they certainly had a friend in common) – his heroine Clarissa bore striking resemblances to the real Astell.

Mary Astell knew…


Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg

1772 (Oberwiederstedt, Germany) – 1801 (Weissenfels)

Novalis is increasingly seen as one of the most significant and wide-ranging figures in German romanticist culture. Studying law in Jena, he was befriended and encouraged in his thought by Schiller, before meeting and befriending his fellow-student Friedrich Schlegel in Leipzig (they became strong mutual influences), and studying geology under Werner in Freiberg. Tieck, Schelling and the brothers Schlegel all became close friends; Friedrich Schlegel was present at Novalis’s death, and with Tieck, published his work posthumously. Novalis also met Goethe, Herder and Jean Paul (with Fichte, another contemporary influence).

Nelson Algren

1909 (Detroit) – 1981 (Sag Harbor, NY)

Algren, interesting but half-forgotten, wrote two low-life novels that live on through the work of others. Wright, mainstay of a socialist writer’s circle Algren habituated, was a supportive influence and friend. Southern, who interviewed him, and Vonnegut, who taught with him and became a Long Island neighbour, were fast friends. De Beauvoir had a long unlikely-sounding affair with him, despite his assumption of female submissiveness; Sartre translated some of his work. Terkel, a Chicago buddy, took him to see Holiday in her dressing-room. De Lillo lent him his typewriter and talked about Hemingway. Preminger, autocratic, fired him after three days.

Nathalie Sarraute

1900 (Ivanovo, Russia) – 1999 (Paris)

Sarraute is primarily known as one of the Nouveau Roman writers of the 1950’s-60’s. Sartre was a keen early supporter, and wrote a preface for her; she herself liked him, but found him physically repulsive. Robbe-Grillet, central to the Nouveau Roman grouping, knew her, and was on an official delegation to Leningrad with her, Sartre and de Beauvoir (whose jealous hatred of Sarraute complicated things). Barrault mounted a couple of her plays, while Butor and she helped found a writers’ union in 1968. Beckett, hiding from the Gestapo, annoyed her mother by carrying the contents of his chamberpot through the kitchen at lunchtime.

Mordecai Richler

1931 (Montreal) – 2001 (Montreal)

Richler, writing about his Montreal Jewish childhood neighbourhood, helped put Canadian literature on the world map, though his uncompromising views were controversial at home. As a young writer, he wangled an invitation to visit Forster in Cambridge, but hit his sherry as if it were whisky (despite not seeing eye-to-eye, Forster attended his first wedding). He rented a house in a Provençal hill-town where Southern came to write (and was dragged by Richler to the casino to play poker). Lessing, an old friend, wrote amusingly about how the anti-romantic Richler was moonstruck by the woman who became his second wife.

Mordecai Richler knew…

Maxim Gorky

Maksim Gorky

1868 (Nizhny Novgorod, Russia) – 1936 (Moscow)

Tolstoy and Chekhov became friends early in Gorky’s career. He supported both Mayakovsky and Babel (who said he owed everything to Gorky); Ivanov was another protégé. Repin painted him, Stanislavski was an important colleague, and Shklovsky showed him Triolet’s letters from Tahiti. Gorky implored his friend Lenin to have Gumilyov (another friend) freed, unaware he’d already been shot; but his influence helped save Zamyatin’s skin. Twain sat beside him at a New York dinner, but disapproved strongly of his domestic arrangements. Sibelius met him when his political activities led him to hide away in Helsinki.

Maxim Gorky knew…

Max Frisch

1911 (Zürich) – 1991 (Zürich)

Frisch, with his long-time friend Dürenmatt, was one of the most notable Swiss writers of his era and among the most influential in the German language in the post-war years (his essays remain unknown in English). As a young man, meeting Brecht – the first great writer he knew – was a source of generous encouragement; Brecht suggested writing a play together, but Frisch worried about losing his identity. He played simultaneous chess with Calder and Beckett, had an intense relationship with Bachmann, visited Mekas (interested in their shared diaristic approach), and was challenged by his friend Johnson about his self-confessed laziness.

Max Frisch knew…

Mary Wortley Montagu

1689 (London) – 1762 (London)

Montagu met, wrote to and collaborated with Gay and Pope (work mostly customarily credited to her). When the abnormally short Pope became infatuated with and rejected by her, he turned on her ferociously in print. Astell was a close friend, and Fielding her younger second cousin, whom she encouraged to write. Sloane, a friend, was present when she had her son inoculated against smallpox (she famously introduced inoculation to the west from Turkey). Addison pleaded with her not to publish her criticism of his play, but followed most of her suggestions. Walpole, visited by her in Italy, was spiteful about her ways.

Luise Gottsched

Luise Kulmus

1713 (Danzig, now Gdańsk, Poland) – 1870 (Leipzig, Germany)

Gottsched’s claim to fame (her status is still much contested) is two-fold: as an author and translator in her own right, and as the uncredited contributor of much that was published under the name of her husband, Johann Christoph Gottsched; her own career seems to have been very much subjugated to his, despite her renown as one of the great intelligences of her time. She studied the lute under the composer Weiss (who is known to have visited her at least once), and wrote the entry on him in a reference work of her husband’s. Grimm, who had studied under her husband, was a correspondent.

Luise Gottsched knew…