Berni Benstock was an allroundman. He wasn't one of your common or garden ... you know.... There was a touch of the artist about old Berni.
At a time like this, when it's hard to find one's own words in trying to do justice to how you feel, it's tempting to seek help by quoting the writers Berni Benstock knew so well-- especially, of course, James Joyce; I've also, for example, been thinking of some of Gretta Conroy's words in Dubliners--for Berni Benstock was "a very generous person."
He was amazingly generous to others in aspects of their careers, for example. To me, for example. My career, such as it is, often took turns it wouldn't have taken if it hadn't been for Berni: from one of the first letters I ever received from him, inviting me to my first Joyce Symposium, in Dublin, to having him suggest--just a few years ago, after the publisher first approached him--that I might be the one to write a new biography of Joyce. At subsequent Joyce Symposia, by the way, he and I were on so many panels together that I couldn't begin to guess the number. Far be it from me to hurt the feelings of other Joyceans, but just about any time I ever put together a session, the first person I thought of to ask to be part of it was Berni: no matter what the topic, I knew he'd be terrific and would know more than anybody.
Certainly Berni could give a terrific formal talk if that's what the occasion called for; but you could also count on him if you wanted to put together a session of panelists who'd be willing to talk just for a few minutes before opening things up for a general discussion. He'd limit himself to those few minutes, while being enlightening and funny as well as pithy. Then during the interaction of the informal discussion that, you could tell, was what he truly loved, he'd be all those things even more impressively. Those of you in Joyce studies of course know about the Benstock Principle--and anyone who knows Shari and Berni Benstock will fully realize that there are other precepts we could also call Benstock Principles. One would be, speak to the point, and make the point worth hearing.
In the last few months it's been forcefully clear that--not even counting one's friendship with Berni, and all one's personal memories--you can't be active in Joyce studies without continually being reminded of one or another Benstock, without, in fact, constantly coming on references to or quotations from him or from Shari. So in recent days and weeks a lot of us have found ourselves, at any given moment, suddenly coming across Berni's name, or his prose. There's a slight pang each time, but also a feeling of pleasure, an enchantment of the heart.
Some of us have also had the delight and comfort of reading work of his that hasn't yet been published--notably his wonderful biography of Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, which displays both his scholarship and, of course, his humor and understanding--and, as well, his wisdom and compassion. Ellen and I have also been looking through (and using) the manuscript of his cookbook, The Everyday Gourmet, which might provide still another Benstock Principle: be loose, be open to possibilities, use whatever you have at hand that'll help, while always recognizing that after all there are some limits. A number of his friends over the years had already gotten into the habit of knowing that "our" best recipes were really Berni's. It's great to know that that won't be any less true in the future--in the same way, as far as that goes, that he provided a lot of Joyceans with "our" best insights into Joyce and his works.
If you can't reminisce about Berni without remembering his talk, or his generosity, or his friendship, or his contributions to Joyce studies, or his cooking and his love for fine food, neither can you forget his wit. I'll mention just one example. I'd written the draft of a talk on the Phoenix Park Murders, in which I referred to the terrorist goal of creating fear and chaos as a striving for--with an allusion to both a certain movie and Finnegans Wake--what could be called Apophanypes Now. When Berni read that draft, he wrote in the margin, "O Felix Coppola!" I ended up quoting that, of course, so at least once, too, he gave me my best line.
Knowing Berni, one might be tempted to suggest still another Benstock Principle by quoting another writer Berni knew more than a little about, Dashiell Hammett--whose Sam Spade ends The Maltese Falcon with the remark, "Making speeches is no damned good now." But actually that's not true: we need to make our speeches, and it's good for us to do so, however much sardonic humor Berni himself would have derived from hearing all we say about him. It somehow eases the pain. So let me ease mine: I loved Berni Benstock, and I'll miss him.
The Ohio State University
(reprinted from the James Joyce Quarterly 32.1, Fall 1994)