Four Very Fine Dead Guys

Almost exactly a year ago here, I wrote a little tribute post to my father, noting: “It’s not just the end of the calendar year that has me introspective about these things. As the days get shorter and colder it gets harder for the folks who have been hanging on to keep doing so, and sometimes they just can’t.” I also mentioned that I wasn’t much of a believer in the standard setup of this life/the other life. But if I were, this would certainly have been a hell of a week to be hanging around the Pearly Gates—maybe even with a book or two to get signed.

Author Russell Hoban died this past Tuesday, in London, at 86. He was the author of books ranging from the Frances the Badger series for children, illustrated by Garth Williams and Hoban’s wife Lillian, to the wild dystopian-England novel Riddley Walker. But it’s his children’s tale The Mouse and His Child that holds a special place in my young reader’s heart. I can’t remember how old I was when I read it—nine, ten?—but I do recall that it was a profoundly moving book, and that it taught me something about how to read and internalize sad material. Up to that point the books I read were either upbeat, morally righteous tales where the good guys came out on top, or slam bang tragedies like The Yearling or The Red Pony. Hoban’s novel was more a gray area of sorrow, in which bad things happened that were not necessarily redeemed in direct proportion to how bad they were, and the characters still went on without any hints of moral resolution. I remember it as being perplexing, and lingeringly tragic, and at the same time something beautiful, when only a few years previously I had been so easily pleased by Frances and her deeply abiding love of bread and jam. He was a game changer for many young readers, I suspect. In his own words:

The most that a writer can do—and this is only rarely achieved—is to write in such a way that the reader finds himself in a place where the unwordable happens off the page… Most of the time it doesn’t happen but trying for it is part of being the hunting-and-finding animal one is. This process is what I care about.

On Wednesday George Whitman, proprietor of the legendary Paris bookshop Shakespeare & Company, died at the age of 98. Whitman’s was the second incarnation of the store, the first having been opened nearby, in 1919, by Sylvia Beach. Hers was the hangout of Hemingway, Joyce, and Fitzgerald; his, which changed its name from Le Mistral in 1964 after Beach’s death, was home away from home to a second generation of literary expats such as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs. He also hosted thousands of young folks passing through Paris over the years, offering a bed and a meal as necessary. A sign on the bookshop wall read, ““Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.” Not only did he name his store after Beach’s—with her approval—but he named his only daughter after her. Sylvia Beach Whitman currently runs the place, which is still in operation despite a number of setbacks over the years, including a fire that destroyed nearly 5,000 books in the library over the store. My goodness, I wonder how that happened.

Although Christopher Hitchens was extremely public about his battle with esophageal cancer over the past year, somehow I half expected him to talk his way out of it: to explain that no, in fact, he’d really rather not go, thank you—kind of the Bartleby of death. But he succumbed on Thursday, and whether you agreed with him all down the line or not—and I think precious few of us did—the world of pointed editorial is a poorer place. I certainly parted company with Hitchens over the Iraq invasion, but there were plenty of other reasons to read him. The Browser has put together an extensive collection of remembrances, including a bunch from Vanity Fair over the past couple of years and Christopher Buckley’s very sweet New Yorker tribute:

Yes, everything he said was brilliant. It was a feast of reason and a flow of soul, and, if the author of “God Is Not Great” did not himself believe in the concept of soul, he sure had one, and it was a great soul.

And if I have trouble reconciling my own ideas of the afterlife, I can’t imagine what Hitch is up to right now.

And to round out the party, former Czech president Václav Havel died Sunday at his home, at the age 75. I never had many prominent public figures to look up to—the ’70s and ’80s were not exactly golden ages for political hero worship. Havel’s Velvet Revolution came at a time when I was low on idealism, and I never stopped admiring him. He was a dissident and a rock star, a politician and a personality and a playwright. I carried a tiny flame for Havel just for being an artist, a pacifist, and a political man all at once, and always wondered why there were so few people making things happen in the world who could say the same. As Lou Reed remarked, “You know, the idea of a creative person being the president is really such a wonderful idea.”

Four seats at this celestial poker table. You have to imagine the conversation is lively, the ashtrays are overflowing, and the glasses are endlessly being refilled. Perhaps they’re discussing Kim Jong-il, who has a little far to travel to sit in, or perhaps the conversation is steadfastly literary. Whatever the case, I’ll miss all four of them, and raise a glass or four when I have the chance.

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2 Comments to Four Very Fine Dead Guys

  1. December 21, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately, things have picked up lately in the Dead Zone. I was distressed to hear that the great Etta James has not long to live either.

  2. December 21, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Loved this, Lisa – thanks. And not for nothing, those Frances books were the best.

    I’ve also admired Havel and envied the artist-President paradigm. I wonder how Sweet Micky will do for Haiti.

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