I can’t believe it… Just caught the headline. George Plimpton died today. He was one of my favorite writers. I met him twice: once in college when he signed a copy of his The Best of Plimpton collection and again a few months ago when he came by the book store to promote the new Paris Review collection. Both times he regailed everyone present with a vast array of stories that placed him as an observer or a bystander to some remarkable moments (for example he was in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was killed.) But he didn’t mind being the center of attention either, like when he stepped in the ring with Archie Moore or ran out on the field as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. He put himself in many situations like this because he knew that most folks had, at one time or another, wondered what it might be like to be a modern day gladiator. It wasn’t a stunt really; it felt more like a favor to his friends. And though he wrote a lot about sports, that was only one dimension of his life. He also founded the The Paris Review, perhaps the most significant literary magazine of the last fifty years. It is notable for having published early works by many great writers, and it is also well-known for the “Art of Fiction” (or Poetry, or Drama) interviews included in each issue. There is a wealth of knowledge in each interview; the worlds greatest writers talking about how they write. Most of all he simply seemed like someone who truly loved life. You could see it in his face when he spoke and you could see it in his writing. Whether he was ringside for the Thrilla in Manilla or running with bulls in Pamplona it was really about the joy of it all. Here’s the obit.
Jim Harrison was a husband. “I’ve been married for 46 years,” he told me when we met a decade ago in Livingston, Montana’s Owl Bar. He’d learned through our preliminary correspondence — during which I’d assured him that I’d been a compulsive creative writer since the age of seven and had “given my life to it,” the main criteria by which he decided whether or not to be interviewed by a young aspiring novelist — that I was newly married. The dream of being married had occupied half of my heart for as long as I could remember; it coexisted there with the equally consuming dream of being a writer. Now Jim said in earnest, exhaling the smoke from his American Spirit and assessing me kindly with his good right eye, “I hope the marriage works out. They tend not to these days.”
At 68 years old to my 27, Jim had experienced decades of matrimony in contrast to my eight or so months. Soon, he would become my literary idol as an author of fiction, poetry, essays, and memoir that — in their contagious vitality, their celebratory and compassionate explorations of the pleasures and pains that come with being alive on this rich earth — have done more to heal, inspire, and delight me than the work of any other artist. He would also become an authority in my eyes on conjugality and love, as well as a peripheral observer of my own marital and romantic misadventures.
“You know, you’re very attractive,” he told me a few times over the course of our interview, perhaps because he was never timid about his appreciation for women either in life or literature, or possibly because he accurately sensed that I did not know. Introverted, diffident, and in some ways naive, there was much I didn’t know, especially about men — my dad had been completely absent even longer than I’d been compulsively writing.
Jim was as dynamic a speaker as he was a writer, and our conversation that day covered kaleidoscopic terrain: xenophobia as the root of the world’s ills, his sighting of Jack Kerouac passed out in a San Francisco bathroom in the early ’50s, Native American cultures, Christianity, and whether or not it was a good idea to strive for poetry in every sentence. “Some people try to do it that way,” he said, ashing his smoke in a manner that conveyed he didn’t think he was one of them.
There was only one question he was shy about answering. “Doesn’t your wife get jealous,” I asked, “in response to the way you write so lustily about women? Even if it’s fiction?” I was a jealous new wife who imagined all wives must’ve been similarly wired. Jim was closemouthed. In a few days, though, he sent me a note in which he gently expressed that a marriage is, and should be, a mystery to all but the two in it. He was protective of his longtime bride and their union, and I was impressed.
He liked the finished article I’d written about him when it appeared in print and wanted to stay in touch.
My then-husband and I had moved from Montana to Los Angeles when Jim mailed me a letter. “The Yellowstone is flooding,” he wrote, “and you’re not here to help.” He said he’d been suffering from health problems and had just come out of the hospital. “It was so awful I should have gone to see you…” he said before declaring me a healer, albeit one with witchy tendencies: “You could have stolen holy water from the usual cathedral and mixed it with shark pee-pee, etc.” He asked me to continue with some research I’d been doing for him on the loup-garou, a mythical French werewolf that had captured his interest, and he closed with a request: “Send a photo…” I complied with a demure, decidedly Victorian headshot, shoulders and neck wholly hidden by a turtleneck, snapped by my spouse among the flowers at the L.A. Arboretum. This likely wasn’t the sort of photo Jim had in mind — his work is rife with carnal, playful, and sincerely heart-struck celebrations of feminine pulchritude — and he received it without comment. But at the time I couldn’t imagine that he — that anybody — would want something different. Any awareness that I might have been beautiful or desirable was at that time latent, locked away in a box to which I didn’t think I had the key.
Not long after that, somebody came along who did appear to carry a key, and the unlocking was both bitter and sweet: sweet because I was enchanted by the potent and persuasive sense of being seen in a novel way, bitter because he was not my husband. Feeling profoundly altered, guilty, confused, and unfit for my marriage, I sent a confessional email to Jim. There was no judgment in his reply, only sympathy. He advised me to “proceed with caution” if I proceeded at all, and wrote that he understood the experience of allowing oneself to be seduced, though he didn’t say explicitly whether it had ever happened to him. Still, I wondered if he felt disappointed. He’d wished me well in my fledgling marriage and now it seemed I was making a real mess of it.
A year later, I moved back to Montana by myself and adopted a solemn collie from the shelter who seemed, like me, to be in a quiet-but-constant state of emotional distress. I lived alone in a cheap apartment in downtown Livingston. The affair into which I’d stumbled had ended when I’d been unable to tear myself out of my marriage. My marriage had also ended when I’d confessed the affair and, after the dust settled, couldn’t stay with my husband, though I’d tried. I didn’t know where or with whom I belonged. I felt like a failure. These were dark days, dampened by tears.
I was walking my dog one afternoon when I heard Jim call to me from the sunken sunlit patio of the tavern where he sat with a few friends. I stepped down to join them. Always fond of dogs, he fed mine Cheez-Its from the basket on the table. I shakily talked with Jim and his commiserative companions about what had been going on. “It’s harder to write these days,” I told Jim, “without the sense of stability that comes with being married.” He nodded. I got up to leave and ascended the steps from the tavern patio up the sidewalk. Jim followed. We paused. Since I stood on a step and he did not, I was about six inches above him. I bent down and kissed the top of his head. He looked up at me and said my name. “What if you were really this tall?” he asked.
I heard the real question tucked beneath his seemingly light and irreverent one. I have never forgotten it. It is my favorite and most treasured of all the things he communicated to me in writing or in person. I must have merely chuckled in reply. Though I understood what he was asking, it didn’t seem quite possible yet that I could be “tall” — that is, powerful in my aloneness. I could be my own woman, with no husband, no lover, no hovering possible partners: just me. I could let go, at least for a while, of the lifelong dream of forming a permanent union with a man. I could rent my own house on the creek and become a hermitess of sorts, mend my mostly self-inflicted wounds until they closed, work hard to revise the novel I had drafted during easier days, get it published, and see the dream of a lifetime — which ran parallel to the dream of lasting love — come true. I wasn’t immediately sure if I could do this, but Jim’s question would echo, and I would do it soon.
In the meantime, whenever I felt especially blue I would spend time with Jim’s books, because reading about Brown Dog, Dalva, the farmer’s daughter, France, food, dogs, sex, death, revenge, and birds was medicine for me. He was the real healer, able to transmit his mind’s singularly heartening perception of the world through the medium of his poetry and prose. He was helpful outside the realm of printed pages, too. When a TV personality came to town to film an episode of his show and asked Jim about me, Jim replied firmly, “She’s not for you,” and that was the end of that. In those days, as he must’ve known, my boundaries were so permeable I might have been drawn into a situation that would have only caused me more pain. When word of this exchange got back to me, I was grateful.
After that, our lives filled with new diversions; we corresponded and saw each other less. My first book came out. I began to consider love again, my incautious heart now tempered by slightly clearer vision. And I continued writing all the while. As I grew taller, Jim slowed down a bit. Though he was still admirably prolific, he was aging. He had back surgery and shingles. He spent part of each year in Arizona, away from the stingingly cold winters and slushy early springs of Livingston. When he returned, I’d see him around town. From a distance I’d recognize his unmistakable shuffle, his canvas shoes worn like slippers with the heels smashed down, his uncombed shock of white hair, his careless clothes and cane. Always, I felt explosive affection.
A quotation of his — “There’s never an excuse not to do your work” — is taped above the desk where I’ve finished a second novel and where today I labor over yet another — one I’ve been working on in a state of vulnerability and insecurity, with a gambler’s blind faith, as I feel my way through its dark woods for the fourth consecutive year. I’m not sure what will become of either of these books, but then that’s no concern of mine. I wasn’t lying when I’d told Jim prior to our first meeting that I’d given my life to writing. And he’s the one I most look up to among all those who’ve given their lives to this weird and lonesome compulsion to tell stories by scratching ciphers onto sheets of tree.
I’m still thinking hard about marriage, love, and forming a forever union — a union of heads and hearts, with abundant heat. Just a couple of weeks before he died this March, I watched a 1993 French documentary about Jim. One short scene struck me as so piercingly beautiful I had to replay it a few times. Middle-aged Jim and his wife are driving down a country road. She is wearing bold dangly earrings. He reaches over from the driver’s seat to push back her hair and examine one of the pretty baubles in the most familiar, proprietary, curious, husbandly way, as if to say, “What is this new thing with which you’ve adorned yourself?” or “I know you — I know your head, your heart, your body.” Seeing this moment, I swallowed a sob. That small, intimate, seconds-long gesture encapsulated so much: what he cherished, what he guarded, what he held on to for nearly six decades despite inevitable difficulties, and what I want.
Jim and his wife had been married 56 years when she died last October. I sent him a card. Friends said the last thing he ever expected was that she would go first. He was the one with the unapologetic appetite for cigarettes, drinks, and rich foods. Six months later, he followed her. I heard the news on Easter Sunday, which seemed fitting; he’d mentioned during our first meeting at the Owl Bar that he’d been an ardent boy preacher and still believed in the resurrection. Of course his own resurrection will be perpetual: every time anybody turns a page of one of his books, there he will be. I went out and bought his latest, The Ancient Minstrel, the title novella of which is an imaginative memoir. Like so much of his other work, it alleviated my sadness, even though my sadness had been over the passing of the minstrel himself. When I got to the very last page of that story I lost my breath. I knew Jim wasn’t writing right to me — that he’d only thought of me for a fraction of the time that I’ve spent thinking of him — but that’s how it felt. Our communication had always concerned both writing and relationships. Now, it seemed, he was making his last definitive statement and proffering his final bit of advice on those subjects. They reached me with the same precision that a bird navigates to the end of his flyway with the help of the sun and stars:
I feel absolutely vulnerable and realize it’s the best state for a writer whether in the woods or in the studio…Feeling bright-eyed, confident, and arrogant doesn’t do this job…You are far better off being lost in your work and writing over your head…You don’t want to be writing unless you’re giving your life to it. You should make a practice of avoiding all affiliations that might distract you. After fifty-five years of marriage it might occur to you it was the best idea of a lifetime. The sanity of a good marriage will enable you to get your work done.
It was a reassuring end to our conversation.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Stephanie Deutsch, a writer and critic living in Washington, D.C., was a first year graduate student in Soviet Union Area Studies at Harvard in 1970 when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. She had spent the previous year living in Moscow. This essay is an update of an appreciation written ten years ago for the Washington Times’s “Lost Word” column dedicated to second looks at classic works. Solzhenitsyn died on August 3rd at 89.My copy of Cancer Ward is a well-worn relic from the 1970s, when a paperback book cost $1.50 and Solzhenitsyn was the must-read author of the moment. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 and when I bought the novel it had been through fifteen printings in three years. A quote on the back cover calls it “a literary event of the first magnitude… by Russia’s greatest living prose writer.”The book reprints the author’s 1967 letters to the Congress of Soviet Writers and the Union of Writers of the USSR complaining of the “no longer tolerable oppression, in the form of censorship, that our literature has endured for decades,” and insisting that his work “be published without delay.” Who could foresee then that when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died he would no longer be much read, either here or in his native land. The one-time Vermont recluse returned to Russia but there, as here, his fervor and his writing are out of fashion.Just as a voguish book can disappoint, though, Cancer Ward remains compelling. While the title hints at symbolism and death, the straightforward story is vibrantly and affirmatively about life. Mr. Solzhenitsyn does see cancer as a fitting metaphor for his society’s ghastly flaws, but he is also telling a literal story about physical illness. He himself was a survivor not just of front-line combat with the Red Army, Stalinist prison camps, forced labor and exile in his own country, but also of real illness. A recurrence of his rare stomach cancer was treated with radiation in the spring of 1954 at a hospital in Tashkent.This is where the novel brings together a lively cast of characters. The protagonist is Oleg Kostoglotov, a big, dark-haired man in his 30s, a former political prisoner and internal exile. He’s a land surveyor with unslakable curiosity about everything: “…although he’d never missed a chance to scoff at education in general, he’s always used his eyes and ears to pick up the smallest thing that might broaden his own.” He likes people, too, especially as he feels life returning after his near death and successful radiation therapy.Kostoglotov’s nemesis in the ward is Rusanov, a self-satisfied bureaucrat, a Party member whose life work has been in “personnel records administration… Only ignoramuses and uninformed outsiders were unaware what subtle, meticulous work it was… The actual direction life took was decided without loud publicity, calmly in quiet offices, by two or three people who understood one another, or by dulcet telephone calls. The stream of real life ran on in the secret papers that lay deep in the briefcases of Rusanov and his colleagues.” This work gives Rusanov an inflated sense of his own importance and caution and pettiness that are the opposite of Kostoglotov’s exuberant good nature.Ludmila Afanasyevena Dontsova is the head of the hospital’s radiology department, a brilliant clinician who hesitates to use her diagnostic skills on the pain she feels in her own stomach. We see her not just in the hospital but on her way home from work, grabbing a seat on a streetcar: “…the was the first thought apart from the hospital that began to transform her from an oracle of human destinies into a simple passenger on a trolley jostled like anyone else… At every stop and with every shop that flashed by the window, Ludmila Afanasyevna’s thought turned more and more to her housework and her home. Home was her responsibility and hers alone because what can you expect from men? Her husband and son, whenever she went to Moscow for a conference, would leave the dishes unwashed for a whole week. It wasn’t that they wanted to keep them for her to do, they just saw no sense in this repetitive, endlessly self-renewing work.”Kostoglotov’s life in prison and exile has kept him isolated from women for years so his joy at returning health is mingled with wonder at the chance to be with members of the opposite sex. He flirts wildly with the high-spirited night nurse, Zoya; he feels deep sympathy with Vera Gangart, one of his doctors. “For a man like Oleg, who had to be permanently suspicious and watchful, it was the greatest pleasure in the world to be able to trust, to give himself to trust. And he trusted this woman, this gentle, ethereal creature. He knew she’d move softly, thinking out her every action and that she wouldn’t make the slightest mistake.”And we meet the ward’s other patients – Dyomka, a teenager facing the amputation of his leg and trying to keep up with his literary studies; Asya, the yellow-haired girl desolate about impending surgery for breast cancer; Vadim, an engineer so absorbed in his work he had no time for illness; Chaly, suffering from acute stomach cancer but cheerfully sharing with Rusanov his feast of illicit pickles and vodka.Solzhenitsyn gives a full and sympathetic picture of these characters, revealing each one’s inner reality – loneliness, marital happiness, eagerness for life, fear of death. Like others of the best Russian novels, Cancer Ward bursts with conversations. Some are timely still – about alternative cancer cures from roots and herbs and the influence of one’s mental state on the healing process; about the difficulties of achieving free national health service and yet providing patients with sufficient personal attention; and about what of honor or self-respect or bodily function one is willing to sacrifice to stay alive.The heavy atmosphere of the totalitarian Soviet Union is brilliantly rendered and, in my tattered edition, numerous footnotes clarify allusions that might be lost on a reader without a detailed knowledge of the time. When Kostoglotov talks to Zoya he has to explain to her that he is a Russian and was exiled on a trumped-up charge of treason. “Note: A number of small nationalities – Volga Germans, Chechens, Kalmucks and others – were deported en masse to Central Asia during and after the second world war, suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. These were called ‘exiled settlers.’ ‘Administrative exiles,’ like Kostoglotov, were usually political prisoners who had served their term in a labor camp but still had to live in a remote region of the country.”This novel is constructed around these and other historical truths too ghastly to be believed and, in our country, in some danger of being forgotten. When Kostoglotov begins to suspect that political changes may be coming in his country he thinks, “A man dies from a tumor, so how can a country survive with growths like labor camps and exiles?” As it turned out, this one could not; the system that produced the camps is gone. Solzhenitsyn’s story, brilliantly mixing fact and fiction, tells us just how sick the patient actually was.With his prophet-like appearance and cantankerous public persona, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will surely be remembered for his determined truth-telling. By keeping the details of Soviet history alive, his extraordinary literary oeuvre may help guard against the recurrence that with cancer can never be fully ruled out. But Solzhenitsyn deserves to be remembered, as well, as a novelist to put on the shelf next to Gogol and Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pasternak, a writer to be re-read and savored for the way he translates messy, often ghastly human experience into brilliant, clarifying prose.
J.D. Salinger’s books speckled New York this week, as a chorus of readers gave the author an impromptu final salute. Spotted on the subway, 11:15 on Saturday night: Nine Stories en route to Coney Island, devoured with a pencil in hand. Monday morning on Broadway it was Catcher in the Rye in a cafe window seat, words imbibed between sips of coffee. As I write this, I imagine there’s someone seated at a dimly lit hotel bar in Midtown, downing a cocktail and keeping company with a dog-eared Holden Caulfield.
I too was reading Salinger last weekend, for a second time. I first read Catcher in the Rye in high school, and followed it with Franny and Zooey, appropriately, in college. I never experienced the Salinger epiphany that so many do, but I was compelled to continue reading his work. Holden Caulfield voiced his angst and frustration with far more insight and intelligence than any teenager I knew, and I admired his courage to escape. But he also left me somewhat estranged.
My desire to identify with Holden–and who doesn’t read Catcher in the Rye to identify with Holden?–underscored our vast differences as much as it made him a companion or guide. Literary liberation and rebellion for me, rather, took the form of Nora leaving in A Doll’s House and Margaret Atwood’s female leads. By the time I read Catcher in the Rye, its colloquialisms seemed “phony,” to sling Holden’s favorite insult. His lingo had long ago ceded to other teenage argot. This alone I could have forgiven.
But Holden also embodied adolescent maleness so completely that he left no room for a frustrated girl of a commensurate age. To be fair, he left little room for anyone else. His alienation was the point. The female characters were colored by Holden’s conflicted desire. They were either vulnerable (like and Jane and Phoebe), a source of ambivalent attraction (Sally and the hotel prostitute), or playthings (the Pencey mother on the train and “stupid girls” who dance well). I doubt it’s a coincidence that most of the tributes to Salinger have been penned by men.
Holden’s hang-ups with shoddy suitcases also came between us. Of the ones owned by his former roommate, Dick Slagle, Holden said, “it’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs–if yours are really good ones and theirs aren’t. You think if they’re intelligent and all, the other person, and have a good sense of humor, that they don’t give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do.” Perhaps it’s because I wondered how my suitcases would measure up that his complaints about privilege, phonies, boarding schools, and New York apartments seemed distant and intangible. Rereading now, though, his insights about class and wealth, and the divisions they create, strike me as more truthful than I then cared to admit.
In spite of his faults, I admired Holden for his audacity to pick up and leave and to always speak his mind. He could be clever, insolent, and charming, simultaneously. He knew he had a precious window of time on the cusp of adulthood, where he could shirk responsibility and leave, say with Sally, until the money ran out. And he was was still young enough to believe that everything would work out in the end.
It occurs to me that I’m judging Holden more like an old friend than a character in a novel. This is perhaps the largest compliment I can pay him, and Salinger, too. Holden himself said that what he most wanted from a book was the sense that “when you’re all done reading it, you wish that the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Salinger, more than most authors, gave his readers that feeling. He implored not only Holden but every weary, cynical teenager reading his novel with Mr. Antolini’s admonition: “you’re going to have to find out where you want to go. And then start going there. But immediately.” He echoes this in Franny and Zooey, too, when Zooey tells Franny,“if you don’t at least know by this time that if you’re an actress you’re supposed to act, then what’s the use of talking?”
Salinger may have secluded himself for the second half of his life and escaped society in a way Holden only yearned to. But his voice has and will continue, in his death, to resonate through his fiction. He gently nudges his readers at times, and at others he grabs them by their lapels in an attempt to rouse them, to tell them they must decide what kind of skull you want when they’re dead. Get to it, he’s saying, don’t waste time.
Once again in 2015 some of the literary firmament’s brightest stars were extinguished. We lost a pair of Nobel laureates, a pair of former U.S. poets laureate, beloved novelists, prize-winning poets, a tireless human rights activist, a wily agent, a revered teacher, a champion of black writers, a writer of shameless sexcapades, and memoirists who refused to flinch when dissecting their first-hand experiences with addiction, persecution, disease, and the horrors of Jim Crow. Here is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2015.
The Robert Stone novel that sticks in my mind is Dog Soldiers, winner of the 1975 National Book Award, the story of a Vietnam-to-California heroin smuggling scheme gone horribly wrong. It’s also a singular portrait of how the blissed-out ’60s, which Stone experienced first-hand with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, turned into one very bad trip. Stone, who died on Jan. 10 at 77, produced eight big novels, a pair of story collections, and a memoir, books in which danger is everywhere, Americans behave badly either at home or in some far-flung hot spot, and neither God nor any hope of salvation is to be found. Stone was an American rarity: a writer who dared to walk in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and never stumbled.
Anne Moody produced just two books in her lifetime, but her debut, the wrenching memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, is as timely today as it was when it appeared in 1968. Moody, who died on Feb. 5 at 74, told in spare unflinching prose what it was like for the daughter of black sharecroppers to grow up in the Jim Crow deep South, and then to dare to join the civil rights struggle. She worked with various organizations — the Congress for Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — once getting dragged by her hair from a Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, while watching a fellow protester get bloodied by a brass-knuckle punch. After leaving the movement, she moved to New York City, where she wrote her memoir, then lived quietly for decades working non-writing jobs. Late in life, she acknowledged to an interviewer that writing her memoir had taught her a painful lesson: “I came to see through my writing that no matter how hard we in the movement worked, nothing seemed to change. We were like an angry dog on a leash that had turned on its master. It could bark and howl and snap, and sometimes even bite, but the master was always in control.”
Moody’s only other book was a slim collection of short stories for young people called Mr. Death.
In 1976 I came upon a book of poems that proved that art can be made from absolutely anything, including a night-shift job at the Chevy Gear & Axle factory in Detroit. The book was peopled with autoworkers, fading boxers, and working stiffs, people who stubbornly refuse to admit defeat in the face of the monstrous forces that belittle them. The book was called Not This Pig, the second volume of poems by a Detroit native named Philip Levine, who died on Feb. 14 at 87. On the back cover, Levine explained that the book is filled with “the people, places, and animals I am not, the ones who live at all costs and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos — a gesture they don’t need — would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or ‘No pasarán’ or ‘Not this pig.’” Reading that book was the birth of a passion for Levine’s poetry that endures to this day and shows no signs of flagging.
Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at 14 — the first in a long string of factory jobs that could have crushed his body and spirit but instead gave him the raw material for a body of work that would win him high honors, a devoted readership, and a stint as U.S. poet laureate. His great subject was the people who do the brutal manual labor that usually gets ignored, by poets and everyone else. When I wrote an appreciation of Levine four years ago (here), I quoted a 1999 interview in which Levine realized, looking back, that Not This Pig was the book that gave him his voice.
“Those were my first good Detroit work poems — the poems in Not This Pig…,” Levine said. “It’s ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work…I’m going to fuck up because what am I doing? I’m going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn’t see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it — that I had a body of experience that nobody else had.”
Günther Grass’s life turned out to be an illustration of just how treacherous and slippery the high moral ground can be. After blazing onto the world literary stage with his 1959 masterpiece, The Tin Drum, Grass spent his long and productive career as Germany’s self-anointed conscience, pushing his countrymen to face up to the dark strains of their history, especially the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Grass, who died on April 13 at 87, railed against militarism and nuclear proliferation, opposed German unification, denounced the Catholic and Lutheran churches, supported Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, and spoke of the “unchecked lust for profit” that drove German companies to sell weaponry to Saddam Hussein. He also found time to be a novelist, playwright, essayist, short story writer, poet, sculptor, and printmaker. In 1999 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
But it was not until 2006, on the eve of the publication of a memoir, Peeling the Onion, that a dark truth emerged. For years Grass had claimed he was a flakhelfer during the war, one of many youths charged with guarding antiaircraft gunneries. But finally he admitted that he had been a member of the elite Waffen-SS, notorious for committing many atrocities. Though Grass was not implicated in any war crimes, the belated revelation caused a furor.
“My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book,” he explained. “It had to come out in the end.” In the memoir he added, “The brief inscription meant for me reads: ‘I kept silent.’”
James Salter is often pinned with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer.” Even worse, James Wolcott called Salter America’s “most under-rated under-rated writer.” I prefer to remember Salter, who died on June 19 at 90, as a writer of gem-like sentences that added up to a handful of highly accomplished novels and short stories, a man who lived a long and fruitful life and, in the bargain, had no peer when it came to writing about flight.
In 1952 Salter flew more than 100 combat missions in an F-86 jet, hunting and fighting MiG-15s in the skies over Korea. His writing about flying — most notably in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir, Burning the Days — has won high praise, including this accolade from a fellow military pilot, Will Mackin: “Salter’s writing about flying made me miss flying even while I was still flying.” Salter took a dim view of such praise: “I have said many times I don’t want to be considered one who once flew fighters. That’s not who I am.”
So who was James Salter? A writer who put the exact right words in the exact right order to produce books full of beauty and insight and pain — six novels, two collections of short stories, a book of poetry, essays on food and travel, and a memoir. (Salter also wrote screenplays, including the 1969 Robert Redford movie Downhill Racer. It wasn’t art, Salter acknowledged, but the Hollywood money was wonderful.) Salter was also a writer who craved the broad popularity that never came his way. He explained the craving this way: “You can’t be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales.”
Like Philip Levine before him, Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at 79, turned his indifferent early years into indelible writing. Instead of soul-crushing factory jobs, Weesner had to contend with an alcoholic father and a teenage mother who abandoned him and his older brother when they were toddlers. After living in a foster home and dropping out of high school to join the Army at 17, Weesner went on to attend Michigan State University and earn an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Worskhop.
His first novel, The Car Thief, was published in 1972 to critical acclaim, and it has become a cult classic. The novel, which was reissued in 1987 as part of the Vintage Contemporaries series, reads as neither a screed nor a cry for help, but rather as a tender and clear-eyed portrait of a troubled boy, 16-year-old Alex Housman, whose only available means of self-expression is to steal cars. Weesner went on to produce half a dozen other works of fiction, which, like his debut, won critical praise but a modest readership. Late in life, Weesner seemed to come to terms with his fate. In 2007 he told an interviewer, “I get this ‘neglected writer’ a lot…The Car Thief got a lot of awards and praise and was widely reviewed. And (since) then no one has given me a whole lot of credit.”
I would not presume to single out the best book by E.L. Doctorow, who died on July 21 at 84. But I’m convinced Ragtime was both his best loved and his most influential book. Published in 1975, it did something unheard-of at the time: it mingled fictional characters with historical figures — Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and many others — to create a vivid portrait of America on the eve of the First World War, the dying moments of the nation’s heedless exuberance and innocence. The novel was not universally loved. John Updike famously dissed it, and William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of it. “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said,” Doctorow said years later. “Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”
Ragtime opened the gates for writers of wildly different temperaments to start inserting historical figures into their novels, either at center stage or in the background. These writers included Joyce Carol Oates (who channeled Marilyn Monroe), Colum McCann (Rudolf Nureyev, Philippe Petit, and Frederick Douglass, among others), James McBride and Russell Banks (John Brown), and Don DeLillo (Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby). For Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Doctorow’s fiction — including Loon Lake and World’s Fair, but especially Ragtime — offered novelists a “magic way out” of the confining box made by the reigning ’70s vogues of “dirty realism” and post-modernism. In The Guardian two days after Doctorow’s death, Chabon wrote, “In opening that particular door, Doctorow made a startling discovery: done properly, the incorporation of historical figures into a fictional context did not come off as some kind of smart-ass critique of subjectivity and the fictive nature of history. Done properly it just made the lies you were telling your reader — with his or her full and willing consent, of course — sound that much more true. And that small-t truth then became a powerful tool for getting across whatever Truth, subjective or fragmentary though it might be, that you felt you had it in you to express.”
By the time she died on Sept. 19 at 77, Jackie Collins had produced some 30 steamy novels that tended to carry a Hollywood zip code and sold more than half a billion copies. Collins, who was born in London, was refreshingly candid about the shameless commercialism of her fiction. “I never pretended to be a literary writer,” she once said. “I am a school dropout.”
Her writing style brought to mind the USA Today columns of Al Neuharth — short sentences, liberal use of fragments, no words that would send readers to the dictionary. Her books were also loaded with sex, beginning with her debut, The World Is Full of Married Men, from 1968, when, as Collins put it, “no one was writing about sex except Philip Roth.” Perhaps Collins’s keenest insight was to understand that literature, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so she set about filling it to the brim. And she did her research. While still a teenager, she visited her actress sister Joan in Hollywood, where she met and bedded a hot young actor named Marlon Brando. When an interviewer suggested in 2007 that America had become a great big titillating Jackie Collins novel, she replied, “That’s true. When Clinton had his affair and the Starr report came out, reviewers actually said, ‘This is like a Jackie Collins novel.’ But in my books, the sex is better.”
Grace Lee Boggs
The indefatigable social activist and prolific author Grace Lee Boggs died in Detroit on Oct. 5 at the age of 100. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was born above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, R.I., and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens. While earning degrees from Barnard and Bryn Mawr, she steeped herself in the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx, then moved to Chicago and started organizing protests against slum housing.
Her life changed in 1953, when she relocated to Detroit and married James Boggs, a black autoworker and activist. Together they plunged into the city’s radical politics, protesting racism, sexism, and police brutality. Malcolm X was a frequent visitor in their home. When fires and shootings swept Detroit in the summer of 1967 — a justified rebellion, not a senseless riot, in the eyes of Boggs and her fellow radicals — she reached what she described as “a turning point in my life.” She began shunning confrontation in favor of nonviolent strategies, a path she followed for the rest of her days. She founded food cooperatives and community groups to fight crime and to stand up for the elderly, the unemployed, and people fighting utility shutoffs. She planted community gardens. Always, she kept writing. She published her autobiography, Living for Change, in 1998. In her final book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, published in 2011, the former radical aligned herself with Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. “We are not subversives,” she wrote. “We are struggling to change this country because we love it.”
The above list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. Here are some other noteworthy literary deaths from 2015, in alphabetical order:
John Bayley, 89, was an Oxford don and literary critic whose moving memoir, Elegy for Iris, recounted his life with his wife, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Iris Murdoch, both before and after she was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Elegy was published in 1999, shortly before Murdoch died, and two years later it was made into a movie starring Jim Broadbent as Bayley and Judi Dench as the ailing Murdoch.
David Carr, 58, was a celebrated New York Times columnist who weathered cancer, alcoholism, and crack cocaine addiction, then wrote about his battles with verve and black humor in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun.
Assia Djebar, 78, was an Algerian-born novelist, poet, playwright, and filmmaker who was often mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate for her unflinching explorations of the plight of women in the male-dominated Arab world. Djebar was also adept at kicking down doors. She was the first Algerian student and the first Muslim woman admitted to France’s elite École Normale Supérieure, and the first writer from North Africa to be elected to the Académie Française. Despite these achievements, she insisted, “I am not a symbol. My only activity consists of writing.”
Ivan Doig, 75, produced 16 works of fiction and non-fiction that celebrated his native western Montana, where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” Doig, whose affecting final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, was published posthumously, liked to say he came from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view.” The critic Sven Birkerts called him “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West.”
When Charles F. Harris, who died on Dec. 16 at 81, went to work as an editor at Doubleday in the mid-1950s, the work of black writers was a niche market that was treated more like a ghetto by New York publishing houses. Harris helped change that, most notably as chief executive of the nation’s first black university press, Howard University Press, where he published Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Jean Toomer, Walter Rodney, and many other black writers. Harris also founded Amistad Press, which published critical volumes on Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker, among others.
Jack Leggett, 97, was a novelist, biographer, editor, and teacher who was the director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1970 to 1987. He stocked the nation’s oldest creative writing program with big-name teaching talent, including John Cheever, Gail Godwin, Raymond Carver, Frederick Exley, and Leggett’s eventual successor, Frank Conroy. Students included Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Cunningham, and Denis Johnson. During Leggett’s tenure there was a fundamental shift in students’ approach to writing, which he summarized this way after a decade on the job: “In 1970 there were a lot of kids out of the armed forces and the Peace Corps. They were an undisciplined lot. They would say, ‘Don’t tell me about form.’ Now they are very interested in technique. They want to know what novelists have done in the past. And it shows in their work.”
When Leggett arrived in Iowa City there were about a dozen creative writing programs in the country. Today, for better or worse, there are more than 200.
Colleen McCullough, 77, was a neurophysiological researcher who decided to write novels in her spare time and wound up striking gold with her second book, the international bestseller The Thorn Birds, in 1977. A panoramic tale of McCullough’s native land, it was made into a popular TV mini-series and was often called “the Australian Gone With the Wind.”
The Scottish writer William McIlvanney, 79, became known as “the father or Tartan noir” for his novels featuring the Glasgow cop Jack Laidlaw. McIlvanney was also a poet, essayist, teacher, short story writer, TV narrator, and, in the eyes of The Telegraph, “the finest Scottish novelist of his generation.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, 66, the knighted British novelist, produced more than 70 immensely popular works of fantasy, including the series known as Discworld. It was a Frisbee-shaped place balanced on the backs of four elephants who stood on the shell of a giant turtle, a place populated by witches and trolls and a ravenous character known as Death. While frequently ignored by serious critics, Pratchett had fans in high places. A.S. Byatt applauded his abundant gifts, not least his ability to write “amazing sentences.”
Ruth Rendell, 85, was the British author of more than 60 mystery novels that hit the trifecta: they were intricately plotted, psychologically acute, and immensely popular with readers and critics, selling some 60 million copies worldwide and winning numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford was her most durable character and a sort of alter-ego. “I’m not creating a character,” Rendell said, “so much as putting myself as a man on the page.” Along with her friend P.D. James, who died in 2014, Rendell is credited with exploding the confines of the mystery genre. In a 2013 interview, Rendell vowed she would never stop writing. “I’ll do it until I die,” she said. Her final novel, Dark Corners, was published in October, five months after her death.
Oliver Sacks, 82, was a neurologist who used his patients’ conditions, from amnesia to Tourette’s syndrome, as starting points for his bestselling books about the human brain and the human condition. He called his books “neurological novels.” More than a million copies are in print.
Timothy Seldes, 88, was one of the last of a vanishing breed — an old-school literary agent and editor who believed that literature should be seen as a vital source of oxygen for the nation’s culture, not as product that needs to be moved. How quaint. He was, in a word, a gentleman, whose devoted clients included Anne Tyler, Jim Lehrer, Annie Dillard, and Nadine Gordimer.
William Jay Smith, 97, was a poet, critic, memoirist, translator, and teacher who served as U.S. poet laureate from 1968 to 1970. His poems, both tactile and empirical, embraced rhyme, meter, and other conventions deemed passé by many of his contemporaries. To his credit, Smith ignored them. In “Structure of a Song,” he offered this lovely anatomy of the making of a poem:
Its syllables should come
As natural and thorough
As sunlight over plum
Or melon in the furrow,
Rise smoother than the hawk
Or gray gull ever could;
As proud and freely walk
As deer in any wood.
So lightly should it flow
From stone so deep in earth
That none could ever know
What torment gave it birth.
James Tate, 71, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who believed “the challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary.” His 17th book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, has come out posthumously, and it’s marked by his trademark surrealism and wordplay, deployed in narrative-driven prose poems that Tate turned to in his later years. He never lost his child’s sense of wonder at the plastic magic of language, its ability to startle. These lines come from his final book:
I was sitting on the porch when I watched my neighbor’s kids walk by on their way to school. One of them turned and waved to me. I waved back. That’s when I realized they were zombies.
Tomas Tranströmer, 83, was an accomplished pianist, an amateur entomologist, and a trained psychologist who worked with juvenile offenders. He was also a popular and beloved poet, sometimes called “Sweden’s Robert Frost,” whose crystalline, sometimes chilly poems won a Nobel Prize in 2011.
C.K. Williams, 78, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who, unlike James Tate, wrote morally charged, politically impassioned poems about such weighty topics as poverty, love, death, war, climate change, and the shootings at Kent State University. Like Tate, Williams moved toward longer ribbony lines that freed him to “talk about things.” Shortly before he died, from multiple myeloma, Williams completed a collection of poems about death and dying. He called it Falling Ill.
Rest in peace. Through your words you will all live on.