It would be a shame if the death of the Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov yesterday got lost in the welter of cultural losses that surrounds it. Aksyonov is one of the towering literary figures of the postwar era – one who might have been more widely recognized as such were it not for the strictures of Soviet publishing culture. In his novels The Burn, The New Sweet Style, and especially Generations of Winter (which we have championed at this site), Aksyonov synthesized the Tolstoyan legacy of the 19th Century with the innovating impulses of the revolutionary generation. In making Russian literary tradition his own, and re-opening its dialogue with the rest of world literature, he pointed the way for the novelists who would succeed him. I can think of no more fitting way to honor him than to read him.
Awoke to the news that Kurt Vonnegut died. His death was somewhat unexpected, coming after a fall at his home in New York, but he lived a full life, even penning a surprise bestseller that put him back in the public eye in 2005. That was fun to see because, though Vonnegut may be one of the most important writers out there for me as a reader, most of his literary output came before I was born.When I was a younger reader, I was a completist. I didn’t have knowledge of dozens of books and writers at my fingertips, so when I found a book I really liked, I would read everything by that author. And so it was that I read substantially everything that Vonnegut had written before I left home for college, starting with a late novel, Hocus Pocus, after finding it lying around the house when I was 14 or 15, and finishing up with Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, on a long, late-summer car ride home from Maine, a few weeks before moving away from home. So, in many ways, Vonnegut was in the background through my teenage years, providing a vivid counterpoint to the mundanities of suburban high school life. His books are very important to who I am as a reader and a writer, so I’m sad to see him go.Some links: My call for more people to read the lesser-known Vonnegut novels. The New York Times obit.Update: Some of you may be seeing a lot of folks writing “so it goes” today in response to Vonnegut’s death. For those who are curious as to why, the phrase comes from what is perhaps his most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five, where he wrote: “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.'”Also, I found Vonnegut’s official site to be particularly poignant today.
The wind was blowing as morning broke over Beirut. In the kitchen, I poured a glass of milk for our daughter. Firing up the iPhone, there it was: New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid had died on assignment in Syria. He was 43 years old.
“Kelly!” I hollered, running down the hall, into the bedroom, where my wife was entombed in warm sheets. “Anthony Shadid is dead.”
She shot out of bed, ran to her computer, and a few minutes later was filing a news spot for NPR. About the death of a man she’d sat on a panel with, a guy who’d met her parents, a neighbor of hers in Baghdad, a colleague in the Middle East, and one of the best reporters in the business. He was also a father of a kid our daughter’s age, and one of the main reasons we thought it was a good idea to move to Beirut.
In a daze, I put Loretta into fresh clothes and watched Kelly pace the room. Rain came down in sheets. We were late for school, and I loaded Loretta into the stroller.
“Daddy, I’m cold,” she said. “It’s bad out there.”
She was right: A new squall was rearing up, water slapping against the pavement, the storm drains overflowing. The kind of day you dread.
According to reports, Anthony was allergic to horses. He had asthma. He and photographer Tyler Hicks squeezed through barbed wire on the border with Syria and Turkey. They would be traveling with horses. Anthony had trouble breathing but recovered after resting. Days later, on the way back out of Syria, his lungs apparently gave out. Tyler says he tried for 30 minutes to revive him, but Anthony was dead. There would be an autopsy in Turkey.
At my daughter’s school, I held Loretta’s hand, walking in a daze. I was confused to find an administrator waiting for me with open arms. She smiled, clapping me on the back.
“Congratulations!” she said. “You should be so proud.” What? Of all the mornings, Loretta had just been accepted into the school’s exclusive kindergarten.
In a steady rain, I stood outside, holding the acceptance letter, suddenly bereft. Where did Anthony’s son go to school? The letter in my hand began to turn to mush, and my chest tightened with grief.
You could read any one of Anthony Shadid’s recent dispatches and see he was a man who told the story with heart, who did whatever it took to get it right. The Middle East isn’t an easy place to work, and everyone was in agreement: no hands were as deft as Anthony’s.
Siting there in my living room, my wife about to cry, I tried to picture his empty shoes, knowing it was just as hard to imagine them ever again being filled.
Then Kelly picked up the phone. It was a colleague. They had been in conversation the other day about crossing into Syria. Now what? I shuddered, for his family, for my family, and for everyone else, too.