It’s been a tough month for New York Times executive editors. Just as Jill Abramson is let go, a harsh, thinly-veiled portrait of Howell Raines pops up in The Transcriptionist, Amy Rowland’s debut novel about a Times-like paper called the Record. Raines, fired in 2003 in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, makes his fictional character debut as Ralph, an unpopular, Yeats-quoting, panama-hat wearing southerner marked by his self-absorption: “Everything the man writes is a ten-thousand word ode to himself.”
Perhaps a Times writer is already gathering material for a roman à clef about the Abramson drama and preparing to similarly skewer its villains. In the meantime, let us reacquaint ourselves with some past and present examples of the “press novel,” that curious subgenre whose motto could be “All the news unfit to print.”
In Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, William Boot, the guileless author of the “Lush Places” country column, is mistakenly sent to report on a “very promising little war” for Lord Copper’s Beast. When his mission ends in unexpected success, a young man asks him for professional advice. The aspiring reporter has been using his spare time to imagine lurid stories and how he would handle them. “But do you think it’s a good way of training oneself — inventing imaginary news?” he asks William. “None better,” William distractedly replies, more interested in owls hunting “maternal rodents and their furry broods” than in the tenets of good journalism.
A classic bit of Waugh humor, but one that speaks to an affinity between the two very different storytelling modes, the novel and the newspaper, “that daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species,” as Tom Rachman puts it in his press novel, The Imperfectionists.
The press novel spoofs the occasional fictional quality of journalism; its tendency to narrate chaos using certain pat phrases (“embattled” leaders ruling over “restive” regions with “roiling” protests), its fanciful headlines, and comical errors. And yet the inevitable comedy of press novels often masks a certain weariness stemming from the fusty, hard-drinking culture, from declining readership, from men and women burnt out by a long career of telling too many stories in the same way.
The Imperfectionists, about “the joys of trying to put out a non-embarrassing daily with roughly five percent of the [needed] resources,” has fun with its journalists, who are “as touchy as cabaret performers,” and its lax copyeditors (“Sadism Hussein” slips through). However, like the poor basset hound named Schopenhauer who meets his end on the same day the struggling paper does, its dominant mood is melancholic.
In Jim Knipfel’s The Buzzing, the “Kook Beat” reporter Roscoe Baragon’s dogged investigation into an outlandish conspiracy indicates that he may need a break from “doing virtually nothing but phone interviews with insane people.” While the cantankerous veteran’s unhinged quest is awfully amusing, it is also a bit wistful: the last gasp of a certain kind of romanticized reporter, one who learned his craft sifting through financial records in a dumpster rather than in Columbia’s Journalism School.
Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning most clearly exploits the press novel’s comic potential while conveying a sense of enervation. When he is not stockpiling crossword puzzles or wracking his brain to “think of a headline with no more than ten characters for a piece about the dangers of the exaggeratedly indifferentist liturgical tendencies inherent in ecumenicalism,” an editor named John Dyson is trying to cultivate a television career as a cultural commentator: “He would keep the liberal thoughts in his left-hand pocket, he decided, and the provocative ones in his right-hand pocket.”
There are delightfully disastrous television appearances, absurdist press junkets and witty flourishes, but the darkening morning sky under which the novel begins never really lightens. When “poor old Eddy Moulton,” who puts together the nostalgic “In Years Go By” column, dies in the office, his personal effects end up in the trash and he is quickly forgotten by his colleagues who endured his shtick yet never really knew him.
They were like a self-sealing petrol tank; when sections were shot away they closed up automatically and filled the gap, spilling not a drop of the precious communal spirit.
Frayn’s newspaper community is built on interchangeability. Even editing copy is mechanical: “It’s just a matter of checking the facts and the spelling, crossing out the first sentence, and removing any attempts at jokes.”
Which brings us to Rowland’s The Transcriptionist, the latest addition to the press novel genre and whose protagonist Lena is actually mistaken for a machine by some of the reporters who phone in their stories to her. Indeed, the years of copying have made Lena into something of a machine, “a human conduit as the words of others enter through her ears, course through her veins, and drip out unseen through fast-moving fingertips.” Lena presides over the seldom-visited Recording Room of a New York paper called the Record, its color “old opossum or new pumice, the color of newspaper without ink.” The windows haven’t been opened in three years, and in a telling detail, the connection on her transcriber’s phone is clearer when she mutes herself.
As Rowland delves into the alienating effect of being besieged by other people’s words, it is perhaps fitting that her own novel is haunted by literary forbears: Jose Saramago’s questing functionary in All The Names (“The errors of copyists are the least excusable”); George Eliot’s famous passage from Middlemarch about the merciful limits of human sympathy, our deafness to “the roar which lies on the other side of silence”; Italo Calvino’s dictum that the ear, rather than the voice, commands the story; and the spiritual yearning of Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. The feud between Chaucer and his scrivener even comes up during Lena’s adventures.
Amidst this literary parade, the ghost of Bartleby, that “pale young scrivener clerk” with a penchant for maddeningly polite refusals, also lingers. Bartleby the Scrivener is especially relevant not only because of its alienated copyist but also because it concerns precisely those stories which stubbornly resist being told. Melville’s narrator is compelled to attempt to account for his thoroughly “unaccountable” clerk — that is, one who refuses to fulfill his responsibilities and one for whom “no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography.” Even the final explanation for Bartleby’s behavior, which leads to him wasting away in the aptly named Hall of Justice, “The Tombs,” is only a “rumor”; he had apparently been laid off from a traumatizing job at the Dead Letters Office sorting through missive which, “on errands of life…speed to death.” (The Transcriptionist is similarly infused with Thanatos — a walk across Bryant Park, briefly used as a graveyard, occasions a musing over whether “a few shards of anonymous bones still lie beneath the grassy lawn.”)
Lena’s own opaque biographical subject is a woman she reads about in the paper who swam across the moat of the lion enclosure at the Bronx Zoo and let herself be mauled. As the article succinctly, if chillingly, puts it: “The Associated Press reported that the woman had been partly devoured.” Lena recognizes the picture as that of the blind court reporter with whom she had a brief encounter outside the New York Public Library, in full view of its majestic though perfectly harmless lions. Seeking to prevent the woman from being buried anonymously in a potter’s field, find out what drove her to embrace so ghastly a fate, and write her story so that she is not simply “perished, printed, recycled,” Lena investigates the woman, whose job, like her own, involves “listening to other people’s tragedies all day.”
As should be evident from the description, The Transcriptionist hews closer to the insistent lugubriousness of Miss Lonelyhearts than the farce of Scoop, though even Rowland’s saturnine tale pauses every now and then to lampoon longwinded editors and mock a vain, slippery reporter bearing a striking resemblance to Judith Miller.
If there is one flaw it is that the novel, so concerned with hearing, is itself a kind of echo chamber. Motifs are struck and then struck again, until whatever resonance they might have built up gets muted. (To take the pride of leonine references: lions maul a woman whom Lena met outside of a library guarded by lions, which spurs Lena to meditate on her childhood fear of roving mountain lions.) One almost wishes that Rowland let some of the background noise, false starts, and stammers inherent in transcription creep into her novel, which too often states its theme clearly and unequivocally: “Listening doesn’t make us disappear. It just helps us recognize our absurdity, our humanity. It’s what binds us together, as the newspaper binds us and before that Chaucer’s tales and before that Scriptures.”
I prefer an earlier and more ambiguous statement that coyly plays on Prufock’s measuring out his life in coffee spoons. Lena calculates that “thirty thousand newspapers equal a life,” a reckoning that for me at least has transformed a pleasant morning ritual into a daily Memento mori.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Like many noted Hungarian writers, László Krasznahorkai has the distinction of being a literary giant in the German-speaking world and an exotic literary curiosity, subject to the fascination of cultists, in the Anglophone world. Americans first encountered at least a hint of his work via the director Béla Tarr, with whom Krasznahorkai has forged a three-decade-long collaboration, beginning with the 1988 film Damnation. Tarr’s meditative epic, the seven-and-a-half hour Satantango (1994), a long-take heavy depiction of a dying collectivist town, was an adaptation of Krasznahorkai’s 1985 novel of the same name. After 27 years, Satantango the novel has finally been translated into English.
Krasznahorkai is a difficult, demanding novelist, whose work is made up of long, seemingly interminable sentences, each of them prose poems in themselves, that push to the very edge of madness. Colm Tóibín writes, “For [Krasznahorkai] the sentence is an act of pure performance — a tense high-wire act, a piece of grave and ambitious vaudeville performed with energy both comic and ironic. But there is also a compacted edge to his prose; he is not interested in language merely for its own sake. Prose for him is a complex vehicle moving through a world both real and surreal with considerable precision and sharpness.” The universe of Satantango is vicious and grim, a buried cackle seems to permeate its air. And yet hints of optimism, of small possibilities of human connection seep into the story. His humanity is Faulknerian.
On the occasion of Satantango’s first appearance in English, Krasznahorkai agreed to answer some questions by email. He wrote his answers in Hungarian. The poet George Szirtes, who translated Satantango as well as two other Krasznahorkai novels, The Melancholy of Resistance (which Tarr adapted in the 2000 film The Werkmeister Harmonies) and War and War, translated his answers.
The Millions: Satantango first appeared in 1985, during the slow-motion collapse of the collectivist system in Hungary. It is now making its first appearance in English translation in 2012, a few months after Hungary officially adopted a new constitution that, among other things, consolidated state power over the media, and declared the country, in terms that would be popular with our own religious right, officially Christian. As tempting as it is for an American reader, would it be a mistake to see premonitions of Hungary’s current political situation in the pages of your novel?
László Krasznahorkai: You will never go wrong anticipating doom in my books, anymore than you’ll go wrong in anticipating doom in ordinary life. But when I wrote this book, that is to say in the early ’80s, I had no idea it would be open to a political reading or even echoed anything in the political world. The idea of a political message in Satantango was as far from my mind as the Soviet empire itself. I was only concerned to explore why everyone around me seemed as sad as the rain falling on Hungary and why I myself was sad, surrounded as I was by such people, in the rain. It may sound odd to say so, but our situation hasn’t really changed. The collapse of the Soviet Empire and the political independence resulting from it gave Hungarians a chance of building a new country — but it was immediately clear to me, among other things, that the real question was how we could build the new with the same old people? So the sadness continued to hang around. Maybe we have a little less rain than before, but that’s all.
TM: The third chapter of Satantango opens with a quotation from a geological book describing Hungary’s ancient underwater past during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. The doctor is reading this passage and when he looks up he is surrounded by the simple objects of his own dirty house. Two of your novels that have now appeared in English, The Melancholy of Resistance and Satantango, have moments in which characters try to conceive of their positions within enormous conceptions of space and time. But after thinking of their place in the cosmos, a trick of the brain or a change in their external circumstances reminds them of their place in small Hungarian backwaters. Could either of these novels be transported to other small towns in other cultures?
LK: No, I don’t think so. We could perhaps draw a few parallels but they would be forced: the fact is that each culture produces its own sensitive, fragile, unrepeatable conditions; smells, colors, tastes, objects and moods that seem insignificant but have a character that is all but intangible, though you are probably right, for art, and that includes the novel, has its own powers of evocation so that if I read about an inexpressible air of gloom descending on a filthy bar somewhere in Northern Portugal it conjures in me the kind of melancholy I felt the last time I drained a glass of pálinka in a bar in the south of Hungary. In this way you may arrive at some broad overarching sense of commonality between the inhabitants of Northern Portugal and the south of Hungary even though the common light switch is slightly different in the two countries, and that difference is extremely important and highly significant — but having stressed the difference we must acknowledge that the movement with which the last man in the bar switches the light off is precisely the same in both cases.
TM: Your contemporary Péter Esterházy writes, “The nineteenth-century sentence was long-winded, the meaning wandering through long periodic structures, and in any case the Hungarian long sentence is a dubious formation because the words do not have genders and the subordinate clauses are more uncertainly connected to the main clauses than in the reassuring rigor of a Satzbau (German sentence construction). Such sentences totter along, uncertain even of themselves, stammer a little; in short are extremely lovable.” Does Esterházy’s description fit your own conception of your long ecstatic sentences?
LK: No, I don’t think that means anything to me. Esterházy is probably thinking of certain 19th-century Hungarian writers, or of a particular kind of writer, I can’t tell, but what he says certainly doesn’t apply to Hungarian literature as a whole and not at all to the Hungarian language in general: it is particularly untrue of my own way with sentences. It seems to me that this definition reflects his own literary practice and that the generalization that follows from it is only natural. If I go on to consider my “ecstatically long sentences,” at first nothing particular comes to mind. Then, on reconsideration, I suspect that these long ecstatic sentences have no relation to theory or to any idea I might have about the Hungarian language, or indeed any language, but are the direct products of the “ecstatic” heroes of my books, that they proceed directly from them. It is not me but they who serve as narrators behind the book. I myself am silent, utterly silent in fact. And since that is the case I can hear what these heroic figures are saying, my task then being simply to transcribe them. So the sentences in question are really not mine but are uttered by those in whom some wild desire is working, the desire being that those to whom they address their sentences should understand them correctly and unconditionally. That desire lends their speeches a mad urgency. The urgency is the style. And one more thing: the speeches these heroes are so desperate to rattle off are not the book, not in the least! The book is a medium, a vehicle for their speeches. They are so convinced of the overwhelming importance of what they have to say, that their language is intended to produce a magical effect without necessarily carrying a concrete meaning: it is an embodiment of the ecstasy of persuasion by magic, the momentum of the desire for understanding.
TM: Your work first gained an audience in the English-speaking world filtered through your longtime collaborator Béla Tarr, whose 450-minute version of Satantango became a semi-fixture on the festival circuit in the 1990s. If you push and stretch the sentence to absolute extremes, Tarr does the same with the long take. The observation is so obvious, I’m sure thousands of others have already made it, but do you yourself see a connection between this aspect of Tarr’s methods and yours? Have your novels transformed in any direct way as a result of your collaboration with Tarr? Do you visualize them in your head in anyway filtered through Tarr’s style?
LK: My feeling is that those who love Tarr’s films don’t see it quite like that. A writer doesn’t need anything to write a book, he is completely alone and it’s good that it should be so. A director on the other hand can’t make a film without others. How does this work with Tarr? Because no one has really spoken about this, and it’s unlikely that anyone will, let me do so now and say that Tarr’s cinema changed from the time he met me and we started working together to make our first film. The cause of this radical change was the effect of reading my work, in particular of reading Satantango, getting to understand my vision, my way of thinking, my style. In all the big stories, and in every serious collaboration, someone has to be the initiator, the source from which work flows and in this case it was me, I was the source; in other words it was my vision that decided what kind of films we would make together. The films Tarr made before me were “honest,” that was their strength, it was what characterized them — it was why I, for example, liked them so much. I liked the fact that in these early films of his the single task of the central character was not to lie, that they would not lie — it was the solitary basis for the aesthetic of the films which were a particular form of documentary. Tarr employed amateur actors, or the kind of actor he could torture on camera until he or she spoke the truth. When we met in 1985, Tarr suddenly discovered what he had been desperately seeking and which he very much needed: the only literary material he could possibly work with, the only possible style, the only visual world and dramaturgy, the only appropriate visual rhythm, in other words an artistic vision, spirit and corpus. From this point on everything was suddenly simple. I gave him everything, all I knew, body and soul, really everything, and despite all this he created an absolutely original cinema, something utterly authentic, a form of art quite different from mine. I willingly gave my heart to helping him and now, looking back at these works, these collaborations between myself and Tarr — Tarr’s work — I must say that I almost like the results, that Tarr’s cinema is the only cinema I can really tolerate. There was never any question in these collaborations as to who would make the film. We called them Tarr’s films — it is Tarr who went to the movie festivals and still does, and will as long as he lives: it is right that Tarr should wear the crown, the rest of us who worked with him, and particularly me, we are anonymous in this happy set of events and that is as it should be. Only one thing matters, Tarr’s cinema itself — the others, the sources of the inspiration, the cast, are all unimportant. Making films isn’t a matter of fairness. And that too is as it should be.
TM: The doctor in Satantango fears the loss of memory of any detail that passes his perception as a sign of mortality. “To ignore the apparently insignificant was to admit that one was condemned to sit defenseless on the parapet connecting the rising and falling members of the bridge between chaos and comprehensible order.” There follows a humorous passage in which he lists the things he must remember. But to remember so much of either the important or the insignificant leads to paralysis and a different kind of death. Does the structure of your novel — the tango that constantly goes back and forth in time — mirror the problems of not being able to forget?
LK: What I can’t forget is the world we have created. Everything is of equal interest in the world except man himself. When I stand on the top of a mountain and look down on the valley, seeing the trees in the distance, the deer, the horses and the stream below, then look up at the sky, the clouds and the birds, it is all perfect and magical right up to the moment that, suddenly and brutally, a human being walks into view. The spectacle I was enjoying from the mountain top is simply ruined. As concerns the structure of my novels I am less certain since I never really think about it. But since you are interested all I can say is that the structure isn’t something I decide but what is generated by the madness and intensity of my characters. Or rather that it is as if someone were speaking behind them, but I myself don’t know who it is. What is certain is that I am afraid of him. But it is he that speaks, and his speeches are perfectly mad. Under the circumstances it is self evident that I have no control over anything. Structure? Controlling the structure? It is he who controls everything, it is the furious speed of his madness that decides it all. And given this fury and madness it is not only impossible to remember anything or even think — the only recourse is forgetting.
TM: At first, I imagined you were making Esti into an archetype of the wise noble idiot. That was until, a few pages later, she commits a particularly savage act. Were you deliberately rewriting this archetype and playing with reader’s moral expectations? Oddly enough, I still found her the most sympathetic and tragic figure in the book.
LK: Estike (her name derives from the original word “este” meaning “evening” but in translation it is Esti) is a very important figure. There is a point at which this consequence can easily turn to cruelty. And that is the case here. Please don’t think that the tenderness of this wise, noble idiot is so easy to bear. Spending time with Estike is like spending time with a being of infinite purity. Purity is dangerous. The construction of purity has very important consequences. Estike’s purity stems from the fact that she is a victim. And a victim is always desperately rational in victimhood. It is very dangerous being with a victim. I love her so much I feel physical pain whenever I think of her.
TM: The dance that forms the structure of Satantango and the Werckmeister Harmonies that form the focal point of The Melancholy of Resistance suggest a desire for rhythmic order. I thought I could hear an echo of this rhythm in Szirtes’ translation. This may be an odd question, but do you write with music in the background? And if so, what music?
LK: No, I write my texts, my sentences, in my head — outside there is a terrible, almost unbearable noise, inside there is a terrible, almost unbearable, pounding silence.
TM: Finally, American readers will surely make comparisons between Satantango and Faulkner’s novels. There are the long, rhythmic sentences. There is the small dying town cursed by a past and the constant jarring shifts in time. Did Faulkner’s novels, either in English or Hungarian translation, or any of our other writers inform your work?
LK: Yes, they had an extraordinary effect on me and I am glad I have the opportunity of admitting this to you now. The influence of Faulkner — particularly of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury — struck an incredibly deep echo in me: his passion, his pathos, his whole character, significance, the rhythmical structure of his novels, all carried me away. I must have been about 16-18, I suppose, at one’s most impressionable years. What else? I was an enthusiastic reader of magnificent Dostoevsky, of the mysterious Ezra Pound, of Thoreau’s Walden, and of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts — the list could be infinitely extended. I couldn’t have existed without great writers and for me these writers constituted greatness. The fact is I can’t exist without great writing even now, and that is why it is so important, as I am slowly realizing, that I inhabit the same planet as, thank God, Thomas Pynchon…
Is it my imagination, or do an inordinate number of writers die in motor vehicle accidents? Maybe I tend to notice these grisly deaths because I’m a writer, an avid reader of obituaries, and also a car lover with a deep fear of dying in a crash. But I’m convinced by years of accumulated empirical evidence that writers outnumber the percentage of, say, nurses or teachers or accountants who die in car and motorcycle accidents. (Similarly, an inordinate number of musicians seem to die in plane crashes, including the Big Bopper, John Denver, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Ritchie Valens and Ronnie Van Zant, to name a few.)
Why do so many writers die in motor vehicle mishaps? Are they reckless drivers? Prone to bad luck? Likely to indulge in risky behavior? I don’t pretend to know the answer(s), but I have noticed, sadly, that writers who die in crashes are frequently on the cusp of greatness or in the midst of some promising project; sometimes they’re at the peak of their careers. I offer this list in chronological order, aware it isn’t exhaustive. Feel free to add to it in the comments. Think of this as a living tribute to writers who left us too soon:
T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) – Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s Oscar-winning 1962 movie, opens with the death of its subject. T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole), the archaeologist/warrior who helped unite rival Arab tribes and defeat the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, was whizzing along a road in rural Dorset, England, astride his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle on the afternoon of May 13, 1935. A dip in the road obscured Lawrence’s view of two boys on bicycles, and when he swerved to avoid them he lost control and pitched over the handlebars. Six days later he died from his injuries. He was 46.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s account of his experiences during the Great War, made him an international celebrity, though he called the book “a narrative of daily life, mean happenings, little people.” An inveterate letter writer, Lawrence also published his correspondence with Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, E.M. Forster and many others. He dreamed that victory on the desert battlefield would result in an autonomous Arab state, but negotiators at the Paris peace conference had very different ideas, prompting Lawrence to write bitterly, “Youth could win but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven on earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”
Seven Pillars of Wisdom still speaks to us today, as the U.S. fights two wars in the region during this convulsive Arab Spring. Lawrence could have been writing about Americans in Iraq when he wrote these words about his fellow British soldiers: “And we were casting them by thousands into the fire to the worst of deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia might be ours.”
Nathanael West (1903-1940) – Nathanael West, born Nathan Weinstein, wrote just four short novels in his short life, but two of them – Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust – are undisputed classics. After graduating from college he managed two New York hotels, where he allowed fellow aspiring writers to stay at reduced rates or free of charge, including Dashiell Hammett, Erskine Caldwell and James T. Farrell. When his first three novels – The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and A Cool Million (1934) – earned a total of $780, a demoralized West went to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting.
There he enjoyed his first success. He wrote scripts for westerns, B-movies and a few hits, then used his experiences in the trenches of the movie business to brilliant effect in his masterpiece, The Day of the Locust (1939), which satirizes the tissue of fakery wrapped around everything in Los Angeles, from its buildings to its people to the fantasies that pour out of its dream factories. The novel also paints a garish portrait of the alienated and violent dreamers who come to California for the sunshine and the citrus and the empty promise of a fresh start. West’s original title for the novel was, tellingly, The Cheated. It was eclipsed by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which was a published a few weeks before it and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, then was made into a hit movie. West wrote ruefully to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Sales: practically none.”
In April of 1940 West married Eileen McKenney. Eight months later, on Dec. 22, a day after Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack, West and McKenney were returning to their home in Los Angeles from a bird-hunting expedition in Mexico. Outside the farming town of El Centro, West, a notoriously bad driver, gunned his sparkling new Ford station wagon through a stop sign at high speed, smashing into a Pontiac driven by a poor migrant worker. West and McKenney were flung from the car and died of “skull fracture,” according to the coroner’s report.
Marion Meade, author of Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, closes her book with what I think is a fitting eulogy: “Dead before middle age, Nat left behind no children, no literary reputation of importance, no fine obituary in the New York Times ensuring immortality, no celebrity eulogies, just four short novels, two of them unforgettable. When a writer lives only 37 years and ends up with very little reward, it might seem a waste, until you look at what he did. For Nathanael West, what he did seems enough.”
Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) – Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s only novel, was published in the summer of 1936. By the end of the year it had sold a million copies and David O. Selznick had bought the movie rights for the unthinkable sum of $50,000. Mitchell spent the rest of her life feeding and watering her cash cow, work that was not always a source of pleasure. Her New York Times obituary said the novel “might almost be labeled a Frankenstein that overwhelmed her,” adding, “She said one day, in a fit of exasperation as she left for a mountain hideaway from the throngs which besieged her by telephone, telegraph and in person, that she had determined never to write another word as long as she lived.”
She gave up fiction but continued to write letters, and her correspondence is filled with accounts of illnesses and accidents, boils and broken bones, collisions with furniture and cars. In fact, she claimed she started writing her novel because “I couldn’t walk for a couple of years.”
On the evening of Aug. 11, 1949, Mitchell and her husband John Marsh were about to cross Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta on their way to see a movie. According to witnesses, Mitchell stepped into the street without looking – something she did frequently – and she was struck by a car driven by a drunk, off-duty taxi driver named Hugh Gravitt. Her skull and pelvis were fractured, and she died five days later without regaining consciousness.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer whose familiarity with failure surely colored his opinion of Mitchell’s staggering success, said of Gone With the Wind, “I felt no contempt for it but only a certain pity for those who considered it the supreme achievement of the human mind.”
Albert Camus (1913-1960) – He had planned to take the train from Provence back to Paris. But at the last minute, the Nobel laureate Albert Camus accepted a ride from his publisher and friend, Michel Gallimard. On Jan. 4, 1960 near the town of Villeblevin, Gallimard lost control of his Facel Vega sports car on a wet stretch of road and slammed into a tree. Camus, 46, died instantly and Gallimard died a few days later. Gallimard’s wife and daughter were thrown clear of the mangled car. Both survived.
In the wreckage was a briefcase containing 144 handwritten pages – the first draft of early chapters of Camus’s most autobiographical novel, The First Man. It closely paralleled Camus’s youth in Algiers, where he grew up poor after his father was killed at the first battle of the Marne, when Albert was one year old. The novel was not published until 1994 because Camus’s daughter Catherine feared it would provide ammunition for the leftist French intellectuals who had turned against her father for daring to speak out against Soviet totalitarianism and for failing to support the Arab drive for independence in the country of his birth. Camus dedicated the unfinished novel to his illiterate mother – “To you who will never be able to read this book.” He once said that of all the many ways to die, dying in a car crash is the most absurd.
Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) – In his essay on Wallace Stevens, written when he was 37, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell wrote prophetically, “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times… A man who is a good poet at forty may turn out to be a good poet at sixty; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems.”
In the 1960s, as his 50th birthday approached, Jarrell’s poetic inspiration was in decline. While he didn’t stop writing poetry, he concentrated on criticism, translations and children’s books. He also sank into a depression that led him to slash his left wrist and arm in early 1965. The suicide attempt failed, and a month later his wife Mary committed him to a psychiatric hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was there when his final book of poems, The Lost World, appeared to some savage reviews. In The Saturday Review, Paul Fussell wrote, “It is sad to report that Randall Jarrell’s new book… is disappointing. There is nothing to compare with the poems he was writing 20 years ago… (His style) has hardened into a monotonous mannerism, attended now too often with the mere chic of sentimental nostalgia and suburban pathos.”
Though stung, Jarrell returned to UNC-Greensboro in the fall, where he was a dedicated and revered teacher. In October he was back in Chapel Hill undergoing treatments for the wounds on his left arm. On the evening of Oct. 14, 1965, Jarrell was walking alongside the busy U.S. 15-501 bypass, toward oncoming traffic, about a mile and a half south of town. As a car approached, Jarrell stepped into its path. His head struck the windshield, punching a hole in the glass. He was knocked unconscious and died moments later from “cerebral concussion.” The driver, Graham Wallace Kimrey, told police at the scene, “As I approached he appeared to lunge out into the path of the car.” Kimrey was not charged.
Was it a suicide? A tragic accident? We’ll never know for sure. One thing we do know is that this brilliant critic, uneven poet and inspiring teacher died too young, at 51, the same age as his heroes Proust and Rilke.
Richard Farina (1937-1966) – There was a time when every young person with claims to being hip and literary absolutely had to possess a battered copy of Richard Farina’s only novel, that terrific blowtorch of a book called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. Like a handful of other novels – Tropic of Cancer, On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest come immediately to mind – Farina’s creation was as much a generational badge as it was a book. Farina’s novel, which recounts the picaresque wanderings of Gnossos Pappadopoulis, was published in 1966, after Farina and his wife Mimi, Joan Baez’s sister, had become a successful folk-singing act. The best man at their wedding was Thomas Pynchon, who’d met Richard while they were students at Cornell.
On April 30, 1966, two days after the novel was published, there was a party in Carmel Valley, California, to celebrate Mimi’s 21st birthday. Richard decided to go for a spin on the back of another guest’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The driver entered an S-curve at excessive speed, lost control and tore through a barbed-wire fence. Farina died instantly, at the age of 29. Pynchon, who later dedicated Gravity’s Rainbow to Farina, said his friend’s novel comes on “like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch.”
Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) – For a writer who lived such a long and fruitful life – he was a teacher, environmentalist, decorated novelist and author of short stories, histories and biographies – Wallace Stegner does not enjoy the readership he deserves. “Generally students don’t read him here,” said Tobias Wolff, who was teaching at Stanford in 2009, the centennial of Stegner’s birth. “I wish they would.”
It was at Stanford that Stegner started the creative writing program and nurtured a whole galaxy of supernova talents, including Edward Abbey, Ernest Gaines, George V. Higgins, Ken Kesey, Gordon Lish, Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone. He won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a National Book Award but was ghettoized as “the dean of Western writers.” In a cruel irony, this writer who deplored “the stinks of human and automotive waste” was on his way to deliver a lecture in Santa Fe, N.M., on March 28, 1993, when he pulled his rental car into the path of a car bearing down on his left. The left side of Stegner’s car was crushed, and he suffered broken ribs and a broken collarbone. A heart attack and pneumonia followed, and he died in the hospital at the age of 84.
For all his love of the West, Stegner knew it was no Eden. He once told an interviewer: “The West is politically reactionary and exploitative: admit it. The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land: admit that too. The West is rootless, culturally half-baked. So be it.”
Steve Allen (1921-2000) – Though best known as a television personality, musician, composer, actor and comedian, Steve Allen also wrote more than 50 books on a wide range of topics, including religion, media, the American educational system and showbiz personalities, plus poetry, plays and short stories. Lovers of Beat literature will always remember Allen for noodling on the piano while Jack Kerouac recited passages from On the Road on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1959.
On Oct. 30, 2000, Allen was driving to his son’s home in Encino, California, when his Lexus collided with an SUV that was being backed out of a driveway. Neither driver appeared to be injured in the fender bender, and they continued on their ways. After dinner at his son’s home, Allen said he was feeling tired and lay down for a nap. He never woke up. The original cause of death was believed to be a heart attack, but a coroner’s report revealed that Allen had suffered four broken ribs during the earlier collision, and a hole in the wall of his heart allowed blood to leak into the sac surrounding the heart, a condition known as hemopericardium.
On the day of his death Allen was working on his 54th book, Vulgarians at the Gate, which decried what he saw as an unacceptable rise of violence and vulgarity in the media.
W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) – It has been said that all of the German writer W.G. Sebald’s books had a posthumous quality to them. That’s certainly true of On the Natural History of Destruction, his magisterial little exploration of the suffering civilians endured during the Allied fire-bombing of German cities at the end of the Second World War. I should say his exploration of the unexplored suffering of German civilians, because the book is partly a rebuke, a challenge to his shamed countrymen’s willed forgetfulness of their own suffering.
I lived for a time in Cologne, target of some of the most merciless bombing. I’ve seen photographs of the city’s Gothic cathedral standing in a sea of smoking rubble. I’ve heard old-timers talk about the war – men grousing about the idiocy of their military officers, women boasting about how they cadged deals on the black market. But I never heard anyone say a word about the horror of watching the sky rain fire. Until Sebald dared to speak.
He produced a relatively short shelf of books – novels, poetry, non-fiction – but he was being mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate until Dec. 14, 2001, when he was driving near his home in Norwich, England, with his daughter Anna. Sebald apparently suffered a heart attack, and his car veered into oncoming traffic and collided with a truck. Sebald died instantly, at the age of 57. His daughter survived the crash.
David Halberstam (1934-2007) – David Halberstam died working. On April 23, 2007 he was riding through Menlo Park, California, in the passenger seat of a Toyota Camry driven by a UC-Berkeley journalism student. They were on their way to meet Y.A. Tittle, the former New York Giants quarterback, who Halberstam was keen to interview for a book he was writing about the epic 1958 N.F.L. title game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts. As the Camry came off the Bayfront Expressway, it ran a red light. An oncoming Infiniti slammed into the passenger’s side and sent the Camry skidding into a third vehicle. The Camry’s engine caught fire and Halberstam, 73, was pronounced dead at the scene from blunt force trauma. All three drivers survived with minor injuries.
Halberstam made his mark by winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting in the New York Times that questioned the veracity of the men leading America’s war effort in Vietnam. Eight years later he published what is regarded as his masterpiece, The Best and the Brightest, about the brilliant but blind men who led us into the fiasco of that unwinnable war. He went on to write 20 non-fiction books on politics, sports, business and social history. I think The Fifties, his re-examination of the supposedly bland Eisenhower years, contains all the virtues and vices of his work: outsized ambition and pit-bull reporting shackled to prose that’s both sprawling and clunky. Like so many writers with big reputations and egos to match, Halberstam never got the tough editor he needed.
The book he was working on when he died, The Glory Game, was completed by Frank Gifford, who played for the Giants in that 1958 title game. It was published – “by Frank Gifford with Peter Richmond” – a year after Halberstam’s death.
Doug Marlette (1949-2007) – Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and creator of the popular comic strip “Kudzu,” published his first novel in 2001. The Bridge spins around the violent textile mill strikes in North Carolina in the 1930s, in which Marlette’s grandmother was stabbed with a bayonet. The novel is set in the fictional town of Eno, loosely modeled on Hillsborough, N.C., the hot house full of writers where Marlette was living when he wrote the book. When Marlette’s neighbor, the writer Allan Gurganus, read the novel in galleys, he saw a little too much of himself in the composite character Ruffin Strudwick, a gay man who wears velvet waistcoats and sashays a lot. Gurganus called the publisher and demanded that his name be removed from the book’s acknowledgements. A bookstore cancelled a reading, charging Marlette with homophobia, and Hillsborough became the scene of a nasty literary cat fight between pro- and anti-Marlette camps. People who should have known better – a bunch of writers – had forgotten Joan Didion’s caveat: “Writers are always selling somebody out.”
Marlette produced a second novel, Magic Time, in 2006. After delivering the eulogy at his father’s funeral in Charlotte, N.C., Marlette flew to Mississippi on July 10, 2007 to help a group of Oxford High School students who were getting ready to stage a musical version of “Kudzu.” The school’s theater director met Marlette at the airport. On the way to Oxford, the director’s pickup truck hydroplaned in heavy rain and smashed into a tree. Marlette was killed at the age of 57. He was at work on his third novel when he died.
Jeanne Leiby (1964-2011) – In 2008 The Southern Review named a woman as editor for the first time since Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks founded the literary journal at Louisiana State University in 1935. The woman was Jeanne Leiby, a native of Detroit who had published a collection of short stories called Downriver, set in the corroded bowels of her post-industrial hometown. Her fiction had appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Greensboro Review, New Orleans Review and Indiana Review. Leiby had also worked as fiction editor at Black Warrior Review in Alabama and as editor of The Florida Review before taking the job at The Southern Review.
On April 19, 2011, Leiby was driving west on Interstate-10 near Baton Rouge in her 2007 Saturn convertible. The top was down and she was not wearing a seat belt. When she tried to change lanes she lost control of the car and it hit a concrete guard rail and began to spin clockwise. Leiby was thrown from the car and died later at Baton Rouge General Hospital. She was 46.
At the time of her death Leiby was, by all accounts, performing masterfully at a thankless job. Due to punishing state budget cuts, she had slimmed The Southern Review down, cancelled some readings and other events for the journal’s 75th anniversary in 2010, and ended the annual $1,500 prizes for poetry, non-fiction and fiction. She did all that without a falloff in quality. She was also working to merge The Southern Review with the LSU Press.
In a conversation with the writer Julianna Baggott, Leiby confided that during her job interviews at The Southern Review she’d offered her opinion that the journal had gotten stodgy and that it was too Old South and too male. One of the first things this woman from Detroit did after she got the job was to lower the portraits of her predecessors – all men – because she thought they were hung too high.
Don Piper (1948 – ) – Don Piper might be the most intriguing person on this list. He died in a car crash – then came back from the other side to write a best-seller about the experience.
On Jan. 18, 1989, Piper, a Baptist minister, was driving his Ford Escort home to Houston after attending a church conference. It was a cold, rainy day. As he drove across a narrow, two-lane bridge, an oncoming semi-truck driven by a trusty from a nearby prison crossed the center line and crushed Piper’s car. When paramedics arrived at the scene, Piper had no pulse and they covered his corpse with a tarp. Since I can’t possibly improve on Piper’s telling of what happened next, I’ll give it to you straight from his book, 90 Minutes in Heaven:
Immediately after I died, I went straight to heaven… Simultaneous with my last recollection of seeing the bridge and the rain, a light enveloped me, with a brilliance beyond earthly comprehension or description. Only that. In my next moment of awareness, I was standing in heaven. Joy pulsated through me as I looked around, and at that moment I became aware of a large crowd of people. They stood in front of a brilliant, ornate gate… As the crowd rushed toward me, I didn’t see Jesus, but did see people I had known… and every person was smiling, shouting, and praising God. Although no one said so, I intuitively knew that they were my celestial welcoming committee.
Piper recognized many people who had preceded him to the grave, including a grandfather, a great-grandfather, a childhood friend, a high school classmate, two teachers and many relatives. His story continues:
The best way to explain it is to say that I felt as if I were in another dimension… everything was brilliantly intense… (and) we began to move toward that light… Then I heard the music… The most amazing sound, however, was the angels’ wings… Hundreds of songs were being sung at the same time… my heart filled with the deepest joy I’ve ever experienced… I saw colors I would never have believed existed. I’ve never, ever felt more alive than I did then… and I felt perfect.
Alas, perfection was not destined to last. A fellow preacher had stopped at the scene of the accident to pray. Just as Piper was getting ready to walk through the “pearlescent” gates and meet God face-to-face, the other minister’s prayers were answered and Piper, miraculously, rejoined the living. This, surely, ranks as one of the greatest anti-climaxes in all of Western literature. Nonethless, 90 Minutes in Heaven, published in 2004, has sold more than 4 million copies and it has been on the New York Times paperback best-seller list for the past 196 weeks, and counting.
(Image: Orange Car Crash – 14 Times from eyeliam’s photostream)