Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Ones We Lost

This is wrong, but I have to admit my favorite part of the Academy Awards telecast used to be the "In Memoriam" video montage about half-way through the ceremony--that one pause in Hollywood's self-congratulatory gaiety when clips of recently-deceased movie industry stars would flash by, sweetened with the nectar of a tear-wringing soundtrack.  I loved watching this parade of the dead because it reassured me that the flame we thought was snuffed could flicker to life in our memories one last time--if only for 2.5 seconds.  Reputations, careers, magic movie moments--they all had one last hurrah before being sealed back in the coffin of half-remembered history.

Writers are nothing like actors, directors and cinematographers.  Their passing rarely gets mention in the media (our incestuous book-culture media doesn't count here) and it's only in year-end obit-recaps like this one that we even remember they're gone.  Now, mourn with me--if only for 2.5 seconds--those wizards of the written word who passed on to that Final Draft in the Sky in 2011....

[This list is hardly complete, by any means.  I combed through my back issues of Poets & Writers magazine and did a few Google searches to find these names, but I know there are many, many more authors I've missed.  Feel free to remind us of other literary passings in the comments section.]

Wilfred Sheed
Dec. 27, 1930 – Jan. 19, 2011
In his obituary, the New York Times called Sheed a "wittily satirical man of letters who drew upon his Anglo-American background to write bittersweet essays, criticism, memoirs and fiction about cultural life on both sides of the Atlantic."
Like most of his colleagues, only a little more so, Irving [Berlin] always needed someone else to tell him when he was good. Witness the famous instance when he almost discarded that most palpable of hits 'There's No Business Like Show Business' because his secretary didn't like it, and perhaps more seriously, because Richard Rodgers didn't light up when he first heard it. A more confident man might have realized that Richard Rodgers never lit up over anything and that he was hearing this new song under the worst possible conditions: Irving was playing it himself. And Irving's pianism was so primitive that Hoagy Carmichael once said that it had given him the heart to go on, on the grounds that 'if the best in the business is that bad, there's hope for all of us.'"
--from The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty

Reynolds Price
February 1, 1933 – January 20, 2011
American novelist, poet, dramatist, essayist whose many books include A Long and Happy Life, Clear Pictures: First Loves First Guides (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), The Tongues of Angels, Blue Calhoun, Kate Vaiden, and The Surface of Earth.
Forrest Mayfield was drowning in gratitude, kneeling above his wife, taking the last of what she freely offered--the sight of her body in morning light laid safely beside him on linen marked only by proofs of their love. Till half an hour ago, at dawn, he had never seen more of her than head and arms--what showed to the world at the limits of her clothes. So he'd loved her because of her face and her kindness, the mysterious rein she accepted from the first on his oldest need--free flight outward from his own strapped and drying heart, that he be permitted after decades of hoarding to choose one willing gift and love her entirely, the remainder of his life. Almost no matter that she love in return, only that she wait and endure his love, his endless thanks; acknowledge them with smiles. Now she was here--by her own will, unforced, still offering (though the room had filled with light) her entire brilliant body, perfect beyond any dream or guess and visibly threaded with the narrow blue channels that pulsed on, warm from their first full juncture.
--from The Surface of Earth

Brian Jacques
June 15, 1939 – February 5, 2011
The author of Redwall, the fantasy series about animals which was translated into 29 languages and sold 20 million copies.
Mossflower lay deep in the grip of midwinter beneath a sky of leaden gray that showed tinges of scarlet and orange on the horizon. A cold mantle of snow draped the landscape, covering the flatlands to the west. Snow was everywhere, filling ditches, drifting high against hedgerows, making paths invisible, smoothing the contours of earth in its white embrace. The gaunt, leafless ceiling of Mossflower Wood was penetrated by constant snowfall, which carpeted the sprawling woodland floor, building canopies on evergreen shrubs and bushes. Winter had muted the earth; the muffled stillness was broken only by a traveler’s paws.
--from Mossflower

John Haines
June 29, 1924 - March 2, 2011
Poet, essayist, memoirist, he was also the heart and soul of the arts in Alaska, serving as the poet laureate of that state from 1969 to 1973.  In his obituary, the New York Times noted: "[he] found inspiration in the peaks of the Alaskan range that he could see from the cabin he built himself, in the butterfly he held in his hands, in the moose he shot and butchered.  He told of stones waiting for God to remember their names."  On a personal note: though I received my MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, I never had the pleasure and privilege to study under Mr. Haines.  I'm sure my work would have been the richer for it if I had.
Long before I went to live in the woods my awareness of death seemed to have a depth beyond any exact recall.  It existed as a memory composed of discontinuous images: a snake crushed on the summer roadway, reeking in the sun--how dull and flattened it was compared to the live snake, supple and glistening, I had seen in the grass a week before.  A drowned and bloated frog I had pulled from the bottom of a backyard pool and held in my hand: a wonder--why did it not breathe?  A bird in whose decaying nostrils small white worms were boiling.  These were the naked things of an uninstructed childhood in which there was little instinctive fear.
--from The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness

H. R. F. Keating
October 31, 1926 – March 27, 2011
Mystery writer best known for his series of novels featuring Inspector Ghote of the Bombay CID.
The inspector swallowed nervously.  He had a feeling that he ought not to let such a person tread all over him, otherwise his chances of ever applying the proper procedure would be slight.
--from The Perfect Murder

Ed Lahey
1936 - April 27, 2011
Poet and novelist who was born right here in my adopted town of Butte, Montana.  Lahey brought his hardscrabble upbringing as a miner's son to life in his verse.  His descriptions of the men and women of Butte were potent shots of whiskey--burned going down, but ultimately gave you that swimmy-headed feeling of great art.
a bull gear caught Haggerty's hand,
slick iron on a wet day.
I heard him speak to it.
"Whoa," he said.
It cut his hand off anyway.
--from "A Different Price"

Ernesto Sabato
June 24, 1911–April 30, 2011
Argentine writer best known for his novel El Tunel (The Tunnel) which was praised by Albert Camus and Thomas Mann upon its publication in 1948.
      It should be sufficient to say that I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed María Iribarne. I imagine that the trial is still in everyone's mind and that no further information about myself is necessary.
      Granted, it is true that the devil himself cannot predict what people will remember, or why they remember it. I for one have never believed there is such a thing as a collective memory--which may be one way humans protect themselves. The phrase "the good old days" does not mean that bad things happened less frequently in the past, only--fortunately--that people simply forget they happened.
--from The Tunnel

Josephine Hart
March 1, 1942 – June 2, 2011
British novelist whose bestsellers included Sin and Damage, which told the story of a politician's obsession with his son's girlfriend.
There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outline all our lives. Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone, onto its fluid contours, and are home. Some find it in the place of their birth; others may leave a seaside town, parched, and find themselves refreshed in the desert. There are those born in rolling countryside who are really only at ease in the intense and busy loneliness of the city. For some, the search is for the imprint of another; a child or a mother, a grandfather or a brother, a lover, a husband, a wife, or a foe. We may go through our lives happy or unhappy, successful or unfulfilled, loved or unloved, without ever having the agony as the twisted iron of our souls unlocks itself and we slip at last into place.
--from Damage

Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
March 25, 1940 – August 26, 2011
American novelist whose many books included Buffalo Afternoon, a novel about the Vietnam War.
There is so much I would like to tell you, for example about the rice paddies and how beautiful they are under the wide sky, and how different they look depending on where you are standing when you look at them.
--from Buffalo Afternoon

Ruth Stone
June 8, 1915 – Nov. 19, 2011
Poet who won late-in-life fame when she received the National Book Award at the age of 87 for her collection In the Next Galaxy.
Oh mortal love, your bones
were beautiful. I traced them
with my fingers. Now the light
grows less. You were so angular.
The air darkens with steel
and smoke. The cracked world
about to disintegrate,
in the arms of my total happiness.
--from "1941"

Anne McCaffrey
April 1, 1926 – November 21, 2011
Best known for her Dragonriders of Pern series, over the course of her 46-year career she won a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award.
The bronze dragon furled his great wings, and F'lar heard the warning claxon in the Hold's Great Tower. Mnementh dropped to his knees as F'lar indicated he wished to dismount. The bronze rider stood by Mnementh's huge wedge-shaped head, politely awaiting the arrival of the Hold Lord. F'lar idly gazed down the valley, hazy with warm spring sunlight. He ignored the furtive heads that peered at the dragonman from the parapet slits and the cliff windows.
--from Dragonflight

Russell Hoban
Feb. 4, 1925 – Dec. 13, 2011
Novelist whose books for adults--including Turtle Diary (1975) and Riddley Walker (1980)--won great acclaim.  But for an entire generation of children, including yours truly, he was the creator of Frances the Badger whose tales were told in a series of children's books illustrated by his wife Lillian (the first, Bedtime for Frances, was illustrated by the equally-great Garth Williams).
It was a fine summer day, and after breakfast Frances said, "I am going to play with Thelma."
"Be careful," said Mother.
"Why do I have to be careful?" said Frances.
"Remember the last time?" said Mother.
"Which time was that?" said Frances.
"That was the time you played catch with Thelma's new boomerang," said Mother.  "Thelma did all the throwing, and you came home with lumps on your head."
--from A Bargain for Frances

Christopher Hitchens
April 13, 1949 – December 15, 2011
Journalist, critic and quick wit, his bestsellers included God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Arguably: Essays and the memoir Hitch-22.
“I personally want to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive, and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me.”
--from Hitch-22


  1. Thank you for posting this, David. Please allow me to add the name of Arnošt Lustig (December 21, 1926-February 26, 2011). Impossible to capture this man in words, but here's a video clip (subtitled in English) that may help: http://youtu.be/6g1ZkQUQ78M .

    Also, Charlie Conley, my classmate in Arnošt's workshop in Prague during the summer of 2004, wrote this lovely tribute for Fiction Writers Review.

  2. Thank you for this honoring these writers and their memories. Brian Jacques brought my son and I countless hours of enjoyment and wonder as we worked out way, reading outloud, the Redwall Series. Pure joy.