The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘death’

Dissolution

May 15, 2015 | by

Notes on becoming dust.

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Mihály Munkácsy, Dusty Country Road II, 1883.

Since he applied paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimeters thick at the center and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava. This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavors and the most palpable proof of his failure. It had always been of the greatest importance to him, Ferber once remarked casually, that nothing should change at his place of work, that everything should remain as it was, as he had arranged it, and that nothing further should be added but the debris generated by painting and the dust that continuously fell and which, as he was coming to realize, he loved more than anything else in the world. He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness. —W. G. Sebald (trans. Michael Hulse), The Emigrants

Before my godfather and great-uncle Julio became dust, he was a troublemaking, cheating, charming man. When he was a teenager, he stole a closetful of my grandmother’s summer clothes, sold them, and spent the money on prostitutes. When I was three, he got into a gorilla suit and popped out at me, making me cry. Not long before he died, during our final game of Scrabble, he played the word enzapment and maintained that it was real. It’s like entrapment, he said, but with a zap. I acquiesced and tallied his fifty-plus points. When he died, his wife, Maria Cristina, had his body cremated and put into a basketball-size, biodegradable clamshell urn.

I’d be lying if I said casting his ashes was traumatic. The truth is, it was one of the most cathartic and satisfying experiences of my life. Read More »

Family Units

April 9, 2015 | by

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A poster for a production of The Bald Soprano at the Pearl.

Around 1963, my dad was in a summer-camp production of Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. He played M. Martin. Sometimes, decades later, he would quote from it to my brother and I. We know from theatre of the absurd, but we thought the bizarre dialogue—the playwright was influenced by the stilted dialogue of the Assimil English–teaching method—was about the most hilarious thing we’d ever heard. We were especially enamored with a story one of the characters relates in the course of the evening. Read More »

A Writer in the Family

February 19, 2015 | by

On writers, glass, Pliny the Elder, and the way families pass on their stories.

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Vesuvius in eruption.

Since I started writing, I have sought forebears who might have had literary aspirations. Were there writers in the family? My great-uncle György, who was exiled to the Ukraine during World War II and afterward became a functionary in Hungary’s Communist government, was a novelist, but my father has always been dismissive of his work. He says György wrote a variety of socialist-realist novel that’s hard to take seriously, hard not to see as propaganda. His books have never been translated into English, and my Hungarian isn’t nearly good enough to understand what’s in them. The only existing copies I know of sit on a shelf in my Cousin Hajnal’s house in the Buda Hills. I don’t have the heart to ask to take them and have them translated. When I’ve asked her about them in the past, she’s simply said that they are books, yes, and that her father wrote them.

In their stead I have purchased rare used copies of two books written by Frederic Neuburg, author of a large trove of letters to my father’s Aunt Traute that he keeps in an old teak box in his house in Los Angeles. My father is not Bellow or Updike, and I am not the son of Bellow or Updike, but it is the book I have, in two editions, an art book containing photographs of Neuberg’s glass collection and extensive commentary on the pieces. Read More »

Philip Levine, 1928–2015

February 15, 2015 | by

We were saddened to learn that Philip Levine died yesterday at eighty-seven. The U.S. poet laureate from 2011 to 2012, he composed poems that were, as Margalit Fox writes in the New York Times, “vibrantly, angrily, and often painfully alive with the sound, smell, and sinew of heavy manual labor.”

Levine grew up in industrial Detroit during the Depression; the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he worked factory jobs for Cadillac and for Chevrolet. “You could recite poems aloud in there,” he told The Paris Review in 1988 of his time on the assembly line. “The noise was so stupendous. Some people singing, some people talking to themselves, a lot of communication going on with nothing, no one to hear.”

His time in those jobs would later inform one of his most enduring poems, “They Feed They Lion,” from the late sixties—you can hear him read it above. Levine explained the title in a 1999 interview with The Atlantic: Read More »

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True Romance

January 22, 2015 | by

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Byron, meditating on mortality, no doubt.

’Tis time this heart should be unmoved,
     Since others it has ceased to move:
Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
               Still let me love!

My days are in the yellow leaf;
     The flowers and fruits of Love are gone;
The worm—the canker, and the grief
               Are mine alone!

So begins one of Byron’s last poems. Is it an ode to the Greek youth he loved? A general meditation on mortality? Choose your theory. The date, at least, we can estimate with a fair degree of accuracy. In the 1825 Narrative of Lord Byron’s Last Journey to Greece, his friend, Count Gamba, related of the occasion:

This morning Lord Byron came from his bedroom into the apartment where Colonel Stanhope and some friends were assembled, and said with a smile—“You were complaining, the other day, that I never write any poetry now:—this is my birthday, and I have just finished something, which, I think, is better than what I usually write.” He then produced these noble and affecting verses, which were afterwards found written in his journals, with only the following introduction: “Jan. 22; on this day I complete my 36th year.”

Read More »

The Art of the Obituary: An Interview with Margalit Fox

December 26, 2014 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

Margalit Fox credit Ivan Farkas

Photo: Ivan Farkas

In nearly twenty years and twelve hundred obituaries, Margalit Fox, a senior writer at the New York Times, has chronicled the lives of such personages as the president of Estonia, an underwater cartographer, and the inventor of Stove Top Stuffing. An instrumental figure in pushing the obituary past Victorian-era formal constraints, Fox produces features-style write-ups of her subjects whether they’re ubiquitous public figures, comparatively unknown men and women whose inventions have changed the world, or suicidal poets. (More on those below.)

I caught up with Fox in the Upper West Side café where she’s written two books, Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind and The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, the latter of which was published in paperback earlier this year. She was remarkably jovial and eager to clarify what it’s like to write about the dead every day. We spoke about the history of the obituary, her love of English eccentrics, and how it feels to call a living person in preparation for his or her eventual death.

Does the work you do change the way you think about death?

This work does skew your worldview a bit. We all watch old movies with an eye toward who’s getting on in age. I watch the Oscars memorial presentation and sit there going, Did him, did her, didn’t do that one. For obit writers, the whole world is necessarily divided into the dead and the pre-dead. That’s all there is.

How did you end up in the obituaries department?

I’d never planned for a career in obits. The child has not yet been born that comes home from school clutching a composition that says, When I grow up, I want to be an obituary writer. I started as an editor at the Times Book Review. It was wonderful to be around books and people that love books, but the job itself was copyediting. I was afraid that all they’d be able to put on my tombstone was “She Changed Fifty-Thousand Commas into Semicolons.” I started contributing freelance to the obituary section and ended up getting pulled in as a full-time writer.

How is your section different from other news sections at the paper?

Ninety-five percent of our job is writing daily obits on deadline. It’s impossible to have an advance written for all the pre-dead who we hope to cover, so we usually have to phone someone up to ask about a person or a subject we don’t know much about. Recently, one of my colleagues was heard running around the office going, Does anyone know anything about exotic chickens?! It’s that sort of thing. Read More >>

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