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Posts Tagged ‘epitaphs’

What We’re Loving: Lovers, Lizards, Lowry

May 9, 2014 | by

jliz

The Jesus Lizard, in a photograph from The Jesus Lizard Book.

I don’t usually go in for collections of letters; it’s hard to imagine sitting down and reading one cover to cover. But I couldn’t resist picking up a volume of love letters between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, in large part because it’s titled The Animals. It sounded sweetly romantic, and it is. Isherwood, some thirty years older than Bachardy, is Dobbin, an old workhorse; Bachardy is Kitty. Though they discuss all manner of subjects in the body of the letters—dinners, friends, business, and art—they are topped and tailed (no pun intended) with joyful, intimate love: “I feel a need to tell Kitty today how dearly Dobbin loves him and how faithfully he waits and guards the stable until Kitty’s return. Dub has been quite off his feed since Kitty hasn’t been there to tempt him with morsels held by those pure paws.” Bachardy sometimes even includes cutouts of fluffy white kittens in his missives. Apart from the adorableness, there is, of course, other great stuff here: not least, Isherwood’s coining of the word psychofiesta. —Nicole Rudick

“You’re eighty-two years old. You’ve shrunk six centimeters, you only weigh forty-five kilos yet you’re still beautiful, graceful and desirable. We’ve lived together now for fifty-eight years and I love you more than ever. I once more feel a gnawing emptiness in the hollow of my chest that is only filled when your body is pressed next to mine.” That’s the beginning of philosopher André Gorz’s Letter to D, written to his dying wife. A year later, the couple took their own lives, together. The book itself is slim—as the friend who sent it to me wrote, you can read it on the crosstown bus—but it contains a fully realized true love story. —Sadie Stein

Nothing grates like a self-mythologizing coffee-table book, but in the case of the Jesus Lizard’s new tome—called, simply, The Jesus Lizard Book—you can forgive any aura of congratulation. These guys deserve to pat themselves on the back. One of the finest, most primal rock bands of the nineties, they drew a cult following in that they seemed to be, in fact, a cult, with David Yow the deranged high priest and David Wm. Sims his brooding voodoo-deacon. If the spectacular photography in The Jesus Lizard Book is to be believed, their shows resembled nothing more than that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where some poor dude has his still-beating heart removed in an elaborate ritual. (In the world of the Jesus Lizard, everyone is in the Black Sleep of Kali Ma.) Granted, Yow could be an oblique shock-jock—“I had a tendency to pull my balls out and hold them glistening up to the microphone,” he says—but at his best, he was as compelling a frontman and lyricist as anyone in music. In, say, “Karpis” (“Alvin’s feelin’ restless, cellblock H / A carton of smokes for ten minutes of pleasure”) his lyrics have a gritty economy, telling an unmistakably terrifying story without having to spell anything out. —Dan Piepenbring

While reading through an interview—blind item!—that’s running in our upcoming issue, I was led by a series of Google searches to a would-be epitaph written by Malcolm Lowry:

Malcolm Lowry
Late of the Bowery
His prose was flowery
And often glowery
He lived, nightly, and drank, daily,
And died playing the ukulele

The “Death by Misadventure” tag in his coroner’s report calls the ukulele bit into question (or does it?)—and Lowry’s actual tombstone, it turns out, isn’t quite so literarily engraved—but the verse did remind me of another of my favorite would-be epitaphs, that of W. C. Fields. When asked by Vanity Fair, in 1925, to contribute to a piece called, fittingly, “A Group of Artists Write Their Own Epitaphs,” he came up with this, a riff on his running (and playful) disdain for the City of Brotherly Love: “Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia.” —Stephen Andrew Hiltner
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On Epitaphic Fictions: Primo Levi

April 30, 2014 | by

The final entry in our three-part series on writers’ epitaphs. Read yesterday’s installment here, and Monday’s here.

levi grave

Primo Levi’s grave, in Turin.

The poet and memoirist Primo Levi was buried in Turin in 1987. According to a notice printed in the New York Times shortly after his funeral, “His grave was marked with a simple marble headstone giving his name and the dates of his birth and death.” At some later date, a sequence of six numbers was carved into the stone in the space below his name, the same sequence that had been tattooed on Levi’s left arm upon his arrival at Auschwitz.

I have not been able to discover whether or not Levi himself had left instructions in his will, or had told family members, that the sequence 174517 should be inscribed on his stone. In her biography of Levi, The Double Bond, Carole Angier explains that the six men who lowered Levi’s coffin into the grave were all concentration or death camp survivors, and that among the mourners who followed the body to the cemetery were scores of Holocaust survivors “wearing neck-scarves marked with the names of their camps.” Could the revision of his stone have been the wish of Levi’s “survivors”? However it was, the sequence is the most striking and original part of his epitaph, and, set against even a bare skeleton of Levi’s life story, its use here offers us redeeming fictions. On the marble face of his headstone, the sequence is a kind of postlinguistic, numerical poem. Read More »

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On Epitaphic Fictions: Robert Louis Stevenson, Philip Larkin

April 29, 2014 | by

The second in a three-part series on writers’ epitaphs. Read yesterday’s installment here.

Robert_Louis_Stevenson_by_Sargent

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887

There is very little that’s puzzling about Philip Larkin’s two-penny upright “This Be the Verse” (1971):

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can.
And don’t have any kids yourself.

“This Be the Verse” is arguably the best-loved English poem of the last half of the twentieth century. Funny, frank, transgressive—human—the poem has stood up admirably in pub, alley, and classroom. (Of how many humans with fancy titles can this be said?) But what about that awkward title? How did a writer as good as Larkin fuck up his forms of to be?

The title’s oddness is no empty gesture. The words “This Be the Verse” point us toward one of the sweetest, un-Larkin-esque poems in the language, Robert Louis Stevenson’s self-composed epitaph. When it’s published in an anthology, it usually appears as two stanzas called “Requiem,” but on Stevenson’s tomb, the epitaph is presented as a single block under his name and dates, without punctuation or title: Read More »

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On Epitaphic Fictions: Ben Franklin, W. B. Yeats

April 28, 2014 | by

The first in a three-part series on writers’ epitaphs.

William_Butler_Yeats_by_John_Singer_Sargent_1908

John Singer Sargent, William Butler Yeats, 1908

“In lapidary inscriptions, a man is not upon oath.” —Samuel Johnson

Got a brittle, expensive medium? Bring an elastic ethics.

Dr. Johnson understood that words on headstones provide cover stories. Acts of make-believe inscribed in stone may be as banal as an incorrect—or fudged—year of birth; the phrase “In Loving Memory” must be a fiction much of the time. On the other hand, great writers have composed words for headstones, real and imaginary, that offer us complex fictions in which we may dwell, as if in compensation for loss. For such writers, good grief is infused with imagination.

Witness this epitaph in the collection of the Yale Library, from an autograph manuscript composed circa 1728: Read More »

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