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Posts Tagged ‘obituaries’

Thomas Berger, 1924–2014

July 22, 2014 | by

The Times has reported that Thomas Berger died a little more than a week ago, on July 13, just shy of his ninetieth birthday. Berger wrote twenty-three novels, the best-known of which is 1964’s Little Big Man, a western picaresque that was later adapted into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman.

The Times obit finds a through-line in his work: “the anarchic paranoia that he found underlying American middle-class life.” “It was Kafka who taught me that at any moment banality might turn sinister, for existence was not meant to be unfailingly genial,” Berger said in a rare interview. He enjoyed a cult readership throughout his prolific career, and his books bear blurbs from the likes of John Hollander and Henry Miller; in 1980, The New York Times Book Review proclaimed, “Our failure to read and discuss him is a national disgrace.”

Today, his most outspoken advocate is probably Jonathan Lethem, who discusses an early (and démodé) fondness for Berger in his Art of Fiction interview: “When I got to Bennington, and I found that Richard Brautigan and Thomas Berger and Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme were not ‘the contemporary,’ but were in fact awkward and embarrassing and had been overthrown by something else, I was as disconcerted as a time traveler.” And Lethem effused in an essay for the Times a few years back,

Berger’s books are accessible and funny and immerse you in the permanent strangeness of his language and attitude, perhaps best encapsulated by Berger’s own self-definition as a “voyeur of copulating words.” He offers a book for every predilection: if you like westerns, there’s his classic, “Little Big Man”; so too has he written fables of suburban life (“Neighbors”), crime stories (“Meeting Evil”), fantasies, small-town “back-fence” stories of Middle American life, and philosophical allegories (“Killing Time”). All of them are fitted with the Berger slant, in which the familiar becomes menacingly absurd or perhaps the absurd becomes menacingly familiar.

Berger, who spent most of his life diligently removed from public life, seemed to submerge himself in a goulash of genre fiction, emerging every few years with something new and piquant. The variety of his books is borne out by their incredible first-edition jacket art, some of which I’ve gathered above—vibrant pastiches of everything from noir to Arthurian legend, many of them with a unabashed lowbrow strangeness that’s anathema to jacket designers today. As the author himself put it: “I am peddling no quackery, masking no intent to tyrannize, and asking nobody’s pity.”

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Anne Hollander, 1930–2014

July 9, 2014 | by

seeing through clothes

Anne Hollander, whose acute writing on fashion, costume, and style infused those subjects with a new intellectual energy, died on Sunday at eighty-three. As the Times reports, “She argued that clothing revealed far more than it concealed—about art, about perceptions of the body and ourselves—and her interests spanned centuries and mediums.”

Hollander conducted—or co-conducted; she shares the credit with John Marquand—The Paris Review’s first Art of Theater interview, with Lillian Hellman, published in 1965. Back then, her contributor’s note read modestly, “Anne Hollander designs costumes, paints, and translates occasionally.”

A little more than a decade later, in 1978, she published her first book, the brilliant (and brilliantly named) Seeing Through Clothes, a history of clothing and a study of representations of the body in Western art. The book was full of offhand wisdom about what you could call our philosophy of dress: “People seem always actually to know,” Hollander wrote, “with a degree of pain that has required the comfort of fairy tales, that when you are dressed in any particular way at all, you are revealed rather than hidden.” The book took a while to find its audience, but, as one critic noted, it “pushes erudition to the point of originality. The thoroughness with which she examines Western art and clothes has precipitated a new subject: how painting, sculpture and photography mediate between bodily ideals and what we wear.”

Over the next decades, her reputation grew and she published a succession of well-received books, including Moving Pictures and Sex in Suits; she wrote essays for a number of magazines, including The London Review of Books. Not much of Hollander’s writing is available online, but she was, for a time in the late nineties, the fashion columnist for Slate, which has curiously yet to publish a remembrance. Her pieces there have aged well; a column from February 1997—“A Loss for Words: Why there’s no good writing in fashion”—is just as true nearly twenty years later:

Fashion journalists and sensational fictioneers like Danielle Steele have co-opted the field, and other writers are scared off. Fashion now seems like a club with a private jargon that leaves no room for the play of sensitive literary exposition. And good critical writing about clothing hardly exists at all. There is no tradition of clothes criticism that includes serious analysis, or even of costume criticism among theater, ballet, and opera critics, who do have an august writerly heritage. This fact may be what makes the fashion journalist hate her job—the painful sense that real work cannot be done in this genre, that it would be better, more honorable, to be writing about something else.

But Hollander didn’t write about something else, thankfully. She expanded the rhetoric and insight of criticism about style, engaging where most writers thought there was nothing to engage with.

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Outrageous Apples, and Other News

June 30, 2014 | by

kitchen

Infuriating, no? Paul Cézanne, The Kitchen Table (La table de cuisine), 1888–90.

  • The Irish poet and novelist Dermot Healy has died at sixty-six. “I think of him as someone who lived on the edge, in some way … He lived on the very edge of County Sligo, the edge of Ireland—the edge of Europe, you might say. In some ways he lived on the edge of the literary community, but in certain ways he was central to the community he shaped around himself, especially in the northwest of Ireland. And it was the rough edge of his work, which in some ways was so distinctive, which attracted his readers.”
  • And the poet Allen Grossman has died at eighty-two; “poetry is a principle of power invoked by all of us against our vanishing,” he once said.
  • In happier news, astronomers have discovered the biggest diamond in the universe: it “weighs approximately a million trillion trillion pounds … Nobody has actually seen this gigantic diamond, not even through a telescope … the star’s invisibility is a key part of the circumstantial case for its existence.”
  • Cézanne’s “paintings of apples confused critics and art enthusiasts alike. People were astonished that apples could look so ugly, and be so poorly painted. Some thought Cézanne’s still lifes were actually a joke, or an insult.”
  • On elevators (and the people in them): “You can only send yourself as a message successfully if you remain intact—that is, fully encrypted—during transmission. That’s what elevator protocol is for. Or so we might gather from the very large number of scenes set in lifts in movies from the 1930s onwards … Desire erupts, or violence, shattering the sociogram’s frigid array. Or the lift, stopped in its tracks, ceases to be a lift. It becomes something else altogether: a prison cell to squeeze your way out of, or (Bernard suggests) a confessional.”

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Prince of Darkness

May 19, 2014 | by

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Willis, left, on the set of Annie Hall with Woody Allen.

Gordon Willis, the cinematographer Entertainment Weekly has called “the closest thing Hollywood had to a Rembrandt,” died yesterday, at eighty-two. Over the course of his remarkable career, Willis photographed Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather—parts one, two, and three—and many of Woody Allen’s most enduring films, such as Annie Hall, Manhattan, and The Purple Rose of Cairo. The A.V. Club writes, “His expressive use of warm-toned light and deep shadows—which led fellow cinematographer Conrad L. Hall to nickname him ‘The Prince of Darkness’—left an indelible mark on cinema.” And Variety quotes Roger Ebert’s astute observations on Manhattan:

All of these locations and all of these songs would not have the effect they do without the widescreen black and white cinematography of Gordon Willis. This is one of the best-photographed movies ever made … Some of the scenes are famous just because of Willis’ lighting. For example, the way Isaac and Mary walk through the observatory as if they’re strolling among the stars or on the surface of the moon. Later, as their conversation gets a little lost, Willis daringly lets them disappear into darkness, and then finds them again with just a sliver of side-lighting.

“People don’t understand the elegance of simplicity,” Willis said once. “If you take a sophisticated idea, reduce it to the simplest possible terms so that it’s accessible to everybody, and don’t get simple mixed up with simplistic, it’s how you mount and present something that makes it engaging.”

Here are Manhattan’s iconic bridge scene and an hour-long interview with Willis. Read More »

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Obituary of Edgar Allan Poe

October 7, 2013 | by

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From the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner, vol. II, no. 98, October 12, 1849:

EDGAR ALLAN POE died in Baltimore on Sunday last. His was one of the very few original minds that this country has produced. In the history of literature, he will hold a certain position and a high place. By the public of the day he is regarded rather with curiosity than with admiration. Many will be startled, but few will be grieved by the news. He had very few friends, and he was the friend of very few—if any. But his character and adventures were too remarkable, and his literary merits too indubitable, to pass from the stage with the simple announcement already given.

His family was a very respectable one in Baltimore. His grandfather was a Quartermaster General in the Revolution, and the esteemed friend of Lafayette. During the last visit of that personage to this country, he called upon the widow to tender her his acknowledgments for services rendered him by her husband. His great-grandfather married a daughter of the celebrated Admiral McBride. Through him they are related to many of the most illustrious families in England. Edgar Poe’s father was reputably brought up and educated. — Becoming enamored with a beautiful young actress, he made up a runaway match with her, and was disowned by his friends thereafter. He or his wife possessed mimetic genius, and they lived precariously. They came to Richmond in pursuit of their profession. She was somewhat of a favorite on our boards—but more on account of her beauty than her acting. They both died in Richmond—both of consumption, and within a few weeks of each other, and left here without a house or home their gifted but most miserable and unfortunate son. Mr. John Allan, a wealthy and kind hearted merchant of this place, having no children of his own, taking a natural fancy to the handsome, clever child, adopted him as son and heir. He was consequently brought up amidst luxury, and received the advantages of education to their fullest extent. In 1816 he accompanied his adopted parents in a tour through England, Scotland and Ireland. — They returned to this country, leaving him at Dr. Brandsby’s High School, Stoke Newington, near London, where he continued five years. He returned in 1822, and continued about Richmond for two or three years. He was then remarkable for his general cleverness, his feats of activity, his wayward temper, extreme personal beauty, his musical recitations of verse, and power of extemporaneous tale-telling. In 1825 he went to the University of Virginia. The University was then a most dissolute place, and Mr. Edgar A. Poe was remarked as the most dissolute and dissipated youth in the University. He was already a great classical scholar, and he made huge strides in mathematics, botany, and other branches of natural science. But at the same time he drank, gambled, and indulged in other vices until he was expelled from the place. On Mr. Allan’s refusal to pay some of his gambling debts, he broke with him and went off at a tangent to join the Greeks—those being the times of Bozzaris and the Greek Revolution. When he reached St. Petersburg, however, he found both money and enthusiasm exhausted, and he got into a quarrel with the Russian authorities—whether about liberty or lucre is not known. At any rate he found himself nearly adding some knowledge of the knout and Siberia to his already extensive knowledge of men and manners, and was glad enough to accept the intervention of the American consul, Henry Middleton, and his aid to get home. In 1829 he entered the Military Academy of West Point. In the meantime, Mr. Allan had lost his first wife, and married a lady his junior by a very great number of years—he being sixty-five. Mr. Poe is said to have behaved uncivilly to the lady and to have ridiculed the match. The old gentleman wrote him an angry letter, and Mr. Poe answered it with a very bitter one. The breach was never healed. Mr. Allan died a short time afterwards, and left Poe nothing. Read More »

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