The Scottish writer Alasdair Gray died on December 29, at the age of eighty-five, four years after a fall from the outside steps of his house left him with a spinal injury that confined him to a wheelchair, and almost three years after I went to Glasgow to conduct an Art of Fiction interview with him for The Paris Review. Gray was a Whitbread Award–winning author, best known for the weird, speculative work, Lanark, an autobiographical tale in four out-of-order books (two of them nonrealist), and several volumes of short stories, but also for his painting, for illustrating his own work, and for cutting a wide and eccentric swath in the Glasgow arts scene. He was a socialist, an advocate for Scottish independence, a fierce proponent of friends’ work, and a tireless critic of the craven or pompous. Rereading my interview with him now, on the occasion of his death, I’m amazed by how cool and professional it is, and how much it leaves out, as I suppose it had to, of what Gray was really like, and what he meant to me.
It’s hard to imagine Nick Tosches ever having been young. His interests, the way he dressed, the language he used, his love of cigarettes—everything about Tosches was out of time. He wasn’t so much from a different era as he was from a different sensibility, one that refused to distinguish between highbrow and lowbrow, didn’t countenance small talk, wore ties and stood when a lady entered the room, but also trucked in ethnic slurs. He saw no contradiction in being both courtly and vulgar.
Tosches, who died on Sunday at the age of sixty-nine, began his writing career as a record reviewer for Creem and Rolling Stone. Throughout the seventies, he wrote about music with audacious flair, mixing Latin phrases and Biblical themes with a sailor’s vocabulary. Album reviews couldn’t hold him, and in 1988 he published his first novel, Cut Numbers, about a loan shark.
In 2012, he published Me and the Devil, a novel about a writer named Nick who lived in the same downtown New York neighborhood Tosches lived in, and had the same opinions, friends, and outlook, and who regained his waning vitality by drinking the blood of young women during violent sexual bouts. “It’s the vampirism of trying to regain something of youth through young flesh,” he said when I visited him, on a magazine assignment, in his brick-walled apartment. We talked for two hours, sometimes about his book, but more often about vanity, technology, illness, how New York had changed, and old age. Tosches was observant, restless, and hilarious. Our conversation remained unpublished—here’s a small part of it, in tribute.
I think this is a book that no one under the age of forty or fifty could have written.
No matter how gifted, or what powers of imagination they had, no one under forty or even fifty could pull it off. It’s a book about aging as much as it is about anything else. And seeing the world change. It’s a book about love. And it’s always, in a way, about books, because there are certain small parcels of ancient wisdom I’ve been fortunate enough to discover through the years, and have held closely. And I keep trying to spread them. I don’t even know if people are looking for wisdom these days. Read More
Nick Tosches, music writer and biographer, died at the age of sixty-nine on Sunday.
I spent an awful lot of time around Nick Tosches in the late seventies. We’d wind up in the same places, we were published in the same crummy magazines, and we’d stumble into each other at St. Mark’s Bookshop or the Bells of Hell or Gem Spa. It was always midnight, and he almost always had a book in his pocket, maybe The Twelve Caesars or Ovid, and a wrestling magazine.
I lost touch with him, but kept up with his writing, or tried to. After Hellfire and Dino and a few other astonishing books, his prose got overheated, but somehow undercooked. He’d throw a handful of twenty-dollar words and twenty-five-cent ideas up in the air, sort of hoping they’d take wing, but if they didn’t, he’d get bored and just watch them tumble to the ground, stare at them sadly, kick a few over to see if they were still breathing, then wander off to get a smoke.
Though he wrote some of the best and most evocative books on music, his real gift was for rooting around the back rooms, the hustles, the shadows and the half-truths that make up the underbelly of show business. If the devil was in the details, he was perfectly happy to dig through the devil’s briefcase and read the fine print of the love letters and girlie magazines he found inside. He was part accountant, part private eye, part stumblebum, but his passion was contagious, and he always listened to the B-sides. Read More
The last email I got from Harold came in on October 8 at 4:08 P.M., eight days ago. It said:
I am trying to cut the size of the book. This is the new table of contents.
Table of Contents
Prelude: The Longing for Immortality
Chapter 1: Platonic and Neo-Platonic Immortality
Chapter 2: Esoteric Visions of Immortality: Orphism, Hermeticism, Kabbalah
Chapter 3: The Resurrection of the Body
Chapter 4: Indic and Iranian Redemption
Chapter 5: Redemption in Israel
Chapter 6: Christian Redemption
When I saw him over the summer, in late August, he started to tell me about a new book he wanted to write called Immortality, Resurrection, Redemption: A Study in Speculation. It was to be an exploration of the afterlife in the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Islamic traditions, the way people have imagined and hoped for something more or different once this life ends. It moved me that an eighty-nine-year-old writer and former teacher would spend whatever time was left wrestling with the very thing that would take him.
I left that afternoon and wrote one of the many emails I’ve sent over the years thanking Harold for the time we had spent, then added a note about the book he’d described. And as I was writing the bit about the book, I realized I desperately wanted to publish it, which I then told him. He wrote back a few days later, saying he was open to working together as long as we could illustrate it with artworks that had helped capture the way humans have imagined the afterlife. I immediately agreed. Read More
Harold Bloom, one of the most popular and controversial critics in American literature, died Monday at age eighty-nine. He was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the author of more than forty books, including The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, and, most recently, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism. His Art of Criticism interview, which appeared in the Spring 1991 issue, is stacked with opinions on writers and their place in the canon. In Bloom’s view, Alice Walker is “an extremely inadequate writer,” John Updike is “a minor novelist with a major style,” and Saul Bellow is “an enormous pleasure but he does not make things difficult enough for himself or for us.”
Do you think that fiction—or poetry for that matter—could ever die out?
I’m reminded of that great trope of Stevens’s in “The Auroras of Autumn,” when he speaks of a “great shadow’s last embellishment.” There’s always a further embellishment. It looks like a last embellishment and then it turns out not to be—yet once more, and yet once more. One is always saying farewell to it, it is always saying farewell to itself, and then it perpetuates itself. One is always astonished and delighted.
Read his Art of Criticism interview here.
Pour another gallon into the bucket of our national grief, David Berman is gone. The poet and front man of the Silver Jews was fifty-two. The phrase national grief is Berman-esque, though municipal grief or federal grief would be even better. I was in awe of him, and like so many people today, I am crushed.
I knew Berman’s poetry, specifically his 1999 collection Actual Air, before I knew his music, but both became deeply important to me. I think of his lines weekly, maybe daily.
You can’t change the feeling, but you can change the feeling about the feeling.
I love your amethyst eyes and your Protestant thighs.
And of course: All water is classic water.
Berman’s great topic was the impossibility of being alive. I was glad to have him on the job. Being alive is fucking impossible! Berman knew this but still saw beauty and strangeness and humor, too. His work seemed to be saying that the world is impossible, yes, but you didn’t have to take it too seriously.
When Hunter S. Thompson died, my dad, who loved him, said, “It’s especially hard because you thought that someday you’d meet up with him and all the people who got it.” With Berman, I did sort of think that. I don’t know what I imagined. A pool party? All the fragile souls, the people who got it, in bikinis and trunks, with Berman at the grill.
But anyway. I never met him and that’s probably for the best. I wouldn’t want to have to tangle with my admiration up close. I wouldn’t want to stand there waiting for an anointing that didn’t come. Stammering out something foolish and leaving disappointed.