Friday, August 15, 2014

Mourning the Deaths of Great Writers

Author Thomas Berger died on July 13, just days before his 90th birthday. He is best known as the author of “Little Big Man,” which was later made into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman. Although Berger was a highly regarded writer, and although I mourn his loss as I mourn the loss of all excellent writers, he is not one I read much. But his death reminds me of something I have been noticing lately: the gradually increasing numbers of deaths of writers I “always” knew about and often read, and whom I thought – on some magical level – would be alive and writing forever. Being a reader of a “certain age” myself – let’s say late middle age – I obviously understand mortality. But it still comes as a blow and even a surprise every time I read about the death of one the great writers of our time. Even in the four and a half years I have been writing this blog, I have written “R.I.P.” posts about several of these great writers (who of course are only a small number of all the writers who have died even during that time). These writers about whom I posted because I had read and particularly admired their work include Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Maya Angelou, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Vance Bourjaily, and Shulamith Firestone. Other important writers who died in 2014 include Peter Matthieson, the wonderful poet Maxine Kumin, and the great Canadian short story writer, Mavis Gallant. Notable deaths in 2013 include those of Seamus Heaney, Ellen Douglas, and Chinua Achebe. I am writing here, though, not simply to list these deaths, although I always value a chance to pay tribute to great writers. Here I am focusing on how our (e.g., readers’) place in life, in the sweep and flow of history, is marked partly by observing those who go ahead of us, whether family members and friends, or authors who sometimes seem like family members and friends because we feel (although this isn’t necessarily true) that we know them through their work. It is always a shock to be reminded of their mortality, and by extension, of our own.

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