The Magazine

Nil Nisi Bonum

Nov 19, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 10 • By ROBERT MESSENGER
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I have a thing for obituaries. At my age, it's not yet a matter of keeping score against my contemporaries. It's more a taste for the appreciative and anecdotal. Newspapers don't present much sweetness or humor, even on the review and feature pages. The obit, though, remains a sort of sociocultural petit-four.

Consider this specimen in the Guardian on October 18:

Stephen Medcalf, emeritus reader in English at Sussex University, who has died aged 70, had one of the finest minds I have ever known. Not only could he recite reams of poetry in Greek, Latin, English and Anglo-Saxon, and whole stories by Kipling and P.G. Wodehouse, but--and this is what really marked him out--whatever he said about literature immediately struck one as true, fresh and profound.

You must have lived your life rather well to get such a paragraph written about you. That its author is the formidably brilliant Gabriel Josipovici means you may have lived more than well. The full obituary was an utter delight and later that night I dug out Josipovici's anthology The Modern English Novel, which contained a lovely piece on Wodehouse--history's greatest spreader of sweetness and light--by Stephen Medcalf. When was the last time a book review in a newspaper sent you off to your shelves?

We still have fine cultural reviews going in this country--the New Criterion, the Yale Review, the Hudson Review, to name just three. But they publish first-rate critical essays, which tend to the very serious, with the author intent on establishing the subject's canonical place. Such treatment is not what Stephen Medcalf needed. As Josipovici noted: "Though his friends and students knew that he had for years been working on a book on the development of Eliot's thought, we all sensed that he preferred to read and think and teach rather than to write, and, like his tutor Hugo Dyson, ended his career without a single major book to his name."

The obituarist doesn't need Medcalf to have set Eliot studies on its head. He can appreciate the man for who he was and lay on a few delightful details: "The chaos of Stephen's room was legendary; students had to sweep books and papers off chairs to sit down, and received essays back with footprints on. After a while the cleaners went on strike and refused to enter his room."

Such are the plums that make me an obits man. Consider the domestic arrangements of the New York gallery owner Ileana Sonnabend, famous for showing all the excesses of Pop Art and the worse that followed, from the Independent on October 27:

Through all of this, Sonnabend herself remained an enigma. Tiny, plump and sporting an unconvincing wig, her reticence was legendary. This extended to her philandering first husband, with whom she remained both friendly and on good business terms. Asked by reporters for her views on the 88-year-old Castelli's last marriage, to a woman 50 years his junior, Sonnabend discreetly answered, "I have many thoughts, but no statement."

You'll have noted that these extracts are British in origin. The competitiveness of the London newspapers extends even to death, with large obituary pages that aim to entertain (and attract) readers. The modern obituary was born there just over 20 years ago when Max Hastings put Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd in charge of the obits columns at the Daily Telegraph. In came elegant writing and an emphasis on humor and interesting lives--rather than just famous ones--and a preference for candor over tact.

A steady flow of entertaining lives are related in the Telegraph, Times, Guardian, and Independent, and they bond a certain type of reader to these papers far more than any original reporting could. Which is not to deprecate reporting: Where, but in the obits--in this case Robert Goulet's obit in the Independent--would you learn that, to her credit, Julie Andrews fought off the advances of both Richard Burton and Goulet while performing in Camelot?

[Lyricist Alan Jay] Lerner later reported that Goulet had 'a severe crush' on Julie Andrews, who was happily married. Goulet reputedly asked Burton for advice, and Burton told Lerner, 'Why did he come to me? I couldn't get anywhere, either.'

This is news that stays news.