obituaries and writing

Much of my reading in the past couple of months has moved between the New Yorker and The Economist, and I've spent the past couple of days flipping through old issues of both, pulling out articles that might provoke me somewhere down the line. In the process, I started thinking a moment about some of the differences between the two - chief among them the lack of by-lines in The Economist. It creates a particular type of writing, one in which the writing lays claim to a kind of clarity and transparency. This isn't so much to suggest that the New Yorker lacks either of those qualities as that their by-lines mean that one can never quite get past the personality of the writer. John Updike's pieces for the New Yorker are always, incomparably, Updike's pieces. Those in The Economist, on the other hand, have a way of standing apart from their author.

But going through old issues, I realized that the only thing I really found much use to save was their obituaries. The news briefs on business, Britain, the world, all sharply drawn but also made past (and it's with those that the transparent author is such a pleasure). But an obituary is different (and I've heard stories about writers who cut their teeth writing obituaries), it seems to require a writing subject (compare Adam Gopnik's and Roger Angell's for John Updike in the New Yorker). But then, to follow The Economist, perhaps not. Here are just a couple of the passages that stood out:
Anyone who had dealings with manual typewriters - the past tense, sadly, is necessary - knew that they were not mere machines. Eased heavily from the box, they would sit on the desk with an air of expectancy, like a concert grand once the lid is raised. On older models, the keys, metal-rimmed with white inlay, invited the use to play forceful concertos on them, while the silvery type-bars rose and fell chittering and whispering from their beds. Such sounds once filled the offices of the world, and Martin Tytell's life. (The Economist, September 20th, 2008)
But something happened to Miriam Makeba whenever she started to sing. After a slow-saunter onstage, gazing at her high-heeled shoes, she would suddenly straighten her back, flex her muscles, throw back her head and let loose an incandescent smile. Her strong, lithe body writhed and shook. Her shoulders shrugged, her hips gyrated. Slinky, strutting, wild-eyed and joyous, she danced as she sang. (The Economist, November 15th, 2008)
The elements of his craft seemed simple enough, when laid out on the page... But in Mr Lenotre's world the eggs were laid that morning, fresh out of the straw and kept for half an hour at room temperature. The butter (and cream) came from a dappled and contented cow, grazing under an apple tree in his native Normandy. Egg-yolks were to be beaturn until an egg-ribbon, trickled over the pale yellow surface, took five seconds to dissolve. Sponge fingers had to be baked until they were just springy to the touch, and not a moment more. (The Economist, January 24th, 2009)
What I find so compelling about the way in which they're written is this emphasis on the of this world. The obituaries often dilate about big issues (war, truth, God, culture), but they remain grounded in the particulars of a person and of a life. I've just finished John McPhee's Assembling California, and I found something similar in McPhee's writing: A love of things and of the way in which language provides us a way of talking about things. In a way, that last passage about Mr Lenotre could speak to a larger ethic of writing that one might learn from The Economist: The elements of craft seemed simple enough when laid out upon the page (a patient, etherised upon a table), but for them (the writer, Mr Lenotre, me) they had to be just so.


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