Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Economist Book of Obituaries

Yesterday over oysters and soup, a friend gave me a copy of The Economist Book of Obituaries. I haven't seriously read The Economist in years, mostly because I never really enjoyed the writing style. Being mostly a fiction reader, most non-fiction has to be gussied up into something more florid for me to get used to it (we all have our faults; the inability to read non-fiction well is one of mine). However, I had never read their obituary section, even though I've long enjoyed New York Times' obits. Boy, was I in for a pleasant surprise.

The obituaries in The Economist include what one would expect: the famous politicians, Princess Di, movie stars, famous musicians...the people who are always making the news. But, The Economist also has a policy, starting with the very beginning of their obit column, of favoring the lesser-known personality over the world famous figure. Hence, along with the stars are behind the scene political advisors, an oil-rig fire fighter, Alex the African Grey (famous for being able to construct real sentences with semiotic meaning), philosophers, sports figures, brewers, economists, the last survivor of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study who passed away in 2004, human rights activists, the forger of Hitler's diaries, gangsters, corrupt dictators...all the many people who have contributed to the world, whether for good or for the worse.

Written by Keith Colquhoun, a novelist, and Ann Wroe, a biographer, the obituaries are marvels of well-constructed and effective sentences. While each obit clearly has a decided perspective on the deceased person, it also judiciously lays out all the facts and sides to a personality. In many instances, though, the obituary writers hew to The Economist's tone of dignity (a sort of very British let's be worldly gentlemen sort of feel perhaps). One such example is the obituary of Princess Di:

One of the oddities of many of the articles written about Diana during the past week is that they dwell on her search for privacy. True, she had no privacy, but she appeared content to be constantly on public view. After Lenin died the Soviet government employed researchers to make a record of every day of his life. The reporters and photographers who made Diana their career did the same, and more efficiently. She mostly smiled on their dog-like attention and occasionally threw them a bone which would turn up in a tabloid next day as a "world exclusive."

Her friends were privy to her more intimate thoughts and those too would become public property. The princess went on television to give answers to the most searching questions about her life in a BBC programme that was sold around the world. As a product, Diana never palled. There was always some event to keep her public keen, a new lover, a new cause, some painful disclosure about her physical and mental health. Privacy is a luxury still available to the rich, albeit with difficulty. Princess Diana preferred to display her infinite variety.

It should be noted that the obit is accompanied by a photo of Diana before her fairy tale wedding, with the yet to be princess looking rather sulky, her shoulders rather slumped, face tilted and the hair casting a shadow over her eyes which brood up at the viewer in annoyance peevishly. The young Diana Frances Spencer is ill-dressed in a oxford shirt with a vest sweater and a seersucker skirt that hangs off her like a potato sack. The photo goes with the notion that such a Diana might have relished the stardom that being Princess of Wales instantly endowed.

Almost consistently, the writers are more generous and sympathetic to the lesser known figures. One that moved me a great deal was the writing on Bip, the character created by the mime, Marcel Marceau:

He [Pip] never spoke. Mr Marceau's father died in 1944 in Auschwitz, and Bip's silence was a tribute to all those who had been silenced in the camps. It was a recollection, too, of the necessary muteness of resistance fighters caught by the Nazis, or quietly leading children across the Swiss border to safety, as Mr Marceau had done. In one of his acts, "Bip Remembers", the sad-faced clown relived in mime the horrors of the war and stressed the necessity of love. In another, his hands became good and evil: evil clenched and jerky, good flowing and emollient, with good just winning.

I was struck to read time and again about the many people who were orphans. It reminds me that eighty or seventy years ago, mortality was much higher, diseased more rampant and the two world wars a major devastation to nations and individuals.

Besides learning about individual personalities, many of the obits on political figures around the world are informative in relating exactly the contextual political history of their times. As such, now I finally understand the basis of the civil war in Sri Lanka, some of the policies of the French government after World War II towards its colonies, and much much more twentieth history.

On one final note, I am gratified to note that the British style of quotation marks is exactly the way I have always believed that quotation marks should semiotically used.

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