Morbid Reductions .2
NYRB Obit - Oct 2011
The diction and the structure conspire to depict PLF as a literary mind of the highest order. Syntax is elaborate; sentences are densely structured, and unabashedly so. A line like: “A war hero of polymathic exuberance, brilliant linguistic skills, and an elephantine memory” has a celebratory extravagance, evocative of a hyper-learned, swashbuckling, exuberant traveling scholar.
The text is peppered with asides containing PLF’s own observations and bon mots; the tone verges on energetic and playful. Descriptions of PLF’s books bleed into descriptions of his own activities, intentionally so: “the style was the man.” The ‘aged PLF’ is depicted as of a piece with his picturesque Mediterranean home, itself woven into a familiar and grand Grecian countryside.
Descriptions of PLF’s books include choice quotes (“a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly”), a range that telegraphs global conscientiousness and, again, a ferocious breadth of study. Then we get accounts of his wartime daring. See: a German commander-kidnapping immortalized as a movie, mentioned as an aside, because the film is dismissed as “lackluster” with an abandon that does as much as any device in the article to impress the outsized dimensions of PLF’s grandeur. Naturally, PLF and the kidnapped commander established grudging mutual respect for one another predicated on - what else? - a shared appreciation of Horace. But he loathed the war.
A warm, concluding anecdote opens a window into PLF’s last days and verifies, finally, his unflagging spirit. But we don’t really need it, by that point. The article is just under 2000 words. It combines dense, elaborate style, detailed but wide-ranging geographic imagery, personal quotation, personal anecdote, a range of classical literary references, authoritative statements regarding PLF’s state of mind at various points, and a colorful account of PLF’s primary achievements.
This is, perhaps, the first time I’ve found the photo’s characterizing effects overshadowed by the prose. The personality is developed enough - and sufficiently connected to the Mediterranean sea-side - by the end of the article that the photo succeeds only in quietly confirming PLF’s youthful vigour, intensity of thought, and dashing Italian style. That said, it communicates brightness and poise, and it’s mildly surprising to see a war-hero so physically slight.