Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Quite often an obituary provides fuel for a few thoughts. It is hardly surprising this should be so since an obit is an attempt at distilling a life: an essay. The son of Siegfried Sassoon, George Sassoon, recently died at the age of 69, after a long illness, and was give a three-quarter spread in The Telegraph. A perfect candidate for one of these longer efforts, which are always more than a detail biography.

Of all the obits I have read, one – no name, no pack drill for fear of giving away a future plot devise - had such an appealing vignette in it that every time I think ‘obit’ it associates with this one. The effect of a unique eccentric person brought to life through a small gem of good writing could not be beaten: though I do not intend to give hints as to who it was in any way shape or form – too easy to search an engine nowadays with the barest bones to come up with some snippet or other.

In a previous essai, which attempted to extend a notion reported by Andrew Graham-Dixon in one of his classic art history pages in The Sunday Telegraph: the 21 March 2004 offering, which I only recently came across in a pile of old papers, is A young Hare by Albrecht Dürer. It is a well-known painting: very popular. Graham-Dixon has not failed in his 1000 words or so to provide what the inexpert eye might need in the way of description and explanation.


Dürer wrote in a letter to a friend,”... an intelligent, skilled artist can show his powers and his art more clearly in a small thing than many a man in a big work. Real artists will understand that I speak the truth. It follows that some artists, by drawing something with a pen on half a sheet of paper in one day, can produce better art than others who sappy themselves diligently to one big work for a year.”

A Young Hare is proof of the proposition. It cannot have occupied Durer for more than a few hours, yet it has become one of his most enduringly popular works.

As soon as I had read this early section, it occurred to me this should be true of a great writer. Proceeding to explore which sort of writing might fit into this category I soon ran out of anything, though in my head it had seemed to be something that would produce the goods.

First I came up with a recollection of reading about Proust's famous scraps of paper. Many novelists write snippets and certainly there is great tradition of writers reviewing other novels, many of these critiques being mini-masterpieces. A passage from a great novel could take the place of the drawing dashed off in a hour, even if it had taken many hours of writing and editing to get it to its pristine state. But how long did it take to write that section of the whole?

But there was nothing more. Try as I might I couldn't extend it to something more substantial. To start an essay, as one should, with a powerful feeling and a few odd thoughts - and not much more - in order to write in best ex-tempore fashion, is the ultimate : to fail once writing down words can be the grossest of frustrations.

A week later I have found the missing piece of the puzzle: the superlative writing to be found in obits, thrashed off by, perhaps, the superannuated novelist who just happens to be a friend of a friend of the dead person.

Here, with all the requisite eccentricity, ups and downs of a life well lived is George Sassoon in The Telegraph, interesting because he was the son on of, but also because he had the wit to suggest:

... solution to the problem of Gibraltar that involved offering Spain a reciprocal enclave in southern England - perhaps Dover or Folkestone - which would become a centre for bullfighting and other facets of Spanish life. His final years were made exceptionally happy by his fourth wife, Alison, who cared for him with calm and amused devotion.


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