In this edition of Discoveries, we celebrate some of the remarkable people who died in 2016:
‘She will always be one of those people, like Jackie Onassis, who I also wanted to interview, who told me no.’ Oprah never got to interview Harper Lee, but she did have lunch with the author, who turned up on a rainy day in New York in wellington boots and an umbrella.
‘When I’m gone, boxing will be nothing again. The fans with the cigars and the hats turned down’ll be there, but no more housewives and little men in the street and foreign presidents. It’s goin’ to be back to the fighter who comes to town, smells a flower, visits a hospital, blows a horn and says he’s in shape. Old hat. I was the onliest boxer in history people asked questions like a senator.’ – Muhammad Ali, 1967
Ali inspired some of the best sports writing to emerge from the 60s and 70s. Read, for instance, Hunter S. Thompson capture Ali at a moment of uncertainty in 1978, when he lost his World Heavyweight Championship title to a young Leon Spinks. Or Joyce Carol Oates’s attempt to unite the images of Ali as emissary of love and agent of violence.
David Bowie was a legend in his lifetime, but celebrity never undermined the subversive power of his art. He was an avid reader, (here, he shares his one hundred favourite books), and he remained, throughout his life, an advocate for society’s outsiders – the strange, the unusual and the oppressed. In a brief postscript for the New Yorker, Hilton Als highlights a video from 1983, in which Bowie challenges MTV’s lack of black representation, ‘decades before one was supposed to air such observations’.
Monuments around the world were lit with purple light in tribute to the artist’s death in April; the front cover of the New Yorker featured a rain of purple tears. Since, countless people have come forward to share the impact that Prince had on their lives. ‘Did I want to be Prince or be with Prince? I think the beauty is, neither. He made it O.K. to feel what he was feeling, what I was feeling. I wanted to be a diminutive, profuse, electric ribbon of horniness and divine grace,’ writes Maggie Nelson, explaining how Prince taught her to celebrate the ‘small and femme and freakish’.
Leonard Cohen was a masterful poet and writer. ‘Take the word butterfly. To use this word it is not necessary to make the voice weigh less than an ounce or equip it with small dusty wings,’ he intones, in ‘How to Speak Poetry’.
Author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco was also a professor of semiotics and social critic. His interest in systems shows in his seminal 1995 article for the New York Review of Books, ‘Ur-Fascism’, in which he lists the fourteen qualities common to all fascists: cult of tradition, fear of difference, obsession with a plot, machismo and selective populism. Sound familiar?
A strange thing happens when an artist dies – it is almost as if their words, reaching us seemingly from the grave, hold a greater resonance, spoken, as it were, by one of the initiated. Here is Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Funeral Music’, taken from his sonnet sequence on the War of the Roses.
‘Let mind be more precious than soul; it will notEndure. Soul grasps its price, begs its own peace,Settles with tears and sweat, is possiblyIndestructible. That I can believe.Though I would scorn the mere instinct of faith,Expediency of assent, if I dared,What I dare not is a waste historyOr void rule. Averroes, old heathen,If only you had been right, if IntellectItself were absolute law, sufficient grace,Our lives could be a myth of captivityWhich we might enter: an unpeopled regionOf ever new-fallen snow, a palace blazingWith perpetual silence as with torches.’
British actor, Alan Rickman was known for his complex portrayals of villains. Most famously, with his representation of Professor Snape in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter films. Here, he gives a remarkable performance in Play, a one-act play by Samuel Beckett, directed Anthony Minghella for the Beckett on Film project.
Fidel Castro was a divisive figure, a revolutionary icon with a checkered history of human rights abuses. Few though, are aware of the late Cuban President’s influence on Latin American literature. In Fidel and Gabo, Dr Stéphanie Panichelli-Batalla reveals that Colombian author, Gabriel García Márquez would send Castro his unpublished manuscripts for editorial feedback. We’ve been left wondering how many of the García Márquez pieces in our archive received the Castro treatment before landing on our desks.