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Scoop!: A Surreal Reading of the NYT Obituary of Keith Botsford, Published a Year after his Death

June 17, 2019
bradspurgeon

Keith Botsford in a YouTube interview (before his death)

PARIS – I just had the most extraordinary obituary reading experience of my life.  And I must have read obituaries on an average of at the very least once per week for the last 40 or so years.  It felt at times as if I was reading satire, or high comedy, or was it low comedy?  It felt often like reading something out of “Scoop,” the satirical novel of the newspaper business by Evelyn Waugh.  Although I only saw it today, this obituary ran in The New York Times three days ago under the headline:  “Keith Botsford, Man of Letters and Saul Bellow Associate, Dies at 90.”   And the wild experience plants itself – as all good journalism should – right in the first paragraph (or lead, or lede):  “Keith Botsford, a globe-trotting, multilingual and multifaceted man of letters who became a longtime collaborator with Saul Bellow, died last year, on Aug. 19, in London — a death that drew little public notice at the time. He was 90.”

My first thought was that it was great that The Times decided to run his obituary despite him having died a year earlier. But then in the second paragraph I learn that his death did not really go so unnoticed as all that:  “His death was noted two days later by The New England Review of Books on its website and, 16 days later, in a 25-word paid death notice in The Boston Globe, but it was otherwise not reported widely. The Times of London published an obituary two months later, and the Boston University alumni magazine, Bostonia, noted his death in its recent winter-spring issue.”

This reminded me that I had read last year the obituary by The Times of London, or was pretty sure I had. They are among the best obits in the world, and they are quite widely read and authoritative.  So it seemed to me that the media that really missed Mr. Botsford’s death was more The New York Times, not really the wider world as such, as the first paragraph indicated.  This was, in short, no scoop!  But it led directly and immediately to the next extraordinary moment in this reading experience in the third paragraph:  “The New York Times learned of his death on Thursday while updating an obituary about him that had been prepared in advance in 2014. Reached on Saturday, his son Gianni confirmed the death.”

Wait a minute!!!!  Hold it!!!!  Ever since the horrendous Jayson Blair incident at the NYT, when an up-and-coming reporter was found to have fabricated a large number of his articles – i.e., made up the stories, the quotes, and even the travel expenses (as he sometimes claimed expenses for trips not taken, the stories having been written at home) – the NYT devised a number of new rules about reporting that I find absurd, and which it has in many cases stuck to ever since.  One of these is to say exactly where a person was interviewed from:  ie, “said Mr. So-and-So in an email”  or “said Mr. So-and-So in a telephone call” or “said Mr. So-and-So in a text message” etc., which personally I have always found interferes with the reader’s experience of trying to learn about what was said and not how it was conveyed to the reporter.

And one of the often most infuriating – to me – such rules, which I remember as coming from that same Blair period, was the one about having to have confirmation from a family member or some official of the death of the subject of an obituary.  So here we are with the venerable New York Times giving us an obituary in which we are told that the subject died almost a year earlier, that it was reported in several major publications and that there was even a – perhaps obligatory – death notice bought in the formerly NYT-owned Boston Globe…and we have to have the NYT call up the son of the subject of the obit and ask him to confirm the death to put the suspicious reader’s doubts at ease!?!?!  Despite abundant proof that the subject died a year earlier?

This is also the point when the satire of the form of the article begins to create an even wilder mix with the subject of the obituary.  The next paragraph, right below that stylistic convention in the NYT – here absurd – begins with this sentence about the subject of the obituary:  “Mr. Botsford was a fluid, prolific writer unfettered by the boundaries of form or genre.”  I said to myself, “So what the hell then would Mr. Botsford be thinking now about this boundary of form of the genre, I wonder?  That the NYT had to ask for confirmation from his son despite ample proof he was dead and gone…or if not ample proof, then at least nearly a year has past, which would be plenty of time for Mr. Botsford to write letters to the editors of the venerable publications that announced his death, complaining, as another famous writer had, that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.

We now learn that Mr. Botsford was “a novelist, essayist, journalist, biographer, memoirist, teacher, translator and founder, with Bellow, of three literary magazines, most recently News From the Republic of Letters. … A Renaissance man, he also composed chamber works, a ballet and choral music, and was fluent in seven languages and able to read a dozen.”

Here we begin rising even higher in this crescendo of the extraordinary nature of this obituary and its subject:  Botsford’s life was a tale that might stand beautifully alongside that of Woody Allen’s Zelig, for being a man all over the map, except here Botsford’s talents are clearly exceptional, and not just some chance thing.  (In addition to his literary exploits, the article tells us that, “By his account he served as a spy in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.”)

But then the obituary’s extraordinary nature pokes its head out again a couple of paragraphs later with our first “live” quote from the subject of the obit when describing his first meeting with Saul Bellow in the early 1950s at a party, which would lead to the two writers becoming lifelong friends and colleagues:

“It was Saul Bellow, and he was pinned against the wall by a dreadful man from Winnipeg,” Mr. Botsford recalled in an interview for this obituary in 2014. “I had just read ‘The Adventures of Augie March,’ so I walked up and started talking to him.”

Bellow, left, and Botsford

Bellow, left, and Botsford

Hold the presses again!!!!  Our first quote from the deceased comes from an interview that was done by the author of this very same obituary and for the purpose of this very same obituary that we are reading.  What?!?!?  I may have been very inattentive in my reading of obituaries, but I feel this is the first time I have been informed that the subject of the obituary was interviewed by the writer of the obituary for use in the obituary itself.  Is this morbid?  Well, thank goodness they informed us in the beginning of the story that the son of this man confirmed to the NYT that this man was indeed dead.   Otherwise, reading that he had been quoted here from an interview he did FOR this obituary, I might have thought him still alive and taking part in some kind of a practical joke about his own death notice….

Wild!  But it also makes me feel as if someone at the NYT must have said, “Gee, we went to so much trouble to write this obit, including interviewing the guy, and we then missed his death and never used it?!  Come on.  Let’s not waste this.  Get it in print.”

The obituary then spends several paragraphs talking about the relationship between these two men – is it more about Bellow than about Botsford?  No, no.  – until I get to a part where I learn that Mr. Botsford and I have something else in common aside from both being fans of Bellow:  “In his journalism, Mr. Botsford was equally at ease writing about movie stars, concert pianists, bullfighters, novelists and race drivers. Formula One racing and the Boston Red Sox were two of his passions, along with literature, music and food.”

Formula One racing!  Which, yes, I wrote about for a couple of decades for the NYT and its International Herald Tribune edition (although I have no longer been employed by either paper since 2016, and I still love reading the NYT, as this rant makes clear).  But that’s just a personal thing that lit a fire for me, and probably has no place in this rant!

We find he also published some two dozen novels, and had the university education and degrees of about three or four people all rolled into one.  We learn that he was born in Europe, and his family background was as fantastic as his own life, particularly the larger than life tale of his mother and her family.  Her name was “Carolina Elena Rangoni-Machiavelli-Publicola-Santacroce,” and, continues the article, “He said that his mother was a descendant of Niccolo Machiavelli and that his father’s ancestors had helped found Milford, Conn., on Long Island Sound, in 1639. Mr. Botsford recalled his maternal grandmother employing 120 servants at her house near Recanati, Italy, on the Adriatic Sea.”

Wow!  Love it!

Picasso and Jacqueline

Picasso and Jacqueline

He ended up moving to Costa Rica and living in a fabulous home overlooking the sea, a house designed by his son, an architect – and the very man who confirmed his father’s death to the NYT a year after it happened – and then one of the most extraordinary moments of all, the kicker, for me, of the tale of Keith Botsford’s extraordinary life:  We learn that he was married three times, and that his last wife was 52 years younger than him!  That stands as a record for me of age difference in spouses, far outdoing even Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neill’s 36-year difference, or Picasso and Jacqueline’s 45-year difference!

So here, the subject of the obituary finally takes over in wonderment from the form of the story completely – form follows function at this point – and we are left with a feeling that this was absolutely a unique, extraordinary person, and thank goodness the NYT chose to publish this story, even one year too late.

Having said that, the subject of the obit and the tale of the obit itself, its writing form, come together again in the kicker that the NYT writer left us with.  The following concept may be true of Bellow and Botsford, but it is also clearly true of the way this obit was written – whether intended or not:

“Whether writing fiction, journalism or biography, Mr. Botsford always kept the reader in mind. For this he thanked Bellow:”

“As my dear friend Saul Bellow put it to me, ‘Take the reader by the hand, Keith, and he will follow you anywhere.’ Or as I tell my students, ‘You are not writing for me, but for the world. Or at least for your Aunt Nellie in Boise, Idaho.’ ”

Something tells me that Keith Botsford would have been amused.

 

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A New Edition of Philosopher of Optimism, and a First Look at a Never-Before-Released Video Interview with the Not So “Angry Old Man,” Colin Wilson

November 26, 2017
bradspurgeon

Philosopher of Optimism

Philosopher of Optimism

PARIS – It has soon been four years since Colin Wilson, one of Britain’s angry young men of literature in the 1950s, died as a not-so-angry old man – at age 82 on 5 December 2013. The anniversary has provided an impetus for a couple of unfinished projects to finally come to life: A new edition of my interview book with Wilson, called, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism, and the release of some excerpts from another interview I did with Wilson in the same year of the book publication, in 2006. For the book, it was time to update the story and write about the rest of Wilson’s life after the interview, as well as to write a new preface in which I talk about the strange way this book about optimism came at the time of my life when I needed that sense more than ever before.

For the film, it made sense for this project that has been hibernating for 11 years, to finally see some daylight. So it is that Excalibur Productions of Yorkshire, in the UK, and Michael Butterworth Books of Manchester, all agreed to release some excerpts from that never-before-seen video interview between Wilson and me. For me personally, it was very strange to see myself 11 years later, in another lifetime, and having survived that dark period. For fans of Wilson’s writing and philosophy of life, it is a great moment to see this extraordinary British writer as if coming back to life.

Wilson, for those of you who do not know him, shot to world fame at the age of 25 in 1956 with the publication of his first book, called “The Outsider.” It was a kind of popular introduction to existentialism in the UK, a study of such outsiders as Nijinsky, T.E. Lawrence, Hermann Hesse, William Blake, and many others. It came out at the same time and was reviewed at the same time as the playwright John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger,” and the British press decided to label these writers “Angry Young Men.”

Colin Wilson Philosopher of Optimism New Edition and New Interview

The label would be passed on to many other writers of the time, such as Alan Sillitoe, Arnold Wesker, Kingsley Amis and others. Wilson would be no doubt the most prolific of them all, and he was also the one that was ultimately the most difficult to pin down and label as a writer beyond that initial effort. He would write books covering such a diversity of subjects – crime, the occult, philosophy, psychology, biography, fiction and many other things in over a hundred books through his life – that his reception by the critics and the British literary world in general, went through a permanent roller coaster of a ride between respect and reviling him throughout his life.

Few readers of influence ever managed to, if not categorize, then at least understand what he was trying to say through this wide cross-section of works. My interview book with him, based on an interview at his home in 2005 – for a story I wrote about Wilson in the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times – managed somehow to tie together all the disparate parts and make a consistent whole out of Wilson’s oeuvre.

“Wilson’s philosophy of optimism runs like a clear thread through all of his varied works,” is how my book’s publisher, Michael Butterworth Books, puts it. “It is at the very battlefront of the fight against the pessimistic world-view. At its core lie the twin concepts of ‘intentionality’ and the ‘peak experience’, which show us that if we open our eyes and direct perception properly we can use our minds in the most positive sense to bring change to ourselves and to the world about us.”

Not long after the book was published, I was invited by the Excalibur people to interview Wilson on camera. This interview too was a long, wide-ranging one that lasted some two hours in total and touched on just about all aspects of his life and writings. Somehow, for many and varied reasons, the film never got released…until now with these excerpts.

Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson

So I hope you enjoy this “blast from the past” because it is just as pertinent, or even more so, to our chaotic and difficult present….

By the way, although the official publication date of the book is in early December, the book is now available to be ordered either from Amazon (and other such sites) or directly from the web site of Michael Butterworth Books.

And the excerpts from the 2006 interview are in the video linked above. Check it out!

Oh, and before I forget. I think that we are in perhaps the beginning of a new wave of appreciation for Wilson, as I say in my new preface, with most notably the publication last year of the first full-length biography of the writer, called, “Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson,” by Gary Lachman.

The Highlander Open Mic in Paris, Where the Beat Goes On…and On…and On…. Oh, and a Shakespeare and Company Interlude into the First Pages of Literary – and less so – Works

December 3, 2015
bradspurgeon

highlander

highlander

PARIS – As open mics in Paris fall to their deaths around us in droves – the Baroc, the Noctambules, the Escargot Underground – there are those that seem to be glued to the foundations of Paris like the catacombs. Last night I finally attended the Highlander open mic for the first time in as long as I can remember as a performer, although I had gone a week too early to what I thought was the ninth anniversary, a few months ago and did not stay long or play. But last night, as I waited my turn for a long time, I was at first discouraged and feeling despondent. But as the night went on, things got better and better, and I know why the Highlander has lasted so long….

Part of it is Thomas Brun, the MC who has run it from the beginning, and that is a very, very big part. Thomas is the epitome of an open mic MC, helping, kind, interested, and always ready to accompany musicians when they need him on guitar or other electronic device. He is also extremely fair in the allocation of the slots, always accommodating, and always keeping an eye on peoples’ needs.
He was born at the Highlander

I did take a little walk outside at one point, as I was around 13 on the list, and I couldn’t wait eternally, having arrived at 20:05 and eventually playing at 23:30 or so – shows how popular this place is. And I took a stroll over to Shakespeare and Company bookstore before it closed and I had a little revelation.
Seb looping and goes the distance

I picked up a number of the new novels on the tables of new novels by great and well known authors in huge publishing houses and I read their first lines, or first pages, and I said, “What has happened to literature today!?!?!?” I mean, I was interested in none of these books. They looked like hell. They looked boring and heavy and … jesus, I thought, what’s going on? Is it me? Have I lost the taste for fiction?!?
Adrien at the Highlander

Then I strolled across the other side of the room and found some classic novels. I read the first line of a Jane Austen novel and I was so drawn in I had to read the rest of the page – despite having read the novel decades ago…. It was just BRILLIANT and competent from a writing point of view. Then I read the first sentence of a Hemingway novel… same thing! Brilliant. Makes you want to read on. Both were so perfectly things we can understand and relate to! So then I concluded that the shelves of today’s latest fiction are pure crap only because this year’s crop is pure crap. No other reason.
All along the highlander at the highlander

So I returned to the open mic feeling fuller and nourished. And I awaited my turn, and I played “Come Pick Me Up,” by Ryan Adams, and I played Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son,” and I played my “Borderline.” It was fun as hell. And there were more and more amazing musicians. And in the end, I felt fulfilled.
and then this at the highlander

A great night at the Highlander, and elsewhere. I’ll be back. Oh, and I understood why the Highlander has lasted. It’s just for all the reasons I listed above….
she’s going at the highlander

I could not figure out which of the videos to put up first on this blog. But definitely check out the first two….
Seb barley at the Highlander

Worldwide Open Mic Journey 2014: The Multimedia Consolidation – Brazil

December 8, 2014
bradspurgeon

Sao Paulo skyline

Sao Paulo skyline

My worldwide open mic journey began in China in 2008 after the Formula One race in Shanghai, and little did I know that it was a journey that would continue for six more years and cover most of the globe, every continent except Africa (where I once lived and played music in an open mic decades earlier) and Antarctica, and that it would spawn a book, a blog, an album, a documentary film, numerous podcasts, music videos and other multimedia projects.

This year, 2014, I have decided to finish all of the projects and tie them together into a consolidation of multimedia. As part of my personal impetus to gather it all together for myself, but also put it into perspective on this blog, I have decided to create a page for each city I have visited on the journey, tying together samples of the whole multimedia adventure linked to that city.

So here is the page devoted to tying together the pieces of the open mic adventure that I have lived in Sao Paulo since I first started.

A Not-Book-Review: Wayne Standley’s Novella, “The Man Who Looked Like Me”

April 29, 2014
bradspurgeon

Wayne Standley

Wayne Standley

For my second “Not-Book-Review” I did not premeditate that I would write about the book that a friend gave me a few months ago and that I only got around to reading now. I did not imagine that it would be so much fun, so light, so captivating and so genuine. But when I discovered all that, I decided that I HAD to write about it on this blog – especially because I’ve mentioned its author so often here in the past as a musician: Wayne Standley. The book he wrote is called “The Man Who Looked Like Me.” So check out my “Not-Book-Review” of Wayne’s book. Then see if you can find a copy for yourself to read!!!!

As a reminder: This “Not-Book-Review” is a type of article specific to this blog that the first one of which was my talk about the book of another musician, Neil Young – and his “Waging Heavy Peace”. The idea behind the column is that because it is a blog, and because I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum about writers not criticizing other writers in print as reviewers – “You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds,” he said – but because I love to read good books and talk about them, the idea is that I am not going to place myself on a critical pedestal and dictate what is righteous or not about a book I read. I am not going to recommend it as a piece of literature or a consumer product. I am not going to fulfill the role of the book reviewer whatsoever. This blog is my space, Brad’s world. So what I will do when I feel compelled, will be to write about books I am reading or have read or feel compelled to write about for any other reason – my “Not-Book-Review.” Something people can read, and should read, only as a reflection of how I felt about the book – not a recommendation that they should or should not read it.

So, again, here is my Not-Book-Review of “The Man Who Looked Like Me” by Wayne Standley.

Flash Visit to la Tireuse, Flash Post and a Related Flash New Blog

January 22, 2014
bradspurgeon

PARIS – For various reasons, I did not get to leave the apartment last night until very late in the evening. I decided nevertheless to head over to the closest open mic, La Tireuse, to see if there was a chance to play, even in a flash, last-minute visit.

As it turned out, it was a fairly quiet – yet comfy – night at the Tireuse. I only had the chance to catch the last moment of one performer before I was beckoned to take to the mic myself! This I did with some reluctance, having not even warmed up, tuned my guitar or sung a single time yesterday. As it turned out, the crowd was so warm that I felt egged on to leap into the songs and get out in one piece. It went well, I was told afterwards – of course, I had a little help from Cat Stevens, as I sang two of his songs, and my own “When You’re Gone Away.”

The night ended with Wayne Standley playing on guitar along with Ollie, the MC, playing lead. That was very cool. After that I then learned of two personal projects from these fine musicians, as Wayne gave me a copy of a cowboy novel he wrote, and Ollie told me about a new blog he has just started.

I immediately returned home and looked at the blog, and found something I know I will return to again and again. Ollie has called it “L’Albatros,” and it is a very cool blog that gives thumbnail descriptions and a representative video of obscure or long-forgotten bands in the history of pop music. The ones up there right now range from the Canadian group Bachmann Turner Overdrive, to Jim Croce, Harry Nilsson and Fred Neil. But Ollie clarified to me that a lot of the groups would be well known to me, and to their specific audiences, but less known or completely unknown to the French – the language in which the blog is written. (Gordon Lightfoot and Steely Dan seem good examples of that.) But this looks like a real winner of a blog, and I’ll be returning.

I started reading Wayne’s book this morning, and found a new voice – in the written word, that is, because it sounds very much like the Wayne I know singing….

Three Completely Different Musical Experiences in One Night in Paris – for a Compleat Musical Experience

November 8, 2013
bradspurgeon

Touched by Grace

Touched by Grace

PARIS – As it turned out, I could have played in all of the three musical locations that I visited in Paris last night – but I played in none of them. And as it turned out, I was just as happy with that situation as going somewhere to play myself, as my real idea was to take in three in one night for a completely different cultural experience each time.

The first was the one where, I will admit, the idea of playing there myself is greatly exaggerated. The only reason I mention it at all was that when I arrived at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore to hear Gary Lucas play his guitar and talk about and read from his book, Lucas actually had a guy singing with him in a vaguely Jeff Buckley manner. The guy, it turned out, was just someone Lucas did not know or had never heard sing, and he had asked in advance if he could join in and sing along when Lucas performed at the bookstore. Lucas agreed, and it was a cool effect and a nice little addition to a very cool presentation. So it occurred to me that perhaps if I had asked, too, he’d have given me a chance – even if it was a longshot….

Gary Lucas was at Shakespeare and Company to promote his book “Touched by Grace,” which recounts his experience working with Jeff Buckley, with whom he wrote a dozen or more songs, including the famous “Grace,” and “Mojo Pin.” But Buckley is not his only claim to fame as a collaborator. Lucas has played guitar or otherwise collaborated with a Who’s Who of popular musical geniuses – to say nothing of Leonard Bernstein – from Captain Beefheart to Patti Smith to Lou Reed to Iggy Pop…oh and even people like Peter Stampfl, of the Holy Modal Rounders….

Lucas played his Gibson J-45 in opening tuning, filling the Shakespeare and Company bookstore and its full-house of people with the ethereal sounds that are his trademark. I bought one of his CDs, which I will be including in my next Morning Exercise Music review. Oh, and I must add that I was just delighted that although I arrived a little late, and the bookstore was entirely full to the point that the front door could not be opened, I was ushered up through the first floor library by another door into the building, and led down to the back of the “stage” to listen to Lucas. That, by the way, is why you only get my videos of Lucas from off to the side of the musician, and from behind.

From the Books to the Taps, it Was Time for a Beer at the Open Mic of the Tennessee Bar

From Shakespeare and Company I headed over to the Tennessee Bar to check out the open mic. There, of course, I’d have been able to play if I wanted to. But I had that third date of the night coming up, so I just stayed and listened to a few songs – including by the mainstay of the Tireuse open mic, Wayne Standley – and also by someone else using a Gibson, similar to the J-45 of Lucas, but which was either a Dove or a Hummingbird, and they were also using it in a similar manner. But to slightly less effect. Still, it was an incredibly beautiful sounding guitar and nifty playing. Once I had assured myself that my favorite Thursday night was going strong, I finished my beer and went off to the third location.

This final stop of the evening bore no resemblance to the first two. I was invited to this one by a Brazilian friend, who said that she had a Brazilian friend playing Brazilian music in this hotel – the Hotel Athenee. I was a little confused when I got there, as I had for mixed it up in my mind with the Plaza Athenee, or whatever it is. But this was quite a posh joint as it turned out, with a long lobby cocktail bar room in plush furniture and walls covered with casting photo portraits of famous Hollywood stars from the past.

With a Final Glass of Wine at the Hotel Athenee and Brazilian Music

The Brazilian music was guitar and vocals, mostly bossa nova stuff, and it was a very cool and relaxed evening and foretaste of my imminent trip to Sao Paulo. My friend got up and did a song too, by the way, and she invited me to play, saying the mic was open…. So that’s how I tie in that final unforeseen possibility of being able to play in all three venues, had I wanted to. But there at the Athenee, I felt that the atmosphere was so laid-back Brazilian bossa nova style stuff that my own songs or covers would be far too big a contrast, although I was definitely tempted.

In any case, it was a really cool evening, kind of like an all you can eat buffet of different foods and sauces, on the Paris plate….

PS, It turns out that in arriving late at the Shakespeare and Company performance by Gary Lucas, and hearing him talk about about his singer as someone who just contacted him and he’d never heard of him before, I had no doubt missed a more correct introduction beforehand. I’ve since learned from a reader of this bog – as you can see in the comments below – that the singer was Tim Watt, and he is a musician who was already known to Gary, and the two prepared together in advance… So the very premise of this whole blog post was faulty, as I’d never have been able to play at Shakespeare and Company after all!! 😉

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