This is a divergence from my usual academic content here, but it was important to me to share it.
This week I lost my uncle, one of the greatest influences on my growth as a writer and a thinker and a person. He introduced me to computers, gave me my first email address and set me loose on the internet; nurtured and fed my love for science fiction and fascination with technology; taught me what it means to write, the craft and skill to transmit knowledge and feelings and ideas through words.
He didn’t like a lot of what I was doing with our shared interests and skills, or with my life, but he accepted it; and painful arguments over politics and ideology eventually cooled into the occasional wry comments about French philosophers who wanted to tear down Western civilization. The last email I had from him contained a link to a news story about the imminent disintegration of the American academy. The last few years of his life were a scene of disintegration, filled with estrangement and anger and illness, but I spent some time with him over the summer, and I was glad to know that our connection was still there and still strong.
I’m very sad that I can’t travel to Europe for his funeral. I wrote the words below to be read there in my absence.
Ten years ago, for his father’s funeral, Alan wrote 500 words on his parents’ lives that didn’t leave a dry eye in the house. His daughter Kirsty and I agreed that, when the time came, I would be the one to compose 500 words for him. I’ve thought of the task more than a few times in the intervening decade, though I never expected I’d be sitting down to it so soon.
I’ve started and deleted many beginnings, thinking of everything he taught me by discussion, lecture, rant, example and counter-example. I’ve sat at my computer with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, not writing, and thought about how much time he spent doing just that. He used to talk to me about the things he hadn’t written, call himself a failure, and announce that he was passing on the baton of the family’s writing pride to me. He was always a writer first, narrating his own life with a keen sense of drama, and he knew his story was a tragedy with moments of farce. I used to mock his melodrama. But now his story’s at an end, his accuracy in literary criticism doesn’t have to hide the details that give life most of its meaning.
He smelled constantly of Gauloises. He would take all your money at poker (and teach you how to take other people’s). He thought that balsamic vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes were the foods of a grand bourgeois conspiracy (now no one in the family can eat them without feeling as though we are getting away with something). He could fire a gun with reasonable accuracy, and he was proud of it. He loved flying and lit up with remembered joy when he told the story of going up in a small plane and being allowed to take the controls for a moment. He once got a voicemail from space, from an astronaut he met through his work with the European Space Agency, and felt the bitterest disappointment that he hadn’t been there to take the call. He wrote a text-based computer game with ASCII graphics for his daughter, son and niece to explore the universe with.
He wanted everyone to be as excited as he was about the things he loved, to see what was true and marvelous about them. About science, about the sky, about powerful engines of speed and destruction and subtle mechanisms of electronics: how they work and the great and terrible things people have done with and without such machines, both in the past and in the possible futures of science fiction. About food and wine, the traditions of European cookery and the perfect way to scrub a potato, stem spinach, make a vegetable stock (you start by boiling chickpeas)––and, of course, the best Italian pasta. About language, the magic that happens when the right words find the perfect order and the sweat and bloody-mindedness it takes to achieve that––not only narrative, structure, paragraphing, openers, links, but also the subtleties of translation and the shifts in character and feeling between English, French, Italian and his smatterings of German, Portuguese, Spanish, Greek, Russian, Hebrew and more (he could definitely swear in Serbo-Croat).
Alan’s demons made loving him a painful thing. Yet he was easy to love, in spite of it. He may never have written the great work that he hoped would be his legacy. But in all that time he spent not writing, he left pieces of himself in the minds and hearts of more people than would probably have read it––more than we could fit in any church.
His best self is in us and with us. He won’t be forgotten any time soon.
ETA: I have made a site to commemorate Alan here, including some photographs. It would be great to have some contributions from other people who knew him.
- “free” labor
- open universities