The Arch Obit

Obituaries must be charming.

When a writer conveys the deceased subject’s wicked faults yet still elicits empathy from the reader, the reader has been charmed into a kind of forgiveness for the dead.

When the writer seeks to elicit no empathy or respect for the deceased subject – there are some brutal obituaries out there! – the reader still needs to be charmed, in order to forgive the author.

The author of this obituary of “Keith Botsford, Man of Letters and Saul Bellow Associate,” Bill Morris, lands in both categories quite beautifully.

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.

His death was noted … 16 days later, in a 25-word paid death notice in The Boston Globe.…

Mr. Botsford was a fluid, prolific writer unfettered by the boundaries of form or genre. He 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. …

Editing provided Mr. Botsford with a welcome respite from the rigors of writing. “I found editing myself difficult and being edited by others humiliating,” he wrote. “I got around this by editing others with generosity and rewriting with humility.” He called translation “the supreme exercise of mastering someone else’s style.” …

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.

His interest in bullfighting led him to write a biography of the celebrated Spanish matador Luis Miguel Dominguin (1926-96), whom Ernest Hemingway profiled in his nonfiction book “The Dangerous Summer.” In the biography, published in 1972, Dominguin was quoted as dismissing Hemingway as “a commonplace bore” who “knew nothing about fighting bulls.”

Mr. Botsford’s opinions could be just as barbed. He once wrote of the French composer Olivier Messiaen: “Messiaen is the Al Gore of music. That is, he sells a brand of French intellectual sanctity that I will do a great deal to avoid.” …

Severely burned as a boy, Keith spent much of his early life bedridden, and thus reading avidly. By age 7, he told The Times in 2007, “I was a man of letters.” …

He entered Yale but left before graduation to enlist in the Army. By his account he served as a spy in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Mr. Botsford received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1949 and a master’s in French literature from Yale in 1952. He also studied composition at the Manhattan School of Music, Japanese at Columbia University and law at the University of Strasbourg in France and at Holborn College in London. …

After Saul Bellow’s death, Mr. Botsford visited southeastern Costa Rica at the urging of one of his sons, Joshua, a chef, and ended up building a house there on a lush tropical plot overlooking the Caribbean Sea. (His wife at the time, Angela Carol Fellows, a molecular biologist 52 years his junior, continued to live in Boston.) [Sometimes the greatest lines are placed between parentheses! – Ed.] …

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.’ ”

At the end of the original version of this obituary, the author wrote that Botsford’s survivors could not be reached. Discussing this, my partner and I thought that was odd, since several of his children had been named in the obituary. 

In the version linked here, that line has been removed. Normally the Times publishes a note describing changes to posted articles – but not this time.

My partner had suggested that Botsford’s children had broken with their father after he married someone younger than they were. Who knows?

Remaining in the piece, though, is that diabolical bit about the 25-word paid death notice in the Boston Globe.

Also remaining, poignantly, is this single note of tenderness for Botsford. It is from his friend Saul Bellow – “Bellow’s last words to [Botsford], he said, were, ‘One good thing in my life was that I loved you.'” This is almost cruel writing: The only person who attests that you were loved is you.

Does even the most pompous man deserve that? (Perhaps.)

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