Friday, 21 May 2010


My obit of the short-story writer, novelist, and creative writing professor Barry Hannah is today's Guardian, you can follow the link here. In cutting it for space, we lost one great quote, from the novelist and poet Jim Harrison saying he ‘always thought (Hannah) would become a massively famous novelist, which didn’t quite happen, except in the minds of other writers.’

As always, space is saved from the bottom up, so some of the descriptive passages about Hannah's work got lost. Here's how the final four grafs looked originally--simply to give you more of a feel for him and his work:

His next novel, Ray (1980) was shorter, and more controlled, and was nominated for a National Book Award. But after two more novels, The Tennis Handsome (1983), and Hey Jack (1987), and his second story collection, Captain Maximus (1985) he changed novelistic gear with the tightly focused 1989 short novel Boomerang, a partly auto-biographical book whose sombre tone was similarly controlled. Another novel, Never Die (1991) and collection of stories, Bats Out Of Hell (1993) followed before the 1996 collection High Lonesome, whose reflective tone recalled Boomerang, and which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Hannah didn’t write his good ol’ boy characters solely from the imagination. He was known, at times, for his hard drinking life style, and would tool around Oxford on a purple motorcycle. He once explained his drinking by saying ‘ I was often taught that everything is worth it for yeah, I learned things that way. On the other hand I would have learned things had I been sober.’ He also eschewed false modesty. When asked to list the ten greatest books, he put his own Airships at number nine, just ahead of War And Peace.

In 1995 Hannah was diagnosed with lymphoma, and survived after heavy chemotherapy. In his 2001 novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan (its title a quote from Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now Baby Blue) presents a kinder, gentler, almost elegaic side to his typically hell-raising characters.

Hannah died in Oxford 1 March 2010, after a heart attack. His ninth novel, Sick Soldier At Your Door, originally titled Long Last Happy, and changed from novel to collection of stories and back, will be published this year. He is survived by his third wife, Susan, two sons and a daughter. His first two marriages both ended in divorce. When asked what writers he admired, Hannah once mentioned Cormac McCarthy, for ‘his vision’. He quoted Dostovevsky, ‘those that don’t avert their eyes are the real artists…it’s what the artist is about.’


Rachel F said...

It's too bad that Barry Hannah has not had more of a send off but, shucks, he'll find his time, though, even so, it's still a pity that the Guardian doesn't give readers more of an idea of what Barry was about. Nothing here, in the obituary, about his actual use of words in his work. It's all reference book stuff. His big posthumous book is in fact selected and new stories. I think it's people like Barry who win out in the end, they are the ones who stay read, and the critical crowd are just lost on the waves of time. One of Barry's stories is worth so much more than most essays.

Michael Carlson said...

It's a common complaint in obits, but as Hannah was not particularly well-known in the UK, space was limited, and it's very hard to find appropriate passages to illustrate his prose, esp as I'd want to use at least three to show changes over time. I think it's significant that the Guardian thought he was worth an obit and yes, if his work stays read that will be his tribute. I wonder, however, because time has not been kind to modern writers whose best work has been in the short story, with Alice Munro the possible exception, and she hasnt written novels.

Julius said...

Barry Hannah was somebody you wished to have met. And, of course, his books meant that you did so.

What on earth has happened to the Guardian obituaries? A few years ago they were stylish and witty but now they are, frankly, dullsville.

I generally gave up looking at them after a lot of space was given to Keith Waterhouse to say that he was a witty and humorous journalist, but without a single quotation from his work to support that assertion.

The Telegraph and Independent display much more panache. Let us hope that the golden age of obituaries is not over, and that the slot does not return to the timeservers.

Michael Carlson said...

Perhaps I'm a time server (interesting choice of words when dealing with the end of lives) when I write for the Guardian but not for the Indy? I really do try to write them the same way for both papers. Space is the major consideration, especially because I'm usually writing about people who are important and/or good stories but not necessarily well known or crucial to the British audience. Plus the addition of reader's obits of people not known on a national basis takes aware space from the problem is when you're trying to tell the story of a life, with lots of accomplishments, in very limited space, you can't always give examples of every accomplishment--I have quoted poetry in obits, occasionally a well-known line but if it's well-known it doesn't always need repeating....