“Many of the things that make you a good journalist have to be discarded to make you a good writer”

From a New York Times column, by Roger Cohen, about the lives of Sonny Mehta and Ward Just:

Samuel Beckett, when asked one beautiful spring morning whether such a day did not make him glad to be alive, responded, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.” Life is a predicament, death the elephant at the horizon that looms larger as the years pass.

Still, life is what we have. To give less than everything to it is dereliction. . . .Midwinter is not what prompted these reflections, although when a freezing wind whips off the East River all thoughts turn to refuge. No, the death in quick succession of two friends was the catalyst. . . .

Sonny Mehta, who died last month at the age of 77, would caress the books he loved. For them he lived. He guided Alfred A. Knopf through more than three decades of rapid change. He was a complete publisher, eclectic in his tastes, ferocious in his will, guided by a mission to bring the finest books to Knopf and publish them only once editing had honed them to irreproachable form. Yet he wanted to be remembered above all as a reader.

I knew Sonny for three decades. He published my last two books. His civility never wavered. The twinkle in his eye never faded. His friendship was constant. Whisky and a cigarette and the meandering conversation that went with them were more his thing than the treadmill. He was a beautiful man.

How so? In his gentleness that contained wisdom, in his diffidence that contained enthusiasm, in his discretion that contained curiosity. You had to listen carefully, for he spoke softly, to the clues he offered. . . .

Earlier in December, Ward Just, a journalist who turned to fiction, a great Washington Post correspondent in Vietnam who became a great novelist, died at the age of 84. Like Mehta, he was a lover of Scotch. I had not seen much of Just since we became friends in Berlin 20 years ago, but his death hit me hard. I recalled him saying to me back then: “I was useless for journalism after Vietnam. I knew I was not going to do any better work.”

Truth, he decided, must be pursued elsewhere. “Many of the things that make you a good journalist have to be discarded to make you a good writer,” he said. “In a novel, every fact is a rock thrown in the hull, and the boat sinks a bit.”

Just probed the delusions of people and nations, and the damage they suffer. His prose was understated. In “A Dangerous Friend,” one character observes, “I have always believed that a mountainous ego resulted from an absence of conscience.” And that was before His Neediness seized the Oval Office.

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