Saturday, July 14, 2012

Farewell, Miss Sereny

The great Gitta Sereny has died. She died exactly one month ago today. It was only tonight that Andrew and I learned of her death.

We are utterly ashamed we missed the news of her passing.

At dinner tonight, Andrew’s father mentioned Sereny’s death in an offhand remark, a remark that left Andrew and me with gaping jaws. Looking at our reactions, Andrew’s father instantly realized that Andrew and I had been unaware of the great writer’s death.

Although Sereny died on June 14, her death was not revealed until June 18, when Sereny’s publisher had issued an announcement. Obituaries began appearing in the British press that very day (Sereny was long a resident of London). The first American obituary—there were only two—was published on June 20, the last on June 24.

Sereny’s death was hardly a shock—she was 91 years old on the date of her death, and had been ill for quite some time—yet it was unsettling to learn of the passing of a great figure whose life had been closely intertwined with so many seminal events and key figures of the 20th Century. Like Samuel Pepys, Sereny will be remembered, for centuries hence, as one of the great chroniclers of her age.

Sereny’s husband, Don Honeyman, had died last year. Andrew’s father had sent condolences to Sereny at that time, but had not heard back from her (and had not expected to, given Sereny’s illness).

Honeyman, a professional photographer, had been an important figure in his own right. Like Andrew’s father, Honeyman was a native of Iowa. Back in the 1970s, the two had established a friendship of sorts arising from that common heritage. Several times over the years, Andrew’s parents had visited the Honeymans in Kensington (in private life, Sereny had always used her husband’s last name).

I have always thought it ironic that Sereny, writing in magnificent English (not her first language), found her largest audience in Central Europe, where her books were widely available in translation. I suspect it may have been the distinct Central European sensibility of her work that appealed to Central Europeans. Sereny was born in Vienna, and spent most of her pre-Anschluss life there (for three years in the 1930s, Sereny had been sent to England for schooling).

In North America, Sereny was known most of all for her book about Albert Speer. Sereny’s study of Speer surely is the most astute and penetrating of the many volumes devoted to Speer over the last several decades. More than any other writer, Sereny peeled away Speer’s self-delusions until she had arrived at the core of the man. Her assessment of Speer is the subtlest of all—and by far the most damning.

First published seventeen years ago, Sereny’s Speer book has never gone out of print in the United States, a remarkable state of affairs for a lengthy and complex historical tome. I have never been in a significant bookstore in the U.S. when a copy could not be found on the shelves.

Sereny did not live to complete her final book, a study of Vienna in the 20th Century. In fact, Sereny had had to abandon the project a few years ago owing to ill health.

Tonight, out of curiosity, I glanced at the Wikipedia entry for Sereny. I was shocked. The brief Wikipedia entry provided little if any worthwhile information about Sereny’s life, her work or her importance as a chronicler of the 20th Century. An uninformed person, relying upon Sereny’s Wikipedia entry, would conclude that Sereny was a very minor figure. Sereny’s Wikipedia entry was less than one-tenth as long as the Wikipedia entry for Serena Williams.

The founder of Wikipedia should declare defeat, close up shop, and return to his previous field of endeavor: pornography.

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