When I assured her I had seen the news on the Internet that morning, her eyes welled up and glittered with tears. “I loved Alan Rickman,” she said, and other students in the class, most of whom had heard the news, agreed with her. Rickman was a popular actor, famed for his appearances in “Die Hard” and in the Harry Potter series.
Though I felt little attachment to Mr. Rickman — I did enjoy his performances as Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” and as Harry in “Love, Actually” — I understood my poor student’s shock and tears. I experienced the same grief on Jan. 8, when I discovered that writer Florence King had died two days earlier.
Miss King — I can address her in no other way — was described by one of her close friends as a “gin-swilling” and “chain-smoking” curmudgeon who was a conservative, a royalist, a bisexual in the early part of her life, and a self-proclaimed “old maid” in her later years.
And I was in love with her. At least with her writing. Over the past three years, we corresponded twice, and though I knew from the notes she wrote to me that she was in ill health, her death at 80 nonetheless left me shocked and saddened.
Because her writing voice, her point of view, and her caustic reviews and essays made her one of the important writers of our time. Like the liberal Christopher Hitchens, who could so effectively attack George Bush while at the same time protesting abortion, Miss King belonged to a party of one: herself. During the last 20 years of her life, she wrote for National Review, a conservative magazine, but she called her own shots.
Though perhaps best known for Southern Ladies and Gentlemen and Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, Miss King won my heart with her collections of reviews and essays. The titles of her books that sit on my shelves should tell you a bit about her take on politics and life: Reflections In A Jaundiced Eye; With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy; Withering Slights: The Ben Pin Collection; Deja Reviews: Florence King All Over Again; and Stet, Damnit: The Misanthrope’s Corner.
I treasure these books for several reasons.
First, there is the style and the quality of the writing. Miss King was famed for her meticulous attention to detail in her diction, grammar, and syntax, and woe to the editor who dared challenge so much as the placement of a comma in her work. In her essay “A Nation of Friendly Misanthropes” from With Charity Toward None, Miss King wrote:
“The fun of writing is in the rewriting. I like to prune every unnecessary word from a piece, to polish and sharpen sentences and arrange them in seamless sequence so that the reader’s eye travels effortlessly from left to right in unbroken rhythm as if set on optical cruise control.”
Miss King sums up her work habits well. Her words and sentences are always crisp, controlled, and concise. We see the results of her care for her prose in such bon mots as these:
“There is much to be said for post-menopausal celibacy. Sex is rough on loners because you have to have somebody else around, but now I don’t. No more diets to stay slim and desirable: I’ve had sex and I’ve had food, and I’d rather eat.”
“To make sure I learned the etiquette of grieving, Granny took me with her to the many funerals she attended. O Death, where is thy sting? Search me. I grew up looking at so many corpses that I still feel a faint touch of surprise whenever I see people move.”
Miss King’s tart observations — her refusal to mince words or to write politically correct prose — also attracted my admiration. Unlike me, Miss King never suffered fools, gladly or otherwise. And like Christopher Hitchens — though the two of them never met, they corresponded, and each admired the other for writing from the heart and the gut — Miss King attacked on a broad front with a mordant wit. Consider these two passages:
“Feminists will not be satisfied until every abortion is performed by a gay black doctor under an endangered tree on a reservation for handicapped Indians.”
“Any hope that America would finally grow up vanished with the rise of fundamentalist Christianity. Fundamentalism, with its born-again regression, its pink-and-gold concept of heaven, its literal-mindedness, its rambunctious good cheer ... its anti-intellectualism ... its puerile hymns ... and its faith-healing ... are made to order for King Kid America.”
Finally, Miss King won my heart for bringing me laughter. A friend once asked an actor on his deathbed if dying was difficult. “No,” the actor replied. “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” No doubt, but Miss King makes comedy look easy. I can open any of her books and within minutes I am smiling. Yes, she’s a curmudgeon, but one possessed by a humor pointed as a stiletto and sharp as a whetted blade. Of her wit, she once wrote:
“The witty woman is a tragic figure in American life. Wit destroys eroticism and eroticism destroys wit, so women must choose between taking lovers and taking no prisoners.”
Miss King chose to take no prisoners.