If someone were to ask me if I’d rather live a long life or die young, of course I’d say that I was to stick around. But sitting here staring at the faces of authors in my literary encyclopedia, both modern and historic, from all around the world, I think to myself, “I wouldn’t want to live too long.” All these authors who died young are forever memorialized as beautifully youthful people in their portraits, but the “standard” photo for a lot of the guys who lived to be old is a picture of them just before their death.
The depictions of guys like Arthur Rimbaud and Pushkin are forever young and full of life. Compare that to Tolstoy or Naoya Shiga who come off as old men from their pictures. “Who’s Naoya Shiga?,” you think, trying to put a face to the name. “Oh yeah, that old bald dude from that one textbook.” Right? Put yourself in their shoes. You’d want to shout back, “Print a young picture of me for once, wouldn’t ya? I wasn’t an old man my whole life, ya know!” But there is no talking from the grave (as far as I know). Their well known portraits will forever be of them as old men, bald and wrinkled.
There are professional photographers outside of Japan who specialize in taking portraits of authors. It gives a new mean to the term “specialist” – they will only photograph authors, nobody else. They make their living by filing away their film negatives and then provided them to publishers by request. Jerry Bauer and Marion Ettlinger are two of the most prominent author portrait specialists. I’ve had my picture taken by both of them, and I get it. They truly are specialists. It’s a weird comparison, but it’s sort of like going to a really good dentist.
Marion Ettlinger took a black and white photographer of Raymond Carver in a New York studio shortly before his death, and that photo is the “standard” one you always see when there’s a picture of Carver. That one’s different than the ones in my literary encyclopedia. It’s full of meaning. It bursts from the page with that unmistakable energy of an author in the prime of his career.
I’d hate to diligently live this healthy life and make it to the ripe old age of 96 just to have people try to remember who I was and think, “Haruki Murakami? That old decrepit guy?” But I don’t really want to die young either. What a pickle. Grumble, grumble.