I heard last night of the death of my old friend Alexander Reight, one of the most talented academics of his generation, whose career was blighted throughout by a crippling lack of confidence, but whose brilliance will live on, not quite as brightly as it should have done, but with a brassy beauty nonetheless.
Like a lot of writers, Reight’s first book was his best. One racks one’s brains unsuccessfully to think of a better short study in the field of eighteenth century German culture than Reight’s resplendent The Art of Prussian Balladery, 1705-1729. What nerve! What style! What a subtle understanding of how the bubonic plague may have affected syntactical patterns in the lyrics of early German folk music!
Reight’s mind was first class, no doubt about it. The relationship between his mind and his pen, meanwhile, had a holiness about it, almost as if he could think through his hands and fingers; guided by some strange spirit within (or, indeed, without). There, on the page, the light of his genius shone strongest. Every sentence stood as testament to his innate skill; to his unerring intellectual instinct. He knew how to place a comma in a way that would make his readers gasp for breath. What brashness! What brio!
What brio indeed. On the page, yes. Reight lorded it over anyone on paper. On paper. Ah, but to hint (as I am surely doing, am I not?) that his confidence left him completely when he was not armed with a pen would be cruel; a charmless retreat to the stale old cliche of the socially inept academic. Or am I wrong?
Truth be told, he wasn’t incapable of holding a relatively normal conversation. On the whole, he got by perfectly. He could shop at any supermarket without freaking out the cashiers. He could phone strangers without fainting. He had a wife, after all. Granted, no one knows how he got her – but got her he did. And don’t for a minute imagine that she was the desperate type. She was, on the contrary, the pick of the crop. No, Alexander Reight wasn’t a social wreck – not at all.
You’d have to say, however, that he did lack certain survival skills. His talents, to be blunt, were chronically unbalanced. ‘He wrote like a angel,’ said one friend, ‘and spoke like a frog’. Again, this isn’t quite true. There was in fact nothing wrong with his speaking voice: nothing at all. When he gathered up the confidence to say something clever, he said it as clearly as anyone. When he gathered up the confidence.
High time, methinks, for an anecdote; one of those case-closing, career-defining, super-symbolic stories.
The year is 1987, the city is Frankfurt…