It’s a commonplace, on hearing of the death of someone, to say we’re ‘shocked’ or ‘saddened’. The news that Norman Geras has died is prompting these words more than most I can recall. A shock. A sad, sad shock. And it makes me sad to see his picture and his name like that at the top of this post.
Back in the day, I started a blog, and called it Baroque in Hackney. Then, wondered what on earth I was doing, and in the course of working it out I got interested in what other blogs were doing. So I read blogs, and read and read them. For months I did little else: all sorts of blogs. Book blogs, personal blogs, silly blogs and arty blogs, and lots and lots of political blogs. And among those political blogs was one unlike all the others: a sane, intellectually rigorous, carefully reasoned, often amusing, and usually madly prolific blog, with the says-on-the-tin title of Normblog. It was the blog of Norman Geras, a Marxist academic and writer, cricket fan, reader, movie buff, and country music enthusiast, who would blog several times a day—just quickly—about whatever had come up in the news, or what he was reading, and wanted to untangle his thoughts on. It was a politics blog the way this is a poetry blog: politics, plus everything else, a daily intellectual life filtered through a cast of mind. Gentle but razor-sharp paragraphs, using persistent (never bullying or unkind) logic to get to the crux of an argument or a position. Norm was a philosopher. You trusted implicitly what he said, and you trusted in his decency, even if you didn’t yourself agree with the position he arrived at. (I’m more of a pacifist, to put it mildly, for example.)
Norm was one of the four original authors of the Euston Manifesto, a controversial document whose position included support for invading Iraq—on the irrefutable grounds that we we have a moral duty in this world to defend one another from tyranny—and his posts on various subjects caused no end of ructions on no end of other political blogs. (Just now I even found a German one from last month, calling him ‘Norman Gasbag Geras’. Charming.) But Norm sailed through the blogosphere like a ship of calm, carefully thinking things through and expressing them with a precision that left no room for histrionics. Nick Cohen has written very descriptively about Norm’s forensic reasoning technique. Indeed, he was unafraid even to take on the subject of Israel/Palestine/anti-semitism/anti-Zionism, etc etc—a subject I normally try to avoid like the plague, which is a very un-Normlike way of dealing with things. And he might well follow up such a post with one about a song, or a cricket match. It has been said that he even made cricket interesting, but I’m not sure I can follow quite so far… And he loved Jane Austen. If I recall correctly he might have reread her books once a year. You have to love that.
Norm’s blog was a very generous arm of the blogosphere, embracing other blogs: he ran a longstanding series of interviews with bloggers, and another series where he invited writers to write about a book they love. You didn’t have to be a famous writer. So his blog felt like a community, and a branch line of his own enthusiasm—though he never tried to control what anyone wrote on it. This weekend my Facebook has been full of writers reminiscing about the mad stuff he ‘let them write’. All so different, and so interesting. This was completely in keeping with how I understood his political position—which was that we are free, and all in it together. (But he didn’t phrase it just like that.) He was generous enough to host me on the blog three times: once as a blogger, once writing about James Merrill’s poetry collection Divine Comedies, and once as part of the blog book tour for my first book. (The point here being less about me than his openhandedness, really. A real mensch, as they say in New York.)
In short, Norm was a big part of my life as a blogger, and even as a writer. He was a benignly challenging presence, a bar set high, a friend, an example. To my eternal regret, in the tail end of my annus horribilis, I somehow missed the two posts this summer where he wrote about his cancer—with characteristic balance—so when I heard he had died on Friday I had no idea he was even ill. I would certainly have wanted to at least send him an email or something, you know. Said thanks.
His last blog post—you almost wonder if he knew it was the last one, or maybe he wondered that about every post, at the end—his last post is a valedictory one, exhorting us to live and trust our own lives and our own minds. He takes apart those awful ’100 Books You Must Read’ lists, the tyranny and vapidity of them; makes a list of his own; and exhorts us, his readers, to do the same and to live by our own lists.
And now he’s gone, and we will have to do just that.
Bye Norm. Thanks.