European Diary

A Thing in Itself

My Sicilian friend Manlio has something in him of the late Curtis Cate, who was a mutual friend of mine and Tom Fleming’s and a frequent contributor to these pages.  When Curtis died in 2006 aged 82, I did not think to write an obituary.  For some reason, one whose perennial argument with the heart invariably leaves the heart baffled—though perhaps it has something to do with Manlio not having been very well of late—I remembered him the other day.  This column, then, is something like the révérence I should have made.

Curtis published lots of books, including acclaimed biographies of George Sand, André Malraux, and Saint-Exupéry, but all that can be easily looked up elsewhere.  In fact, I never understood why a man who was not making his living as an academic—mind you, Curtis had degrees from the École des Langues Orientales in Paris, Oxford, and Harvard, but qualifications do not always add up to employment—bothered to pen all those academic tomes.  Yet are we writers defined by what we write?  Often, but by no means always.

The truth is, Curtis was a good man, one of the two I’ve known.  Manlio is the other.  At some stage in life one begins to realize that the goodness of a person—at least when that quality has been felt to approach a certain human ideal—is not phenomenal, as Kant would...

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