Noah Gordon, 95, dies; American Novelist With an Audience Overseas

Noah Gordon, who had a following in the UK, Russia and China, is best known for his magnificent if unfinished The Night Watch

Noah Gordon, 95, dies; American Novelist With an Audience Overseas

He was the elder statesman of American literature, working on a series of novels that are the closest things in English to poetry in writing about the 20th century. No one is likely to ever make the comparison with Turgenev, but the fictional characters, landscapes and historical events are unaltered from Gordon’s previous books. And while Turgenev’s writing was a big influence, Gordon’s deep knowledge of 20th-century writing and the human condition set him apart, as does his most famous work, The Night Watch.

Gordon had the kind of international following that might, on the surface, seem unlikely, yet had its roots in his literary philosophy. In 1955, he published a spiritual pamphlet, Understanding Poetry, in which he said the secret to a successful form of writing was a “non-prescriptive life. Poetry is the best way of putting words to the life of the reader; but the way the life is put to words, and that leads to poetry, is not always strictly or consistently predetermined.” He also wrote about his wishes to have the sun in the title of his novel, as it is “as close to heaven as you will ever come”.

That the philosopher-novelist eventually placed people’s collective experiences at the centre of his writing was symbolic of the highly analytical way he viewed the world. He regarded George Eliot’s Middlemarch as one of the best novels written, but something was missing: it failed to introduce him to Eliot’s early life in Brixton, that he never attempted a novel in his native English. “From a young age I was curious about the migration of ideas, and this led me to literature and social and political texts,” he said.

The result of this original curiosity was The Night Watch, which has been a major influence for many writers of the post-war generation. It was commissioned by the British publishers Faber & Faber, who hoped it would revive the fortunes of its somewhat floundering formula, the paperback title, in the US, though Gordon had already spent most of his life in China and was well known there.

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