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Departed authors leave a legacy of immortal work

Few who heard the Radio 4 interview with Clive James this summer will forget the chill they felt when he admitted he was losing his battle with cancer.

In typical James manner, his tone combined insouciance with rueful melancholy, and I doubt there was a dry eye among his listeners at the news that the days of this superb broadcaster, wit and movingly elegiac poet are numbered.

Thankfully he is with us still. Others, unfortunately, are not, including James's fellow countryman, the great Aussie art critic and writer Robert Hughes, whose sandpaper voice was so uncompromisingly abrasive it is almost shocking in this increasingly mealy-mouthed age.

The winter solstice is probably a suitable moment to make a tally of those now gone, even though it's a rather dismal duty. And 2012 was without doubt a bad year for literature, its list of departed both long and distinguished. Yet while one feels a real sense of sorrow with the death of a much loved or revered writer, and the world is diminished with the demise of each, the departure of a writer is less final than most. Most of us leave behind little more than memories, but the consolation with authors is their legacy of books, which remain alive with their personality long after they have gone.

The departed of 2012 range from cosy English novelist Miss Read at one end of the scale to lesbian poet Adrienne Rich at the other. Among the most notable to have absented themselves was Gore Vidal, America's most acerbic and fearless commentator. Though his novels are well regarded, it's likely that he will be best remembered for his political and cultural essays, which demonstrated his remarkable range of knowledge and unflinching depth of his insight. Sadly, his death leaves no-one of his calibre or courage in America. Given how badly so powerful and wild a country needs a home-grown sage and goad, this is worrying.

Whereas Vidal was waspish in every sense, Ray Bradbury, one of America's finest futuristic novelists, was the most affable of gentlemen. That the year of his death coincided with the first mission to Mars was a neat piece of timing that his legion of fans appreciated. In tribute to his percipience and invention, the place where the Mars Explorer first touched down on the red dust has been named Bradbury Landing. No writer who died this year has been given such a remarkable and well-earned tribute. However, one who certainly deserves plaudits, albeit probably not in outer space, is English novelist Barry Unsworth, whose Sacred Hunger is one of the most powerful British novels of the past half-century.

Children's literature took a few bad blows, firstly with the departure of Maurice Sendak, the most original writer-illustrator of the 20th century. Where the Wild Things Are has become a landmark, as significant for the children's canon as Ulysses was for adults. The loss of the legendary New Zealand children's novelist Margaret Mahy signals the end of an era; so too that of Nina Bawden, whose Carrie's War is a classic of English children's fiction, on a par with E Nesbit's The Railway Children in terms of class and style.

One sorely lamented novelist who made no claims for literary merit, yet gathered a worldwide readership of millions, is Maeve Binchy. The forerunner of chick-lit, she was one of Ireland's most successful and hardest-working novelists. A woman without a pompous bone in her body, she was by all accounts that rare phenomenon: a writer who was all heart.

Finally, closer to home, Eric Lomax wrote only one book, but it was extraordinary. The Railway Man was this quiet, courageous Scot's account of his time as a prisoner of war in Japan, and his decision, later in life, to seek out the prison guard who had so cruelly tormented him. A work of elegant, taut prose, it told a deeply poignant story that changed the outlook of its readers as well as the life of its author. If only each of us could leave a book like this to the literary cairn before we die, it might take some of the sting out of it.

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