Daniel Keyes: Author Whose Sci-Fi Story “Flowers for Algernon” Became a Best-selling novel and Oscar-winning film | The independent

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Daniel Keyes was the author of the classic novel Flowers for Algernon, a tale of a mouse and a man whose IQ is artificially, temporarily, and tragically increased. First published in 1959 as a short story, it was released as a novel in 1966 and has sold millions of copies. Generations of English students have met Charlie Gordon, the narrator of the book, through diary entries Daniel Keyes wrote in stunted, then elegant, then stunted prose revealing his character transformation.

Millions more have seen Charly, the 1968 Ralph Nelson film adaptation starring Cliff Robertson in an Oscar-winning performance, or watched TV movies and musical based on the novel. Keyes explored the human mind in several other volumes, but Flowers for Algernon remained his defining work.

When the book opens, Charlie is 32 and has a menial job in a bakery. He is severely intellectually disabled but learns that he could be a candidate for experimental surgery to increase his intelligence. “Dr Strauss says I should write down what I think and remember all the things that happen to me from now on,” Charlie says in his first “progress riport”. “I don’t know why but he says it’s important so they can see if they can use me… I want to be smart.”

The operation was successfully carried out on a mouse named Algernon which manages to navigate mazes at lightning speed. Charlie enjoys the same success, but not happiness, after his operation. “This intelligence drove a wedge between me and everyone I knew and loved, got me out of the bakery,” he writes. “Now I’m more alone than ever. I wonder what would happen if they put Algernon back in the big cage with other mice. Would they turn against him? Over time, Charlie realizes that Algernon’s new intelligence is fading, and his will also fade.

Keyes received the Hugo Prize for his original short story and the Nebula Prize for his novel, both in recognition of his achievements in the field of science fiction or fantasy. For many readers, the work transcends the genre. The story has been widely praised, including by Isaac Asimov.

“Here’s a story that struck me so much that I was actually lost in awe… Paratextes: Introductions to Science Fiction and Fantasy.” How did he do it? ”Keyes said that the story came from episodes in his own life, all kept in what he described as his mind cellar.

A scene from ‘Charly’, with Cliff Robertson in the title role, and Claire Blooom as a teacher with whom he falls in love

(PA)

Keyes, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, was born in Brooklyn in 1927. In his 1999 memoir, Algernon, Charlie and I: A Writer’s Journey, Keyes wrote that his parents wanted him to be a doctor. He was waiting for a train for a college class, he recalls, when he was struck by two thoughts: “My education is driving a wedge between me and the people I love. And then: “What if it was possible to increase a person’s intelligence?” Later, he writes, he was disturbed when he participated in the dissection of a white mouse.

Keyes changed his field of study. He served in the US Maritime Service before earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1950 from Brooklyn College, where he also received a master’s degree in American literature in 1961. He taught in the early years of his career at schools in New York. York and was later a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and Ohio University. He said he never forgot a meeting with a student in a class for the mentally handicapped. “Mr. Keyes, this is a fictitious class,” he reminded the student. “If I try to get smart before the end of the term, would you put me in a regular class?” I want to be smart. “

In another class, Keyes said he witnessed the dramatic progress of a student with learning difficulties who then regressed when he was taken out of class. “When he got back to school he had lost everything,” Keyes said. “He couldn’t read. He came back to what he had been. It was heartbreaking.”

Keyes went on to write other novels, including The Touch (1968), about an industrial accident involving radioactive material. His non-fiction works included The Minds of Billy Milligan (1981) about an accused criminal who allegedly suffered from multiple personality disorder. “The challenge of first digging up this story … and then telling it intelligibly was daunting,” wrote critic Joseph McLellan. “He did it with flying colors, bringing to the mission not only beautiful clarity but a special warmth and empathy for the victim of the circumstances and mental failings that made Flowers for Algernon one of the most memorable novels of the world. 1960s. “

Keyes continued to write until his death, his family said. “I learned that intelligence alone doesn’t mean anything,” he once said. “It only leads to violence and pain.”

EMILY LANGER

Daniel Keyes, author and teacher: born in Brooklyn, New York on August 9, 1927; married Aurea Vazquez (died in 2013; two daughters); died in Florida on June 15, 2014.

© The Washington Post

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