The Literature of Death

Woody Allen famously quipped “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” This resonates with all of us who live in a culture that promotes eternal youth through scalpel or scientific miracle and cold shoulders the icy certainty of death. Kafka stated that “the meaning of life is that it stops” while Anais Nin, a daily diarist, wrote that “people living deeply have no fear of death.” Freud recognized that people sometimes did express fear of death, a condition referred to as thanatophobia. Freud felt that it was not actual death that people feared as our own death is quite unimaginable, and in our unconscious we are all convinced of our own immortality. Beckett wrote that “they give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” Joan Didion wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Lately there has been much written about death, narratives and stories that aim to help us negotiate the emotional landscape of grief and death. The novelist Julian Barnes is a self –confessed thanatophobe who sometimes is “roared awake” and “pitched from sleep into darkness, panic and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world.” In his memoir on the fear of non-existence Nothing to Be Frightened Of Barnes writes an elegant meditation on death and attempts to address his thanatophobia. As an agnostic Barnes doesn’t believe in an after-life and writes that “I don’t believe in God but I miss him.” He believes that the Christian religion has lasted because it is a “beautiful lie… a tragedy with a happy ending,” and yet he misses the sense of purpose and belief that he finds in a Mozart Requiem or the sculptures of Donatello.

There is a trend over the last few years for a new type of fiction, a genre that molds memoir with biography to form a literature that feels fresh and hyperreal, a type of reality fiction for the modern reader. David Shields presaged this new trend when in his 2010 publication called Reality Hunger he advocated a return to the “real” in literature and he railed against conventional plot-driven fiction in favour of the lyric essay and the memoir. A memoir of illness and dying is always an emotional read and the pages pulse with life, strife and the emotional intensity of the author’s feelings and predicament. None more so than the recently published In Gratitude by Jenni Diski, who died last week of inoperable lung cancer. Diski wrote a series of essays in The London Review of Books about life after her diagnosis with its frailties and sudden fragilities which have been published as this memoir. She writes that she feared the oncologist would find her response clichéd after he gave her the prognosis and she turned to her husband and suggested that they’d better get cooking the meth like Heisenberg in the television series Breaking Bad. Diski’s talon-sharp prose has never harboured a platitude and this memoir touches on her peripatetic early life, abandoned by neglectful parents and in and out of psychiatric hospitals, “rattling from bin to bin.” She was also adopted by the literary giant Doris Lessing for four years as a teenager and shared family dinners with Alan Sillitoe, R.D. Laing and Arnold Wesker and listened to late night intellectual discussions about philosophy and psychotherapy which she describes as “a dream come true, but I had to work out how to live it.” Diski with her unique sense of directness and humour writes that she makes an ideal candidate to play the role of a cancer patient as her lifelong favourite places are bed and sofa and she lives like one of those secondary characters in Victorian literature who constantly languish on the fainting couch. Jenni described herself as being “contrary-minded,” delighted in breaking taboos and pushing boundaries. Controversial to the end she likens having cancer to “an act in a pantomime in which my participation is guaranteed, I have been given this role ….I have no choice but to perform and to be embarrassed to death.”

Christopher Hitchens was on a book tour for Hitch 22 when he experienced the first health crisis that was the beginning of his demise. However this pugnacious and witty writer was able to channel his experiences into his end of life memoir Mortality which begins with the line “I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death.” When the emergency services arrive to collect him Hitchens feels a psychogeographical shift taking him “from the country of the well to the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” Hitchens concedes that he has become a finalist in the race of life and quotes from T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock:
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker / And I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat / and snicker / And in short / I was afraid.

Hitch decided to live dyingly and extolled the consolation of friends who came to eat, drink and converse with him even as these earthly delights become impossible for him as the cancer progressed. His memoir is life affirming, punchy and rich with morbid humour noting that when one falls ill that people tend to send Leonard Cohen CDs, he doesn’t experience rage at a terminal diagnosis as he feels that he has been taunting the Reaper into “taking a free scythe in my direction “and that he has now succumbed to “something so predictable and banal that it bores me.” His wife Carol Blue in the afterword to this memoir writes of the man she admired and loved and ends with the lines that Christopher has the last word, in death as in life Hitch still has the last word.

Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, begins with the death of her husband of forty-four years, the writer John Dunne, and brings the reader on a journey through the land of grief that she entered in the aftermath of his loss. In the opening lines of this poised but passionate memoir she writes that “life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” She writes on the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event and writes that when we are confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how “unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell.’’ Didion gives the reader an unflinching account of grief in the year when the shock of Dunne’s death “was obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.” Despite the unshakeable reality of her husband’s death Joan’s thinking enters the realm of the magical and she writes that “we do not expect to be crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.” Zadie Smith wrote that Didion is essential reading on the subject of death and I have bought many copies over the years for grieving friends who have found comfort in its reading, recognition of their suffering in its pages.

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke is an unstintingly honest memoir about the loss of her mother Barbara from colorectal cancer. Meghan is an award-winning poet and she writes about the consolation that she finds in reading Hamlet. Shakespeare’s hero holds up a mirror to O’Rourke’s own duality of emotion; emptiness and anger, despair and longing for relief. O’Rourke can understand why Hamlet who has just lost his father is angry and cagey. He is told that how he feels is unmanly and unseemly, his uncle greeting him with the worst question to ask a grieving person “How is it that that the cloud still hang on you?” O’Rourke felt a resonance with Hamlet in her grief state when she felt that to descend to the deepest fathom of it would be unseemly and was somehow taboo. She writes that nothing prepared her for the death of her mother, even knowing that she had terminal cancer did not prepare her. There is a stark unearthing of truths in this memoir. “A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky, unimaginable.”

Doctors face death daily and Doctor Paul Kalanithi became a neurosurgeon because with its unforgiving call to “perfection, it seemed to present the most challenging and direct confrontation with meaning, identity and death.” When Breath Becomes Air opens with a description by the author of a CT scan that he was examining where the lungs were matted with innumerable tumours, the spine deformed and a full lobe of the liver obliterated. This scan though similar to scores of others that he had examined over the previous six years was different, different because it was his own. Paul Kalanithi wrote his memoir in the aftermath of this discovery fusing his medical knowledge with his love of literature to produce a work that is more than a memoir, it is a philosophical reflection on life and purpose. Kalanithi and his wife have a baby Cady who was eight months old when her father died. His memoir will be his legacy to his little girl as “words,” he writes, “have a longevity I do not.”

The Iceberg: A Memoir written by Marion Coutts tells of Coutts’ partner Tom Lubbock’s death from a malignant brain tumour. This account of illness and decline is told with an artist’s eye and in poetic prose that is both razor sharp and suffused with emotion. Coutts writes that there is a filmic quality to their life, a friend suggests that the director is Bergman, “shot flat without affect but deeply charged, with a fondness for long shots, no cuts, ensemble scenes, dark comedy and the action geared always to the man in the bed even though he is frequently off camera.”

Death is the inevitable full stop in the essay of life. Christopher Hitchens quotes this poem by Kingsley Amis in his memoir Mortality: Death has this much to be said for it/ You don’t have to get out of bed for it/Wherever you happen to be/ They bring it to you-free. The writer Katie Roiphe wrote The Violet Hour; Great Writers at the End in part to sate her curiosity about death and dying. It is an account of how the writer found beauty and comfort in the stories of how her literary heroes faced up to dying. To Katie religion has never been consoling and feels like a foreign language. She, like many book lovers finds comfort in novels and poems. As a child recovering from serious illness Yeat’s Sailing to Byzantium resonated with her. She becomes ambushed by the beauty in the deaths of her literary heroes, Dylan Thomas, Susan Sontag, Freud and Sendak. Susan Sontag “fought her death to the end, believing on some deep irrational level she would be the one exception.” Roiphe feels that writers and artists are more attuned to death, that they can put the confrontation with mortality into words in a way that most of us can’t or won’t. The last taboo has been dealt with by memoirists, essayists and poets. If, according to F.R. Leavis, literature is the supreme means by which you renew your sensuous and emotional life and learn a new awareness, then these publications are a gateway to enlightenment.

Spinster: Life Beyond the Blueprint.

Spinster A Life of One‚Äôs Own, by Kate Bolick.jpg a room of ones own

In 1928 Virginia Woolf was asked to give a lecture at Girton College, Cambridge on the topic of women and fiction. Her first line was “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction- what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?”

This important feminist polemic explain the difficulties of a woman equally as gifted as Tolstoy and Shakespeare in writing great works of literature. Woolf explains that poverty and domestic shackles have always limited women’s capacity to contribute to the canon and that “women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.”

Modern woman has the financial freedom not alone to write fiction, but can dictate her own reality and occupy and enjoy not only a room of her own, but an entire house of her own. She also has the power to both write and live by a narrative of her choice.  She is the woman celebrated as the heroine of Destiny’s Child’s song Independent Woman.  The house I live in / I’ve bought it / The car I’m driving / I’ve bought it / I depend on me.

The question of how a woman moves through the world alone is explored with bold candour by Kate Bolick in Spinster, described as a triumph by Malcolm Gladwell.   This polemic for our time is a marvelous meditation on what it means to be female at the dawn of the 21st century. The cover of the book shows the author sitting on a sumptuous gold velvet sofa sipping tea from a porcelain cup.  She is glamorous and smiling, the photographic antithesis of the archetypical spinster. Bolick wrote the book as she approached forty and was ruminating on whether she could spend her life alone and still be happy. Bolick states that the dual contingencies of “whom to marry, and when will it happen” impact on every woman’s life regardless of where she was raised or of her religious background,  and continue to “govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”

She believes that the single woman has always been stigmatized and reviled.  Social psychologist Bella DePaulo coined the word “singlism” to describe this bias and discrimination against people who are single.  Bolick notes that the single woman stereotype is continually evolving and perceptions of her have fluctuated wildly over the decades.  From the cat-loving spinster of the popular imagination, she can be perceived to be selfless like Florence Nightingale, a charming eccentric à la Mary Poppins or Holly Golightly or as a powerful icon as Joan Of Arc.

The author structures the book around the lives of five female authors, weaving their experiences and struggles with her own narrative path. These writers become her “awakeners”, female spirit guides didn’t conform to societal demands and proclaimed the joys of freedom from domestication. These women were all true pioneers, women who secured the freedom and range to develop lives independent of home and family. Her awakeners are the Irish writer Maeve Brennan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, Neith Boyce and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Bolick’s book was inspired by her “spinster wish,” which is her shorthand for the extravagant pleasure of simply being by herself, it is a sensuous vision of solitary self-care and self indulgence.

The terrain of the modern single woman is explored with psychological depth in Other Hood by Melanie Notkin, A Life Of One’s Own by Ilana Simons and Rocking The Life Unexpected by Jody Day.  These new books are blue prints for living a single life with confidence, they put a new spin on spinster and rebuff the taints of singlism. In the words of Sylvia Plath they encourage single women to take a deep breath and listen to the old brag of the heart “I am, I am, I am”.


Young Irelanders, the name of this new anthology of short stories, is well titled with its echoes of the 1848 rebellion in famine-ravaged Ireland. In this year, a group of romantic nationalists and intellectuals heavily influenced by events in France and the broader continent made a stab at liberty from the crown. This reference is obviously intentional by editor Dave Lordan, who, in this exciting anthology, gives voice to the writers of the New Ireland, whose influences and scope extend far beyond the old literary guard, who, according to Lordan, wrote in a ‘melancholy naturalist mode.’

The renaissance of the short story form in Ireland in recent years is due perhaps to the popularity of M.A. courses in creative writing, and the emergence of world-class journals both online and in print, including the likes of gorse, The Penny Dreadful and The Stinging Fly. These lit-mags have provided a nurturing home for many emerging fiction writers, and acted as launch pads for writers such as Kevin Barry, Rob Doyle and Colin Barrett.

Anne Enright in her introduction to the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (2010) writes that short stories are ‘the cats of literary form; beautiful, but a little self-contained.’ The cats in this anthology are a new breed of feline, screeching, feral and howling at times, as in Alan McMonagle’s outstanding story The Remarks; purring enigmatically à la Claire–Louise Bennett’s Oyster, and warring love cats in Rob Doyle’s experimental story Summer.

Young Irelanders, rob doyle, colin barrett, dave lordan, eimear ryan, short stories, new island -

This anthology, carefully curated by Dave Lordan, is a delight, all twelve stories written by true disciples of literary New Ireland. Sean Ó Faoláin famously said that the things he likes to find in a story are ‘punch and poetry.’ In this collection the punch flows like the poteen in McMonagle’s story, and the poetry is lush and poignant in the prose of Bennett and Roisín O’Donnell.

Ireland has undergone seismic changes over the past decade and these profound cultural changes in our society are reflected in the dazzling prose and imaginative prowess of these authors. This anthology is a literary exposition of the state of our nation, one no longer constrained by conservative Catholic reins.  This is a society embracing a new multiculture, struggling with the demands of the brave new world of social media, and reeling from the economic devastation of the past few years. This is the prose of recession not repression, an examination through the short story medium of what it means to be Irish now.

These structural changes in society are echoed by the innovative narrative framework of these stories, exemplified in the wonderful Doon by Colin Barrett and Subject by Oisín Fagan.  I read them all in one sitting and let the variety of styles and voices wash over me and leave me with a vague sense of a truth glimpsed or tenuously grasped.

While the ‘melancholy’ may not be of the naturalist mode, there are certainly tears. In Alan McMonagle’s story The Remarks, the trio of bachelor flatmates cry rivers and weep inconsolably when they accidentally try some poteen-soaked bread. The bringer of the poteen to the bachelor enclave is Mary P., who tells the boys that ‘tears are the ultimate form of communication’. Later, as the trio prepare to go their separate ways, their year of self-discovery over, they decide to cry together one more time using the poteen and bread formula. One of the boys wonders where they’ll be a year later and another foretells a year of success and glamour for them all, one as a renowned musician, another a fêted dramatist and one as a celebrity chef. The tears gushed from them all then ‘as if there was no tomorrow’, flowing with existential dread and the melancholia of futile dreams.

Roisín O Donnell’s story How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps is the story of a girl from São Paulo who moves to Ireland with her boyfriend Seán and has to learn Irish in order to use her qualification as a Primary School teacher. We witness the irony of Luana trying to learn Gaeilge in a country where everyone she asks to help her retorts that they wouldn’t have a notion about Irish.  Her boyfriend Seán only remembers the words for cake and sweets, cáca and milseán. Oisín Fagan’sSubject is ambitious in its exploration of what it means to be a young Irish man navigating the new millennium, “heterosexual, Caucasian, sub-bourgeois, Irish, post-peasant, empowered, lonely, distant when sober.”

This is an Ireland where there are no De Valera maidens dancing at the crossroads.  In the case of Tanya in Kevin Curran’s story, Saving Tanya, a woman who gets tagged on Facebook engaged in a sex act sanguinely declares herself to be a celebrity, because in the aftermath she received one thousand friend requests. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Oyster is a poetic, surreal bath of prose from which the reader emerges with a sense of disquiet and an insight into the feelings of someone who is ‘ineffable and freakish and remote’. This startling new voice in Irish fiction nods stylistically towards Beckett and the 1950’s nouveau roman led by Alain Robbe-Grillet.

These stories also explore what it means to be Irish in a world dominated by consumer giants like Aldi and Lidl; cyber-bullying; Twitter grotesques, and pornography. Even religious archetypes like parish priests appear playing strip poker at a writers’ retreat in Eimear Ryan’s witty and resonant Retreat.

This new wave of Irish writing in the short story tradition shows the form adjusting beautifully to modern Ireland, able to convey a sense of life and reality with stylistic aplomb. The Young Irelanders rebellion of 1848 may have ended in defeat, but this anthology, exhibited with great tenacity by Dave Lordan and New Island, shows that the order is changing. The crown has landed on new heads. If this is a revolution in Irish short fiction, then vive la révolution!