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.

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Father’s Day: The green green grass of home

This piece originally appeared in the Irish Times Book Blog.

That Thursday in May had been sunny and warm and was redolent with summer’s hope after many months coloured by grey skies and lashed by persistent rains. I was sitting in the early evening at my kitchen table replying to an email that I’d just received from a male acquaintance. He had pursued me a few months previously after a fleeting encounter at a party, but for the past few weeks the missives had stopped arriving in my inbox and I assumed that he’d found another target for attention.

He had heard me on a radio show that morning and obviously thought my stock was rising. I was an occasional panelist on a lunchtime show and had been hauled on this time to discuss the new Sex and the City movie. I was deemed to be an expert on the subject due to my single status and my chance encounter in New York with Chris Noth, the actor who played Mister Big. I gladly rehashed the story on the air waves blissfully unaware that I had reignited the interest of a listener who was obviously impressed with my ability to discuss the importance of Manolo Blahniks in the plot. He was glaringly superficial.

On my afternoon flight back from Dublin I gazed out at cloudland and pondered the approach of my fortieth birthday. I resolved to have a great summer and to embrace life with the fervour and gusto of my younger self. I would attempt to suppress the melancholic inner voice which was constantly attuned to the transience and mutability of all earthly things. F Scott Fitzgerald had once declared that there were no second acts in American life. I was Irish and determined to have one.

I didn’t hear my father as he snuck up behind me and copped a quick look at my correspondence with Simon O’Neill. He had seen me in deep contemplation attempting a witty reply from the opened french window and took full advantage of the opportunity to surprise me.

“At least if this guy works out, you won’t have to change your name.”

“Jesus, Dad, you nearly gave me a heart attack. Don’t worry, this one’s another non-starter. I’m just being polite, he heard me on Newstalk today and sent me a complimentary email.”

“I hope he knows that you can’t boil an egg. You were very funny on the radio today, I have to give you credit. You really gave that obnoxious celebrity solicitor guy a run for his money. I’m tired of all this Mister Big stuff though. That fecker never mowed your lawn.”

I laughed in agreement and watched as my Dad rolled his lawnmower into my garden. He rolled up his sleeves and strode masterfully up and down, occasionally pausing to empty the clippings into a black plastic bag. When I caught his eye from my kitchen table perch he waved and winked through the confetti of grass, his old machine making as much noise as the helicopters in Apocalypse Now. When he finished he drank a glass of water at the sink and I walked around the side of the house behind him to lock the side gate. He smiled and stretched his arm over the top of the gate as he got ready for departure. His big hand grabbed mine in his customary farewell gesture, my small hand engulfed by his, like a bivalve in a protective shell.

I was at work the next morning in my pharmacy when I answered a call from a very distressed medical secretary from the local Bon Secours Hospital. I initially thought that it was a case of mistaken identity when she said that my father was in a critical condition as a routine operation had gone terribly wrong. I didn’t know that he was having an angiogram that day as he had kept it a secret from us in case we were unduly worried.

I stood clutching the phone in the middle of the dispensary for a few moments, paralysed by fear and shock. I blurted out the news to my technician and she urged me to leave immediately. I ran through the busy streets and flagged a taxi in the square. Unfortunately he was one of those overly chatty and officious drivers who was more suited to a visiting Yank longing to listen to the blarney. I bolted out the door when he encountered a traffic jam, thanking him profusely and leaving him a generous tip. I arrived panting and discombobulated at the hospital entrance. It was clear that the nun and secretary had been expecting me, their faces repellent with pity.

I was brought down a corridor to a small airless room where my mother sat, flanked by her best friend Deirdre. She was speechless with shock and kept muttering that the doctor would be out to talk to us. An angular man in scrubs appeared at the doorway. He told us that this had never happened him before, that he had done this procedure hundreds of times and had never seen someone flat-line as the dye was injected. He assured us that the crash team had worked really hard on my Dad and that they had got the heartbeat back but it was very weak. I demanded to see my father and he led me across the hall into the operating theatre where I saw my father lying on a table in his surgical garb. Orbiting around him like planets were a number of medical personnel and a profusion of wires and tubes. They seemed to glide away as I approached. I saw his strong arms reach up and grapple with the ventilator, I stroked his head and urged him to come back. A spherical tear rolled down his cheek and stained the sleeve of his gown.

Dad was airlifted to Dublin on the Saturday evening. I had kept a constant vigil at his bedside with my sisters. It was easy for an insomniac. I constantly held his hand and talked to him and when the silences were unbearable, I read him poetry from an anthology that I had grabbed before the dash to Dublin. It seemed to annoy the nurses in ICU, who spent most of Friday night imploring me to go to bed. My three sisters and my Mum were all around him when his vital signs dropped suddenly on Saturday night. We all took turns saying goodbye as the nurses pulled a curtain around the bed and afforded us some privacy. Papa, mon héros was gone.

The Irish do death well. In rural Ireland funerals are social occasions and it’s not uncommon for some to attend a funeral every day of the week. My father hated the sterility of funeral homes and had frequently expressed his disdain for their lack of warmth and humanity. It was decided that we would wake Dad at home. When my Mum and sisters flew back to Kerry on Sunday, my mother’s friends were in situ in our family home, cleaning and hoovering, brewing tea and making sandwiches. The show had begun.

I flew back on the last flight after spending the day in Dublin with my closest friend. We laughed and cried as we sat in her garden in the sunshine. I needed space from the mania that ensues when a funeral is being organised. My mother was in overdrive and my sisters were busy picking readings, outfits and all the minutiae that are involved with a wake. My ex-boyfriend collected me from the airport at midnight, he drove through the country roads to my house, all was quiet except for my shuddering sobs. My friend Karen had a key to my house and had set up a catering centre in my kitchen, food and drink laid out on the worktop. My kitchen was full of close friends who had waited outside all evening for my return. I was glad to see them and held my own private wake in the sanctity of my own four walls.

We stood in line by the coffin in the sitting room. People queued outside to shake hands with us and offer us their condolences. After a few hours my right hand was bruised from being crushed by the hands of big country men who must believe that their sincerity is directly proportional to the strength of the handshake. Some talked and told me some anecdote about my Dad, a sporting story or a work story, usually humorous. Others just muttered that funereal chant, I’m very sorry for your troubles, very sorry, very sorry. It was strangely comforting. Moments of levity were provided by surprise appearances of old boyfriends in the queue and lipstick was slashed across parched lips in futile attempts at makeovers. The kitchen was manned by my mother’s powerhouse friends. They were busy dispensing drinks, and lashing out sandwiches to those that had travelled a distance. By 11 o’clock they had cleared the house of all visitors and were busy washing up.

Karen drove me home. I would return in the morning to follow the hearse with my family. I needed to breathe and escape the suffocating control of the bottle washers in the kitchen and the general hysteria in my childhood home. We had a glass of wine and several cigarettes in my garden. Karen left around midnight and left me alone with my thoughts in the kitchen. I was drawn to my computer which held pride of place on my kitchen table. I clicked on my photo booth icon and searched for some photos that I’d taken a few weeks previously when my Dad was visiting. He had been amazed at the ability of the photo application to transform a picture into a myriad of finishes, from a soft-focused one to a sepia tinge and to my own favourite, the pop art à la Andy Warhol transformation. So there we were, Dad and I, heads together, grinning from the screen, our moment captured forever in the neon colours and psychedelic humour of computer wizardry.

I searched on iTunes for one of his favourite songs and clicked on The Mountains Of Mourne, a version by Don McClean and turned it up full blast and revelled in the memories. It was one of his party pieces, sometimes sung only after lots of cajoling and encouragement. Other times, when a sudden silence threatened the merriment of a wedding sing-song , he would stand up unannounced and belt out the lyrics in his unique baritone, conveying the tune with sincerity and pathos and bewitching all present with his talent and delivery.

The song is very beautiful, written by Percy French in 1896, the lyrics written in the form of a letter to his lover Mary. The writer is visiting cosmopolitan London and is writing to describe the energy and verve of the capital, the style of the ladies going to balls with “no tops to their dresses at all”, their complexions all peaches and cream and their lips the colour of roses. He realises the artifice behind their paint and powder and wishes that he could be with his beloved where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea.

There’s beautiful girls here, oh never you mind,

With beautiful shapes nature never designed,

And lovely complexions all roses and cream,

But let me remark with regard to the same:

That if of those roses you venture to sip,

The colours might all come away on your lip,

So I’ll wait for the wild rose that’s waiting for me

In the place where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea.

I couldn’t believe that I‘d never see my Dad again. The man who had always been unequivocally on my side was now lying inanimate in a coffin in our sitting room, his last night at home. My old pal was gone. When I was in primary school, I had the misfortune to be taught for a year by a sadistic nun. She was a thin, small woman with a face that to my seven-year-old mind had all the attributes of a witch from my fairy tale books. Her face was lined and haggard and her eyes were beady and mean like those of a malevolent vulture. She ruled the class with a reign of terror, threatening any misdemeanour with a slap from her gigantic ruler, its menace a constant source of anxiety as it hung over us like the Sword of Democles. At any moment a child could be plucked from her desk and made to stretch out her hand in supplication as the old nun lashed at it relentlessly, pausing only to steady her veil which was sometimes knocked askew with the force of her exertion.

I remembered the day of my encounter with her ruler as I sat that night thinking back on life in the warmth of my kitchen. She was a devotee of a straight margin, it had to be a half inch wide, and all letters had to edge up smoothly to its border, all letters symmetrical – an off-beam M was considered a heinous crime. I was having a bad letter day. My ability to draw the straight margin on the side of the page was being thwarted at every try by my ruler which had acquired chipped indentations on its length as a legacy of the wear and tear on its integrity by a lively seven-year-old girl. My two-toned grey and white rubber was kept busy erasing the wavering margins done in with a pale blue Faber-Castell pen.

To ensure the complete obliteration of my blunder I licked the rubber and saw pieces of the page form into tiny balls and tiny holes open like craters on the surface. Undeterred I finished the exercise and dutifully filled the page with both large and small Ms and sat back and waited for the Sister of Mercy to examine my work. Her approach was heralded by the stomp of her hard heeled brogues. My companion at my wooden desk had her page examined first and her copy book was returned with mutterings of approval.

When her eyes fell on my smudged and deconstructed page with a slanted margin and varying-sized capital Ms I could hear the growls begin in her throat. The book was snatched from the desk and displayed for all to see with its glaring imperfections and was then hurled back at me with ferocity. I was prodded to the front of the class and initially kept my hands behind my back as Sister approached wielding her weapon. She grabbed my right hand out from its hiding place and whacked it several times with the ruler. It became redder and more inflamed with each assault. My eyes smarted with tears but I held them in check until the bell rang to signal the end of the school day and I ran outside to wait with my sister for my Dad to collect us. When he pulled up in his car I could sense his concern when he saw my eyes swollen with tears and my dejected stance as I clutched my brown leather satchel.

I scrambled into the passenger seat and hurled myself on his lap and told him the story of my morning through the sobs and splutters. He soothed me with kind words and told me to wait in the car with my older sister Orla and that he’d be back soon. I’ll never know what he said to my assailant but I do recall that her ruler never appeared again that school year.

I was enjoying my reverie when I noticed that my kettle was boiling, even though neither of us had turned it on that night. The air around me was suddenly acrid and alive with the smell of freshly mown grass. I could almost taste the greenness of the chlorophyll in my mouth, metallic and sharp. I worried that the grief had caused a stroke and that I was experiencing synaesthesia. The kettle returned to the boil after switching off for a few seconds. I feared that I was finally succumbing to a madness from which I would never return. I have a very scientific nature and am always scornful of the paranormal and the magical. Even though I have grown up in a country renowned for tales of the fairies and the puccas, the banshees and the devil I always apply logic. The aroma of the cut grass still suffused the house as I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. I felt serene and calm as I lay in bed, feeling that my Dad had returned to bid me a final good night.

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”.