Tag Archives: death

Just Another Lover

“[…], and normality, needless to say, means, purely and simply, dying when our time comes. Dying and not getting caught up in arguments about whether that death was ours from birth, or if it was merely passing by and happened to notice us.”
—José Saramago, Death With Interruptions (79)

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Poor death, she just can’t get it right. But in José Saramago’s lyrical book Death With Interruptions she is a character with whom the reader can not help developing a feeling of deep sympathy. The novel opens when she impulsively decides to suspend killing people which causes endless chaos and palpitations within the government and religious institutions, not to mention the undying and living. The philosophers are the only ones that get any satisfaction from the predicament, as is usually the case, I think.

“It’s called metamorphosis, everyone knows that, said the apprentice philosopher condescendingly, That’s a very fine-sounding word, full of promises and certainties, you say metamorphosis and move on, it seems you don’t understand that words are the labels we stick on things, not the things themselves, you’ll never know what their real names are, because the names you give them are just that, the names you give them,” (76)

Saramago takes his time describing the consequences of death’s whim. The story is told from a narratorial voice of an omniscient we. It’s unnerving. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that when death finally makes a personal appearance as the protagonist heroine of the story, the reader, or at least this reader, is happy for the intimacy.

When death comes to understand the complications that have ensued from her decision to put an end to her work, she resumes her defining job, but with the small added curtesy of notifying each individual with a week’s notice of their impending end. Her endearing attempts to be polite and get it right are not appreciated, alas. But what does death know of the livings’ attachment to life?

“Meanwhile, in her hotel room, death is standing naked before the mirror. She doesn’t know who she is.” (229)

How death comes to be in a naked body standing in front of a mirror is the second half of the story. And it is a love story. Death’s awkwardness and insecurity as a lover is pure Saramago genius, speaking to the awkward insecure lover in us all. Saramago’s scenarios are Borges-like, but his temperament is his own: gentle, unassuming, and heart-achingly sweet.

Death With Interruptions is a tender and moving tale which centers life—life which we of course understand is always already a sort of dying—on love. It is love, Saramago whispers into our ears, that interrupts death.

So there’s this woman…

“A hair perhaps divides the False from True;”
Or False of True thy Verses, we thus due
Of meed bestow on One so bitter-sweet;
We read and dream then dream and read anew.

– Charles P. Nettleton, from the forward of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

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“We read and dream then dream and read anew,” the line jumped out at me as I perused a beautiful ruin of a copy of The Rubaiyat printed by the Roycrofters. Reading is something of a dream. Even the way the tone and rhythm of a given story clings to one’s day, disturbing the line between real and oneiric. There is that easy way in which we begin to think of characters as if we know them and miss them when we have had to put the book down in order to, say, make dinner, fold laundry, do homework, or show up for work- all the tasks that we like to think don’t actually make up the bulk of our lives.

“This is what happens when you live in dreams, he thought: you dream this and you dream that and you sleep right through your life” – Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins (218).

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is a lovely story in which many lives overlap and influence each other in this blizzard we call life – the cannibals eat each other while the emotionally starved find meaning in seemingly sacrificial acts that turn out to be the only thing that can’t really be bought or sold. It’s the hard-sell, the prostituting of our collective souls, that is the nightmare we can’t seem to wake up from.

To pitch is to live. People pitch their kids into good schools, pitch offers on houses they can’t afford, and when they’re caught in the arms of the wrong person, pitch unlikely explanations. […]…It’s endless, the pitching – endless, exhilarating, soul-sucking, and as unrelenting as death (28-29).

But what is a dream if not something we always wake up from? Every morning our eyes open to our lives again. Our story can begin anew. And, of course,  it’s all a love story – that’s what life is.  In Beautiful Ruins Walter’s most craven character, the chemically petrified Michael Deane, self-appointed pimp of the pitch, insists it is. And – he’s not wrong. It is all a love story. It can either be pitched as one, or lived as one.

O threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain- This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest – is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

– The Rubaiyat

image from – roycroftbooks.org

Heart at my tongue, tirelessly sung

That most folks misunderstand one common state:
The flip side of love is indifference, not hate.

-David Rakoff, Love Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish A Novel (103)

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Clementines, lithograph by Victoria Accardi 2009

A friend of mine, so young and so dear
Lent me a book a little queer.
Written in rhyme, the two of us mused
Left us feeling somewhat bemused
With our minds caught in quite a mess
Of unruly and permanent rhyming redress.

David Rakoff on his deathbed wrote
A book of some considerable note.
Love Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish A Novel
Will leave one with kvetch or kvell.
Life’s bitterness is nothing new
But the rare lilt of a rhyme adds to what’s really an adieu.

Okay, like mine, the rhyme sometimes falls flat
But the author’s just dead- I can’t be that much of a twat.
Even still the rueful humor will ensue
And I feel duty bound to give it its due.
All that is true
And all we go through,
It’s our stories that remain
Whether told in fun or unbearable pain
The truth of our lives here on this earth
Is our shared saga, and an earnest desire for innocent mirth.

Except for instructions he’d underscored twice
Just two words in length, and those words were,
“Be nice!” (77)

Of love in death

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but it certainly didn’t apply to himself.
-Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych from The Riddle of Life and Death

DSCI0012The other day, a very slow day at work, I was diverted in a blogversation about love, while at the same time I was reading a very interesting book called The Riddle of Life and Death. Love, death, love, death, love.

“You are the one who always used to say: better mankind born without mouths and stomachs than always to worry about money to buy, to shop, to fix, to cook, to wash, to clean.”
“How cleverly you hid that you heard.” (107) – Tillie Olsen , Tell Me A Riddle

I found this book on the stacks as I was re-shelving, although there was only one it is, I think, a series of books whereby two writers are juxtaposed together. The editors, as I understand it, choose writers writing about similar subjects but from different parts of the world and/or different times. The most interesting aspect is that one writer is a man and the other a woman. It is a brilliant construct. In this book the writers and stories are Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Tillie Olsen’s Tell me a Riddle. 

That had been the most beguiling of all the “don’t read, put your book away” her life had been. Chekov indeed! (109) – Tell Me A Riddle

Both writers explore the unpopular subject of facing death, particularly death which comes to an empty life lived.

It was all done with clean hands, in clean linen, with French phrases. (32) – The Death of Ivan Ilych

Tolstoy approaches the question through a man that has lead a bloodless meaningless life. The realization is painful. After all of the faux pressing troubles of a bourgeoisie bureaucrat Ivan lacks the imagination to even consider his own mortality. And once he finally comes to terms with the fact, the meaning of his life is laid bare.

It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might be true after all. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. His professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and family, all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend. (94)

The way in which Tolstoy colors the lens of Ivan’s life through Ivan’s identity as a lawyer is beautifully done. You are what you do. By the time I got to the end of this sad tale, I was so thoroughly gripped that when I came to the famous words “Death is finished,” I could not help reading them again out loud. The story is quite phenomenal.

“The music,” she said, “still it is there and we do not hear; knocks, and our poor human ears to weak. What else, what else we do not hear?” (147) – Tell Me A Riddle

Like Ivan, Eva painfully disengages herself from a warped life. Ivan became a mindless drone of a lawyer who then experienced his world and all the people in it as being as condescendingly dismissive as he had been (excelling) in his job. But Eva is a woman, all her frustration turns mute. After a lifetime of financial strain her husband wants to move to a retirement complex, but she will no longer oblige his priorities. There is so much acrimony between the spouses in both books it is horrendously sad. But, when people are empty, the void is filled with a poisonous  rancor and the seep follows the generations.

She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others. (110) Tell Me a Riddle

I was deeply moved by the profundity of the above quote. Subjugation is a slow death. Eva’s journey toward a quicker death is the opposite and therefore the same as Ivan’s. While Ivan’s life was sucked out of him by his strict maintenance of his lifestyle and position of power over others, Eva’s life was sucked out of her by her position of submission. Everything that was truly her, she hid. From opposite directions both suppress their very life force. The results are heart-wrenching.

“I was here and now I’m going there! Where?” A chill came over him, his breathing ceased, and he felt only the throbbing of his heart. (64) -The Death of Ivan Ilych

I am willing to admit, but wouldn’t believe, that it is just me: but I found both of these stories incredibly life affirming. Both Ivan and Eva track back to a point in their lives when they were happy, before the time that for whatever reason real or imagined they smothered themselves. These stories say – don’t do that. Not just for ourselves, but for all the lives we touch as well. Love and passion are never regretted.

* Tillie Olsen’s story Tell me a Riddle was first published in America in 1961, Leo Toltoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych was a 1991 Norton Press reprint of the story first published in Russia in 1886

The Goddesses We Meet

St_Augustines_Ramsgate_Mildred“My God, this is fabulous.” I held up the heavy beaded gown. Rows of shimmering glass, the elegant tiny rectangular pink beads tightly lining the tan fabric undulated as the weight pulled my arm down. Staring in awe we simultaneously imagined her in the dress, once regally adorned.

Draping the long disused garment over my arm, I carried it and the other blouses and slacks, all carefully pressed and hung, back up the stairs. Squeezing past the motorized chair that carried her decaying body up and down, I bounded up the steps: steps that before the chair was installed, she had had to crawl up as her bones cruelly disintegrated. Scanning her bedroom I’d look for anything I could quickly do to help her now that we had organized her clothes. The bed was undone, easy for me to fix. The piles of towels on the matching twin bed were  a simple thing to organize into neat stacks of ascending order. I felt the quiet thrill of purpose as I folded.

I carefully pulled her stockings onto her feet and helped her get her shoes on. She dragged her body with excruciating effort towards the door. In the time she took to get there I would briskly straighten up the kitchen, wash the cups in the sink, and wipe down the coffee machine. Until every movement had to be carefully weighed and considered she had kept a house of perfect cleanliness and order. Now she sat in her chair as the dust bunnies mocked her. We laughed at her mental war with them together, and when she was not looking I gathered them up and threw them away. I could do that for her.

She took me to lunch and we laughed some more. She had stories to tell: sharp, compassionate and dead funny. That which had the memory of magnificence had become a source of unimaginable pain- but she laughed at the rearrangement of hairs from her body to her face, the leftover glory of her breasts that no longer appeared anywhere near her chest. We were like two school girls with the giggles. She ate meatloaf and laughed at me because I always ordered the BLT.

Aware of the cost of every step she took I’d take two or three, trying my best to correct the math: zipping in front of her, moving things out of her way, holding doors,  her walker, her purse. All the stupid little things I could do for her, and she embarrassed me with her gratitude.

By her admission, her heaping  measure of the pain life so generously offers came mostly at the end. We talked about suffering, love, death and God. She was not afraid of any subject. We allowed each other to feel the force of our personal miseries without pity. It could always be worse we told each other, sometimes with a laugh. Because it can.

I know what she looked like, sitting uncomfortably in her chair, woozy from her battle to find relief. I never knew her any other way. But when I picture her, the photograph on the sideboard that I passed each day as I left  is what I see in my mind.

There she stands, next to her adored husband: perfect eyebrows, tall proud figure and bright eyes. I see what she truly was. She was a goddess.
Rest, sweet woman, in peace.

Life: A Novel

Perhaps we wouldn’t have been so hard on Robson if it hadn’t been for one central, unshiftable fact: Robson was our age, he was in our terms unexceptional, and yet he had not only conspired to find a girlfriend but also, incontestably, to have sex with her. Fucking bastard!
Julian Barnes, The End of TimesDSCI0018Between the philosophically self evident events of Eros and Thanatos is a story. Julian Barnes’ latest novel The Sense of an Ending pokes serious and fun at the self evidence of our philosophically comical lives, as well as the looming retrospective that Thanatos evokes, and our ever-consuming obsession with Eros-  sought, avoided, or remorsed.

I gave her the short version of the short version, leaving out the names of the relevant philosophers. (56)

Barnes unfolds the story as a story. The first third of the book is the life of Tony as explained by Tony; most of which concentrates on his school days when saying things like “philosophically self evident” comes easily to the earnestly cynical pedant of the over-schooled English lad. But that is not the story, it is merely a novella of the life, with the occasional arch comment about whether or not his life or any other makes a good novel.

Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. (113)

The story is about life as a history. How things are remembered, or suddenly internally or externally recalled. Finding the reasons for a single event, but aware that the history of the teller matters as much as all the predicating details that led to the actual event.

But we learn something else: that the brain doesn’t like being typecast. Just when you think everything is a matter of decrease, of subtraction and division, your brain, your memory, may surprise you. (122)

Barnes’ prose are terse, witty, and slyly moving. The End of Times is funny but also left me thinking about the sad and all too frequent smothered life.

I have often wondered about the novelistic qualities of my own life, I suppose you have to get to end to see clearly the chapters or parts, ( most lives don’t develop beyond the basic part I of childhood and part II of adulthood).

“Are there any Stefan Zweig titles you would particularly recommend?” (141)

Stefan Zweig – Well, surly that’s a mention far and away enough to recommend this book. Zweig’s books are often tragic. Even so,  I think we should live our lives as novels. Why end up as some banal biography of the sort that lines the shelves in a school library? If only for the simply reason that a novel is always written for a purpose, better to be active – write it. Live it.