In his joint review/obituary of Denis Johnson in the NS, Chris Power makes the obvious point that ‘It is hard, when considering the final works by dead artists, to escape the death and get a clear view of the thing itself.’ Late works ‘become ensnared in the biographies of their creators’, which is often the case with artworks but never more so than the art of the newly deceased.
Coincidentally, the last two books I’ve read were by authors who recently passed away: Johnson’s Train Dreams and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. This knowledge altered my reading experience in several ways.
I’ve had similar experiences before, of finding newly deceased cultural heroes. Back in 2007, I became fond of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Richard Rorty, just months after each had died. Although my engagement with both figures was pretty shallow, I reacted in much the same way now as I did then.
It makes reading them both a more and a less personal experience. More, because you cannot help being aware that there is no longer a living, thinking person on the other side of the page, so to speak.
On this subject, Alix Beeston writes that ‘In reading, we feel ourselves able to get up close and personal with a dead author.’ But it’s a curious intimacy. There’s a silence, with your own thoughts and feelings rushing in to fill it. I remember reading a terminally ill patient being interviewed shortly before she died. She said that, for the first time, she could truly listen to what other people were saying. She wasn’t thinking about what she was going to say when it was her turn to speak. When I read Johnson and Le Guin, I could feel them listening in silence.
At the same time, discovering a recently deceased author is a communal act. It’s a little like sneaking in to a stranger’s funeral and sitting at the back. Especially with Le Guin, because of the kind of adoration she received from the fantasy/sci-fi community, I felt like I was buying a membership pass to her fan club.
In The Dispossessed, the hero Shevek believes the foundation of solidarity and mutual aid is shared pain, not love:
‘It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced… We are brothers in what we share. In pain…’
I feel acutely the loss of two writers as sensitive and intelligent as these. It’s a small share in a wider sense of loss. I’m part of a community of loss in a way that I would not be part of a community of mere admiration. When a loved one passes on, we feel a need to publicly validate our positive feelings about them. A similar dynamic is at work here; I find myself mentally ‘checking’ my opinions about their work against what others have said.
The line between judging the artist and the art becomes blurred when only the art is left, and the art is still warm from the artist’s hand.
These two writers were exceptional for their clarity of vision and their warmth. Train Dreams is a long short story about an early twentiety-century frontiersman coping with grief. It’s about people who are familiar with premature death; whose lives are in fact clarified and purified by its omnipresence. Mortality and joy are inseparable.
‘The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in – as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.’
The Dispossessed posits that, just as a war-torn planet is still beautiful when seen from a distance, so a life is only beautiful when seen at a remove, i.e. from death’s point of view. Humans find fulfilment (as distinct from pleasure) in journeys, and life-to-death is the ultimate journeying and returning home.
‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’
So writes Alan Bennett, and such is my experience. Experiencing great literature is a spur to engagement with the world and the other six-plus billion people in it, because it reminds you that you are not as unique as you might think. The search for like-minded folk is never in vain, however small the chances of success may seem. In this case, though, it comes with the addendum that two of those people are no longer with us. There are two less people who had the same way of looking at things as you.