Books give us what we can’t experience in our own lives: a beginning, middle, and end.
Books give us what we can’t experience in our own lives: a beginning, middle, and end.
Last year, I went to the memorial service of a man I had never met. He was the younger brother of a friend of mine, and had died suddenly, in the middle of things, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters. The program bore a photograph of the man, above his compressed dates (1968-2012). He looked ridiculously young, blazing with life—squinting a bit in bright sunlight, smiling slightly, as if he were just beginning to get the point of someone’s joke. In some terrible way, his death was the notable, the heroic fact of his short life; all the rest was the usual joyous ordinariness, given form by various speakers. Here he was, jumping off a boat into the Maine waters; here he was, as a child, larkily peeing from a cabin window with two young cousins; here he was, living in Italy and learning Italian by flirting; here he was, telling a great joke; here he was, an ebullient friend, laughing and filling the room with his presence. As is generally the case at such final celebrations, speakers struggled to expand and hold the beautifully banal instances of a life, to fill the space between 1968 and 2012, so that we might leave the church thinking not of the first and last dates but of the dateless minutes in between.
The curious advantage of being able to survey the span of someone else’s life, from start to finish, can seem peremptory, high-handed, forward. Grief doesn’t seem entitlement enough for the arrogation of the divine powers of beginning and ending. We are uneasy with such omniscience. We do not possess it with regard to our own lives. But if this ability to see the whole of a life is God-like it also augurs a revolt against God: once a life is contained, made final, as if flattened within the pages of a diary, it becomes a smaller, contracted thing. It is just a life, one of millions, as arbitrary as everyone else’s, a named tenancy that will soon become a nameless one; a life that we know, with horror, will be thoroughly forgotten within a few generations. At the very moment we play at being God, we also work against God, hurl down the script, refuse the terms of the drama, appalled by the meaninglessness and ephemerality of existence. Death gives birth to the first question—Why?—and seems to kill all the answers. And this first question, the word we utter as children when we first realize that life will be taken away from us, scarcely changes, in depth or tone or mode, throughout our lives. It is our first and last question, uttered with the same incomprehension, grief, rage, and fear at sixty as at six. Why do people die? Since people die, why do they live? Why are we here? What is it all for? Maurice Blanchot puts it well in one of his essays: “Each person dies, but everyone is alive, and that really also means everyone is dead.”
When I was a child, the “Why?” question was acute, and had a religious inflection. I grew up in an intellectual household that was also a religious one, and with the burgeoning apprehension that intellectual and religious curiosity might not be natural allies. My father was a zoologist who taught at the University of Durham, my mother a schoolteacher at a local girls’ school. Both parents were engaged Christians; my mother came from a Scottish family with Presbyterian and evangelical roots. The Scriptures saturated everything. My father called my relationship with my first girlfriend “unedifying” (though in order to deliver this baleful Kierkegaardian news he had to ambush me in the car, so that he could avoid catching my eye). I was discouraged from using the secular term “good luck,” and encouraged to substitute the more providential “blessing.” One was blessed to do well in school exams, blessed to have musical talent, blessed to have nice friends, and, alas, blessed to go to church. My untidy bedroom, my mother said, was an example of “poor stewardship.” Dirty laundry was un-Christian.
When I asked where God came from, my mother showed me her wedding ring and suggested that, like it, God had no beginning or end. (But I knew that someone had made the ring.) When I asked about famines and earthquakes, my father pointed out that human beings were often politically responsible for the former and, in the case of the latter, were often to blame for continuing to live in notoriously unstable areas. But what about cancer, mental and physical handicap, awful accident, the freakish viral attack that felled my friend’s brother at the age of forty-four? I was told that God’s ways are incomprehensible, and that a Job-like humility before the incomprehensible must be cultivated. But Job was a complainer more than a saint or a stoic, and I fear that my childish questioning got permanently jammed in the position of metaphysical complaint.
My anguish about death was keen, because two members of my parents’ congregation died at an early age, of cancer. One of them was a single mother; I played with her children. Prayers were uttered when she fell ill; prayers were unanswered. But then my parents told me, “God has called Mrs. Currah to be with Him in Heaven,” and I wondered whether God, in some mind-bending way, might have been answering our prayers by failing to answer our prayers.
So inquiry was welcomed up to a certain point, but discouraged as soon as it became rebellious. Job could not become Captain Ahab. This illiberality, coupled with my sense that official knowledge was somehow secretive, enigmatic, veiled—that we don’t know why things are, but that somewhere someone does, and is withholding the golden clue—encouraged, in me, countervailing habits of secrecy and enigma. I would reply to their esoterica with my esoterica, their official lies with my amateur lies. They believed that this world was fallen but that restitution would be provided elsewhere, in an afterlife. I believed that this world was fallen and that there was no afterlife. As they kept the actuality of their afterlife a kind of prized secret, I, too, would keep my revelation that there was no afterlife a prized secret. I became a formidable liar, the best I knew, accomplished and chronic. Lying went all the way down: you started by withholding the big truth, your atheism, and ended by withholding small truths—that you swore among friends, or listened to Led Zeppelin, or had more than one drink, or still had the unedifying girlfriend.
Literature allowed an escape from these habits of concealment—partly because it offered a reciprocal version of them, a world of the book within which fictions were being used to protect meaningful truths. I still remember that adolescent thrill, that sublime discovery of the novel and the short story as utterly free spaces, where anything might be thought, anything uttered. In the novel, you might encounter atheists, snobs, libertines, adulterers, murderers, thieves, madmen riding across the Castilian plains or wandering around Oslo or St. Petersburg, young men on the make in Paris, young women on the make in London, nameless cities, placeless countries, lands of allegory and surrealism, a human turned into a bug, a novel narrated by a cat, citizens of many countries, homosexuals, mystics, landowners and butlers, conservatives and radicals, radicals who were also conservatives, intellectuals and simpletons, intellectuals who were also simpletons, drunks and priests, priests who were also drunks, the quick and the dead. There was the cover of canonicity, whereby authors who had been approved by posterity or enshrined in university study, or simply given authority as a Penguin Modern Classic (I remember my brother saying solemnly to me, as we loitered by his bookshelves, “If I publish a book, I would want it to be done by Penguin”), turned out to be blasphemous, radical, raucous, erotic.
I would come back from the bookshop, these paperbacks glowing, irradiated by the energy of their compressed content, seething like porn, as I slipped them past my unwitting parents and into my bedroom. Did they know how riotously anti-clerical Cervantes was, or how Dostoyevsky, despite his avowedly Christian intentions, might be feeding my atheism? “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was still officially a “naughty” book, but Lawrence’s earlier, beautiful novel “The Rainbow” had somehow escaped such censure. And yet open the pages of “The Rainbow,” and here were Will and Anna, in the first, gloriously erotic, ravishing months of their marriage; and here was Will noticing that as his pregnant wife neared her due date she was becoming rounder, “the breasts becoming important.” And here was Anna dancing naked in her bedroom, as David once danced before the Lord; and Ursula and Skrebensky kissing under the moon. And here were the scenes in which Skrebensky and Ursula run away to London and Paris—how simply and purely Ursula falls in love with sex, and her lover’s shape. In a London hotel room, she watches him bathing: “He was slender, and, to her, perfect, a clean, straight-cut youth, without a grain of superfluous body.”
Fiction doesn’t merely replicate the license you have, within your head, to think what you like. It adds the doubleness of all fictional life. To witness that freedom in someone else is to have a companion, to be taken into the confidence of otherness. We share and scrutinize at the same time; we are, and are not, Raskolnikov, and Mrs. Ramsay, and Miss Brodie, and the narrator of Hamsun’s “Hunger,” and Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar. This should feel exciting, and also a little unseemly. Reading fiction feels radically private, because so often we seem to be stealing the failed privacies of fictional characters. This is the privacy not of solitude but of clandestine fellowship; together, the reader and his fictional acquaintances complete, or voice, a new ensemble. Their failed privacies are incorporated into the reader’s more successful privacies.
The idea that anything could be thought and said inside the novel—a garden where the great “Why?” hangs, unpicked, gloating in the free air—had, for me, an ironically symmetrical connection with the actual fears of official Christianity outside the novel: that, as Dostoyevsky put it, without God everything is permitted. Take away God, and chaos and confusion reign; people will commit all kinds of crimes, think all kinds of thoughts. This is the usual conservative religious line. Yet the novel, commonsensically, appears to say to us, “Everything has always been permitted, even when God was around. God has nothing to do with it.”
Of course, the novel’s license seems easier to inhabit than the world’s, because novels are fictional worlds. Fiction is a ceaseless experiment with uncollectible data. The real, in fiction, is always a matter of belief—it’s for readers to validate and confirm. Fiction moves in the shadow of doubt, knows it is a true lie. So belief in fiction is always belief “as if,” and is therefore metaphorical. What is a danger in religion is the very fabric of fiction.
To read the novel is to be constantly moving between secular and religious modes, between what you could call instance and form. The novel’s secular impulse is toward expanding and extending life; the novel is the great trader in the shares of the ordinary. It expands the instances of our lives into scenes and details; it strives to run these instances at a rhythm close to real time. Think of the way that Henry James devotes an entire chapter, in “The Portrait of a Lady,” to the five or six hours that Isabel Archer sits in a chair, thinking about the failure of her marriage. Nearly half a century later, Mrs. Ramsay, in “To the Lighthouse,” will be sitting by the window, thinking about her children, about her husband, about all sorts of different things, and will forget that she is supposed to stay still, because Lily Briscoe is painting a portrait of her. Mrs. Ramsay, in effect, forgets that she is at the center of a portrait, of a novel. This is a kind of secular forgetting: the novel is so full of its own life that human life seen under the eye of eternity has been carelessly banished. Death will roar back, but not yet, not now.
When the novel is in this forgetful, profane mode, it wants its characters to live forever. Remember how reluctantly Cervantes says farewell to his Don Quixote, who has been on his deathbed, and who has, at the last moment, renounced his knight errantry. He calls for Sancho Panza and asks for forgiveness. “Don’t die, Señor” is Sancho’s tearful response. Don Quixote makes his will, lives another three days, and then, “surrounded by the sympathy and tears of those present, gave up the ghost, I mean to say, he died.” It is as if Cervantes himself were surprised by the event, and overcome with mute grief at the death of his creation.
But the novel’s eternal or religious mode reminds us that life is bounded by death, that life is just death-in-waiting. What makes the mode religious is that it shares the religious tendency to see life as the mere antechamber to the afterlife—hence John Donne’s characterization of our lives, in his sermon on the Book of Job, as a sentence already written in a book by God: “Our whole life is but a parenthesis, our receiving of our soul, and delivering it back again, makes up the perfect sentence; Christ is Alpha and Omega, and our Alpha and Omega is all we are to consider.” In this mode, the novel does as God vouchsafes to do in Psalm 121: “The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in.” It teaches us about the relation of instance to form. That’s an achievement, because most of us find it difficult to make this inquiry into our own lives. We are condemned to apprehend our going out and our coming in retrospectively, as if we were rowing a boat, clear-eyed only about the distance we have already covered. I was happy in this city, we say, when we return to it years later; I was unhappy throughout my twenties; I was truly in love only once; it was a mistake, I now see, to have taken that job; I am forty-eight and it has taken me this long to realize that I know nothing about my father. After attending the memorial service for the younger brother of my friend, I learned that his father had written a poem that contained this moving lament: “that perfect summer . . . When nobody in the family was dying.”
At the service, I reflected not only that a funeral is a liturgical home for the awful privilege of seeing a life whole but also that fiction offers a secular version of that liturgical hospitality. I thought of Walter Benjamin’s argument, in his essay “The Storyteller,” that classic storytelling is structured around death. It is death, Benjamin says, that makes a story transmissible. My wife, who is a novelist, wrote recently to a friend whose mother had just died, “There is this strangeness of a life story having no shape—or more accurately, nothing but its present—until it has its ending; and then suddenly the whole trajectory is visible.” She was talking about her own experience; both of her parents had died in the past two years. She went on to quote something that a Canadian novelist had said to her when her own father died: that now he was dead she suddenly missed him at all their ages. She missed him as he had been when she was a nine-year-old girl, and as he had been when she was a teen-ager, and when she was twenty-eight, and thirty-five, and so on.
The novel often gives us that formal insight into the shape of someone’s life: we can see the beginning and the end of many fictional lives; their developments and errors; stasis and drift. Fiction does this in many ways—by sheer scope and size (the long, peopled novel, full of many lives, many beginnings and endings) but also by compression and brevity (the novella that radically compacts a single life, from start to finish, as in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” or Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams”). And partly by turning the present into the past: although we move forward through a story, the entire story is already complete—we hold it in our hands. In this sense, fiction, the great life-giver, also kills, not just because people often die in novels and stories but, more important, because, even if they don’t die, they have already happened. Fictional form is always a kind of death, in the way that Blanchot described actual life. “Was. We say he is, then suddenly he was, this terrible was.” That is the narrator of Thomas Bernhard’s novel “The Loser,” describing his friend Wertheimer, who has committed suicide. But it might also describe the tense in which we encounter most fictional lives: we say, “She was,” not “She is.” He left the house, she rubbed her neck, she put down her book and went to sleep.
A struggle is often going on in a novel, between present and past, instance and form, free will and determinism, secular expansion and religious contraction. This is why the role of authorial omniscience has such a fraught history, for the anxiety is partly a theological one and has the unresolved nature of a theological argument. The novel seems forever unable to decide whether it wants to revel in omniscience or apologize for it, foreground it or foreclose it. Should the novelist intervene and interrupt, or withdraw into impersonality and frigid indifference? Nabokov liked to argue that his characters were his slaves; a character crossed the road only because he made the character do so. But the supposedly “impersonal,” Flaubertian author is no less God-like than the chattily omniscient Henry Fielding or the essayistic, moralizing George Eliot.
Since these are transferred theological issues, it is little surprise that a number of modern novelists have been explicitly engaged with the question of what it means to tell a story, what it means to have divine power over someone’s beginning and ending, and how a character might make a space for her own freedom, all while under the watchful eye of both the author and the reader. I am thinking of people like Vladimir Nabokov, Muriel Spark, V. S. Naipaul, W. G. Sebald, José Saramago, Thomas Bernhard, Javier Marías, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, Penelope Fitzgerald, Jennifer Egan, Edward P. Jones. In his great novel “A House for Mr. Biswas,” Naipaul tells the story of his father, in the character of Mr. Biswas. It is an imprisoned, limited, fiercely determined life, the life of a small man who never leaves the island of Trinidad and dies young. The novel begins with the report of Mr. Biswas’s death, and the author oscillates between a slow, patient, comic account of Mr. Biswas’s life and a summary religious account that cruelly squeezes that life: “In all Mr. Biswas lived for six years at The Chase, years so squashed by their own boredom and futility that at the end they could be comprehended in one glance.” This is religious time, and is belied by the novel itself, which tells us in its every comic, secular scene that Mr. Biswas’s life cannot be comprehended in one glance. The novel asks us to read its ironies and resist them, and thus collude with the author in making a space for Mr. Biswas’s comic waywardness.
In recent years, one of the most beautiful enactments of the great “Why?,” and of the novelistic movement between instance and form, has been Penelope Fitzgerald’s brief “The Blue Flower,” published in 1995. It is a historical novel, and recounts the short life of the young man known to us as the philosopher and poet Novalis. His real name was Friedrich (Fritz) von Hardenberg, and when we first meet him in Fitzgerald’s fiction he is a passionate university student, fired up with the theories of Fichte. He thinks that death is not significant but only a change in condition. He thinks that we are all free to imagine what the world is like, and since we probably all imagine it differently, there is no reason to believe in the fixed reality of things. Then he is felled by reality: on a visit, he meets a twelve-year-old girl named Sophie von Rockenthien. Sophie, by all accounts, is a thoroughly ordinary twelve-year-old, yet the passionate Fritz decides, in just fifteen minutes, that he must marry her, that “Sophie is my heart’s heart”; “She is my wisdom.” The novel is, among other things, the story of this fantastical and agonizingly brief love affair.
Fritz is writing a novel, which he has provisionally titled “The Blue Flower,” but he has written only a paragraph or two, and it doesn’t sound very good: “I have made a list of occupations and professions, and of psychological types.” Fitzgerald’s own novel is full of untypical life, caught in the most elusive way. There is Fritz, and his more stolid brother Erasmus, and their sweet sister Sidonie, and the wonderful youngest von Hardenberg child, a precocious boy, known in the family as “the Bernhard.” But this happy familial existence is stalked by death. Soon, it becomes clear that young Sophie has tuberculosis, and that she will not recover. She dies two days after her fifteenth birthday. The novel ends with this extraordinary report:
At the end of the 1790s the young Hardenbergs, in their turn, began to go down, almost without protest, with pulmonary tuberculosis. Erasmus, who had insisted that he coughed blood only because he laughed too much, died on Good Friday, 1797. Sidonie lasted until the age of twenty-two. At the beginning of 1801 Fritz, who had been showing the same symptoms, went back to his parents’ house in Weissenfels. As he lay dying he asked Karl to play the piano for him. When Friedrich Schlegel arrived Fritz told him that he had entirely changed his plan for the story of the Blue Flower.
It is a perfectly judged and weighted passage—from the apparent insouciance of the phrase “began to go down, almost without protest,” which makes death sound a bit like a family game of musical chairs, to Erasmus’s heartbreaking claim that he coughed blood only because he laughed too much (which continues the memory of family fun), to Fritz’s unfinished plan to rewrite his unfinishable novel; to the blank, colorless, uninflected sentence “The Bernhard was drowned in the Saale on the 28th of November 1800.” The genius of the family, the one who might have been much greater than Novalis, was only twelve years old.
As an epigraph, Fitzgerald uses a line of Novalis’s: “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” And indeed her novel tries to rescue from history those private moments which history would never have been able to record, private moments that even a family might not record. But these secular instances exist within the larger, severe form of the novel, which is the knowledge that these are short lives, condemned lives, nothing more than historical parentheses.
Fiction manages the remarkable feat of allowing us both to expand and to contract the parenthesis. This tension, between secular instance and religious form, is perhaps the novel’s claim to power: it’s the reason the novel throws us so often into the wide, skeptical, terrifying freedom of the “Why?” That question is powerfully mobilized by novelistic form: not just because the novel is so good at evoking the ordinary instances of a life but because it is so good at asserting the finished, completed form of a life. By “asserted,” I mean that, because the characters we are reading about are invented, they did not have to die. They died because their author made them die. We feel this even in a historical novel like “The Blue Flower.” The classical historian Robin Lane Fox once commented that there is only one accidental death in the Old Testament, implying a difference from modern accounts of lives and deaths offered by novels and newspaper stories. But, if “accidental” means “unintended,” then, strictly speaking, there are no accidental deaths in fiction. That’s so even in historical fiction, because, theoretically, the novelist has the power to change history, and because the novelist has selected this character for the nature of his death as well as of his life. Besides, when we read historical fiction the characters take on lives of their own, and begin to detach themselves, in our minds, from the actuality of the historical record. When characters in historical novels die, they die as fictional characters, not as historical personages.
Yet fiction remains the game of as if. Characters do not stay dead; they come back to us the second or third time we read their story. The laugh of fictional life lasts longer than the bloody cough of death. One of the “shortcomings of history” is that real people die. But fiction gives us allowable resurrections, repeated secular returns. Italo Calvino seems to play with this fictive death sentence and resurrection at the end of his novel “Mr. Palomar,” when he ironically considers the death of his eponymous protagonist:
A person’s life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole, not because it counts more than the previous ones but because once they are included in a life, events are arranged in an order that is not chronological but, rather, corresponds to an inner architecture.
Mr. Palomar would like to learn how to be dead, and Calvino reminds us that he will find this difficult, because the hardest thing about being dead is realizing that one’s own life is “a closed whole, all in the past, to which you can add nothing.” Mr. Palomar, Calvino says, begins to imagine the end of all human existence, of time itself. “If time has to end, it can be described, instant by instant,” Mr. Palomar reflects, “and each instant, when described, expands so that its end can no longer be seen. He decides that he will set himself to describing every instant of his life, and until he has described them all he will no longer think about being dead. At that moment he dies,” Calvino writes. It is the last sentence of the book. ♦
James Wood has been a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker since 2007.