Roving thoughts and provocations

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Writing to Death

Tullio Pericoli/Studio Pericoli
Anton Chekhov; drawing by Tullio Pericoli

I fear I shall be floating this fanciful idea just to see it shot down, yet it is something my mind has fastened on in recent years: How far is the trajectory of an author’s writing career and the themes that guide it related to the moment and nature of his or her death?

I have suggested elsewhere that much great narrative writing springs from some unresolved conflict, or we might even say, structural dilemma in the author’s personality. Take the issues of fear and courage, entrapment and freedom. Thomas Hardy yearns for the courage to be free but has been brought up as a feeble mother’s boy, constantly reminded of his frailty. All his life he will go back and forth between the adventure and freedom of London and the safety and constriction of his native Dorset; to London when confident, back to mother when in crisis (returns often preceded by a mystery illness). Frustrated in his marriage, Hardy writes of people who yearn to break society’s rules, above all be with the partner they desire, but are invariably destroyed when they actually try to do so, as if these novels were a message to himself not to risk it. But for his self-esteem Hardy had to take some risks, and in fact the novels themselves, in so far as they criticized Victorian society, constituted a risk. Writing them was an act of courage.

Yet Hardy always stepped back when he feared he was going too far. He dropped his first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, in which a suggestively named Will Strong is determined to marry above his station, because George Meredith, the reader for his would-be publisher, told him that its incendiary satirical vein—“socialistic, not to say revolutionary” as Hardy put it—would damage his reputation. Decades later, when he fantasized in Jude the Obscure (1895) the kind of catastrophe that awaits a married man who lives with a married woman not his wife, Hardy was appalled by the consequent avalanche of negative criticism (the book was described as “a shameful nightmare”). As a result, he opted never to write a novel again, choosing instead to reformulate the same pessimistic, inhibiting ideas in poems whose form was always mellifluous and reassuring. It was a move of exemplary compromise and caution.

Hardy always stopped short of pushing personal problems to crisis, and when his wife died was well placed to marry his live-in secretary, almost forty years younger than himself. Never solving his dilemmas, but always finding some solution that avoided self-destruction, he lived to a ripe old eighty-eight.

In a long study of Hardy’s work, D. H. Lawrence spurned the older writer’s caution and found his novels as poisonous in their implications as they were admirable in their writing. Caught at an early age in a similar impasse between fear and courage, Lawrence resolved that every form of limitation, whether imposed by self or society, is a sin against nature. One must seize what one justly wants. No matter what. Courage is a duty, conformity a vice. Running off with a married woman, mother of three children, Lawrence invariably sought out conflict, embracing the things he still nevertheless feared. Often he delighted in imagining the outraged reviews that would inevitably result from whatever he was writing. Suffering from lung problems from an early age, he was as uncompromising with his health as he was with censorship, conformism, or inhibition. He would not accept that he had TB, and took no medical advice until it was far too late. Apparently, the solution to his early personal dilemma, which demanded freedom at all costs, did not allow him to discriminate between different kinds of constrictions. Working non-stop, traveling recklessly, he died at forty-four. A late poem has him fitting out a ship to sail toward death.

Chekhov is another who denied that he had TB and seemed to do everything to make it worse, an attitude that was all the more curious because he was himself a doctor. His work invariably shows characters torn between the need to belong to a family or social group and the fear of being imprisoned in it, of losing life’s intensity in trivial routine. Putting himself at the center of his family of origin, many of whose members he supported and housed till death, he built himself small annexes to remain separate from them. Flirting constantly with marriageable girls, he carefully avoided marriage and when hard pressed by the beautiful Lika Mizinova embarked on an extremely arduous journey to Sakhalin, an island penitentiary off the coast of Siberia, where he contemplated those trapped and brutalized in Russia’s worst prison community. The writing itself became a way both of being at the center of Russian society, but also apart from it, taking no sides on political issues, writing things people didn’t expect, above all writing short stories, preferably very short, thus avoiding the imprisoning commitment of the great Russian novel.

As it progressed, Chekhov’s illness sharpened his dilemma: to seek treatment or ask for help would mean submitting to routine, which he restlessly avoided. To live intensely, as he wanted, would speed up the illness and shorten the life available. In 1901 at forty-one, now ill beyond any denial and forced to live in the warm climate of the Black Sea, Chekhov married a lively and successful actress who worked in Moscow. The frequent trips from the hot south to the freezing capital were, his doctor observed, the worst-case scenario for his sickness. And indeed so many of Chekhov’s characters seem to make the worst possible, if not suicidal, choices. Having spoken, in April 1904, of going to the front line of the Russian-Japanese war to get a view of the action, Chekhov died in a hotel room in the German spa town of Badenweiler where he had finally agreed to seek treatment.

It is not that I believe that one pattern fits all, simply that so many of the writers I have looked at seem permanently torn between irreconcilable positions, something that seems to feed that famous ambiguity literary critics so much admire; eventually, the dilemma driving the work either leads to death, or is neutralized in a way that prolongs life but dulls the writing. Dickens, father figure par excellence and great promoter of the happy family, writes novels that draw in people of every class into a sense of national belonging, yet he simultaneously feels drastically let down by wife, children, publishers, friend, sometimes even readers. Firing his wife, mother of his ten children, he takes up with a young mistress who must be kept hidden, since what kind of identity can Dickens have if he is not Britain’s favorite and very respectable family author?

The grim later novels—Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend—express in all kinds of ways the impossibility of balancing these conflicting impulses. They are at once better books than his earlier work, in their scope, seriousness, and extremity, and at the same time dissatisfying or disturbing in their failure to resolve these conflicts even aesthetically. In his fifties, shortly after pushing his wife out of the home and against the advice of his doctors, Dickens launched into one reading tour after another, often performing for hours night after night, the center of attention for rapturous audiences. This was meat and drink to him, but raised even higher the cost of any revelation of his private circumstances. After the readings came the gruelling journeys to arrive at wherever he had hidden his mistress, between Paris and London. Drinking heavily the while, Dickens did not surprise doctors, friends, or family when he collapsed and died at fifty-eight.

Before one last example, let me be more precise. What I am suggesting is that a novelist’s work is often a strategy (I don’t mean the author need be aware of this) for dealing with some personal dilemma. Not just that the dilemma is “worked out” in the narrative, as critics often tell us, but that the acts of writing and publishing and positioning oneself in the world of literature are all part of an attempt to find a solution, however provisional, to some deep personal unease. In many cases, however hard the writing is pushed, the solution is indeed only temporary or partial, both author and work eventually succumbing. Obviously the easiest group of authors to look at in this regard would be the suicides, Woolf, Pavese, Wallace. But to finish, let’s consider William Faulkner.

Throughout his life, when asked for biographical details Faulkner would begin by saying he was the great grandson of the Old Colonel, a man renowned for his courage, temper, energy, and vision. And a writer to boot. In contrast Faulkner saw his own father as a nobody and a loser, an opinion he seemed to share with his mother, to whom he remained close throughout his life, having coffee with her most afternoons and never missing a family Christmas if he could help it. From his earliest days he was eager to present himself as bold and courageous, inventing in 1918 a bizarre story of having crashed a warplane while celebrating the end of the war. For years he affected a limp supposedly resulting from the crash, though at the time he had never piloted a plane at all. His brother was actually wounded in the war. Faulkner’s first novel focuses on a soldier returning home a hero, but so badly wounded that he dies.

Like Thomas Hardy, Faulkner eventually invented a fictional territory of his own where his novels could all take place in relation to each other. Acts of courage in Yoknapatawpha County—usually a very physical, manly courage, but also the courage to claim the woman you really desire—end up, as in Hardy’s novels, in wounds, disaster, and death. Like Hardy, Faulkner married a woman he was eager to betray but never able to walk out on. Community in the South is presented as a tremendous insuperable burden that one can neither escape nor overcome. The only freedom available is the freedom, the courage, to live slightly apart, not to engage, with the world or women, like Ike McCaslin, hero of The Bear.

Over the years Faulkner’s writing became both a solution to and a representation of the conflicting impulses that tormented him. His stylistic experimentalism became an act of courage in itself, allowing him to criticize the genuinely war-wounded and mythically courageous Hemingway for lacking the fortitude to write courageously, or to risk failure. Yet Faulkner’s experimentation is never liberating: his prose gives us the impression of a wild, would-be heroic energy pushing through an impossibly dense medium, shoving aside negative after negative to reach the brief respite of a positive verb, losing itself in a heavy slime of ancestors and ancient wrongs. It is not a world in which one could hope to become the courageous man Faulkner wished to be. From the black community, Faulkner told a friend, we can learn “resignation.”

One major difference between the patterns that guide Hardy’s and Faulkner’s writing is the latter’s relationship with alcohol, which, more than a mere disinhibitor making courage possible, becomes a sort of courage in itself. However adventurous and ferociously provocative, his writing was not enough to satisfy Faulkner’s need to feel courageous. Throughout his life he drank epically, heroically. In the hunting camp that is the setting of The Bear we hear that

the bottle was always present, so that after a while it seemed to him that those fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled into that brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank, drinking not of the blood they had spilled but some condensation of the wild immortal spirit, drinking it moderately, humbly even, not with the pagan’s base hope of acquiring the virtues of cunning and strength and speed, but in salute to them.

Whisky and writing intertwine throughout Faulkner’s life, feeding each other, blocking each other, never allowing him to achieve any stability, always acting out a salute to other men he feared he could not resemble. By the time he was fifty the end seemed inevitable. There are only so many times one can dry out in a clinic and fall drunk off a horse. It was actually something of a miracle that Faulkner outlived his dear mother for a year before one more courageous binge, one more salute to the truly brave, as he saw it, did him in, aged sixty-five.

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