Posts Tagged ‘Philip Pullman’

Anticipation: prequels and sequels…

July 24, 2019

I don’t often find myself eagerly awaiting the publication of a new novel, but this year is different. My last post, about Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, is about one of three novels I’ve been eagerly awaiting this year; the other two – still to come – are Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments coming in September, and Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, which is due to be published in October. When I realised that all three of these books were either prequels or sequels, that got me thinking more deeply.

81R94tAIV2L._AC_UY218_QL90_      91hoRkijvXL._AC_UY218_QL90_    Sometimes writers set out with the deliberate intention of writing a series of novels; more often, they don’t, and are perhaps moved by commercial pressure to write a follow-on to a best-seller. Philip Pullman set out with the aim of writing a trilogy with His Dark Materials, but then along came the idea for the second trilogy, The Book of Dust. The first volume of this, La Belle Sauvage, is a prequel of sorts as it deals with the adventures of Lyra when she is a baby; the next volume (The Secret Commonwealth) which I’m eagerly awaiting, takes us ten years beyond the ending of the first trilogy, so Pullman is going forward in time, too. I have not yet heard anything about the third volume, and I’m also aware that Pullman has done nothing with the characters from our world, in his second trilogy. With the science fiction element of the parallel universe, clearly Pullman gave himself a lot of scope for developing his ideas in different directions, if he wanted to.

918hxxj0DOL._AC_UY218_QL90_    71y9LsU0HVL._AC_UY218_QL90_   Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale also has science fiction elements, but it had seemed a one-off, completed story until recently. Offred’s personal story came to an ending which was open in a way, but the novel was then concluded with a chapter entitled Historical Notes, which looked two centuries into the future, after the collapse of the Republic of Gilead. The recent television series, based on the book and with the author’s approval, seem to have changed the game somewhat. I can’t comment on the TV series as I haven’t watched it and don’t intend to, but I am very interested to see how Atwood will pick up the strands of the original story which she laid down some thirty years ago, and where she will go with it in the new novel.

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_QL90_    81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Vasily Grossman’s novels are a rather different kettle of fish, for a number of reasons. Life and Fate, a complete novel in itself – or so we thought – was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West some thirty years ago. It took a long time and a BBC Radio adaptation for people to wake up and realise that they were reading a true classic and worthy successor to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. What was almost unknown was that Grossman had written what is actually a precursor to the story in Life and Fate, and had various censored and bowdlerised versions published in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, as a novel called For the Good of the Cause, and it’s this novel which has been carefully reconstructed from nearly a dozen different versions by Robert Chandler, and published recently under the title Stalingrad. So in a sense we actually have a single story which develops through two lengthy volumes, using the same events and characters: the ‘prequel’ always existed as a part of the whole, and it was the byzantine censorship policies of Soviet times which concealed this from us western readers, it seems.

When you’ve known a particular novel for a long time, read and re-read it and appreciated it for all sorts of different reasons, it’s a challenge when something comes along which adds to or develops it; it may not fit in with the version of the novel which, over time, we have made ours. So, I enjoyed Stalingrad but don’t feel that it made anywhere near as powerful an impression on me as Life and Fate did, and this is perhaps not surprising. Equally, although I avidly awaited and eagerly devoured La Belle Sauvage and it was very good, I found it nowhere near as powerful as Pullman’s original trilogy.

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Gibson & Sterling: The Difference Engine

June 18, 2019

819+mIobt3L._AC_UL436_ I’m a serious fan of alternate histories; I like to imagine all sorts of ‘what if?’s. Here’s quite a famous one from the early days of steam punk. I’ve read it several times, but not for about ten years so it was time to take another look.

Gibson and Sterling create a convincing and fascinating alternative Victorian Britain deftly though the use of lots of details, in a similar way to how Philip Pullman builds his alternate Oxford in His Dark Materials. The industrial revolution is in full spate, powered by steam, but Charles Babbage’s difference engine has succeeded in permitting computerisation, mass communication and surveillance, again all steam-driven. However, the cost of all this has been a massive increase in pollution: the great stink of real history in Victorian London is far worse here.

Politically the initiative has been seized by radicals who have abolished the aristocracy and established a meritocracy; they are, however, still opposed by anarchists and Luddites, and further afield the territory of the United States has not coalesced into a single nation, but remains a number of smaller states with different interests, and Britain plays for power and influence there, and the statelets are also playing their own games over here. Palaeontology and evolution are at the forefront of contemporary science.

The characters are mostly well-rounded and most of them convince, as does the technology, which is probably the main delight of this yarn – the mechanised transport, card payments, mass surveillance and instant communication of our age translated to the 1850s. Victorian London comes to life as vividly as it does in Conan Doyle’s detective stories, and the central episodes of total anarchy set against the background of pollution are a tour-de-force of nastiness, menace and impending doom: revolution really does seem to be brewing…

It’s a good read, but this time I did find the plotting rather loose and unclear at times, with the action shifting somewhat disjointedly between different locations and groups of characters. Didn’t spoil the story, though.

On children’s literature and children in literature

April 20, 2019

I’m more than a little surprised it hasn’t occurred to me to write on this theme before; perhaps it’s grandchildren that have turned my thoughts in that direction and prompted me. There are many marvellous classic children’s books out there that I’m hoping one day I will have the chance to share with the next generation: Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, The Borrowers and The Phantom Tollbooth to name but a few. Wonderful new stories appear with each generation but the old favourites will endure too, I think.

However, it it books that feature children that I am particularly interested in here. I regularly introduced my classes to Mark Twain’s wonderful The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and I think most of them got something from it; it has a lot of those things that children fantasise about: skiving chores, school and duties, running away from home, finding treasure, as well as scarier things such as witnessing a murder and being lost in a dark cave. It may be set more than a century and a half ago, but the themes still appeal. Sadly, only a couple of opportunities arose to teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is in some ways an even greater achievement, treating as it does the cusp of childhood to adolescence and adulthood, and showing us the learning that can take place at that time. Huck’s symbolic journey with Jim on the raft down the Mississippi is at times humorous, fantastical, true to life and very moving.

Elsewhere I’ve written about To Kill A Mockingbird, where once again two children have two grow up and grapple with adult issues rather earlier than they may have wished; I have no time for those who carp and cavil about this novel for whatever reason; Harper Lee creates people, time and place brilliantly to explore a whole range of ideas.

I’ve also waxed lyrical in many posts about Philip Pullman’s masterly achievement in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and also in the first volume of the new Book of Dust trilogy. There is something very refreshing as well as thought-provoking about having children as the central characters in such astonishing books, and the adults merely taking subordinate places. The process of growing up, the realisations and the learning that take place gradually or suddenly as we pass from innocence to experience are well worth contemplating again as adults; I can only wonder what the experience of reading these books first as a child, and then returning to them as a grown-up, might be like: I will never know, of course. Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines tetralogy – which I’m working up to re-reading – also has children as its central characters, although their adventures are not cosmos-changing in the way that Will and Lyra’s are in Pullman’s books.

It’s a truism that our childhood years form us and shape the adult that we eventually become; we don’t realise this is happening whilst it is actually happening, and we are perhaps rather more eager to leave childhood and childish things behind for the more exciting and ‘real’ world of adults. Only as we grow older do we realise the meaning of the true innocence of those childhood years which we can never have back. Perhaps it is the experience of raising our own children, and enjoying our grandchildren, that provoke us to contemplate what our past did to us; understanding and acceptance are all that we can acquire now, as time marches on…

Philip Pullman: La Belle Sauvage revisited

October 4, 2018

51zrG9f2dVL._AC_US218_I’ve come back to Pullman’s novel a year after it was published and in anticipation of the rumoured appearance of the next one in the series in the spring. If you want to read my reaction first time round, you can find it here.

I usually find a re-read quite different from the first read and this was no exception: apart from the main plot characters and outlines of the story, I’d forgotten many of the details; this is quite natural in my experience, since that first reading is so driven by wanting to know the plot, the whole story. Now it was time to slow down, and focus on what else the author was doing.

The first thing I have to acknowledge (again!) is what a really good story-teller Pullman is: the plot grips from the outset and carries you along; once again I found myself side-lining other activities to sit on the sofa with the book. And the book is well-written, too, as you might expect from an ex-English teacher, perhaps.

I found myself thinking about alternate universes, which is what Pullman created in the original trilogy His Dark Materials, and what is so effective is its plausibility. I’m sure Tolkein’s Middle Earth is a coherent whole but Pullman’s alternate universe is populated with humans with whom we can identify, even though their being, consciousness and experience of the world is split between themselves and their external daemons; the technology of their world resembles ours in many but not all ways and its nomenclature is interesting, too (there is Pullman the English teacher playing again). So that world absorbs us from the start, in all its detail and complexity, with its different history and yet similar concerns to those of our own world: freedom of thought, the power of religion, climate change…

In this novel, Pullman clearly gains from his readers’ familiarity with that universe from his previous trilogy, and from the reappearance of some characters with whom we are already familiar, even though this novel is chronologically set some ten years earlier.

Pullman again uses young characters at the heart of his story, and not because he’s specifically writing for a child or adolescent audience – he’s not – but this aspect of the novels intrigued me this time around. In His Dark Materials we have Lyra and Will, roughly of the same age, not quite adult, but adolescents on the cusp of adulthood, and Pullman highlights this crucial age by having the transition to full adulthood as the point in life where one’s daemon becomes fixed as a single creature which it will remain for the rest of that person’s life, rather than being capable of constant change as it is during pre-adulthood. Behind this concept, as well as what particular creature an individual’s daemon fixes as, lies deep reflection of the process of development of the personality, and all the influences on the individual during her or his formative years. And in La Belle Sauvage we have two similar, yet slightly different characters: Malcolm is younger by several years than Alice, who is rather more worldly-wise and experienced but still not quite an adult…

Pullman puts his characters in very challenging situations where they are often faced with difficult and complex moral choices, sometimes able to reflect before acting, sometimes not, and it seems to me that there are lessons offered here, not in any didactic or exhortatory sense, but lessons nevertheless to be experienced through the characters and then reflected on by the reader whatever age s/he is, as it were: Pullman’s characters have to learn how to live right, and to live with the consequences of the choices they make, and he is reassuring to the reader and to his characters about the outcomes for his young characters…

I think this aspect of his work is one that I shall return to in future readings of his works: as well as being a stunning story-teller, Pullman is also a very moral writer.

Philip Pullman: Daemon Voices

April 8, 2018

511FXYXfj9L._AC_US218_

A writer writes about his craft, his inspirations, and how he works: fascinating, in the same way that Ursula Le Guin doing just that was fascinating. He doesn’t disappoint in the way he writes, either – there’s more of the fluent clear language and sentence-crafting that one experiences in his novels. Pullman is a very readable writer, accessible, communicating effectively. You may think, well, yes, he would, but that’s not always the case…

He’s very strong and forthright on a writer’s responsibilities, fascinating on how stories work, and challenges literary theorists. He writes about his experiences as a teacher and rages against the insanities and inanities of our ‘National Curriculum’. He’s forcefully and coherently atheist, anti-God; this I found quite challenging myself, and though I appreciated his stance, decided to continue to differ with him there…

Out of his atheism there arises a sense of wonder: for Pullman, the more we discover, the more wondrous the universe seems to be, an approach which chimes in with my own ever since my childhood excitement at looking at the skies and learning about other worlds.

Clearly I was looking for further understanding of the genesis of, and intentions behind, the Dark Materials trilogy, and I was not disappointed. There was a detailed personal response to Milton‘s Paradise Lost, and how the Fall story and his anti-religious stance worked together to create a story in which the Fall was a good thing: the loss of innocence and a knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human; that knowledge of evil does not imply that all humans therefore embrace it. There is a myth of the Fall in the world of the mulefa in The Amber Spyglass; it both resembles the one in our world and is very different from it, and Pullman’s clarification was very interesting.

Pullman is interesting on the craft of the writer, too, and open about his need and desire to make a decent living out of it. He’s scathing about Tolkien‘s trilogy, which he compares with Middlemarch (!) from the perspective of characterisation, and finds seriously wanting, and he has no time for C S LewisNarnia books either, because of their reactionary, anti-human, anti-life and pleasure content. I didn’t disagree with him there, either. Perhaps the most eye-opening section for me was a chapter on the nature of the narrator, where he raises a whole raft of issues with which I was familiar as a life-long student of literature, but to contemplate them from the perspective of a practising writer was really illuminating. He also takes issue with the current trend for people to write stories in the present tense and demonstrates clearly how limiting a choice this is.

Pullman shares a good deal of himself with his readers here. Most of the pieces in the collection were originally lectures or talks; a few are introductions he has written to various books. The whole is a book full of surprises; I found him reflecting on a wide range of books I had also known and loved in the past, and also came across a few recommendations for my to-read list. As an insight into the mind and art of one of our best living writers, it’s really good: challenging and thought-provoking.

2017: my year of reading

December 30, 2017

Time for my annual look back over the year that’s almost over: my big blue book tells me that I’ve managed to acquire 37 more books this year, and that I’ve read 63 thus far. It doesn’t tell me how many I’ve disposed of, however. Both totals are slightly up on the previous year, I note, which shows I haven’t managed to curb my book-buying habits as much as I’d hoped or intended.

A major achievement this year was finally getting to the end of my reading of Montaigne‘s essays, which I had begun a couple of years back, and paused several times. It has been very comforting to share the mind of someone so thoughtful, knowledgeable and humane. In a way, I see him as an inspiration when I write, and strive to pull my scattered thoughts together: someone to look up to, most certainly. Since there are so many essays and I can’t see myself ever re-reading them all, I have carefully noted which were my favourites.

My awards for 2017:

Most disappointing read: Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Red Mars. I’d had great hopes of this and the rest of the series, having put it off for quite a few years, but it was a let-down when I eventually got to it, and I can’t see I’ll be bothering with the rest of them.

No award this year for Weirdest Book. I have come across no real weirdness this year.

61f7iyJLzGL._AC_US218_A necessary distinction in the fiction category: Best New Novel is Philip Pullman‘s La Belle Sauvage, of course, and you can read my review here and see why. I’m hoping that the next book in the series will appear in 2018, since he’s actually finished writing it, and hopefully the final one not too long after that. It’s nice having something to look forward to. The distinction was to allow me to list Ursula Le Guin‘s Malafrena as a Best Novel, because it was another one I’d held off reading for a long time, and this time was well worth the wait, a brilliant, moving and carefully-crafted historical novel from a writer who I love as a writer of SF.

51hWEeFhq1L._AC_US218_Several books get mentions in the non-fiction category this year. Erika Mann‘s collection of stories When the Lights Go Out is so rooted in the reality of daily life in Germany as the Nazi grip tightened that I’d hesitate to class it as fiction, though it technically is. It’s chilling in its ordinariness, its smallness and yet the inescapability of the evil. Richard Byrd‘s Alone, a travel book, is about his several months alone in winter at an isolated weather station in Antarctica. What was so powerful and mesmerising about it was the way he accidentally gave himself severe carbon monoxide poisoning quite early on in his stay, and his incredible struggle to survive. knowing that the source of heat he depends on for survival, will also kill him.

51BZSRipcpL._AC_US218_But, Book of the Year in any category goes to Svetlana Alexievich‘s stunning The Unwomanly Face of War, truly a masterpiece. It’s gruellingly difficult to read – you need a really strong stomach – and it’s a powerful antidote to any attempts at apologetics for German behaviour in the Second World War. It should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks that war is any sort of answer to any of our problems.

Resolutions: I have a lot more history to read this coming year, and I’ve had much pleasure from returning to my old collection of SF, so I hope to continue with some of that, too. And I’ve decided that instead of buying books when I fancy, I will compile a list of books I covet each month and at the end of that month, award myself one from that list. Wish me luck! (By the way, that’s new books only…)

On an enigma: older men read less fiction

November 6, 2017

Somewhere, recently, I came across an article based on some research that suggested that older men read less fiction. I glanced at it, aware that nowadays there’s all sorts of ‘research’ into all sorts of things, and a lot of which either does not make sense, or is soon proven to be incorrect or biased… but the notion stayed with me, and got me thinking.

I must be one of those ‘older’ men being referred to. And I don’t tend to read very much fiction any more. In my life, I’ve read lots; on my bookshelves ‘awaiting reading’ there’s quite a bit of fiction that I’ve felt moved to buy, but that I haven’t read yet. Every now and then, in the search for what to read next, I’ll pick up some of these novels, flick through them, remind myself of the blurb on the back cover… and put them back on the shelf, for ‘later’. Not ready to read that yet!

What is going on? Given the choice and the availability, I will read travel writing, or history, or something else factual rather than fiction; if I do read any fiction, it’s quite often a re-read, something I’ve enjoyed previously and decide to go back to. So, recently I re-read (again) Joseph Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls – and thoroughly enjoyed it again. But when it came to Ismail Kadare’s Spiritus – and Kadare is another of my favourite writers – I was aware of forcing myself to read it at various points. I hadn’t read it before, it had been sitting on my shelf for years, and I did enjoy it in the end. But what?

This feels like a real challenge: what is putting me off reading new – ie previously unread – novels?There’s almost a fear – reader’s block? – of not enjoying a book, of not being able to get into it, of not wanting to meet and engage with new characters and their lives, fictional though they may be. I’m wondering if this may perhaps be because I’ve read so much fiction earlier in my life, lived vicariously so much that now I no longer want to, and in my declining years/ older age want instead to engage with issues and ideas. Is there nothing new under the sun, to quote the sage?

I’ve written before about books that I’ve outgrown, moved on from, books that were significant, powerful, meaningful in my younger days but are no longer so… but books I have yet to read cannot fall into this category. Do I buy books on spec, and then the moment passes? But that’s something I’ve always done. Is it a phase I’m going through, or is it going to be like this from now on – no more new novels?

I’m curious to know if this is a phenomenon shared by any other of my older male readers (though I don’t know how many of them there are!) and would be interested in their thoughts. And then I cheered myself up by remembering how much I’d waited for and enjoyed the new Philip Pullman, and to which I will be going back very soon…

La Belle Sauvage – again…

October 22, 2017

If you think about it, the Dark Materials trilogy is a self-contained work that cannot itself be added to or extended: the events of those novels span multiple universes, made possible by the operations of Lord Asriel, and also by the use of the subtle knife, and when the novels end, the doors between the universes must all be sealed up, and the knife broken, so no further movement between worlds is possible: this is what makes the separation of Will and Lyra at the end of The Amber Spyglass so moving and painful – as well as necessary.

So, any subsequent books, including La Belle Sauvage and whatever the second and third parts of The Book of Dust is to be called, are additions: La Belle Sauvage happens in Lyra’s world, which we all know and love, but does not extend outside of it. The machinations of the Church, and Asriel, and others researching the Rusakov particle, will lead to the fantastic events of the trilogy ten years later, and the ten years after those events, the following books may be set in Will’s or Lyra’s world (or both) I imagine, but without connection between them.

What these limitations leave Philip Pullman with, it seems to me, are his ideas, which for me were always at the heart of the Dark Materials trilogy anyway: questions of innocence and experience, the notion of good and evil, original sin, and the role of God, if there is one.

The world of the Church and the Magisterium is a cruel and Calvinistic one, it seems to me, and its evil has been clarified for me by some of the reading I’ve been doing lately that has been prompted by the 500th anniversary of Luther‘s ninety-five theses and the start of the Reformation. One of the things which came from the Reformation was a stronger emphasis on what can only be called predestination: the idea that, in religious terms, or if one accepts that particular Christian doctrine, most people are born with no hope of salvation, doomed to damnation, and the small (smug?) band of the elect, or the saved, are saved through no effort of their own. Obviously I oversimplify, but it’s a pretty cruel God that some people have invented, and one that my own Catholic upbringing makes me find repellent.

The idea that we must try to build the Republic of Heaven here and now, in the world we are actually living in, is not a new one, though Pullman has made it clear and concrete in a different way in HDM. The choice to rebel against an arbitrary power (God, if you like) was evil, wrong, Satan-prompted, in traditional Christian terms, although even Milton in his epic Paradise Lost cannot help turning Satan into some kind of hero. But Pullman emphasises that the choice to reject control, to assume power oneself, is a positive and liberating one, as well as being the one that makes us fully human; again, it’s this final point that Milton cannot avoid in his poem. So, ultimately, is this choice to be human wrong – a sin – or inevitable, given our free will, and also liberating: this is what we are, and can be?

Free will is the problem, of course, for us humans now: many can and do choose evil, make wrong choices that harm and oppress others. Predestination removes the problem: we don’t have free will if we are predestined to damnation from the moment of birth, with no hope of changing our fate through our own actions, and what follows then is that nothing that happens in this world is of any ultimate significance or consequence at all: the elect get heaven anyway, and everyone else ends up in hell…

Back to Pullman, who nails his colours clearly to the mast in HDM: the Fall was a felix culpa, but not in the traditional Christian sense: the Fall liberates us to be human. Will and Lyra made many choices, considered and with the help and advice of many wise creatures, on their epic journey. Having read and enjoyed La Belle Sauvage, but thought further some of its inevitable limitations, I now realise that it’s the next two books that I’m really waiting for: what did happen next?

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage

October 19, 2017

So, horrid weather allowed me to feel far less guilty about taking a sofa day and reading this book – which I’ve been waiting for, for ages – cover to cover. It was brilliant. Obviously this first read was plot-driven, so I’ll be coming back to it for a re-read pretty soon. Meanwhile, I’ll try not to drop too many spoilers in what follows, but I don’t think I’m ruining anything by saying that this volume is set ten years before the events of His Dark Materials, and tells us how Lyra ends up in Jordan College, and the second volume – whenever that appears, although apparently Pullman has finished writing it – will take us ten years beyond the ending of the original trilogy. So, in some ways these two novels may perhaps be seen as ‘add-ons’ but they are full stories in their own right…

We are into well-crafted plot fairly rapidly, and I was amazed to realise how quickly and easily I slipped back into the parallel universe that is the one of the original trilogy: it seems quite ‘normal’, if that makes sense. I’ve always liked the way that Pullman ‘makes it strange’ in a Brechtian sense so that we notice the differences sufficiently, not to be oblivious to them, and yet we are not in so strange a world that we cannot easily connect it with our own. Although the plot is instantly gripping, I was aware that Pullman is piggy-backing his new story onto our memories of what went before (strictly, after, I suppose…). Characters re-appear, different because younger, and in different roles and this, of course, fired up my desire to go back again to HDM. And, most interesting of all, we are back with real philosophical questions, about the nature of consciousness itself, and how it developed in humans, and how far it extends down the chain of being and matter: we are back with Dust, and original sin, and innocence and experience. Pullman is an ace story-teller on one level, and on another, he really makes his readers work: if you only get an easy read out of this, you have missed so much.

As with HDM, there is the shock for adults of realising that children can sometimes know and understand more than we do, precisely because of their innocence. And Pullman does not pass up an opportunity to emphasise the liberating power of reading and libraries to children either, a note which always resonates with this particular reader.

I found myself thinking at one point, ‘well, it’s just more of the same old formula’ and then told myself that that was exactly what I wanted: more of that world, those people, those questions… Pullman has said that this novel is darker than the trilogy, and it is – there is more evil, and yet I was also struck by a strong sense of a network of good people with good intentions, doing their best in a difficult world, a feeling that I think is reinforced by the links with characters we met in different situations previously; it’s also a valuable message for us in our own benighted real world: there are a lot of people striving to do good, succeeding, and making real, small differences.

The second half of the book is set against the backdrop of a calamitous flood affecting all of southern Brytain, perhaps an acknowledgement of climate change most obviously, but one which reminded me very strongly, in terms of Pullman’s descriptive powers, of some of the more hallucinatory sections of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I shall have to look more closely into this one.

In short, an excellent read which gave me a very happy and satisfying sofa day, and briefly sated my desire for more of the world of His Dark Materials. I hope I haven’t spoiled it for you: get on and enjoy it yourself!

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

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