Unsaid Goodbyes

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The hero dies at the end.

Suppose you know this from the moment you pick up a book. The suspense of “what’s ultimately going to happen” has been taken away from you. Worse, you’ve been told the ending is fatal. So why read a dreary tale?

At least two popular types of books start with the death premise: biography and tragedy. All-encompassing life stories have an inescapable birth-to-death trajectory, while the (classical) tragic drama will likely be lethal for the protagonists.

Then come books that have had their ending “spoiled”. Maybe it’s a history book, and you’re familiar with the outcome of the events it describes. Maybe you’ve seen the film. Maybe you’ve been told. This list is individual to each person.

I would read any of the above for the literary merit or the linguistic enjoyment (or because I needed information)—and not to revel in the plot. How about you? I have met at least one person who claimed she always started a thriller by reading the last few chapters; that way she knew where the novel was headed.

To each their own.

Next, we move into the fictional realm where the author controls your perception. For example, a cryptic opening scene may imply the hero will die (so you read on hoping that’s not the case), or it may depict a memorable death of someone who you find out is a false protagonist (a minor character who’s gratuitously killed off to make a point).

Finally, the most outrageous giveaway are the title and the blurb, like in Gabrielle Wittkop Exemplary Departures (1998), which contains five novellas depicting deaths under extraordinary circumstances. (I’ve also noted the young adult novel They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera. I’m curious to see how that one pans out.)

Though Wittkop’s stories are fictional, they’re mostly based on the unexplained disappearances of real people. So she offers fictional solutions to non-fictional mysteries (exercises in pataphysics, if you like), and we all like a good whodunnit.

But wait, here the protagonists aren’t the detectives, but the victims. As the narrative progresses, you become attached to victims and engrossed in their wicked struggle to survive against all odds. Specifically, to survive against the explicit authorial warning that death ensues. You writhe about, wrestling with the words, trying to misinterpret them, in the hope that just this once it’s not an “exemplary departure”, but an exemplary salvation.

(There’s no salvation.)

Tough reads become less tough when wrought in beautifully diverting language. As Wittkop is the “Modern Painter of Death” it’s only appropriate to study how she deals with the cycle of life (Quote 1) and the description of death itself (Quote 2).

Translations from the French by Annette David.

Observe the stunning variety of verbs (none of them are to be!) used to describe the stunning variety of life.

Quote 1 Nothing was wasted in this cosmos where everything bears fruit and decomposes, swallows, digests, expels, struggles to exist, copulates, germinates, hatches, and dissolves so as to grow again and again in an eternal ebb and flow, one after the other. Insect humors travel through the veins of the bark; liquified, the reptile is reborn in the fetid pulp of fungus; the feather becomes a leaf; the flower changes into a scale; eggs and soft roe burst into living myriads; death embraces resurrection, the two of them twinned like day and night.

A text is iconic if its appearance mimics its meaning. It can be thought of as a generalised, large-scale instance of onomatopoeia.

The mirroring of life’s variety in verb variety is an example of iconicity. The again and again is iconic of the eternal ebb and flow. More subtly, the duality of death and resurrection is exhibited in the preceding clauses separated by semicolons, where something travels through/is reborn/becomes/changes into/bursts into something else.

Note also the congeries, or heaps of words in the first sentence and the heaps of phrases in the second, as well as the principle of ending each sentence on the concluding sentiment: ebb and flow, and death embraces resurrection. This reinforces the natural aspect of the processes. Reversing the order to conclusion-first, list-second would have had a premeditated, artificial feel.

If Quote 1 was near the beginning of the book, Quote 2 marks the end where the incestuous hermaphrodite twins of the last story die, after having been stabbed and stripped by a group of bandits. Note how Wittkop deals with the traditional tropes of death: cold, darkness, doorway, travel, afterlife.

Quote 2: They were shivering with cold. The cold of their stripped body, the cold of their broken heart. And they shivered before this door that slowly opened into the vault of the night and which was going to provide a passage to something irremovable. And this would wrest from them the soul they had shared, the consciousness that always had united them in their joy of their love and in the privilege of their angelic monstrosity. Separated forever, they would disappear into the nothingness their mother had spoken of. Their body would become the prey of worms, fertile matter for grubs and roots. Never again would their gaze meet, never again would the turquoise fire ignite, never again would they put their lips together. But, lo and behold, this thing called Death gave them in exchange the fragile and derisory crown of a brief humanity. Their hands, feebly, still searched one another, as icy cold as the blood that was already forming crusts on their lace. A wave of pain washed over them, while they suffered the death that men and women and animals suffer.

Then everything grew dark.

Mixed with the sparse concreteness of their bodies (cold, prey to worm, fertile matter, blood, pain), is the metaphorical language of what it means to lose the privileges of life: the separation from others, the annihilation of presence, the never again. Death is the final humiliation and final fragility of the human condition.

Whilst Quote 2 contains no stunning revelation, it is well-rounded, addressing everything that one imagines necessary to address, concretely, poignantly, definitively. It’s also a fitting end to the book: even the most extraordinary departures conclude with everything growing dark.

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This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.

8 responses

  1. The first example that comes to mind of a story that starts with the end is the movie ‘Sunset Blvd.’ Like in many mystery novels, the pleasure is in finding out how and why the person ends up dead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the example! I just looked up the film, and now I’m curious to watch it myself.

      I find it’s a bit different with films, though, because screen-time is often given to many other characters (the narrative is omniscient, rather than following the victim around), which I find diffuses some of the stress.

      Also, whenever a film starts with a death like that, and then rewinds, I feel like I keep watching because I’m hoping that wasn’t the last scene, or that wasn’t the protagonist, or that wasn’t the dominant interpretation because it was a dummy or twin floating belly-down in the pool! I find it rather more depressing when you’re told by the author that death ensues, or in the case of biographies, there’s that section at the end about illness, struggle with depression, or just the fatal cutting off of life and it’s consequences (especially if the person is sympathetic).

      But maybe that’s just me. How do you feel about those scenarios?

      Liked by 1 person

      • For fiction, it makes for great opening lines that hook the reader. The challenge is having the story live up to the opening and an ending with a final reveal or detail. In other words, it is tough to do well but, when well done, it can make for a great story.

        For biographies, I think it’s about getting insights and less well known details about the person’s life. If I’m picking up a biography about someone it is because I am interested in the person and I am looking for something more than a chronological list of major events (which I probably already know) in their life. A sad ending, if it adds little to the telling of the person’s life, can be summarized with tasteful tone of regret. Again, it’s about the author’s skill in telling the story well.

        A well told (written) story is always interesting. The best are books that I reread and there I know more than just the ending.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You’ve got a number of good points there. I definitely agree that most stories can be made reader-worthy by an excellent author.

        Your last sentence, however, touches on something I’ve been curious about for a while (and is related to the issue of “knowing what happens but reading on nonetheless”). Why do people reread? Specifically, why would you say that you reread a book?

        I ask because I don’t reread unless there’s a specific reason, and it’s usually because I forgot the ending, or forgot that beautiful phrase on page 5, or forgot that fact I wish I knew or that poem I can’t commit to memory. This means I partially reread non-fiction all the time. Poetry, too. In between, I’ll fit anything that’s beautiful or useful, but I’m yet to sit down to reread a whole fiction book that I know the ending and plot of for any other reason than I liked the book. (For example, I reread The Brother’s Karamazov a few years ago, and I could reread it again today, but I would only do so because I’m intensely curious about the philosophy and because I have actively forgotten the crucial arguments.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • For many years my rereading habits were like yours. A few years ago (I do not remember the details), I opened a recently read book to look up a passage and found myself seeing all sorts of things I had missed during my first reading. In my initial reading I was caught up in the story. I missed references, allusions , and the full beauty of the writing.

        I hear a similar argument from regular rereaders e.g. “One of my favourites, I always find something new when I reread it.”

        I doubt it will become something I do often because there are too many books that I have yet to read and too few good enough for me to want to replace the opportunity to read one of them. Sometimes I will start rereading a book and end up skimming through it with the occasional slow down for the better parts. Nevertheless, I am now more open to rereading a well written book even if I remember the story well.

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      • I’ve been thinking about your most recent, nuanced response, and it seems we’re actually in agreement as to why (and when) one would reread and why one can’t afford to do so often.

        Something we haven’t mentioned, but which might play a role in why people compulsively reread books over and over again in a short span (I’m still trying to figure out this particular phenomenon!), is the personal “meta-data” that goes along with each reading.

        For example, if a book made you feel good, you might reach for it again to recreate the feeling (although I’m not sure that works for me).

        Or, a bit more convoluted and counter-intuitive, but still plausible: if you read a book when you were extremely happy, then that book becomes associated with the good mood, so you might reread the book to try to evoke the mood (this one is more likely to work for me).

        Liked by 1 person

      • Interesting ideas.

        A similar theme I have seen is where people treat a book (or handful of books) as a personal bible. They found the book inspirational or life-changing or whatever and now they mine it regularly for further insights or a reboost.

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      • Oh, that’s right! Actually, I came across a variation of that thought in Barthes’s Pleasure of the Text. He’s rather elliptic and cryptic, but as far as I can tell he doesn’t consider Proust’s works as a bible, but rather they come to him unbidden. (Which is possibly a consequence of rereading?)

        In particular:
        “Reading a text cited by Stendhal (but not written by him) I find Proust in one minute details.” And later: “Elsewhere, but in the same way, in Flaubert, it is the blossoming apple trees of Normandy which I read according to Proust.”

        I find I do read things according to someone, but usually it’s because I’ve read that someone recently, not frequently. Although, again, ultimately this perhaps amounts to a similar feeling.

        (Once I’m out of the fantastic grotesque series I’ll get around to some posts along these lines…)

        Liked by 1 person

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