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.
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.
This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.
- Judging a Book by its Quirk Words: on Léon Bloy’s Tarantula’s Parlour (1893–4).
- Diabolical Framings: on Jules Barbey’s Diaboliques (1874).
- Urns as Hearts: on Jean Lorrain’s Soul-Drinker (1890s).
- Alone (With Only Your Demons): on Michel de Ghelderode’s Spells (1941).
- Articles on Henri Michaux’s Life in the Folds (1949): Fearing Fate; Fearing Change; Fearing Pain; Terror-Horror-Revulsion; Hiding Fear Behind Scientific Words; Writing Helplessness; Dangerous Associations; Paralipsis and Ironic Process; Zeus in the Attic.
- Unsaid Goodbyes: