In this bimonthly series, “Best of the B-Sides,” critic and bookseller Lori Feathers recommends a new work in translation along with a number of backlist (“B-Side”) titles that you might have missed.
No event in life has greater personal significance than our own death. The burden of cohabitating with the inevitability that we will die someday is a circumstance that has inspired countless literary works: Captain Ahab and his whale, Dorian Gray and his portrait, Clarissa Dalloway and her party, to name just a few. In the stories recommended below, a fixation with death overwhelms daily existence, squeezing joy and purpose from the present and sometimes even hastening death itself.
In Anne-Renée Caillé’s The Embalmer (Coach House Books, 2018, tr. Rhonda Mullins), the narrator shares stories of her father’s lifelong fascination with the dead and his recollections of preparing bodies for their funeral rites. The book is a series of fragments that recount episodes culled from her father’s memory, beginning with the first time that he touched an embalmed corpse at age seven and continuing with some notable cases from his career, exceptional due to the circumstances of the death or the extra effort required to preserve the body. Her father approaches his subjects with the studied gaze of a portraitist: he examines the traits of the deceased’s face and the evidence of the trauma wrought by death with a perceptive acuity and sensitivity. His patient care in rehabilitating skin-tone, disguising injuries, styling hair, and clothing the corpses creates a paternal intimacy between him and his mute clients.
One day doctors find a brain tumor near the father’s left eye and, with this news, he abruptly stops working as an embalmer, instead finding work as a painter and, later, as a heavy machine operator. In response to his daughter’s questioning about why, after so many years, he quit a career to which he had been completely committed, he refers to his “shift from fascination to revulsion,” and states that he simply wants a job where he can “leave peacefully in the morning like everyone with [his] lunch box.”
The Embalmer is the study of a man who, for most of his life, chose to keep company with the dead; whose careful devotion to how the deceased look in their final, corporeal moment on earth was not just a job, but a vocation. Day after day and year after year he literally stared death in the face, yet it seems that he succumbed to the comforting implausibility that, somehow, he might escape ever being just another of those faces.
In his quirky, fable-like novel, The Young Bride (Europa Editions, 2016, tr. Ann Goldstein), Alessandro Baricco spins the tale of a family who, with great intention, lives each day identically to the one before, believing that doing so will halt time and, with it, their own deaths. Inside their self-contained world—a European manor in the early years of the twentieth century—the family persists in an altogether indolent lifestyle sustained by an inherited textile business and the services of Modesto, the aptly-named servant who has been with them for fifty-nine years. Modesto never invents or improvises as he ushers the family through their perfectly sequenced and unvaried days. This cosseted monotony is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the Son’s betrothed, the young Bride, who soon learns that the family’s efforts to maintain an existence impervious to emotion, unpleasantness, and death are motivated by a superstitious belief in a family curse:
For a hundred and thirteen years, it should be said, all of us have died at night, in our family. That explains everything.
This prophecy makes death as constant in the minds of the family members as the darkness that follows each day. The Young Bride is an unusual, warm, and beautifully written take on how the obsessive fear of dying can distort our ability to live and love.
Perhaps no one in literature is more preoccupied with his own demise than Ivan Ilych, the protagonist of Lev Tolstoy’s aptly-named story, The Death of Ivan Ilych (Perennial, 2004, tr. Louise and Aylmer Maude). Ivan Ilych is a middle-aged official, recently promoted and settling into a new home with his wife of seventeen years. Days after slipping on a stepladder and bruising his side he visits his doctor, complaining of discomfort that he attributes to the accident. When the doctor is unable to make a definitive prognosis about his condition, Ivan Ilych becomes convinced that his health is deteriorating more and more. His mental anguish about his illness is aggravated by the belief that family and friends are withholding their sympathy toward him:
What most tormented Ivan Ilych was that no one pitied him as he wished to be pitied . . . he wished most of all (though he would have been ashamed to confess it) for someone to pity him as a sick child is pitied.
A deep resentment builds inside him for everyone who is in good health, including his wife:
Ivan Ilych looks at her, scans her all over, sets against her the whiteness and plumpness and cleanness of her hands and neck, the gloss of her hair, and the sparkle of her vivacious eyes. He hates her with his whole soul. And the thrill of hatred he feels for her makes him suffer from her touch.
As the story’s title portends, Ivan Ilych’s relentless and paranoid conviction that he is dying becomes a self-fulfilling conclusion. Anything but the trite tale of a typical hypochondriac, The Death of Ivan Ilych is a penetrating and insightful observation of the human condition by an author who is the incomparable master of beaming a light into the darkest corners of our consciousness.
The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds.
These are the opening lines of Death with Interruptions (Harcourt, 2008, tr. Margaret Jull Costa), a brilliant and sharply humorous novel by the late, Nobel prize-winning author José Saramago. For the small, unnamed country where the story takes place, the end of death creates many problems. For instance, it is not long before certain sectors of the nation’s economy are flung into crisis: hospitals and nursing homes run out of beds, funeral homes and gravediggers have no income, and insurance companies are forced to reinvent themselves. The country’s institutions are no better equipped to absorb the new reality. The government prevaricates in its response to the phenomenon, issuing communiqués that data is being collected and international institutions consulted. And the Catholic church faces an existential conundrum; as the cardinal puts it, “Without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection there is no church.”
Although no one is dying, death doesn’t cease to exist. In fact, after months of inactivity she sits at her desk in a hooded shroud (“her historic uniform”) and composes letters announcing that death has resumed and that if you receive her letter, it means that you will die in seven days. In presenting these two extremes of certitude—living forever versus knowing the exact date of your demise—Saramago explores how our daily existence is tied to the predictable, unpredictability of our own mortality, and he opens our eyes to the possibility that there is wonderment and grace in the unknowingness of life, and of death.