The course of New Yorkers into and through my house is a fluid one. They arrive every week (I'm not even sure on which day), but rather than being read or even stacked up in some orderly, chronological way, they slip into the undifferentiated flow of well-edited words that constantly circulates through the building: NYRBs, Harper'ses, Bookforums, NYT Mags, etc., but mainly New Yorkers. It's not just their nontopical covers that make them so easily subsumed, it's that I usually have three or four issues folded open at once (in various rooms), so it's as if they don't even have covers, which puts the idea of a "current" issue of the New Yorker in a different light: they are all part of the same current. They wash through the house--often getting lodged in eddies for months--and don't exit until I finally make it through a particular issue and divert it into the recycling stream.
Which explains why it wasn't until a few weeks after its December 9 cover date that I got to "Why?", James Wood's recent piece on fiction and death. If I had known how specifically it would help me think about some things I had been thinking about, though, I would have opened it right away. In my last post here, I tried to explain why so many of my favorite stories in A Reader's Book of Days had to do with death. Honestly, though, I didn't try that hard. "Death is dramatic, I guess," was all I really came up with, and when I talked about the same thing soon after with Mary Ann Gwinn, in one of the many exchanges that didn't make it into our Seattle Times Q&A, I didn't do much better.
But Wood does. First he cites Benjamin, Blanchot, Bernhard, Calvino, and his wife (Claire Messud), who all agree that death, beyond its own obvious drama, gives life a shape by giving it an ending. Death makes life a story, in other words. "Suddenly," as Messud wrote in condolence to a friend who had just lost her mother, "the whole trajectory is visible." (Perhaps only a novelist would find that idea consoling.) And then Wood turns the thought further by arguing that death, implicit or explicit, is what gives fiction its shape as well: "fiction, the great life-giver, also kills, not just because people often die in novels and stories, but, more important, because, even if they don't die, they have already happened." Every fiction is in the past tense, because it is complete even as we read it. Every novelist is both creator and destroyer. Every fiction is an obituary.
Wood calls out a lineup of his usual heroes (Naipaul, Sebald, Nabokov, Spark, et al.) who are especially conscious of this godlike power: they are not shy of wielding it, but they do so in ways that lay bare its limits. I agree: some of those writers--Sebald and the imperious Spark especially--are among the ones who I've felt have released me to the pleasures (and the productive anxieties) of narrative power in my own storytelling, both in fiction and in the many, many anecdotes of the RBD. One of the real joys in writing--and I hope in reading--that book of a thousand tiny tales was the summing up it required (embraced, even). There's a craftsperson's satisfaction in paring down an event, or a life, into a hundred and fifty words or so, but let's be clear: it's a god's satisfaction too. The shorter the stories, and the more of the mess of a full life you prune away, the more godlike (or Spark-like) an authority you claim. You decide what's important about that life and, more crucially, what's not.
And Wood helped me understand that: four-fifths of the way through, "Why?" already felt like it was speaking directly to just the sorts of things I had been thinking about. But then, after his nod to A House for Mr. Biswas (which he must be contractually obligated to mention in every essay), Wood made that feeling more acute by turning to his final example: Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower. It's one of my many minor regrets about the RBD that Fitzgerald hardly appears there. I've blamed that on the fact that she's one of those recent, near-canonical authors (Angela Carter's another) whose lives weren't yet quite primed for mining by a secondary (or tertiary) book like mine: Hermione Lee's biography, the first full one of Fitzgerald, wasn't published until this year, too late for my deadline. But I've no real excuse: there was already a book of her letters available, and of course there are her novels, which, somehow, I never got around to checking for dates (probably for the simple and shameful reason that the fiction "F"s are on a lower shelf in my basement, hidden behind the sofa).
I've often declared (not falsely!) my love for The Blue Flower, her novel about the poet Novalis, even though I've never finished it. (There's a blog post yet to be written--appropriately, I guess--about loving books I haven't finished.) And as it turns out, The Blue Flower is filthy with dates, the last of which appears on the last page of the book, in what Wood calls, admiringly, a "blank, colorless, uninflected sentence":
The Bernhard was drowned in the Saale on the 28th of November 1800.
It is a one-sentence obituary for a twelve-year-old child, the "genius of the family" in the rest of the novel, and in its murderous brevity it's the ultimate expression, you might say, of the godlike sweep of the hand of the omniscient storyteller. But even as it sums up, and seems to dismiss, his short life in that short sentence, its very "blank, colorless, uninflected" bluntness carries a poignancy that escapes its terse limits. The tragedy of the Bernhard's life may be that his promising life was ended so early; the tragedy of that sentence is that there is no way you can capture his consciousness in a single declaration. If, to follow Wood, every fictional sentence is a death sentence, every one of those sentences is, to some extent, unjust, because it can never do full justice to the life it sums up.
And the (minor, minor) tragedy of the RBD is that, without the Bernhard, it too is incomplete. November 28 is an especially full day already--it's the day Virginia Woolf celebrated what would have been the ninety-sixth birthday of her late father by declaring that if he had lived she would never have written, and it's also the day Kurt Vonnegut wrote a spoof letter to his uncle on General Electric stationery and the night Truman Capote hosted his Black and White Ball. (It's so full that I only had a sentence's worth of space for William Shakespeare paying £40 for his license to marry Anne Hathaway.) But knowing now that I missed the chance to include the blank, colorless, uninflected death of the Bernhard, in all its thematically appropriate concision, gives page 372 a haunting absence that, for me at least, echoes the sad incompletion of the Bernhard's own fictional life.