I've realized a couple of things while reading from A Reader's Book of Days in various eastern and western bookshops the past few weeks. One: the stories (at least the ones I choose in my on-the-fly editing as audience members shout their birthdays) read better than I expected. I wasn't sure if my Rube Goldberg sentences, arranged in tiny tales crammed with as much info and interest as I could pack into a hundred and fifty words, would work when spoken, but I think they actually work better. Telling the stories aloud, I can adjust the pace and emphasis to ease a listener's way through my narrative convolutions. Maybe there should be an audiobook!
And two: there's a lot of death in the book. (I found myself apologizing for it--in an I'm-not-really-apologizing kind of way--at most stops.) There are plenty of stories of life in there too, of beginnings and hopeful successes, but clearly I was often drawn to stories about endings. I shouldn't be surprised, I guess: I love obituaries, and considered the life-summing concision of the best of them a model for my own storytelling. What can better focus drama into a single paragraph, after all, than death? And so if I make a list of my favorite stories of writers facing the end from A Reader's Book of Days, I have dozens to choose from, but here is an even dozen. It seems a little ghoulish, even to me, to rank them, though, so I've just arranged them chronologically through the year. As it happens, that places, appropriately, some of my very favorites at the end: the Margaret Wise Brown story bewilders me with its surprising turns, the Kleist one makes me almost as giddy as its protagonists. And William James writing a last letter to his father? Well, I'm just glad no one in my audiences has asked for a reading from December 14: I'm not sure I could have gotten through that one without breaking down.
January 28, 1728. On this evening Jonathan Swift received a message he had been dreading, announcing the death of Esther Johnson and, with it, the end of the great friendship of his life. They met when he was twenty-one and she just eight: he tutored her as a child, nicknaming her Stella, and when she reached maturity she followed him to Dublin. Biographers doubt the rumors they were married in secret and generally trust Swift's assertions of their celibacy, but the passion between them was unmistakable: as Swift wrote to a friend, "Believe me that violent friendship is much more lasting, and as much engaging, as violent love." After her death, Swift confessed in "On the Death of Mrs. Johnson" that he was too heartsick to attend her funeral, and indeed had to move away from a window through which he could see the light from the church where it was being held.
- February 9, 1977. “Eva, my love, it’s over,” Stieg Larsson wrote his girlfriend, Eva Gabrielsson. “As I leave for Africa, I’m aware of what’s waiting for me . . . I think this trip might lead to my death.” At twenty-two Larsson, a science fiction fanzine editor and Trotskyite, was setting out for Africa, where he would put his Swedish national service training to use by teaching a group of female guerrilla fighters in the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front to fire mortars in their independence struggle against Ethiopia. Certain he’d die there, he made out the only will of his life before leaving, a will that, at his death twenty-seven years later with his Millennium Trilogy yet to be published, left Gabrielsson, still his girlfriend, without control of his estate, his works, or even their shared apartment.
- February 12, 1988. The death of Thomas Bernhard by assisted suicide on this day, after years of illness, was, by his request, not revealed to the public until four days later, following a small private funeral. Also revealed was Bernhard’s final joke on the native country he had spent his career despising: a will that stipulated that none of his writings “shall be produced, printed, or even just recited within the borders of the Austrian state, however that state defines itself, for the duration of the legal copyright.” But like the artistic efforts of so many of his novels’ characters, this last gesture was a failure: ten years after his death, Bernhard’s heirs let the ban on production of his plays in Austria lapse, allowing his compatriots to enjoy, once again, his mockery of them.
- March 14, 1858. “My dear Beth died at three this morning,” Louisa May Alcott recorded. Elizabeth, the third Alcott sister and the quietest, had contracted scarlet fever two years before, much like the last illness of Beth, the third March sister—and the only one whose name matches her model in the Alcott family—in Little Women. Alcott also noted a “curious thing”: that just after Beth breathed her last, “I saw a light mist rise from the body, and float up and vanish in the air.” Her mother saw the same, and the family doctor explained, “It was the life departing visibly.” The following day, her sister’s pallbearers included “Mr. Emerson” and “Henry Thoreau.”
- May 10, 2012. David Rakoff’s essays were hard to separate from his voice; many of them began, in fact, as monologues on This American Life, the radio show he contributed to from its beginnings in the mid-’90s. Along the way, he told stories of the cancer that had first struck him at age twenty-two and then returned two decades later, and in his last appearance on the show, at a live performance recorded on this day, three months before he died, Rakoff, once a dancer, with his left arm rendered useless by his tumor and surgery, danced again, alone onstage, to Nat King Cole’s “What’ll I Do?”
- July 11, 1942. On this morning, three days after all books by Jewish authors were banned from sale in occupied France, Irène Némirovsky took a walk in the woods in the village of Issy-l’Évêque, where she had fled from Paris in 1940. She brought with her the second volume of Anna Karenina, the Journal of Katherine Mansfield, and an orange, and sat “in the middle of an ocean of leaves, wet and rotting from last night’s storm, as if on a raft.” That same day, she wrote her editor, “I’ve written a great deal lately. I suppose they will be posthumous books but it still makes the time go by.” Two days later she was seized by the French police and four days after that shipped in a cattle car to Auschwitz, where she died a month later, sixty years before Suite Française, the book she left unfinished, was discovered and published.
- August 18, 1563. Though as a teenager he wrote a political essay against tyranny, "On Voluntary Slavery," that is still read to this day, Étienne de La Boétie is largely remembered for one reason: as the bosom friend of Michel de Montaigne, who, having spent the previous ten days at La Boétie's side despite the threat of contagion, recorded his death from plague at 3 a.m. on this day. They had known each other only six years, but it's often been thought that Montaigne's retreat to a life of writing, almost a decade after La Boétie's death, was a way of keeping himself company in the absence of his friend, about whom he wrote, in the essay titled, naturally, "Of Friendship," "We were halved throughout, to a degree, I think that by outliving him, I defraud him of his part."
- September 21, 1939. Living in exile from the Nazis in London, with his suffering from terminal mouth cancer nearly unbearable, Sigmund Freud selected his reading from his library with care. On September 20, he read his final book, La peau de chagrin, Balzac’s tale of a man who finds a magic hide that grants him wishes but shrinks, along with his remaining life, with each wish. “This was the proper book for me to read,” he remarked to his doctor, Max Schur; “it deals with shrinking and starvation.” The following day, he reminded Schur of his promise “not to forsake me when the time comes.” Schur hadn’t forgotten, and over the next two days administered doses of morphine strong enough that Freud never woke from their effects.
- November 9, 2011. Christopher Hitchens's hospital room in the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston was, as Ian McEwan put it, raised temporarily “to the condition of a good university library.” It was Hitch’s last home, and when McEwan made his final visit there Hitchens borrowed the Peter Ackroyd book his friend had been reading on the plane and finished it that night. Hitchens would be dead in a little more than a month—and had few illusions it would be otherwise—but still he worked away, weakened by pain and morphine, at a 3,000-word review of a Chesterton biography, while talking of Dreiser, Browning, and The Magic Mountain with his friends. McEwan, by Hitchens’s request, read Larkin’s “Whitsun Weddings” aloud, and their debate about its ending’s ambiguous arrows continued, unresolved, into the last e-mails that followed their in-person goodbyes.
- November 13, 1952. Though she was just forty-two, Margaret Wise Brown had nearly a hundred children’s books to her name when she took ill while traveling in Europe. Treated for an ovarian cyst, she grew fond of the nuns at the hospital and, to show one how well she was doing before being released, kicked one foot high in the air from her hospital bed, dislodging a blood clot in her leg that quickly traveled to her brain and killed her. With typically impulsive generosity—and little imagining it would take effect so soon or that its value would increase so significantly—she had recently revised her will to leave the copyright to most of her books, including Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, to a friend’s eight-year-old son, who spent most of his adult life as a drifter, arrested for petty crimes and living off his ever-growing royalty checks.
- November 21, 1811. Fulfilling a suicide pact both delirious and deliberate, Heinrich von Kleist, a young dramatist and novelist considered by his family a parasite and a wastrel, shot Henriette Vogel, a woman with terminal cancer who had captivated him with her passion for death, and then himself at a rural inn outside Berlin. The two spent their final moments drinking coffee and rum and chasing each other like children, after writing letters of reconciliation and explanation to family and friends, assuring them that their souls were about to ascend “like two joyous balloonists” and making arrangements for their death, including, in Vogel’s case, ordering a commemorative cup for her husband’s Christmas present and, in Kleist’s, asking the Prussian secretary of war to pay a final barber’s bill he had forgotten.
- December 14, 1882. As Henry James Sr., the mercurial patriarch who cultivated a family of geniuses, approached his death, his daughter, Alice, took to her bed, his son Henry embarked for home by ship from London, and his son William, also in London, wrote a farewell letter that, like Henry Jr., arrived in Boston too late to greet his “blessed old father” before he passed. William’s letter is as accepting of death (“If you go, it will not be an inharmonious thing”) as his father, who welcomed it, and touchingly Jamesian in its combination of affection and analysis: “It comes strangely over me in bidding you good bye, how a life is but a day and expresses mainly but a single note—it is so much like the act of bidding an ordinary good night. Good night my sacred old Father."