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Posts Tagged ‘death’

A Thing That Ends in Dying

June 5, 2014 | by

ivy compton burnett

Ivy Compton-Burnett

Happy birthday to Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett, who wrote dialogue so witty, lively, and fluent it makes Aaron Sorkin look like—uh—well, you get the idea—I’m sure one of them would be savvy enough to fill in the blank. “She was very, very clever,” Rebecca West said of Compton-Burnett in her 1981 Art of Fiction interview. “You’d have to be very tasteless not to see she had something unique to give her age.”

Here, in the way of proof positive, is the beginning of The Present and the Past, her 1953 novel, which starts with a lot of winsome talk about poultry, death, and cake.

“Oh, dear, oh, dear!” said Henry Clare.

His sister glanced in his direction.

“They are pecking the sick one. They are angry because it is ill.”

“Perhaps it is because they are anxious,” said Megan, looking at the hens in the hope of discerning this feeling.

“It will soon be dead,” said Henry, sitting on a log with his hands on his knees. “It must be having death-pangs now.”

Another member of the family was giving his attention to the fowls. He was earnestly thrusting cake through the wire for their entertainment. When he dropped a piece he picked it up and put it into his own mouth, as though it had been rendered unfit for poultry’s consumption. His elders appeared to view his attitude either in indifference or sympathy.

“What are death-pangs like?” said Henry, in another tone.

“I don’t know,” said his sister, keeping her eyes from the sufferer of them. “And I don’t think the hen is having them. It seems not to know anything.”

Henry was a tall, solid boy of eight, with rough, dark hair, pale, wide eyes, formless, infantine features, and something vulnerable about him that seemed inconsistent with himself. His sister, a year younger and smaller for her age, had narrower, deeper eyes, a regular, oval face, sudden, nervous movements, and something resistant in her that was again at variance with what was beneath.

Tobias at three had small, dark, busy eyes, a fluffy, colourless head, a face that changed with the weeks and evinced an uncertain charm, and a withdrawn expression consistent with his absorption in his own interests. He was still pushing crumbs through the wire when his shoulder was grasped by a hand above him.

“Wasting your cake on the hens! You know you were to eat it yourself.”

Toby continued his task as though unaware of interruption.

“Couldn’t one of you others have stopped him?”

The latter also seemed unaware of any break.

“Don’t do that,” said the nursemaid, seizing Toby’s arm so that he dropped the cake. “Didn’t you hear me speak?”

Toby still seemed not to do so. He retrieved the cake, took a bite himself and resumed his work.

“Don’t eat it now,” said Eliza. “Give it all to the hens.”

Toby followed the injunction, and she waited until the cake was gone.

“Now if I give you another piece, will you eat it?”

“Can we have another piece too?” said the other children, appearing to notice her for the first time.

She distributed the cake, and Toby turned to the wire, but when she pulled him away, stood eating contentedly.

“Soon be better now,” he said, with reference to the hen and his dealings with it.

“It didn’t get any cake,” said Henry. “The others had it all. They took it and then pecked the sick one. Oh, dear, oh, dear!”

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Worry

May 14, 2014 | by

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Detail view of works from the exhibition “Sophie Calle : Absence,“ Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2013; photo: Steven Probert; © 2014 Sophie Calle /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy of Sophie Calle; Paula Cooper Gallery and Galerie Perrotin

Sophie Calle’s “Rachel/Monique” is currently on view at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on upper Fifth Avenue, a ZIP code the artist says the eponymous subject—her mother—would have appreciated, “because she always loved the Upper East Side.” The show, which wrests with the life and death of the woman most often known as Monique Sindler, is full of things she would have liked. Indeed, she liked being the subject of one of her daughter’s works. As Calle writes,

My mother liked to be the object of discussion. Her life did not appear in my work, and that annoyed her. When I set up my camera at the foot of the bed in which she lay dying—I wanted to be present to hear her last words, and was afraid that she would pass away in my absence—she exclaimed: “Finally!”

The space itself is austerely beautiful, and the show’s installation complements the neo-Gothic confines of the chapel—they’ll continue to hold services for the duration of its run. Madame Sindler’s last words were “Don’t worry,” and that last one—souci—is a motif throughout, wrought in a lace hanging, written out in multicolored butterflies on a stone wall, represented by a bouquet—since the word also means “marigold” in French. The prettiness is disarming, but not necessarily misleading. There is no distinction made between prettiness and toughness, prettiness and the macabre, prettiness and death, even. Read More »

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Maude

May 6, 2014 | by

Feline as memento mori.
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Franz Marc, Kater auf gelbem Kissen, 1912

I was in New York for a book talk, staying at a friend’s house in an industrial area of Brooklyn, when I awoke to a sound somewhere between a teakettle’s whistle and the creak of an ancient floorboard: my friend’s cat, Maude, meowing piteously at the edge of the bed. She was tiny, the color of ivory, with half crescent moons for claws and bright green, bloodshot eyes.

I’d been warned that Maude meowed in the mornings when she wanted the faucet turned on—she drank from the tub—so I walked to the bathroom and twisted the spout until cold water trickled down. Maude leapt into the tub and began lapping away, her tongue bright as chewing gum. I went about my slow morning routine: coffee, Twitter, fussing with hair, scrutiny of encroaching crow’s-feet, etc.

It was noon by the time I was ready to leave, and I returned to the bedroom for my laptop. There, in the middle of the white room, on the white bedspread, was the white cat, covered in blood. It seeped out from her in clouds, watery and pale red like a nightmare sky. But when I bent over and touched her she was still breathing, alert, looking at me with those science-fiction eyes. Read More »

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On Epitaphic Fictions: Robert Louis Stevenson, Philip Larkin

April 29, 2014 | by

The second in a three-part series on writers’ epitaphs. Read yesterday’s installment here.

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John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887

There is very little that’s puzzling about Philip Larkin’s two-penny upright “This Be the Verse” (1971):

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can.
And don’t have any kids yourself.

“This Be the Verse” is arguably the best-loved English poem of the last half of the twentieth century. Funny, frank, transgressive—human—the poem has stood up admirably in pub, alley, and classroom. (Of how many humans with fancy titles can this be said?) But what about that awkward title? How did a writer as good as Larkin fuck up his forms of to be?

The title’s oddness is no empty gesture. The words “This Be the Verse” point us toward one of the sweetest, un-Larkin-esque poems in the language, Robert Louis Stevenson’s self-composed epitaph. When it’s published in an anthology, it usually appears as two stanzas called “Requiem,” but on Stevenson’s tomb, the epitaph is presented as a single block under his name and dates, without punctuation or title: Read More »

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The Way of All Flesh, Etc.

April 28, 2014 | by

The New Orleans Advocate reports that “Mickey Easterling, a New Orleans socialite known as much for her grand lifestyle and outlandish hats as for her civic, cultural, and political activism, died Monday at her Lakefront home.” Easterling was a character of the old school: a generous benefactor of many charities who wintered in Morocco and was given to sweeping pronouncements.

Her family honored her wishes by throwing a festive wake-cum-cocktail party. The centerpiece of the shindig was the deceased herself—propped up in full regalia and makeup, just as in life. Reports the Daily Mail, with photos,

The consummate hostess, she was never without her glass of champagne or cigarette holder, and wore a flamboyant feather boa, bonnet, and a diamond-studded brooch that said ‘Bitch’ … To Easterling’s right, on a small table, sat a bottle of her favorite Champagne—Veuve Clicquot—as well as a pack of American Spirit cigarettes, and in her right hand was a Waterford crystal Champagne flute, the kind she used to carry around with her sometimes when restaurant glassware wouldn’t suffice.

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On Epitaphic Fictions: Ben Franklin, W. B. Yeats

April 28, 2014 | by

The first in a three-part series on writers’ epitaphs.

William_Butler_Yeats_by_John_Singer_Sargent_1908

John Singer Sargent, William Butler Yeats, 1908

“In lapidary inscriptions, a man is not upon oath.” —Samuel Johnson

Got a brittle, expensive medium? Bring an elastic ethics.

Dr. Johnson understood that words on headstones provide cover stories. Acts of make-believe inscribed in stone may be as banal as an incorrect—or fudged—year of birth; the phrase “In Loving Memory” must be a fiction much of the time. On the other hand, great writers have composed words for headstones, real and imaginary, that offer us complex fictions in which we may dwell, as if in compensation for loss. For such writers, good grief is infused with imagination.

Witness this epitaph in the collection of the Yale Library, from an autograph manuscript composed circa 1728: Read More »

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