Immortal prose: how writers deal with death

by Anne O’Neill, The Irish Times, 23 November 2016

Ms O’Neill reviews how different writers have dealt with death and dying.

Christopher Hitchens was on a book tour for Hitch 22 when he experienced the first health crisis that was the beginning of his demise. However, this pugnacious and witty writer was able to channel his experiences into his end of life memoir Mortality, which begins with the line “I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death”. When the emergency services arrive to collect him Hitchens feels a psychogeographical shift taking him “from the country of the well to the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady”. Hitchens concedes that he has become a finalist in the race of life and quotes from TS Eliot’s Prufrock: I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker / And I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat / and snicker / And in short / I was afraid.

Hitch decided to live dyingly and extolled the consolation of friends who came to eat, drink and converse with him even as these earthly delights become impossible for him as the cancer progressed. His memoir is life affirming, punchy and rich with morbid humour, noting that when one falls ill people tend to send Leonard Cohen CDs. 

Doctors face death daily and Dr Paul Kalanithi became a neurosurgeon because with its unforgiving call to “perfection, it seemed to present the most challenging and direct confrontation with meaning, identity and death”. When Breath Becomes Air opens with a description by the author of a CT scan that he was examining where the lungs were matted with innumerable tumours, the spine deformed and a full lobe of the liver obliterated. This scan, though similar to scores of others that he had examined over the previous six years, was different, different because it was his own. Kalanithi wrote his memoir in the aftermath of this discovery, fusing his medical knowledge with his love of literature to produce a work that is more than a memoir: it is a philosophical reflection on life and purpose. Kalanithi and his wife have a baby Cady who was eight months old when her father died. His memoir will be his legacy to his little girl as “words”, he writes, “have a longevity I do not”.

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