Death in Literature

Characters in fiction don't spend much time dying anymore. Of course they die—if you were to remove from the shelves all the novels in which a life is lost, the stacks would be bare—and sometimes, as in "The Lovely Bones," they speak to us from beyond the grave.

But the characters of today don't spend much time on the brutal labor of dying.

Dying, it seems, has become the province of nonfiction. Memoirs charting the final illnesses of parents, relatives, mentors and, indeed, the authors themselves are too numerous to cite. A number, including Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays With Morrie" and Randy Pausch's "The Last Lecture," have become bestsellers. We have time for death as a learning experience, at once real (it is more moving to us to know that the personage under discussion once lived and breathed) and morally instructive (perhaps, from their wisdom, we will learn how to live and how to die). Jade Goody, a reality-TV star from the British "Big Brother" who was once reviled for her racism and bad behavior, has of late been lionized as she faces death from cervical cancer: she married in front of the cameras this past month, providing us an image of courage in adversity, of fairy-tale romance to the end. This vision of dying as noble, even beautiful, consoles us, assures us that somehow we can remove its sting.

The prolonged messiness of dying, however, is not the focus of our accounts, in prose or in pictures. Like the unseemly actuality of childbirth, it is publicly elided: Goody racked in pain, confined to her hospital bed, is not on offer for the cameras. Nor are depictions of terminal suffering often found in contemporary fiction. Publishers are wary of a subject so bleak. It may be that writers, too, shy away from the topic: in a culture preoccupied with youth, beauty and success, death seems peripheral, a necessary but ignorable ill. Unless we can imbue it with meaning—the transcendence that we all so guiltily seek—we do not want to talk about it.

It was not ever thus. In 19th-century life, death could not be so easily avoided; and so, in 19th-century fiction, dying—the actual, hideous effort of dying—played a significant role. Think how long it takes Emma Bovary to succumb to her arsenic, and the scrupulous detail with which Flaubert records her agonies. Remember, too, that his unflinching eye alights upon the indifference of the living before the dead, as the pharmacist and the priest debate faith over Emma's corpse while snacking upon the cold supper laid on the dresser. Similarly, in Tolstoy's masterpiece of dying, "The Death of Ivan Ilych," we learn at the outset that "the very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always, a feeling of delight that he had died and they hadn't." Only then does Tolstoy cast his narrative back to Ivan Ilych's brief life and seemingly endless dying: "How it came about in the third month of Ivan Ilych's illness … Another two weeks went by … Two weeks went by like this …" Who knew that death could take so long? His family can't stand it; only Gerasim, his rudely vital peasant servant, holds his legs and uncomplainingly gives him comfort—"Gerasim did all of this easily, willingly and with a kindliness that Ivan Ilych found moving"—in the knowledge that death will come someday, too, for him. Gerasim's is an awareness which most of us would willingly ignore.

The Australian writer Helen Garner's new novel, "The Spare Room," is a bracing reminder that we cannot. Barely a novel (the first-person protagonist is named Helen; the outlines of her life resemble her creator's), it is nevertheless significantly not a memoir. It does not seek to instruct or to uplift: it seeks, rigorously and unflinchingly, to tell the truth. It is Helen's story of the three-week visit by her dying friend, Nicola, a visit in which Helen is called upon to be Gerasim and cannot, for that time at least, fully embrace the challenge; in which she yearns, like Ivan Ilych's family and colleagues, to turn her back on mortality: "Death was in my house. Its rules pushed new life away with terrible force. I longed for the children next door, their small, determined bodies through which vitality surged …"

Nicola ventures from her hometown of Sydney to Melbourne for alternative cancer treatment—chiefly, intensive doses of vitamin C—that make her frighteningly ill. For a long time, she refuses any palliative care. Unprepared, Helen finds herself called upon to nurse her old friend in the most intimate ways, and all the while Nicola refuses to admit that she is dying, to Helen's fury: "Death will not be denied," Helen observes. "To try it is grandiose. It drives madness into the soul. It leaches out virtue. It injects poison into friendship, and makes a mockery of love." Eventually, Helen can bear it no longer: "I wanted to say this: you're using that bloody clinic to distract yourself … from what you have to do … You've got to get ready." Yet it is still a long road—a long dying road—before Nicola can finally, tearfully, concede that "death's at the end of this, isn't it."

The beauty of this novel lies in its insistence on the frank and inescapable fight between life and death. Ivan Ilych's wife is not wrong, after all, to want to flee the room: the labor of dying is agonizing for all concerned. There are no clear lessons, no consoling homilies: there is a lot of sweat and piss, and a lot of suffering all around. Over time (who knew death could take so long?!) Nicola must learn how to die, and Helen must learn to help her die, must learn to be Gerasim ("I learned to wash her arse as gently as I had washed my sister's and my mother's, and as someday someone will have to wash mine.")

The fact that Garner has written this story as a novel rather than as a memoir grants her greater authorial freedom, but it also grants her creation a different status. We are not asked to believe that Nicola actually lived and breathed (although one suspects that she did), just as we are not asked to believe that Helen's rage and compassion belong to Garner alone; instead, we confront this situation—this universal situation—on its own terms, purely on the merits of Garner's luminous, adamantine narrative. Just as Ivan Ilych both is and isn't you, or me, both Helen and Nicola are also raised above themselves. Fiction offers a genuine transformation, a truth greater than the sum of its parts. This short, passionate book explores all aspects of struggle in the tremendous, inevitable struggle. A triumph of art over artifice, Garner's novel does not spare us, nor itself. It reminds us that literature not only can, but must, address the most important subjects, because it does so in ways no other form can. As (fictional) Helen quotes (fictional) King Lear: "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,/And thou no breath at all?" Made up words they may be, but no lament has rung more true.