Immortal prose: how writers deal with death

Julian Barnes, Joan Didion, Jenny Diski, Christopher Hitchens, Meghan O’Rourke and more address life’s ultimate question

Woody Allen famously quipped “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” This resonates with all of us who live in a culture that promotes eternal youth through scalpel or scientific miracle and cold shoulders the icy certainty of death.

Kafka stated that “the meaning of life is that it stops” while Anaïs Nin, a daily diarist, wrote that “people living deeply have no fear of death”. Freud recognised that people sometimes did express fear of death, a condition referred to as thanatophobia. Freud felt that it was not actual death that people feared as our own death is quite unimaginable, and in our unconscious we are all convinced of our own immortality. Beckett wrote that “they give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more”. Joan Didion wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”.

Lately there has been much written about death, narratives and stories that aim to help us negotiate the emotional landscape of grief and death. The novelist Julian Barnes is a self-confessed thanatophobe who sometimes is “roared awake” and “pitched from sleep into darkness, panic and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world”. In his memoir on the fear of non-existence, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Barnes writes an elegant meditation on death and attempts to address his thanophobia. As an agnostic Barnes doesn’t believe in an afterlife and writes that “I don’t believe in God but I miss him”. He believes that the Christian religion has lasted because it is a “beautiful lie… a tragedy with a happy ending”, and yet he misses the sense of purpose and belief that he finds in a Mozart Requiem or the sculptures of Donatello.

There is a trend over the last few years for a new type of fiction, a genre that moulds memoir with biography to form a literature that feels fresh and hyper-real, a type of reality fiction for the modern reader. David Shields presaged this new trend when in his 2010 publication Reality Hunger he advocated a return to the “real” in literature and he railed against conventional plot-driven fiction in favour of the lyric essay and the memoir.


A memoir of illness and dying is always an emotional read and the pages pulse with life, strife and the emotional intensity of the author’s feelings and predicament. None more so than In Gratitude by Jenny Diski, who died earlier this year of inoperable lung cancer. Diski wrote a series of essays in the London Review of Books about life after her diagnosis with its frailties and sudden fragilities which have been published as this memoir. She writes that she feared the oncologist would find her response cliched after he gave her the prognosis and she turned to her husband and suggested that they’d better get cooking the meth like Heisenberg in the television series Breaking Bad.

Diski’s talon-sharp prose has never harboured a platitude and this memoir touches on her peripatetic early life, abandoned by neglectful parents and in and out of psychiatric hospitals, “rattling from bin to bin”. She was adopted by the writer Doris Lessing for four years as a teenager and shared family dinners with Alan Sillitoe, RD Laing and Arnold Wesker and listened to late-night intellectual discussions about philosophy and psychotherapy which she describes as “a dream come true, but I had to work out how to live it”.

Diski with her unique sense of directness and humour writes that she makes an ideal candidate to play the role of a cancer patient as her lifelong favourite places are bed and sofa and she lives like one of those secondary characters in Victorian literature who constantly languish on the fainting couch. Diski described herself as being “contrary-minded”, delighted at breaking taboos and pushing boundaries. Controversial to the end, she likens having cancer to “an act in a pantomime in which my participation is guaranteed, I have been given this role ….I have no choice but to perform and to be embarrassed to death.”

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. He doesn’t experience rage at a terminal diagnosis as he feels that he has been taunting the Reaper into “taking a free scythe in my direction” and that he has now succumbed to “something so predictable and banal that it bores me”. His wife Carol Blue in the afterword to this memoir writes of the man she admired and loved and ends with the lines that in death as in life Hitch still has the last word.

Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking begins with the death of her husband of 44 years, the writer John Dunne, and brings the reader on a journey through the land of grief that she entered in the aftermath of his loss. In the opening lines of this poised but passionate memoir she writes that “life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” She writes about the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event and writes that when we are confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how “unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell.’’

Didion gives the reader an unflinching account of grief in the year when the shock of Dunne’s death “was obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind”. Despite the unshakeable reality of her husband’s death Joan’s thinking enters the realm of the magical and she writes that “we do not expect to be crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes”.

Zadie Smith wrote that Didion is essential reading on the subject of death and I have bought many copies over the years for grieving friends who have found comfort in its reading, recognition of their suffering in its pages.

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke is an unstintingly honest memoir about the loss of her mother Barbara to colorectal cancer. O’Rourke is an award-winning poet and she writes about the consolation that she finds in reading Hamlet. Shakespeare’s hero holds up a mirror to O’Rourke’s own duality of emotion; emptiness and anger, despair and longing for relief. O’Rourke can understand why Hamlet, who has just lost his father, is angry and cagey. He is told that how he feels is unmanly and unseemly, his uncle greeting him with the worst question to ask a grieving person “How is it that that the cloud still hang on you?”

O’Rourke felt a resonance with Hamlet in her grief state when she felt that to descend to the deepest fathom of it would be unseemly and was somehow taboo. She writes that nothing prepared her for the death of her mother, even knowing that she had terminal cancer did not prepare her. There is a stark unearthing of truths in this memoir. “A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky, unimaginable.”

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”.

The Iceberg: A Memoir by Marion Coutts tells of Coutts’ partner Tom Lubbock’s death from a malignant brain tumour. This account of illness and decline is told with an artist’s eye and in poetic prose that is both razor sharp and suffused with emotion. Coutts writes that there is a filmic quality to their life. A friend suggests that the director is Bergman, “shot flat without affect but deeply charged, with a fondness for long shots, no cuts, ensemble scenes, dark comedy and the action geared always to the man in the bed even though he is frequently off camera.”

Death is the inevitable full stop in the essay of life. Christopher Hitchens quotes this poem by Kingsley Amis in his memoir Mortality: Death has this much to be said for it/ You don't have to get out of bed for it/Wherever you happen to be/ They bring it to you – free.

The writer Katie Roiphe wrote The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End in part to sate her curiosity about death and dying. It is an account of how the writer found beauty and comfort in the stories of how her literary heroes faced up to dying. For Roiphe religion has never been consoling and feels like a foreign language. She, like many book lovers finds comfort in novels and poems. As a child recovering from serious illness Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium resonated with her. She becomes ambushed by the beauty in the deaths of her literary heroes, Dylan Thomas, Susan Sontag, Freud and Maurice Sendak. Sontag “fought her death to the end, believing on some deep irrational level she would be the one exception”.

Roiphe feels that writers and artists are more attuned to death, that they can put the confrontation with mortality into words in a way that most of us can’t or won’t. The last taboo has been dealt with by memoirists, essayists and poets. If, according to FR Leavis, literature is the supreme means by which you renew your sensuous and emotional life and learn a new awareness, then these publications are a gateway to enlightenment.