"Life," Truman Capote quipped, "is a moderately good play with a badly written third act."
Judging from what's being published these days, writers have been tackling that disappointing last act a lot lately -- analyzing, deconstructing, fiddling with the lighting -- even when they know it's futile to try to change the ending. The result is a groaning shelf of books about aging, illness, dying, grief and ruminations on what it all means.
Is this proliferation a reflection of the bleakness of the times, mirroring the doom and gloom of war and the economy? Is it exacerbated by erosion of faith in an afterlife? Do we obsessively probe mortality because we're spoiled and can't quite believe -- or accept -- that science and medicine still haven't managed to conquer it? I suspect it's all of the above, plus demographics: the aging of a generation of post-World War II writers in tandem with baby boomers coping with parents who are living longer but not necessarily better. It all adds up to an epidemic in the literature of loss.
"Birth, and copulation, and death.
That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks."
So wrote T.S. Eliot in "Sweeney Agonistes." In fact, some of the best writing about death has come from poets. Dylan Thomas raged, raged against the dying of the light in "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," his famous villanelle about his dying father, and insisted defiantly in another poem that "death shall have no dominion" -- before dying at age 39 of alcoholism.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was more sanguine: "The young may die, but the old must!" he wrote in "Christus." The great 17th century French dramatist Pierre Corneille's attitude was darker: "Every moment in life is a step towards death." Shakespeare's characters occasionally railed, but like Richard II, they eventually bowed to fate: "The worst is death, and death will have his day."
There's nothing like milestone birthdays, the loss of one's parents or scary diagnoses to stir intimations of mortality. In his essay "Illness as More Than Metaphor," Susan Sontag's son, David Rieff, wrote: "There are those who can reconcile themselves to death and those who can't. Increasingly, I've come to think that it is one of the most important ways the world divides up."
Julian Barnes is one who can't. In "Nothing to Be Frightened Of," his lively meditation on the end-of-life oblivion that terrifies him more than the process of dying, Barnes writes, "For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about." He traces his preoccupation with this "cheerless commissar reliably fulfilling a quota of 100 per cent" to his early teens, long before he had to confront it head-on with his parents' passings. The death last month of his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who in a cruel twist of fate was diagnosed with brain cancer not long after Barnes' book was published, cannot have assuaged his thanatophobia.
Although Barnes' book was written before Kavanagh's illness cast its shadow, literary spousal tributes have become a burgeoning mini-genre. Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," about the derangement that followed the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, is the genre's apotheosis. Critic John Leonard, who died of lung cancer on Nov. 5, wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2005, "If Joan Didion went crazy, what are the chances for the rest of us? Not so good, except that we have her example to instruct us and sentences we can almost sing. . . . I can't imagine dying without this book."
Other deeply affecting spousal tributes include John Bayley's account of Iris Murdoch's struggle with Alzheimer's disease, "Elegy for Iris"; Calvin Trillin's lovely paean, "About Alice"; and Donald Hall's moving poems, "Without," and memoir "The Best Day the Worst Day," about poet Jane Kenyon.
In his latest memoir, "Unpacking the Boxes," written in "the thin air of antiquity's planet," 80-year-old Hall notes that "as a poet ages, subject to inevitable losses, it becomes appropriate to write out of grief -- appropriate, necessary, therapeutic." He adds that "making poetic lines about pain is a way of avoiding pain."
Reading poetic lines about pain can also mitigate sorrow -- or steel us for our own inevitable losses. We read, in part, for empathic engagement but also, as Leonard suggests, for instruction and information. The appeal of these books is more than just literary rubbernecking: Yes, they satisfy our ghoulish curiosity, but they also touch us emotionally and provide the wisdom of insight and the comfort of shared experience.