Review: Drusilla Modjeskaon Lesley Stern

Probably Not Tomorrow

In the shock and grief that followed her husband’s death, the writer and critic Sandra M. Gilbert turned her attention to the large question, the irrefutable fact of our mortality, and the griefs and dreads and denials that swirl in death’s wake. It was 1991 when Elliot Gilbert died during surgery that should have been routine. Death’s Door was published in 2006.

Half a century earlier, in 1958, Gilbert’s first child had died within days of his birth at the American Army Hospital in Fürth, a town in Germany’s Weimar that had been flattened by Allied bombing during the Second World War. Sandra Gilbert was 22, and when the nurse came to tell her that the baby had died, the word she used was expired. The baby had expired. ‘Expired,’ Gilbert writes. ‘Breathed out the breath of life he had only days earlier taken in. Expelled, so it suddenly seemed to me, the soul, that had so recently entered and animated him.’ Thirty-three years later, when her husband died, the word the surgeon used for his cardiac arrest on the operating table was terminated. ‘Terminated. Arrested. Not even he “was terminated”… His heart stopped; his breathing ceased. He himself produced, as it were, an absolute finale.’

The stark difference in these two words, each used in a context of extreme grief, is at the heart of Death’s Door, a small personal truth tucked into this magisterial contemplation of the ways in which death and dying, and how we make sense of them – or don’t – changed in the course of the twentieth century. The word expire, Gilbert reminds us, has its roots in the Latin ‘spiritus’ or ‘breath’. Medieval and early Renaissance paintings depicted the dying – and not just Christ – with ‘miniature balloons’ of breath in the shape of tiny humans coming from their mouths: breath and soul expiring. Rather to her own surprise, both retrospectively and at the time, the young Sandra Gilbert agreed to have the baby baptised; though a non-believer, and despite the flattened city being rebuilt outside her window, she was glad that she had. Expired. Thirty years later, terminated was being used in a litigious context, but even so, that is the fear: that life terminates, and can be terminated. Long gone, for most of us in the industrialised West, the comfort of expiry, the soul floating upwards to a godly embrace.

It is the move from expiration to termination, that Gilbert posits as the changing historical landscape of the twentieth century in which death itself had been industrialised: the terrifying arsenals of war, the guns, the gasses, the poisons, the extermination camps, the gas chambers; the land-mines and napalm; the bombs that can flatten cities, decimate communities, and potentially cast us into a nuclear winter – if we haven’t rendered ourselves extinct in the meantime. And as the culture of the West becomes increasingly secular and urbanised, and religious belief polarised, how do we comprehend our own dying, and the dying of those we love? How do those of us who are no longer tempted by the wager Pascal made three hundred years ago or more – which Sandra Gilbert thinks might have been somewhere in her mind when she had her infant son baptised – that if God does exist, you gain everything, while if he doesn’t, you have nothing to lose.

By the end of the twentieth century, the death-bed conversions of famous poets and writers belong to a fading past, leaving most of us facing the certain knowledge that with our death, consciousness, our sense of being, our understanding of ourselves, will end. No trick dispels. Religion used to try,/That vast moth-eaten musical brocade. That’s Philip Larkin in ‘Aubade’.

Terminate. The great existentialist gap which Simone de Beauvoir exemplified in her account of the anxiety and despair that would grip her, the ‘frightening crises in which she would be racked by sobs’ – which she understood as a fear of death: the metaphysical void. ‘For a few hours, I would be ravaged by a kind of tornado that stripped me bare,’ she wrote. ‘When the sky cleared again I could never be certain whether I was waking from a nightmare or relapsing into some long sky-blue fantasy, a permanent dream-world.’ The dream world in which death is eclipsed, pushed to the side, deferred; the necessary dodge, the irrefutable fact repressed (at least for the moment), forgotten. A small unfocused blur, a standing chill. That’s Larkin again. And still the next morning dawns, the light comes in. Life demands our attention. Work has to be done./ Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

When Lesley Stern was diagnosed with a slow-burn, incurable leukemia, it meant, she writes in Diary of a Detour, that she knew she was going to die – but ‘like everyone else, probably not tomorrow’. Like everyone else; yes, the irrefutable fact. The difference being that the diagnosis had ripped her from the sky-blue fantasy where most of us manage to dwell, one way or another, even as the years tick down and we join Exit or sign petitions in support of Assisted Dying.

Lesley Stern – who describes herself as a traveller, a gardener and (overly modestly) as a ‘sometime critic’ – was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) in 2008. Her first bout of chemo started in 2011 and with it the diary that accompanied her for the next six years to become Diary of a Detour. Although this ‘sometime critic’ has several acclaimed books to her name – including The Scorsese Connection (1996) and The Smoking Book (2001) – the diary didn’t begin with anything as certain as a book in mind, more a way of getting through each next punch of an illness – the ‘imperious malady’ – that changes everything from the tempo of each day to the movement of time itself. A malady that would retreat, and then return as medications stop working, her body fluids out of balance again, excretions out of control, temperature awry, and nausea descending like ‘a smothering blanket’. And if that’s not reminder enough that time is short, there are the subdermal ports, the cannulas, the many days when the needles go in and she joins the familiar faces in the chemo-room – where one day Patrick doesn’t show up, ‘the guy who guffaws and whoops and cackles’ in wild rants that aren’t possible (he says) anywhere else. Has his time been rescheduled – or has he died? Expired. Terminated. Gone.

If all this sounds confronting, not exactly easy reading for these pandemic times, Diary of a Detour is strangely invigorating. With no trick to dispel, no moth-eaten musical brocade, with the light coming through the window each morning, the postman unperturbed on his rounds, she must continue to live anyway. That is the challenge – and the paradox – at the heart of this affecting book. As Stern inches her way back into life, the question becomes not only how does she live with CLL, but how does she live, how do any of us live, when the existential void we do so much to avoid becomes more than a blur on the edge of our vision. And how, in this ‘fragile and ragged’ world, do we remain open to the sky without succumbing to numbing denial?

First on the list of life-moves that helped Stern creep back towards living are chickens. They saved her life, she says. Yes, chickens. ‘Call it chickens, or call it obsession, or call it a detour away from the medicalisation of cancer,’ she writes. Having grown up on a farm in Zimbabwe during the 1950s (when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia) might have something to do with this chicken obsession; she makes it clear that when it comes to chickens she is not an ‘arriviste’, ‘a devotee of every passing fad’. (Apparently there was a back-yard chicken fad around that time; not being a chicken person it passed me by.) In the peripatetic life she’s lived since leaving Zimbabwe, including more than twenty years in Australia, teaching at universities in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney, she often managed to have chickens. Not in Fitzroy or in Bondi, obviously, but there were other houses, other times, where a garden was possible: chickens, hills, trees. By the time she was diagnosed with CLL she was living in San Diego where she and her partner J have a garden, not that she, the gardener, had done much with it as she was becoming ill – but it was there, waiting, beckoning. All she had to do was get rid of the banana trees that were taking up too much room, build a hen run, research chicken varieties, and await the arrival of four small chicks.

Not having given chickens more than a passing thought (other than when buying eggs), I was surprised how fond I became of Sabrina and Holly as they came fluffing out of their hut each morning, and how sad when – towards the end of the book – Sabrina dies and Holly is left to stomp around angry at the arrival of two new chicks. When Stern can’t figure out what’s going on in the garden, her attempts at chicken empathy ‘awry’, and when we, like her, imbue them with human projections, we’re confronted with another inconvenient fact that needs measuring up to in this era of industrialised agriculture as well as medicine. (How do we buy our eggs, those of us able to choose, let alone chicken meat?)

As a university professor – of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego – with a good level of insurance, Stern finds her way into the care of Dr K at the UCSD Research Hospital. There she gets the best treatment, is put on trials of new drugs, and for the six years of the diary is sufficiently restored to life sufficiently often to enjoy the detours she takes us on: some in memory of long-ago Zimbabwe, some as ruminations on the films and art and books she’s written about over the course of her working life, others literal as she travels to Mexico, Texas, Oregon – and a last, charged visit back to Australia. And given the medicalisation of illness, there are also detours into the research trials she’s part of, or benefitting from; gut microbes, poo samples, faecal transplants. Even with the insurance she has, and a medical team that does all it can to make her treatment possible, and even with a working partner, illness is expensive. Not only medicalised, but corporatised – like chicken farming – and those who pay most are those who are poorest, and it’s with their lives that they pay. ‘Compared to others I’m on a gravy train,’ she writes. ‘For most people in this country’ who must rely on inadequate insurance, or no insurance, or on disability benefits, prolonged illness becomes ‘a slow death sentence.’ There are only two exits: death, or a return to a job (if they have one to return to) ‘that probably caused the disability in the first place’.

In Anne Boyer’s Undying, which was also published in the second half of 2020, fury flares on the page. Anger at a capitalism that is toxic to air and to water, to the necessities of life, and that then controls the terms of medicine and who amongst the ill gets to live or to die. Another writer and critic, Boyer was diagnosed in 2014 with a triple negative breast cancer at the age of 41. As a woman with a junior university position and an eight-year-old daughter, for her the question becomes less how to live with this deadly malady than the cost – in every sense – of not dying from it: the brutal treatment, chemo drugs from half a century ago, and the punishing terms of medical insurance. From the vantage point of Australia, it is truly shocking to read that a double mastectomy is classified (for insurance purposes) as an ‘outpatient’ day procedure. Boyer was sent home in pain, barely compos from the anaesthetic, with no-one to care for her. Ten days later she was lecturing on Walt Whitman with surgical drainage bags stitched to her chest and a friend carrying the books she couldn’t lift. She had run out of leave and if she didn’t continue to teach there was no guarantee the work would remain hers. After reading Undying, nothing about the soaring figures for COVID19 deaths in the US has surprised me.

Well before COVID19, Lesley Stern was using the word pandemic – ‘close to a pandemic’ – for cancer. It ‘has never been so bad,’ she writes, or ‘so much of it’. Yet at the same time ‘cancer has never been so close to defeat.’ The toxicity of our advanced industrialised world working in one direction, and our advanced medical industry in the other (for those who can afford it). Cancer, she tells us, ‘means crab’, aptly named, and for a reason, as cancer cells have claws. One analogy is that cancer cells invade the body like a colony of ants; another that chemo drugs act as bouncers at a night club. Dr K suggests living with cancer is like walking up a hill with rocks in your pocket, more and more of them every step, and it’s not until there’s a remission that you realise how heavy they have been. Analogies that Stern uses, suggestions along the way, but she never touches the ‘battle’ metaphor. After Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and refusal to accept cancer as metaphorically personal, the question could be said to be closed. Cancer is not a metaphor; nor, for all the microbes that inhabit it, is the body a garden. Stern’s chickens do not rise to the status of metaphor, and that is her point. She does yoga and meditation and acupuncture, a post-modern wager maybe, but it is the chickens that ground the book, and her, as we return to them from the days in the sickness world of the hospital wards and chemo-rooms.

A necessary ground, not only for Stern herself, but for a book that moves in time and dimension. A ground for detours into her own past, the fragments of remembering and mis-remembering, the ‘vistas’ that open as she moves between the ‘I’ of the present, the ‘I’ of the woman who is diagnosed with CLL, and the ‘she’ of the girl who grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe. Ground for the reverberating selves of the young woman who travelled and studied and worked and loved through shifting geographical and political landscapes. All this revisited in the shadow of illness and malady – her own and society’s – as she takes the measure of a very different present.

A visit to Texas with her partner J brings a painted metal rooster found in a small town, and a return to the films Giant (1956) and Paris, Texas (1984). The landscape they drive through is imprinted with James Dean, though when Stern watches Giant again she realises her memory of its rendition of the landscape was askew, but her memory of James Dean was not. Memory is chimeric, she knows, but still, it surprises her. Perhaps the memory of a film first seen in youth screens the memory of harsh truths learned later? A landscape that traverses ground that was taken from Mexico and where Trump’s wall of exclusion is built – not that he or the wall were in sight when Stern made that journey – though later, on another visit, driving to Austin just before the 2016 election, Rush Limbaugh comes on the car radio. And the unsettling fact that George Stevens, who made Giant, had been an official war cinematographer just a decade earlier. He had filmed at Dachau in 1945 when the Allies went in. She had been there, to Dachau, when she and J were in Germany, back before her clock started ticking so loud. J was going to come with her, but he woke that morning and knew that he couldn’t. She walked alone that day, alone in those dark doorways, alone as each of us are in death. No avoiding the dark truth of human capability; no hand to take, no false comfort.

And then Australia. The place, the past, that burns bright in her imaginings, much more than a detour. First a brief visit in 2013 at the end of a treatment trial, a glimpse of ocean blue water as the plane lands in Sydney; the welcome of friends, yum cha in Chinatown, familiar streets, the shining harbour. A joyous detour from illness and hospital; a moment of forgetting. And then she is at an exhibition of Yolngu art from Arnhem Land, the delicate cross-hatching shimmer of the Yirrkala drawings, the echo of a time when borders between land and water, island and ocean, were not fixed. It is a landscape Stern would visit herself two years later – miraculously, given the sudden return of symptoms that landed her in ER – walking up to the rich galleries of rock art, the layered ochre engravings of creatures and beings of land and river. A moment of awe with life in all its forms dissolving and expanding into that shimmer of water and land and air. Standing there, the pattern of being stretching around her, something shifts. Not a solution, not a conversion – nothing so easy – but a shift, a glimpse, a gathering in, her own life neither large nor small, just there, a link in the great chain of existence. A personal reckoning, and hard won. But before we get sentimental – even then, at that luminous moment, she doesn’t let us forget that amid all that beauty, that shimmer of sky and art and possibility, the harsh political present continues its deathly ways with Australia’s government-decreed borders hardening, and its cruel policies against those escaping war and catastrophe. In this frayed, unequal world of ours, reckoning does not move only in one direction.

Back in her San Diego garden, the spectre of Stern’s own dying, so overwhelming at diagnosis, continues to shrink. It is the deaths of those around her that bring her undone. By the end of Diary of a Detour, Elvis the cat has gone, the chickens are going, a slew of friends have died, many of them in prime health when she was diagnosed. Fifteen names are listed in memory and dedication – links that sustained her own chain of life. One after another, their probably not tomorrow, from which she felt herself protected, becomes the shock of today. And as she lives on, the possibility dawns on her that she might have to ‘witness and endure’ the ‘passing of J, of being alone, without him’. It is the only time she uses the word ‘passing’, as if of him the word death cannot be uttered. The unspeakable word, the unspeakable thought.

Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through? traverses much of this same landscape, of living and dying, the irrefutable fact of our mortality – though it is not her own imperious malady that prompts the twists and turns, the detours of this next absorbing book. It is a request from a dying friend.

Nunez, another literary scholar and writer, is of the same generation as Stern – they were born in 1951 and 1950 respectively – which makes them boomers (as am I). Even without COVID19, generationally speaking, death is on our minds. And here, too, the tone is not of anger – though there is much to be angry about. It is another story within fragments of other stories, of memory and experience, that weave together to become a meditation on the fragility of our modern, post-modern lives and the contingencies by which we live – and die.

Denial, acceptance, control; how are we to make sense of any of it?

The un-named narrator of What Are You Going Through? is another complex ‘I’ who occupies the gap Stern describes as the being who emerges on stage, on the page, during the journey of writing – a post-postmodern version, perhaps, of the ‘I’ Virginia Woolf described as going out to ‘do service’ for her. While Stern’s diary and its detours are born of her experience of living with CLL, Nunez’s narrator is a more auto-fictional ‘I’. As with The Friend – the book that won Nunez the 2018 National Book Award for fiction ­– the narrator is, like Nunez, a writer, but though the narrator and author share much in common we never know where the line falls – if line there is – between fiction and experience. The return of a modernist, Woolfian consciousness, perhaps, to the post-modern fragmentation of experience, and the dissipation of meaning in a post-truth era.

What Are You Going Through? opens with the narrator, the Nunez avatar, in a town where a friend from university is dying. She stays in a B&B and among the books beside the bed she finds a murder mystery, an absorbing plot that sets out on an expected path, easing her through the early discomforts of the visit that are increased when she sees a notice that her ex – though we don’t yet know he is an ex – is also in town, giving a lecture on climate change and extinction at the university. She decides to go, sitting at the back, while he gives his stern, grim predictions. When he finishes, he walks off stage, refusing to take questions. Afterwards, in a bar, she overhears a conversation between a father and daughter about the death of the girl’s mother. The father keeps saying how hard it was for the mother; the girl’s voice gets louder and angrier as the music is turned up, and she gets angry; she was there, she remembers, she was the one who had to take care of everything. The disconnected fragments of a day.

Her dying friend is stoical, refusing any form of sentimentality. She prefers the word fatal to terminal. She has the pills to take control of her own death; it is a rational decision. Her request to the narrator is that she accompany her, sometime soon, to a house in the country where she can live her last weeks and then take the pills – an act of will, and defiance. She has it all worked out, how to manage the transition and protect the narrator. A twenty-first-century death. While the narrator and the friend were close back when they were students, sharing the risks and intensities of youth, they have lived in different cities for many years. The friend has a daughter, she has closer friends. Why ask her, the narrator? Because her friend’s relationship with her daughter has never been easy, and this is no way to heal that breach. As to her friends, it’s not just that they said no – which they had – it’s that they are too close; they couldn’t accompany her without their own griefs spilling over, swamping her. She needs someone to be close, to understand imaginatively and intellectually, but not to be too emotionally invested. On the face of it, a reasonable, post-wager, post-modern, intellectual, secular act of friendship. What, as they say, could possibly go wrong?

Disconnected events accumulate, unexpected encounters – including with her ex- who saw her at the back of the hall. She meets him for a coffee the next morning and tells him about her friend’s request; it bursts out of her, raw and new, even though she knows no-one must know. That’s cause for anger. The poor and the sick are left to die, no State support for them, or little, and inadequate; but to take your own life, or be proved complicit in the voluntary decision of a friend who faces a certain and painful death – that is a crime, and the State will pursue you. The hypocrisy of it, the stupidity. So the narrator must prepare alone for the journey she has agreed she will take with her friend. As she does, random events, overheard snatches of conversation, intimations of time, swirl around her. The girl who thinks she really is weird. The woman at the gym who says she’d rather be dead than look like a woman with a hammock belly she saw on the beach. The memory of an elderly woman the narrator once knew who spoke bitterly of the loss of youth and beauty, of the attention and authority she’d once commanded. She may as well be a ghost. And then there’s the neighbour she looks in on at the request of the neighbour’s son, a woman bent over with arthritis, who rants about conspiracy theories. Nunez takes her on as a duty, a neighbourly obligation and when she returns from a few weeks away to find the neighbour gone – to a home, the son tells her – all she feels is relief. Out of sight, out of mind – where the ill, the old, the dying, the unwanted are sequestered. And our bad consciences.

The title What Are You Going Through? comes from Simone Weil. She said ‘that being able to ask this question was what love of one’s neighbour truly meant.’ The question sounds better in French, as Nunez says, but even so. Is the question even possible in this tangled world of denial and blame? Even with the long history of writers and artists and film-makers who have pondered our common fate, the irrefutable fact, how do we make sense of it in this twenty-first century of medicalised illness and sequestered dying? How do we deal with our relief when we need no longer ask that question of a neighbour? And on an altogether different scale, do we have any idea what it would mean – for either of them – were one friend to accompany another to her knowing death? And anyway, how knowing can death be, when consciousness of life is terminated?

When we are born, Nunez reminds us, we are born into the arms of another. But when we die, we die alone. Which, of course, her friend must do in the most literal of ways, when she takes the pills. The narrator will know, she tells her, when she wakes to find her bedroom door closed – a plan that doesn’t take account of wind, which closes it one night. The shock, the grief that cannot be prepared for even if you think you have, and then the shock of the friend’s reappearance. Wind, not death. At the house where they are staying, the friendship begun in sky-blue youth revives under the darkening horizon of a very different present. The randomness of the first half of the book as the narrator ‘prepares’ herself for the journey reverberates in the conversations and the by-ways of the second half as the two women inhabit the house where doors open to each other and can be closed by the contingencies of weather. When the writerly narrator’s writerly friend returns to novels, to poetry, to writers who once sustained her, she finds their words no longer speak to her. Music becomes an irritant. Memories can be sharp, and they can be chimeric; nothing is just one thing; grief does not wait for climax; intimacies move unbidden; the borderland leaks between past and present. Kafka had it right, the friend says: the meaning of life is that it stops. Most of all, she says, she misses childhood, that long ago open-faced curiosity. And yet that’s not how she speaks as she tries to make sense of the journey she’s on, not how the narrator sees her, her living of those last weeks, her living right up to the end.

When the journey ends, and the book with it, not as we expected, not with the plot certainties of a detective novel (not that they necessarily do either, and less and less these days), Nunez – or her avatar – puts her mind to the writing of it. She had vowed to keep a diary, but she didn’t, and the few pages she did write she tossed out. It’d be a betrayal to try, she says; not a betrayal of her friend’s privacy, but of the experience. We talk glibly about finding the right words, Nunez says, but when it comes to death, the ‘most important things’ about living and dying, those words ‘we never find’. Sontag wrote that to write of illness, or death, we must write obliquely, aphoristically. And that is what Nunez, like Stern, does in writing the story she cannot write. ‘No matter how hard I tried, the language could never be good enough, the reality of what was happening could never be precisely expressed.’ Anything she wrote would ‘turn out to be to the side of the thing, while the thing itself slipped past me, like the cat you never even see escape when you open the house door.’

The direct approach does not, and cannot work. The approach of her ex- to climate change and extinction is example enough of its ineffectiveness. He can see the great tragedy unfolding, the face and fate of future time, but he cannot understand the present dying of a person. Even at a lecture, he cannot take questions, cannot hear, or listen, or enter the consciousness of the living that continues on even as the knock of death grows louder. Art belongs to the past, he says. Why even try? If every poet sat down to write about climate change, he says, it wouldn’t save a single tree.

So how, then, do we write of death, of that void between expiry and termination? How to write without false consolation, without sentimentality? Nunez’s narrator says she cannot write the story of her friend, and yet she tells us this at the end, when we have already read it, and taken it to be true, or if not ‘true’, then believable. And no, What Are You Going Through? won’t save a tree – its pages are made of the pulp of trees – any more than Stern’s Diary of a Detour will save a chicken from its industrial fate. But they do bring a twenty-first-century consciousness to the dread that haunts the edges of our vision. Amid the detours and the fragments, the sky-blue grip of life holds its own against the centrifugal force of illness and death. Which is why I describe these books, in some odd, indefinable way, as invigorating. But then I – like them – am a boomer, of an age when death is on the horizon, very much alive as those we have loved and lived alongside die, and we must come to terms with the irrefutable fact of our own fragile and finite existence here on this fragile earth.

Harder to deal with is the overwhelming pain and death all around us as COVID19 rampages – the dread made manifest, and also the denial. Though these two books were written before COVID19 made its appearance – or before we knew that it had – I read them in the last months of 2020. The resonances are plenty – in the inequalities of medical care, and of life’s opportunities in a corporatised economy. All very well for us boomers to read the poets as we contemplate our own deaths. It’s an altogether different matter to watch the effect on those ripped untimely from the dizzying journey of life, not only by death itself but by its outriders, dread and denial.

By coincidence, the London Review of Books recently published an essay by Jacqueline Rose that touched on exactly this question – and that I read while reading Stern and Nunez. Rose’s essay – a version of the annual Sigmund Freud Lecture she would have given in Vienna were it not for COVID19 – begins with the death of Freud’s daughter from the Spanish Flu. Sophie Halberstadt-Freud, who was pregnant with her third child, died towards the end of the pandemic, in January 1920 – an unexpected blow to her father after his three sons, two of them in uniform, the third an army engineer, survived the brutal war that had ended as the pandemic began. It was Sophie’s death, Rose argues, that propelled Freud into thinking and writing anew about the significance, both in our psyches and in our polity, of death with its dreads and denials. ‘A narcissistic blow,’ he called her death in a letter to a friend – and this, in Rose’s view, was at the heart of his rethinking: the entitlement, the denial, the anger that comes with the narcissism of the blow. (It is a complex argument, which I recommend, and from which I am pulling just one thread.) Death in a pandemic, Rose writes, is no way to die. To live with death as a ‘silent companion’ – the remorseless law of nature that must eventually be faced – is a very different dying to death as termination in the midst of living – when probably not tomorrow becomes today, or any other random day. Pandemic, like war, throws into stark relief the inequalities of who gets to live and who to die, and with loss and catastrophe (perceived as well as real) – as Freud saw then, as we are seeing now – comes the allure, the false promise, of tyranny. For dread and denial are in the mix of despair and affliction, of loss and blame, the entitlement that makes possible the narcissistic pact, the wager, the tyrant can offer. Bet on me, your king, and I will save you. A salvation you deserve. How easily the moth-eaten brocade can be dusted off and slung on unworthy shoulders.

Must it be a privilege, Jacqueline Rose asks, to die one’s own death? To live a life that reaches its (more or less) timely end in a way that allows some kind of reckoning with our being in the great chain of life. Is it even possible ‘to die one’s own death’ in a fragile and riven world when the continuum of life itself is in danger of being broken? Tough questions, rhetorical and urgent, a wake-up to the dangers of denial for us individually and as a polity. Which is why, perhaps – despite it all, despite everything – ‘invigorating’ was the word that came to me as I read the journeys taken by Lesley Stern and Sigrid Nunez as they edge their way towards a reckoning with the sky-blue promise, our short span of being. The blessing, the cursing, the living, the grieving, the dying. The words that we write, the words that we say, inadequate and partial though they may be, and the words that we hear when we ask the question Nunez asks: what is it that we are going through, each of us alone and all of us together. The small, human gestures, the deep affiliation, that can move the dial towards possibility, a wider order of hope.

Vale Lesley Stern, who died on 28 January 2021.

Works Cited

Jacqueline Rose, ‘To Die One’s Own Death’, London Review of Books, Vol 42, No 22. 19 November 2020.

Sandra M Gilbert, Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve, WW Norton & Co, 2006.

Philip Larkin, ‘Aubade’ (written November 1977) Collected Poems, 2003 edition.