- Grief Lit
130 Pages; Print, $15.95
In 2018, the British artist Edmund de Waal was tasked with judging a new category for the Hay Literary Festival. The focus of this new prize was a burgeoning genre of literature: writing which focused on the end-of-life, grief, bereavement, and memorial. After spending nine months reading and judging fiction of this nature, de Waal wrote a short essay, titled “Breaking the silence: are we getting better at talking about death?” reflecting on the way that modern life is saturated with death: the news brings us a constant stream of strangers’ deaths and grief memoirs fill our shelves. But despite this heightened exposure to death, he argued that the language of loss remains “so impoverished, so mired in cliche and euphemism, that deep metaphors of ‘passing’ become thinned to nothing, to sentimentality.” In particular, he criticized the way that the language of mourning is frequently reduced to metaphors of “courage,” “being strong,” and finally “losing the battle.” This type of language asks the bereaved to play a certain role and leave no space for emotions other than endurance, resilience or strength.
No doubt fiction has played its part in our inability to speak in novel or honest ways about grief and dying. For a theme as old as literature itself, representations of death in fiction are remarkable in their sameness. Fictional deaths are often heroic or symbolic. Where are the cowardly deaths, or the ones marked by confusion or anger? Is it possible to write about death in a non-cliché way?
David Slavitt’s Vidui is a rare example of a more original approach to the literature of dying. Vidui is voiced by a man named Vernon who narrates from his deathbed. Vernon tells us from the offset that he is “no longer trying to impress anyone or to be pleasing” and begins a meandering journey through his dying thoughts. There is little in the way of plot and with the exception of a few brief interjections from Slavitt as the author, we stay in Vernon’s consciousness for the entirety of the novel. At first, this intimacy with a dying man’s thoughts might sound like a sombre premise. However, Vidui is far from mournful. Instead, Vernon tells us that “silliness is a way of fending off stillness”: Slavitt’s approach is eccentric, playful, and humorous.
A sense of pleasure comes from getting lost in Vernon’s thoughts: his intelligence and imagination are vivacious even as his physical strength fades away. Allusive patterns of thought spiral through every page, as the text jumps from Kermit the frog to Milton all in the space of a few paragraphs. There is also delight in wordplay, puns both mono and bilingual and the strange music words make when they are placed against one and other. This intertextuality and performance of language is not just postmodern play. We are also left with the strong sense it is Vernon’s escape into his mind that allows him to retain a sense of dignity, even as he is infantilized by his unnamed illness. Reading through Vidui leaves the reader with a strange sense of circling further and further away from the real world and into abstraction. This deep sense of introspection has echoes of Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies (1951), another experimental representation of a man’s thoughts on his deathbed.
Slavitt tells us that Vidui more directly pays homage to Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), another pensive, metaphysical exploration of a man’s final days. But in opposition to the grief-stricken introspection narrator of Tolstoy’s novel, who ruminates over a life he believes that he has lived and wasted, Slavitt’s speaker prefers to remain on the surface of things, stating that “the brevity of my attention span is a carefully developed defence mechanism, an evasive stratagem that allows me that has served me well. It avoids the unpleasantness and keeps me from dwelling too long anywhere, with anyone, on anything.” And while Ivan Ilyich expresses a deep sense of regret, it...