AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead, edited by Dale Salwak, introduced by Margaret Atwood. Iowa University Press.

September 5th, 2011

Book Review

AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead

edited by Dale Salwak, introduced by Margaret Atwood. Iowa University Press.


What would you say to the Dead? What do you say to the Dead?
Death is not the end of the conversation as anyone with a dead friend knows. We go on talking not because we are duped by magical thinking but because there is more to say.
Language is not, as Nietzsche thought, a way of saying what is already dead in our hearts; it is a way of keeping ourselves and others alive. Telling the stories till morning comes is what saves Scheherazade from the threat of death each night. The work of a writer is only different in degree, (intensity), not in kind, to the work we all do to keep going. Narrative is a defence against emptiness and chaos. Think of Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days buried up to her waist in Act One, and up to her neck in Act Two, delivering her inspired insane hymn to life – even when life is a dust-mound heaped on the edge of death.
If language is the champion of life it is the natural challenger of death. Death can take the body but not the body of work. We are not writing in water, as Keats feared, though ironically and deliberately he had that fear carved into stone -Here lies one whose name is writ in water – rather, we are making code for later generations. And it is code, because language changes and society changes and when we read back in time, to Shakespeare or to Dante, we find we must do some work to decipher the meaning.
Our brushes with the dead are encounters with a past that is and isn’t ours. What we find though, in these conversations across mortality is that we are not alone. The room is not empty. The dead talk
‘Remember me’ says the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Writing is exactly that; an injunction against forgetting.
This collection of conversations with dead writers imagines that we could talk to those authors that interest us so deeply. We know that they talk to us, but what if we could be with them physically, actually, practically? What might we ask? What would we want to know? And why do we believe that they would have something to tell us beyond what we already of know of them, through the work they have left behind?
It is an intriguing idea, a variant on the Underworld quest of the hero looking for answers from the Dead. That quest can be most serious, as it is when Orpheus chases Eurydice or Dante goes looking for Beatrice, or it can be as playful as the 1993 Star Trek episode where Newton, Einstein and Stephen Hawking play poker with Data, or when Doctor Who runs into Charles Dickens.
In Afterword there are a few group meetings too, as the dead Russian spy Litvinenko, along with Tony Blair, meet up with George Orwell in hospital. Andre Gide is allowed to visit Oscar Wilde, and Edith Wharton says to her interviewer John Halperin, ‘If you run into Pearl Buck tell her that the Nobel Prize should have gone to me.’
Mainly though, these encounters are one to one, much as our own encounters with books and their writers are singular experiences in both senses of the word. Writing and reading have a solitariness to them that helps us to come to terms with the solitariness of death – some, like Beckett, would say the solitariness of life too.
Whether we read life/death as a continuum – as Dante certainly did, or as a decisive fracture, the experience seems best understood through the strange agency of what is written and read.
As Margaret Atwood puts it, quoting DH Lawrence, the writer is one who goes down ‘the darker and darker stairs.’
Margaret Atwood opens the collection not with an encounter but with an introductory essay: Negotiating With The Dead. Her trademark laconic wit and sharp eye puzzles away at why it is we imagine that books, let alone writers, are what we need as company on ‘our leisurely hike to the crematorium.’
She argues that ‘all writing of the narrative kind… is motivated deep down by a fear of and fascination with mortality – by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld and to bring something or someone back from the dead.’
The dead control the past – it is their past not ours – but what a writer can do is occupy both worlds – her own, here and now, and other foggier less substantial territories. Atwood quotes Rilke
‘You have to sit down and eat /with the dead sharing their poppies/ if you want enough memory to keep/ the one most delicate note.’
The world, says Rilke, has to be ‘twofold’. We are here and we are elsewhere. Only those who can safely eat the food of the dead, and not be consumed by it can bring the fruits of the dead back to the topmost world.
In narrative then, the living and the dead are implicitly linked. We are writing for our lives – and beyond.
Paul Delany’s imagined scenario with George Gissing begins entertainingly with Delany receiving a telephone call from HG Wells who has connected his Time Machine to his own telephone and is making a long distance call from 1901.
Wells knows that Delany is Gissing’s biographer and will have a certain sympathy with his subject. Wells wants to get his old friend away from the French girlfriend and ghastly mother before they starve him to death. ‘The safest place for him at present is the future.’
Here is the image of the writer not as Underworld explorer but as Time Bandit. Gissing arrives in Vancouver for a while, enjoys the hot baths and lack of soot, but finally decides to leave for home to meet his fate.
The irrelevance of time is always an attractive idea, since the living are inside time and the dead are outside it. Writers can break that dreary binary by holding up time the way a bandit holds up a stagecoach. Time careers forward – and while no writer can prevent the inevitable journey, writing robs the time/death partnership of some of its power over us, and throws the glittering jewels of the dead back into the laps of the living.
Orwell features twice in this collection of eighteen conversations, his fascination being the tantalising possibility of meeting with the dead, which is what time travel offers .
The writer as an adventurer who takes risks, whether dropping down to the Underworld to bring back knowledge or treasure, or speeding across time to rescue a friend, is not the post-modern view of the writer as cynic or celebrity. It is appealing to find so little cynicism in this collection. Nobody is disappointed by their meeting with their writer, not even Cynthia Ozick, who in a delicious little argument with Henry James takes him to task about disliking strong women and pretending he didn’t sleep with men.
‘The interview took place at Lamb House, Rye, Sussex – rather, its precise duplicate in the other world.’
This plays nicely with Rilke’s idea that the world is twofold and must be understood, indeed inhabited, as twofold. It is a playful piece, clever and funny and ends with her making off with her tape recorder and a tea-time bun in her handbag. As the interview is faithfully transcribed we must assume that the tape-recorder, if not the bun, survived the return trip.
Jay Parini’s meeting with Robert Frost is eerier, with more of a feel of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, than a hard-bitten conversation with a manic-depressive poet. Parini is staying in Frost’s old home in Vermont when the phone rings late at night and he realises that Frost is down in the old log cabin waiting for him. During their talk Frost avers that there is no such person as Robert Frost. It is all a fiction. Everything is in the words, in the poems. Beyond that there is nothing.
Daybreak comes and Frost disappears as all apparitions do at daybreak. One of the reasons why we stay up reading through the night is to keep company with our ghosts, but also to make sure that daylight comes. If it does, we are still alive.
Parini goes home, still alive, troubled, but with the abiding sense of the thinness between worlds, and the thinness of our own constructs of identity. In a world obsessed by biography, his encounter is a strong reminder of how little the facts reveal.
This notion is reinforced in Alan W Friedman’s conversation with Samuel Beckett, who has nothing to say but what he has said on the page. His life he claims is ‘devoid of interest.’
Margaret Drabble writes about Arnold Bennett in a strangely academic style, while Francis King catches Oscar Wilde’s vanity and repetition without revealing much through his own questioning. There are a few exercises by academics in what can only be called creative writing and these unfortunate weavings of realism and romance are embarrassing, especially when sitting beside excellent writers such as Atwood and Ozick.
That brings me to my reservation with the collection as a whole. Editor Dale Salwak is an academic who has weighted his conversations with other academics – perhaps because the publisher is an academic press. I am certainly not as bad as Ezra Pound who thought that academics were a waste of time and says so in his interview here with William M Chace. Yet I would rather be reading AM Homes on Faulkner or Peter Ackroyd on Samuel Johnson. I would like to hear Zadie Smith talking to EM Forster, or PD James talking to Jane Austen. Why? Well it seems to me that novelists and poets are the ones who must dive into the wreck, and academics – and we are grateful to them – sift what is found there.
Harold Bloom talking to Wallace Stevens or Shakespeare would be marvellous I admit, but Bloom recreates as he sifts. Otherwise the job of communicating with the dead is better left to those who are marked to do it – whether by Rilke’s invocation or Odysseus’s scar.
We are back to the question of intensity – that is what we ask of our writers alive or dead – intensity of imagining and the power of language to match. There is no reason to expect that from academics and I am not insulting anyone by making this obvious remark.
It is a pleasure and a surprise to find Alan Stilitoe talking to Conrad, (would the conversation be different now that both are dead?) and Brian Aldiss chatting in a churchyard with Thomas Hardy. Fans of Inspector Morse may be surprised to find Colin Dexter discussing language with AE Houseman.
For myself I should like to ask Mary Wollstonecraft whether she expected the Rights of Women to take so long. And I wonder if TS Eliot can tell me why he was so sure about God. I have no idea what either of them would say.