Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Deaths of Writers

I've been a reader for 50 years and I've seen writers I love die, some naturally and some unnaturally. I've said goodbye to Faulkner, Hemingway, Plath, Steinbeck, Kerouac, Primo Levi, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Saul Bellow.

The deaths have always hit me hard because the relationship you have with a writer is different from the relationship you have with anyone else. In the secret place you go to when you are reading, you and the writer share dreams and fears and wishes and hopes in a way that is nothing like your relationship with anyone else.

The writer is your lover and your confessor, your mother and your father, your God and your Satan. And you are the same for him. The writer tells you what he dreams and what he fears. When he tells you what he dreams, you help him come a little closer to those dreams. When he tells you what he fears, you help him push those fears away a little bit. And this works the same for you when you tell the writer in this secret place about your fears and dreams.

It's hard when a writer you love dies, but it's only hard for a while. His death begins to fade when you pick up his book again, return to that secret place.


Christina said...

Great piece.
I remember when I learned of Primo Levi's death it felt like a physical punch. I still think of his death often and the murky waters it stirred.

John Guzlowski said...

Thanks, Chris,

Primo Levi's death, his possible suicide, hit me hard too. Those murky waters. He seemed like a writer who had seen the worse, had stared into the fire for as long as it burned.

He reminded me of my dad. He once took a blow to the head from a Nazi guard and then stood up and asked for another.

I felt Levi had that kind of strength. Or maybe it was more like stamina. That ability to take the worse and remain whole and human and hopeful.

Anonymous said...

We're always looking for solutions to life's problems as if a solution means finding a way to make life less painful. It may be there is no solution that does not require great effort and therefore great pain. Pain is not a problem we can solve. Like e.e. cummings said:

"Dying is fine, but death? Oh baby, I wouldn't like death if death were good."

John Guzlowski said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for the post. I loved the EE CUMMINGS quote--it was brand new to me. Where has it been all my life?!?

I'm with you: Pain is not a problem we can solve, but we think we can solve it, or at least we hope that we can solve it. And the hope for a solution will keep our motors going for a long time.

Hope is important.

I remember my mother telling me the summer
before she died that she didn't have anymore hope. She had had two terrible cancers and was crippled up with arthritis. She couldn't stand or walk. She was in pain all the time. She had run out of hope. She looked me in the eye and said, "Johnny, I don't have any more hope."

When she told me this, it about broke me. It was the saddest thing I had ever heard her say.

My dad ran out of hope once. My mom left him, she couldn't take his drinking so she just disappeared. Nobody knew where she went. Within a few days, he was used up. He shrank into himself, stopped eating, stopped drinking. Quit his job. He would just sit in the kitchen and stare at the table and cry.

We took him to a doctor and a shrink, and nothing helped.

About a month into this, my mom called him up and told him to eat, and he did start eating and he also started taking care of himself.

One day about 6 months later she came back.

Anonymous said...

"When she told me this, it about broke me. It was the saddest thing I had ever heard her say."

That's interesting because I'm the same way. Once in a while a loved one will say something similar that touches a deep chord and I feel like I know what I'm here for--to comfort others. The rest of the time I'm looking for a reason to be. Matt

Christina said...

In his memoir, Speak You Also, Paul Steinberg (Henri, in If This Is a Man) wrote that Levi's death was caused because he stopped speaking. I think of Levi's words,""Nothing is true outside the Lager." Ruth Franklin wrote,"This, as much as the fear of not being understood, is the survivor's nightmare. Tadeusz Borowski wrote of it in poetry he published soon after the war; he killed himself in 1951. Sarah Kofman wrote of it in her remarkable memoir Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, published in 1994; she killed herself the same year.

The burden of the knowledge..such weighty, unbearable knowledge proves too much.

Urkat said...

Why do writers die? I guess they run out of things to write about. Ironic isn't it?