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When Characters Die

I’m not sure if there is a “normal” reaction to some deaths in literature. Take Franz Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis.” For those who haven’t read it, the story is about a young man who wakes up one morning and finds that he has turned into a giant cockroach. Rejected by the family that he loves, the young man eventually dies from a combination of starvation, depression, and an untreated injury. I expected to be disgusted by the story. I did not expect that I would cry my eyes out at the young man’s (young cockroach’s?) death. I don’t normally cry over books, and I certainly didn’t think I would be sad for the world to be rid of a giant cockroach. But “The Metamorphosis” is really about abandonment, not cockroaches, and I can hardly imagine a more powerful way to picture that feeling.

Usually, however, my reaction to the death of even a favorite character is “Drat it.” Other reactions include anger (“Keeping Prim alive was the whole point of this stupid series!”), relief (“Whew, Boromir died decently and can’t mess up anything else”), and outright glee (“Macbeth is dead! Macbeth is dead!”).

Sometimes you spend an entire story anticipating death, but in most of those cases you feel prepared when the character in question actually kicks the bucket. Not so in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Demons.

Yes, it’s a lovely title. Disclaimer: There are no actual demons in this book, but it is very useful for several reasons. Smart people will see “Dostoevsky” on the cover and drool. They may read it and benefit. Your relatives will see Demons on the cover and be disturbed. You can then educate them about literature. Paranormal romance lovers will see Demons on the cover and want to know if it’s like Twilight. Try convincing one that Demons was the first great work of Russian paranormal fiction. If you succeed, you get to snicker as they wade through 700 pages, looking for the next Edward Cullen.

Yes, it’s 700 pages. And somehow the plot doesn’t drag. Actually, Demons based on a real event. In 1869, a Russian student named Ivan Ivanov was murdered by a radical group of which he had once been a member. After the murderers were arrested, Dostoevsky followed their trial with interest. Eventually he based Demons on the murder. (The “demons,” incidentally, are the ideas that Dostoevsky believed were destroying Russia.)

The book is both the funniest and saddest Dostoevsky novel that I have read so far. The funniest, because I found myself laughing repeatedly at the awkward situations into which Dostoevsky sticks his characters. I can’t remember laughing at Crime and Punishment or The Idiot. But Demons is also the saddest. It’s just when the student is about to die that you most want him to live.

Good writing? Yes. But it’s more than that. The student in Demons comes across as one of the most human of Dostoevsky’s characters—flawed, yes. But with a capacity to love more than most. That’s the worst thing about his death, and about a lot of deaths in literature. If he had lived, what would he have become? Thanks to Dostoevsky (insert angry mumbling), we will never know.

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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in Classic Literature

 

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A Very Happy Death

Albert Camus, 1957.

Disclaimer: this is probably a very unfair synopsis of Camus’s early novel, A Happy Death. But I will synopse (is that a word?) it anyway. Another disclaimer: I am more irritated with Camus’s publishers than with Camus, who never meant the novel to be printed.

Enter Act One. Patrice Mersault is a young man who is very dissatisfied with his life. But he likes his girlfriend Martha. Make that he likes showing off with his girlfriend Martha. Or that he likes showing off with his companion—interest—image—Martha whatever. Then he finds out (gasp!) that his girlfriend has a past. The mirror smudges. He wants a list of boyfriends. Martha gives it to him. He doesn’t know one person on it. He wants to meet him. Boyfriend is a very thoughtful amputee. Mersault likes talking to him enough to come back and shoot him. Curtain.

Enter Act Two. Mersault visits Europe to find happiness. He hates Europe. Mersault visits friends to find happiness. He gets bored. Mersault goes home to find happiness. He buys a house in the country and achieves a new sense of reality. He gets sick and dies. He feels connected to Martha’s boyfriend as he is dying. Curtain. Applause.

Camus’s writing style and imagery are remarkable. And the first part of the book is fairly good—the death of Zagreus, Martha’s boyfriend, feels real. But the second part of the book feels disjointed, and Mersault becomes extremely irritating—walking around trying to achieve a higher level of reality while writing off his murder to “innocence” since it doesn’t disturb him.

The only other time that I have rooted for the death of a main character is in Macbeth. I first saw the play done as a staged reading, and all the characters wore such similar costumes that by the time I figured out who Macbeth was, he had gone bad. So I spent the rest of the play enjoying my anticipation of his death. And Shakespeare did not disappoint me.

Maybe I simply have a different personality than Camus did and therefore cannot take Mersault seriously. (Thought leaks from all corners of the novel, which does not help.) But I doubt that a personality difference is the only reason I find Mersault’s meditations (read: self-absorption) annoying. I really, really wanted him to die an exceedingly painful death—perhaps not physically painful, but painful in that all his illusions are stripped away.  But no. Mersault never suffers as a result of his murder; rather, he succeeds because “he had created his life with consciousness, with courage.”

Camus’s existentialism permeates A Happy Death in a frankly ugly way. In Camus’s later book The Plague, he suggests that fighting human suffering is the way to find meaning in a meaningless world. A Happy Death is the opposite scenario—finding meaning in a meaningless world by making choices centered around yourself. Existentialism, without a basis for morality, has room for both scenarios.

The young Camus wrote this end to his book: “The ascent stopped. And stone among the stones, he returned in the joy of his heart to the truth of the motionless worlds.”

But here is an alternate ending—if not poetic justice, the justice that suits, at any rate, this very amateur poet.

“And when Macbeth awoke from the dead, he crossed the sea to North Africa and thought to commence haunting the living. Upon looking in the phone book he came upon Patrice Mersault’s name and decided that, since it began with the same letter as his own, he would pay him a visit. The ghost found Mersault sitting at his kitchen table, breathing shallowly.

“’I will be conscious without deception, without cowardice,’ gasped Mersault. ‘I shall be the blood brother of Zagreus. I who have inflicted death am going to die.’

“’Oh?’ said Macbeth. ‘What did you do it for—power? Or money? Maybe a woman? Did the witches come to you, too?’

“’I did it in the innocence of my heart,’ said Mersault.

“’You are an idiot,’ said Macbeth. ‘Have you had last rites?’

“’I wish to return to the motionless worlds in the joy of my heart.’ Mersault laid his head down on his elbows. Unfortunately as he did so his moving elbow accidentally flung a glove that had been lying on the table into Macbeth’s face.

“’Oh, so you wish to die fighting?’ asked Macbeth. ‘Good man!’ And he promptly knocked Mersault on the head.”

If only.

 
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Posted by on November 14, 2012 in Realistic Fiction

 

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