Art by Trenyce Tong
Because they live two separate lives, writers can, to a certain extent, cheat death. There is their first and physical lifespan - which could last twenty-nine years (Shelley), eighty-eight (Le Guin), or one-hundred-and-twenty (Moses) - and there is the second, the public, published life, limited only by its potential readership. Whether or not any writer actively considers this is negligible, since while the first may largely be their own, the second is out of their hands; it is owned by its audience and sustained by it. Like Dorian Gray, the writer’s work heads out into the world, consistently new, and fresh, while the writer suffers all the gradual damage of time.
When I read Dickens, I contribute to both his ongoing survival, and to constructing a new Dickens, known only to me and the text.
Sometimes, artistic work survives for so much longer than the hand that crafted it, that it arrives to us without attribution. This is especially true of writings that predate any real publishing industry, or when it comes from a culture with no distinction between ‘art’, and craftmanship, when the artist has yet to assume a role akin to a priest, or a hermit. The most obvious example of this is Shakespeare, of whom there is such little information that he can be said to exist entirely through his literature. But perhaps Borges is right, and attribution isn’t always necessary.
‘I have devoted the last twenty years to Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I know many Anglo-Saxon poems by heart. The only thing I don’t know is the names of the poets. What does it matter, as long as I, reciting the poems from the ninth century, am feeling something that someone felt back then? He is living in me in that moment, I am that dead man. Every one of us is, in some way, all the people who have died before us. And not only those of our blood.’
Through their language, a writer is preserved, and since no two people will ever read the same text (nobody has ever read my Oliver Twist) a writer can be reborn over and over, formed by these new relationships. When I read Dickens, I contribute to both his ongoing survival, and to constructing a new Dickens, known only to me and the text.
The death of a writer also goes on to promote their other, literary life. It offers the work an idea of fulfilment. When I first read Slaughterhouse-Five, as an undergraduate, I knew nothing about Kurt Vonnegut besides what existed in his novel. I knew he had been a POW in Dresden when the Allies firebombed it, and I knew that the event caused him to be permanently suspicious of his own country. It wasn’t until after I’d read Cat’s Cradle and (perhaps his best work) Mother Night, that I discovered Vonnegut had died five years previously – years before I’d even heard his name. On the one hand, the knowledge made me feel robbed of Vonnegut the man, and on the other, it altered how I perceived Vonnegut the writer, whose work now became his oeuvre; his complete writings. Every novel suddenly felt conclusive, or as if the words carried extra weight.
However, this intellectual extension beyond the grave is a privilege. Artistic license, and the belief that, as a person, you can write (not just the ability but the permission) arrives from certain experiences, and for the majority, there is no license. For those who do not, cannot write, who were not taught that their thoughts are valid material; for those without the resources, time, or freedom to write, physical death is it. There is no second life, or if there is, it lives for as long as the immediate family’s memory – three generations, usually: spouses and siblings, children, and grandchildren. But any memory, however powerful, begins to fade the moment it arrives.
Danilo Kiš delivers an answer to this disparity in his short story, ‘The Encyclopaedia of the Dead’. Via a narrator whose father has recently died, Kiš introduces the idea of a grand, impossible library, kept under lock and key in Stockholm. In this library, maintained by a wilfully obscure cult, each and every lifetime is provided with an encyclopaedic entry – every lifetime, that is, not already worthy of note. ‘The only condition […] for inclusion in The Encyclopaedia of the Dead is that no one whose name is recorded here may appear in any other encyclopaedia. I was struck from the first, as I leafed through the book, […] by the absence of famous people.’ The entries deliver intricate, impossible-to-know detail of the narrator’s father’s life (‘Because it records everything. Everything.’), from the names of every fish he caught, to his moral and philosophic outlook, to otherwise unknown infidelities. We are a fly on the wall from his first kiss, to his last years as an amateur painter of strange flora – depictions, it turns out, of the disease that will later kill him.
Like writers, they are here permitted to have two lives – one corporeal, and one literary – one that is their own, one that is in the hands of strangers.
Kiš defines the organisation as a church, and its beliefs are straightforward – that no life holds more (or less) significance than any other. ‘It is the work of a religious organisation or sect whose democratic program stresses an egalitarian vision of the world of the dead.’ And, later, the narrator describes their central message: ‘nothing in the history of mankind is ever repeated, things that at first glance seem the same are scarcely even similar; each individual is a star unto himself, everything happens always and never.’
The story is structured like a Gothic narrative; a story within a story, like Frankenstein, or Wuthering Heights, where everything is relayed not only through the narrator (whose letter we are reading), but also through another text, in this case, the encyclopaedia. And like those Gothic novels, it is reanimating the dead. It is allowing for the idea that, for any individual to ‘live’ within that vast encyclopaedia, they first must die. Like writers, they are here permitted to have two lives – one corporeal, and one literary – one that is their own, one that is in the hands of strangers.
But, by the end of the story, we know that the tale – the encyclopaedia, the secret cult, the beautifully wrought story of the father – is only a dream, conjured by the grieving narrator. Though it is built on an impossible premise, Kiš allows us to believe, so thorough and real is his prose, to the point that the final revelation feels like theft.
In the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Encyclopaedia of the Dead, Mark Thompson describes how Kiš was asked to change the story’s Wizard of Oz revelation: ‘When the story’s first translator, Ammiel Alcalay, offered it to the New Yorker magazine, the fiction editor was enthusiastic but wondered if Kiš might wish to alter the ending so the narrative would not be revealed as a dream.’ But Kiš refused, writing, ‘I don’t write so-called fantastic tales. I am a realistic writer.’ Such an idea could only ever have been a dream. It is too utopic to realise.
Kiš, though clearly taking his prompt from Borges’s ‘The Library of Babel’, wrote a story not of linguistic puzzles, but one that deals with the core of grief, with what is both specific, and universal. It does not overwhelm with the idea of so many lives kept in one encyclopaedia. Instead the story soothes and encourages, preserving each and every lost loved one (provided, of course they aren’t famous), pressed like a flower between the pages of a book. It promises something more than the memory of a parent, or a child and, though the sect’s aim is to create a ‘compendium,’ which ‘will serve as a great treasury of memories and a unique proof of resurrection’ , we are introduced to it by a character who has recently become fatherless; in our sole experience of it, the encyclopaedia is as much for the living as it is for the dead.
‘The Library of Babel’, on the other hand, is so overwhelming in its premise that it is incomprehensible – it is beyond the imagination. In a place where every possible variation of letters and symbols exists, arranged on endless shelves in endless books, there is no room for comfort. It is a conduit for madness, where the narrator and all the librarians who spend their lives tending the shelves, are reduced to nothing by the sheer volume of words. Even their deaths are marred by the infinite: ‘Once I am dead, there will be no lack of pious hands to throw me over the railing; my grave will be the fathomless air; my body will sink endlessly and decay and dissolve in the wind generated by the fall.’ The library in which these people are trapped is not concerned with, nor is it aware, of the lives within it. Kiš, in placing his story in the real world, in a known country, connects his encyclopaedia with the politics and injustices of that society, whereas Borges simply separates from them – he removes the possibility of a writer, or indeed writing, altogether. ‘The certitude that everything has been written,’ explains Borges’s librarian, ‘negates us, or turns us into phantoms.’’
Here, there is no room for life – everything performed, written or said is simply the shadow of itself. It means that nobody, including writers, is permitted a first or a second lifetime at all. It reaches the democratisation of Kiš’s story and takes it to its nihilistic extreme, and in doing this, Borges’s story cannot provide the comfort or humanity that Kiš’s can. In his dream, Kiš offers every individual access to the unique privilege of the writer: the belief that their life is worth preserving, and that what they do is worthy of words.