The Unknowable: Writers On Death

Even if a writer dies pen in hand, he or she will not be able to write about what it is like to have died. Death is like an asymptote, something you can approach forever but never reach.

Jenny Diski, the British author who is writing about her life after a terminal cancer diagnosis for London Review of Books, once wrote a book titled What I Don’t Know About Animals. This essay could be called “What I Don’t Know About Death.”

On the plane ride to visit my parents for Christmas, I started reading Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality. My first entry notebook entry below, was written after I’d arrived home to Maceo, Kentucky, the town of farms, trailers, and train tracks where my parents live.

 I want to know more about Diski’s relationship with Doris Lessing. I want to know why “Doris,” as I think of her as a character, was so cold and solitary. Was it her natural way? Did she force herself not to get close to people because she didn’t want relationships to impinge on her writing? I fear that Diski has already expressed the essence of her relationship with Doris and that she doesn’t know much more about what Doris was thinking than I do. And Doris is dead, so Diski has no hope of getting to know her better. My wish to know more about the memoirist and her benefactor always dead-ends with the realization that death limits what a person can communicate and what you can know about him or her.

Christopher Hitchens’ book ends with notes he left, which the editors appended to the text. They seem to be notes not just for columns he never wrote but for the work as a whole, as some of them had already appeared in essays. The notes illustrate a writer’s life curtailed.


A regular day now might unfold with me doing some work in bed and then getting up. Showering or bathing and dressing, and then, all clean and ready for the day, the body and mind refold themselves, suddenly faced with the urgent decision whether to eat something or to get back into bed straight away, not stopping for food, to sleep for four more hours or so. With or without breakfast, the effort of getting up finishes the day off for me. I’ve tried it the other way round, getting up first, before work, but then that’s as far as I get, so no breakfast and no work, just peeling off the clothes I’ve just put on and creeping back to bed, with nothing done, but mightily relieved to have been let off the exhausting business of making a decision.

If to write is to live, then to stop writing is to die early. “I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true,” Hitchens writes. “Almost like the loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.”

I think Brodkey wrote as a way of proving to himself, and to his wife, Ellen, that he was still alive, a way of pinching himself. Early in his memoir, Brodkey writes that “Part of what is basic in my life is how I show off for [Ellen].” Perhaps he also wrote in part as a way of showing off for her. Later in the book, he describes the way that she urges him to take it easy, and he refuses.