When, toward the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that death is not an event in life, that we do not live to experience death, he intended to banish the discussion of death from philosophy, the “correct method” of which is “to say nothing except what can be said.” But Wittgenstein’s claim also has implications for the treatment of death in the novel, a form pretty well beholden to events and experience. It was “life,” after all, that his Cambridge colleague, on-off friend and sometime rowing partner, F.R. Leavis, later celebrated in his book The Great Tradition (1948), the title of which referred not to a tradition that could be considered “great” but “the tradition to which what is great in English fiction belongs,” the greatness tradition. The few novelists who exhibited this greatness—six at the very most—were said to promote “awareness of the possibilities of life,” to exhibit “a kind of reverent openness before life.”
Bold, species-level talk of this sort tends to provoke outright dismissal (Vladimir Nabokov: “Life does not exist without a possessive epithet”) or deflating irony (Martin Amis: “life, that curious commodity to which Dr Leavis always stressed his commitment”). But Leavis himself thought “‘life’ is a large word and doesn’t admit of definition.” As with any number of loosely established concepts, we recognize reverent openness before life when we see it, and we see it often in the form of an engagement with, if not death, then the manifestations of death in life—the expression of grief, the notation of absence. Henry James, in his preface to “The Altar of the Dead” (the final story of his book Terminations), was keen to stress that in writing about a man devoted to mourning, neither he nor his protagonist was indulging in nihilism or morbidity or necrophilia but something close to the opposite. “The sense of the state of the dead is but part of the sense of the state of the living,” James wrote, “and, congruously with that, life is cheated to almost the same degree of the finest homage…that we fain would render it.” (Leavis would have approved of paying life homage, though he detested James’s story.)
Anne Tyler and Peter Carey, both full of the milk of reverent openness, and in their different ways among the most accomplished storytellers in the English-writing world, make death the black fact around which to construct a narrative in praise and pursuit of life. Carey, though his memoirs (30 Days in Sydney, Wrong About Japan) are not to be trusted, is also the author of what seems to be a candid essay, “A Small Memorial,” about the children from his first marriage, “children now a long time dead.” “Dead is dead,” he remembered thinking. “To put a name on plaques, to say prayers—all this is lies, bullshit in the face of the nothingness of death.” But it’s a sentiment he regrets, and looking back three decades, he wishes “we had honored those children with a plaque, a name.” Tyler has kept her personal history hidden from readers, though she made a rare confession, in the form of a dedication, at the beginning of her novel A Patchwork Planet (1998): “In loving memory of my husband, TAGHI MODARRESSI.” Carey’s essay on that subject, Tyler’s novel with that dedication, affirm that death would not overwhelm a desire to write, a belief in writing.
There are all sorts of differences between Tyler’s new novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, and Carey’s new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, in terms of optimism, breadth of perspective, and attitudes toward history and society. Tyler’s novel, set in Baltimore in 2008 and written from the perspective of a man who is visited by his dead wife’s ghost, seems to propose that life goes on, or round, and that death is just a stage in an essentially benign process. Carey’s novel, written from a female perspective and set in London in 2010, explores a sense of grief that, rather than fading, grows fat on historical stimuli and news headlines. If Tyler offers a cyclical view of the world, Carey offers, for the most part, a rectilinear one; if Tyler takes, to quote her narrator, “a sort of Zen approach,” Carey has lifted a leaf or two from Revelation. But when death strikes, both of these industrious writers have their protagonists turn their thoughts inward, toward work.