May 29, 2014

Literature of the “departure lounge”


Lounge via Shutterstock.

Lounge via Shutterstock.

Clive James knows he doesn’t have much time left to write. He was diagnosed with leukemia and emphysema in 2010, but he says he’s feeling pretty optimistic about it, even at seventy-four.

Joking with a reporter from the BBC, James said if he were to “drop off the twig,” the book could be published posthumously, “which is good for the family finances.”

“I’m getting near to what my friend [film director] Bruce Beresford calls the ‘departure lounge’ — but I’ve got a version of it that doesn’t hurt, so I may as well enjoy myself as long as I can,” he told the BBC yesterday.

He joins a tradition of writers who are working their way past death by writing through it. Oddly, this seems to be a pretty good marketing scheme, if not an added urgency to their work. The first who comes to mind is Christopher Hitchens and his final articles, which held a dark humor even as his health problems worsened. (The only recent book title that rivals Mortality must be Peter Matthiessen’s In Paradise.)

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion shared the struggle of naming an emergency contact when you outlive the rest of your family. Not every author retires as he grows old, a la Philip Roth. There’s a wealth of literature from authors in their seventies or eighties who choose to write from the “departure lounge” like James.

James also writes about the gift of memory: “I have my memories of growing up in Australia and those memories become clearer all the time. The mind is quite a wonderful thing; it can translate experience into immediate experience. I practically hallucinate the sheer beauty of Sydney Harbour, it couldn’t be more beautiful in reality as it is in my mind. So no, I don’t despair.”

These words brought to mind Jessica Anderson’s remarkable novel Tirra Lirra By the River, which we’ll publish soon as part of the Neversink Library collection. Her protagonist narrates most of the story from her deathbed, as an elderly woman describing her earliest memories of establishing a life for herself.

That sounds grim, doesn’t it? It isn’t. And anyway, many authors complete their best work when they’re under deadline pressure.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.