I’ve written numerous times about my fear of death, of the nothing that awaits me. In fact, fear doesn’t adequately encapsulate my feelings, which involve an intense, often incapacitating, hysteria and panic. On this basis, you might think that I would have approached Death Sentence with trepidation, but Maurice Blanchot’s short novel isn’t really about death, it is about dying, which is something else entirely. Unlike death, dying is something that happens to you, and, although it might be terrible or painful, the fact that there is an ‘I’ around to experience it makes it, as a thought and as a prospect, far less terrifying for me, on a purely personal level. When the thought does cross my mind it is other people dying that most frightens and saddens me, it is this process as applied to someone else that upsets me.
Death Sentence has a reputation for being confusing and unwelcoming or inaccessible, yet the first part, which takes up roughly half the book, is fairly straightforward. It recounts the relationship between a woman, J., and an unnamed man, who is the narrator, focussing specifically on the woman’s seemingly terminal illness. I was hopeful, when I approached the book, of something similar to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, which, with great insight, deals with the way that people behave when confronted with someone else’s weakness, with the inevitable, but unpleasant, breaking down, or failure, of someone else’s body.
Yet Blanchot’s novel isn’t like that at all. I did not at any point feel attached to the characters because I didn’t see humanity in them, and the author did not have anything truly interesting or enlightening to say about coping with illness, either one’s own or someone else’s; indeed, most of that is dealt with matter-of-factly, and much of what we are told is banal or unsurprising. J.’s bravery, for example, is stressed, with the narrator informing us that she cried ‘often and for long stretches’, but that these were never the tears of a coward. Her illness, he continues, had made a child of her, and this too makes sense, in that we think of people who are weakened in some way as reverting to a child-like state, whereby they need to be looked after and indulged [although, to be fair, I am not sure this is actually what Blanchot meant in this instance]. Even the fact that the narrator goes away during a particularly bad period of J.’s illness is not difficult to understand, nor is his claim that he does not know why he left and why he stayed away.
[By The Death Bed, 1896 by Edvard Munch]
What does make Death Sentence worthwhile, what is engaging about it, particularly in relation to the first part, is how odd and unnerving it is. This may seem like a contradiction. How can it be banal and unnerving? There is a really curious mix of the expected and the unexpected, with a narrator describing both in the same flat, almost emotionless tone. I am not confident that I will be able to successfully explain why it is the case, but very few novels have made me as uneasy as this one. Indeed, far from reminding me of Tolstoy, or even something like Katharine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, it actually has more in common with the work of Poe or other masters of generating an atmosphere of creeping, intensifying horror. From the beginning the narrator is dropping hints suggestive of terrible secrets. He will, we’re told, tell the whole truth, as though the truth is going to alarm us. We are also informed that he has been trying to put this story down on paper for years, and that he was once successful, but then burnt the manuscript.
However, despite this claim of truthfulness, this apparent desire to be open, the narrator is, in reality, relentlessly vague and guarded. The most obvious example of this is the withholding of names. Only one person is named in the first part of the novel; everyone else is referred to by an initial, or is identified by their profession or status, such as mother, doctor, nurse, etc. The effect this has is of dehumanising the characters, particularly J., with whom the reader is most eager to sympathise. We don’t, moreover, ever find out what exactly her illness is, only that it is a serious one that may kill her. After spending some time with the narrator, the impression that one is left with is one of dishonesty, of someone who raises your suspicions. You may even ask yourself if the whole thing is invention, for it is liars who, generally speaking, insist on their honesty while not providing specifics.
The first real indication that something strange is going on is when the narrator reveals that J.’s illness made her look ever more youthful. This is, of course, contrary to our expectations, which is that hardship, extreme pain, etc. makes one more haggard. As the story progresses, J. is subjected to some kind of dangerous, experimental treatment. It is never fully explored, but one gets the impression that the doctor administering this treatment is dubious, either in terms of his credentials or in terms of his personal ethics. Certainly, it is said that he wants the narrator dead, that he pronounced his imminent death, in the hope that he would die, rather than it being an accurate diagnosis.
There are two incidents that stand out as giving the best indication as to why I would use the term ‘horror’ to describe Death Sentence. The first involves a close to death J. laying in bed and, according to the narrator, following something with her eyes, something that she sees in the room but which he does not. The second, and more persuasive, involves J. apparently dying and then coming back to life. Upon recovery she grabs the narrator’s hand with a ‘savage quickness in which there was nothing human.’ He also says something about how J. is no longer afraid because she herself had ‘become frightening.’
In the second half of the novel, there are more women, more deaths, and more references to fear and terror; there are, moreover, repeated instances of people walking in on others uninvited, of entering a property or room that is not their own, which is something that also happened in part one. The second part of Death Sentence is far more fractured than what preceded it, and, as such, is not nearly as spooky. It is, in any case, harder to follow and probably warrants the frustration readers tend to voice in relation to the entire novel. I would love to be able to venture a theory, some explanation as to how the two parts fit together, some discussion as to the significance of the recurring scenes and motifs, but I am unable. In order to defend myself I would like to point out that I read the book on the train, in an especially noisy carriage, in which a Spanish family were loudly singing a song. Indeed, the refrain ‘meh-eeeee-coooo’ is still going round my head days later.
“But this is the rule, and there is no way to free oneself of it: as soon as the thought has arisen, it must be followed to the very end.”
I do, however, want to offer an interpretation of part one, or at least say something about what it meant to me, regardless of the author’s intention. Blanchot gives the impression that there is something almost supernatural about J’s illness, what with seeing things that aren’t there and the repeated use of the word terror and so on. Well, this has been my experience of terminal illness, which is that it is horrifying, not solely because it is upsetting, but also because it is dehumanising, it is absurd, it is, for want of a better word, weird. I don’t want to give too much information about this, but it is not unusual, when pumped full of drugs, when in horrendous amounts of pain, to see things, to make strange statements, to talk to oneself, to behave in ways that do resemble behaviour that you will have seen in horror films. I have witnessed these things. I have, moreover, seen someone so disfigured, so deformed by illness that they started to look like a large insect; and, yes, they stopped being afraid, because they had become frightening. And yet in the midst of all this, there are the doctor’s appointments, the treatments, etc., which after a time [and one must remember that it is said that J. had been seriously ill at least ten years] become routine; and the suffering does too, in a way, at least for the people on the outside, i.e. those who are not in pain themselves only observing it, because it is ever present.