Start with a death: Szabó and Murdoch and the death scene opener

I’m just reading Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad, which opens with a death: Vincent, father and husband, has cancer, and his last hours are spent drifting in and out of consciousness in a clinic in Budapest. He dies with the first chapter: peacefully, with his wife holding one hand and a nurse, pretending to be his daughter, the other. I haven’t yet read further – it seems that his death is the premise for the rest of the novel: how Ettie, his widow, chooses to go on with her life without him – but it’s an affecting opening for a novel.

And a dramatic one: opening a book with a death has a way of sitting the reader up straight, putting them on alert. Death and the changes it effects are not things to be worked towards, that will be visible on the horizon, as we approach; they are the cold lake we find ourselves pushed into the moment we open the first page.

It made me wonder about other books that open with deaths: not with the death that has just happened (cf The Outsider, “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.”), but one that must be faced. There must be others.

But the one that sprang immediately to mind was Iris Murdoch’s Nun and Soldiers, which has as its opening scene a dialogue between Guy, who is dying, him too, from cancer, and ‘the Count’ (not really a Count, but a Polish émigré, and a great friend, almost a disciple, of Guy). Here is the first page:

‘Wittgenstein—’

‘Yes?’ said the Count.

The dying man shifted on the bed, rolling his head rhythmically to and fro in a way that had become habitual only in the last few days. Pain?

The Count was standing at the window. He never sat down now in Guy’s presence. He had been more familiar once, though Guy had always been a sort of king in his life: his model, his teacher, his best friend, his standard, his judge; but most especially something royal. Now another and a greater king was present in the room.

‘He was a sort of amateur, really.’

‘Yes,’ said the Count. He was puzzled by Guy’s sudden desire to belittle a thinker whom he had formerly admired. Perhaps he needed to feel that Wittgenstein too would not survive.

‘A naive and touching belief in the power of pure thought. And that man imagined we would never reach the moon.’

‘Yes.’ The Count had often talked of abstract matters with Guy, but in the past they had talked of so much else, they had even gossiped. Now there were few topics left. Their conversation had become refined and chilled until nothing personal remained between them. Love? There could be no expression of it now, any gesture of affection would be a gross error of taste. It was a matter of behaving correctly until the end. The awful egoism of the dying.

Isn’t that marvellous? This is what I want from my reading: to be immersed in a situation that pushes me to interrogate my sense of how I myself would act if I found myself in it. The awful truth of that last line (“the awful egoism of the dying”) and the awful ambivalence of “a greater king was present in the room”, as if that kind of metaphoric thinking is appropriate to the matter in hand, or will help at all.

Immersion is all, self-awareness is all, and what Murdoch does so well here is immerse you instantly, and completely. The tangle of conflicting emotions and reactions – to the characters, to the author, to the reader’s own self – is immense. Though in fact it’s not a tangle at all; it’s a mesh, an intricate cat’s cradle: taut, quantifiable, reducable with some thought to a kind of geometry.

What other books start like this, with a death scene. There must be others? Help me.

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3 comments

  1. Max Cairnduff

    Arthur Schnitzler’s Dying springs to mind. There’s a review at mine and I think at John Self’s. It opens with a character diagnosed as having a year to live. His girlfriend promises to die with him, not wanting to live without him. He rejects the idea, but as the year progresses it gets more attractive to him, and less so to her.

    Fantastic novel. But then, Schnitzler.

    How are you finding the Szabo otherwise? I had to bail on her The Door. I found it just bad, not unreadable, but not worth reading. I’m a minority on it, but for me it fell into that worst of worlds, a realist novel with unconvincing characters.

  2. Jonathan Gibbs

    Other people on Twitter suggested Loving by Henry Green (@joekennedy81), Houellebecq’s Platform (@stevefinbow), Single & Single by Le Carré (@johnboursnell), Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (@ArmelDagorn and @NDAStewart), and Javier Marias’ A Heart So White (‏@cdrose_writer).Of those I’ve read the Marias, Murray and Houellebecq – thinking about those the Houellebecq is obviously following in the footsteps of Camus (“Father died last year”), while the Marias opens with an unexpected suicide. The Murray I don’t have to hand, but Skippy’s death is likewise dramatic and unprecedented. I suppose what struck me about the two books I mentioned was not the death as a dramatic event, but death as an imminently foreseeable event, mortality as a presence. Sudden death is shocking, but slow dying suggests a far more complex set of emotions, which is what I found the Murdoch.

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