Cover of Keeping Mum

Death and life in works of art

Thursday, 11 July 2013

In a modern art gallery in Rome this week, I came across a photography book with a familiar-looking title: As I Was Dying.

I doubt Paolo Pellegrin, the photographer, was thinking about William Faulkner's and As I Lay Dying when he chose this title (as we were when developing the structures and voices of our collective novel). More likely he was thinking back to the original source of that phrase, which is Homer. The Odyssey.

As in: ‘As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades’.

It's a deeply fitting sentiment. As a photographer, it seems Pellegrin routinely descends into places – Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Haiti – which are on the very edge of becoming Hades. This book presents a series of disjointed and mysterious story-snapshots of people whose lives may be hanging by a thread.

The strange thing is, it wasn’t a depressing book to flick through. Just the opposite, thanks to the artistry of the photos and the emotional intensity that they contain. It made me wonder at the power of art – some art, anyway – to make us feel more awake. Amagazingly, even when the subject is suffering or death (and maybe especially then), art can give us a sudden awareness of the fullness of existence. It can make us feel truly alive.

I’d very much like to think this collective novel that we're now finalising can perform a similar feat. The themes here may be death and deception, as seen from 15 different (fictional) vantage points, but really it’s a book about life and truth.

And really really – like all decent literature – it’s a book about time: how little we have of it; how suddenly it can end; how satisfying it can feel to have our sense of it stretched out for a moment, perhaps through nothing more than the viewing of words on a page.

- Jonathan (writing the part of Callum, a strange young undertaker who loves plants)

 

Outtake: I wrote the above on a shady bench in the Villa Borghese Gardens, above central Rome. Standing up afterwards, I was startled by a bust of Dante. He'd been looking over my shoulder the whole time (speak of the devil). It left me feeling a bit spooked. I consoled myself with the thought that the immortal great writer couldn’t turn his nose up at me, at least, because he no longer has one. (Not my doing, I hasten to add. Yikes.)

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Published
Publication date: May 2014
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