I had the chance to sit down with the author during his recent visit to Seattle, and ask what we daunted, godless people can hope for.
Tell me about the construct of "a period of grace" in Being Dead.
The babyish narratives we get from believers tell us the dead will live on in eternity, spooning honey from yogurt pots and listening to bad elevator music. So, the challenge was to find some comfort and optimism in the presence of absolute finality, which I find to be had only in retrospect, in the lives lived; the threescore and 10 we live, if we're lucky, have to be worth the chancing.
When my father died, he asked for and received a straight-laced atheist funeral: no announcements, no ceremony, no opportunity to remember his life. And that was a mistake. He had been a milkman and a groundskeeper at a sporting grounds, but also a fervent socialist and political being. The integrity of his unique life was sent off without a word. And it is only afterwards that I realized that although dead, my father had left an imprint of love that still lives on in the tone with which I speak of him today. When I die that will disappear; my own children didn't meet him. And when I myself fail, these years as a sort of period of grace will run out.
The threads of grace, so to speak.
Yes, the threads of grace that spread forward, although for some people these threads of grace are not love or fondness. Sometimes the guy was a complete rogue, and it's the sullied anecdotes that live on. But if you accept that your father in 500 years will still be well combed and rosy-cheeked in heaven, you have chosen to live with your eyes closed. The seagull we encounter on the beach, with its bones on show and flies working its carcass, draws our interest. There is nothing truly cruel or meretricious in that, and so when I hear perhaps the most repeated critique of the book--that the descriptions of death are cold-hearted--it demonstrates to me a common desire to distance humankind in death from nature. We have come to hide behind a sanitized view.
And so, for the strong-stomached among us who accept the gory particulars, what then gives life meaning in the end?
The awesome fact of consciousness: the orange on the table between us, the awareness of far-off travelers, the sun making its way through the clouds as we speak, our very words. It is this and only this that makes life bearable--unmissable, in fact. And it is we, humankind, of the 37 million species that exist on Earth who wander about with our cup most full, able to appreciate the scientific unfolding of the universe. To try and improve upon that, imagining that outside of the glass sphere there is something else, and that we have to look in from outside, is to miss the point.
And yet, the omniscient narrator of novels, Being Dead included, looks in from outside, a sort of angel-like presence in the lives of its characters. What's more, even a writer as clever and scientifically minded as Nabokov populates his novels with ghosts and intimations of another sphere trying to communicate.
There are gods in fiction. There are ghosts in fiction. And there is an afterlife. But there are no devils, no apparitions, in real life. But fiction as a contained construct of consciousness is not anti-scientific. How could it be? This human ability for narrative was not given to us by chance. Evolution shows that it gave us an advantage, although we are not the only fictional animal. An example: Walking on the moors in England last summer I knew there were skylarks about, and I, being an avid naturalist, was trying to find the skylarks' nest. All of a sudden, the male startled up from the ground where I knew the nest was and stayed fluttering above this patch of land 50 yards off, calling and calling that here was the nest. Fiction used as protection. This crude example shows the necessity that can drive fiction. Nevertheless, as we, humankind, have honed it the most, it is our defining moment. In the poses and riffs, the repeated phrases we acquire, we create who we are, and in the remembering we resurrect the dead. Really, the whole thing is drama--smoke and mirrors. But isn't it fun.