Monday, October 21, 2013

Victor Brombert on Dying and Death

Flowers in Munson Park

Some people can write. I mean, really write. I just finished reading chapter one of Victor Brombert's Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi. (Ch. 1 - "Tolstoy: 'Caius Is Mortal'") Brombert can write.

His words and sentences are wise and moving and heart-expanding as he tours us on a path of dying and apocalypse. I've never read The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Brombert made me buy it tonight. What coolness to feast at this literary banquet table. And think of the revelation of death. And the power of writing.

"The crucial question for Tolstoy is how we face this revelation, what it tells us about the way we have lived. Ivan Ilych learns— the lesson may come too late— that emptiness, self-deception, and false values have been at the core of his life, that in the process of living we all deny the truth of our human condition, that we lie to ourselves when we pretend to forget about death, and that this lie is intimately bound up with all the other lies that vitiate our moral being. It is a denunciation of a spiritual void." (Brombert, Musings on Mortality, Kindle Locations 251-254)


Editorial Reviews


 “Musings on Mortality is a book suffused with wisdom and argued with the strong hand of a weathered and feeling literary scholar. To treat such tragic and inconsolable subject matter with such clarity and respect, with such equanimity and understanding, is to levitate above it, in stoic courage and willed serenity. It is hard to imagine such thematic criticism being done better than here. What a beautiful book.”
(Thomas Harrison, author of 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance)

 “A brave and eloquent book devoted to what AndrĂ© Malraux called ‘negating nothingness.’ Victor Brombert moves gracefully from Tolstoy, though Kafka, Coetzee, and others, to Primo Levi in a meditation that is both engaging and profound, highly erudite, and completely personal.”
(Peter Brooks, author of Henry James Goes to Paris)

 “This book offers a unique pleasure—a sustained conversation with one of the most learned and wise critics of our age about the great defining truth of human existence: the persistent awareness of mortality. Full of life, it is self-consciously the musings of old age, of a man who has spent decades with the consolations and discomforts of literature as it engages with death.”
(Thomas Laqueur, author of Solitary Sex)

 “With sensitivity and insight, Princeton University emeritus literature professor Brombert studies the work of eight 20th-century authors and their literary approaches to mortality and death. . . . The simplicity and directness of Brombert’s style gives his discussion of the philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings of the works under scrutiny great clarity, and his study of the authors in their native languages allows him to discuss nuances of the text that might otherwise have been lost in translation.”
(Publishers Weekly)

“Albert Camus’s The Plague, Thomas Mann’s doomed aesthete Aschenbach from Death in Venice, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, and the writings of Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, and J.M. Coetzee are all examined by this distinguished scholar in exemplary essays that reflect the authors’ different fears and hopes. Brombert’s eloquently written book is for serious lovers of literature.”
(Library Journal)

“It is clear that Brombert, a fine scholar and critic, is also an inspiring teacher. . . . The moments when Brombert engages in autobiographical reminiscence or tells anecdotes about his students are delightful and instructive.”
(Times Higher Education)