AUTHORS often deal with death as a subject in their creative efforts but how much is recorded – when the pen is laid down one last time or the keyboard falls silent – of an individual writer’s own demise?
In Final Chapters Jim Bernhard presents the gruesome, garish and occasionally amusing details of more than 100 well-known authors’ ultimate days.
Arranged chronologically, the chapters begin with the Classical Age and span the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Romantic, Victorian and modern eras.
Bernhard’s preface refers to the morbid curiosity humans feel for death and the questions people ask: “When?”, “Where?”, “Why?” and, most vigorously, “How?”
He also notes: “Even though average life expectancies have substantially lengthened in modern times, writers do not seem to have benefited from the improvement.” To the contrary: the average age at death of classical Greek and Roman writers was about 70 years yet in more recent centuries it has fallen to 65.
Murder, execution, torture and medical conditions ranging from malaria and tuberculosis to leukaemia have felled their share of wordsmiths, as have heart disease and the abuse of alcohol (18 shots of whiskey in a single sitting in Dylan Thomas’s case).
Perhaps the most bizarre death of all was that of Aeschylus, fatally injured when an airborne eagle dropped its prey – a turtle – onto his bald head, intending to crack it open against what the bird apparently mistook for a rounded rock.
At the other end of the scale was Plato, who had as pleasant an end to his life as any tired old biographer could possibly seek: he simply “drifted peacefully into death” either while conducting music or attending a wedding feast.
Final Chapters is a convenient collection for anyone seeking short, sharp sections that can be read in a few minutes each.