Monday, April 03, 2006

`The Distinguished Thing'

More than a mere literary influence or mentor, Edith Wharton deemed Henry James a friend, one of her closest and most cherished. She campaigned unsuccessfully for James to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and, during a period of financial difficulty for James, clandestinely transferred some of her own royalties to his accounts. In her memoir, A Backward Glance, published in 1934, she describes James’ death at the age of 73 in 1916. It is among the most moving death scenes I know in all of literature:

“His dying was slow and harrowing. The final stroke had been preceded by one or two premonitory ones, each causing a diminution just marked enough for the still conscious intelligence to register it, and the sense of disintegration must have been tragically intensified to a man like James, who had so often and deeply pondered on it, so intently watched for its first symptoms. He is said to have told his old friend Lady Prothero, when she saw him after the first stroke, that in the very act of falling (he was dressing at the time) he heard in the room a voice which was distinctly, it seemed, not his own, saying: `So here it is at last, the distinguished thing!’ The phrase is too beautifully characteristic not to be recorded. He saw the distinguished thing coming, faced it, and received it with words worthy of all his dealings with life.”

Speaking of death, Samuel Beckett in 1959 wrote a 12-page, two-character “piece for radio” titled “Embers.” It was first broadcast that year on the BBC Third Programme. Here’s a mordantly funny excerpt spoken by Henry to Ada:

“. . .that’s what hell will be like, small chat to the babbling of Lethe about the good old days when we wished we were dead.”

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