Reading the Ashes

Every story is a fire. The writer uses a spark to light it, and then it burns fiercely (or not… but that’s another blog entry…) until it exhausts its fuel. And then it dies, first into embers, and then into ashes. And the story is over.

The ashes are what remains with you after the story is done. And stirring the ashes leaves you with the memory of the flames that had been there before. These are magical ashes, because they are not all the same. They are different, every time, according to what kind of fire they have come from – and changing the ashes, the story’s end, the thing that the writer sends the reader away with, can dramatically change the reader’s perception of the nature of the fire whose residue they are.

My attention was recently drawn to an article about Hemingway, and “A Farewell to Arms” – the article is here.

It seems, alas, to require a log-in in order to read it in full but here’s the gist of it.

Hemingway agonized over the ending for that novel.

The one that emerged as the clear winner was the one that we now know as part of the novel, as the protagonist, Frederic Henry, learns of the death of the woman he loves and of their child:

“It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”

But Hemingway wrote 47 different endings – and now a new edition of the book is being published, with the alternative endings provided. They range from what the article calls a spiritual variant: “The thing is that there is nothing you can do about it. It is all right if you believe in God and love God.”

And the one they call morbid: ” That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you .”

And then there’s the one supposedly suggested by Hemingway’s friend and contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, dripping with the bitterness and cynicism of a certain era; it describes the world which Henry is left in in these terms: “It kills the very good and very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

In another and diametrically opposed version, the Hollywood Happy End, the mother dies but the baby lives (this was the ending actually used in the movie version of the novel, made in 1932), although Hemingway himself said, “I did not want a happy ending.”

Every one of those would have made “A Farewell to Arms” a very different novel, and would have changed the reader’s perception of its characters, and of the world in which they had been given form.

So I started to think about endings.

The first one, the very first one, that popped into my head was the one to a short story:

“Look,” whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.)

Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.

The story, as most who are reading this will know, was “Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke. It was an ending that burned itself into my brain, and enshrined this particular short story as one that I would never forget. Why was it so unforgettable? Viscerally, the first time I read it, it was the emotional oomph of it, despite the almost artless flatness of the sentiment within it. That parenthetical statement is calculated to be almost overlooked – it feels like just a passing commentary – but it is not, it is so not. And it’s only once your eyes have already passed over it that you realize that, and do a whiplash double take as you look back over it. THERE IS ALWAYS A LAST TIME FOR EVERYTHING. Followed by the stars going out. Without any fuss.

Oh my GOD. The thing has you by the throat, and it never lets you go. It is the ultimate reading of the ashes, because there can be absolutely no other reading of those ashes. This is not only an ending, it is the end, The End, the final and ultimate end, game over, the going (gently or not) into that dark night which has no morning. It is masterful.

Any given story consists of two things, its characters (and their problems and triumphs and tragedies) and the bigger ideas which animate the whole tale. A frequent ending to a story is simply the death of its protagonist, and done well this works beautifully. Here’s an example of that:

“Now they could clearly be heard singing in the marketplace. If only he had been able to breathe in more air, if only the road were less steep, if only he were able to reach home and lie down on his divan and see or hear someone of his own about him! But he could not. He could no longer maintain that fine balance between his breathing and his heartbeats; his heart had now completely stifled his breath, as had sometimes happened to him in dreams. Only from this dream there was no awakening to bring relief. He opened his mouth wide and felt his eyes bulging in his head. The slope which until then had been growing steeper and steeper was now quite close to his face. His whole field of vision was filled by that dry, rough road which became darkness and enveloped him.

On the slope which led upwards to Mejdan lay Alihodja and breathed out his life in short gasps.”

Ivo Andric, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, ended his novel “Bridge on the Drina” with these words in 1945. The big idea behind the novel is not just this man, not simply Alihodja, and this lonely death on an empty road is perhaps not the culmination of that idea. At the very least, for some of us, like myself, the history and tragedy behind the story of this novel is much more personal than for anyone who might have tripped over it in translation, and does not know intimately and viscerally the history behind its story and the full truth as well as the meaning of the symbolism within it – and this definitely changes the quality of the ashes for me, and I know that any given Western reader without that kind of layered inner knowledge will be remembering a very different story-fire than the one I remember after closing this book. But the ending… works for both of us, for myself and for that putative Western reader who reads with a certain layer of ignorance, because both readers were invested in Alihodja as a character; for me, this ending, this character, serves to deepen the book while for someone else it might serve as something else entirely – an opening of a door to understanding which might have been closed before, perhaps, through making that reader identify with this particular character and his role in the drama of history. Character as flashlight, inviting more compassion, more comprehension, more involvement.

A character’s ending of a different sort – not the dying itself, but a sort of elegiac look back after what seems to be quite a long time after that death had occurred – closes Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, “Les Misérables”. I cannot read that last page in my copy of the novel without weeping. It is this:

There is, in the cemetery of Père Lachaise, in the neighbourhood of the Potter’s Field, far from the elegant quartier of that city of sepulchers, far from all those fantastic tombs which display in presence of eternity the hideous fashions of death, in a deserted corner, beside an old wall, beneath a great yew on which the bindweed climbs, among the dog-grass and the mosses, a stone. This stone is exempt no more than the rest from the leprosy of time, from the mould, the lichen, and the droppings of birds. The air turns it black, the water green. It is near no path, and people do not like to go in that direction, because the grass is high and they would wet their feet. When there is a little sunshine, the lizards come out. There is, all about, a rustling of wild oats. In the spring, the linnets sing in the tree.

This stone is entirely blank. The only thought in cutting it was of the essentials of the grave,, and there was no other care than to make this stone long enough and narrow enough to cover a man.

No name can be read there.

Only many years ago a hand wrote on it in pencil these four lines which have become gradually illegible under the rain and the dirt, and which are now probably effaced:

Il dort. Quoique le sort fût pour lui bien estrange.

Il vivait. Il mourut quand il n’eut plus son ange.

Le chose simplement d’elle-même arriva

Comme la nuit se fait lorsque le jour s’en va.

 

For those of you who may not be familiar enough with French to understand that last quatrain, it reads roughly thus:

“He sleeps. The leaving might have been strange for him –

He lived. He died when he no longer had his angel.

The thing [death] simply came to him,

Like night comes when the day is done.”

 

Yes, I know. Simplistic. But have you read the book? Because if you have you will remember Jean Valjean, the man whose name is not on that gravestone but which is shouted by the wounded earth with every word that Hugo writes in description of that grave, who loved his foster child – his angel – his Cosette – so very very much, enough to walk away from her and erase himself from her life once he had seen her happily bestowed with a husband and a secure future, because his own past as a convict may have reflected badly on the girl whom he passionately wanted to protect from even the possibility of such an occurrence. He gave up everything to spare her the smallest amount of pain, partly because he could not bear the thought of her, innocent and loving and pure, ever looking at him in fear or with repugnance, could not bear the thought of her knowing of the darkness that had shaped his own life and from which he had sought to protect her with every ounce of his strength.

My tears at this ending, at this grave so lost and forgotten in the tall grasses of the back end of a cemetery where the poor and the nameless go, stems from an earlier passage of the book – where we see Valjean take a daily walk from his lodgings – where he treasures the baby things from Cosette’s childhood, which now hold his dearest memories – to the corner of the street where Cosette now lives, just so that he can glimpse the house which shelters her. After a while, he shortens his walk to a block away from that corner. After a while, he shortens it yet again, and then again, and again – to halfway to that corner, to the end of his own street, to a few steps outside his own door – and after that, he does not go out at all any more. It is a poignant picture of a man who has lost the creature he has most loved in this world, has lost hope, has lost a reason for living. When Cosette does reach him, in time for him to at least die with her face before him and her hand holding his, it is too late for more than just a reconciliation of being at peace with himself and with everything that he has done.

Yes, this book is also a novel of big ideas. But this ending is about one man – the man whose soul carried this novel through all of its battles and purgatories. A man who died and was then buried away from any company, from any prying eyes, whose name wasn’t even carved on his tomb. Who might have ended up… irrelevant, lost, unknown. But he is remembered. My God, is he remembered. He died, when he no longer had his angel – and I, and thousands like me, now use his name like a prayer of love, like an angel of compassion, like a symbol of hope and peace and forgiveness. An example of what love is, or can be, and how much can be done and attempted and endured in its name. If your only exposure to “Les Miz” has been the musical, do yourself a favour and read the book. Yes, you have my permission to skip the inevitable 19th-century digressions with which the novels of the era were plagued – I, no more than you, never cared about what kind of habits the nuns of a particular convent wore, or was particularly interested in its history and provenance, and Hugo does insist on dropping that entire discourse (just as an example) into the middle of a wildly exciting escape scenario which leaves you turning the pages impatiently and going, “yes yes yes, get on with the STORY, what happened next?!” But read the book. And when you come to the end, that ending, that quatrain written in pencil anonymously on top of a nameless grave that houses the mortal remains of a body that once held a great soul – you, too, will weep.

Those ashes, the ashes of the bright flame of that story, will always call forth your tears, after this.

Endings that make you choke up are the ones that somehow manage to stay with you, and you never really forget the stories that carried them. They are some powerful ashes. I will not give you the ending, here, but I do encourage you to go and find Neil Gaiman’s story collection “Smoke and Mirrors” (it was published in 1999) and read the story “The Price”. It always makes me gasp, and my throat closes, and my eyes are full of hot tears which shiver on my eyel

ashes. In appalled understanding. In sorrow. In fear.

Just go read it. Read those ashes, the ashes of that ending. You will never quite be the same again, after that.

An ending can be poignant without quite that kind of emotional earthquake, though. They can invoke tropes that are familiar enough to recognize but finding them in unlooked-for places can have quite an impact on the reader. I still recall the way the hackles rose at the back of my neck at this ending from China Mieville’s “Iron Council”:

Years might pass and we will tell the story of the Iron Council and how it was made, how it made itself and went, and how it came back, and is coming, still coming. Women and men cut a line across the dirt and dragged history out and back across the world. They are still with shouts setting their mouths and we usher them in. They are coming out of the trenches of rock towards the brick shadows. They are always coming.

What I saw in that passage – and hey, that is the message the ashes of this particular story-fire held for me, and may not have the same resonance for you at all – was a reference to an entire body of legend – of King Arthur and his knights sleeping under Glastonbury Tor until such time as the nation shall have need of them again – the champion against catastrophe on whom you only had to call and he would come – they are always coming,. I saw my hands tremble on the book when I finished reading this thing – there was a power here, an ancient power, and this writer wields it like a scalpel.

Or another ending – this time from a novel called “Set This House in Order”, by my colleague and my friend Matt Ruff:

Still, I can picture what the house might look like: small – one story would do, I think – but with a big porch or a patio facing east, a place to take my breakfasts in the morning sun. Some space around it, enough to plant a few trees, and a long open driveway that always lets me see who’s coming. A garden out back. And inside, protected but not hidden, lots of shelves and cabinets and closets, so that everything I own, and everything I have yet to acquire, can find its rightful place.

The book is about a protagonist with multiple personalities. And there are so many layers to this ending that it would take me a whole another essay to unpack them all. Let me just say, here and now, that I had thought of Matt Ruff as an amazing writer ever since I first crossed paths with his work in the shape of the immortal “Fool on the Hill” – but that this book, “Set This House in Order” – and the ending made it matter in this way – that I made me sit up and realize that he was not only a good writer but a great one. Reading the ashes of the story’s flame. Remembering the fire he had built, and masterfully controlled, and then left for me to find and cool into my memory like lava turning into rugged mountains, solid and never more to be erased.

This is what an ending will do.

There are books whose endings are famous for being famous – whose endings, whose ashes, are no more than a denouement, a send-off, a memento to remember the story by – how many of you will fail to correctly identify this one:

“I’ll think of it tomorrow at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”

But it isn’t – quite – an ending. It’s just closure. Okay, here we have her, Scarlett O’Hara, down but not out, and when you close the book off she goes to plot some more stuff like any good heroine of any good soap opera does when she’s out of your sight. Even so, even if it wasn’t quite the ending of the sort that I am talking about here – it was closure, and it brought the curtain down, and the attempt to write a “sequel” to “Gone with the Wind” ended in miserable failure, a spectacular crash and burn (I wonder how many people now even recall what the title of that ill-fated sequel was, or who wrote it – and if the author of it is rather happy at that state of affairs). Ashes are ashes, the story is done, and too often the misguided insistence that something just HAS to go on only has the unfortunate effect of raising a zombie-like creature which has no spark of life at all and just shambles along blundering blindly into obstacles it isn’t capable of perceiving.

Taking a story to beyond its natural span can be disastrous – witness what happened to that great and glorious tale called “Dune” – they flogged and flogged that poor nag until it was no more than a horse-shaped skeleton with nothing left of the fabulous steed which had carried us into that first story, until it was dead dead dead. Or the stories that apparently can’t seem to find an ending with both hands and just go on and on until they drop from exhaustion (or their readers do – “Wheel of Time”, I am looking at you).

When you first start out writing stories, it seems hard enough to know exactly WHEN the perfect ending is. Novice writers frequently overshoot, soldiering on well after their story’s natural conclusion and getting more and more frustrated at their apparent inability to “end” things while being unable to tell that the story ended paragraphs or pages ago – or they will, perhaps, overcompensate and err in the opposite direction and chop a story short too soon without allowing the reader the grace of a natural ending and a complete closure. The two extremes, to carry forward the analogy, are a little like trying to keep a campfire going long after you’ve run out of fuel (and you wind up burning stuff you might need to survive another day or trying to keep the fire alive by feeding it stuff that was never combustible at all and ending up with melted plastic all over the place) or trying to put a happily going campfire out before it’s done, leaving just a soaked firepit and your dinner half-cooked.

That story fire, keeping it alight just long enough and hot enough to matter, maintaining that is a fine art. Leaving a message worth remembering in its ashes is the culmination of a writer’s gift.

Read the ashes.

 

 

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Reading the Ashes — 3 Comments

  1. I’m a little confused because you say that the ashes are what the author takes away from the ending, and then the ashes are the ending. I see those as two different things. (And a third thing would be what the reader takes away, which cannot be predicted: one reader’s perfect ending is another’s too-soon, too-late, or flat tire.)

    But it’s enlightening to see writers’ process behind the scenes, like Hemingway’s 47 possible endings. Related to that, there’s a fascinating article in this month’s Smithsonian from friend and correspondent of Hemingway’s who after all these years is disclosing an insider’s view of Hemingway’s relationships, which in turn adds some emotional heft to the novels he was writing at the time. Even though the text is the text–the reader’s experience changes over time so rereading can bring the text to a more resonant meaning.

  2. I read The Nine Billions names in middle school. We had a wonderful reading book; it contained also The Sentinel, and Forster’s The Machine Stops (hence as a preteen I thought EM Forster was a science fiction writer). I never forgot any of the three; they burned deep, and left their mark.