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This review is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.

GRAVE TALK D. J. Enright (ed.), The Oxford Book of Death (OUP) £9.50

The attractive cover of D. J. Enright's anthology shows Joachim Patinir's 'Charon Crossing the Styx'. This mysterious painting throws into prominence one of the items Enright has included, Lucian's Nekrikoi Dialogi (Dialogues of the Dead), which have formed the basis of so much satire from the Renaissance to the time of Goethe and even Brecht. Enright's book is a generous one, drawn from an extremely broad range of literatures and ages. In a spirited introduction he confesses, 'Reading for this anthology, I was moved to the thought that on no theme have writers shown themselves more lively. . . . to talk at all interestingly about death is inevitably to talk about life.'

The human subject in this book is far wider than just the death-bed scene. At first, it might seem a randomly assembled collection. But in fact the themes have been carefully collated and arranged, from 'Definitions', 'The Hour of Our Death', 'Suicide' and 'Mourning', to 'Love and Death', 'Children', 'Requiems' and 'Last Words'. Thomas Mann's sister appears in the 'Suicide' section and again, aptly, as a 'Revenant', whose voice is heard in the mountains by Heinrich Mann before he receives the telegram about her death; Ben Jonson's 'Lament' for his son comes under the heading of 'Children', and later he recounts seeing an apparition of the child, who died when Jonson was away from home.

Enright regrets the absence of music, the art 'which is seemingly able to tell us more about ...


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