The ever-living days of being dead | Jim Crace

Award-winning British novelist Jim Crace gave a reading at the Old University in Valletta last Thursday.

British author Jim Crace gave a talk an read an extract from his 1999 novel Being Dead at The Old University in Valletta last Thursday. Photos by Maria-Chiara Bartolo.
British author Jim Crace gave a talk an read an extract from his 1999 novel Being Dead at The Old University in Valletta last Thursday. Photos by Maria-Chiara Bartolo.

They say the best stories are either about sex or death, or both.

And while a reading by decorated British novelist Jim Crace last Thursday featured very little eroticism, the author's ruminations on death - landing on a well-attended audience at The Aula Magna Hall of the Old University in Valletta - proved to be a charming mix of both sombreness and humour.

During this British Council-sponsored event, the award-winning novelist chose to focus primarily on his 1999 novel Being Dead.

The striking title was Crace's opening salvo for the talk, while reassured the audience that, contrary to the habits of some of his writerly colleagues, there will be very little 'reading' during his 'reading'.

"The title was the only thing I knew about the book for a while, though several publishers warned me that it would cost me sales," Crace said of Being Dead, which tracks six days of a recently dead couple as their bodies decompose on a Welsh cliffside... which Crace said was reminiscent of the Gnejna/Ghajn Tuffieha cliffs which he had visited just a day prior to the reading.

"But even though the book didn't sell very well in most of the world, it proved to be quite popular in Taiwan, for reasons I didn't discover until my wife brought over a student of hers who was from Taiwan.

"First I asked her to point out where my name was on the cover... then I asked her to point out the title. And when I asked her what it translated to, she said: Love on the Beach..."

The idea for the novel was triggered by an episode of Crimewatch, a television show which reconstructs real-life crimes.

"I was watching it in bed with my young daughter - it was a highly inappropriate show for her - and after they showed a crime where an old couple were shot dead by a man in the Welsh wilderness, I knew I had my story..."

Crace explained how the novel also grew out of his upbringing as an atheist and that in writing it, he had hoped to work towards discovering some sort of spiritual comfort in the face of death, despite his non-religious convictions, which stemmed from his father.

"He worked as a groundsman at a sports club, and his lawns were perfect... he was also a socialist, a trade unionist, and an atheist," Crace recounted, explaining that his father's atheism stemmed from a class struggle more than anything else.

"It wasn't so much 'I hate religion', as much as 'I hate the religion of the ruling class'.

"And even though I inherited both my father's talent for lawns - I have the best lawns in Birmingham - and his atheism, I felt that his type of atheism wasn't relevant anymore, and that the really big mysteries go beyond petty issues like class struggle..."

But after a member of the audience shed light on the fact that the dead couple in Being Dead were killed suddenly - and were not the victims of a slow-killing illness - the pain of their death will not be felt so keenly.

"That's exactly right... the fact is that it was easier to just focus on a sudden death," Crace said in response, admitting that he didn't really succeed in finding a truly comforting alternative to religion in the face of death.

"I did perhaps find a philosophical comfort, though. At the end of the day, life is so sweet and wonderful, so why should we feel anything except dismay at its end?"

Asked whether he still holds to his previous announcement that his next novel will be his last, Crace replied in the affirmative.

"There's just so much to do in this world. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in front of a word processor. Also, if you observe the writing life you'll notice that a certain bitterness sets in with writers who've been at it for a while... they may be writing their best work, but they're no longer relevant.

"I want adventure, change... I want to have actual colleagues... and I want no bitterness," Crace said.

Crace is the recipient of several literary awards, among them the Whitbread Book Award, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award. His 1997 novel Quarantine was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction.