Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book writing hiatus - Famous last words

I am still trying to finalize my book that is to be out in November, saying a lot about how quickly publishing operates in a small market such as Iceland. I have a couple more chapters to go and then the dreaded rewrite. The first advertisement for the book is being printed so I can't really back out now, can only repeat the same old "I am not going to let this happen again."  So yet again I must rely on an old post, previously uploaded on February 10th 2010. Please bear with me, I will be back to normal in about two weeks time. So here is what I had to say alomst two years ago now:

I have long envied people who manage to say something really smart and quotable seconds before their dying breath. To have the perseverance to even bother to say anything when you realize the big Game Over has arrived is a bit amazing when you think about it. Some of the quotes are good enough to make one wonder if the phrases have not been planned ahead of time, in particular if death is long in coming. Some cases even arouse suspicion that the quote has been developed using the support of those who assisted the famous person while still kicking, writing speeches and so on. If the super-organised quote is attributed to a politician this assistant would be a spin doctor, standing next to his medical counterpart, the former brainstorming out loud and the latter taking the soon to be deceased individuals pulse. This rather harmless conspiracy theory will be put to the test when Letterman and Leno pass away, these men have all the writers they need at their fingertips and must surely have asked them to spend an hour or two churning out remarkable or memorable words. I know I would if places were traded.

Having once spent a few hours reading through every quote in a book titled “The 1000 best Quotes of all time” I recall being flabbergasted at how little man has really managed to say in the form of prolific statements over the years, less than a tenth of the quotes were worth printing and if Oscar Wilde’s numerous contributions were removed this number would have fallen considerably. Although an impressive amount of quotations were attributes to him, his last words did not make the cut. They certainly merited being included: “These curtains are killing me, one of us has got to go.”

One of my long time favourite deathbed quotes was that of Charlie Chaplin who supposedly replied to the attending priest’s ritualistic words: “May the Lord have Mercy on your soul...” by saying: “Why not? It belongs to him.” However like many of the things one admires, when scrutinised they turn out to be an illusion. I did a quick verification of the authenticity of this quote and it turned out Chaplin died in his sleep and these are the dying words of someone else – Henri Verdoux, the main character of the movie Monsieur Verdoux from 1947 starring Charlie Chaplin. Too bad. The comedic retort has been removed from my personal list of favourite deathbed quotes.

Soon after realising this I was tempted to check out another favourite, but as it has a special place in my heart I decided not to, sometimes it is better to be under an illusion if harmless. The final words in question are those of Mexican rebel Pancho Villa uttered after he had been mortally wounded by unknown assassins: “Tell them I said something.” I also refrain from looking up Voltaire’s dying words for fear that they are fictional. Like the Chaplin quote, they a retort to an attending priest, this one asking Voltaire to renounce Satan to which he replied: “This is no time for making new enemies.” Just brilliant.

Priests administering last rites seem too have been an inspiration for a lot of the deathbed quotes I like, probably because their presence under such circumstances is to be expected, they often have the ringside seat, their ear in close proximity to the cracked lips of the person soon passing. Duke Ramón María Narváez y Campos, Spanish statesman was one, his attending priest asked him solemnly to forgive his enemies to which Ramón replied just before passing away: “I have none so no need. I have had them all shot.”

A number of last words are attributed to the settlers of Iceland through the Sagas. Some are eloquent, poems really and not easily translated. I will however include one I find a bit funny, attributed to an unnamed member of a posse sent to kill Gunnar Hámundarson in Njálssaga. The man is sent to Gunnar’s door to find out if he is home but unbeknownst to him Gunnar becomes aware of his approach and manages to stick his sword out by opening the door an inch and stabbing the would-be assassin fatally. The mortally wounded man staggers back to his group and is asked: “Was Gunnar home?” His reply? “This I do not know but I did notice that his sword is.” He then fell down dead.

Despite the truth of actor Edmund Gwenn’s last words: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” I would recommend to those that wish to make a long lasting deathbed comment, to go with funny rather than poetic. These seem to be remembered with more ease and there are a lot fewer quotes out there that deal with wisdom or peace of mind. However I cannot leave the subject without mentioning two such examples: Theodore Roosevelt: "Put out the light." And René Descartes: “My soul, thou has long been held captive; the hour has now come for thee to quit thy prison, to leave the trammels of this body; suffer then, this separation with joy and courage.” A bit longwinded but nevertheless it surpasses by leaps and bound those of General John Sedgwick who died in battle during the US Civil War: "They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist..."

I have yet to come up with what I would like my last words to be, but hope I still have time to figure it out without having to rush against a fast approaching deadline. It's a bit unfortunate that I will not have a priest to bounce off of but I'll just have to make do without a pious sidekick. The first step is to realize what I absolutely don’t want to say and this bit has been accomplished, I think everyone can agree with me in not wanting their deathbed or last words to be: “Oh God, it hurts!” or: “Look over there! A crocodile!”

Finally, in the case I don’t find the time to develop something immortal then I would happily settle for: “Zzzzzzz...”

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. Readers of this blog can have no complaints when we get a second chance to read your always interesting, always witty posts.

    I had not thought about the last words issue that most of us will have to face. It is another burden to bear - how to be reasonable, memorable, and, of necessity, succinct with only a few minutes left. Maybe, when it is thought that people have died in their sleep, they have just closed their eyes because they can't come up with anything to say.

  2. You always make me laugh. It's a decided benefit of my sieve like memory.

  3. Yrsa,

    I can't get my ridiculous library system to commit to buying Ashes to Dust, however, despite my limited budget, I will buy this book. I have to find out what Thora is doing in that book; I love her character and her family.