The Presence of Death

Frances Oliver

In his book The Great Derangement, discussed in my previous articles, Amitav Ghosh writes that, with few exceptions, only the ‘non-serious’ forms of modern fiction, sci-fi and the supernatural, reflect the ‘uncanny’ that we now face. For the greatest crisis of human history, climate change and the exhaustion of the natural world, is indeed the ‘uncanny’ and an aggregate crisis needing an aggregate creative response, whereas our serious novels concentrate almost exclusively on the personal, on individual human relations.
An ‘aggregate’ novel can only be one attempting to portray a whole group or society, usually through the parallel narratives of several characters. John dos Passos’ USA is one example, and Ghosh himself, in the two novels I have read, Sea of Poppies and The Glass Palace, writes in this form about India and Burma under the colonial yoke. More rare is first person plural, a narrator ‘we’ speaking for an entire group.
One 20th century author who frequently used that manner was French Swiss C.F. Ramuz (1878-1947). He wrote chiefly about the nature and life of his native land, the Swiss canton of Vaud. He also spent time in Paris, where he befriended prominent figures in the epoch’s cultural life, and created the libretto for Stravinsky’s classic Histoire du Soldat. He has been too little recognised and translated in the English-speaking world. His idiosyncratic style, by turns halting and fluent and deceptively simplistic, like the speech of the peasants he writes about, is difficult to render in English and can be off-putting for the impatient 21st century reader. My own favourite Ramuz book is La Grande Peur Dans la Montagne, a riveting novel of the supernatural. The narrator speaks for an alpine village, whose mayor disparages an ancient superstition and persuades the people to use a pasture that tradition has forbidden them. As in Blackwood’s stories, the place that does not welcome trespassers has a terrible revenge. More than a good ghostly story, this is also a vivid and convincing picture of a community beginning to disintegrate under anxiety and loss.
With a later novel written soon after the disastrous First World War, Ramuz takes on the final apocalypse. The book is Presence de la Mort, titled in English translation The End of All Men. Presence de la Mort, unlike most dystopic novels, is not about a post-apocalyptic world but the world just before its final end. Curiously, the end Ramuz has chosen is close to what scientists predict will be the actual end of the planet millions of years in the future (life on the planet as we know it may of course end some millions sooner, if we follow our present course). Scientists calculate that eventually the sun will devour the earth; in Presence de la Mort it is the approach of the sun and resulting unbearable heat that will destroy all life.
Ramuz makes only brief reference to similar events happening in other places and wisely confines his narrative to the land and people he knows best, the Swiss canton of Vaud. Sadly and predictably, humanity acts as humanity does. At first there is denial. People enjoy the beautiful summer days; everyone bathes or swims in the big lake (Geneva). Then the heat grows, the rumours become believable, and social norms and restrictions begin to fall away. Ramuz avoids tabloid horror but the incidents he relates are distressing enough.

A group of canal diggers carry on as usual when a man accosts them, asking why are they working? There is no more work, and everything is allowed. They follow him down to an inn and demand all the drink. The innkeeper fights to protect his barrels; he and his family are murdered. The men, writes Ramuz, have now known a better distraction even than drink, the sight of spilled blood.
These are not yet radio days and the population is still mostly rural and sparse compared to today’s overpopulated world. In another scene, a group of alpine herders on a high pasture are also carrying on as usual, ignorant of the coming cataclysm. A group of young people with pistols, looking for food and shelter, appears and drives them out. The herders go down to the valley, talk things over, get their army guns and return at night. They set a fire to smoke out the sleeping young people and kill them all. They throw the corpses in corners and go back to their cattle and their routine, congratulating themselves on having taken back what belongs to them.
Some people are frantic to retrieve their money and storm the banks, though there will soon be nothing for money to buy. Still others, as in some post-apocalypse stories, take over castles and prepare to defend them by arms, though there will soon be nothing to defend. Everywhere is the sound of gunfire. Sometimes Ramuz changes to first person singular, the narrator giving a last ‘Salut’ to what he has found meaningful in the world or among men, and in one moving passage says: “I have loved the world too much. When I try to imagine something far from it, it is again the world that I imagine”. The chapter ends with a simple statement; “old or young, sick or well, rich or poor; there is now no more difference between men”. Near the end those still surviving crowd into the shrunken lake, desperate for a little cooling, oblivious of the drowning and already dead around them.
In his last chapter Ramuz describes vividly the arduous long climb up to a bitterly poor high alpine village, where peasants wrest a living from harsh terrain – a village which, exceptionally, lies not below but above its meagre pastures. The little village does have a church; and when the faithful bell-ringer manages to reach it through the mist and furious wind, the congregation obeys the summons; they who are apparently the last living. For them there is a kind of resurrection. In the church they are called by a ‘Personage’ (in French ‘personnage’ is feminine but one concludes that this is Christ or an equivalent thereof, as the capital P would indicate). They follow hesitantly; they must learn to walk and to see again. They find they were right to be attached, right to love. “But this is our home,” they say at last, happily, and that is the last sentence of the book.
It would be encouraging to think that our own (perhaps much nearer than admitted) apocalypse might have somehow, somewhere, such a comforting end.