Last words: seeking the great persimmon

When I was very young some especially lugubrious relative gave me a book containing the last words of famous people, and I pondered those very solemnly and appreciatively.

Some last words were very smart. “I have lived as a philosopher,” said Casanova, putting what you might describe as a somewhat flattering spin on how he had lived, “and I die as a Christian.” This struck me as a prudent declaration to make, similar in a way but opposite to Voltaire’s deathbed response to being asked to renounce Satan. “I hardly think,” said Voltaire, “this is the time to be making new enemies.”

I read this out to my dad, who explained the joke to me, and who Voltaire was. I asked him what his last words would be, and he pondered that for a while. It’ll be a surprise, he said. I tried to wheedle it out of him, but he just said I’d find out one day, and it’s nice to have something to look forward to, so I had to go back to my book.

I began to suspect that some words were a little too polished to actually have been last ones. Did Rabelais really expire saying, “I go now to seek a Great Perhaps”? It seems like it’s the kind of thing you might think up and hold back as long as you can, hoping to quickly blurt it out before the lights go down. But what if you nodded out before you could properly pronounce the final word? You run the risk of posterity recording that you went in search of a great persimmon. Even more concerning to my fretful young mind: what if you said it too soon, then had to lie there silently for hours with your lips obstinately pursed, refusing to talk or answer any questions for fear of accidentally saying something less quotable? Oh horrid fate to go out in the middle of a sulk.

But come, seriously now, did Emily Dickinson really depart saying, “I must go in now. The fog is rising”? It would be lovely to think so, but it seems suspiciously like poetizing. It also seems slightly too on-brand to imagine that Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last words really were: “It is beautiful”, unless she happened to be looking at a cake or something.

For a while it was reported that the dancer Isadora Duncan’s last words were “Farewell, my friends! I go to glory!” Which seemed an oddly convenient thing to say when stepping into an open-topped car for a short spin. How did she know her scarf would tangle round the axle of her car and snap her so precipitously to neck-broken glory? Later, witnesses confessed that her last words from the car were in fact, “I go to love!” which also sounds pretty good, especially when it’s explained that she was in fact declaring her intention to seduce the handsome young chauffeur.

The words that that have the clearest ring of authenticity are the messy ones, and they’re very often the most distressingly poignant. “I’m not going to die, am I?” said Charlotte Bronte to her husband Arthur. “He would not separate us, would he? We have been so happy.”

Emil Zola died of asphyxiation when his chimney became blocked in the night, filling the bedroom with odourless fumes. He and his wife Alexandrine woke in the early hours, feeling queasy and headachey, but attributed it to something they’d eaten. There is something heartbreakingly domestic about the picture of Emil gently stroking her hand in the darkness, murmuring, “Go back to sleep. We’ll feel better in the morning.” She woke up. He didn’t.

Not all departures were as tender. The writer and comedian WC Fields reportedly said, “Goddamn this whole fuckin’ world and everyone in it but you, Carlotta,” which must have been a nice thing to hear for his girlfriend Carlotta Monti, but probably less nice for his wife Hattie. I did enjoy this, though: he passed away in a sanatorium in California during a long drought, and during his final hours Carlotta sprayed water on the roof with a hosepipe to simulate his favourite weather, the sound of falling rain.

I paid attention to all this, and composed my own last words when I was very young, which I’ve committed to memory. I can’t say them aloud or even write them down until it’s time – that would be tempting fate – but regrettably I think the era of last words has largely passed. They are out of fashion now, maybe because there are so few home deathbed scenes, with loved ones and families gathered about to say their last farewells. Nowadays, we die in hospitals at 2.17am, while our loved ones, our wife and son and daughter, are on the other side of town, in their own beds, still young enough to think that nothing in life ever will ever change and there’s still plenty of time to do everything.

I don’t know what my dad’s last words were. It would be nice to think he was looking at a cake, or something.

Times, 27 November 2019