The Black Mirror by Raymond Tallis

E.M. Forster stated ‘Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him’. This is exactly the sentiment that inspired the physician and writer Raymond Tallis ( to pen his latest book, The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life. It contemplates a life looked back on from beyond; a meditation on being post-mortem, in the hope that ‘the thought of our non-existence may save us from triviality, from entrapment in secondary things’.

Those primed with thoughts of finitude prove to be more likely than a control group to want children, or to name their children after themselves. His premise is that we too easily take present experience for granted — not just the beautiful sunsets but all the ordinary moments of life. ‘How can I be astonished at the miracle of a Wednesday afternoon?’, Tallis asks. His answer: to look into the black mirror of his own mortality in order to ‘revivify the life we have lost in living’. What follows is a kind of enumeration of human being; an accountancy of life in singing prose.

Tallis begins with dying, ‘the journey from the person to the corpse, from ‘I’ to ‘it”. It is a topic he knows well as a former professor of geriatric medicine. He then moves backwards to explore more vigorous modes of being – being with others, being in time and space, being among things. His poetic stocktake covers everything from the kitchen sink to the nature of consciousness. In particular, his hymn to memory wonderfully captures the mystery of this faculty that can encompass everything from reams of medical facts to an image of once ‘groping for a dropped Christmas tree bauble in the attic’. Tallis concedes that this book is the most self-centred of projects, but he hopes that in the particulars of his life there is also something universal. He approvingly quotes the Roman poet Horace: ‘Change only the name and this story is about you.’  The Black Mirror succeeds in capturing the smallness and simultaneous vastness of a single life. Do read it ante-mortem!

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352 pages in Atlantic Books

First published 2015

ISBN  978-1848871281

Raymond Tallis

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