Book Review: Maurice Blanchot's Death Sentence / by Neal Auch

Maurice Blanchot's Death Sentence is a wonderfully enigmatic novel.  The book has a reputation for being confusing and inaccessible, and this reputation is well deserved.  The first half of the book consists of a fairly straightforward account of the final days of a terminally ill woman.  These are recounted by our narrator in some detail.  On the surface the narrative feels mostly banal and uneventful, but these early pages are filled with anxiety and dread.  Port of this atmosphere comes from the obvious fact that we are watching a woman die, but this isn't really what makes the book fascinating.  Indeed, the reader knows very little about this woman other than the fact that she's ill; we are not particularly invested in her or any other characters in the story.  Rather, the disquieting feel of the book seems to stem from the narrator's oddly detached approach to the situation (he remarks at one point that illness has made this woman more beautiful) and from the sense of something almost like a supernatural horror looming behind the scenes.  This sense of looming horror is subtle and difficult to pinpoint, but it persists throughout the novel.  There is a wonderful moment, for example, when the dying woman's eyes seem to follow something invisible through the room.  There is a mysterious "treatment" that has been administered to the woman by a shady doctor.  There is a strange insistence by our narrator that his blood chemistry has been altered in some way, and his curiously inconsistent perception of temperature.  The narrator frequently reassures us that he is going to be honest and tell the truth about events, but we are frequently left with the exact opposite impression.  This is the kind of literature that I sometimes call "non canonical horror", which is to say this is a novel that deals with horror themes and elements, but nevertheless is not usually considered a piece of genre work.

The second half of the novel is rather less straightforward than the first.  The "plot" here mostly concerns our narrator's relationship with another woman.  Again, very little happens and, again, the book feels strangely unnerving.  There is a moment that initially seems like a hallucination (or an encounter with an undead apparition) but is, ultimately, quite banal and easily explained.  The "climax" of the narrative is similarly at once empty and somehow also feels filled with a sense of looming dread of death.  The fun of this book lies in its inscrutability, so perhaps there's little point in trying to dissect the "meaning" behind all this.  My best guess is that the second half of the novel -- focused mostly on the mundane relationships and daily grind of the narrator -- is the true titular "Death Sentence".  Perhaps the point of all this looming menace that haunts the banality of the narrative is simply this: Blanchot wants to remind us that, from the moment of birth, we have all been issued a death sentence.