‘The Lily Pad and the Spider’ swirls around a fear of death and the desire to die


The Lily Pad and the Spider

Claire Legendre, 96 pgs, Anvil Press, anvilpress.com, $18

There could be no better year to release a book on the fear of dying than 2020. At some other moment, this text by French writer Claire Legendre might have been disconcerting, but in the age of COVID-19, it reads as oddly comforting instead. Legendre, a French native who has lived and taught in Montreal since 2011, uses autobiographical fragments to introduce her life’s lively preoccupation: a crippling anxiety that swirls around a fear of death and the desire to die. They are two sides of one coin, aren’t they? What’s the difference between being afraid of dying and wanting to do so?

Legendre ably shows us how both these attachments can be internalized and interlinked to fascinating, devastating effect. Early on, she describes her and her best friend’s fascination with living fast and dying young. They yearn and, absurdly, expect to join the eponymous “27 Club” of public figures whose demise aligns with this undue age. Legendre recalls being relieved when she makes it past that accursed year of her life. But afterwards, she is horrified, faced with an existential chasm: if she hasn’t died, she must now try and live. Into the vacuum rushes every possible foreboding and dread.

Years later, Legendre finds an odd lump on her body, which turns out to be benign once it is removed. Again, Legendre must agonize about death and how to live in the void. She contemplates her failed relationship, whether she can starting anew, about exercising instead of smoking. She thinks about finding — or at least looking for — love. She doesn’t know if she should or if she can. Skillfully translated by David Homel, this 96-page text is part essay, part autobiography, with novelistic flare. Today it can be read as an essential primer to the hysteria that the spectres of sickness and death can so easily, so suddenly, swirl all around us.