An exclusive extract from the Nobel prize-winning authors final work describes how he and his wife imagined their farewell
At long last, having discussed our joint project many times, testing and rejecting various notions at the kitchen table, we had reached a decision; the master carpenter Ernst Adomait sat across from us. The conversation began over tea and cakes, hesitantly at first, but soon underway.
Adomait has worked for us for years. Hes built standing desks and bookcases, and various smaller items for my wife. We told him what we wanted, never defining it as our last will and testament. After seeming through the French window into the summery, windless garden, he agreed to take the job and construct the boxes. He indicated they be measured separately for duration and width, and we agreed. He had no objection to our request for two different woods: pine for my spouse, birch for me. The boxes would be of equal depth, but hers would be two metres 10 long and mine two metres. My box would be five centimetres wider, to match my shoulders.
When I said not tapered toward the foot, which was once criterion and may still be customary, he nodded in agreement.
I mentioned Wild West movies in the course of which this sort of plain carpentry grew in demand. My sketch on a newspaper napkin proved unnecessary; the idea was clear enough. The boxes would be finished by autumn. We insured him we were in no hurry, but laced the conversation with hints about our combined age.
The style of the handles was still under discussion. I wanted something in wood. My wife preferred strong linen straps. In any case, there would be four on each side, to match the number of our children. The way the boxes would be sealed was left open for the time being. The conversation was down-to-earth at first, and dealt with practical details, but soon turned virtually cheerful. When I indicated defining the eyelids loosely on top after all, the weight of the earth will hold them in place or fastening them down with carpenters glue, Adomait permitted himself a quickly fading smile, then declared pine and birch dowels more suitable.
A costly method, he alerted. Alternatively, screws could be inserted in carefully drilled holes. I favoured hammering in old-fashioned fingernails with solemnly echoing jolts at a devoted signal. In the postwar years, I often put up gravestones in cemeteries while working as a stonemason, and once made a deal with a gravedigger: five Lucky Strikes for a good dozen hand-forged coffin nails; afterwards, much afterward, they seemed as rusty assemblages in drawings, lying this route and that, a few crooked, each with its own shape. And every fingernail had a narrative to tell from its past. Sometimes I added dead beetles lying on their backs, and bones large and small. In one draw, fingernails and rope hinted at a death only humans could devise. Soft pencil, hard-line pen and ink depicts, all of them still lifes, a few found buyers intrigued by their cryptic nature.
Adomait seemed to follow my digressions more out of politeness than interest. Then we chatted about current affairs: the ludicrous rise in the price of petrol, the uncertain summer climate, the now-familiar insolvencies. I defined a bottle of mirabelle plum brandy beside the empty teapot and what remained of the cakes. Just a small glass, said the master carpenter, who still had to drive home in his truck.