I have just finished reading Magda Szabo’s Iza’s Ballad. This is the Hungarian writer’s lesser known novel. Her later The Door (1987) first brought her work to the wider attention of the international reading community.

Iza’s Ballad (Pilátus in the original Hungarian) was written much earlier, in 1963, but has only recently appeared in English, translated by George Szirtes.

Szabo immediately draws the reader into a world of grief, its confusions and complexities, through the eyes of the elderly Ettie, whose husband has just died:

‘She felt as if some elemental blow had destroyed everything around her and that only now did she really know what it was to be a widow, someone absolutely abandoned.’

Widowhood brings desolation – ‘her very breath a form of sadness’ – and profound aloneness in a world where ‘the dead did not answer’.

I was reminded of another work of fiction that also has at its core the grief that follows the death of a spouse. In Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster (2014), Nora’s husband has died prematurely, and she is suddenly catapulted into an alienating and isolating world:

‘So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing.’

Tóibín also considers how society deals with the bereaved, highlighting a wider need to have grief ultimately contained, if not annihilated:

‘ “And stop grieving, Nora. The time for that is over. Do you hear me?” ‘

In an article on the topic of grief and literature by Tóibín shortly after the publication of Nora Webster, the author draws our attention to other works that exemplify the theme, including Mary Lavin’s The Widow’s Son, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Anne Carson’s Grief Lessons, CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, and Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life [http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/02/colm-toibin-literature-of-grief].

I have just re-read Barnes’s Levels of Life. The writer’s wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh, died within 37 days – ‘from a summer to an autumn’ – of diagnosis of a brain tumour. The final chapter of the book – The Loss of Depth – deals specifically with Barnes’s grief following Kavanagh’s death:

‘And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.’

And:

‘Grief reconfigures time, its length, its texture, its function: one day means no more than the next, so why have they been picked out and given separate names? It also reconfigures space. You have entered a new geography, mapped by a new cartography.’

Barnes addresses the difference between grief and mourning:

‘Grief is vertical – and vertiginous – while mourning is horizontal.’

He concludes:

‘And so, perhaps, with grief. We imagine we have battled against it, been purposeful, overcome sorrow, scrubbed the rust from our soul, when all that has happened is that grief has moved elsewhere, shifted its interest.’

There are very many works of literature  – fiction, non-fiction, poetry – that hold grief as the central theme. A list of such works, like grief itself, can never be finite, or closed. Grief touches all our lives, an essential and unavoidable component of the lived experience. Within the words of those who have chosen to share such experiences we might come to discover a kindred compassion and empathy that goes some way towards defining our humanness and our salvation.

CQ

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