Archives for category: Grief

I saw – experienced – Cleansed this week at The National Theatre. For a long time I have wanted to see Kane’s work performed. Yet, having read about audience responses to the current production – walk outs and faintings – I was apprehensive. It was difficult to approach the play objectively; every review that I have seen emphasises both audience reaction to the performance and Kane’s suicide at the age of 28, usually in the first paragraph (as of course have I).

I am glad that I experienced Cleansed. The relentless simulated violence did result in my shutting my eyes on occasion. I find physical violence, here as torture and rape, impossible to willingly witness. I imagine/speculate that Kane used violence metaphorically to reflect extreme psychological suffering, a means of externalising and communicating depths of internal distress that would otherwise remain unseen and unshareable. I can understand this approach, but I still find the use of violence to provoke a reaction problematic. Violence distresses me on a purely visceral level, and I also resent being emotionally manipulated by extreme provocation into ‘feeling’.

In terms of thematic content, I suspect that there are many possible interpretations. For me, Cleansed is about love, loss, and grief – in essence the suffering of humanness – and the impossibility of sharing emotions that threaten to destroy the sufferer. It seems to also question what in our lives, and emotions, is real or imagined, and whether this distinction even matters.

Cleansed was mesmerising and captivating for its entire 100 minutes. I was struck by the beauty of the choreography, which was enhanced by a perfectly chosen soundtrack.

It was a haunting performance, one that it will linger.

 

 

CQ

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One of my heroes, the director Patricio Guzman was in London this week for the screening of his latest film The Pearl Button. It has been four years since his harrowing masterpiece Nostalgia for the Light (reviewed here). During that time he has been exploring the Patagonia hinterland of his native Chile.

The Pearl Button bears many of the hallmarks of Guzman’s earlier works. It is extraordinarily – and eerily – beautiful. Sublime feels appropriate. The landscape of Patagonia – the coastline, the ocean itself, the mountains, the lakes – is breathtaking, and the cinematography does it poetic justice and more. Guzman creates a world, interweaving narrative and images, where the history of the indigenous people of Patagonia, and their tragic fate at the hands of invaders and settlers at the beginning of the 20th century, is slowly revealed. Rich in metaphor – water, sky, planets, infinity – The Pearl Button is a story of loss, not only of the Patagonian people and their culture, but more recently – 1970s and 1980s – of those thousands who died during the Pinochet regime, and whose bodies were dumped anonymously forever in the ocean. It is almost impossible to comprehend the cruelty of not only killing loved ones, but to compound the grief of those left behind by deliberately denying them the possibility of burying their dead.

Guzman confers an animate and almost spiritual significance to water. It contains secrets, and ‘colluded’ with the atrocities that Pinochet sought to keep hidden. The exiled Guzman continues his work in The Pearl Button of revealing these secrets, and of exposing the horror of the dictator’s regime.

During the Q&A after the screening, Guzman confirmed that a further film will complete the trilogy, this time about the Andes and its people.

Good news, indeed.

 

CQ

The American writer and essayist David Foster Wallace committed suicide seven years ago, on September 12, 2008. I have just read his wife’s – Karen Green – grief memoir Bough Down, a beautiful and moving collage of poetry, prose and images.

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Green found her husband following his suicide:

‘I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing that sound…’

‘The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.’

Bough Down is a wonderfully strange read, sometimes challenging to follow Green’s train of thought. But perhaps that is how it should be. The experience of grief, and of love, are ultimately subjective and individual, uniquely lived by those affected.

‘It’s hard to remember tender things tenderly.’

‘I have few desires and fewer aims. I dream of standing on the shore and not seeing his ear whorls in every shell.’

Pine, to wither away from longing or grief.’

Green addresses Foster Wallace throughout, Bough Down unfolding as a love soliloquy:

‘I could love another face, but why?’

The depths of Green’s distress are compounded by the nature of his death:

‘I call the doctor: I am suffering, it’s embarrassing, and I need I need I need…The doctor says if you were so quote perfect for me unquote you’d probably still be around, no offense.’

This is a gem of a book, raw, honest, challenging, sad and beautiful.

‘Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth. The tongue worries the phantom root, the mind scans the heart’s chambers to verify its emptiness. There is the thing itself and then there is the predicament of the cavity.’

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CQ

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

Although long aware of the Irish author Niall Williams, I had never read any of his novels. The arrival of his current book History of the Rain prompted me to explore his earlier work.

I started with Only Say the Word, and loved it, finishing it in less that 24 hours. It feels as if every book this year reminds of another author’s work, coincidentally also Williams, John, and his novel Stoner, which I have previously spoken about here [https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/stoner/]. Only Say the Word and Stoner are very different, but they do share a common theme of following one man’s life, and the influences and events that impacted on the life in question. In addition, both John Williams and Niall Williams are masters of a style of prose that seduces the reader willingly and complicitly into the life of the protagonist.

Niall William’s narrative tells the story of Jim, opening with the words:

‘I do not know what to write. There have been so many words written already. So many endings and beginnings. I have lost my faith.’

We are immediately introduced to the acute cause of Jim’s sadness, which is the loss of his wife Kate, mother of his young children:

‘And so I sit here, and feel your absence and wonder how to begin to live without you.’

As Jim commits his story to the blank page, his life up to now is revealed. We learn of his childhood in Ireland, with his devout mother who seemed to exist in a haze of sadness, his kind but distant father, his genius and troubled brother, and his baby sister Louise. It is a relatively calm and untroubled childhood, until:

‘And in that same passing of time, the same even measurement in which one moment seems identical to the next but is not, our life is struck and falls apart.’

Tragedy happens, from which nobody truly recovers. Jim partly blamed himself, as children tend to do, and it was not a family where such feelings were expressed or acknowledged:

‘In our family we are each like boats slipped from the moorings, out in deep water, and utterly separate or tangled in our own nets of grief and loss. We live together in the house but are each alone.’

Jim copes by escaping, initially through books and reading, and later physically, when he leaves school.

We follow Jim’s life, and his attempt to make sense of it as he commits the telling of it to the page. Jim is a more accessible character than John William’s Stoner, yet that is not the point. Liking someone is not critical for empathy, which only demands an authentic emotional connection with the suffering of another. Jim (and in essence Niall Williams) goes a step further. By sharing his story, and in particular the redemptive possibilities of caring and of love, hope is ultimately acknowledged and embraced.

 

CQ

Jon Sanders follow up to the earlier Late September is also a quintessentially British and theatrical piece. Set in Kent, Back to the Garden features the reunion of actor friends one year on from the death of one of the group. His widow remains stuck in her grief, and the film delves into and around issues of loss, of the meaning of mortality, and how terrifying the finality of death can be.

For the grieving widow, she now realises how totally bound up in her marriage, and in their love, her own identity had been. Following her husband’s death, it is as if she has not only lost him, but has also lost her self.

Her friends gently probe and question her feelings and her experience of grief.

‘Are you still in love with a dead person?’, one asks. An intriguing question, and one that proved hard to definitively answer, despite the fact that love was clearly consistently central to their relationship.

‘Does time heal?’, asks another. No, but taking one day at a time helps.

‘Is death the annihilation of self?’ ‘Do we just, stop?’ Also unanswerable and unknowable, but the discussions around these and other questions were illuminating.

Similar to his earlier work, Sanders encouraged improvisation in this recent release. This approach heightens the natural feel to the film, and its authenticity, and serves to make the experience of watching and listening to Back to the Garden real, thought provoking, and lingering.

 

 

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If, like me, you thought John William’s Stoner [https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/stoner/] was one of the best books you have ever read, check out Train Dreams. It is a very different read, at a mere 116 pages, but Stoner was much in my mind while experiencing Train Dreams. It may well be the fact that both follow the life of one man, an alone and ultimately tragic (or so it seems to me) figure. It is also not luck that brought Train Dreams to my attention. The same person who gifted me Stoner recommended Denis Johnson’s work. Such is the magic of the reading experience. It connects people and events and episodes in ways that might not otherwise be possible.

I am not sure how much I liked the central character in both books (Howard Jacobson would probably say that the need to like characters misses the whole point of writing and reading), yet this did not stop me connecting with each and both, and with their stories of living and suffering.

Train Dreams opens with the ending of a stranger’s life:

‘In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.’

It ends:

‘And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.’

The intervening 100 pages or so follow Grainier’s adult life, which is dominated by loss, hardship and solitude. Yet Grainier is not a victim. He lives his life as he does and must, without questioning his suffering. He does, however, ultimately release and express and share what he has been holding within, in a way that is both surprising and beautiful.

Both Stoner and Train Dreams inevitably raises questions about what constitutes a life. Certainly, a life can be told in 100 pages, or 300, or whatever length. But what Williams and Johnson, exceptionally and in very different ways have done, is to share the essence of a lived life, the somethings that touch on and reach out to a humanness in us all.

 

CQ

 

Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart was such a wonderful read I needed little enticement to read the Irish author’s earlier written but later published The Thing About December.

It is even more wondrous.

The Thing About December is a tragic book, which goes to the very depths of human sadness and despair in a way that clings to you. It is deeply moving and affecting, yet strangely does not overwhelm. It is a challenging undertaking for authors to truly engender empathy in their readers. Ryan manages it magnificently.

The central character Johnsey is the quintessential tragic hero. Ryan speaks through Johnsey, to the extent that we see the world only as Johnsey sees it, and so authentically creates this perspective that we come to believe this as the only true vision.

“People are better inside your head. When you’re longing for them, they’re perfect.”

Johnsey’s seeing of the world may seem naïve and child-like. Yet it is extraordinarily pure and real. He does not have an explicit diagnosis, but we get the impression that he is ill-equipped for life, struggling to interact with others and to build relationships away from his parents. An only child, he is bereft when both his father and mother die.

“Loneliness covers the earth like a blanket…It runs down the walls inside of the house like tears and grows on the walls outside like a poisonous choking weed.”

His father dies first, cancer – “riddled by all accounts’. Ryan is a magician with words that he strings together to create emotions that almost tear you apart with their pathos. Speaking of the sofa that was central to the life he shared with his parents, Johnsey comments following his father’s death:

“That long, battered couch was covered in boxes and bits and bobs that had no business on a couch. It wouldn’t have been balanced right, anyway, without Daddy. There’d have been too much empty space on it, and that empty space would draw out your sadness like the vacuum cleaner draws out dust from behind the television: you’d forgotten it was there until you went rooting around for it.”

Johnsey’s mother retreats from the world following her husband’s death – “it was hard enough thinking of things to say to a woman who had hardly any words left for the world, only lonesome thoughts and muttered prayers.”

Johnsey’s perhaps naive at times view of the world is particularly touching:

“…three kinds of cancer to do for Daddy: he got it in his stomach, lungs and brain. Three kinds, imagine!

And he nearly bested them too.”

Johnsey cleared adored his father – “How could a man’s life just be made up of sadness over his dead father”. His mother’s life as a widow was consumed by loss and sadness, “a little hunched-over thing, like a question mark, wrapped in sorrow and silence.” Although often struggling with how to interact with people, he has an astute sense of the behaviour of others. He is aware how tiresome his mother’s protracted grief appears to others, who believed that she ‘should be getting over it’, two years later after her husband’s death. She never did.

“Sympathy doesn’t last forever. Like a pebble thrown in a river, it’s a splash and a ripple and gone.”

With his peculiar and perhaps paradoxical mix of naivety and grownupness (“The world doesn’t change, nor anything in it, when someone dies.” “The sky was the same blue the day after Daddy died as it was the day before”), Johnsey increasingly occupies a world of isolation and alienation, defined by a loneliness that’s “nothing and everything at the same time.”

“It seemed as though having a break from being lonesome made it ten times worse when you were once lonesome again.”

In Johnsey’s world, we glimpse, and experience such is the empathy Ryan creates, the real complexities, confusions and sadness that define humanness, and the living of it.

“…everything was lovely and normal and comfortable and destroyed forever at the same time.”

CQ

I heard the leading Israeli writer David Grossman interviewed on Radio 4 Front Row recently [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03vh0cz], ahead of his appearance at the Jewish Book Week last week.

Grossman’s son was killed while in the Israeli defence forces in 2006. In 2012 he published his response to the tragedy, Falling out of Time, which has now been translated into English.

Falling out of Time appears to defy genre classification, and has been variously described as prose/theatre/poetry/radio play, as well as an oratorio without music. It tells the story of bereaved parents as they set out to reach their lost children.

Grossman believes that the book wrote itself. Within that process, he felt as if he had no control over what he wrote.

When asked about the uncompleted sentences within the text, Grossman responds that the book arose from a world where rules had been lost. In the face of tragedy, language itself fails. Falling out of Time was an attempt to find words for the unspeakable. For Grossman, writing this novel was his way of making the effort, and of refusing to avoid the tragedy that had engulfed him and his family.

‘I can’t understand anything unless I write it.’ While the undertaking of writing the book was not in itself therapeutic, and nor did it help him understand the death and loss of his son, Grossman did see it as a way of returning, the processes of writing, imagining, fantasising, all contributing to a ‘being in this life’.

For Grossman too, the book is about more than his personal tragedy, and extends beyond the loss of a loved one. In that sense, Falling out of Time speaks to the universal and existential experience of the mystery of life and death coexisting.

CQ

‘I probably set out to pay homage to Lucile, to give her a coffin made of paper – for these seem the most beautiful of all to me – and a destiny as a character. But I know too that I am using my writing as a way of looking for the origin of her suffering…’

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Lucile is the narrator’s mother, who commits suicide at the age of 61. From the first page, we are catapulted into the heartbreaking theme that overshadows the book:

‘My mother was blue, a pale blue mixed with the colour of ashes. Strangely, when I found her at home that January morning, her hands were darker than her face. Her knuckles looked as though they had been splashed with ink.

My mother had been dead for several days.’

The book is an exploration of Lucile’s life, a childhood overshadowed (and ‘disappeared’) by death, and an adult existence (for at times it reads as such, a non-being in the world), which was interrupted and disrupted by manic depression. It is also the story of what it was like for the narrator and her sister growing up in such an environment:

‘I am writing about Lucile through the eyes of a child who grew up too fast, writing about the mystery she always was to me, simultaneously so present and so distant, and who, after I was ten, never hugged me again.’

Shortly after discovering her mother’s dead body, the narrator, a writer, decided on perhaps the most intuitive way for her to confront and to explore the demons in her past and in her mother’s:

‘And then, like dozens of authors before me, I attempted to write my mother.’

‘Initially, once I had finally accepted that I would write this book after a long, silent negotiation with myself, I thought I would have no difficulty introducing fiction and no qualms about filling in the gaps…Instead of which, I am unable to alter anything…Unable to free myself completely from reality, I am involuntarily producing fiction; I’m looking for an angle which will allow me to come closer and closer still; I’m looking for a place which is neither truth nor fable, but both at once.’

Although the writing resulted in a ‘setting free’ of sorts, through the process ‘I grew a little further from Lucile in wanting to get closer to her.’

There are many serious and tragic themes throughout the book, including abuse, anorexia, and loss, both physical as the result of death through accidents and suicides, but also profound loss within enduring relationships.

Lucile seemed to gradually and progressively retreat from the world. A diagnosis of cancer provided the final challenge she could not face. The sentiments expressed in her final letter reminded me of an e.e.cummings phrase ‘Unbeing dead isn’t being alive’.

‘Lucile died the way she wanted to: while still alive.’

It is unclear from the book, and from interviews with the author, to what extent the story is autobiographical. It appears to be a combination of both fact and fiction. It matters little. This is a deeply affecting novel, and one which made me consider the stories into which we are all born, and the extent to which they can be rewritten.

CQ