Archives for category: Sadness

This film, by the documentary film maker Marc Isaacs, is an absolute gem, a must-see.

Perhaps I am biased, as someone originally from Ireland who has lived in London for many years. But I believe The Road is essential viewing for anyone living in London, and not only there. It is the story of belonging, of loneliness, of searching for meaning and identity, in essence a depiction of what humanness might be about.

The road Isaacs focuses on is the A5, as it enters London and continues north from Marble Arch, through Kilburn, Cricklewood, and further towards Edgware.

Isaacs focuses on a handful of immigrants, both recent and long-arrived, dotted along the route. Their stories vary, yet converge on a fundamental common issue – leaving one’s homeland (and loved ones) behind. At the outset, Isaacs reflects on the reflective in-between-space such leaving creates, and as we see throughout the film, this questioning never goes away.

Billy, the Irish labourer, who now has too much time to reflect since retirement, which can only be handled through time in the pub, has been in London for more than 40 years. Yet he still feels that he has not fitted in, isolation and loneliness at least partly contributing to his alcohol problem: ‘a day later and a pound shorter’.

This is a poignant, moving, and melancholic film. It is also at times very funny. Isaacs treats the individuals he films with much gentleness, and is always unobtrusive. This is their story, not his, and you get the sense that the film genuinely cares about those portrayed.

Being, belonging, making our mark, is a large part of how we define ourselves. The Road will encourage you to reflect on this, and more, and to perhaps go about your life with a little more generosity and humility.

CQ

This piece, from Tim Lott’s regular Guardian weekend column, is profoundly moving and sad, but also uplifting (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/feb/23/tim-lott-fathers-final-moments).

Lott tells of time spent (‘sad, but also tender and positive and beautiful’) with his imminently dying 87-year-old father.

Lott’s father was intermittently aware that his family was present, as they shared the experience amongst themselves, ‘laughter, reminiscence, and unexpected joy’, alongside their sadness.

Lott’s take on sadness and loss and mourning following death leaves much to reflect on, in terms of what we mourn…

‘I wept, but not for his death. He was fulfilled.’

‘I will miss him, but I will never mourn him. His death was, like the man himself, profoundly average yet utterly exceptional.’

Lott mentions something, which I have often personally considered:

‘Death is so intimate – more intimate than first love.’

This intimacy troubles me, and the extent to which we are truly ‘invited’ to be present at the time of dying. Intuitively and instinctively, it feels ‘wrong’ to allow someone you love (or indeed anyone) to die alone. Yet I also wonder whether, without explicit consent, it is one of the most intrusive and invasive things we, inadvertently, do.

I have no answer, apart from making my own wishes explicit to those I love.

CQ

I have only read a few of Banville’s novels, namely The Sea and also some crime fiction that he writes under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black.

Ancient Light (Viking) was published in 2012. I read it over the holiday period and was totally gripped and seduced, mainly enthralled by Banville’s prose and his use of words.

Perhaps I was also a little confused by the non-linear narrative, but possibly the whole point of the book is that all is not what it seems… Whatever, it did not detract from the enjoyment of my reading experience. On the contrary, it has left me still considering it, days after the last page was read.

I need a dictionary nearby when reading Banville. Reading Ancient Light, I learnt many new words and meanings, for example leporine, proscenium, caducous, homunculoid, susurrus (my favourite)… His observational and descriptive powers are staggeringly impressive, and the way he sees and feels, and assembles words – ‘steepled fingers’, ‘there is nothing like the loss of an only child to soften the wax of sealed convictions – is beautiful indeed to read.

The novel opens with the sentence:

‘Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.’

An opening that does summarise a significant chunk of the plot and storyline. Yet, the apparent simplicity and straightforwardness of this short sentence tantalises and entices the reader into a story that is far from simple.

The main protagonist, Alexander Cleave, who has also appeared in earlier Banville books, is a semi-retired actor, currently writing his memoirs. The novel is written in the first person, and thus all that we are told and shown is through Cleave’s perspective.

Nothing is quite how it seems, which the author acknowledges at the outset, disabusing the difference between memory and invention:

‘Madam memory is a great and subtle dissembler.’

Only near the end of the book do we discover the origins of its title – the ancient light of the galaxies that travel for millions of years to reach us. Looking at the night sky, we are thus always looking into the past, and the novel’s core focuses on just that, and is deeply rooted in Cleave’s past. Indeed, the sections that are based in the present seem much less real than those describing Cleave’s childhood, specifically his love affair, at 15, with the 35 year Mrs Gray.

Central to the book is loss, Cleave’s loss of innocence, loss of friendships and an early loss of childhood within the clandestine relationship. His subsequent life seems to have been lived, and overshadowed, by this first, and short, love affair. In fact, it seem as if the past, particularly in terms of its associated feelings, recurs as a ‘pseudo’ present.

There is also the loss of Cleave’s daughter Cass (who also appeared in earlier books), who committed suicide, and the void and distress her death have left for both him and for his wife Lydia. Of Lydia, Cleave comments:

‘She drinks a little too much, but then so do I; our decade-long great sorrow will not be drowned…’

This is one of many black ironies that Banville slips in – Cass died as a result of drowning.

Cleave and his wife share only sorrow now, a ‘mournful telepathy’, and their grief sets them apart from others:

‘Bereavement sets a curious constraint between the bereaved, an embarrassment, almost, that is not easy to account for.’

For Cleave, mourning is ‘a constant, parching deluge’, which so wonderfully encapsulates the non-straightforwardness of human emotions, particularly grief.

Cleave is a tragic figure, mostly consumed by, and frightened of, his own grief:

‘The dead are my dark matter, filling up impalpably the empty spaces of the world.’

The young actress Dawn Devonport ,who Cleave works with, recently lost her father. She in turn attempts suicide, and there is an almost bizarre transposition of roles, as Dawn becomes a surrogate daughter to Cleave and Lydia… But such is Banville’s writing that such subplots do no feel overdone or manipulated.

Mothers dominate much of the book, including the boy Cleave’s lover Mrs Gray, his best friend Billy’s mother. Before she appeared in his life:

‘Mothers were not people that we noticed much; brothers, yes, sisters, even, but not mothers. Vague, shapeless, unsexed, they were little more than an apron and a swatch of unkempt hair and a faint tang of sweat.’

At the time, Cleave, an only child, lived with his own widowed mother. He suspects that on occasion, in the the throes of passion with Mrs Gray, he cried out ‘mother’… He also desperately wanted to make Mrs Gray pregnant… Cleave’s daughter Cass was pregnant when she died.

These snippets are dropped in almost casually by Banville. One is unsure what to make of them, if anything.

Cleave speaks of the phenomenon of coincidences, only to dismiss them:

‘The statisticians tell us there is no such thing as coincidence, and I must accept they know what they are talking about.’

Yet, he also comments, following Cass’s death:

‘Coincidences were not now what they had been heretofore, mere wrinkles in the otherwise blandly plausible surface of reality, but parts of a code, large and urgent, a kind of desperate semaphoring from the other side that, maddeningly, we were unable to read.’

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the book is fundamentally based on coincidences…

I get the sense that Banville ‘plays’ with his readers, very cleverly, and tantalisingly.

One could read and analyse Ancient Light on many levels.

My own conclusion is that it was a joy to experience this work rather than an enigma to be deciphered.

CQ

I had been meaning to read this book for some time, and only just got round to it this week. Timely, as a BBC documentary on the author’s life will be screened over the Christmas period.

Jansson was already famous for her Moonintroll cartoon strips and children’s books before The Summer Book appeared in 1972.

The narrative focuses on the relationship between 6 year old Sophia and her grandmother, who live on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland. The child’s father is also there, but is very much a silent presence in the background. To some extent the book was a response to the death of Janssen’s beloved mother in 1971, and is based on ‘real’ people from the author’s life, her own mother represented by the grandmother, and Sophia the author’s niece. The location also reflects Jansson’s personal history, with the setting based on a house that she and her brother built on a remote island off Finland in 1947.

Although the (short) book predominantly follows the companions as they spend time together, exploring, talking, swimming and foraging, there are also other threads running through the narrative, particularly the grandmother’s musings on ageing and death. Deceptively straightforward sounding chapters such as ‘The Morning Swim’, ‘Moonlight’ and ‘The Magic Forest’ contain much more than is apparent at first glance. In the latter chapter, for example, the forest itself becomes a metaphor for living and dying:

‘This forest was called “the magic forest”. It had shaped itself with slow and laborious care, and the balance between survival and extinction was so delicate that even the smallest change was unthinkable.” (p.27)

The notion of death is introduced early, when Sophia asks her grandmother directly, with an endearing frankness and openness that only the very young can engender:

‘When are you going to die?’ (p.22)

Shortly afterwards, we learn that Sophia’s mother has died:

‘Sophia woke and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.’ (p.25)

The book is about imagination, in both the old and in the young, and it is also about wisdom that similarly transcends generations. What is particularly impressive, is Jansson’s ability to portray a dual perspective, the simultaneously believable voices of both a child and an elderly woman.

It is thus not only 6 year old Sophia who bubbles with imagination, but her grandmother also displays impressive imaginative ingenuity. When Sophia’s friend Berenice comes to stay, and is bored and tiresome, the grandmother suggests that she draws something:

‘”Draw a picture,” she said.

“I don’t know anything to draw,” the child said.

“Draw something awful,” Grandmother said, for she was really tired now. “Draw the awfullest thing you can think of, and take as much time as you possibly can.”‘ (p.45)

Death features again in Sophia’s questions about heaven, and in the grandmother’s internal reflections on the euphemisms for death:

‘It was too bad that you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have time.’ (p.135)

The grandmother struggles with the process of ageing, as she becomes aware that her memory for recent events is slipping (p.56), and how much she hates the chamberpot under her bed, a ‘symbol of helplessness’ (p.170). At times, she seems weighed down by sadness, and by an almost palpable sense of loss:

‘A very long time ago, Grandmother had wanted to tell about all the things they did, but no one had bothered to ask. And now she had lost the urge.’ (p.90).

She also feels that she cannot describe things anymore, the words have somehow been lost to her, and so, it will all die with her death:

‘And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost.’ (p.90)

But, just as she is there for Sophia, listening and reassuring during her many tantrums, so too is the little girl there for her grandmother. She attends to the older woman’s outburst:

‘But now I have the feeling everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!’ (p.93)

And so, on a night when she was unable to sleep due to ‘thinking about sad things, the grandmother shared her anxieties with the attentive child, thereafter sleeping soundly…

The relationship between the older and the younger companion is very moving. Even when they quarrel, it is with love:

‘One evening, Sophia wrote a letter and stuck it under the door. It said, “I hate you. With warm personal wishes, Sophia.”‘

The prose is just delightful, for example the tree trunks ‘formed a tangled mass of stubborn resignation’ (p.27), and when the pair quarrelled, they ‘quarrelled the wrong way.’ (p.111).

The Summer Book has never been out of print in Scandinavia. I am not surprised. It is a truly magical work, which can tell us much about humanness, but perhaps especially about relationships, and how being there for the other can enhance, and even make sense of, the whole business of being.

CQ

This play by Margaret Edson (London: Nick Hern Books, 2000) is a must read for anyone working, or considering working, in healthcare. Particularly, most particularly, doctors.

Edson, a school teacher, worked in a cancer and AIDS unit, an experience that inspired the play. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999.

The play does not feel like a work of fiction, and I guess it is probably more of a fact/fiction hybrid, as presumably the narrative was informed by many individual stories Edson encountered in real hospital life. I saw the TV adaptation of the play, with Emma Thompson in the main role, some years ago, which was extraordinary. Only recently have I read the play itself, twice as it deserves a re-read, there is so much to experience in just 55 pages. It is a deeply moving, and harrowing, literary work.

Vivian Bearing, a Donne specialist, is diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. The play is set in a Cancer Centre, where Bearing is currently having chemotherapy. Flashbacks piece together her story, from diagnosis, and before, to ‘now’, the opening scene, which takes place just a few hours before her death.

She opens with her musings on how the ill are greeted:

‘I have been asked ‘How are you today?’ while I was throwing up into a plastic washbasin. I have been asked as I was emerging from a four-hour operation with a tube in every orifice, ‘How are you today?’

This reminded me of John Berryman’s Dream Song 207:

‘ – How are you? – Fine, fine. (I have tears unshed,

There is here near the bottom of my chest

a loop of cold, on the right.

A thing hurts somewhere up left in my head.

I have a gang of old sins unconfessed.

I shovel out of sight

a many-ills else…)’

With some irony and a dark humour that to some extent define her personality and coping ability, Bearing concludes on the question ‘How are you?’ that doctors routinely, and often unthinkingly, ask:

‘I am waiting for the moment when someone asks me this question and I am dead.

I’m a little sorry I’ll miss that.’

The humour continues (and we are only on page 2):

‘It is my not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I die at the end.

They’ve given me less than two hours.’

Thus, from the very outset, we know where this story is heading… But the remaining minutes in Bearing’s life are so worth attending to, and witnessing. We are invited into a (at least partly unneccessarily) tragic story that powerfully highlights the gap between how doctors behave and deal with illness and what the experience of such illness might be for the sufferer.

We hear of words such as ‘insidious adenocarcinoma’, ‘primary adnexal mass’, which are dropped into the initial breaking bad news consultation. We share Bearing’s experience of the medical ‘Grand Round’, where ‘the patient’ is discussed in the third person (or merely as the condition from which they suffer), and is visible only in a medical sense.

Bearing is keenly aware how the doctors ‘anatomise’ her, armed with a ‘potent arsenal of terminology’, which is mostly incomprehensible.

Cancer and its treatment constitute a life mostly of awfulness:

‘I receive chemotherapy, throw up, am subjected to countless indignities, feel better, go home. Eight neat little strophes. Oh, there have been the usual variations, subplots, red herrings: hepatotoxicity (liver poison), neuropathy (nerve death).

But she survives the radical treatment, and indeed becomes a somewhat celebrity case:

‘I have survived eight treatments of Hexamethophosphacil and Vinplatin at the full dose, ladies and gentlemen. I have broken the record. I have become something of a celebrity.’

And then, with insight and poignancy she observes:

‘But I flatter myself. The article will not be about me, it will be about my ovaries.’

It is this insight and knowing (and seeing-through the medical profession) that makes Bearing’s story feel, not just real, but authentic.

When pain becomes a major problem, and Bearing needs aggressive pain management to ‘stand it’, she comments:

”It’: such a little word. In this case, I think ‘it’ signifies ‘being alive’.

Donne provides a backdrop throughout. Bearing was an expert on the poet’s Holy Sonnets and her life had always been suffused and intricately linked with his words, words that now become acutely apposite:

‘Death be not proud, though some called thee

Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe.’

To mention Bearing’s death at the end does not indeed betray the plot. It is an important, and tragic, ending, which says so much about what is wrong with the whole business of how the voice of the ill is listened and attended to.

CQ

The Pier was the second film I saw at this weekend’s Irish Film Fest. [Actually, it was the third, as this screening also included the short film, Pentecost, which was a gem].

I am not sure even now what I thought of The Pier, but nonetheless, there are some things that may be worth noting.

The first is a personal one. I had no idea that the film was located in and around Schull, my ‘spiritual home’. Thus, recognising the area, and the locals, was a wonderful and warm surprise.

The film itself, written, directed and starring Gerard Murphy, was a more mixed experience. It tells the somewhat familiar Irish story of the ‘prodigal’ son (Gerard Murphy) returning home. He is summoned back from the US with the news that his father (Karl Johnson) is dying. He duly returns, only to find that his father is not dying, after all. He appears hale and hearty, and as cantankerous as ever.

Although he is dying, actually and imminently. We later discover that he has lung cancer, a diagnosis he eventually shares with his son. This prompts a grudging reconciliation of sorts between the pair, which is at times touching and moving. However, the father’s role is too much of a type, a caricature of sorts, that of a truculent, difficult and bitter man, who mostly engenders little in the way of sympathy or empathy. Murphy’s character is more likeable, and understated. A confused and dour sort, his moments of kindness, particularly towards the local pair of children who seem practically orphaned, are endearing.

Religion, and atheism, get a nod too. It is Ireland, after all…

The realisation of imminent death brings out the best in the old man, perhaps too predictably, and at times slightly maudlinish.

But this is not a tear jerker. I am not sure one connects enough with the protagonists to go that far.

CQ

The more I read of Stephen Dunn’s poetry, the more I love, and gain.

I think I most love his pragmatism, his way of saying things as they are, unembellished, direct and authentic.

From his poem Sadness (Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, Neil Astley (ed), Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2005, p.120):

‘I told my friend who courted it

not to suffer

on purpose, not to fall in love

with sadness

because it would be naturally theirs

without assistance’

 

Honest, and true, and encapsulates it all, with the merest of words…

CQ