“I will go”: Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet and Judith

hamnetHe breathes in. He breathes out. He turns his head and breathes into the whorls of her ear; he breathes in his strength, his health, his all. You will stay, is what he whispers, and I will go. He sends these words into her: I want you to take my life. It shall be yours. I give it to you.

They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them. Perhaps there never was. And if either of them is to live, it must be her. He wills it. He grips the sheet, tight, in both hands. He, Hamnet, decrees it. It shall be.

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and Judith began with a fragment, a scrap, of knowledge, about “a boy who died in Stratford, Warwickshire, in the summer of 1596,” a boy named Hamnet whose father, just a few years later, wrote a play called Hamlet. The names are the same, “entirely interchangeable,” according to Stephen Greenblatt, whose essay “The death of Hamnet and the making of Hamlet” provides one of O’Farrell’s epigraphs. In her author’s note, O’Farrell explains just how little we know about the real Hamnet, and also tells us that the central event of her novel, Hamnet’s sudden death from the bubonic plague, is a fiction: “it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died.” From this slight material O’Farrell develops a novel that is a delicate combination of historical recreation and literary excavation, of intimately portrayed human lives and undercurrents of meaning that flow almost unnoticed towards Shakespeare’s tragic drama.

hamnet3It is impossible not to have Hamlet in mind while reading Hamnet (as it is more simply and, I think, more aptly titled in its UK release), and I imagine that someone who knows the play better than I do (so, a lot of people!) would find many echoes and resonances that deepen O’Farrell’s effects. But she resists, rightly I think, making either Shakespeare or Hamlet the most important thing about Hamnet–she avoids holding out their future fame (unknown and unforeseeable to her characters, after all) as what matters most about the lives her people are living in the moment. Instead, she focuses our attention and ties our emotions to their small family circle, and especially to the story of Hamnet’s mother Agnes (better known to us as Anne). The novel’s themes of love and loss, grief and guilt, parents and children, are (some of) Hamlet‘s themes as well, and by the end O’Farrell has convinced me of their connection, but in her telling Hamnet’s death does not matter because it inspired Hamlet, but rather Hamlet matters because it is an offering to Hamnet:

Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. . . . He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place.

That seems, perhaps, like a subtle difference, but it is an inversion of priorities that I think reflects O’Farrell’s determination to subvert expectations for a novel “about” Shakespeare, to refuse the “great man” model of history and literature that made Sandra Newman’s The Heavens dissatisfying. (I think Newman too aimed to reject or ironize this model, but I found O’Farrell’s approach, though superficially more conventional, ultimately more effective at unsettling it.)

agnesShakespeare’s greatness, as Agnes understands it, is as a father, not as a playwright. In fact, Shakespeare (who is never directly named–he is always “the glover’s son” or “the Latin tutor” or just the husband or the father) is just barely a main character in O’Farrell’s novel. Hamnet is really Agnes’s book, and O’Farrell portrays her with wonderful specificity, from her knowledge of medicinal herbs to her uncanny ability to read a person’s character and future from pinching the bit of flesh between thumb and forefinger:

A person’s ability, their reach, their essence can be gleaned. All that they have held, kept, and all they long to grip is there in that place. It is possible, she realises, to find out everything you need to know about a person just by pressing it.

When she first takes the Latin tutor’s hand, she feels something different, “something she would never have expected to find in the hand of a clean-booted grammar-school boy from town”:

It was far-reaching: this much she knew. It had layers and strata, like a landscape. There were spaces and vacancies, dense patches, underground caves, rises and descents. There wasn’t enough time for her to get a sense of it all — it was too big, too complex. It eluded her, mostly. She knew there was more of it than she could grasp, that it was bigger than both of them.

Her understanding that there is more to this young man than his current circumstances can accommodate becomes part of the story of their married life, as she prompts him to leave their household in Stratford and make his way to London.

Shakespeare-ChandosIt’s there, of course, that he finds his vocation and begins the work that will lead him to Hamlet and beyond. But that richer life keeps him apart from Agnes and his children: his older daughter Susanna and the twins, Hamnet and Judith. He is away on the day Judith becomes ill, which turns into the day Hamnet dies. Agnes too is away, though not as distant, and O’Farrell writes with devastating clarity about what it means to her when she discovers that her harmless expedition to gather honey meant that her son faced catastrophe alone:

Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry. Him standing there, at the back of the house, calling for the people who had fed him, swaddled him, rocked him to sleep, held his hand as he took his first steps, taught him to use a spoon, to blow on broth before he ate it, to take care crossing the street, to let sleeping dogs lie, to swill out of a cup before drinking, to stay away from deep water.

It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.

Though this incident is also the hub of the novel, Hamnet is composed of multiple strands woven around it: Shakespeare’s fraught life with his parents, Agnes’s unhappy relationship with her stepmother and then with her mother-in-law, the children’s games and loyalties and fears. O’Farrell is good with tactile details, so that it is easy to picture the small apartment Agnes and her husband share, the apple shed where they make love for the first time, the woods where she goes seeking privacy for the birth of her first daughter. There’s no weighty exposition but the book feels full of historical life.

hamnet2What O’Farrell does best, though–and this is no surprise, given her previous books–is to evoke emotions. Hamnet’s death is the novel’s entire premise, so grief is built into our expectations, but it was still harrowing reading her account of the illness that overcomes first his sister and then Hamnet himself, and then following Agnes through the nightmare experience of trying and failing to save him:

Inside Agnes’s head, her thoughts are widening out, then narrowing down, widening, narrowing, over and over again. She thinks, This cannot happen, it cannot, how will we live, what will we do, how can Judith bear it, what will I tell people, how can we continue, what should I have done, where is my husband, what will he say, how could I have saved him, why didn’t I save him, why didn’t I realize it was he who was in danger? And then, the focus narrows, and she thinks: He is dead, he is dead, he is dead.

The three words contain no sense for her. She cannot bend her mind to their meaning. It is an impossible idea that her son, her child, her boy, the healthiest and most robust of her children, should, within days, sicken and die.

She describes so well that constant restless exercise of a mother’s thoughts about her children, always checking where and how they are, “what they are doing, how they fare”:

And Hamnet? Her unconscious mind casts, again and again, puzzled by the lack of bite, by the answer she keeps giving it: he is dead, he is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again. At school, at play, out at the river? And Hamnet? And Hamnet? Where is he?

Even though I knew the novel was leading me towards Hamlet, and even when I know that one answer the novel gives is that he is there, in Hamlet (“The ghost turns his head towards her, as he prepares to exit the scene. He is looking straight at her, meeting her gaze, as he speaks his final words: ‘Remember me'”) this despairingly simple but unanswerable question by a mother about her son seemed, as I was reading, much more important than any art that could be made from such a loss.

hamlet-folioBut of course Hamnet itself is built, artfully, on just that moment, and art’s ability not just to convey pain but also to console is one of the reasons we value and need it, though artists are often ambivalent or uneasy about that. “I sometimes hold it half a sin,” writes Tennyson in In Memoriam A.H.H.,

To put in words the grief I feel,
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold;
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

Hamlet does not compensate Agnes for Hamnet’s death, and nothing about Hamnet suggests that it should. That way lies Bardolatry, for one thing, something Hamnet scrupulously avoids. The novel is instead a form of ‘herstory.’ Inevitably, the name of Hamnet’s twin reminded me of Woolf’s imaginary Judith Shakespeare–“who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” But O’Farrell rejects that model too. Instead of setting her Shakespearean woman’s life up against Shakespeare’s and lamenting her failure to thrive on his terms, she gives us a life rich on its own terms and insists–and more importantly, makes us feel, through her engrossing story-telling–that it matters as much as, and also shares much more with, her husband’s life than we can understand if we focus on Hamlet at the expense of Hamnet.

“The Sensation of a Near-Miss”: Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am


Instead of an intimation of mortality, what is solidifying, taking root inside me, is something else, a welding together of this place with the sensation of a near-miss, an escape from something beyond my control. The feeling of having pulled my head, one more time, out of the noose becomes intermingled with, indivisible from, the mimosa trees, the goats, the wave that turned me over, the toasted-resin smell of cinnamon bark.

I don’t know what I expected, really, from Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am. Its subtitle is Seventeen Brushes with Death and the book offers exactly that and no more: seventeen vignettes about moments in O’Farrell’s life when it was (whether she knew it in the moment or not) a toss-up whether she would live or die–or, in the episode I found most difficult to read, whether her daughter would. She offers no larger framework, either of narrative or of meaning; the insight of the book is nothing more or less than what Doctor Lydgate offers Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch: “one can hardly increase appreciably the tremendous uncertainty of life.”

Mr. Casaubon is, understandably, unconsoled by Lydgate’s remark. I didn’t pick up I Am, I Am, I Am looking for consolation–and a good thing, too, because if anything, it turned out to be a book finely calculated to exacerbate my everyday anxieties–but I did expect it would add up to more than it did. Its point is intrinsically episodic, I suppose: things happen, dangerous things, scary things, things that start out benign but take a sudden turn for the worse, and the more we realize that basic fact of our existence the more we can appreciate that we are–somehow, for now–still alive instead of dead. “We are, all of us,” O’Farrell observes,

wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.

Her aim, I think, is just to breach that oblivion and thus to heighten our awareness of both the “tremendous uncertainty of life” and its potential for beauty and grace, which may themselves emerge from the shadow left as death once again recedes.

iam-iam-iam-2It’s inconsistent, I realize, to say that I found I Am, I Am, I Am disappointingly slight and to say that I’m also glad it did not fall into philosophizing. But my dissatisfaction and my relief actually go hand in hand: it’s hard to be profound, and books that try and fail seem worse, to me, than a book with fewer pretensions. That’s why I preferred Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Airthough of course I was moved by Kalanithi’s story and he writes much more poetically than Gawande. What O’Farrell sets out to do, she does beautifully, I thought: for once, I agreed with the blurbers who said they couldn’t put the book down, and that’s not just because a lot of the vignettes are quite suspenseful, like miniature thrillers. It was just a genuine pleasure to read O’Farrell’s prose. It’s not ornate or elaborate; its moments of eloquence, its shivery effects of fear or joy or release, come from its precise details–a smell, a touch, a word or phrase in just the right place. She nearly drowns swimming in the Indian Ocean:

I am aware, first, of being pulled sideways, as if on a sleeper train. The current is drawing into itself, gathering together, with abrupt and decisive force. I right myself in time to see the beach pulling away from me, like disappearing theatre scenery. . . .

The wave turns me over like an acrobat, like St. Catherine in her wheel. I feel my feet lift, feel my body invert, my head pooling with heat and pressure. There is a sharp blow to the side of my face and my eyes, shut tight against the salt, streak with technicolour, my teeth snapping together over my tongue. The noise inside a riptide is astonishing, a rushing, deafening rumble of water, air, pressure, force.

An armed robber in Chile holds his knife to her throat and she is “aware of the onion-tang of his armpits.” During a terrifying emergency c-section, when she “can feel hands rummaging through my innards, as far up as my ribs,” a man whose official role she never knows takes her hand as she lies engulfed in “loneliness, isolation, bafflement”:

His touch is infinitely gentle but firm and sure. There is no way he is letting go, he is telling me, entirely without words. He is going to stay right here and I am going to stay right here. I clutch at him with the force of a drowning woman.

“The people who teach us something,” she reflects about that incident,

retain a particularly vivid place in our memories. I’d been a parent for about ten minutes when I met the man, but he taught me, with a small gesture, one of the most important things about the job: kindness, intuition, touch, and that sometimes you don’t even need words.

In the book’s final episode, as she and her husband frantically drive towards a hospital in Italy, all she can do is hold their daughter, who has had a severe allergic reaction:

The delicate features of her face are sunken, swollen, distorted. Her hands clutch mine but her eyes are rolling back in her head. I touch her cheek, I say her name. I say, stay awake, stay with us.

Her own brushes with death, terrifying as many of them are, have (in the telling, at least) an artistic distance wholly undone in this final chapter: the fear she has felt for her own life pales beside her desperation to preserve her child’s. Once she is a parent herself, she better understands how her own mother sometimes clung to her:

We’re on the platform of the local station, I have my backpack at my feet and the branch-line train is coming through the tunnel. I’m about to get onto it and I won’t be back for a long, long time. She doesn’t tell me not to go but the grip of her fingers on my shoulders is the same: heartfelt, insistent, infused with the awareness that I was always going to leave, that we both knew, on some level that the urge had always been in me.

Accidents, illness, evil: O’Farrell has faced, it seems, more than the average share of all of these, and that in itself makes her memoir interesting. As in her fiction, she moves deftly between past and present, in the larger structure of the book and within individual chapters; through these anecdotes of escaped fatality, we get many pieces of a more conventional memoir of her childhood, including her life-changing bout of encephalitis, her awkward growing up, and her discovery that writing is the work that will define her life and give it meaning. In many ways I Am, I Am, I Am reads like a fitting culmination of that story. Still, I can’t shake my own lingering sense that O’Farrell has left the book somehow incomplete–that she, and we, ought to learn more from all those near misses, or that she should have done more to earn our attention to them than just surviving or enduring. Yes, life is uncertain: now what? But at the same time I understand: there is no enveloping story to be told about it all. It just is. We just are, until we aren’t.

Weekend Reading: Two by Maggie O’Farrell

A friend recently mentioned that she’d been reading and enjoying Maggie O’Farrell’s novels, so the next time I was at the library I checked out two of them: Instructions for a Heat Wave and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. Both are essentially family dramas; both turn on long-held secrets and their repercussions, though in Instructions for a Heat Wave the consequences are mostly moral and emotional, while by the end of Esme Lennox two people have paid (in very different ways) with their lives. Both are very good–well written, evocative, psychologically astute, and thematically layered — but it’s Esme Lennox (both the novel and the eponymous character) that’s really going to stick with me.

Instructions for a Heat Wave follows its family members through a few fraught days during a grueling heat wave that hit Britain in 1976. Robert Riordan tells his wife he’s going out for the paper and then he doesn’t come back: his disappearance brings his children together again, face to face with each other and with an array of unresolved issues from their family history. O’Farrell uses the sweltering temperatures both literally and figuratively: the characters’ physical discomfort in the inescapably stifling heat matches their inner restlessness as the narrative shuttles us back and forth between their childhood memories and the complications of their current situations.

Instructions for a Heat Wave ends on a faint note of optimism: the novel’s ultimate revelations may be initially devastating, but as people’s secrets come out, healing seems possible — no harm is ultimately irredeemable. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, on the other hand, offers no such soothing hope: some wrongs, it suggests, can never be made right, at least not through forgiveness. The novel is a compelling blend of chilling and heartbreaking: as it takes us from Esme’s childhood to the present-day life of her grand-niece Iris, splicing in segments from the point of view of Esme’s sister Kitty, now suffering from Alzheimer’s, we gradually realize just how Esme came to spend 60 years confined to an asylum. One of O’Farrell’s sources is Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980; Esme’s story dramatizes the horrors of a society that conflates nonconformity with “hysteria” and madness, and punishes it accordingly.  I was a bit disappointed in the novel’s ending, but it’s a haunting story, both poignant and gripping.