“Still A Life”: Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility

mandelIf my book club hadn’t settled on Sea of Tranquility for our next read, I don’t think I would have read it, not because I haven’t liked the other novels I’ve read by Emily St. John Mandel, because I’ve liked them just fine (Station Eleven more than The Glass Hotel, though), but because the premise didn’t really pique my interest and I’m having enough trouble sticking with books without deliberately choosing ones that don’t sound like my kind of thing. And yet I enjoyed it quite a lot—much more than Free Love, which I had expected would be exactly my kind of thing, and much more than Free Food For Millionaires, which I abandoned after about 50 pages.

Mandel is very good at scene setting, and one nice thing about Sea of Tranquility is that, because it takes place in several different times and places, she gets to show off that skill. Books that shift our attention around like this can be jarring, but she’s also good at pacing, so for me anyway, the journey from 1912 to 2401, and the stops in between, and then the returns, felt pleasantly seamless, like a literary version of the airships she imagines whooshing people around in the future. By the end, however, I thought the story she told was kind of thin: though I was consistently interested in the people and scenarios she set up, I felt much as I did at the end of The Glass Hotel—that, to borrow Henry James’s (extremely incorrect!) verdict on Middlemarch, the novel is a treasure house of details but an indifferent whole.

Mare_TranquillitatisThere’s real cleverness to the novel’s time-travel plot (though I don’t think these can ever be completely convincing), and a poignancy to the human story threaded through it, and the ongoing theme of pandemics created both menace in the moment and resonance for our moment. Maybe all of these things, done as well as they are, should be enough, but I am always looking, when I read a novel, for a sense of growing excitement about meaning, and I don’t think Sea of Tranquility delivers on that front. The big idea at the heart of it is what it would mean if we discovered we were living, not in reality, but in a simulation. What difference would or should that make to us? Would our experiences be any less real? Gaspery, the novel’s protagonist (more or less), concludes that the “correct response” to the news that we’re living in a simulation would be “So what. A life lived in a simulation is still a life.” I suppose that’s true, but it also seems to oversimplify the potential philosophical issuesnot that I know anything about them myself, but I have lived in close proximity to a professional philosopher for long enough to be sure that the implications of the “simulation hypothesis” are more complex than Gaspery supposes or Sea of Tranquility explores.

mandel2The other key idea in Sea of Tranquility seems to be “if you have the chance to save someone’s life, you should do it, rules or consequences be damned.” This hardly seems like a big ideain fact, it seems trite, a point hardly worth making, a choice so obvious it hardly counts as heroism . . . except that for Gaspery, the rules are made by vast and powerful institutions and the consequences are literally historic. Does that make the “right” choice any less obvious? A different novelist, or a different kind of novel, would have made more of this, of how we weigh the kindness to others that defines our humanity against our own needs and vulnerabilities, and also against larger goals and values that might be incompatible with it and yet still, possibly, worth serving. “We should be kind,” the poem goes, “while there is still time,” but Mandel pits kindness against time (you’ll understand if you read the novel) and again, I think figuring out what to do might be more complicated than the novel suggests, if you let it be. Yet I liked the absolute clarity of Gaspery’s choice: for him, there’s no question at all.

In the variety of its imagined worlds, Sea of Tranquility reminded me a bit of Cloud Atlas, although it has been so long since I read Cloud Atlas that I can’t really be sure if that’s a fair comparison. Mandel doesn’t have Mitchell’s ambition: Sea of Tranquility is all in more or less the same style, for example, whereas Cloud Atlas (IIRC) is a virtuosic sampler of different kinds of fiction, some of which I remember not enjoying at all. Mandel’s novel is easily readable; it’s clever and a bit tricksy, but not so in love with its tricks that it lost me.

Rereading Never Let Me Go

book-cover-never-let-me-go-by-kazuo-ishiguroMy copy of Never Let Me Go is a 2006 edition, and it may well have been in 2006 that I read it for the first time. I’ve tried several times since then to reread it. The Remains of the Day is one of my personal top 10 novels: I consider it pretty much perfect. Many people I know admire Never Let Me Go even more, so it has always seemed that it would be worth going back to, both to experience it in that fuller way you usually can on a rereading and to see if I might like to assign it some day. And yet I have never read it again until now—at least, not all the way through. Why? Because every time I have tried, I have found it too dull, too slow, too (to put a more positive spin on it) subtle. Subtlety is one of Ishiguro’s great gifts, of course, but his characteristic understatement actually demands a lot of his readers en route to its rewards, and on every other attempt I just couldn’t keep it up.

I did this time, though just barely. The truth is that much of the first, say, 7/8 of Never Let Me Go is remarkable in its banality; what gives it momentum on a first read is the underlying eeriness, the creeping sense that something is awry with these children and their teachers and their situation, that there’s a mystery we need resolved. Sure, there are some intense moments along the way, but it’s the final 1/8 that, retrospectively, illuminates the earlier parts. It’s only as you near the end that you understand that the very triviality and pettiness and (more or less) normalcy of those years is the point, or the challenge, of the entire concept. A really attentive rereading would make the most of that later knowledge, and I expect all kinds of details would turn out to be much more significant than they seem in the moment, just as Stevens’s obsession with silver polish or choice of light reading in Remains turn out to matter much more than you might think at first. (Another novel that gets better and better, IMHO, the more you reread its earlier sections in light of its later ones is Atonement, which I really miss teaching!)never-go

Anyway, I kept reading this time even though I was a bit bored, because I knew what was coming and I wanted to get there again. More than the novel itself, I have remembered James Wood’s review of it, which—rereading it today—still seems like an exemplary work of criticism. I have thought often of his discussion of the novel’s allegorical implications, the way it turns out to be not really (or at least not just) about cloning, but about life and death and how we all spend the time in between, about the strangeness of our assumption that “that to be assured of death at seventy or eighty or ninety returns to life all its savor and purpose.” “Why is sheer longevity,” Wood asks, “if it most certainly ends in the same way as sheer brevity, accorded meaning, while sheer brevity is thought to lack it?”

Offered, at last, some unsparing truths about the life she and her friends have lived, Kathy asks,

Why did we do all of that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that? If we’re just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all those lessons? Why all those books and discussions?

Answers to this are implicit throughout Never Let Me Go: creativity, art, music, friendship, love are among the things that give any human life meaning, no matter its beginning or end. They are also, as Miss Emily defensively points out, things “which even now no one will ever take from you.” If the children had known the full context, “you would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you?”

never-let-meThe novel’s thought experiment about cloning is chilling and provocative in the questions it raises about where scientific or medical “advances” might take us. I think it’s more powerful, though, as a commentary on meaning and value in our own lives, which also end in death sentences, if usually of a less calculated kind. Why would reading Daniel Deronda be pointless for Kathy and not for me? Why all these lessons, all these books and discussions? Why do we do all of this work? Some novels (I’m thinking of Sarah Winman’s Still Life, for example, perhaps because I read it relatively recently) answer these questions more robustly just by the force and delight of their own fiction. Never Let Me Go is more somber and equivocal, though I think ultimately it leads us in the same direction. A line from the series Angel comes to mind: “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” The ending isn’t, in itself, where meaning lies, but it’s the certainty of the ending that gives meaning to what comes before—an idea which is both explored and represented in Ishiguro’s novel itself.

If we had to take sides, I’m still on Team Remains, but (though I’m unlikely ever to assign it) I’m glad I finally read Never Let Me Go a second time: in the end—by the end—it was worth it.

To Begin Again: Tessa Hadley, Free Love

hadleyPhyllis felt after this meeting with Nicky that she had crossed a line, like being on board a ship where there were certain ceremonies for when you crossed the Equator. It wasn’t only that Nicky spoke as if they might go out together and she could meet his friends, gain entry to a whole new world of social relations. It was that she knew nothing about this world of his. Everything she’d ever known had been nothing: she might as well scrape away all the things she’d taken for granted all her life, to begin again. She seemed to watch herself undressing, in that room of Nicky’s with no accretions of furniture or domesticity, dropping the pieces of her clothing one by one onto the bare floorboards, leaving her old self behind, climbing into his bed, weightless and transparent as a naked soul in an old painting.

If you like the passage I took as my epigraph for this post, you’ll probably like Free Love overall, or at any rate you will like it more than I did, which wasn’t much at all. Since I finished reading it, I have puzzled over why I disliked it so much. None of the reasons I came up with are faults in the novel itself, I don’t think, although I suppose you could construe them that way if you take it as a ‘fault’ to be a certain kind of novel. But why would you? (Why would I?) The house of fiction has many windows, etc.

I’ll comment on a few of the things I disliked about the novel, while acknowledging that some of them are idiosyncratic and others probably evidence of inadequate attention, and also that I was just generally out of sorts the day I finished reading it. (And yet the right book can change my mood, so that can’t be all that was going on.) First of all, it’s more or less all like that passage: meticulous, well-crafted (almost too conspicuously so), analytical, unemotional. Free Love has the kind of flat affect I associate with a lot of contemporary writers, which always seems pitched to the kind of reader that considers “unsentimental” high praise. It is full of well-observed details, but they felt well-observed to me: I could never lose myself in the descriptions, or feel something emerging from beyond them—something you might call theme,  or meaning. Even though the novel deals a lot in people’s inner worlds, it always felt superficial, never immersive. The way prose reads to us can be so idiosyncratic, though: perhaps other readers are carried away by Hadley’s style, or perhaps this is not something they want from her, or from anyone.

free-loveThe novel turns on a dramatic act of rebellion: suburban housewife Phyllis leaves her home, husband, and children to move in with her lover (who, spoiler alert, turns out—in what felt like a completely unnecessary plot wrinkle—to be her husband’s son by another woman). It’s a decision that should have felt weighty, dramatic, consequential, but it did not feel well motivated: it’s impulsive, and it’s only after the fact that Phyllis really begins to understand the social upheavals that she asserts interest in. If she has an epiphany, it’s an unconvincing one, and (maybe this is just my Victorian moralist showing up) yet Phyllis ups and walks away from people who love and need her, as if duty doesn’t mean anything in the face of desire. I found her both uninteresting and unsympathetic, a bad combination, and the novel just presents her, so I was never really sure whether I was supposed to feel differently.

I could go on about the other characters I didn’t care about, but that’s no fun, and also it might make it sound as if I require “relatable” characters to like a novel, which is not true. (It may be more true about what I require from the implied author.)  My impatience with Free Love was more to do with my impression that it carefully depicted a moment in time but did not bring a novelistic sensibility or perspective to that depiction that I could get a grasp on. What’s the point of all of it? (And by the end, it did seem like there was a lot of it.) Maybe I haven’t read the right other books to appreciate it (Dorian mentioned that he liked it as a spin on Doris Lessing, for example, and I wouldn’t know). Hadley mentions having immersed herself in writers from the period, including Margaret Drabble—but I haven’t had the same stifled reaction to Drabble’s novels. I reviewed Late In the Day for the TLS and was a bit lukewarm, which should maybe have been a caution. Frances Wilson reviewed Free Love, I think admiringly, though actually the review (not unlike my earlier one) is noncommittal about evaluation and admits Hadley’s “cold eye.” Is that praise or criticism? Maybe neither, but it’s accurate, and it’s as good an explanation as any other one I have for my negative reaction.

In a Dark Wood: William Styron, Darkness Visible

Content warning: depression and suicide

styronThe vast metaphor which most faithfully represents this fathomless ordeal . . . is that of Dante, and his all-too-familiar lines still arrest the imagination with their augury of the unknowable, the black struggle to come:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
For I had lost the right path.

Early in his brief “memoir of madness” Darkness Visible, William Styron tells us about the op-ed he wrote for the New York Times after Primo Levi’s suicide, which to his great annoyance had left so many “worldly writers and scholars . . . mystified and disappointed.” “The argument I put forth,” he explains,

was fairly straightforward: the pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne.

Straightforward, perhaps, but the “spontaneous—and enormous” reaction to his article convinced him that it was worth saying more about his own experiences with depression. The result was first a lecture, then an article in Vanity Fair, and then this slim but powerful book.

darknessI read Darkness Visible on the recommendation of a friend who knew that I have been struggling to understand Owen’s decision to end his life from his point of view, not just because he did not share many details of his struggle but because I have never experienced depression myself—sadness, yes, and now grief, but these are far from the same thing.

There are always going to be things about Owen’s life and death that elude my understanding. An article I read about grief after suicide loss talks about the damage suicides do to people’s “assumptive world,” the things they assume to be true, which includes their beliefs about other people. There can perhaps be no more drastic reminder that other people are ultimately, precisely, other. I am working on accepting that many questions I have will never, can never, be answered. I also think it would be a mistake to think that depression in itself answers those questions: for one thing, as Styron emphasizes, many—in fact, most—people who suffer with depression survive it:

one need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul’s annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease—and they are countless—bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable.

Still, keeping that in mind, and also knowing that Styron’s experience was uniquely his own (something else Styron is clear about—”I don’t intend my ordeal to stand as a representation of what happens, or might happen, to others”), I was grateful, reading Darkness Visible, for the clarity and intensity of its depiction of depression from the inside, from the perspective of the sufferer. It was not an easy read, especially in my situation, but it made depression less “unimaginable” for me.

Darkness Visible by William Styron: 9780679643524 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  BooksStyron dislikes the term “depression”: “melancholia,” he thinks, “would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder,” whereas “depression,” bland and innocuous sounding, inhibits understanding “of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.” Styron carefully chronicles his own descent into the worst of it, frankly examining the role of his drinking (which he believes actually held the depression at bay for some time), the onset of “a kind of numbness” in which his own body began to feel unfamiliar to him, and then a pattern of “anxiety, agitation, unfocused dread” leading to “a suffocating gloom” and “an immense and aching solitude.” He recounts the medications he took (this was before the widespread use of today’s most frequently prescribed antidepressants), the therapy he finally sought out, and his eventual hospitalization, which in his case proved life-saving, mostly because (as he tells it) it bought him precious time:

In the hospital I partook of what may be depression’s only grudging favor—its ultimate capitulation. Even those for whom any kind of therapy is a futile exercise can look forward to the eventual passing of the storm. If they survive the storm itself, its fury almost always fades and then disappears. Mysterious in its coming, mysterious in its going, the affliction runs its course, and one finds peace.

visibleNot always, of course, and as a book like this can only be written by just such a survivor, it is bound to tilt more towards optimism than might in other cases seem warranted. From his own experience, Styron appreciates that convincing a depressed person (usually “in a state of unrealistic hopelessness”) to see things as he now does is “a tough job”:

Calling ‘Chin up!’ from the safety of the shore to a drowning person is tantamount to insult, but it has been shown over and over again that if the encouragement is dogged enough . . . the endangered one can nearly always be saved.

In some ways, these cheering “chin up” sections of the book were harder for me to read than the other, grimmer parts. This one in particular actually angered me, for implicitly blaming friends and families for not offering dogged enough encouragement or, Styron’s other key term, “devotion,” to save their loved ones.

Instead, insofar as depression is an explanation for “drowning,” its deadly force surely lies in what Styron powerfully conveys as its horrors, which can be “so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression”: 

for those who have known it, [depression] is a simulacrum of all the evil of our world: of our everyday discord and chaos, our irrationality, warfare and crime, torture and violence, our impulse toward death, and our flight from it held in the intolerable equipoise of history.

“If our lives had no other configuration than this,” he considers that “we should want, and perhaps deserve, to perish.”

PPP-ShoreTrue to his own experience, though, Styron does not end on this gloomy note, but on a more uplifting one:

For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as “the shining world.”

The last words of the book are not his but Dante’s:

And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.

I only wish that were true for us.


ghostJuly was not a very good reading month for me. By habit and on principle I usually finish most of the books I start, at least if I have any reason to think they are worth a bit of effort if it’s needed. In July, however, I not only didn’t even start many books (not by my usual standards, anyway) but I set aside almost as many books as I completed—Bloomsbury Girls (which hit all my sweet spots in theory but fell painfully flat in practice), Gilead (a reread I was enthusiastic about at first but just could not persist with), A Ghost in the Throat (which I will try again, as I liked its voice—what I struggled with was its essentialism and its somewhat miscellaneous or wandering structure). I already mentioned Andrew Miller’s Oxygen and Monica Ali’s Love Marriage, both of which I finished and enjoyed, in my last round-up post; I can add Maggie O’Farrell’s forthcoming The Marriage Portrait to the tally of successes since then (I liked it a lot).

smithAli Smith’s how to be both was a mixed experience for me. My copy began with the contemporary story (as you may know, two versions were published), and it read easily for me and was quite engaging, in the same way that the seasonal quartet books all were (though it was funny—funny strange, not lol funny—to find that once again, but this time accidentally, I had chosen a book fundamentally about grief). But the Renaissance section pretty much lost me, and I was not willing or able to put in the work to understand and appreciate the connections between the parts. I’m quite ready to blame myself, not Smith, as my concentration has been quite poor recently, as has my motivation to persist with anything that isn’t either required or readily rewarding—but this was also a reminder of why until fairly recently I had been wary of her fiction: I’m not an experimentalist by habit, my sensibility or taste just runs to the more conventional. I like my novelists to actually write their novels, not leave the work of making sense of it, or filling in the actual content of it, up to me—not absolutely, of course, or I’m in the wrong job, but how to be both was too far in the wrong direction for me, for now.

Ow1Another reread for me in July was Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End. As with everything I’ve read about both grief and suicide, this novel made me very conscious of the particularity of loss, and also of relationships, including mother-child ones: there is not much in it that specifically reminds me of my own son or what it was like being his mom. But there are some passages in it that vividly capture emotions I have had or thoughts I have struggled with, of sorrow, pain, confusion, disorientation, and helpless, bereft love. I am so grateful for the writers who have done the hard work of finding words for these feelings.

Owen would have turned 25 on July 22, another ‘first.’ On his birthday last year I told him (as I always did) that the day he was born was one of the happiest days of our lives. This year it was one of the saddest.


An Unwilling Elegy

reasons-endNo, it’s not an elegy, I thought. No parent should write a child’s elegy.

I read Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End three years ago. It was hard: I could barely finish it. “Imagine,” I said then. Now, of course, I don’t have to imagine.

I reread it this week, because I’m still always looking for words, and finding some comfort when they are in the shape of my wound.

Two more excerpts.


Days: the easiest possession, requiring only automatic participation. The days he had refused would come, one at a time. Neither my allies nor my enemies, they would wait, every daybreak, with their boundless patience and indifference, seeing if they could turn me into a friend or an enemy to myself.

“I don’t have to live in days,” Nikolai says. “And yet I have to live in days,” his mother replies. Me too.


Words provided to me—loss, grief, sorrow, bereavement, trauma—never seemed to be able to speak precisely of what was plaguing me. One can and must live with loss and grief and sorrow and bereavement. Together they frame this life, as solid as the ceiling and the floor and the walls and the doors. But there is something else, like a bird that flies away at the first sign of one’s attention, or a cricket chirping in the dark, never settling close enough for one to tell from which corner the song comes.

“I am in fiction now,” he says. Yes: but what story? This is the ongoing work.

yiyun-liJuly 2019

Three excerpts from an unwilling elegy.


We once gave Nikolai a life of flesh and blood; and I’m doing it over again, this time by words,


How can anyone believe that one day he was here and the next day he was gone?

Yet how can one, I thought. How can one know a fact without accepting it? How can one accept a person’s choice without questioning it? How can one question without reaching a dead end? How much reaching does one have to do before one finds another end beyond the dead end? And if there is another end beyond the dead end, it cannot be called dead, can it?

How good you are, Nikolai said, at befuddling yourself.


You write fiction, Nikolai said.


Then you can make up whatever you want.

One never makes up things in fiction, I said. One has to live there as one has to live here.

Here is where you are, not where I am. I am in fiction, he said. I am in fiction now.

Then where you are is there, which is also where I live.

Some books are too hard to write about. Imagine how hard this one was to write: if you think about that while you’re reading it, you might have to stop, as I nearly did. I liked this review by John Self, in the Irish Times. This one by Rachel Veroff in the LARB is good too.

For the Record: Recent Reading

cassatSince I started Novel Readings in 2007, I’ve written up—sometimes briefly, sometimes in great detail—almost every book I’ve read. The best thing about that has always been the exercise itself: knowing I would write at least something about my reading encouraged me to read more attentively and thoughtfully, and then finding the words for what I’d noticed and thought about not only fixed the experience better in my memory but helped me understand the experience better, since as we all know, writing isn’t just a matter of transcribing things you’ve already figured out but is a vital process for figuring them out.

Over the years I have come to really appreciate having this record of my reading, and I am sad that this habit has been so hard to keep up since Owen died. At first, I just wasn’t reading much; now, I am reading again (though not as much as before, and with more difficulties) but I’m tired all the time, mentally as much as physically. Also, writing—at least, writing that doesn’t come with the extrinsic motivation of a commitment and a deadline—turns out, for me anyway, to be a more optimistic activity than I had realized. Going back, as I have so often now, to Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow, I came again across her comment,

You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity . . . Any written or spoken sentence would naturally lean forward towards its development and conclusion, unlike my own paralyzed time.

Earlier in my own experience of grief, I was not really conscious of what she describes as “the sensation of having been lifted clean out of habitual time,” but as I try harder to make my own way back into the present, I think I understand better what she was talking about. riley-time-2

have done a lot of writing since Owen died, of course: about my grief and loss, not just here but privately (it might seem to some people that I’ve overshared here, I suppose, but there are definitely aspects of my experience and of Owen’s, both his life and his death, that are too hard, or just too much, to share even—as I imagine this space being—among friends); about at least some of my reading; in draft material for the book I am working on; and in a few published reviews and review-essays. Many times in the past I have stumbled over identifying myself as “a writer,” but not now: it has never felt more essential to me to put things into words. As I have learned more about grief and what helps people move through it, I have realized that the compulsion I felt starting very soon after Owen’s death to write about it was probably an intuitive reaching towards what in therapeutic jargon is sometimes called “meaning making.”

monica-aliAnyway, this is a pretty roundabout way to get to the point of this post, which is to update the record of my recent reading, if only to shore up my recollections of this period of my life. There’s no way I can write “proper” posts about each of these recently read titles, but I don’t want to forget that I read them, and I also (as part of my larger effort to “reengage with the world”) want to push myself past the sad inertia that at this point is mostly to blame for my losing the habit of writing up my ‘novel readings.’ I remind myself, not for the first time, of my conviction that if something was worth doing before a catastrophe, it remains doing after. Novel Readings has never been “just” a book blog, of course, and I expect I’ll continue to write sometimes about my grief, just as I know mourning is going to continue changing how and why I read. As September nears, I expect I’ll also go back to blogging about my teaching.

So: here’s a stack of books I’ve read in recent weeks but mostly haven’t written up here (the exceptions are The Slowworm’s Song and  Woolf’s diary).

June Books

It was a good run: there’s not one here I wouldn’t recommend to you if you asked about it. The standout was Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, which is at once the best representation I’ve ever read of what it’s like being on Twitter (which she calls, evocatively, “the portal”) and a truly heartfelt and heartbreaking human story. I appreciated that, while she doesn’t gloss over the ways Twitter can be strange and terrible and inhumane, she doesn’t pit “real life” against it either. “The world of books is still the world,” Aurora Leigh remarks, and I have always felt the same about social media.

I didn’t like Oxygen as much as the other books I’ve read by Andrew Miller, but that’s a pretty high bar; ditto Companion Piece, which read easily but made less of an impression on me than Smith’s Seasonal Quartet did. The Dictionary of Lost Words is probably the most conventional one in this stack, which is not a knock against it: it’s smart and very readable. My review of Haven will be in Canadian Notes & Queries at the end of the summer; the tl;dr version is that it’s quite good, though I continue to wish Donoghue would slow down and write a really good, more expansive, novel. (I wish the same of Sarah Moss.) I do admire how different Donoghue’s novels are from each other. Haven has the most in common, thematically, with The Wonder, as it is in part about faith, but it’s still quite distinct in approach and tone. It’s set on Skellig Michael, which looks like an incredible site. Donoghue writes wonderfully about that setting, and the novel is also chock full of brilliant process writing, about everything from fishing to making ink.

gileadI have stumbled more in the last couple of weeks, starting and then quitting a lot of titles including Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat and Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, but I did read Monica Ali’s Love Marriage with interest that (with a bit of persistence) grew into appreciation. One book I began with enthusiasm but ultimately decided not to finish was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which I have read before, long ago (pre-blogging, that’s how long ago!). It was just too religious for me this time: I just don’t see the world as John Ames does, and while as a well-trained and very experienced novel reader I totally understand and agree that I don’t have to in order to engage with his story, this time (with apologies to the people of faith among you) it just felt too much like having to take very seriously someone who believes in Santa Claus. There’s a lot that’s beautiful in what and how the Reverend Ames sees, but I’m with the brother who reads Feuerbach and goes his own way (I assume he read George Eliot’s translation!). I didn’t much like Housekeeping when I went back to it a few years ago, so maybe Robinson is just not for me.

I have just started Natalie Jenner’s Bloomsbury Girls, which seems fine so far, though I don’t expect anything groundbreaking from it either stylistically or thematically. Ali Smith’s how to be both looks more exciting in both respects, so it’s probably next.

In This Room

Why did I come in here.

For Wedge.

Well, that was stupid. He’s not here. And now you have made your dad dead in this room. And you will keep doing this. Every new room you enter, you will make your dad dead in it. Now he is dead on the second floor. He is dead on the ground floor. There is only one floor left.

I’ve been working (and it does feel like work) on going out a bit more—not far, not anywhere unusual or exciting, just out of the house and a little way further into what used to be my everyday world. I didn’t expect it would be so hard. I used to go to campus almost every day, after all; I worked in my office there five days a week pretty much year round, until we all went home in March 2020. I went there so often that I was getting tired of it. I used to pull into the parking lot with resignation. Now I arrive in tears. I can’t help it: they start on the way there, as I travel the streets and pass the schools that are mundane but evocative landmarks in our family history, and they continue as I wander the grounds where I loved to visit the kids at lunch time during their summer camps, and when I look up at the residence where Owen spent two pretty happy years and then more unhappy ones, and when I remember the flags flying at half mast in his honor. Then I sit at the desk where I have sat for so many hundreds of hours before, and there are pictures and reminders everywhere.

It isn’t just the memories, though: it’s the uncanny sensation I get when I’m there of having traveled back in time. Because I have spent so little time there since COVID, the campus feels as if it belongs to another life altogether—except that Owen was alive in that other, past, life, so the disorientation that has settled somewhat around home (where he has been dead for so long now) comes back full force. “Every new room you enter,” the grieving narrator realizes in Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise, “you will make your dad dead in it.” That’s it exactly: that’s why it is so hard “just” going back to campus, and why it was also so hard when I made myself go to the Public Gardens, where I had not been since just before he moved back in with us in November. I love the Public Gardens, but going there meant that now Owen is dead there too.

Everywhere I go, I have to keep doing this. It’s easier when I have a focus, a task, a distraction, a friend. Constant distraction is a kind of avoidance, though, a way of not thinking or feeling. It’s a useful strategy—it has been invaluable, really, essential (as mindless TV has been) for helping me get through this hardest of all times. Before long I am going to need to be able to walk across the quad and not break down, though, and that means not just getting used to being there again but somehow closing the gap between the old life it was the setting for and the realities of my life now. I’ve been thinking again about Woolf’s image of the corridor between two blocks. I feel as if I am still in that transitional space: I am further along it, but I haven’t emerged yet, and I haven’t yet figured out that new story that reconciles what still seem like incompatible realities—the sameness of it all, and, simultaneously, the absolute difference of it. The dissonance still can make me reel, literally. I have been grateful for the quiet benches that let me rest for a while, just sitting with the sadness until I’m ready to take it with me somewhere else.

Half a Year

Owen OrnamentThe mind is not only its own place, as Milton’s Satan observes, but it can also be a pretty strange place, or mine can anyway, especially these days. Today, for example, it has been six months (six months!) since Owen’s death, and what keeps running through my mind is a mangled version of lines from “The Charge of the Light Brigade”: “half a year, half a year, half a year onward, into the valley of death …” and then nothing comes next, it just starts over, because not only (of course) are these not the poem’s actual words but I don’t know what words of my own should follow to finish the thought.

tennysonIt’s hard to imagine a poem that is less apt, for the occasion or for my feelings about it. (I hate this poem, actually, though I love so much of Tennyson’s poetry.*) I can’t think of any reason for this mental hiccup besides the generally cluttered condition of my mind thanks to two years of COVID isolation and now six months (six months!) of grieving. Six months is half a year—half a year! I have to keep repeating it to make myself believe it, and it’s probably just the repetition and rhythm of that phrase that trips my tired brain over into Tennyson’s too-familiar verse.

Half a year. That stretch of time seemed unfathomably long to me in the first days and weeks after Owen’s death—a future too far away to imagine, never mind plan or prepare for. Time passing was supposed to be what helped, but that oversimplifies it, as everyone who told us “it takes time” probably knew but didn’t know how to (or didn’t want to) explain. That feeling I had that he was receding—not from our memories or our hearts, of course, but from our present reality—is even stronger now, which is worse, not better. I don’t want him to belong to the past, but time doesn’t stop. I can’t hide from my own future any more, either: my sabbatical (so eagerly awaited, so much of its work so different than I expected, and so much more difficult) ends today. Half a year, half a year, half a year onward: it’s relentless.

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973How should the thought finish? As I walk through the valley of the shadow of Owen’s death, I have no sure path or comfort. All I know, or hope I know, is that at some point, in some way, I will emerge from it and he will not. Six months ago today, devastated beyond any words of my own, I copied stanzas from Tennyson’s In Memoriam into my journal. It remains the best poem I know about grief, though as it turns towards a resolution not available to me, maybe it’s more accurate to say that it contains the best poetry I know about grief. (For that, I can forgive him the jingoistic tedium of “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”) This has always been my favorite section—it is so powerful in its stark simplicity:

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more—
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

He is not here. Half a year. How long, how short, how impossible that feels.

*It is amazing that you can listen to a recording of Tennyson actually reciting it, however. Why do I find this so moving? Maybe for the same reason that I found myself in tears when I ran across some of the original issues of Bleak House at the V&A.

That Extraordinary Extinction

Content warning: depression and suicide

diary v 5Not a happy summer. That is all the materials for happiness; & nothing behind. If Julian had not died—still an incredible sentence to write—our happiness might have been profound . . . but his death—that extraordinary extinction—drains it of substance. (Woolf, Diaries, 26 September, 1937)

I’ve just finished writing a review of Sina Queyras’s new book Rooms: Women, Writing, Woolf, a book that (among other things) examines the influence Virginia Woolf has had on Queyras as a writer and thinker. Woolf, as Queyras discusses, may actually be uniquely influential:

If you’re a woman who has written in English in the last hundred years, you have come through Woolf and have at least some cursory thoughts on her work—if this year is any indication, you’ve written at least a paragraph about her.

When I write about Woolf myself, I feel the same anxieties Queyras expresses in their book, about taking Woolf as a subject and about adding to what’s already been written about her. It’s hard not to feel both inadequate and superfluous. On the other hand, there are few other writers (for me, there’s really only one other writer) whose work is as rewarding to inhabit and to think about. Most recently, I’ve been working on The Years, which I reread last summer as I began to lay out my plans for my current sabbatical leave.

holtby-woolfI haven’t written much new about Woolf yet this year (I’ve been focusing on other pieces of my project) but I have thought about her a lot—specifically, I have thought a lot about her suicide. One of my favorite things about Holtby’s Critical Memoir of Woolf is that Holtby died before Woolf did and so no shadow darkens her celebration of Woolf’s capacity for joy. It’s a shame (and I know others, more expert on Woolf than I, who feel this even more strongly) that the popular image of Woolf is so dreary. But she did suffer greatly from depression, and she did ultimately choose not to go on suffering. It’s tragic, of course, but in a way I think the saddest part is not that she died but that she did not wish to go on living, a small distinction, perhaps, but to me a meaningful one. I sometimes feel this about Owen’s death as well: that it’s his life I am mourning—his difficult life, the life he ultimately did not want to live any more—as much as his death. There’s a passage in Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss that captures what I imagine he might have felt:

Normal people say, I can’t imagine feeling so bad I’d genuinely want to die. I do not try and explain that it isn’t that you want to die. It is that you know you are not supposed to be alive, feeling a tiredness that powders your bones, a tiredness with so much fear. The unnatural fact of living is something you must eventually fix.

How I wish I could have fixed it for him instead, some other way.

v-woolfWith Woolf on my mind again thanks to Queyras’s book, I picked up Volume 5 of her diary (1936-1941), which I have to hand because it covers the time she was working on The Years and Three Guineas. So much is always happening in her diaries and letters: you can dip into them anywhere and find something vital, interesting, fertile for thought. This volume of the diary also includes the lead-up to war and then her experience of the Blitz, and the final entries before her suicide, which are inevitably strange and poignant—even more so to me now. Leafing through its pages this time, though, it was the entries around the death of her nephew Julian Bell in July 1937 that drew me in: Woolf as mourner, not mourned.

Woolf experienced a lot of painful losses in her life, including her mother and father and her brother Thoby. Julian’s death (in Spain, where he had gone, over his mother’s and aunt’s objections, to drive an ambulance) was another terrible blow. Woolf doesn’t write about it at length, but her grief comes up often over the following months in terms that are now all-too familiar. In the first entry she writes after he dies, she notes how odd it is that “I can hardly bring myself, with all my verbosity . . . to say anything about Julian’s death.” There’s a sense of helplessness, as all she can do is be there for his bereft mother:

Then we came down here [to Monk’s House] last Thursday; & the pressure being removed, one lived; but without much of a future. Thats one of the specific qualities of this death—how it brings close the immense vacancy, & our short little run into inanity.

More than once she resolves to let this renewed consciousness of the brevity of life inspire her to make the most of it: “I will not yield an inch, or a fraction of an inch to nothingness, so long as something remains.” “But how it curtails the future,” she adds, “… a curiously physical sense; as if one had been living in another body, which is removed, & all that living is ended.”

“We don’t talk so freely of Julian,” Woolf remarks a few days later; “We want to make things go on.” After another few days, she writes that Vanessa “looks an old woman”: “How can she ever right herself though?” Woolf herself struggles to focus on her writing projects.  “I do not let myself think,” she says; “That is the fact. I cannot face much of the meaning.” “Nessa is alone today,” she notes on August 6; “A very hot day—I add, to escape from the thought of her.” But the thoughts return:

We have the materials for happiness, but no happiness . . . It is an unnatural death, his. I cant make it fit in anywhere. Perhaps because he was killed, violently. I can do nothing with the experience yet. It seems still emptiness: the sight of Nessa bleeding: how we watch: nothing to be done. But whats odd is I cant notice or describe. Of course I have forced myself to drive ahead with the book. But the future without Julian is cut off. lopped: deformed.

“How much do I mind death?” she asks herself in December, concluding that “there is a sense in which the end could be accepted calmly”:

It’s Julian’s death that makes one skeptical of life I suppose. Not that I ever think of him as dead, which is queer. Rather as if he were jerked abruptly out of sight, without rhyme or reason: so violent & absurd that one cant fit his death into any scheme. But here we are . . .

Julian did not choose his death (although presumably he accepted the risk of it, when he chose to go to Spain). That’s a big difference between his “end” (which causes Woolf so much grief) and hers. I have always respected Woolf’s choice (and also Carolyn Heilbrun’s, though her circumstances were very different). I try to respect Owen’s too, to understand it as an expression—the ultimate expression—of his autonomy, his right to decide he had suffered enough. I cannot accept it calmly, though; I feel like Vanessa, “bleeding.” “Here there was no relief,” Woolf says in the immediate aftermath of Julian’s death, watching her sister suffer; “Then I thought the death of a child is childbirth again.”