I didn’t sleep at the beginning of 2019. I had woken up in the new year, wide-eyed with shock and dragging grief with me over the figurative threshold separating then from now. I was delirious and awake and surrounded by incongruously colorful blinking Christmas lights, which would remain up until sometime at the beginning of February.
During that time of not sleeping, I was also not reading, or, rather, I don’t remember exactly what I read.
It’s likely that I re-read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. I am sure I opened The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, flipping directly to the short stories where death exists somewhere just off the page. I know I reread “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” and “The Most Girl Part of You.”
But mostly, I didn’t read. Which is dramatic and true but
really only half-true because I read for a living.
In 2019, I read literary reviews and magazines. I read manila folders full of “For your consideration…” writing portfolios. I read poetry, not-quite poetry, and the back alleys and thoroughfares of the Internet. I read dozens and dozens of pieces every week and, on the recommendation of a group of high schoolers and Edan Lepucki, whittled all that reading down into the trim little collection that is The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019. I read that.
But to start, I didn’t read. I didn’t read until just enough
time had passed for me to feel like a drowning woman, desperate and gasping for
life—my life!—which had continued, impossibly, somewhere in the real world,
yes, but also somewhere on the page and in the particular pages of a few good
I read Mary Oliver’s Why I Wake Early and made my days holy explorations. I was in Blackwater Woods and could hear the rippling water. The black snake was dancing his way across the lake and I was a witness. I adored it. I adored the poetry of being alive and being here, which could be anywhere, and which was suddenly everywhere.
Break the Mirror, a collection of Nanao Sakaki’s poetry which had been on my shelf, unread for many years, was finally ripe for the reading this year. Sakaki, who had been drafted into the Japanese navy during World War II and whose life had been saved by a decree from the emperor after the country’s surrender, writes like a man alive. By that I mean that he’s a little practical and a little dreamy, a little horny and a little precious, which is just how I like a person.
Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament follows a woman, Bergljot, who is exactly that kind of person. There’s a secret motivating her to action for the majority of the story and it could have felt claustrophobic reading through that trauma but she’s so alive you don’t mind walking alongside her.
I read Miriam Toews’s Women Talking, followed by Bitch Planet, Volume 1: Extraordinary Machine, a collection of the first five issues of the dystopian comic about “non-compliant” women shipped off to a prison planet. It was an exceedingly perfect pairing and both stories served as reminders that on the other side of revelation is action. Revolution can happen anywhere.
I finally read Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, which was angrier than I expected and that was nice. It was full of art and grief and the duplicity of being alive. We go on and we exist alongside and on top of and behind and in front of everything that has ever and will ever exist, which gives the world and this story its richness.
Maira and Alex Kalman celebrated the particular richness of their mother’s individual story in Sara Berman’s Closet, an illustrated family memoir about their mother’s life, her deliberate way of being and the art in that. They call it a small and monumental story. I would add that it’s beautiful, too.
I read Eileen Myles’s Cool for You for the first time this year. I wish I had read it when I was a teenager and was just learning the bad and limiting idea of how a person was allowed to be. I have this idea that I could have saved myself a lot of heartbreak and a lot of time if I had read it then, but I think in reality I would have just been terrified of all that possibility. At any rate, I loved getting to carry it around as an adult who knows what Eileen knows. There’s a whole lot of world out there.
“All day I do my loving, and all of my feelings are colors,” writes Jenny Slate in Little Weirds. It’s a funny and sad collection of stories but her blues tend toward purples which bloom into magenta, suggesting that there’s light coming in from somewhere. Isn’t that nice that this can happen? Isn’t it wild that little changes, little weirds, can catapult you to so many somewheres? Reading this felt like taking a long walk in a dense wood which suddenly opens up to sunlight. That felt nice, that felt like my year.
When I was 21, three weeks after I’d moved to San Francisco to live with my boyfriend Stephen, his lung collapsed on the way to a party. He was casual about it—he had cystic fibrosis, and though he’d only had one health crisis before this moment, he wasn’t surprised. I panicked and went into a coughing fit. The next morning, we headed over to the hospital at UCSF, and began the part of our life together for which there was no map. That evening, home alone, I wandered around our living room. We were sharing an apartment with two of Stephen’s friends, both English majors at Berkeley. I browsed through their books, looking for good end-of-the-night-on-the-day-your-life-has-changed reading. Unlike most of the books I’d brought with me from the University of Chicago, the books on these shelves were written by living authors. (I remember feeling jealous: my roommates had gotten to read these books for school?) I crawled in bed with a book my roommate Steve had raved about, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. In the morning, I woke up with the light still on, my face pressed into the book’s pages.
Hospital time is funny—both heart-quickening and slow. You know you are at the center of life, that what’s happening right where you are matters, so you feel a constant sense of urgency, and at the same time, the hours themselves are vacation-like, stretching out long, not much to do. In the evenings when I visited Stephen, we’d lie on his bed, talking, watching movies, and reading. He didn’t want to read any of his favorite books in the hospital, on the grounds that they’d carry the aftertaste of the hospital once he got out. He stuck to magazines—the current issue of Rolling Stone, or something football-related. And there’s some truth to his theory—the characters and the landscape of Housekeeping are somehow connected to the hospital in my mind. But the reverse is true too, which was what made it worth reading the book while sitting in a beige chair eating chocolate pudding. The hospital became infused with Housekeeping. I looked forward to diving into its world those evenings. It offered an escape unattainable from a football magazine—or maybe escape is the wrong word—it offered a depth of experience that was part-escape, part-reckoning. The two sisters in its pages, whose mother had died, faced a loss much larger than any I’d ever gone through, but I was dipping my toe in, glimpsing the loss that likely lay in my future. And more, the story evoked a strange state that I was newly experiencing and had no words for—the sudden awareness of how little control I had over life, which left me both at sea and sharpened, helpless and purposeful. That hospital visit, which was longer than expected, I moved from Housekeeping to Beloved to A Personal Matter. And though these three books are so different that their authors might be surprised to see them all appear in the same sentence, they are linked in my mind, for the broad understandings they offered me of suffering and joy, and the complications of love.
After that first health scare, Stephen and I lived a double existence. He was healthy for the most part, and we were kids in our 20s like the rest of our friends, and yet we knew he’d be lucky to live until he was 35, so we were sort of in our 80s, too. It was an unusual existence—no one we knew had gone through it—and you’d think this would have sent me straight to the psychology section, or at least the illness memoir section, of the bookstore where I worked. But the closest I ever got to reading a book that directly addressed my circumstances was when I braved the “issues” shelf in the children’s section, and picked up The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst, in which a family grieves over the death of their cat. It was partly denial, but it was also the same force that had driven me to fiction since I was kid—I didn’t want to read about my own life. I spent enough time in my own life—I wanted to read about all the lives that I’d never have. Though occasionally, a glimpse of my own life snuck in without my asking. I remember reading The Sheltering Sky, and feeling my stomach drop when the main character dies halfway through the book, and his wife takes over the story. I also remember reading Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant by Aurelie Sheehan, thinking, yes, I know that feeling, Kerouac but tied down, the road trip and the responsibilities all taking place at once.
By the time we were 27, Stephen’s health had begun a dangerous decline. We were living in Cambridge, where he was attending grad school, and we had to admit that we couldn’t pretend to be normal anymore—he needed to quit school and get on the list for a double-lung transplant. At that time, the risks of a transplant were huge, as were the possibilities. If Stephen survived, his lungs would be free of CF for the rest of his life. But the operation was at the cutting edge of modern medicine—half of the people who underwent the surgery died in the first five years. It was a big decision, and we made it together (so sweet, Stephen’s doctor joked, young couples, deciding on everything together—the couch, the kitchen table, the transplant). We packed everything we owned into our 1976 green Volvo and headed back to California to make this next move. This was the first time I ached for nonfiction, for someone who’d been there ahead of me to tell me what to do, or if not that, how to go about living with the unknown. My friend Caitlin was a poet and she gave me Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast. I recently looked back in my journal from that time, and there are pages devoted to notes for the letter I planned to write to Doty after reading his book. (I never got around to writing the actual letter.) Reading them now I feel a little embarrassed. Why would this stranger want to know about all the small and large ways I felt connected to him? And yet I did—more so than I did to the other partners of transplant patients, even to our friends and family who loved me dearly. He’d written intimately about his life with his partner who’d died of AIDS, offering observations that you’d never hear buzzing around a support group, admitting feelings and thoughts I shared but had hardly admitted to myself, much less to Stephen. I was grateful for Heaven’s Coast in a way I can still feel, even though it’s been over 15 years.
Still, in the eye of the storm, when the midnight call for the transplant came, I reached for fiction. Packing hurriedly for the hospital I grabbed Amy Bloom’s Love Invents Us and Ethan Canin’s Blue River. The adrenaline rush of the day of surgery, the euphoria of seeing Stephen breathe with new lungs, it was all mixed up with the stories I read, sitting by his bed. Usually when I read, the story I’m devouring is more dramatic than the events of my own life, but for those weeks, the lives in my books felt calmer and slower than my own, digestible, the authors offering subtle reflections on complicated relationships when there wasn’t room for me to do any reflecting myself. And somehow this allowed me to slow down, too, to sink into the daily events of the transplant a bit. Even if I couldn’t quite reflect, I could observe, and this in itself made the days less harrowing.
I reached for fiction again when Stephen went into the hospital for the last time. I didn’t know it was the last time right away, but he’d landed in the ICU with a ventilator, which was as worrisome as things had ever been. I’d been reading Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, so I brought it along, and sank deep into the stories that first morning, sitting by Stephen’s bed, waiting for him to wake up so we could decide whether we needed to call our families. I read for two hours straight, and kept laughing out loud. A nurse asked me to write down the name of the book for her. She didn’t care what it was about. “If it’s got you laughing in the ICU,” she said, “I have to read it.”
When Stephen died three weeks later, I was reading Platte River by Rick Bass. And while soon I’d read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and find deep, specific solace in its pages, I also found solace in Platte River, if less personal, maybe more expansive, too—an acknowledgment of the mysteries in living, of all that we can’t know. It was partly the characters in Platte River, with their bottomless and invisible longings that drew them together and kept them apart, set against the sudden hole in my own life. And it was partly the landscape of Montana, both physically and personally too large for any frame. Montana was the place where my father’s family was from, holding everything I’d never know about his childhood, his parents, why certain family events unfolded the way they did. And its sky and plains were coldly soothing, as endless as the ocean, and offering a similar sort of comfort, with their indifference to my own ups and downs.
Still, when I’m grappling with my life, I reach for fiction. In the years of emerging from grief, of falling in love and marrying again, of having kids and being a part of several families cobbled together, I’ve been up late with The Deptford Trilogy and A Gathering of Old Men, with The Sea, the Sea, and Olive Kitteridge and Sum. I am lost in worlds far from mine, and yet grateful for what they tell me about my own life, too—that it’s only a variation on a theme, that maybe it’s unusual to lose your first husband at 29, but so what—love and loss and grief and more love are out there for all of us, unremarkable in the human scheme of things.
Image credit: Flickr/erikccooper.
Grief, all of a sudden, is hot. Books by authors who have lost a loved one are becoming so common they’re now a classifiable snowflake in the unending blizzard of memoirs. They’re feeding “the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market,” as Janet Maslin put it recently in the New York Times. Writers who have lately mined their grief include Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Roiphe, Kate Braestrup and Joan Didion. New grief memoirs are coming soon from Meghan O’Rourke and Francisco Goldman. “In a way,” says Ruth Davis Konigsberg, author of a new non-fiction book called The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss, “we have become spectators and kind of consumers of other people’s grief.”
So what’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing – provided the writer, in laying bare this rawest of emotions, doesn’t withhold salient facts from the spectators. But another question remains: Why are readers drawn to naked displays of suffering? Is it mere voyeurism, or schadenfreude? Or is something closer to empathy – a way of preparing ourselves for the unthinkable by witnessing the suffering of another?
To find answers, I decided to look at three literary couples in which one partner died unexpectedly and the other lived to tell about the experience and its aftermath. Two of the writers withheld important facts and wound up producing inferior books; the writer who held nothing back produced a masterpiece.
Grief, it turns out, is not only a cruel muse. She’s a fickle one as well.
A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates: The editor Raymond Smith and the writer Joyce Carol Oates had been married for more than 47 years when he came down with a severe case of pneumonia and checked into a Princeton hospital, where he contracted a secondary infection and died on Feb. 18, 2008, at the age of 77. Oates has just produced a memoir about events leading up to and following her husband’s death, a 417-page book that manages to feel both bloated and undernourished.
The bloat comes from several sources. The book is simply too long, full of windy digressions and verbatim transcriptions of unenlightening emails. (O, whatever happened to editors who know how to use a blue pencil?) Worse, the writing is sloppy, and there’s no room for sloppiness in memoirs of this kind, which demand a scrupulous recreation of an extreme emotional state. It’s little things – it’s always the little things – that reveal Oates’s sloppiness, then her lack of candor, and finally, fatally, her dishonesty.
She uses “ravished” instead of “ravaged,” for instance, and she reports that she and Ray once lived in Windsor, Ontario, where there was a “frigid wind blowing from the Detroit River, the massive lake beyond – Lake Michigan.” As a matter of fact, the Detroit River connects Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie; Lake Michigan is some 200 miles to the west. Do such trifles matter? Yes, they do.
Then there are two seemingly small but ultimately telling moments that reveal just how unscrupulous and incurious Oates can be. The first comes when doctors refine their original diagnosis and determine that Ray has contracted bacterial Escherichia coli – E. coli – pneumonia. Oates, like many people, had been under the erroneous impression that E. coli bacteria come only from such sources as sewage-tainted water or fecal matter in food, and that they attack the gastro-intestinal system. But such bacteria are found everywhere, a doctor tells her – “even in the interior of your mouth.” Upon learning this, many people with a severely ill spouse would feel compelled to learn more about this surprising new enemy. Not Oates. She writes about herself in the third person: “In denial that her husband is seriously ill the Widow-to-Be will not, when she returns home that evening, research E. coli on the Internet. Not for nearly eighteen months after her husband’s death will she look up this common bacterial strain to discover the blunt statement she’d instinctively feared at the time and could not have risked discovering: pneumonia due to Escherichia coli has a reported mortality rate of up to 70 percent.” It’s hard for me to decide if such a lack of curiosity is touching, forgivable, or just monstrously self-absorbed.
The second telling moment comes after her husband has died and Oates, who has already exhibited a lack of interest in unpleasant truths, declines to have an autopsy performed. She writes:
I think I remember having been asked at the medical center if I wanted Ray’s body autopsied. In whatever haze of confusion at the time quickly I’d said no.
Could not bear it. The thought of Ray’s body being mutilated.
I know! – the body is not the man. Not “Ray.”
And yet – where else had “Ray” resided, except in that body?
It was a body I knew intimately, and loved. And so I did not want it mutilated.
Now, I will never know if these “causes” of his death are accurate, or complete. I will never know with certainty.
This passage reveals two more of the book’s flaws – the shallow insights and the choppy writing, strewn with random quotation marks and exclamation points.
Yet A Widow’s Story is not without virtues. Oates can be very amusing, as when she expresses her loathing for “sympathy gift baskets” stuffed with “peach butter, Russian caviar and pates of the most lurid kinds.” She can be poignant when describing her battles with insomnia and a growing dependence on prescription drugs, a severe case of shingles, her recurring thoughts of suicide, her nagging fear that she never knew her husband. And finally there’s a beautiful moment when Ray’s cardiologist, who was not the attending physician in the hospital, glosses over the distinct possibility that the staff’s poor performance might be grounds for a malpractice suit. “Maybe – Ray was just tired,” the cardiologist speculates. “Maybe he just gave up…” Oates, justifiably, flies into a rage at this suggestion that her husband’s death was somehow his own fault. Anyone who has ever been confronted with the incompetence and arrogance of the medical profession will cheer the widow’s fury.
But the inclusion of such raw moments can’t make up for the book’s major – and fatal – omission. While Oates mentions that it took her a year and a half to erase her husband’s voice from their telephone answering machine, she neglects to mention that within 11 months of his death she was engaged to a neuroscientist named Dr. Charles Gross, and they were married in 2009. Once you know this, the distance between Lake Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, and the difference between “ravished” and “ravaged” no longer seem like trifles. Oates, in other words, has written the most dishonest kind of book there is – one that purports to serve up raw emotions but doesn’t have the discipline to stick to the facts or the honesty to reveal the most basic of truths.
Even Oates seems to know this. “As the memoir is the most seductive of literary genres, so the memoir is the most dangerous of genres,” she writes. “For the memoir is a repository of truths, as each discrete truth is uttered, but the memoir can’t be the repository of Truth which is the very breadth of the sky, too vast to be perceived in a single gaze.”
Only someone capable of writing such muzzy sentences could produce such a deeply dishonest book. Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe the word machine Oates refers to as “JCO” was shrewdly hoarding this fresh material. Maybe she’s already at work on a new memoir called A Newlywed’s Story. And why not? A Widow’s Story hit the New York Times best-seller as soon as it was published.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion: The celebrated writers John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion had been married for almost 40 years when they sat down to dinner in their New York apartment on the evening of Dec. 30, 2003. In mid-sentence Dunne slumped in his chair and tumbled to the floor, dead from a massive heart attack. At the time the couple’s only daughter, Quintana, was unconscious in the intensive care unit of a nearby hospital, suffering from flu that had exploded into pneumonia, then septic shock. The first words Didion wrote after her husband’s death would become the opening lines of her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
“If you want to write about yourself,” Didion once said, “you have to give them something.” In The White Album, her 1979 essay collection, she gave us the story of how she went blind for six weeks from multiple sclerosis. She gave us the story of checking herself into a psychiatric clinic. She even gave us the doctor’s diagnosis: “Patient’s thematic productions emphasize her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive view of the world around her…”
After Dunne’s death, Didion insisted on an autopsy, which, as Joyce Carol Oates demonstrated, is not a universal demand of the bereaved. My father also decided against an autopsy when my mother died, apparently from a heart attack, alone at home at the age of 57. “What good will an autopsy do?” my father asked. “She’ll still be dead.” I was working as a newspaper reporter at the time, and I believed I had a high regard for the truth. “Yes,” I argued, “but at least we’ll know for sure why she died.” Was her death a suicide, an accidental overdose, the result of a drunken fall? There was no autopsy. I’m convinced I’ll go to my own grave angry that I’ll never know for sure what put my mother in hers.
Didion understands this anger and she knows how to avoid it. “I actively wanted an autopsy,” she writes, “even though I had seen some, in the course of doing research. I knew exactly what occurs, the chest open like a chicken in a butcher’s case, the face peeled down, the scale in which the organs are weighed. I had seen homicide detectives avert their eyes from an autopsy in progress. I still wanted one. I needed to know how and why and when it had happened.” Small wonder that an attendant in the hospital where Dunne was pronounced dead described his widow as “a pretty cool customer.”
A friend once likened Dunne and Didion to another literary couple, the famously stoic Leonard Woolf and his brilliant, troubled wife Virginia – but with a twist. (More on the Woolfs in a moment.) “John does not play Leonard Woolf to (Didion’s) Virginia,” the friend said. “John may seem strident and tough, but what you see in John you get in Joan. She is every bit as tough as he is.” Another friend described Didion as “a fragile, little stainless-steel machine.”
One aspect of her grief that bedeviled Didion was how ordinary the events were that led up to her husband’s death, which prevented her from believing it had happened and, in turn, made it maddeningly difficult for her to get past it. “I recognize now,” she writes, “that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.”
Some people might find all this – the falling plane, the burning car, the lunging rattlesnake – melodramatic, overly pessimistic and fatalistic, even laughable. Based on what I’ve seen of the world, I find it wise. What I’ve seen includes looking out my livingroom window on a clear blue September morning and seeing an orange fireball as United Airlines Flight 175 slashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. Then I watched the two burning towers fall. These events interrupted my reading of the newspaper.
To deal with her grief, Didion did what she had been trained to do since childhood, what most writers do in times of duress: she went to the literature because “information is power.” She found the literature on grief surprisingly sparse. There was C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a passage from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, some poetry, some unhelpful self-help books. So Didion, the relentless reporter, turned more fruitfully to the medical literature – Freud, Melanie Klein, the Merck Manual, the British Medical Journal. Then she made the belated discovery that Dunne’s 1982 novel Dutch Shea, Jr. was actually about the kind of grief she was experiencing, the “complicated” kind. She finally found some solace, implausibly, in Emily Post’s 1922 book on etiquette, which includes pointers on how to treat the newly bereaved.
Didion then does something almost unthinkable. She dives deeper, chronicling the harrowing ups and downs of her daughter’s illness, which culminate in emergency neurosurgery after Quintana collapses and her pupils become fixed and dilated. Didion researches the significance of fixed and dilated pupils, or “FDPs,” and learns that they’re almost always a harbinger of death. She even does the math and learns that her daughter has a two percent chance of making a full recovery.
This last act – getting the facts, doing the math – strikes me as the perfect way to distinguish between a writer like Joan Didion, the cool customer, the fragile little stainless-steel machine, and a writer like Joyce Carol Oates, the word machine who couldn’t abide to see her dead husband’s body “mutilated,” who couldn’t be bothered to learn the mortality rate of E. coli pneumonia, and who didn’t, for whatever reason, bother to mention that she had fallen in love with another man.
Once her daughter’s condition begins to improve, Didion is able to move beyond the paralysis of her grief over John’s death, which is to say she begins to mourn, then heal. After seven dreamless months she begins to dream again. She stops believing John will come back. She stops believing she was in some way responsible for his death, or that she could have averted it. By October she has begun to write The Year of Magical Thinking, and though she’s usually a slow writer she finishes it in just 88 days, a year and a day after her husband died.
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” she concludes. “Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”
When the book was nearing publication the following summer, Didion told an interviewer, “What I want to do as soon as I get through this…all of this…is basically to be too busy. Take too much work. I figure that will get me through.”
A month later Didion’s daughter, her immune system worn out from fighting infections, died from pancreatitis at the age of 39. The Year of Magical Thinking became an immediate best-seller and won the National Book Award.
The Journey Not the Arrival Matters by Leonard Woolf: It would be difficult to imagine a book more unlike Didion’s than The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, the fifth and final volume of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography. It covers the years from 1939, when the Second World War engulfed Europe, to 1969, when the author died at the age of 88. The first half of the book is called “Virginia’s Death,” and it does flit around the events leading up to March 28, 1941, the day Woolf’s mad genius of a wife filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse.
But the title “Virginia’s Death,” like so much of this book, is misleading and disingenuous. This long chapter dwells less on Virginia’s suicide than on the coming madness of the war and the ways it altered the Woolfs’ long and mostly happy marriage. One change, surprisingly, was that when the couple was forced to retreat to their rural Sussex home, Monks House, after their London apartment was shattered by a German bomb, their lives slipped into a pleasing, productive, almost dreamy rhythm. Away from the epicenter of the blitz, rid of servants and a social life, they were free to work and garden and simply be. Leonard called it “pleasant monotony,” and the effect on Virginia, who suffered from periodic bouts of depression and had twice attempted suicide, was salutary.
On Oct. 12, 1940, she wrote in her diary: “How free, how peaceful we are. No one coming. No servants. Dine when we like. Living near to the bone. I think we’ve mastered life pretty competently.” Two days later she added, “If it were not treasonable to say so, a day like this is almost too – I won’t say happy; but amenable… And one thing’s ‘pleasant’ after another: breakfast, writing, walking, tea, bowls, reading, sweets, bed.” Such a regimen is, for any serious writer, a definition of heaven. Five months later, after leaving Leonard a note that concluded with “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been,” Virginia walked into the river.
Any writer of autobiography who has lived through such a trauma should – must – explore the ensuing grief and how he dealt with it, or didn’t. Woolf does this, fitfully, in the book’s second half, claiming that two things saw him through the aftermath of his wife’s suicide. The first was “the inveterate, the immemorial fatalism of the Jew.” The second was something familiar to both Oates and Didion. “Work,” he writes, “is the most efficient anodyne – after death, sleep, or chloroform – for pain, whether the pain be in your great toe, your tooth, your head, or your heart.”
So Leonard Woolf got busy. But instead of exploring the contours of his grief, he gives us tedious digressions about his work with the Fabian Society and the Labour Party, the Political Quarterly, the Nation and the New Statesman, the running of Hogarth Press, including lists of titles published. He makes only passing mention of two new Sussex neighbors, a business partner named Ian Parsons and his attractive wife Trekkie, an artist and book jacket designer: “In the last three years of the war we had become intimate friends…. In the last year of the war, when Ian was in the Air Force in France, Trekkie stayed with me (at Monks House), and I had helped to negotiate the lease of a house for them in (nearby) Iford into which they moved as soon as Ian was demobilized.”
What Woolf fails to mention is that within months of Virginia’s suicide he and Trekkie had embarked on an affair that would endure through the remaining 28 years of his life. They spent weekdays together, then Trekkie went home to her husband on weekends. Ian and Trekkie were still in love and they danced beautifully together and threw lively parties, at which he played the banjo. Under Trekkie’s influence, Leonard started drinking more than he had when Virginia was alive. He gave Trekkie gifts – a Constable sketch, a Rembrandt etching, jewelry. Leonard’s relationship with Trekkie, like his marriage to Virginia, was apparently sexless. Yet in their letters Trekkie was Leonard’s “dearest tiger” and he was her “greedy sparrow.” A year after Virginia’s suicide, Leonard wrote to Trekkie, “To know and love you has been the best thing in my life.”
You’ll find none of the above in Woolf’s autobiography. It comes from Victoria Glendinning’s balanced and well received Leonard Woolf: A Biography, published in 2006, and from Love Letters: Leonard Woolf and Trekkie Ritchie Parsons, 1941-1968, published in 2001.
Is this reticence, this pretense at probity, an English thing – stiff upper lip and all that rot? Or is it something simpler and more venal – dishonesty masquerading as discretion? Whatever it is, or is not, Woolf is guilty of the autobiographer’s cardinal sin: a killing lack of the candor that readers of such books have come to expect, and which they deserve. Certainly Woolf was entitled to his happiness after the suffering he had endured in his marriage, just as Oates was entitled to fall in love and remarry less than a year after her husband’s death. But to omit such central facts from a memoir of grief strikes me as the worst kind of failure, a breach of the writer’s contract with the reader. It is, in short, a lie.
All three of these memoirs, as different as they are, share a common thread. Voyeurs looking to revel in another’s agony will be disappointed because these three memoirists demonstrate that, yes, there is plenty of agony after the death of a loved one, but we possess remarkable tools for dealing with it. Loss may be permanent, but grief, it turns out, is not. The unthinkable is not invincible.
If there is indeed an “increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market” out there today – and the evidence suggests that there is – we should be grateful we have writers like Joan Didion who possess the courage and the talent to feed it. She, unlike Joyce Carol Oates and Leonard Woolf, understands that if you want to write about yourself, you have to give them something. Actually, Didion understands a far larger and deeper and darker truth. She understands that if you want to write about your grief, you have to give them everything.
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