My best friend, Jonathan, took his own life a week ago. I hate that his whole story now seems to lead up to his end. If he’d been saved somehow, most people would never know and his life would have gone on, apparently with a completely different arc. I think of that moment in the movie Match Point when the ball could fall on either side. There are so many different, better ways this should have gone.Continue reading
Hannah Kent / Burial Rites (2013)
How does someone live, knowing they are to die? In Iceland in 1829, Agnes has been sentenced to death; the date has not been fixed and while she waits, she is sent to live with the family of the district officer on their farm. The story of the murder which led to her sentence is drawn out in stages by the priest and the district officer’s wife, as well as sections narrated directly to us by Agnes. My interest was in the tension of living in the shadow of execution, and carrying on with everyday life, working at chores each day and finding some comfort in relationships. Because, as extreme and foreshortened as Agnes’s situation is, we are all under a death sentence. We just have the luxury of not dying at others’ hands while we are still healthy. Kent conveys the drama of mortality well, with an assurance and insight beyond that of most first-time novelists.
As a narrative, the dual strands work well: the clock ticking down to her execution as we move through Agnes’s narration of the past as well. It is probably the best way to narrate it. But I was conscious in this novel of how neat most retellings within narratives are. The story of the past unfolds chronologically in the present. I’ve been watching True Detective at the same time – same technique, with the protagonists telling their story ‘right from the beginning’. I’m doing the same thing in my new novel. Readers probably don’t mind, but I understand the desire of some writers to disrupt the chronology – say DeLillo in Underworld. There’s better examples, I’m sure; just can’t think of them right now. In life, you get bits of the stories in chunks, usually, mixed up and random. But that’s the whole process of narrativisation, I suppose. Giving shape to life.
Today we buried Uncle Philip at the Harvey Lawn Cemetery. It would be hard to say where his home was; he moved around a lot. I think he did live in Harvey a short time, at some stage. He died in Bunbury, but that’s mainly because the hospital was there. It often happened that he would get upset at his neighbours and move to a different town. He was probably autistic, and he liked his routines and his own company. Philip loved not horses (as his name means) but dogs, and he didn’t like being around people.
At other funerals, it seems wrong that the person himself is not there. But for Phil, his absence seemed appropriate; he didn’t turn up to social events. I should have appreciated how significant it was the times I saw him at his brothers’ weddings, at his dad’s 70th birthday, at a couple of Christmases. These wouldn’t have been easy appearances for him.
His middle name comes from his grandfather, an architect of some note in Perth who raised his family in a beautiful house on the foreshore at South Perth. I wonder what the architect would have made of his grandson living much of his life as part of the welfare underclass in WA? If the wealthy are not often a single generation from destitution, they can easily be two generations away from it.
All the time I knew him, Phil struggled with his weight. It pains me that my first memory of him was asking him, when I was about five, ‘Why are you fat?’ Dad took me aside and said that was not something you asked someone. I didn’t understand. Philip was a shy, sensitive man, and I hope he forgot or forgave me.
He didn’t want to hear about God. I’m not sure whether that was out of incredulity or a sense that this is not a world with much good news in it. I cannot fathom a God who would, in an afterlife, deepen and perpetuate the miseries of those who have suffered in this life, confirming their despair that life was hopeless. Weren’t Jesus’ great warnings about reversals of fortune? The mighty laid low, not the lowly laid lower?
I think Philip Alexander Winning (1953-2014) should appear somewhere on the internet, if only here, on this blog. He loved his dogs, each of them his companion for a decade or so of his life; their names were Sam, Barney, Pippa, and Toby. A photo of Toby went down into the grave with him. He liked camping with his brother, he liked walking the dog on the beach, and he liked doing his own thing in his own way.
Tracy Ryan, Unearthed (Fremantle Press, 2013)
Margaret Atwood once said, “A divorce is like an amputation; you survive, but there’s less of you.” I’ve always imagined this to be true, but my friend Tracy Ryan’s collection of poetry, Unearthed, depicts divorce not as an amputation but a haunting. In the first section of the collection, “Karlsruhe”, a series of connected poems follow a narrative of remembering. After fighting vivid dreams for two years, the narrator looks up her former husband only to discover he died two years ago. ‘You came like news on ships in former times / or like the stars’ far light, already out.’ (We know instantly when the famous die; but it is the unfamous people we were once close to who stop existing without us knowing, and that is a difficult thing.) The haunting, of course, is intensified.
A highlight to the book is the breadth of allusion and the appreciation of unusual words, an education for the reader worn lightly; I have learned new words like ‘aestivation’ (an animal’s state of dormancy) which illuminate love and loss in new ways.
The process of remembering and the sense of haunting is evoked not just by allusion to a wide range of literature, but also the new ways of relating to the past which technology brings. I like the poem “Dural Way” in which the narrator ‘stalks’ her own past on Google Street View and ‘what was unique, generic / into the garden once hidden / any browser may look / but hindsight is mine / alone.’
Then there are the memories around objects, something which has always fascinated me. In “Offertory”, there are ‘tomb objects’ which have survived the late lover, a hole-punch, a blue stapler, which are ‘small unexploded ordnance’. In “The Pawned Wedding Ring”, the narrator contemplates the fate of the eponymous ring, its history since.
Loss, of course, comes in many guises, and the section of the book is entitled “Other Elegy”, extending from elegy for lost friends to elegies for nature and finishing with a translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Requiem for a Woman Friend”.
This is poetry that could draw in even those unaccustomed to poetry, accessible yet still with the density and surprises of language which makes poetry poetry.
Since I saw that Philip Seymour Hoffman, my favourite actor, was dead on the television news-ticker this morning, my mind has kept hiccuping: PSH is dead! Initially the hiccups were strong and happened every five minutes; by now, they’re less frequent and less violent.
Is it grief I feel when a celebrity I admire dies? Is it a less intense version of what happens when someone I know dies? Or something else entirely, given the ‘relationship’ with the celebrity runs only one way? I don’t know.
(Note on the news ticker, saying ‘breaking news’: it was a delayed broadcast from the east, three hours old, and the presenters didn’t even know about it, the news hadn’t hit them yet. This is what happens when WA is three hours behind the east: sometimes a time bubble opens up, and one becomes aware of watching something from the past, different in an important way to the present.)
Hoffman was amazing – he appears in so many of my favourite films, lighting up so many of them. We watch him age in Synecdoche, New York, and it feels like we have followed him through a lifetime. We want him to be innocent in Doubt. We live in fear of him in Punch-Drunk Love. I don’t think it’s going too far to say he was the quintessential face of film in the first thirteen years of the century.
The way we work, we wait for anniversaries to commemorate anything. It seems arbitrary; why not remember the things worth remembering spontaneously? That would never work. We need a roster of commemorations, something like the calendar of saints the church has. Since 9/11, the terrorist attacks has received a big annual commemoration, but already it has become smaller, except for the decade anniversaries. The last time anyone made a concerted commemoration of JFK’s assassination and the beginning of Doctor Who was ten years ago, and now their time has come again.
I like to make something of coincidences; it’s what drives the work of my favourite novelist, Paul Auster. The 22nd November 1963 was a day thick with coincidences. An hour before JFK was mortally wounded so publicly, C.S. Lewis had died quietly in his bedroom with only his brother around; twelve minutes before this, Aldous Huxley had also slipped quietly away. Lewis’s stepson tells of that day. He learned of his stepfather’s death after news had broken of JFK’s death. Alister McGrath’s biography tells how Lewis was to be buried with few in attendance at the funeral. Christian apologist Peter Kreeft has written an expanded edition of Between Heaven and Hell, an imaginary posthumous conversation between Lewis, Huxley and Kennedy, three representative figures of the twentieth century.
But the anniversary the daily Google search page chooses to commemorate is that of Doctor Who – which doesn’t turn fifty until tomorrow, 23 November. The Doctor is a counterpoint to all those deaths, a messiah who can regenerate, who is not limited by space and time. Perhaps Kreeft should have added him to the conversation, but maybe that would just get silly.
The Monday after JFK was shot, Perth’s most infamous murderer, Eric Edgar Cooke went on trial. I remember the author of Broken Lives, the account of his murders, remarking that Cooke would have been sorely disappointed that his infamy was overshadowed by the death of JFK and then the death of his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. As much as that is true, Cooke’s years of terror shaped Perth far more than Kennedy”s death. Everyone who remembers that time in Perth has a story about Cooke, has a distinct memory of hot summer nights when they were suddenly too scared to leave the door open or sleep on the verandah.
I’ve read snide remarks by people sick of hearing about JFK’s assassination in these couple of weeks. Yet for me, it is endlessly fascinating, the quintessential American event. It brings together so many great American themes – presidential celebrity, criminal celebrity, the Cold War, the South vs the North, gun culture, and conspiracy theories. It has produced two novels I like immensely – Don DeLillo’s Libra and Stephen King’s 11/22/63.
The Doctor, JFK, C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Eric Edgar Cooke – such a bizarre and fascinating juxtaposition as only coincidence and history can serve up to us.
Friday was a long journey from Munich to Venice, finishing with a slow “vaporetto” (water bus) journey to the far end of Venice.
We had booked a place through airbnb; ‘urgent maintenance’ meant that at the last minute we were moved to a place in St Elena, the furthest edge of the island; it was a bigger, more expensive apartment, our host reassured us. He met us at the vaporetto stop and took us through a park loud with all the local children playing to the house.
The apartment was a shrine to a dead man.
The dead man was a doctor, a paedetrician, a plaque in the entrance told us. Inside, the apartment was surely much as he left it when he died nearly ten years ago. A good collection of novels in Italian, frozen in the early noughties. Knick-knacks in the cabinet from his travels around the world – a boomerang, even. The atmosphere brought to mind the house of my dead grandparents, and that of my wife’s dead grandparents: the accretions of a life centred on the late 1950s. Old furniture mixed with new. A green kitchen with odd crockery and cutlery only years of living could produce. A smell of many years of living in that one place.
In the spare room, on the wall, his framed degree remains on display.
A tour guide told me there is no room to bury their dead on Venice. They take them out to an island and bury them there for a decade or two until the gravesite is required again and the bones are transferred to a communal ossuary.
Yet this doctor, even as he lies in the ground on the next island, has a great shrine right where he always lived. Tourists come and live in his shrine each week, as if on pilgrimage. The apartment awaits his return.
My novel-in-progress is about im/mortalities; so it’s fascinating to stumble upon the story of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who died in 1951, but whose rare cells have been replicated in laboratories around the world to the point where there are 50 million tons of them. And this without her permission or her familly’s benefit. The tattered black and white photo of her on this post is haunting.
It is probably not a healthy thing for me to be writing a novel about death, given my preoccupation with it. And why did I google ‘cremation’ just then in the name of research?
I didn’t find quite what I was looking for, but this instead:
Now we can create a custom cremation urn for ashes in the image of your loved one or favorite celebrity or hero, even President Obama!
So you can either have a bust made of a celebrity and store your ashes in that, or a spooky likeness of yourself made to sit forever on the mantlepiece watching your family? Such a strange concept, that you would be interred in the likeness of another, a person you never met. It is bizarre in a folk-religious way, the ultimate outcome of our celebrity worship.
I wish we were better at memorialising. In my novel, Tom contemplates the macabre possibility of preserving people’s heads and having them sit on the mantlepiece. I wouldn’t want that, in case you’re wondering. But I hate the thought of bodies – faces particularly – decaying and lost.
The marble or copper busts of Great Men made in the past seem to me, in some ways, a fitting memorialisation. But these advertised ones are, paradoxically, too realistic (in a tacky way), causing what the nerd from 30 Rock and John Safran inform me is the ‘uncanny valley’.
If I was earlier into my novel, I would have to incorporate these busts, but it’s too late for that.
Hence, to sum up: The most rational modes of keeping physical decay or deterioration at bay, and thus retarding the approach of old age, are avoiding all foods rich in the earth salts, using much fruit, especially juicy, uncooked apples, and by taking daily two or three tumblerfuls of distilled water with about ten or fifteen drops of diluted phosphoric acid in each glassful.
– William Kinner, North American Review 1893