Grief in Literature: Michel Faber and Cathy Rentzenbrink
On Tuesday night I had the chance to see Michel Faber in conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink at Foyles bookstore in London. The topic was grief in literature, and specifically Faber’s book of poems in honor of his late wife, Undying: A Love Story (which I reviewed here in July). Faber had always written occasional poems, he said, “sort of kind of clever” stuff that he would have taken little note of if he encountered it from another author; the only really good ones, he thought, were about illness, based on his time as a nurse. So when there came this huge uprising of poems about Eva’s last illness, he felt they were a more appropriate way of commemorating her life than a novelistic narrative.
Rentzenbrink mentioned two things that particularly struck her: how Eva emerges in the fullness of her personality in the course of these poems, and the fact that the book is not angry. Faber explained that Eva herself was not angry. She did not think of multiple myeloma as her enemy and had no illusions about ‘beating’ cancer; instead, she just tried to achieve the best quality of life and the longest lifespan possible. In fact, she found cancer interesting, Faber recalled: she researched it as much as she could and followed its course with a certain curiosity. He contrasted her experience with that of an acquaintance in the Scottish Highlands who had the same disease and wanted to know nothing about it, leaving it all in the hands of her doctors. Faber believes this ignorance shortened their friend’s life unnecessarily.
Making sure that Eva came through as a real person in the poems was a struggle, Faber confessed. To start with his editors at Canongate, many of whom knew Eva, were frustrated that Undying was mercilessly medical, describing the process and aftermath of cancer treatment. A few poems, then, he wrote as a direct response to that criticism, almost as if ‘on commission’, he said, to infuse the book with more of Eva’s personality.
Only two of the poems were written while Eva was still alive, Faber noted. One was “Nipples,” written at her bedside just 10 days before her death. Eva had dealt with the pain and indignity of her illness admirably, but plasmacytomas – big purple welts all over her skin – truly broke her spirit, he revealed. His poem is a strangely erotic take on these blemishes: “Excited peaks of plasma. … Your flesh is riotous with the pleasure / of predatory cells.”
There’s irony there, and a certain dark humor in many of the rest. “There are so many absurdities when a body is breaking down spectacularly,” Faber said. And yet the last two years of Eva’s life were “incredibly intimate and tender,” as a fiercely independent woman ended up very frail and completely dependent on him as her carer. Likewise, Faber had to shift from creativity to practicality to cope with household tasks plus caregiving.
Cathy Rentzenbrink was the perfect person to interview Faber. She is the author of a bereavement memoir, The Last Act of Love, about her brother’s death after eight years in a vegetative state. Moreover, her mother survived a bout with cancer at the same age as Eva; she was heavily involved with that process through accompanying her to chemotherapy appointments. I was a bit disappointed that Rentzenbrink didn’t get to speak more about her own grief and the experience of crafting a narrative out of it. Faber said he too had envisioned more of a dialogue, but that Rentzenbrink thought it would be inappropriate for her to talk about herself and generously kept the focus on his work instead.
I also would have appreciated more context about grief literature in general, and poetry in particular. Faber did mention that there are many kinds of grief poetry. For instance, Thomas Hardy was still writing poems about his first wife decades after her death. Faber consciously avoided writing elegant, well-formed poetry like some that he’s read; instead he wanted his poems to be raw, direct, even shocking. Contrast that with the rainbows and heavenly visions of much of what’s out there. This came home to me a few weeks ago at my husband’s uncle’s funeral. Three poems were recited in the course of the ceremony, all of them heavily clichéd and unfailingly rhymed. This meant that the speakers ended up using singsong voices. In Faber’s poems, though, end rhymes are rare. I noticed them more, along with the sibilance and internal rhymes, through the emphasis he lent when reading aloud.
Rentzenbrink insisted there is still life to be lived for the grieving. As if to reinforce her point, Faber openly admitted to his relationship with a fellow writer who also lost a longtime partner, Louisa Young, whom he met the year after Eva’s death. He’s aware that this poses a marketing problem: he’s no longer the disconsolate soul in rumpled clothing, barely surviving without his spouse. (Indeed, he looked well put together and hip in his blue leather jacket and bright orange shoes, and his blond mop makes him appear much younger than he is.) Thinking also of a widower friend, Rentzenbrink said that her feeling was “he looked after her for so many years; he can have a little fun now!”
As to Faber’s professional future, he reiterated that he does not plan to write any more novels for adults. All of his fiction is about characters desperate to transcend, he said, and now it’s time for him to do that in his own life. He’s pondered a couple of nonfiction projects about aesthetics and music, but for now his next goal is a YA adventure novel. Whenever plaintive readers beg him for future novels, he cheekily asks whether they’ve read his whole back catalogue – including two collections of short stories, always a hard sell for novel readers. I have six more of Faber’s books to get to myself, so that’s plenty to fuel me in the years ahead. I came away from this event with a greater appreciation for the poems in Undying and a deep respect for a man aware of the seasons of his life, writing and caregiving among them.
Now in November by Josephine Johnson
I’d never heard of this 1935 Pulitzer Prize winner before I saw a large display of titles from publisher Head of Zeus’s new imprint, Apollo, at Foyles bookshop in London the night of the Diana Athill event. Apollo, which launched with eight titles in April, aims to bring lesser-known classics out of obscurity: by making “great forgotten works of fiction available to a new generation of readers,” it intends to “challenge the established canon and surprise readers.” I’ll be reviewing Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son for Shiny New Books soon, and I’m tempted by the Eudora Welty and Christina Stead titles. Rounding out the list are two novels set in Eastern Europe, a Sardinian novel in translation, and an underrated Western.
Missouri-born Johnson was just 24 years old when she published Now in November. The novel is narrated by the middle Haldmarne daughter, Marget, looking back at a grueling decade on the family farm. She recognizes how unsuited her father, Arnold, was to farming: “He hadn’t the resignation that a farmer has to have – that resignation which knows how little use to hope or hate.” The remaining members of this female-dominated household are mother Willa, older sister Kerrin and younger sister Merle. Half-feral Kerrin is a creature apart. She’s always doing something unpredictable, like demonstrating knife-throwing to disastrous effect or taking over as the local schoolteacher, a job she’s not at all right for.
The arrival of Grant Koven, a neighbor in his thirties hired to help Arnold with hard labor, seems like the only thing that might break the agricultural cycle of futile hope and disappointment. Marget quickly falls in love with him, but it takes her a while to realize that her sisters are smitten too. They all keep hoping their fortunes will change:
‘This year will have to be different,’ I thought. ‘We’ve scrabbled and prayed too long for it to end as the others have.’ The debt was still like a bottomless swamp unfilled, where we had gone year after year, throwing in hours of heat and the wrenching on stony land, only to see them swallowed up and then to creep back and begin again.
Yet as drought settles in, things only get worse. The fear of losing everything becomes a collective obsession; a sense of insecurity pervades the community. The Ramseys, black tenant farmers with nine children, are evicted. Milk producers go on strike and have to give the stuff away before it sours. Nature is indifferent and neither is there a benevolent God at work: when the Haldmarnes go to church, they are refused communion as non-members.
Marget skips around in time to pinpoint the central moments of their struggle, her often fragmentary thoughts joined by ellipses – a style that seemed to me ahead of its time:
if anything could fortify me against whatever was to come […] it would have to be the small and eternal things – the whip-poor-wills’ long liquid howling near the cave… the shape of young mules against the ridge, moving lighter than bucks across the pasture… things like the chorus of cicadas, and the ponds stained red in evenings.
Michael Schmidt, the critic who selected the first eight Apollo books, likens Now in November to the work of two very different female writers: Marilynne Robinson and Emily Brontë. What I think he is emphasizing with those comparisons is the sense of isolation and the feeling that struggle is writ large on the landscape. The Haldmarne sisters certainly wander the nearby hills like the Brontë sisters did the Yorkshire moors.
As points of reference I would also add Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (resurrected by NYRB Classics in 2014), which also give timeless weight to the female experience of Midwest farming. Like the Smiley, Now in November stars a trio of sisters and makes conscious allusions to King Lear. Kerrin reads the play and thinks of their father as Lear, while Marget quotes it as a prophecy that the worst is yet to come: “I remembered the awful words in Lear: ‘The worst is not so long as we can say “This is the worst.”’ Already this year, I’d cried, This is enough! uncounted times, and the end had never come.”
Johnson lived to age 80 and published another 11 books, but nothing ever lived up to the success of her first. This is an atmospheric and strangely haunting novel. The plot is simple enough, but the writing elevates it into something special. The plaintive tone, the folksy metaphors, and the philosophical earnestness all kept me eagerly traveling along with Marget to see where this tragic story might lead. Apollo has done the literary world a great favor in bringing this lost classic to light.
With thanks to Blake Brooks at Head of Zeus for the free copy.