Of memories, grief and melancholy: walking into 2015 with W.G. Sebald

Every year, rather than rushing through a book before the clock strikes midnight just to push up the book count of the year that is slipping away (an inclination likely idiosynchratic only to those who of us would rather read than party on New Year’s Eve), I prefer to walk into the coming year in the company of a great writer, allowing the experience to end one year and launch the next. My companion of choice to see out a year marked by loss, the resurgence of mental illness and a recognition of not only my own isolation, but my role in facilitating that condition; was the late German writer W. G. Sebald. More specifically his haunting and heartbreaking novel The Emigrants (translated by Michael Hulse). As a curious coincidence, the Word of the Day email from Meriam Webster that appeared in my inbox this morning for January 1 is:

emigrate \EM-uh-grayt\
verb  : to leave one’s place of residence or country to live elsewhere

sebald2If you have never read Sebald, his work almost defies simple description. It must be experienced. Adjectives from admirers abound: mesmerizing, beautiful, subtle, sublime. Long evocative sentences unfold into even longer reflective paragraphs – at times running for pages – enhanced with the insertion of grainy photographs of people, scenery, pages from notebooks, objects, sketches. The reader is pulled in, guided along through landscapes, recollections, side observations and historical reflections by a narrator who is present, patient and human in the face of the incompleteness afforded by memory and the passage of time.

The Emigrants may well be the most accessible of Sebald’s work that I have read, especially because it forms its structure around the apparent biographies of four men who have emigrated or been exiled from their homelands. Three of the four have a Jewish heritage and World War I and II form a critical backdrop to the four very different accounts. Our narrator encounters each of these men, in person, even if only as a child, but in most cases he pieces together part or all of their life histories through the recollections of others, and the diaries and memoirs that he acquires along the way. In some cases he even attempts to revisit the locations that impacted the lives of his subjects, finding only decay or even complete obliteration in his vain efforts to find traces of a past that cannot be revisited.

There is such a deep and abiding melancholy that runs through these pages, that I don’t think I could have chosen a better literary companion to mark the passing of this difficult year. But it broke my heart and drove me to tears on more than one occasion. The first two chapters end with suicide. In the first we meet the eccentric Dr Henry Selwyn who, by the time the narrator and his wife come to know him, has taken to dwelling in the garden of the house owned by his wife from whom he is long alienated. He confesses to a greater sense of loss over a friend who had disappeared into the crevice of a glacier years before than any regret for the dissolution of his marriage. A Lithuanian Jew who had sought to conceal his heritage after emigrating England, the gentle doctor would eventually put his hitherto unused rifle to final lethal use.

In the second chapter the narrator revisits a beloved childhood teacher, Paul Bereyter, upon hearing of his suicide. Through his own reflections and conversations with a French woman who became Paul’s friend in his later years, an attempt is made to piece together the roots of the melancholy that had been hinted at when Paul was an unconventional but enthusiastic teacher; yet grew with the realization that even being 1/4 Jewish was sufficient to make him an exile in his own country. Meticulous and pragmatic to the end, the former teacher carefully researches his decision to end his own life. But although you know it is coming, the recounting of Paul’s final day is none the less devastating for the reader.

The narrator then traces the history of his own great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth in the third section. I found this portrait at once the most moving and the most devastating. Here the emigrant destination is North America and, for a change we are in settings with which I have some connection. Eccentric and meticulous in presentation and decorum, Ambros rises quickly in the hotel industry of the early 1900s and, once he joins his siblings in the US, secures works with a wealthy Jewish family on Long Island. He is given charge for their son Cosmo, a young man driven to reckless excess and, as we will also see, its dark counterpart so recognizable to those of who are bipolar. Ambros and Cosmo embark on a tour of Europe and the Middle East, marked by gambling, daring aerobatic performances and a certain display of personal affection that raises the eyebrows of the elite that inhabit the rarefied world of wealth and glamour in the years just before the First World War.

With the outset of war though, Cosmo begins to plummet into despair and despite the best remedies that money and contemporary mental health care can buy, he will end his days in a private sanatorium. After staying on and looking after the family, Ambros retires to live in quiet isolation. But he is seemingly haunted by a deep unbearable grief. Suicide would be too messy, one imagines, for a man who dresses and presents himself as a formal gentleman to his dying day. Rather Ambros opts for voluntary commitment to the same sanatorium where Cosmo died, stoically submitting to an extreme regime of ECT as if the only way to truly destroy traumatic memory is through one bone blasting jolt at a time.

The final chapter, one which Sebald admitted was based on the amalgam of a landlord he once had and a well known artist; finds our narrator in Manchester, England. The city centre is in rapid decline. Here he meets Max Feber, an artist who, having emigrated from Germany, has for decades been single-minded in his efforts to find refuge through art. He devotes himself to this task seven days a week, drawing and erasing his work repeatedly, beyond the patience of his models. The narrator is curiously drawn to this anti-social, unusual character and they form an odd friendship but it is not until he revisits Max 25 years later that he realizes that there is here another story of loss to be fleshed out. But the lasting impression of the emigrant experience is as one in which both the realities from which emigrant has come and those to which he arrived (in this case in Germany and in Manchester) are both subject to decay, dissolution and the vagaries of memory and time.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2011
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2011

I have never been one for family history. My mother’s family emigrated from Ireland to Brooklyn, New York in the mid 1800s, my father’s mother’s family would have arrived in Toronto from England probably around the turn of the 20th century whereas his father’s family were United Empire Loyalists, making him a 7th generation Canadian. My parents met in New York City in the late 1950s, an era to which my father repeatedly tried to return long after it had ceased to exist. My brother and I were born in New Jersey but, after exploring a variety of options, my family pulled up stakes and moved to western Canada away from everyone they knew and settled here when I was only a few years old, soon adding another son.

Apart from that rough sketch, I am not inclined to family trees, I have only two photos of myself as a child and by the time my own children were born I had developed such a strong aversion to having my picture taken that I sometimes worry that I may have failed to take enough photos of my own children when they were growing up. Many years ago I finally understood why the person I saw in pictures or in the mirror was so at odds with the person I knew myself to be and started on a journey to correct the discord. Having reached my intended destination I no longer know how I fit into my family tree. In a very fundamental way I am an emigrant who has become exiled in his own life, still seeking to define what that means for me.

As the richly imagined portraits in The Emigrants illustrate there is a melancholy, anxiety and despair that can haunt the emigrant experience. I found myself wondering about origin, that is, how much of the melancholy was carried into the experience and how much owed its origin to dislocation and loss? As a person with bipolar disorder recovering a from a serious breakdown, questions of cause and effect always simmer. In the end it is impossible to distinguish loss leading to despair from despair that enhances a sense of loss. Having experienced both this past year I enter 2015 with a cautious mix of anxiety and anticipation.

This Is Paradise, or where does fiction meet real life?

I cannot remember ever really wanting to be anything other than a writer. How then did I get to mid-life believing that my aspirations would never extend beyond the inevitable writing and editing of newsletters and promotional material with every job or volunteer position I have ever held? Why have I been hit with a curious mix of pride and anxiety every time someone has commented on my facility with words?

In truth, there was a point in my late teens or early 20s in which I made the conscious decision to wait until I had lived a little before writing. I assumed a little experience would provide material and perspective. I had not bargained for the complicated experiences that awaited me or how long it would take for me to wade through and unravel it all. And when I did find my way through I found myself unwilling to bare my soul on the page. But every writer has a story they were born to tell, or as James Baldwin said about Go Tell It On the Mountain, the story they have to tell if they tell no other. Frequently it is a coming of age story, a coming out story, a tale of childhood loss or trauma. But that not need be the case. Nor is it necessarily the first story a writer sits down to tell. It can be recounted in fiction or presented as memoir, but the telling is essential, cathartic and close to the bone; even if no one beyond a few friends or relatives ever see the manuscript or hold a copy of a self-published book.

As I look back, I finally understand why I decided to put my writerly aspirations on hold so many years ago. I also understand the barriers I have placed between my impulse to protect myself and my identity and any story I thought I might tell. In this context those reasons are not important. I have also come to recognize the story that I really need to tell is one which I have only recently come to understand myself. So with the unexpected time that my present inability to return to work has afforded me, the gift of introspection and a desperate need to get this story out onto the page and hopefully gain some distance; I want to see what I can do.

But the challenge with stories that find their source close to life lived, is that this same life not only belongs to me. It cannot be divorced from real people. Or real experience. I am not certain how to balance the need to breathe truth into an experience and the desire to protect those I love.

paradiseMy latest read has inspired these questions. After my enthusiastic encounter with Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist, I turned to his 2012 novel This Is Paradise, which I have had on hand for nearly two years. The right book, at the right moment it seems. A relatively spare novel that is at once intimate and ambitious in scope, this book opens with Emily Allden’s difficult pregnancy with her fourth child, and closes decades later following her death. Benjamin, the youngest, unborn at the beginning is an enthusiastic traveller on his first chance to join his older siblings and parents on their regular holiday trip to France in the first half of the novel. In the second half Benjamin, now grown becomes the lens through whom we see the family – his well meaning but emotionally distant father; his intelligent but volatile older brother Clive (who is clearly dealing with perhaps aspergers or a mental health disorder) and his two sisters, the capable Liz and the delicate Lotte – as they cope with their mother’s increasing dementia, the decision to place her in a care facility, and the lingering final days of her life.

Eaves’ deft ear for the nuances of conversation, sensitivity for the complex social dynamics that bind and divide family, and keen eye for visual detail allow him to create a coherent interplay between the members of this large family and a handful of supporting characters across the decades. He does this by employing a style that is at times fragmentary, sometimes reflectively slipping back into passing remembrances, but always evocative of the way that we tend to think about and experience our lives over time. The result is rich with wonderful moments that add depth and resonance.

Yet as I was reading This Is Paradise, I was especially struck by the pivotal account of Emily’s illness, the details of her physical and mental disintegration, and the mixed emotions that rise and fall between the various members of the Allden clan throughout this process. It rang true in a way that made me wonder if it was grounded in lived experience. It was then no surprise to find that Will Eaves had in fact published an essay in The Guardian about his mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. When he recounts an event repeated in the novel I naturally wanted to know where reality and fiction intersect in his story. And how does an author decide what to paint clearly and what to disguise?

To be honest I am not generally drawn to family dramas, especially ones with such a sprawling cast and ambitious reach across the years. Mind you in another writer’s hands this would likely be a book at least 600 pages long. In half that length, we trace a loving portrait of a complex and deeply human family from childhood spats through adult stresses and concerns to the bonding moment of shared loss.

And since it is from my own immediate family that the story I want to tell arises, I suppose I will be paying closer attention than ever to the way such dynamics are played out in literature.

As the year draws to a close…

At the beginning of 2014 my world was rapidly spinning out of control. There were clear indications that the extreme stress and toxic work environment I was living under was taking its toll. I was clearly struggling to hold myself together but like any good manic depressive I could not step aside and recognize the crisis that was unfolding. No one else in my life had the understanding to step in either and, in all fairness, I am not sure how I would have responded.

Now, at the end of the year, I have been out of the office for six months. My future is unclear. I had loved my work with brain injured adults and their families. It was challenging, rewarding and I was well respected. At least until I went crazy.

As soon as I walked away from my job I realized the price I had paid to build a career from community field worker to manager in less than a dozen years. I had intentionally alienated myself from people. I have always been a person inclined to isolation, shy in a curiously outgoing way. Public speaking does not phase me at all. I could speak to a crowd of 300, riffing on a theme if necessary, but face to face small talk is uncomfortable. The thought of baring my soul to another person in real time, over a coffee perhaps, is almost unbearable. In my life I have made few friends and had only two significant love affairs. And somehow I had managed to convince myself over the past decade or so that in addition to the challenges of raising children on my own, the social interaction provided by my work with hundreds of clients and professional colleagues would suffice. Close friendships and romantic relationships were not required.

I was wrong. But what now? I am in my 50s. I have repressed the very uniqueness of my history, that which had always set me apart. The very queerness of my being in the world. The ostensible and hard won success of fighting to be true to myself in the world was turned to dust in an instant. The road ahead suddenly looked lonely and long…

Slowly I am recovering. Much slower than I expected perhaps, but this unplanned respite has forced me to explore, re-evaluate and reach out. My therapist (thanks Jane) has been an important sounding board. Blogging and making contact with both bipolar and bookish fellow travelers has been vital. It has allowed a space for cathartic dumping. A medium for strengthening my ability to clearly articulate my thoughts and reflections. It has given me confidence to move out into the world closer to home.

Thanks to the fact that I have not been working I was able to volunteer at our writer’s festival and meet writers I admired from around the world, all of whom are in my age range. Financial constraints encouraged me to cancel my TV since I was generally using it as a mindless distraction. Consequently, reading and music have regained the attention they deserve. And when it is not -20C, like it is at the moment, I make a point to get out every day, frequently just to read and write at a local coffee shop.

So here is a song and a haunting video to carry you into the new year. It goes out especially to my brilliant friend of Blahpolar Diaries fame (infamy?) whose typically colourful ode to the therapeutic value music inspired this post.

An eclectic collection of my favourite reads of 2014

I am not a conventional book blogger and, as such, I only touched on a limited selection of the 45 or so books that I read this year. Sometimes I can’t help devoting a post to a book that has grabbed me or fits into the particular flow of my life which, since June, has been waylaid by mental health concerns. I do hope that in the new year I will have more of a bookish focus but I am still likely to concentrate on musing about books that resonate with life for me at that moment. I am a firm believer that we have a kind of karmic relationship with books, that when we encounter a book that encounter is coloured by where we are at that moment in time. It might be the perfect moment. But that perfect moment might be passed or not yet come.

At this time I am particularly concerned with innovative approaches to story telling, especially stories that seek to give life to real or difficult experiences. To that end I have veered into some contemporary experimental novels, not always with entirely satisfying results. However, three novels are clear standouts, one new, one translated for the first time this year and one from a few years back. I have touched on all three to a greater or lesser extent in past posts.

My Top Three:
seventerrorsfrontcover_50acc7efa1d7c_250x800r Seven Terrors, is the first novel by Bosnian writer Selvedin Avdic (Istros Books). Briefly, this is the story of a man who takes to his bed for nine months after his wife leaves him, emerging only when the daughter of a former colleague approaches him to help her find out what happened to her father who disappeared during the war. What ensues is on one level a detective story into which come elements of Bosnian folklore, politics, criminal interests and an increasing sense of madness. The Balkan war is only approached obliquely, primarily in the accompanying end notes. The overriding theme is one of the damage, collective and individual, that the horror has left in its wake. The book concludes with musings about, terror, philosophy and Bosnian mythology, followed by seven blank pages for the reader to use to record his or her own fears. I read this book back in February and it has continued to haunt me all year.

20797992The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves (CB Editions), a recently encountered treasure, is an inventive juxtaposition of the mundane everyday snippets of conversation, remembrances and idle thoughts, against the extraordinary musings and reflections about the nature of human existence. There is no singular voice, no story arc, no solid ground. But in this collection of fragments there lies the essence of a rich and deeply human experience, at once stripped down and laid bare as they are collected and made whole.

 

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In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (McClelland & Stewart), has been out for four years but I came to it this year, most specifically because I wanted to see how a personal experience could be pared down to its essentials and explored through the lens of time and memory. The result is some of the most evocative and precise writing about what it means to be grounded in ones self and in relation to others (or not); the allure of the road and the ambiguity of home; and, most vividly, the way that all truth lived is a fiction – one that is necessarily subjective. Galgut is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors and the opportunity to meet him and engage in an encouraging conversation about writing was the highlight of our local writer’s festival for me this fall.

Other books that had a particular impact on me this year included:

23626238I Refuse by Per Petterson. Recently translated, this latest book by another of my favourite writers is darker, richer and more complex than his masterful Out Stealing Horses. This book explores the memories of youth, the mystery and pain of mental illness, and the re-evaluations that mark mid-life. Like life, there are no neat, easy resolutions. I discussed this book in a recent post.

 

Pakistan

 

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh. This was a recommendation from a regular poster on the brilliant Tips, Links and Suggestions (TLS) blog of the Guardian Books website, a must stop for any avid reader who likes to talk about books, reading and that endless TBR list. I had never heard about this classic tale of the brutal fallout following partition in India in 1947 as communities were dismantled and muslims relocated north to Pakistan, hindus south to Gujarat. Countless men women and children failed to make it across the border alive. I am ashamed that it took the death of the author just shy of his 100th birthday to bring this brilliant book to my attention and all I can say is, if you have not done so, read it. It is important, deeply moving and the last few pages are the most agonizingly intense you will ever read. Enough said.

BarracudaBarracuda by Christos Tsiolkas. Honestly this is a book totally outside my comfort zone, I just am not inclined to huge sprawling dramas that take on all of the big issues of class, race, family, love, sex, death, success, failure etc, etc and clock in over 500 pages. Give me spare novels with lots of space for unresolved tension and moral ambiguity, thank you. So I was blindsided by how much I loved this book. It was, in part, a book I needed to read at the time, as I was coping with shame, desire for redemption and loss of identity following my breakdown earlier this year and uncertainty around my ability to return to a career I loved. It is also a skillfully crafted, fast moving and intensely powerful novel on every count. And it contains the best descriptions of brain injury in adults that I have ever seen in literature – the main character has a brain injured cousin and goes on to find in himself (though he fails to fully appreciate it) a gift for working with the disabled. Tsiolkas was another author I was fortunate to see interviewed live and speak to at length. I found him to be absolutely passionate about reading and writing and extremely kind and generous with his time and enthusiasm.

There were many other novels I enjoyed and more than a few that were mediocre at best.

GevisserIn non-fiction, I only read a handful of titles, but my favourite was Lost and Found in Johannesburg by Mark Gevisser. The author came to my attention as the result of his recent article in Granta previewing his current involvement in a global survey of sexuality and gender diversity and, although these interests are also reflected in this memoir, the book is a fascinating family history tracing his Jewish ancestors back to Lithuania, recounting his upbringing in a segregated South Africa and his discovery through a childhood obsession with maps that there were places in his own city seemingly inaccessible. Communities, he would discover, that black people emerged from and returned to each day, often very close but in another reality altogether. He takes the reader on a journey back in time to the activists who challenged the colour barrier early on (a nice dovetail with my reading of Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter this year), on a tour of the black communities as they exist today, and through the vivid horror of being held at gunpoint for three hours as he and two female friends were the victims of a home invasion in early 2012. It paints a stark and yet loving portrait of a difficult city.

SpaceFinally, my guilty pleasure is science fiction, generally veering to the weird. I regularly read J G Ballard and I did read Jeff VanderMeer’s acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy this year and although I loved the first two books, the third seemed to try to resolve things in a most awkward and unsatisfying way for me. So my pick of the year was also my first read of 2014, the last installment of M John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, Empty Space. It was just as haunting and grotesque as one could want, assuming one wants such an experience. But for me Harrison is in a league of his own and I am even enough of a geek fan to have purchased single story chapbook signed by the man himself this year. So there.

I may finish a few more books before the year is out but this is the longest post I have written to date, so I will stop here.

Happy reading in 2015.

And so this is Christmas…

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013

Anticipating a quiet Christmas, with circumstances necessitating a modest celebration,  the lack of snow and relatively warm temperatures suit me fine. I am content with a brown Christmas. Oh I am sure there will be some anxious naval gazing over the next day or so. Add to that a Boxing Day trip to visit my parents, always a festive occasion fraught with the tensions and dynamics that only family can create, but for the moment I simply want to wish peace, whatever that means, to everyone.

Throughout the world that is one universal gift humankind is in sore need of, no matter who or where we are.

Solstice to solstice: Reflections on madness, identity and writing

It is winter solstice, exactly six months since I left my job. At the time, a year and a half of toxic work-related stress had taken its toll. Had been taking its toll for months. But by the time I managed to pull enough awareness together to face the harsh reality that the mental illness I imagined to be long stabilized had resurfaced in full manic glory, irretrievable damage had been done.

I left in shame. A shame that can not be absolved. I have been shut out, I have no idea what my relationship with my employer is, or if I have any income going forward. When I can eventually return to work I wonder where I will go. And so I enter the shortest day of the year reflecting on what I have learned and looking ahead.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

I loved my job. I managed a small agency supporting survivors of acquired brain injury. I worked with a wide range of remarkable people and their families, walking beside them as they struggled to recover and rebuild their lives, to regain independence, to battle their own challenges and demons. It gave me refuge from the demands of single parenthood, provided human and social contact against my tendency to isolate, and confirmed my value as a man. But the price I paid was huge. I believed it was enough in itself and had not imagined it would end.

Suddenly I was tragically alone in the world. My closest friends were far away. In a city of over a million, there was no one I could call. No one to have coffee with, no place to go, no arms to lie in.

How had I managed that? Well temperament in part. But much more critically I began a transition from an externally female existence, to a more true, coherent identity as male at 40. I built my career in social services after that process began.

In transition I did not move from my neighbourhood, I remained actively engaged in ensuring that the schools my children attended were open and diverse, and experienced no rejection from my family. However to create a whole and consistent space in which I could live where no one knew my past, I guarded my history closely at the workplace. Over time I constructed walls, mastered the ambiguous answer whenever asked about my life, and even managed to successfully neuter and closet myself years after originally coming out.

Somehow this practice bled into my engagement with the community. Fourteen years on it came to colour my identity in the world.

This extended time of reflection from solstice to solstice, aided by a wonderful therapist, has been a time of learning to open and reclaim my identity. To understand how trans, gay and queer relate to me. To put it out in the world. To own it and to write it into being.

As the days grow longer I face an uncertain future financially. Yet slowly I feel the fire of anxiety and agitation that have marked this recovery from my breakdown losing some of its intensity. I have been filling notebooks with writing hoping that maybe some gems might emerge, for the sake of catharsis if nothing else.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

So more than New Year’s Day, solstice holds the resonance of new beginnings for me this year. Happy solstice – winter to those of us in the the north, summer to my friends in South Africa and Australia.

The Absent Therapist or listen now, can you hear the voices…

“ When I was a child I didn’t have an identity and I didn’t want one. I was neither boy nor girl, male nor female. I was just a pair of eyes, a nose, some ears. Receiving the world, the brilliant blue sky, people talking above me.”
                                         Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist

Oh yes I thought, but then they gave me a designation and it made no sense.

A-ha moments like this surfaced throughout my engagement with the slim volume that is Will Eaves’ brilliant The Absent Therapist. Deceptively simple, the fragmented pieces that form this most unusual, experimental, but achingly human novella are carefully crafted and finely polished moments in time.

20797992Described on the cover as a “miniature but infinite novel”, I found myself returning over and over to my favourite strands and marking them in the margins. Although some fragments appear to be linked or feature the same characters or themes, the overall experience is akin to floating through the ether, engaging momentarily with the thoughts, frustrations, memories, and conversations – internal or external – that swirl through the mind. Your mind. The minds of others.

At times reflective and philosophical, at times obscure, at times laugh out loud funny (“I went to the Spanking Club once…”) these little pieces reminded me of the snippets of the stories we tell ourselves and others as we knit together and make sense of our lives. As we engage our own absent therapist.

I had heard of this book, and am familiar with the author’s more conventional work, but when I saw it appear on a couple of the “best of 2014” lists of reviewers I particularly respect, I became desperate to get my hands on it. Not an easy feat since it is not available here in Canada (even though as readers we spend time on the west coast and Vancouver on this little journey of fragments). I ordered it from the UK and coincidentally it arrived earlier this week as I was out on my way to my very present and vital therapist.

Rarely has such slight book offered so much, this is a company of voices to which the sensitive reader can return again and again. Relate to the lonely, commiserate with the angry, recognize the nostalgia expressed. Marvel at the philosophical musings, those poetic moments we strive to find meaning and guidance in, but that too frequently pass and get lost under the crush of everyday life. I would even dare the same reader to not mark favourites in the margin.

“ The balm of consolation is too strong for some. Its most powerful ingredient is not the emollient lie that time heals, but the more astringent perception that whether we heal or not, the wound was deep and real and ours.”

Indeed.