It may be a reflection of the year we have just endured as a global community, or the uncertain variables that cause 2017 to look like such a grey zone, but many people I know seem to be afraid to make any resolutions or commitments moving forward. A month or so ago, when I was still buried under a black cloud of grief and depression, I could not even imagine the utility of existing into the new year. I was in a peculiar space. I was receiving enthusiastic feedback for my work as a writer and critic—even selling a few pieces—but I felt empty and hollow inside. I could stand back and observe my malaise, but I could not bring myself to find an essential light to believe in.
Then, as suddenly as it had settled in, the darkness lifted. My parents are still dead, my friend is still gone, and I have not yet found a job. However, the stubborn, stupid optimism I always cherished as part of my character has returned. Wiser and soberer perhaps, and not at all naïve about the very real threats that the coming year holds. But with good books and the comradery of the many people I have come to know and respect, at home and afar, over the past couple of years, I resolve to try to read and write and photograph my way through 2017, come what may.
I have been making piles around the house lately and considered photographing them but have decided against being that committed in a public way. Suffice to say there is a healthy stack of fiction including a fair number of recent releases or purchases to which I am adding other titles I feel most guilty about ignoring to date. I have also been reading a good deal of poetry lately, new and classic, so I keep those handy. And then there is a growing collection of essays and memoirs which reflects my own interest, as a writer, in the variety of ways that personal experience or observation can be addressed. As much as I flirt with ideas of writing fiction, I seem to fall back into essay, at least as a starting point. If I end up taking a piece in the direction of storytelling or prose poetry, all the better, but the process has to be dynamic. I am learning to let my writing follow its own course as much as my reading does.
And this leads me to what might be thought of as my resolutions:
Reading: Some surprises surfaced when I added up my completed reads from 2016. I discovered that I read more German literature, than I had expected—11 titles, not including some Sebald that I am presently dissecting or the Kafka that I am always reading. I read 12 English language works (more actually, I have several essay collections and other books in process) and 8 translated from French. As for the balance of the translated literature I read, Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese accounted for a total of 10 books with many more waiting, while I read three Slovene, two Czech, and one each from Dutch, Korean, Arabic, Bosnian, Italian, Icelandic, Hebrew, and Polish.
Contrary to my previous pattern, I only read one South African, title though I added more and still have an embarrassing number of books crammed on to my bookcase. I had also intended to read more Arabic and North African lit and, again, failed. There are also a few key independent publishers I did not read from this year. So, all of these considerations will, if nothing else, be reflected in the piles I build. As to what I read—well, I’ll see…
Writing: I want to continue writing critical reviews but I am being very selective. Looking ahead I am especially excited about writing about new releases from Can Xue and Fleur Jaeggy for Numéro Cinq, while I also have a couple of other interesting reviews booked or underway. I continually debate the value of critical writing (this month the “Top of the Page “at Numéro Cinq features seven reviews—including one of my own—that I selected to highlight some books and reviews that impressed and inspired me). So often critics seem to be held in disdain and yet to write about a book sensitively and intelligently is challenging and creative—but it can be draining. Nonetheless, I have learned so much from the writing and from being edited, all of which has helped make me a better writer. Now that I am also involved with The Scofield as an editor I have further opportunities to continue to grow and contribute to the vital community of online literary magazines.
On the other hand, I am hoping to shift the focus of my blog a little, away from attempting to “review” books that I read (unless it seems appropriate). Rather I would like adopt a more personal reflection on the reading experience—try to pinpoint why the writing works, what ideas are generated, or simply celebrate reading for reading’s sake. I don’t ever want to feel obligated to write about everything I read, but at the same time I am increasingly reading books written by writers who are becoming friends and mentors. I want to be able to write about this work, in an informal, yet valuable way.
Finally, with what I call my “creative work,” I have several projects in mind or in process. One is an experimental, constraint-based project in honour of my father which may or may not lead to anything of interest to others. Otherwise, as much as I thought I was done with writing about the body, it seems that there is still a lot of unfinished business or baggage. It is inextricable from either my interest in being and authenticity, or my now expanded and complicated grief work. I am fortunate to have been approached by several online journals/sites that have invited my contributions and I am very excited about being able explore some ideas in smaller creative spaces to see where they take me. At the same time, I have a few other topics that I want, or even need to examine within, shall we say, a more conventional personal essay format.
Photography: After a long hiatus, I am inspired and eager to return to photography. A dear friend has kindly suggested —insisted— that I should incorporate more images into my writing. This possibility excites me and offers not only a direction for myself as a photographer, but also provides an opportunity to repurpose older shots, cropping and radically reprocessing images that were average and turning them into an integral part of a larger project.
So, even though it is impossible to know what the new year holds, I want to aim to face 2017 ready to build on what I have learned over the last two years which have held, for me, some of the most difficult and most rewarding moments of my life. It is really the only way I can think of to navigate what is bound to be a most interesting and surreal time.
I track the books I read, I have since I was in my early twenties—first in small hardcover journals, now on a spreadsheet. I’m not a spectacularly fast reader but in recent months my completion rate has fallen to a crawl. I have submitted a couple of reviews for publication elsewhere but my blog has seen few fresh posts. I’m probably reading half a dozen books, including several poetry and essay collections, but focus is hard to find and sustain. However, I am not a loss for the company of words. I have a couple of longer essays to edit for the upcoming Scofield, as well as final assignments for a copy editing course I’ve been taking; and I have to say that losing myself in the words of others from a perspective that draws from, and yet differs from, that of a reader or a writer, is proving to be exactly the distraction I needed.
These past few weeks have been difficult.
Thanksgiving was a trigger point; the first day where the magnitude of the recent losses—of my parents and one of my closest friends—hit home and hit hard. That aloneness that goes to the core. Rather than dissipating, the darkness grew, and despite some very positive events and occurrences in my life, it threatened to overwhelm. Within a week I was feeling seriously suicidal for the first time in more than twenty years. The only thing holding me back was the thought of all the work I would put my children and brothers through, something I know especially well as co-executor of my father’s will.
I have sought help. I have reached out.
It does not seem to be depression as much as grief; and it’s a multi-layered, complex grief. So although I still struggle, at times, against the feeling that I don’t want to keep on living; I am not feeling inclined to take matter into my own hands. Of course, none of this is aided by the fact that I have been fighting a vicious cold, hacking cough and all. Makes it very hard to find that spark, but I hope it’s rekindled soon. This is a hell of a way to live, but I’ll keep reading, sketching out ideas, and writing while I wait.
Throughout all of this there has been goodness: A forthcoming review of a book that has, more than anything I have read for a long while, made me think about a way to approach some writing I have in mind (I will write about it when the review goes live); a long conversation with a Twitter friend who is still far away, but now close enough to call (a real treat because Twitter has been a little uncomfortable for me of late, but that’s another story); and the publication of an essay I wrote for Literary Hub. The essay is called A Reader’s Journey Through Transition, and I don’t know what was more exciting, publication day itself or seeing my name in the week-end review with other authors like Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, Rabih Alameddine, and Marilynne Robinson!
“My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks; I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide.”
With this simply stated aspiration, Austrian writer and dramatist Peter Handke set out to capture the essence of his mother’s life and chronicle the painful spiral that swept her into a darkness which would lead her to take her own life at the age of 51. Written over two winter months in 1972, the result is a slight volume, 69 pages, that can be read in afternoon. But length can be deceiving. Tracing out a life that spanned the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War, and the austerity and suffering that followed, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is a spare and elegant memoir from which the reader emerges drained and aching alongside its author.
From the outset he admits that he is seeking an element of closure in the act of putting words to paper, but he wishes to avoid an overly sentimental account, concerned that he risks turning his mother, a real person, into a “character.” He intentionally adopts a more distanced perspective. He does not refer to her by name, and when he recounts the events of his early years he is “the child” or one of “the children”. He employs capital letters for emphasis (“she was a woman who had been ABROAD”). But there is another motive as well. He sees in her life an illustration of the social restraints that defined and limited the lives of so many women from poor rural communities such as the small Austrian village where she began and ended her life. As such he wishes to present her life story as one that is at once personal and exemplary.
The portrait he paints of his mother is one of a spirited young woman, who was denied her pleas to be allowed to continue her studies, for an education beyond the basics was not to be squandered on girls or women. So she ran away to the city to study cooking – not exactly an academic pursuit, but again the only option open for her. She thrived in her new environment: a world of new friendships, fashions, opportunity, and the heady comraderie that accompanied the rise of National Socialism.
The outbreak of war only added to the excitement as young soldiers, away from home and lonely, flooded into the city. She met and fell in love with a married man. Before long she was pregnant, but by the time her son Peter was born she had married another man. Her first romance would remain her only true experience of romantic love; what she had with her husband was a disappointing, often hostile, and very lonely existence. After the war the young family spent a few years in Berlin, living amidst the rubble. A second child is born there. (Over the years she will have two more children and secretly abort three others with knitting needles.) In 1948 they flee Germany and return to Austria, where she finds herself back in her family home, trapped again in a restricted environment, her life once more defined by the Catholic shame and guilt of village life.
Economic conditions at this time were harsh and her husband’s drinking and difficulty holding employment did not help. She responded with the only strategy available: “pure scrimping; you curtailed your needs to the point where they became vices, and then you curtailed them some more.” Necessities would be wrapped up and handed out at Christmas. As Handke recalls, “I was sincerely grateful for the most indispensable school materials and spread them out beside my bed like presents.” Yet she did not look to the possibility that life might hold more for her than housework and continually making the rounds required to keep her drunkard husband employed, creditors from the door and paperwork up to date just to assure access to the most basic benefits.
Finally, as modern appliances started to appear in her house, freeing up a little precious time, Handke’s mother took to reading. Not just the newspapers, but books he brought home from university: Fallada, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner and more. She took everything she read very personally as if each book was a commentary on her life. But by doing so she began to find the words to express herself and put voice to her experiences. As she gradually emerged from her shell, her son finally began to learn about her. However they did not give her a vision of hope for her own future, they spoke only to a past:
“Literature didn’t teach her to start thinking of herself but it showed her it was too late for that. She COULD HAVE made something of herself. Now, at the most, she gave SOME thought to herself, and now and then after shopping she would treat herself to a cup of coffee at the tavern and worry a LITTLE LESS about what people might think.”
For a while she become more engaged in the community, showed more compassion to her husband, and things might have improved but the disappointments of home life still seemed to defeat her. She began to have headaches. She started to withdraw from community life. Her spirit sagged and no one could tell her what was wrong until a neurologist in the city identified her condition as a “nervous breakdown”. With the comfort of having an explanation and medication to ease the pain, she eventually improved. There would be a respite. But in the end despair returned. In November of 1971, she wrote farewell letters to her each member of her family. Then one evening after dinner with her daughter and an evening watching TV with her youngest son, she took all of her sleeping pills and all of her antidepressants and laid down on her bed to welcome that final rest.
If Handke had imagined that in writing this account of his mother’s life he would be able to achieve some peace himself, he discovers, in the end, that that is not the case. The story continues to preoccupy him, to haunt him. Facing memories head on is an act of confronting horror but it does not ease it. The horror arises from the persistent attempt to reflect a truth. He admits that at times he longed to be able to lose himself in a fiction, to be able to tell lies for a while, write a play instead. No longer able to stay out of the frame, he closes the book with a collection of images, remembrances, and brief personal confessions.
A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is, as its subtitle indicates, a “Life Story” told with simplicity and honesty. As Handke reflects in an extended parenthetical aside almost halfway through the book, he wanted to pare his mother’s story down, to present her life with a focused clarity. He sees, in the type of project in which he is engaged, two particular challenges:
“These two dangers – the danger of merely telling what happened and the danger of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences – have slowed down my writing, because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance. This is true of every literary effort, but especially in this case, where the facts are so overwhelming that there is hardly anything to think out.”
The result he achieves is a memoir stripped to its essentials, but delivered with stark, beautiful prose. His love comes through in every phrase as he recounts his mother’s story, and the emotions that arise as he sees her through the final rituals of her shortened life are real, complicated and raw.
*A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, translated by Ralph Manheim with an Introduction by Jeffrey Eugenides is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Just before Christmas he returned to church, entertaining the hope that the community of faith, especially one welcoming to all, might help fill the emptiness he carried inside. It almost worked, for a few weeks.
After this Sunday’s service he retreated down the stone steps into the shadow of a void that no sermon could fill. It is not the church. It is him. He had hoped that faith might come back, comfort him as once it had when… well I can’t really remember when it last provided respite… but there was a time. He worried now that believing was beyond him. To be denied like other comforts. Perhaps one can only fall away from faith so many times before it is impossible to return.
You can only be lifted if you will yourself to let go, you can only be held if you allow yourself to be touched, you can only be loved if you dare to love first. But once you believe you have rendered yourself unlovable, the stalemate is long and sad and lonely.
I suppose I could say he is depressed and that this will pass. I could also admit that he is me and that there is something more fundamental at work.
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:
verb : to leave one’s place of residence or country to live elsewhere
If 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.
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.
Miriam Toews is one of Canada’s most celebrated novelists. She has drawn heavily on her Mennonite heritage filtered through the ability to explore the messiness of ordinary life with a wonderful sense of humour. Recently I reviewed her Giller nominated All My Puny Sorrows, a novel which is deeply inspired her sister’s suicide. The novel itself, while wicked funny in places, left me wanting more of a connection to Elf, the deeply depressed character. Her “healthy” sister, the narrator, never really seemed to understand but rather struggled with her own reactions – the practical and the reckless.
Tonight I had the good fortune to attend a panel called “Darkness Visible” in which Miriam participated. The theme explored by the three somewhat diverse novelists was focused on looking at whether dark themes, personal or political, can be fully examined in literature. The consensus I suppose was that despite the challenges and limitations, the ambition is valid and important.
Because I already own a digital copy of All My Puny Sorrows I purchased a copy of Swing Low: A Life for this event. Written in memory of her father, a well loved teacher and pillar of the community who took his own life about a decade before his daughter followed suit, this slim volume deals more explicitly with manic depression and suicide. I only recently became aware of it. Given my own recovery process I am thinking this is more the story I was looking for with All My Puny Sorrows. Coincidentally, an audience member at the event had grown up in the same Manitoba community as Toews. Her father had been his teacher and he began to cry as he shared his shock when he had learned how much pain and sadness the family was going through. Miriam had to dry her eyes as well.
That is the true impact of suicide and it spreads beyond families.
When I had the pleasure to speak to Miriam after the event I confessed my experience with All My Puny Sorrows, explaining that I was reading it in the aftermath of my own breakdown and, sadly, in the light of Robin William’s suicide. I told her I suspect that the book I was hoping for probably lies in part in this earlier, more serious volume. But then we both admitted that unless we are ourselves are burdened with the desperate desire to let go of this life, we can only ever observe from the outside. We also shared our mutual fears for our children inheriting the same genetic disorder.
I am deeply impressed with Miriam Toews’ desire to speak about mental illness and with her wide appeal in this country, hopefully her message will reach an audience that needs to hear it. I am looking forward to finding out how she explores the bipolar disorder in her family through her father’s story, unaware at the time of course, that the same event would strike her family again.
She told the audience that if writing her most recent book taught her one thing it is to hold tight to the joy in life.