In uncertain terms – Proxies: Essays Near Knowing by Brian Blanchfield

This is a book braver than I am.

I am not even certain where to begin to unravel my reaction to reading this collection of essays. Until recently I was resisting the dawning recognition that what I needed to say—the subjects I wanted to explore—would be best met through essay/memoir writing. Or to put it another way, I realized that I have neither the patience nor aptitude for fiction. But what of the essay and its personalized variant, the memoir? I wasn’t even sure I liked the form. So I have learned to approach reading essays with an eye to writing. I read not simply for the joy of encountering well-crafted, intellectually and emotionally engaging prose. A work that excites me, in style, content, or both, invariably sends me to my current notebook where I spin, inward and outward, a cascade of thoughts, images, and ideas… fuel for my own scribblings.

Proxies, by the American poet and essayist Brian Blanchfield, is one such work.

proxiesSubtitled Essays Near Knowing, the pieces that comprise this collection were composed under a particular creative constraint. Blanchfield decided to refrain from seeking any guidance from authoritative sources during the writing process. Thus these essays were written unplugged, if you like. Of course, adopting a learned tone without fact checking (and we all do it, especially in conversation), necessitates allowing for a margin of error. Consequently, pages of “Corrections” addressing many of the resultant inaccuracies and inconsistencies, close out the book. However, Blanchfield also gives himself a secondary challenge in this project:

Having determined that this would be unresearched essaying, analytic but nonacademic, I was almost immediately drawn to a second constraint—or better, invitation: to stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there.

As he hits these points of reflection that effectively bend the essay toward memoir, there is, he admits, a certain fumbling allowed, stimulating a transition that, in its sometimes sudden movement, creates an energy that is dynamic, emotionally raw. What begins as a focused consideration of a topic, a concept, or theme, seems to turn personal in a heartbeat, and works its way through to a resolution, however ambivalent that may be. No grand narrative arcs here, only furtive digging through the fragmented moments of life, each essay preceded by the same caveat: Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.

Blanchfield’s starting points are varied. As a poet, it is not surprising that many start with language and meaning: “On Propositionizing”, “On Confoundedness”, “On Abstraction”, “On the Ingénue”, “On the Near Term”. Some have more tangible contexts at the outset: “On Minutes”, “On the Leave” (as in the game of pool), “On Dossiers”. He often draws on specific images from his own life to set the stage, but those musings typically lead him much closer to the bone as the essay takes shape. Relationships with his parents, the tenuousness of his chosen profession, and his sexuality—his queerness of being—are common themes that regularly surface as he ventures into those areas of private anxiety and susceptibility.

As personal as he gets, and he can lay himself bare, these essays are rich with fascinating intellectual ideas, with references to philosophers, psychologists and, naturally, poets. Some essays are simple and relatively self-contained, while others seem to mutate, in the reading, as the author reaches for a subject that expands, like a pool of liquid, resisting the ordered shape one might anticipate. At best, at their most intriguing, these are essays meant to be experienced as much as read.

Take, for the sake of illustration, “On Minutes.” This piece begins, objectively, with a discussion of meeting minutes, the recorded, dispassionate account of the details of a meeting—no place for embellishment, dramatic flair. Expanding on this basic subject, Blanchfield recounts his own experience working as an executive assistant at a performing arts organization in Tuscon at a time when he and his partner were struggling to make ends meet on one salary. It was a job borne of necessity not desire to say the least. He slides from the drudgery of typing up minutes into memories of accompanying his mother to her office job on weekends as a young child, occupying himself creating stories while she worked, reading them aloud to her co-workers at the end of the day. These childhood creations are then parlayed into a link to the remembrance of his return to his mother’s home for his stepfather’s funeral. From there he passes into a reflection on “Paraphrase”, a poem by Hart Crane that, for Blanchfield, “gets the sudden, lights-out fact of death right.” At this point, what has become a quick dip into the territory of memoir, turns again and, as it shifts, the language of the essay slides into richly poetic territory with a meditation on the closing stanza of Crane’s poem in which the white head of the deceased is observed as a “paraphrase” among the roses on the wallpaper:

The word choice is inexplicable, querulous, oblique, just right. A paraphrase among the rows of roses—a relief receding there—renders their locked pattern a kind of language, but what can it say?; and the head in the place where the living being lay is nominated as this titular hermeneutic tool, useless as such without its objective genitive of. It cannot be said what original locution this paraphrase summarizes. A case, I think, for Crane, of Flesh Made Word again. A reversion. Revelation withdrawn.

The essay winds down with thoughts of Crane who, fittingly, worked an office typist; and the speculation that the imagined head on the bed might have been that of his lover’s father. Some strange, small circle, elegantly wrought from very humble beginnings. The essays in this book move like this, through memories, reflections, ideas and poetic contemplation.

One of the most profoundly moving pieces in the collection arises from Blanchfield’s attempt to address his relationship with his mother—once loving, now long strained by her inability to accept his sexuality. “On Peripersonal Space” begins with the notion that an individual’s concept of the self includes all the space within reach around his or her body. He hears a radio discussion with the authors of a book on the subject, a mother and son team, a collaboration that, within his own scope of experience, is unimaginable. Yet he finds it difficult to approach his desired subject, as much he feels it is essential that he make the attempt. This is a challenge I understand—writing about those with whom our relationships are close but complicated, is an uneasy task:

Since I began this project, I have tried a number of times to write about my mother and me, and have abandoned a few attempts already. If these essays are, in part, inroads to disinhibited autobiography, as I have come to claim they are, and demand they be, I feel the imperative to address the subject above all others. But ours is a relationship so deep and damaged and (still) so tenuous it has defied emergence.

So how to start? He takes the peripersonal space as a cue, beginning with an account of the closely bound emotional intimacy and playful games that he, as an only child, and his then divorced mother used to enjoy when he was young. His description and the psychological implications of their connection is startlingly frank and triggers a concern that I also share with respect to writing about close family members:

It is more than embarrassing to relate all of this. I come up against the inappropriateness of, for one thing, sharing what is only half mine to share. But is that partiality, expressed by that proportion—half of one—ethical, or healthy for a grown man? Roland Barthes has famously said that to be a writer is, essentially, to violate a primal taboo, to “play with the mother’s body.” No, I love Barthes and he is a signal influence on my conception of this very book; but the remark presumes a class and level of literacy I was not born into.

The resulting essay achieves a surrogate catharsis of sorts, but not between the author and his mother. The roots of their (as yet) unresolved divide lie deep in the American south where Blanchfield was raised in a Primitive Baptist family. He had to leave to live openly as a gay man, moving to New York City in his early twenties. The years that have passed, and the miles that have separated them have not healed the rift. Honestly sharing the pain of rejection, the frustration at his mother’s inability to come to any terms of respectful disapproval, and the sting of hearing her say “I shouldn’t have to choose between my God and my son” leaves a deep sorrow that lingers on the page.

Essayists are no strangers to the practice of blending intellectual and literary observations with autobiographical reflections. What Blanchfield seems to approach here is a means of allowing himself, as a writer, to push his way inward, passing from the factual (more or less), the abstract or the sentimental into the territory of the immediate, the raw, and the real. He touches nerves (his own) but avoids falling into two traps that can snare those who venture toward autobiographical writing: the artificial narrative and the open air confessional. At the most personal end of the spectrum, what he is sharing are unguarded moments of naked emotional vulnerability, decidedly queer, but recognizable and resonant to anyone who has lived, loved, won and lost.

For prospective or developing essayists, Proxies is, as a project, idiosyncratic, bold and illuminating. Barthes’ essays, as he admits, are an ever present influence and Blanchfield demonstrates a similar natural ease with the form. To be able to unfold ideas and follow their course without fact-checking is an interesting exercise in itself, useful at the very least in drafting an essay in its early stages. Lifewriting in this format offers ample reward for readers and some significant points of interest for those of us who struggle to achieve the balance between a story we want to explore and the open wounds that may not have quite healed—the truths that give a personal essay its soul.

For me, this book generated a series of provocations, flash points for my own writing, current and potential. I loved the way Blanchfield focuses in on ideas and uses them as pivot points to make his way from concept to experience and back to ideas. It took me, I confess, over a month to read this collection of twenty-four short essays. But in that time I lost both of my parents, the outcome of two intersecting, but unrelated series of events. I sat long at the bedsides of both my mother and father, witness to their final days. I want to attempt to capture the immediate experience, in its unfiltered rawness, before my memories begin to become distorted by time. I gleaned some possibilities, some instances of inspiration, some ideas to bring into my own project which will be, in its own way, necessarily imprecise, emotionally liable, and queer.

And that, to borrow from the title of the final essay, will suffice for the near term.

Proxies: Essays Near Knowing is published by Nightboat Books.

Immersed in the moment: Incidents by Roland Barthes

In his Publisher’s Note to the French edition of Roland Barthes’ Incidents, a collection of essays published shortly after the theorist’s death in 1980, François Wahl suggests that the four very different texts assembled form a coherent whole because each piece “strives to grasp the immediate”. These are not theoretical or critical investigations in any sense, rather, in each text, Barthes is immersed in the moment, observing, reflecting, and recording his reactions. There is an unchecked flow and intimacy, by turns nostalgic, sensual, and melancholic but always tuned to the instance of occurrence: to the incident.

2016-05-19 21.38.01These are works that invite the reader to engage with all five senses, mediated through words and memory–they are not formal pieces but rather take the form of journal entries, diary writing, and fragmented travelogue. Barthes writes people and he writes place, never really entirely at ease with too much of either. Delight, boredom, and sadness filter through his reflections creating an immediacy that is at times startling. He is not writing for posterity, he is writing for himself.

The collection opens with “The Light of the South West”, an evocative essay/memoir, a personal tribute to the south west region of France. He writes about the experience of traveling south from Paris. Passing Angoulème he becomes aware that he is on the “threshold” of the land of his childhood. It is the quality of light that defines the place:

. . . noble and subtle at the same time; it is never grey, never gloomy (even when the sun isn’t shining); it is light-space, defined less by the altered colours of things . . . than by the eminently inhabitable quality it gives to the earth. I can think of no other way to say it: it is a luminous light. You have to see this light (I almost want to say: you have to hear it, hear its musical quality). In autumn, the most glorious season in this land, the light is liquid, radiant, heartbreaking since it is the final beautiful light of the year, illuminating and distinguishing everything it touches. . .

He goes on to turn his attention to the elements of the south west that resonate with different aspects of his childhood, to reflect on the way that memories formed in childhood inform way we remember the places associated with that time, the magical spaces and the difficult times will each carry their own tone, their own qualities.

2016-05-19 21.41.06The title piece is the earliest in the book. Recorded in 1969 when the author was in his mid-50s, “Incidents”, as the name implies, captures moments from an extended stay in Morocco through an incidental series of fragmented encounters and experiences. Here, people form the scenery; with a special attention reserved for young men. Barthes demonstrates a a particular eye for detail (and somewhat of an obsession with hands) in these passing observations, combined with an acute sensitivity for scents and colours. The vibrancy, shades and contrasts of the country come alive. As a reader you become aware of the blinding light, the dark shadows–they are not described, you sense them in the background.

A young black man, wearing a crème de menthe-coloured shirt, almond green pants, orange socks and, obviously, very soft red shoes.

A handsome, mature looking young man, well dressed in a grey suit and a gold bracelt, with delicate clean hands, smoking red Olympic cigarettes, drinking tea, is speaking quite earnestly (some sort of civil servant? One of those who track down files?), and a tiny thread of saliva drips onto his knee. His companion points it out to him.

Some young Moroccans–with girlfriends they can show off in front of–pretending to speak English with exaggerated French accents (a way of hiding the fact without losing face that they will never have a good accent).

The art of living in Marrakesh: a fleeting conversation from open carriage to bicycle; a cigarette given, a meeting arranged, the bicycle turns the corner and slowly disappears.

The Marrakesh soul: wild roses in the mountains of mint.

The third essay, “At Le Palace Tonight . . .” is a tribute to a Paris club in a converted theatre. He describes the ornate detail, the mood and the atmosphere of this place where he seems to almost prefer to be an observer, watching the dancers and the human interactions rather than taking part. And as in the first essay, we find once again a wonderful evocation of light, this time light as informed by the interior of a structure:

Isn’t it the material of modern art today, of daily art, light? In ordinary theatres, the light originates at a distance, directed onto the stage. At Le Palace, the entire theatre is the stage; the light takes up all the space there, inside of which it is alive and plays like one of the actors: an intelligent laser, with a complicated and refined mind, like an exhibitor of abstract figurines, it produces enigmatic shapes, with abrupt changes: circles, rectangles, ellipses, lines, ropes, galaxies, twists.

This collection closes with “Evenings in Paris” a series of journal entries from 1979 that open with words Schopenhauer wrote on a piece of paper before he died: “Well, we’ve escaped very nicely.” The Barthes who comes through in this selection is tired, often impatient with colleagues and irritated by noise. A certain loneliness and dissatisfaction underscore his descriptions of dinners with friends, failed attempts to win the affections of the younger men he covets, and an unresolved mourning for his beloved mother. Most nights he finds himself heading home alone, half despairing, half relieved, to settle into bed in the company of Pascal, Chateaubriand, Dante, or the echoing ghost of Proust. Although he still enjoys longingly watching attractive men, he has little patience for crowds or social functions. This is a heavier, more emotionally intense offering, the intimacy of “the immediate” weighs heavily as Barthes commits his thoughts to paper, unaware in the writing as we are in the reading, that he is nearing the end of his life.

2016-05-20 02.33.11And, because he is recording the ordinariness of the daily encounter of the self with the world, there is the possibility of shock waves that ring down the years with a new intensity in light of the incidents (that word again) that have unsettled Paris in recent years:

The guy who sells Charlie-Hebdo walks by; on the cover in the publication’s idiotic style, there’s a basket of greenish heads that look like lettuces: ‘2 francs the head of a Cambodian’; and, right then, a young Cambodian rushes into the café, sees the cover, is visibly shocked, concerned, and buys a copy: the head of a Cambodian!

Not without a little social commentary, even in a deeply personal journal, Roland Barthes, remains ever relevant down the years.

Reading Incidents is, in itself, a sensuous experience, it is doubly so in this edition from Seagull Books. With a sparkling fresh translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan and illustrated with the evocative photographic images of Bishan Samaddar, this collection of writings becomes one that can, as Barthes himself would have intended, be savoured.

Painting the world with words: Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr

“I saw a jet-black darkness tattooed with countless dots of light above me, an apparently boundless firmament stretching out to the deepest universe, while I lay on the bottom of a rowing boat that a Maori ferryman pushed through the night with the strokes of his oar.”

Layout 1Thus begins “In Space” one of the 70 episodes collected by Austrian writer Christoph Ransmayr in his unconventional and utterly captivating Atlas of an Anxious Man, newly released from Seagull Books in a translation by Simon Pare. Seemingly caught in a dreamscape somewhere between travelogue and memoir, he leads the reader on an unforgettable journey that stretches across the globe in a series of evocative vignettes. Such as the one quoted above which, we soon learn, is an account of a tour into a system of caves deep within mountains on New Zealand’s South Island. The night sky Ransmayr is lying beneath is an illusion created by the luminous larvae of a gnat species clinging to the cave ceiling. Insects that mistakenly fly up toward the false heavens are soon snared in a web of sticky silken threads and become nourishment for the growing larvae. Nestled securely within the bottom of the boat, the author goes on to recount a frightening experience from earlier that same day as he made his way through a high mountain pass to reach this site:

“After snow had begun to fall in large flakes just before the top of the pass, my rental car, not equipped for wintry conditions, began to slide backwards – backwards! – with churning wheels down an already snow swept rise towards the edge of the road and a rocky slope. The slope was so steep that my car seemed destined to somersault over and over down to a mountain stream far below, running black and silent towards the valley bottom.”

He is about to jump and let the car go on without him when it comes to a stop perilously close to the edge where passing trekkers find him and tow him to safety with their jeep. In four pages we are treated to both the wonders and the terrors of nature, narrated with the skill and confidence of a gifted storyteller.

Each episode begins with an observation: “I saw an open grave in the shade of a huge araucaria pine” or “I saw a fisherman cursing as he steered for Baltimore harbour in the south-west of Ireland” or “I saw a three-toed sloth on the veranda of blue wooden house on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast” or “I saw a naked man through binoculars from my cover behind dusty firethorn bushes.” Even a tale that seems to begin with a most ordinary descriptive passage becomes, before you know it, an engaging portrait of a place, an experience, a character. Ransmayr has an uncanny ability to focus his lens on the small details to bring a location, a time, an event to life.

The 70 entries follow neither chronological nor geographical order, and occasionally he even slips back in time to capture experiences from his own life in Austria, reaching as far as the age of three with the account of a storm that lifted the roof off his house when he was watching his mother hang wet laundry across the attic room. Whether he is observing a bird on a remote rock face, watching a man tee off at the North Pole, describing a bullfight in Spain, or trekking through the Himalayas; he is never a disinterested observer. His engagement with the people, creatures, and landscapes he encounters is always curious but respectful. In the waters of the Dominican Caribbean for example, he floats among the waves watching a humpback whale cow and her young sleeping far below. When the calf suddenly breaks free from its mother’s protective shadow and heads up for the surface, Ransmayr panics as the parent rushes up towards him in pursuit. She comes close enough that he can see the iris of her eye:

“The giant looked at me. No, she brushed me with her gaze and altered her course by a hair’s breadth, just enough that we didn’t touch each other. Yet although she avoided me with this hint of a deviation, and therefore recognized and acknowledged my existence, I discerned a complete indifference in her look – akin to the mountain’s toward someone climbing it, or the sky’s toward someone flying through it – that I was overcome by a feeling that I would dissolve into nothing before these eyes, disappear before them as though I had never lived. Maybe this Atlantic giant in black had actually swept up from its realm in the deep to convey to an Atlantic swimmer how rich and varied, unchanged and natural the world was without him.”

His travels typically take him to the far reaches, off the beaten track, to locations accessed on foot, or by bicycle, assorted boats, tour buses, rental vehicles and more. He explores history, lifts his telescope to the heavens, and encounters politically tense environments. No two entries are the same, few extend beyond 6 to 8 pages, some are only 2 or 3 pages long. I found it best to take my time with this book, reading a few entries a day and allowing the awe to linger. This is not an ordinary travelogue by any means, but it is a shimmering example of what makes the best travel writing sparkle. The theme, if there is one, that unites and drives the narrative from beginning to end is possibly simply wonder. Not that Ransmayr is blind to the poverty, suffering and threats he encounters. His immediate reactions are sometimes frustration, even fear, but he manages, remarkably to find a glimmer, an image, a thought that affirms life, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

However, what really makes this book such a joy to read is the sheer beauty of the language and the author’s ability to weave his experiences and observations into stories that are moving and original, time and again. I’ll leave you with end one of my favourites in which he tells of emerging from mangrove swamps in Sumatra to encounter, in a clearing, a building on stilts. On the patio a man is singing with a karaoke machine, but his only audience is composed of the geckos clinging to the roof. Ransmayr takes a seat and as he listens to the singer perform the Rolling Stones’ “Love in Vain” he is transported back to a snowy night in Austria, a wedding and corduroy suits. Suddenly a lightening strike from an approaching storm knocks the power out. Oddly, the singer fiddles with the controls, seemingly determined to try to turn the machine back on until a thin man in a sarong appears and calls to him:

“The singer laughed. And then the thin man was beside him, took him by the hand and led him carefully down the stage steps and between the empty chairs and tables to one of the walkways, and I realized that the singer, who was groping for obstacles with his free hand, could not have seen the lightening and could not have seen how the neon tubes and control lamps had gone out, nor how night had fallen so suddenly over the mangroves, swallowing up swarms of insects and a tin sky with hundreds of geckos stuck to it. Karaoke. A blind man had sung to me out of the mangroves of Sumatra back to the village of my birth.”

Thank you to Seagull Books for kindly sending me on this journey.

Writing to make sense of loss: Stammered Songbook by Erwin Mortier & further thoughts

As a man watches his mother, once so vital and full of life and charm, steadily losing her grasp on the spoken word – fumbling, scratching at the air for the names of people, places, and things – what can he do maintain the fragile flow of words? As uncertain laughter and tears of frustration become the increasingly fragile threads holding a woman, just 65 years-old, to the web of anxious family members spreading out around her – her husband, daughters, sons and grandchildren – is there any way to make sense of the inexorable dissolution of this person who is disappearing, fading, before their eyes? If the man in question is Flemish author Erwin Mortier, the only way to find comfort is to write:

“I realize that I only write to hear sentences dancing without interruption through my head. To make rhythm, acceleration, rallentando, to make pauses sing. Just to be able to hang from the dashes – the trapezes of syntax – weightlessly for a moment from the roof beam of a sentence, I let the words loose.”

songbookMortier’s passionate, insightful record of his mother’s decent into the unforgiving spiral of fragmentation and decline that marks early onset dementia, is at once a loving memoir and a writer’s thoughtful reflection on the vital role that words play in his own ability to make sense of and cope with the most painful and difficult process of letting go or, as he puts it: “constantly saying goodbye to someone who is still there, yet not.” But the pages of Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book of Hours contain much more than a portrait of one woman’s steady regression from independent and vivacious to prematurely helpless, frightened, and lost; it offers an honest, sometimes brutal, account of the challenges of negotiating the surge of conflicting emotions that batter and buffer the individual and the family in mourning. He tracks her illness, from the earliest missteps through to the recognition, so painful for his father, that her needs can no longer be met by her loving husband, or by juggling responsibilities between her five children and their spouses. Even a large, closely knit family cannot provide the support and care she requires in the end – it is too difficult, too draining, and far too painful – especially when the person who once inhabited the emaciated frame of the body that remains has been slowly fretted away into the space of memories and dreams.

Mortier’s writing has frequently drawn comparisons to Proust; powerfully, and I would argue rightly, reinforced by his elegant, sprawling epic set in Flanders during the First World War, While the Gods Were Sleeping. Smaller, more immediate, and intensely personal, Stammered Songbook turns – as his mother in the present recedes into the distance – into a lyrical, poetic sketch of the woman as he remembers her, and a moving reflection on the complexity of our relationships with those we love. Yet as he captures his experiences and emotions, he is aware that, as a writer, it is essential that he is able to fine tune the words he employs so that he may strike the exact note. That is, he is not only writing about his mother, he is writing about the process of writing about his mother.

“Time does not unite us in oblivion but unravels us into memories. I only started writing properly, I suspect, when I began to realize that words are at their best when I can make them vibrate like minute compass needles in response to those elusive magnetic fields that constitute someone’s whole “being” – rather like iron filings form patterns on a sheet of paper under which a magnet is held. From the cloud that my mother is becoming and that in fact she already is, slivers of images will shoot out unexpectedly, strangely sharp – the way she laughed, the gesture with which she arranged a lock of hair behind her ear… And then we will say: yes, that’s how she was.”

Stammered Songbook is a lyrical farewell to a woman lost too young to a cruel relentless thief; but even more powerfully it is a personal meditation on death, mourning, memory, and the myriad emotions – sadness, confusion, anger – that confront those left behind. Yet in reading it I could not help but think about two other books that traverse similar grounds and have informed some of my own thoughts about the project that I am attempting to write into being, so to speak. Both are powerful works that approach difficult emotional experiences arising from the authors’ own lives, each from a different angle.

The first is a novel, This Is Paradise, by UK writer Will Eaves. Here the narrator begins back at a time before his own birth and moves through a childhood account of the unique dynamics that shape and define his family. Then, in the second part of the book, our protagonist is grown and his mother, now increasingly incapacitated by dementia, must be moved into a care facility. The account of the complicated emotions and tensions that pull at the family throughout the painful process of watching their loved one die – especially in the grips of such an unforgiving, emotionally paralyzing disease – was so striking that I kept thinking: There is an authenticity beyond careful research here. And, sure enough, after finishing the book I found an personal essay Eaves wrote for The Guardian chronicling his mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s. Clearly, much of his own experiences were embedded in the novel, but he chose to approach the subject mediated through the curtain of fiction – whether for distance, freedom or stylistic comfort, it doesn’t matter – it works beautifully.

The other book is a memoir, this time a son’s effort to honour his mother in the light of her suicide at the age of 51: Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. On the surface it might appear that suicide is the polar opposite of dementia in that it is sudden, but the impact is no less devastating because it raises questions, so often unanswerable, that linger long after death and complicate the mourning process. Like Mortier, Handke is deeply conscious of the importance of writing and the efficacy of adequately capturing a life by spilling words onto a page. However, rather than placing himself at the heart of the memories he is trying to capture, he attempts to step back and maintain an intentional emotional distance. He wants to see his mother, in part, as an exemplar of the rural Austrian women of her generation; to place her life in a broader context to make sense of the very intimate act of her decision to take her own life. And the result is a spare, elegant meditation; but in the end, he cannot help but break the wall between his accounting – which was written within two months of her death – and his own emotions which are still very raw.

These three books do seem to me to fit together, to form a triangle at the centre of which is the attempt, by a writer, to capture the essence of his relationship with his mother, in life and in death. What is of specific interest to me is not the exact nature of the subject at the centre, rather it is the question of the best way to approach writing about a deeply personal experience drawn from one’s own life – memoir from within, memoir with a degree of distance, or memoir turned into fiction. It seems to me that each can be powerful and effective, the challenge, I suppose, is to find out what works best for the writer and his or her circumstances, that is, to find the intersection where the story comes alive.

Stammered Songbook by Erwin Mortier is translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent and published by Pushkin Press.

The art of distilling a life lived: A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke

“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.

sorrowFrom 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.

The right book at the right time: Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So

“There are no people anywhere who don’t have some mental illness. It all depends on where you set the bar and how hard you look. What is a myth is that we are mostly mentally well most of the time.”
– Mark Vonnegut, MD 

A couple of years ago I happened to hear an interview on CBC radio, as part of a series on mental illness. I was, at the time, of the mind that my own issues with mental illness were well managed. A present fact but a distant reality. However, something about this conversation stayed with me.

The guest was Mark Vonnegut, son of the late author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Mark grew up in Cape Cod, in the years before his father’s writing brought fame and fortune. I listened with interest to his very personal account of how, despite diagnosis with a serious mental illness, he applied and was accepted to Harvard Medical School. He went on to become a respected pediatrician. After my breakdown this summer I debated returning to the the fine accounts, like An Unquiet Mind, that had originally guided me to an understanding of my newly acquired label. Then I remembered Mark’s memoir Just Like Someone Without a Mental Illness Only More So and within minutes it was on my Kindle. But I only decided that I really needed to read it this weekend as my symptoms and anxieties continue to persist.

7816284Mark writes in an honest and matter of fact way about the trail madness has left through his family, tracing a legacy of depression, suicide and alcoholism going back generations. His mother heard voices and received message from license plates but once the episode passed she was able to rationalize it. When Mark’s aunt and uncle died within a month of one another leaving four troubled orphans, his parents took them in even though they had neither the money nor the capacity to manage. His oddly prescient mother had been stockpiling supplies for their arrival in advance, as her helpful voices had advised.

Mark was a loner spending a lot of time fishing and playing imaginary games in the woods around his home in Cape Cod. The oldest child of the family he grew up poor in the fallout of the the Depression. His father was a ineffectual used car salesman for many years. Mark was 21 before his father became a rich and famous author seemingly overnight.

Caught up in the hippie movement of the 60s, Mark followed many of his peers to Canada to join a commune in BC. He lived off the land, contemplated the meaning of life and experimented with drugs. And that is where he first encountered his own voices. In 1971, at the age of 23 he experienced three major psychotic breaks that landed him behind the locked doors and plexiglass windows of a Vancouver hospital.

“Among the things I grew up thinking about mental illness was that it was caused by other people or society treating you badly.I also knew that once people were broken they didn’t usually get better and the ones least likely to get better were paranoid schizophrenics, which is what I seemed to be.”

Retrieved by his father, Mark returned to the US where, with ongoing treatment, he continued to recover. The voices faded to the background. He published a book about his experiences and articles advocating for an understanding of mental illness as a biochemical condition, in strong opposition to the RD Laing inspired philosophy that was popular at the time (and has recently resurfaced). Somewhere along the way he decided that he wanted to go to medical school himself. Against all odds, and with pathetic math and science marks, he applied to one school after another. Incredibly Harvard gave him a chance.

Over the years that followed, Mark dedicated himself to his studies and his internship. By this point he had recognized that he was bipolar (not a schizophrenic who responds to lithium as he had been told), but even then, the schedule of an intern is grueling. During these years he also married, bought a house and started a family. The model of normal and healthy he figured his mental health issues were history.

Then 14 years after his third psychotic break, several years into a successful pediatric practice, the voices returned to taunt him. The trigger was his realization that he was fueling his high stress schedule with a two pack a day smoking habit along with 5 or 6 beers, half a bottle of wine, a few shots of bourbon and a sleeping medication to round off the day! Hardly a surprise then that his effort to quit cold turkey should trigger a psychotic break.

Although he sensed things were falling apart he resisted seeking help in a hospital. Driven by an absolutely irrational fear planted in his head by his voices he attempted to throw himself through a third story window. The window smashed but he fell back into the room. Unfortunately he ended up in a straightjacket on a gurney in the hallway of the very hospital where he had completed his internship and taught a course.

Although my own manic resurgence following an extensive period of wellness was somewhat less dramatic than Mark Vonnegut’s, it is only a matter of degree. Yet in time he was able to return to work and it has now been more than 25 years since his last manic break. His ability to rebuild his life and career even in the face of abject humiliation is an inspiration. And I am fortunate that I have neither smoking or alcoholism to contend with. But his story stands as stark reminder that with bipolar you must take the medication that keeps you stable and monitor your own level of energy. If we become complacent we risk an unwanted replay, no matter how long we have been well.

This book was published in 2010, so It was not available when I was first coming to terms with my diagnosis. Perhaps if I had read it when I first heard the interview I might have been able to head off my more recent experience. But then again, a manic person is a slow learner because that high just feel so good. Especially in contrast to the draining and  despondent opposite end of the cycle.

I would recommend this memoir to anyone interested in mental illness, especially those who understand what it is like to experience psychosis. Its casual, relaxed style makes for an easy read but, as a practicing physician, Vonnegut has some depressing observations about the decline of health care in his own country. Most importantly though, he leaves those of us who live with mental illness with a sense that we can get better, we can stay better and if we fall, we can get up and move forward.

That is exactly what I need to remember right now.