On reading and writing and slowly going nowhere

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.

6412706291_3376c44b28_zThroughout 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!

 

Surfacing: Some reflections on the general messiness of life

I have been quiet these last few days. Not entirely absent, but definitely lying low. I’ve needed to claim a little cleansing time, hold social media at arms length for a while and, you know what? It feels really good. My life has taken on a fine shade of hell lately–at the least serious end a recalcitrant major household appliance, and at the most serious, an alcoholic adult child who confessed to making active suicidal plans. And since this is real life, there have been a few more critical pressure points in between, familial and financial.

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With the worst of the most critical crises calmed, but of course not “over,” I thought I would emerge a little and take a deep breath.

Today I submitted my latest outside review and I am looking forward to spending a little time reading simply for the sake of reading. I may write about what I read, I may even write reviews, but I am keen to lose myself in words and ideas for a while without the pressure of dragging a notebook along. Fortunately I have no reservations against marginalia, love a book with a few blank pages at the end for notes, and never read without a pencil handy.

I have recently acquired a number of collections of short stories and essays that I am anxious to explore, I realize that I am almost a year from my trip to South Africa and I have barely touched the stacks of books I dragged home, and I am presently making my way through some works that I hope will contribute to my own writing. So I will not be at a loss for reading material, which is a good thing because my book budget has just been ruthlessly slashed by unexpected expenses.

CounternarrativesBut first and foremost I am caught in the absolute brilliance that is John Keene’s Counternarratives. This collection of short stories and novellas has me captivated. After noting it in my peripheral vision for months I finally bought a hardcover copy just before the paperback was released. Now that I am into it, I take it everywhere on the chance that I might have even a few minutes to slip back into it. I can’t remember the last time a book had me in it’s thrall like this one.

And when I am finished I might even write about it. But for now I just want to read.

 

PS. Warm thanks to DC, MM and JT for supportive words over the past few days. Who says you can’t meet some fine folks on Twitter?

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.

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.

The haunting memory of friendship lost – I Refuse by Per Petterson

April 7, 2016: The post below was composed when I was debating the extent to which I wanted to turn toward reviewing books. As a result it is primarily personal and reflective in nature. Since writing it my reviews rapidly moved to more serious and critical efforts, many of which now appear on other sites.

I recently wrote a piece for the Three Percent blog on why this book should win the Best Translated Book Award for 2016. It offers a more critical view of this work.

23626238The novel opens with the chance meeting of Jim and Tommy, two childhood friends, now in their mid-50’s on a bridge at the break of dawn. More than 30 years have passed since they last saw each other. Jim, the sensitive and more intellectually inclined of the two, has struggled with mental illness and, as we meet him, he has exhausted a year of sick leave after a brief and unsuccessful attempt to return to work. Tommy, who dropped out of school at 16 to work at a mill, has benefited from some shrewd investments and a head for numbers, to find himself in a high level financial position in the city. But his life, with his fancy clothing and new Mercedes, is hollow. Both men have failed marriages behind them and over the course of the day that follows this early morning encounter each one finds himself facing a deep sense of grief and loss over the close friendship they shared growing up in semi-rural Norway.

As spare and luminous as the northern landscape that grounds this exploration of time, friendship, family and dysfunctional parents – themes Petterson has returned to continuously – I Refuse follows a winding chronology and employs a variety of perspectives and characters to frame the peculiar circumstances that helped forge the original bond between Jim and Tommy, and the fractured pathways that each has followed after Jim’s attempted suicide at 18 initiates events that drive them apart. Brought to life through the blistering translation from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (of Knuasgaard, Loe and Nesbo fame) this is simply Petterson’s broadest, darkest and most complex work to date. If his brilliant Out Stealing Horses has long occupied a space in my top ten all time favourite books, this new work is even more striking and mature.

Or maybe I am simply more mature myself.

At this moment in time, at roughly the same age as the men at the core of this novel, and currently engaged in my own pursuit of disability supports following an unexpected return of a mental health disorder after more than a decade of stability, I could relate to the essential theme of the slowly eroding and distorting impact of the passage of time on our selves and our relationships with friends and family. Apart from a failed marriage and a childhood in a similarly semi-rural setting; my life and circumstances are different than those portrayed here. But the true power of this work lies in the author’s skill and confidence in the reader to leave the space for ambiguity and hint at the possible dynamics that drive the characters without feeling the need to answer all the questions or resolve all the mysteries.

Kind of like the way we have to navigate life itself.

Manic Implosion: Venturing into the third section of Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room without warning

About a month ago I had an opportunity to talk briefly with Damon Galgut following his appearance at Wordfest here in Calgary. He published his first novel at 18 and I shared that I had wanted to write when I was younger but wanted to live first, completely unprepared for the messy and complicated path my life would take. So we spoke about the challenge of winnowing out a story that runs close to bone from the detritus of life lived. He pointed to my newly signed copy of In a Strange Room, his 2010 Booker short-listed novel, and admitted that in this, of all his works, he felt that he had most closely captured the essence of his self. And he achieved it, I later learned, by telling three tales which recount actual events from his life and feature a character named Damon from perspectives that often shift from first to third person to a detached observer, sometimes within the same sentence or paragraph.

So far so good.

7199962The first two sections involve travel and more or less unresolved interactions and attractions between the remembered Damon character and people he meets while he frets and wanders through parts of Europe and Africa with a restless inablity to settle himself. The prose is tight and evocative with the open ended reflections and ambiguity that feature in my favourite of his writings. But I was sucker punched by Part Three: The Guardian. Not only is it harrowing in its intensity, but the devastating action centres around a woman in the throws of a full-blown suicidal manic pychosis. I could not help but relate as a caregiver but more critically as someone who has experienced the full impact of manic psychosis from the inside. My blessing, if there is one, is that I have never been especially suicidal or inclined to self-harm, nor do I drink or use drugs. All of those factors are added to the mix in this account.

And it takes place in India.

It is not a secret that his close friend Anna is not in a good way, when Damon agrees to allow her to accompany him on the first part of a trip to India. He has been before and intends to stay and write for several months, but it is thought that the change of scenery might be a positive and healing experience for Anna. Her life is beginning to unravel around her and the creative, vivacious woman he has known for many years is tipping dangerously close to the edge. With a stock of mood stabilizers, tranquilizers and sleeping pills she promises not to drink or indulge in recreational drugs on this excursion – a vow sullenly defied as soon as they take flight. Her mood escalates, and behaviour becomes increasingly frenzied and unpredictable from there, culminating in an intentional overdose while her already weary guardian is close at hand but not paying close attention.

Throughout this process and the weeks that follow, Damon’s concern is stretched beyond affection to annoyance to guilt and back again. While Anna fights for her life in ICU, a British nurse and another couple from the village where they are staying are co-opted into a tag team to provide support and relief for Damon at the hospital where cockroaches and rats scurry about and, although care is free, all supplies from bandages to drugs to all other medical items much be purchased by friends or relatives who trek back and forth to the pharmacy with lists. As Anna begins to recover and relocate to more crowded and unattended wards, she not only becomes increasingly volatile and unpredictable, but her erstwhile crew of attendants have to attend to all her care including propping her over the bedpan and cleaning up the splashing mess afterwards.

Care for her actual mental health concerns is not part of the treatment plan.

To make matters worse, attempted suicide is a criminal offense in India and the police are awaiting Anna’s release so they can detain her. An escape must be planned and executed. Finally she is safely returned to South Africa, but she and her support network are shattered and strained at both ends. Sadly her successful suicide is only delayed, not avoided. And her traumatic spiral leaves those who love her and even those who get caught up in her whirlwind of self destruction, with wounds that will take their own time to heal long after she finally achieves the rest, or self martyrdom, that her illness drives her to desire.

No one wins.

My own manic psychosis was maintained to my home where the refrigerator filled with inedible meals and my children destroyed the yard while I struggled to make it through the days. As my grasp on reality slipped and the long standing issues I had been fighting off for years bubbled and distorted in my mind, a month of growing horror ended in a morning of escalating fear and violence before the ambulance finally arrived. Diagnosis and treatment of my bipolar disorder helped explain much, but in the end the very real issues of identity that had haunted me for most my life still existed. The difficult years that followed would see the end of a long marriage and, the beginning of a new authentic existence for me.

Anna was committed to death in her madness. In mine I found life.

I finished reading this book late this afternoon at a cafe where I frequently go to clear my mind and write. I could not put it down until I reached the final pages. As I stumbled out of the cafe into the biting cold and snow of this premature winter evening, I felt devastated and emotionally wrung out. As painful as it was to read, for those of us who live with manic depression or care for someone who does (and I do both), the third part of In a Strange Room is essential reading.

But consider yourself warned.