Sunday miscellany 7

The book facing wrong way round represents two ebooks

A very library-heavy week, starting with an ebook I borrowed on Monday night when I’d finished Mariana Mazzucato and needed something that I could gallop through as a restorative. I chose Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke, his first Sally Lockhart mystery, which I knew I’d read years ago but could barely remember. It’s a great pastiche of Victorian detective and sensation novels, although there’s a bit too much dwelling on Sally’s beauty (she’s sixteen, Philip, calm down) and any novel where opium smuggling is a major plot point is bound to sail close to the wind of orientalism. (I think he just about manages to avoid it, but really, what do I know.) The mystery plot—with its riddles, buried treasure, dark secrets, and obscure identities—is a lovely homage to Collins, Dickens, Braddon et al., and I admire his courage in leaving two big strands of plot untied at the end (thus cleverly ensuring a sequel, but also vanishingly rare in children’s fiction now).

Another Russian Spring book next: Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, which I liked a lot more than I expected to. It’s a novel but the form is closer to an episodic story collection, over the course of which the character of our hero, Pechorin, is built up. It starts with “Bela”, in which a third-person traveler is told a story by Pechorin’s old army acquaintance, Maxim Maxymich; in this story, Pechorin arranges the abduction of a girl from a mountain tribe in the Caucasus to be his lover, and it all ends very badly. It doesn’t give the reader a positive view of Pechorin, and (not coincidentally) the next story features our narrator getting a glimpse of the man himself, as he behaves with surprising coldness to Maxim, who thought they were friends. The subsequent three sections are told in the first person and purport to be excerpts from Pechorin’s journal. So we get an increasing zoom lens on who this character is and why he behaves as he does, and although you may well not like him by the end, you do feel you have a fuller picture. (The third section, “Taman”, was much admired by Chekhov and is basically a smuggling story, featuring a brave and homicidal woman who hearteningly eludes Pechorin’s understanding, while the fourth—”Princess Mary”—is the longest but maybe the least exciting, taking place as it does within the gossipy confines of a society resort town, and the fifth is “The Fatalist”, which might be the first literary representation of the game we call Russian roulette.) Pechorin is said to be in many ways a self-portrait by his creator, Lermontov, who, weirdly like his protagonist, died in a duel at the age of twenty-six. A Hero of Our Time certainly is a psychological portrait, but the strength of the novel for me lies in its stunning landscape descriptions of the Caucasus mountains and in the associated sense of heightened atmosphere that Lermontov evokes. (I think “Taman”, so short and so anomalous, might be my favourite section for this reason.)

Now, at this point in the week, I had a few conversations with a few different people, and it became apparent that I am, at present, death-haunted. I think this has several contributing factors, including but not limited to: two years of global extreme peril during which I have been totally unable to see most of my family; my grandpa’s death just before covid struck; a friend’s unexpected death last year; my grandmother’s decline in health, which I saw vividly when I visited a few weekends ago and which hit me harder than anticipated; and my own strong awareness that my chronic illness means survival conditions for me are a narrow window which any kind of social breakdown (like a bomb or a war but also, more immediately, the re-election of the Tories and the persistence of austerity) causes to narrow even more. I’m talking this through with the appropriate people, but in the meantime I thought I’d read around it, and went to the library accordingly.

I’ve read four death books so far: Julia Samuel’s Grief Works, Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am; Rachel Clarke’s Dear Life, and Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind. Two worked brilliantly for me; the other two were probably not written with me and my particular situation as their imagined primary audience, so I can’t blame them for not being quite what I needed. The two that nailed it for me were the O’Farrell and the Clarke. I Am, I Am, I Am is subtitled “Seventeen Brushes with Death”, and it is a memoir told through near-death experiences. O’Farrell’s childhood illness, which meant she had to relearn how to walk, and her daughter’s severe autoimmune condition, give the book a flavour that chimes well with my diabetic experiences; unlike the other books, this is not primarily about terminal illness but about bad (or rather very good) luck, chronic ill health and unpredictability. The book opens with an absolute banger of a chapter in which eighteen-year-old O’Farrell escapes a man on a lonely mountain path who, the next week, kills another young woman in exactly the way he tried to kill her; it closes with an essay on keeping a chronically ill child alive. It blew my socks off, made me empathise with my parents, and made me cry over lunch. A fantastic book. Clarke’s Dear Life is a memoir by a palliative care doctor whose beloved GP father is given a terminal cancer diagnosis. Structurally and formally, it worked well for me; I liked Clarke’s voice, I liked the narrative drive, I liked her deft touch with characterization (especially of her own family), and I loved the clear stages of the dying process that she outlines. The final chapters had me crying again, as her own father slips away from her. Mannix’s With the End in Mind actually does many similar things, but it’s structured in a more didactic, workbook-y fashion. There are also sections in different typeface which seem designed to provide retrospective, liner-note-type commentary on each chapter/essay, which I think is unnecessary and takes the reader out of their immersion in the stories. I didn’t dislike the book, but it felt much more like the work of someone with an evangelical educative mission, which made it less effective for me (though, no doubt, extremely effective for others in different circumstances!) And Julia Samuel’s Grief Work is really about bereavement, not death; about the psychological impact of being bereaved in different ways, and of how we work through it. On the whole, it struck me as fairly useful, if inclined to be a little vague or inconclusive, but Samuel has a very unfortunate habit of describing her patients’ physicalities that meant I found it hard to trust her. The emotional fragility of a woman whose beloved young partner has just died is “belied”, apparently, by her “thickset” frame. Nah mate. Please just let fat people be sad too. Thanks.

Now I’m kind of stuck. The death books have been great and I’ve got one more to read from my checkout pile, which is Tender by Penny Wincer (about the act of caring/being a carer for someone. I’m not sure if that’s going to be a hit or a miss and am trying to gee myself up to give it a shot. I’ve also been trying to read Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch, which I’ve been anticipating for weeks; the problem is that it’s got such diverse plot strands, even if they do all come together in an authorial feat of brilliance eventually, that getting into it has proved surprisingly tricky for my current headspace. My remaining two Russians don’t feel appetizing; they’re Nabokov’s Pale Fire (which I’m 98% sure will be like the Yuknavitch–too brilliant for me to handle right now) and Gogol’s Dead Souls (which I’m 98% sure is depressing). I don’t really know what’s wrong with me at the moment, but I feel bone-weary and brain-weary. Might just comfort-read a bit more Bill Bryson.

8 thoughts on “Sunday miscellany 7

  1. I loved the O’Farrell. As I said on Twitter, the Mannix did lift my guilt over having gone home to bathe/sleep/see my daughter when my mum slipped away (but I too didn’t get on with the workbooky bits). I would really like to read the Rachel Clarke. I will look forward to your thoughts on the Yuknavitch – she’s pretty amazing.

    1. Yes I loved that statistic about people dying in the narrow window when no one else is in the room–it does feel better to know it’s very normal (and to think of it as the dying person trying to subconsciously spare us, maybe). Would highly recommend the Clarke! And have loved every other Yuknavitch I’ve read so really hoping this one opens up for me!

  2. Yes, I’m so glad you loved the two death books that I also loved! I hated the Mannix, though I also concede it wasn’t written for me. Thought the workbook bits were so patronising and felt very uncomfortable with the way she compared natural death to ‘natural birth’ plus her attitude to euthanasia (Clarke handled the latter topic much more sensitively).

    1. I read your GR review of the Mannix (which I see she replied to, good on her) and although I don’t have much of a background on natural birth, I agreed that the treatment of euthanasia felt disingenuous.

  3. Trust yourself to know what you need to read at a particular time. You ate those death books right up! – and now you might want to turn to something completely different. I’m reading The Sentence by Louise Erdrich at the moment and love how the narrator divides her reading into a Hard Stack (anything that feels challenging, in whatever way) and a Lazy Stack. No shame in turning to the lazy stack at any point!

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