The Great Below

living the feeling life


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Remembrance

Today is All Souls Day and next weekend is Remembrance Sunday. Despite the unseasonably warm weather this year, there is always something about this time that brings our dead closer: damp mistiness in the mornings, smoke in the darkening evenings, the slow dying back of the year.

For the fallen, Marion Coutts

For the fallen, Marion Coutts

I’m reading Marion Coutts’ memoir, The Iceberg, about her husband’s death from a brain tumour – a long poem of love and loss, a beautifully written lament for ‘the obliteration of a person’. Her book tells the ‘before death’ story whereas I had to write of the aftermath, because of Michael’s so sudden death, but I sense that we trod much of the same path.

At one point, she imagines fashioning an outlandish costume that would be an outward display of her new role in life: wearing her emotional journey for all to see. In a way, by writing the book, she has done this – made visible what is so often invisible in our world.

Coutts is an artist and this piece of hers, For the Fallen is from 2001, before either of our lives were touched by the brutality of death. It speaks to me because I, too, am fallen – as is anyone who has walked the path of grief. We vaulted into the air, tried to defy gravity, but were brought crashing hard to the ground by the reality of our mortality and that of those we love. That is why Remembrance touches us so deeply, I think – we are perhaps not mourning so much for the lives of others, as for the loss of our own blissful ignorance of  how fragile life is.

The Iceberg Marion Coutts, Atlantic Books 2014

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Writing memoir – “A Death in the Family”

Knausgaard, Karl Ove

 

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I’ve just finished reading A Death in the Family, volume one of Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s remarkable seven-part novel/memoir My Struggle. The book covers in intense detail several periods of Knausgaard’s life: as a disaffected teenager living in a small Norwegian town; in his thirties dealing with the fallout of his father’s death ; in the ‘present’ as a married father of three living in Sweden. The narrative expands and collapses time, moving back and forth between then and now, or then and then, to reveal and explore the author’s troubled relationship with his father.

There is almost microscopic scrutiny of certain episodes – he devotes seventy pages, with many digressions, to his attempt as a teenager to buy alcohol on New Year’s Eve – while others, such as his father’s last few years of life and descent into alcoholic ruin, are dispatched in a few paragraphs. (Perhaps I’ll learn more from the subsequent volumes.)

I was confused at first by the label ‘novel’ for what is clearly an autobiographical story, told with searing honesty from the point ot view of the writer. (I gather Knausgaard has fallen out with half his family, which is not surprising given the revelatory nature of the writing.) But I get it – the conversations, descriptions, the moment-by-moment narrative that seems to put you right inside the author’s head as it is happening – these are creations rather than memories, but creations of such detail and intensity that they take us right to the emotional truth of the situation and seem completely real. It has been described as “densely ordinary” by one critic, who added “Even when I was bored I was interested”. Slow as it might sound, it is an extremely compelling read.

Though it reminds me most of Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness in Mrs Dalloway, Knausgaard says he was influenced by Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. ( Personally I have never managed to get further than a few pages into this book whose title I once saw translated as “When will I ever find the time to read this?”) Two other memoirs which have left me with the same feeling of having touched an ‘inner truth’ are Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius about his parents’ deaths from cancer, and Martin Amis’ Experience  – the only book by him I have ever wanted to read – which tells, amongst other things, of his cousin’s abduction and murder by Fred and Rosemary West.

A Death in the Family reminded me that I have strong visual memories of certain periods of my life, but whether I could find the words to describe them, or even be bothered, is another question. In writing, and particularly in editing, The Great Below I worked hard to find the emotional truth of a situation without necessarily narrating every last detail of the story. In fact it felt necessary to condense certain anecdotes in order not to lose the overall flow of the main story. I even shifted a particular experience from one country to another, in order not to turn the book into a travelogue. I made a conscious decision not to name the people I wrote about, feeling that they did not ‘belong’ to me as material for the book even though they had played a part in the events.

But if only one person who reads the book feels the kind of gratitude I felt to these other authors, for simply telling me their story, I will be more than happy.