Sunday, August 30, 2009

Books: The Sun is New Again, All Day

I find myself, of late, returning to some beloved books that seem to have the same themes: Life and Death. Perhaps you'll like them, too. Below is just a small selection. Let me know if you'd like me to include others, or if maybe you have some of your own favorites you can recommend?

Julian Barnes: Nothing to Be Frightened Of

Barnes and I have one enormous thing in common… We’re both absolutely terrified of death, and we both have an ongoing love affair with the writer, Jules Renard. When I was a child, I, like most other people, felt immortal. As I grew older, and as my personality became more pronounced, the idea that I would be around forever didn’t lessen, but in fact, became even more prominent. Barnes quotes from Arthur Koestler, author of ‘Dialogue with Death’ – “One’s disbelief in death grows in proportion to its approach.” Well, if this is true, than I must be very far away from death, for thoughts of it are, nearly always, my last thought before bed, and every morning, without fail, I feel thankful for making it through the night. I see death written on the brow of my friends. Indeed, it has been made undeniably visible at the graves of some of my friends. Barnes writes that he often finds himself jarred awake from sleep at night screaming, “No, no, no!”

Yes, I understand perfectly how fatalist an outlook this seems, yet it’s something of a comfort to assume the end is coming… It makes me appreciate my time in this body, cognizant and healthy. It seems like Barnes feels the same way, even as he seems to mourn the loss of his youthful body (he refers more than once to the “chickeny bits” that come with age).

Barnes gives his readers a glimpse into not only the relationship with his own mortality, but how he perceives the lives and inevitable deaths of his family and friends. “This is not, by the way, ‘my autobiography’. Nor am I ‘in search of my parents’. Part of what I am doing… is trying to work out how dead they are.” Drawing from writings of Zola, Montaigne, and a multitude of others, it is Jules Renard to whom Barnes returns again and again (it has been the same for me, for many years). “It is when faced with death that we turn most bookish.”

Indeed, Barnes’ book is “bookish.” It is a somewhat dry narrative with intermittent outpourings of terror… Just enough to make his uber-rich writing, full of (at times) extraneous anecdotes, matter. In fact, I enjoyed this book immensely. Mr. Barnes, wherever you are, thanks.

(Please, for all that is good in this world, read Renard before tackling Barnes... You'll be glad you did.)

William Falkner: As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text

Smart, stream-of-consciousness fiction about the journey white-trash Mississippi family members take to bury their matriarch. Although there were moments of dry humor that I enjoyed (particularly from the inner monologues of the father of the family, Anse), what struck me about the book was its intentional lack of resolution. Falkner hammers home the fact that despite the fact that human beings continually persevere, many of us just don’t ever figure it out, and, in fact, die just as we came into this world… alone and without any true understanding of whether or not there was ever a reason for being alive. Falkner’s writing reminds me of Sartre’s battle cry for the Existentialists: “We are all condemned to freedom.”

Have fun with this one… It’ll make you feel like shit.

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

When this book came out a couple of years ago, it rocked me to the core. Didion, stalwart of dry, journalistic writing that she is, wrote the succinct The Year of Magical Thinking immediately after the death of her husband, fellow author, John Dunne.

Several days before Dunne’s death, the couple had been coping with the illness of their only daughter, Quintana, who was in a coma and on life support after her system went into septic shock. Didion writes not only about the logistics of losing her husband, and all of the emotional shock waves that occurred, but captured poignant glimpses of her daughter as she slipped back and forth between different states of health. Tragically, Quintana passed away soon after the completion of the book. Didion eventually wrote her death into the script for the one-woman stage-play in which Vanessa Redgrave played Didion. (Oh, the Dantesque comedy of it all, that Ms. Redgrave would, just a year and a half later, also learn what it means to lose a daughter…)

Writes Didion:

“This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed [the deaths], weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”

Wow. That's a tall order for one book...

But what can I say… Didion’s writing, always so steady-handed, unveiled- albeit barely perceived- a newfound fragility. The one similarity I found between the Year of Magical Thinking and Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, is best summed up in Didion’s own words: “I look for resolution and find none.”

A gorgeous book, absolutely.

Uwem Akpan, Say You're One of Them

A collection of stories: of a Rwandan girl’s account of what happens between her parents- a Hutu and a Tutsi; a brother and sister dealing with their uncle’s attempt to sell them into slavery; a Muslim boy who travels on a bus with Christians through Nigeria... Each of Akpan’s short stories is a visceral, agonizing situation seen through the eyes of children, who, in life and in death, bring a sense of humanity to some of the most unspeakable scenes of the last century.

Akpan’s writing, rich, with an obvious appreciation for the nuances of various languages and the voices of the people he’s writing about, left me feeling horrified for all the groups of people affected by war and genocide. The fact that he doesn't choose one people to champion better illustrates the damages served in all conflicts.

This book left me shaking, crying, outraged and incomprehensibly sad for situations I have a hard time understanding. It also left me feeling tremendously blessed that I am healthy, happy, and, relative to most of the people on this planet, prosperous in both love and sustenance.

James Joyce, The Dead

This short story- a novella, really- is the greatest of all the stories in Joyce's book, Dubliners. Mental paralysis- a condition which affects nearly all of Joyce's characters in this book, grips Gabriel, the main protagonist in The Dead. His lack of interest in his fellow Irishmen, and an admiration for all things English, mark Gabriel's failure to relate to his family and friends. The man walks through life like a zombie, oblivious to the concerns- social and personal- of those around him.

When Gabriel sees his wife, captured in a moment of passion as she listens to a piece of music, he believes it somehow relates to him. His marriage, which has been crumbling for many years, feels renewed. He remembers some of their sweet, early moments. Yet he soon finds that the passion he witnessed was not meant for him. For the first time, as he watches his wife break down into tears over something that happened long before they met, he feels compasion for another person. He sees his wife, truly, for the first time, and understands that they had, until that moment, been like two strangers.

Joyce goes on to describe Gabriel's feelings about all of his loved ones... He ponders their ephemeral natures. The Dead, which had started with a party scene, builds into one of the most heartrending and perfect short stories ever written. It was this story that inspired me to tackle Ulysses, that giant of English literature.

Heraclitus, Fragments (Penguin Classics) (Greek Edition)

One should, if possible, end each day with at least a ray of hope. My final thoughts every night, as I’ve already mentioned, are often of death. Yet I often pick up my thin volume of Heraclitus- his words, I find, temper my melancholy. 2500 years after his death, I find solace in the few writings of his that have not been lost... appropriately called, the Fragments.

“Any day stands equal to the rest,” he writes. And “The beginning is the end.” I try to be mindful of these seemingly simple ideas. If I were a grafitti artist, I would write his words all over the walls of New York.

Each of Heraclitus’ fragments stand alone- I can just as easily concentrate on and enjoy one poignant fragment as I can the entire collection.

“After death comes nothing hoped nor imagined.” This is one of the fragments I use as a personal mantra. (I wish others would repeat these words to themselves, particularly as they try to build for themselves legacies at the expense of others...)

“Silence, healing.” This fragment comes to me at my most manic moments, calming me, reminding me to breathe.

Every morning, upon waking, I utter the following silent prayer, thankful to Heraclitus, who has given me the words:

“The sun is new again, all day.”

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