Tuesday, June 13, 2006

If you can't say anything nice ...

It has been a rugged couple of weeks and I learned long ago to shut up about such things. Every time I haul out an old diary, I think Oh my Gahd I've spent my whole life being miserable, and only then do I remember that one (well, this one) is prone to diarise mainly when unhappy. What this looks like on the cumulative pages, decades later, is a lifetime of unhappiness, whereas in fact I think that on the whole I've been a bit luckier/happier than most. (Felicitous may be the word, and how satisfying for a cat lover that felix should be the word for a hybrid of happiness and luck.)

Anyway, over the last few months I've had more than my fair share of reminders that eventually we'll all get old, get sick and die, and that somewhere in there there could be quite a lot of dependence and debility. With winter well in force, this began to get to me big-time as the cold seeped into damage done twenty years ago, but I was jolted out of it yesterday by a one-sitting read of Philip Roth's new novella Everyman, which I found both technically brilliant and morally appalling. Its burden is pretty much what I just said up there (old, sick, die etc) but I got so annoyed with the character to whom this happens and his whole attitude to it that I felt my own lifting like a windborne kite, simply by virtue of the contrast.

It's not that I don't have my own share of rage about what happens to us all. Roth said in an interview about this book -- and the man is 73 years old -- that what inspired it was a wake-up call when his friends started to die, to which I can only reply that his friends must be a particularly well-preserved bunch. I lost a friend to suicide when I was 40 and another to cancer when I was 45, seven months after the death of my mother when she was still younger than Roth is now. It's bloody late in the day for him to start being surprised by death.

Being surprised by death, in fact, is the wellspring of this book, as Roth pointed out himself in an interview, quoting the 15th century morality play for which the novella is named. The allegorical character Everyman meets Death coming towards him on the road: 'Oh Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.'

Those of us who have had close calls remember having said this, or something very like it, at the time.

Not being any kind of religious person, I'd expect the prospect of death to be a grim one but in fact I don't find it so. Maybe growing up on a farm has something to do with this, a sense of the cyclical, the seasonal, and the properness of birth and death. Because if the Roth book hadn't snapped me out of it, the solstice would have. A week and a bit from now, the shortest day will come and go and the sun will start rising a fraction earlier, and setting a fraction later, every day. And the older I get the more clearly I feel the seasons turning, a bodily feeling, in the bones.

7 comments:

A. said...

I know what you mean about the journal thing. I used to be a regular journal writer. Now I've probably written about 10 pages in two years and all the entries have been written when needing to vent ... frustrated rants... not very fascinating reading.

tigtog said...

I find I'm much more conscious of the passing seasons now as well, although they don't tend to overwhelm my sensorium in the way they did when young. Your post has clearly evoked the crackle amd musty smell of jumped-on autumn leaves from when I was five years old, not from out in my garden right now.

Ampersand Duck said...

A ponderful post, PC.
I meant to type 'wonderful', but I think I'll just leave it as is.

elsewhere said...

Hmm, it's all joy ahead of us, I see.

I read my old teenage diaries a while back. There was actually a distinctive shift towards melancholy round the age of 17, which is not how I remember things. In fact, I remember things getting better and better. But I think I became more conscious of the need to be melancholy in one's diary, where as before, I'd limited myself to commenting blithely on social event (pool parties, etc) -- and it was much more entertaining.

Pavlov's Cat said...

One of the few things I really loved about living in Melbourne was that the seasons were more clearly defined than they are here -- in Adelaide you have to be a really speccy deciduous tree or spring-blossoming ditto to get noticed. But since I've had a garden, 8 years now, I've got the stage where sometimes I can tell what week of the year it is by what's happening with the bottle-brush, the jasmine, the glory vine and the banksia rose.

Don't worry, El, the misery of the crumbling body and the sight of friends-and-relations falling like ninepins (my 79-year-old dad has had a great deal of this over the last ten years, poor love) is compensated for by other things.

elsewhere said...

My 75 yo mother's comment on old age: 'It's like living in Eyam village during the plague.'

genevieve said...

Heavens, elsie, that is very grim indeed.
I'm with PC on this - I sang at a few young people's funerals when I was in my twenties, and through parish and family connections have buried a few people who went too soon and too quickly. Perhaps Roth is not as well connected to mortality as he thinks he is.