Sunday, February 25, 2007

For whom the bell tolls

Sobered by the recent death of Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley, I'm probably not in as good a frame of mind as I could be to be reading an anthology of short crime fiction.

Stories about murders, every one.

I love crime fiction, and I have a strong stomach, and I know it's 'just a story', and I need to keep reading this book because it's for work, but all this endless clever variation on the theme of violent death is starting to make me feel a bit sick. In a complicated way this does have to do with Elizabeth Jolley, whom I knew a little, some years ago now; about whom I've posted, as has Meredith of Marrickvillia, a few memories at Sarsaparilla; and who died, as we nearly all say we hope we will, peacefully in her bed at a ripe old age.

Earlier today, all deathed out for the moment, I put down the book and headed into the study for some light relief in the blogosphere -- where almost the first thing I looked at was the thread over at Sills Bend being haunted by the ghost of former Melbourne literary and academic character Dinny O'Hearn, also now dead, and whom I also knew.

In April 1999 I went to Barcelona. It was work; I was giving a seminar at the University of Barcelona and being a bit of a visiting Aust Lit person before moving east to Klagenfurt in Austria, where I taught a four-week summer school in Australian writing at the university there. My mother had died in the February and I was still feeling extremely fragile and a bit deranged; the colleagues in both Barcelona and Klagenfurt who had organised the two gigs both insisted that I should cancel at once unless I really felt up to it, but if I had done so, my mother would have risen up phoenix-like from her ashes and beaten me about the head and shoulders with a large placard saying GET BACK ON THAT HORSE AT ONCE.

While in Barcelona I visited the Cathedral in the Placa de la Seu and could not go past the rows and rows of votive candles to light for the dead. I could only think of two people who needed candles: my mum, and a friend who had committed suicide five years earlier at the ridiculous age of 26. I had some long-dead grandparents, but really, that was all.

I got home from Europe in early May to the news that the old school friend who had survived cancer the previous year had now developed secondary tumours in her lungs, and she did not survive the winter. She was 46, the same age as me. Her death and my mother's seemed to open some sort of gate; with the turning of the century, people I knew started dying off right and left.

This is partly to do with my age, of course; almost everyone I know in my immediate age range has at least one elderly parent who needs to be worried about on a daily basis. Last January, two close friends' mothers died within days of each other. The point of the story about the Barcelona candles is that now, a mere eight years later, I can think of least twenty people I would light candles for, if I were to go back there tomorrow.

As a farmer's daughter I have always been reasonably realistic and resigned about the life cycle of the human being. We shall die, and there seems no point in kicking and screaming. I have always found it ironic that Dylan Thomas's famous and beautiful roar of rage at the dying of the light should have been written by a man who then purposefully drank himself to death at the age of 39.

But there is a kind of thinning out of the texture of your life as people disappear from it forever one by one, as if somebody had watered the wine. I think of Elizabeth and of Dinny, and of the way that, although I didn't know either of them well, I have in each case a handful of complex, detailed, colourful memories of particular moments, remarks, afternoons, tones of voice and turns of the head.

Crime stories, in which fiction-writing is a game and violent death merely one of its rules, can be very entertaining and the best of them are haunting. But they have less than nothing to do with the endlessly mysterious truth of actual death in your actual life, even just that of a colourful acquaintance, much less someone close and dear. As one of A.S. Byatt's characters says somewhere: 'You don't know what a death is going to do to you.'


Bernice said...

"as if somebody had watered the wine" jesus PC - a lovely post. Sitting here getting teary at 6.30 in the morning. Arhh but without them, the grieved-for, we'd be drinking raspberry cordial. And in a stange way, they become part of ones self, with all the faulty tricks of memory, in a way that just doesn't happen when they're still alive.

Anonymous said...

As one of my acquaintance said of an award-winning (and in our not so humble opinion) overpraised story, 'I don't think she's ever watched anyone die.'

Death in fiction is not to be treated as a strong flavour, like curry spice.

R H said...

"You don't know what a death is going to do to you."

No. Especially when it's your own.

Meredith said...

I went to St Mary's in Sydney recently and lit a votive candle for myself! I didn't realise they were only meant to be for the dead. This is a very beautiful post & one that will have me thinking all day.

meggie said...

I really enjoyed this post.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Meredith, they're not meant to be only for the dead -- I think they are for meditation and prayer and all kinds of things generally; symbolic possibly of God's attention -- but at the cathedral there was some kind of suggestion (a sign? a special little corner? the people I was with? can't remember) that suggested specifically that one might light candles for the dead, which seemed an okay thing even for nonbelievers to do.

kate said...

Possibly anon., you might add 'or thought to ring someone and share a moment only to remember a second later that they've died'. It's a particular part of grief, where you forget it for a second, only to have it all flood back.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Kate, that goes on for year and years, too. I still occasionally think 'Wow, Ma would love that, I must call her and tell ...


Pavlov's Cat said...

RH, your potentially extremely hurtful and upsetting comment has been removed. Further smartarse or otherwise derailing comments from you or anyone else will also be removed.