No magic can turn back loss
the story through my own experiences”, and the overarching problem of the non-representable. The question is magnified when this includes others’ most intimate and vulnerable moments. Is there a problem with Iris (1998), John Bayley’s account of his wife Iris Murdoch’s experience of Alzheimer’s, which she herself described as “sailing into the darkness”? Does praising as “unflinching” his account of her incontinence and intellectual disintegration forget her greater courage and vulnerability or elide betrayal?
Who has the right (or appetite) to read Germaine Greer’s 30,000-word love letter to Martin Amis, held by the University of Melbourne among her papers, and what does the double gesture of depositing and restricting archival material suggest?
Baker is refreshingly conscious of every nuance of this, and mindful of Kerryn’s privacy. It is he who flinches at the selfies various events in the progression of her illness occasion. If anyone’s privacy is invaded, it is his own, and there is, at times, a bracing brutality to this. Well beyond the pastel cliches our death-denying culture favours, Baker describes grief’s abjection; its stubborn ugliness and the experience of the mind and body in its clutches.
Baker wrote this memoir during shloshim, the 30 days’ mourning following a funeral. Where Didion’s memoir includes a long pause after writing those first words, Baker’s presents, with extraordinary openness, the vulnerable experience of early mourning. He describes his traumatic experiences with a historian’s precision, aware of the trip-wires, elisions and exaggerations attending the recording of evidence.
Baker’s solitary voice finds other voices. Kerryn’s voice is re-created with vivid clarity, yet there is no reply when Baker speaks to her. He imagines her silence as a refusal to respond, a thought immediately challenged with selfcritical scrutiny. This, too, recalls Didion. Baker is far less kind to himself than to others he writes about. Others’ words weave into his thinking, including Romanian-born poet Paul Celan’s Todesfuge, a poem written after the Shoah, and about which Celan became wary, given the relative clarity of its representation of atrocity he later understood to be far more difficult to articulate.
Imagining his wife’s silence takes Baker back to the origins of their relationship. From here, the memoir becomes a curation of the couple’s decades, from Kerryn’s initial rejection, which Baker has forgotten until he discovers letters from the time. She writes to a friend with relief that Baker has overcome “his sudden burst of feeling towards me”. He reproduces his youthful impassioned and hopeful response in a letter describing the rejection as “one of the trillions of injustices that occur in this disorderly world”.
Chief among those is the Shoah, and although Baker is continually reminded of the scale of that atrocity as he faces this loss, he also understands that there is no way of measuring and comparing suffering, and that “death is death is death”.
Yet this is a memoir about living, as much as it is about dying. It is about the reflourishing of his and Kerryn’s love as she undergoes treatment, and the ways this both sharpens and softens Baker’s loss. And it is about finding consolation; of resourcefulness and of crafting one’s own survival, beautifully symbolised by Baker’s beginning the days with “yoga meditations on mats, a Sanskrit chant, followed by the Kaddish in Aramaic”.
He quotes the rabbinic saying that “the one who understands understands”. Yet even as he begins the meticulous archiving of their shared life from which this work springs, what he grasps towards shifts and eludes him. As Paul Auster writes in The Invention of Solitude (1982) about his father’s death: “I knew that I would have to write about my father … I thought: my father is gone. If I do not act quickly, his entire life will vanish along with him.”
Perhaps all elegiac writing follows in vain its lost subject, yet in the attempt flares vitality and resilience. is poetry editor at UQP.