No magic can turn back loss

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett

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.

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