Undying: Poems by Michel Faber

Today, July 7th, happens to be my ninth wedding anniversary. For Michel Faber, however, it marks a more somber occasion: two years since his wife, Eva, died of cancer. They met in 1988 and got to spend over 25 years together. It was a second marriage for Eva, a visual artist – a bohemian life full of travel and each working on their art, until a six-year battle with multiple myeloma (a cancer of the bone marrow) cut Eva down in her fifties.

undyingFaber’s new book, Undying: A Love Story, is a striking outpouring of 67 poems, most of them written in 2014–15, after Eva died. In two halves, it takes up first Eva’s illness and death, and then the aftermath and memories. Faber gives a vivid sense of how completely cancer changed both their lives: “There were three of us in our marriage. / You, me, and your cancer.” Eva’s illness put everything into perspective: “In our former lives, B.C., / all sorts of issues seemed to matter – / like minor wastes of money, and a scarcity / of storage space.”

The poems vary widely in stanza length and style. With only a few exceptions, they are in the first person – “I” and “we” – and addressed directly to Eva as “you,” even after she was gone. In one of my favorites, “You Loved to Dance,” Faber remembers the rare occasions in their relationship when they danced together and shakes his head over lost opportunities: “A thousand chances that we didn’t take. … Half a dozen dances in a quarter-century. / I doubt you thought that that was all there’d be.”

Although this is mostly free verse, the occasional rhyming couplet ends a poem:

Yes, let us not leave off praying.

Not for God our soul to keep

but just to die, of old age, in our sleep.

 

Wake-up call. You’re dead another day.

The hotel hopes I have enjoyed my stay.

As you can see from those last lines, the tone is gently sardonic. Faber’s strategy is often to hold up physical artifacts of Eva’s life – the hundreds of menstrual pads she’d accumulated, only to go through early menopause (“Change Of Life”); the odd foodstuffs he found in their cupboards after her death and tried to use up (“Tamarind”) – and turn them to gently mocking commentary on all the futile plans we make. Most ironic of all is “Or, If Only,” in which he catalogues all the ways life can kill you when you don’t want it to, whereas by the end Eva longed for an easy way out: “We’d jump at any offer. / Any speedy death would do us.”

In subject matter and tone I would liken these poems to Christian Wiman’s and Christopher Reid’s. Wiman is a poet and theologian who has himself been through the trenches – long, painful years of treatment for blood cancer. Christopher Reid’s A Scattering is a poetic reflection on his wife Lucinda’s death from a brain tumor. Though you can sense the rich emotion in the poems of Undying, Faber doesn’t quite match either of these authors for craft. His talent is better suited to the expansive world of a novel like The Crimson Petal and the White.

I was thus dismayed to read in this book’s publicity materials that Faber does not intend to write any more fiction – “[Eva’s] death is a major factor in his decision not to write any further novels. A talented artist, she set aside her career to help further his, despite his protestations – and he is dedicating much of the rest of his life to making her work better known.” Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things was one of my most memorable reads from 2014. The story of an interplanetary missionary separated from his wife, it takes on new ache when you realize Faber was writing it in the shadow of his own wife’s death. If, indeed, it was to be his last novel, it’s appropriate that it gives such a poignant portrait of a marriage.

I’ll keep hoping that Faber writes more fiction. In the meantime, any fan of his writing should get hold of these tender, elegiac poems.

All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,

is mention, to whoever cares to listen,

that a woman once existed, who was kind

and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget

how the world was altered, beyond recognition,

when we met.

With thanks to Canongate for sending a free copy.

My rating: 4 star rating

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18 thoughts on “Undying: Poems by Michel Faber

    1. I’ve read a few of his other books. The Crimson Petal and the White is a gritty Victorian novel (putting all the sex back in) and The Book of Strange New Things is sci-fi but the kind that non-fans could enjoy. He’s also known for Under the Skin, which again has aliens. He’s had a very broad-ranging career, I think. It makes me sad to hear it won’t continue.

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  1. First of all Eva Faber was in her late 50s when she died in 2014 .She was also a mother of 2 sons. Where are these boys now? They are the ones with integrity.
    Michel Faber is an opportunist who has been using this woman’s illness since 2011 and death to gain public attention and earn money.
    All that one needs to see is what Faber stated in 2010 sitting next to Byng,about not needing an agent etc.and learn that now he has one.Faber is a poet by ‘opportunity’,Reid has been a poet all his life.

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    1. Hi Des, thank you for commenting — though I’m not sure why you have such a bone to pick. Perhaps you knew Eva personally? Faber does mention Eva’s children from the previous marriage. I don’t think he could be accused of opportunism any more so than any other author of a bereavement memoir (one of my favorite genres). This book has had a relatively low profile considering Faber’s reputation, and I doubt it will make that much money for him. It’s a curiosity, really. As I’ve said, his craft as a poet is somewhat lacking compared to Reid’s. Nonetheless, this was worth reading and a lovely tribute to his late wife.

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  2. What is exactly his reputation? Someone who was mocking literary agents in 2010 next to Byng,but now is represented by Janklow & Nesbit?
    Someone who is touring the world with a pair of red shoes,yet he is dating Mrs Young?
    Here is an idea for Mr.Faber:Mrs Young should try the boots and the sad widower could have 2 in 1. I don’t remember.. Help me out :Was Reid touring with Lucinda’s staff?
    Faber turned into a poet due to an opportunity,an illness and death that has been using since 2012 to remain in the spotlight and earn mostly female sympathy. As someone who has loved and lost,all I have to say to Faber is
    CUT IT OUT,Faber.

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    1. I’m not entirely sure what all you are referring to here. It’s clear you feel very strongly on the subject, and know a lot about it. I always intend to judge a book on its literary merit rather than on an author’s personal life, with which I am often largely unfamiliar. I do believe that these poems represent a genuine outpouring of emotion, a new and perhaps unexpected way for Faber to express himself.

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  3. What on earth is going on in these comments? 🤔 Anywho, I love The Crimson Petal, what an extraordinary reading experience. One that makes me scared to read anything else because it won’t measure up. These poems seem a bit too “clever” for me, if you know what I mean, but I do intend to get to his other novels one of these days.

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  4. Tbh, The Book of Strange New Things made me want to throw my shoes at the wall, and I couldn’t finish it, so I’m not that distressed by the announcement that he won’t be writing more novels (although I thought Under the Skin was brillliant, very creepy.)

    Also, re: the above comments that Laura refers to (what IS going on?): About the poems coming out several years after Eva’s death, it’s worth remembering how much time it takes to get a book into print. I doubt, also, that Faber had all the poems ready to go when Eva died in 2014; if he had, and if the book had come out earlier, that would make me much *more* suspicious that he was being opportunistic. Additionally, whether he’s personally unpleasant or not, I think the man can be allowed to change his mind on literary agents, and even to be in a relationship again post-bereavement – plenty of other people do both.

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    1. In fact he states in the introduction that only two of the poems were written years before her death; another one or two were written in her sickroom; all the rest came after her death. That strikes me as a genuine flood of emotion, a way of responding to fresh grief. I have only read a handful of his novels but the ones I have I loved. I look forward to catching up on the rest, especially Under the Skin.

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      1. Quod erat demonstrandum! (I’d really like to read The Crimson Petal and the White, though. I think maybe it was only TBOSNT that was a one-off…)

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