It’s coming up on the one-year anniversary of the first UK lockdown and here we are still living our lives online. The first hint I had of how serious things were going to get was when a London event with Anne Tyler I was due to attend in March 2020 with Eric and Laura T. was cancelled, followed by … everything else. Oh well.
This February was a bountiful month for online literary conversations. I’m catching up now by writing up my notes from a few more events (after Saunders and Ishiguro) that helped to brighten my evenings and weekends.
Melanie Finn in Conversation with Claire Fuller
(Exile in Bookville American online bookstore event on Facebook, February 2nd)
I was a big fan of Melanie Finn’s 2015 novel Shame (retitled The Gloaming), which I reviewed for Third Way magazine. Her new book, The Hare, sounds appealing but isn’t yet available in the UK. Rosie and Bennett, a 20-years-older man, meet in New York City. Readers soon enough know that he is a scoundrel, but Rosie doesn’t, and they settle together in Vermont. A contemporary storyline looking back at how they met contrasts the romantic potential of their relationship with its current reality.
Fuller said The Hare is her favorite kind of novel: literary but also a page-turner. (Indeed, the same could be said of Fuller’s books.) She noted that Finn’s previous three novels are all partly set in Africa and have a seam of violence – perhaps justified – running through. Finn acknowledged that everyday life in a postcolonial country has been a recurring element in her fiction, arising from her own experience growing up in Kenya, but the new book marked a change of heart: there is so much coming out of Africa by Black writers that she feels she doesn’t have anything to add. The authors agreed you have to be cruel to your characters.
Finn believes descriptive writing is one of her strengths, perhaps due to her time as a journalist. She still takes inspiration from headlines. Now that she and her family (a wildlife filmmaker husband and twin daughters born in her forties) are rooted in Vermont, she sees more nature writing in her work. They recovered a clear-cut plot and grow their own food; they also forage in the woods, and a hunter shoots surplus deer and gives them the venison. Appropriately, she read a tense deer-hunting passage from The Hare. Finn also teaches skiing and offers much the same advice as about writing: repetition eventually leads to elegance.
I was especially interested to hear the two novelists compare their composition process. Finn races through a draft in two months, but rewriting takes her a year, and she always knows the ending in advance. Fuller’s work, on the other hand, is largely unplanned; she starts with a character and a place and then just writes, finding out what she’s created much later on. (If you’ve read her Women’s Prize-longlisted upcoming novel, Unsettled Ground, you, too, would have noted her mention of a derelict caravan in the woods that her son took her to see.) Both said they don’t really like writing! Finn said she likes the idea of being a writer, while Fuller that she likes having written – a direct echo of Dorothy Parker’s quip: “I hate writing. I love having written.” Their fiction makes a good pairing and the conversation flowed freely.
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, “Light in Darkness,” Part I
I’d attended once in person, in 2016 (see my write-up of Sarah Perry and more), when this was still known as Bloxham Festival and was held at Bloxham School in Oxfordshire. Starting next year, it will take place in central Oxford instead. I attended the three morning events of Part I; there’s another virtual program taking place on Saturday the 17th of April.
Rachel Mann on The Gospel of Eve
Mann opened with a long reading from Chapter 1 of her debut novel (I reviewed it here) and said it is about her “three favorite things: sex, death, and religion,” all of which involve a sort of self-emptying. Mark Oakley, dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, interviewed her. He noted that her book has been likened to “Dan Brown on steroids.” Mann laughed but recognizes that, though she’s a ‘serious poet’, her gift as a novelist is for pace. She’s a lover of thrillers and, like Brown, gets obsessed with secrets. Although she and her protagonist, Kitty, are outwardly similar (a rural, working-class background and theological training), she quoted Evelyn Waugh’s dictum that all characters should be based on at least three people. Mann argued that the Church has not dealt as well with desire as it has with friendship. She thinks the best priests, like novelists, are genuine and engage with other people’s stories.
Francis Spufford on Light Perpetual
Mann then interviewed Spufford about his second novel, which arose from his frequent walks to his teaching job at Goldsmiths College in London. A plaque on an Iceland commemorates a World War II bombing that killed 15 children in what was then a Woolworths. He decided to commit an act of “literary resurrection” – but through imaginary people in a made-up, working-class South London location. The idea was to mediate between time and eternity. “All lives are remarkable and exceptional if you look at them up close,” he said. The opening bombing scene is delivered in extreme slow motion and then the book jumps on in 15-year intervals, in a reminder of scale. He read a passage from the end of the book when Ben, a bus conductor who fell in love with a Nigerian woman who took him to her Pentecostal Church, is lying in a hospice bed. It was a beautiful litany of “Praise him” statements, a panorama of everyday life: “Praise him at food banks,” etc. It made for a very moving moment.
Mark Oakley on the books that got him through the pandemic
Oakley, in turn, was interviewed by Spufford – everyone did double duty as speaker and questioner! He mentioned six books that meant a lot to him during lockdown. Three of them I’d read myself and can also recommend: Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (my nonfiction book of 2020), Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt (one of my top five poetry picks from 2020), and Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious by David Dark. His top read of all, though, is a book I haven’t read but would like to: Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour (see Susan’s review). Rounding out his six were The Act of Living by Frank Tallis, about the psychology of finding fulfillment, and The Hunted by Gabriel Bergmoser, a bleak thriller set in the Outback. He read a prepared sermon-like piece on the books rather than just having a chat about them, which made it a bit more difficult to engage.
Spufford asked him if his reading had been about catharsis. Perhaps for some of those choices, he conceded. Oakley spoke of two lessons learned from lockdown. One is “I am an incarnational Christian” in opposition to the way we’ve all now been reduced to screens, abstract and nonmobile. And secondly, “Don’t be prosaic.” He called literalism a curse and decried the thinness of binary views of the world. “Literature is always challenging your answers, asking who you are when you get beyond what you’re good at.” I thought that was an excellent point, as was his bottom line about books: “It’s not how many you get through, but how many get through to you.”
Gavin Francis in Conversation with Louise Welsh
(Wellcome Collection event, February 25th)
Francis, a medical doctor, wrote Intensive Care (I reviewed it here) month by month and sent chapters to his editor as he went along. Its narrative begins barely a year ago and yet it was published in January – a real feat given the usual time scale of book publishing. It was always meant to have the urgent feel of journalism, to be a “hot take,” as he put it, about COVID-19. He finds writing therapeutic; it helps him make sense of and process things as he looks back to the ‘before time’. He remembers first discussing this virus out of China with friends at a Burns Night supper in January 2020. Francis sees so many people using their “retrospecto-scopes” this year and asking what we might have done differently, if only we’d known.
He shook his head over the unnatural situations that Covid has forced us all into: “we’re gregarious mammals” and yet the virus is spread by voice and touch, so those are the very things we have to avoid. GP practices have had to fundamentally change how they operate, and he foresees telephone triage continuing even after the worst of this is over. He’s noted a rise in antidepressant use over the last year. So the vaccine, to him, is like “liquid hope”; even if not 100% protective, it does seem to prevent deaths and ventilation. Vaccination is like paying for the fire service, he said: it’s not a personal medical intervention but a community thing. This talk didn’t add a lot for me as I’d read the book, but for those who hadn’t, I’m sure it would have been an ideal introduction – and I enjoyed hearing the Scottish accents.
Bookish online events coming up soon: The Rathbones Folio Prize announcement on the 24th and Claire Fuller’s book launch for Unsettled Ground on the 25th.
Have you attended any online literary events recently?
I didn’t manage a traditional classic this month: I stalled on Cider with Rosie and gave up on Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust after just 16 pages. Instead, I’m highlighting three books from Fiction Advocate’s new series about re-reading modern classics, “…Afterwords.” Their tagline is “Essential Readings of the New Canon,” and the concept is to have “acclaimed writers investigate the contemporary classics.”
As Italo Calvino notes in his invaluable essay “Why Read the Classics?”, “The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading…’.” Harold Bloom agrees in The Western Canon: “One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid: unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify.” But readers will also encounter books that strike such a chord with them that they become personal classics. Calvino exhorts readers that “during unenforced reading … you will come across the book which will become ‘your’ book…‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.”
For the Afterwords series, the three writers below have each chosen a modern classic that they can’t stop reading for all it has to say to their own situation and on humanity in general.
I Meant to Kill Ye: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian by Stephanie Reents (2018)
Blood Meridian must be one of the two or three bleakest books I’ve ever read. I was led to it by Bloom, who speaks about it as a, if not the, Great American Novel. It’s over 10 years since I’ve read it now, but I still remember some of the specific incidences of violence, like skewering babies and sodomizing corpses on a battlefield, as well as the overall feeling of nihilism: there’s no reason for the evil promulgated by characters like the Judge; it is simply a reality – perhaps the human condition.
Reents, who teaches English at the College of the Holy Cross, returns to Blood Meridian, a novel she has re-read compulsively over the years, to ask why it continues to have such a hold over her. Its third-person perspective is so distant that we never understand characters’ motivations or glimpse their inner lives, she notes; everyone seems like a pawn in a fated course. She usually shies away from violence and long descriptive passages; she has an uneasy relationship with the West, having moved away from Idaho to live on the East coast. So why should this detached, brutal Western based on the Glanton Gang’s Mexico/Texas killing spree have so captivated her? “Often, we most admire the books that we could never produce, the writing styles or intellects so different from our own that we aren’t even tempted to try imitating them,” she offers as explanation. “It’s a pure kind of admiration, unsullied by envy.” (I feel that way about Faulkner and Steinbeck.)
As part of her quest, Reents recreated some of the Gang’s desert route and traveled to the Texas State University library near Austin to look at McCarthy’s early drafts, notes and correspondence. She was intrigued to learn that the Kid was a more conventional POV character to start with, and McCarthy initially included more foreshadowing. By cutting all of it, he made it so that the book’s extreme violence comes out of nowhere. Reents also explores the historical basis for the story via General Samuel Chamberlain’s dubious memoir. Pondering the volatility of the human heart as she drives along the Mexican border, she ends on the nicely timely note of a threatened Trump-built wall. I doubt I could stomach reading Blood Meridian again (though I’ve read another two McCarthy novels since), but I enjoyed revisiting it with Reents as she finds herself “re-bewildered by its beauty and horror.”
A Little in Love with Everyone: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home by Genevieve Hudson (2018)
Alison Bechdel is one of Hudson’s queer heroes (along with James Baldwin, Tracy Chapman, and seven others), portrayed opposite the first page of each chapter in black and white drawings by Pace Taylor – the sort of people who gave her the courage to accept her lesbian identity after a conventional Alabama upbringing.
As portrayed in her landmark graphic memoir Fun Home, Bechdel was in college and finally coming to terms with her sexuality at the same time that she learned that her father was gay and her parents were about to divorce. Her father died in an accident just a few months later and, though he had many affairs, had never managed to live out his homosexuality openly. As Bechdel’s mother scoffed, “Your father tell the truth? Please!” By contrast, Hudson appreciates Bechdel so much because of her hard-won honesty: “In her work, Bechdel does the opposite of lying. She excavates the real. She dredges up the stuff of her life, embarrassing parts and all.”
Hudson looks at how people craft their own coming-out narratives, the importance of which cannot be overemphasized, in her experience. “Coming out was a tangible thing with tangible effects. For every friend who left my life, a new person arrived—usually someone with broader horizons, exciting stories, and a deviance that seemed sweet and sexy and sincere. After I came out, roaming the streets of Charleston in fat sunglasses and thin dresses, a group of beautiful lesbians appeared out of nowhere. … Everyone was a little in love with everyone.”
A Cool Customer: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking by Jacob Bacharach (2018)
I made the mistake of not taking any notes on, or even marking out any favorite passages in, this, so all I can tell you is that for me it was the most powerful of the three I’ve tried from the series. The author re-examines Didion’s work in the light of his own encounter with loss – his brother’s death from a drug overdose – and ponders why it has become such a watershed in bereavement literature. Didion really is the patron saint of grief thanks to her two memoirs, Magical Thinking and Blue Nights – after she was widowed she also lost her only daughter – even though she writes with a sort of intellectual detachment; you have to intuit the emotion between the lines. Bacharach smartly weaves his family story with a literate discussion of Didion’s narratives and cultural position to make a snappy and inviting book you could easily read in one sitting.
Indeed, all of the Afterwords books are 120–160-page, small-format paperbacks that would handily slip into a pocket or purse.
My thanks to the publisher for the free copies for review.
The other titles in the series are An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom by Jonathan Russell Clark (on 2666 by Roberto Bolaño), New Uses for Failure by Adam Colman (on 10:04 by Ben Lerner, and Bizarro Worlds by Stacie Williams (on The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem).
Next month’s plan: The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa will be my classic to get me in the mood for traveling to Italy for the first week of July.
Caitlin Doughty, a funeral director in her early thirties, is on a mission. Her goal? Nothing less than completely changing how we think about death and the customs surrounding it. Her odyssey through the death industry began when she was 23 and started working at suburban San Francisco’s Westwind Crematorium. She had spent her first 18 years in Hawaii and saw her first dead body at age eight when she went to a Halloween costume contest at the mall and saw a little girl plummet 30 feet over a railing. In another century, she reflects, it would have been rare for a child to go that long before seeing a corpse; nineteenth-century tots might have experienced the death of multiple siblings, if not a parent.
“Today, not being forced to see corpses is a privilege of the developed world,” she writes. And if we do see a dead body, it will have been so prettified by mortuary workers that it might bear little resemblance to how the person looked in life. Here Doughty reveals all the tricks of the American trade – from embalming (a post-Civil War development) and heavy-duty makeup to gluing eyes closed and sewing mouths shut – that give the dead that peaceful, lifelike look we like to see at wakes. Compare our squeamishness with the openness of various Asian countries, where one might see dozens of corpses floating down the Ganges or Buddhist monks meditating on a decomposing corpse as a memento mori.
Doughty is in a somewhat awkward position: she is part of the very American death industry she is criticizing – those “professionals whose job was not ritual but obfuscation, hiding the truths of what bodies are and what bodies do.” Although she reveled in her work at the crematorium despite its occasional gruesomeness and seems to believe cremation is an efficient and responsible choice for body disposal, she also worries that it might be a further sign of people’s determination to keep bodies out of sight and out of mind. As anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer noted, “In many cases, it would appear, cremation is chosen because it is felt to get rid of the dead more completely and finally than does burial.”
Could cremation be noble instead? Doughty traces its origins to ancient Roman funeral pyres, as different as could be from the enclosed, clinical environment of a modern crematorium. Two factors led directly to cremation becoming increasingly accepted and popular after the 1960s. One was Jessica Mitford’s book The American Way of Death (1961), which mocked the same Los Angeles area cemetery Evelyn Waugh does in The Loved One, Forest Lawn. The other was Pope Paul VI overturning the Catholic Church’s ban on cremation in 1963. Doughty quotes George Bernard Shaw’s rapturous account of his mother’s cremation in 1913 as proof that it can be not only natural, but even aesthetically pleasing:
And behold! The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet colored lovely flame, smokeless and eager, like Pentecostal tongues, and as the whole coffin passed in it sprang into flame all over, and my mother became that beautiful fire.
It is rare, however – and, for the workers, nerve-racking – to have witnesses at a cremation. For the most part Westwind worked like a factory, cremating six bodies per weekday. Doughty experienced all sides of the work: collecting dead fetuses from hospitals for free cremation, shaving adult corpses before burning, enduring the stench of decomposing flesh, and taking delivery of a box of heads whose bodies were donated to science. She is largely unsentimental about it all; who is this fairytale witch who speaks of “tossing” babies into the oven and grinding their little bones?
“Handmaiden to the underworld,” she describes herself, and given her medieval history degree and Goth-lite looks, you can see that a certain macabre cast of mind is necessary for this line of work. She also has a good ear for arrestingly witty one-liners; my favorite was “As a general rule, if anyone ever asks you to put stockings on a ninety-year-old deceased Romanian woman with edema, your answer should be no.”
Still, Doughty recognizes the almost unbearable sadness of many of the cases the crematorium sees – the young man who traveled to California from Washington just to stand in the path of a train, the “floaters” found in the ocean, the elderly with oozing bed sores, and the homeless folk of Los Angeles who were cremated and dumped in a mass grave after they were used for embalming practice at her mortuary school. She even considered committing suicide herself on a lonely trip out to a redwood forest.
What has kept her going is the desire to combat misconceptions and superstitions about the dead. As she realized after a potentially serious car accident on the freeway, she has lost her own fear of death, and she wants to help others do the same. This will require getting people talking about death, something she is doing through her online community Order of the Good Death and her Ask a Mortician YouTube videos. She would also like to see people having involvement with dead bodies again, as they did in previous centuries, perhaps by washing their dead relatives or keeping them at home before the funeral rather than having them taken away. “It is never too early to start thinking about your own death and the deaths of those you love.” This is not morbid; it’s just planning ahead for an inevitable experience. “We can wander further into the death dystopia, denying that we will die and hiding dead bodies from our sight. Making that choice means we will continue to be terrified and ignorant of death, and the huge role it plays in how we live our lives.”
The sections of personal anecdote in this book are better than those based on anthropological research – which is not woven in entirely naturally. Ultimately, it’s a little unclear exactly how Doughty plans to change things. She speaks of designing her own welcoming crematorium, an open, airy space that doesn’t suggest a death factory. But it’s enough that she’s part of a movement in the right direction, and beneath her wry tone her passion is clear.
Further reading suggestions: For more on how people are revolutionizing how we think about death, I highly recommend Anne Karpf’s book for the School of Life, How to Age. Other death-themed reads I have particularly enjoyed are The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, The Removers by Andrew Meredith, and A Tour of Bones by Denise Inge. Less effective as a memoir but still interesting for its view of the funeral home business is The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield.
Note: I was originally going to review this book for a British website, so I received a free copy of the UK edition from Canongate. Doughty inserts British statistics and information to increase the book’s relevance to a new audience. She also astutely notes that British funerals minimize interaction with a dead body, something I have certainly found true in the two cremations I have attended in England. The Irish are famous for their wakes, but the British do not have this custom. In fact, when we attended my brother-in-law’s viewing and funeral in America earlier this year, it was the first time my husband (aged 31) had seen a dead body. Although I can see Doughty’s point about a prettified corpse not being representative of what the dead ‘should’ look like, I must also say that the funeral home had done a fantastic job of making him look happy and at peace, like he was sleeping and having pleasant dreams. He certainly didn’t look like a man who had suffered the ravages of brain cancer for four years. The same was not true for my ninety-something grandmother, however, who was nearly unrecognizable.