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Books to read for an age of grief

Maverick Life

Opinionista

Books to read for an age of grief

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

Millennials find themselves confronted too often, too early, with death. Here are some thoughts from a Gen Xer — who is comparatively privileged, grief-wise — on the companionship that books provide.

I’ve learned recently, through several unhappy circumstances, that the generation just behind mine has reached the point on the logarithmic curve where death starts to sweep up and to the right.

Moreover, my millennial friends and colleagues are coping with the flood of grief that drops soggily from this steepening graph — shall we say, not especially well. Those I know who are younger than I and in grief’s clutches have lost their wits, more or less.

This is perfectly fine, and makes perfect sense. 

When we are young, by and large, we live in the eye of death’s storm. A placid radiance shields us from the eyewall, just beyond sight, silent at first, where reality towers.

But the eyewall licks ever closer, and soon its jagged spinning starts to catch souls, flinging them out of our lives. The impossible veil descends. A downpour arrives that feels like a blackout. 

For millennials, the eyewall has moved into view more rapidly than for Generation X. We Gen Xers were comparatively sheltered; we had more time to get our eye in, to mark the juggernaut operating at the perimeter, to squint at grief and learn to defend, defend, defend.

This is meant to be a books column, but the main point I wish to make is that I sympathise with the lovely, tender, energetic people rising up behind my generation only to become entangled, suddenly, in grief’s wilderness. It’s too soon, and too much. I’m very sorry it has come to this.

As has famously been said, the only remedy for grief is time. If I may, though, I’ll pin a further thought as an adjunct to this adage, gleaned during my generation’s trudge up a gentler slope: companionship, too, helps considerably.

This is where books come in. Books give us access to minds that are grappling with grief, and reading them we find their authors linking arms with us, helping us along the path.

The book to start with in South Africa is Ways of Dying, of course. Here the immortal character Toloki, guided by his creator Zakes Mda’s gossamer touch, observes that “Death lives with us every day. Indeed our ways of dying are our ways of living”. For a reminder of death’s dizzyingly un-democratic ways — and that it’s possible, still, somehow, to live with hope — there’s no better primer.

This column, meanwhile, takes its title from another book that helped me greatly in coming to a fundamental understanding, relatively early on, that grief would feature in my life. Jane Smiley’s novella The Age of Grief is one of the wonderworks of American fiction, and although death is absent from its pages — the grief of Smiley’s characters is more ellipses than full stop — all shades of anguish are covered when the narrator says:

“Lord if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me. But when you are thirty-three, or thirty-five, the cup must come around, cannot pass from you, and it is the same cup of pain that every mortal drinks from.”

I was more than a decade away from thirty-three when I first read those words, and even then I knew my future self would be grateful for having drunk from Smiley’s cup of wisdom.

Speaking of American wonderworks, if you want to scorch the poison of grief from your body with glowing metal that passes for prose, draw near to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which she wrote in the wake of her husband’s death. It’s achingly difficult to read, but at one point you find Didion herself carried a book around in her mind that she, too, ultimately took a kind of begrudged companionship from:

“I remember despising the book Dylan Thomas’s widow Caitlin wrote after her husband’s death, Leftover Life to Kill. I remember being dismissive of, even censorious about, her ‘self-pity,’ her ‘whining,’ her ‘dwelling on it.’ Leftover Life to Kill was published in 1957. I was 22 years old. Time is the school in which we learn.”

Talk about the passing of the cup.

Other books that have helped me personally prepare for, or endure, grief — though no preparation is entirely whole, nor any endurance test entirely passed — are MFK Fisher’s volume of short stories Sister Age, Patrick White’s novel The Living and the Dead, the collected poems of Emily Dickinson (see especially “Because I could not stop for Death”) and, interestingly, various prison diaries. 

These last types of book often carry with them, at the end, a sense of rinsing renewal that gives you the feeling of liberation from the lockbox of grief — for a time, at least. If you can pick up a copy of The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, read it and take some respite.

Dearest millennials, whom I truly cherish, grief, as Nabokov said, makes a “ghost of the present”. I’ve shared some of the books that have helped me understand it better — and understand that, though the cup will come round, others have also had their turn sipping from it. There’s some solace to be had in that. One receives the cup, drinks bitterly, passes it on — and then it’s possible to make a return. DM/ ML

PS – Do share the books that have helped you with your grief in the comments below. 

~

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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  • I believe I have felt something of grief when almost my whole family died within 2 years. I learned a few hard life lessons in a very short time but ultimately I believe I am stronger as a result. There were two things for me that confronting so much rapid change made abundantly clear. Firstly, Death is very honest with you and you have no choice but to be honest with it – perhaps it is prudent to at least be honest with yourself for when the time comes. Secondly the chaos that comes in Death’s wake can lead to crippling uncertainty and – to borrow from Bertrand Russell – to endure such hardship is difficult but so are most of the other virtues.

    Nothing can truly prepare anyone for profound grief but the one author that did help me immeasurably was Lucius Annaeus Seneca. In fact all the perspectives and attitudes of the ancient Stoics are particularly relevant in today’s age of Decline and Fall because, as always, we would do well to keep in mind that there are things which are under our control and there are things which are beyond our control; learn to tell the difference and you will already be on a path to successfully navigating the chaos.

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