Reading Through Perplexity and Grief

clip_image004Even the first epigraph is a hook. Thomas à Kempis. “Everywhere I have sought rest and not found it, except sitting in a corner by myself with a little book.” A few months ago I read The End of Your Life Book Club (Knopf, 2012) by Will Schwalbe as I had promised myself. (See my blog posting “Reading, Writing, and Vicarious Longevity” — October 2012). Schwalbe does well to honour his mother and the relationship he had with her, particularly through their shared reading, but for me the book lacks depth. Schwalbe’s career as a publisher is both an “in” and a distraction; he’s not a common reader and I couldn’t identify with him. By contrast, Nina Sankovitch’s, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading (Harper, 2011) held me.

At dinner that night, I raised my glass of Italian white, just poured out by our efficient waiter, and looked Jack in the eye. I had his attention.

“To my year of reading,” I announced.

“You’re really going to do it?” he asked.

I nodded.

“A book a day? How about a book a week?” he asked.

No, I needed to read a book a day. I needed to sit down and sit still and read. I had spent the last three years running and racing, filling my life and the lives of everyone in my family with activity and plans and movement, constant movement. But no matter how much I crammed into living, and no matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t get away from the grief and the pain.

It was time to stop running. It was time to stop doing anything and everything. It was time to start reading.

“To your year of reading, then,” Jack seconded, and clinked his glass with mine. “May it be everything you want it to be, and more.”

My mother suffered a stroke in late November, and I moved into her apartment in northwestern Connecticut to be close while she was in rehab working with the physio and occupational therapists. I found Tolstoy and the Purple Chair in a pile of books (more like a mountain of books) by her bed. At the end of Tolstoy Sankovitch lists the 365 works she had read that year, and mom had checked off the ones she had read.

Nina’s year of magical reading has a function that transcends reading. What she reads, and how she reads, helps her to come to terms with the untimely death of her sister at the age of forty-six. Nina’s magical year is an intentional one of reading through grief. “Books. The more I thought about how to stop and get myself back together as one sane, whole person, the more I thought about books,” she writes. “I thought about escape. Not running to escape but reading to escape. Cyril Connolly, twentieth-century writer and critic, wrote that “words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living.” That was how I wanted to use books: as an escape back to life. I wanted to engulf myself in books and come up whole again.”

My life becomes more complicated when our house in town sells and we have to pack up ten rooms of furniture and move into a 5 room cottage. Every move is an opportunity to discard and downsize that inevitably means picking up objects festooned with threads of sentimental attachment, re-assessing the what-did-I-ever-see-in-that treasures, and reliving forgotten and near-forgotten episodes of life. Do I really need to keep the photographs of a girlfriend dead some forty years and a “National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark 1980” commemorative plate honouring Ole Evinrude, inventor of the outboard motor? I can toss the former into a garbage bag, but I need to find a more appreciative home for the latter. Much is fed into the red drop-off bins as contributions to the local Salvation Army.

clip_image006Our new digs cannot accommodate all of our large cabinets for which other appreciative homes will need to be found. I fill six blue bags with documents from past work lives. In the process I find a file folder that contains a sixteen page photocopy of a bibliography listing 400 to 500 French and English non-fiction titles about Haiti. There had been a time when I had wanted to pick away at that list. I didn’t. Not until reading Tolstoy and the Purple Chair did I understand that, after having lived in rural Haiti for three years before the fall of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, I needed to make sense of my trans-cultural unsettlement and a confusion of surreal and nightmarish experiences. If I could sum up what I had seen in Haiti in one phrase, it would be “Theater of the Absurd.” The poverty, the largess of foreign NGOs, the disappearances of men and money, the stench of the streets, things that could not be said because The Big Man was listening everywhere, the poverty, the infant mortality, an abundance of aid projects and the absence of their success, the Ton-Ton Macoutes, the shit in the streets, The Citadelle and the palace of Sans-Souci, a history of violence, revolutions, coups d’états and six Presidents-For-Life, the poverty, the ra-ra bands, carnival, voodoo drums, the live goats and the shrouded body laid out on a bench behind the kindergarten, the poverty, the poverty, the poverty.

There are parallels to PTSD here, and the treatment to which I gravitated was writing and the reading. I didn’t pick away at the list of non-fiction titles. Instead I read a lot of fiction. I wrote a novella, Carnival of Shadows, and in writing it I was hit between the eyes with what should have been most obvious when we were living in that dusty house on Rue Mayard. Every loss and petty thievery, I came to see later, was a metaphor for the unbearable. Every moment, every decision, even the most mundane of choices was a moral crisis because nothing could be taken for granted. In this context or that situation, what had been the right thing to do?

In the file folder I find pages of typed single-spaced excerpts from the works of Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul. Area of Darkness, A Bend in the River, A House for Mr Biswas, In a Free State, The Middle Passage, In the months after our return to Canada I discovered Naipaul who has been characterized as a writer of “willed homelessness”, as a person for whom home has lost its meaning, and as an expatriate wherever he lives. I’d be more honest in saying the Naipaul discovered me. His books appeared when I needed them. As uncomfortable in Canada as I had been in Haiti, I identified with Naipaul and went through a binge of reading his novels in an effort to digest Haiti and to come to terms with whatever had happened to me in that basket-case of a nation once known as the Pearl of the Antilles. It seems a part of me died there, and I was reading my way through a grief of another sort, hoping, like Sankovitch, to come up whole again. Moral crises and the Theatre of the Absurd? Naipaul nails it for me:

I don’t think you understand, Salim. And it isn’t an easy thing to understand. It isn’t that there’s no right and wrong here. There’s no right. ~ A Bend in the River

And did I say poverty?

… to see its poverty it so make an observation of no value; a thousand newcomers to the country before you have seen and said as you. And not only newcomers. Our own sons and daughters, when they return from Europe and America, have spoken in your very words. Do not think your anger and contempt are marks of your sensitivity. You might have seen more: the smiles on the faces of the begging children, that domestic group among the pavement sleepers walking in the cool Bombay morning, father, mother and baby in a trinity of love, so self-contained that they are as private as if walls had separated them from you: it is your gaze that violates them, your sense of outrage that outrages them… But wait. Stay six months. The winter will bring fresh visitors. Their talk will also be of poverty; they too will show their anger. You will agree; but deep down there will be annoyance; it will seem to you then, too, that they are seeing only the obvious; and it will not please you to find your sensibility so accurately parodied.

Ten months later I was to revisit Bombay and to wonder at my hysteria. It was cooler, and in the crowded courtyards of Colaba there were Christmas decorations, illuminated stars hanging out of windows against the black sky. It was my eye that had changed. ~ Area of Darkness

Naipaul says, “Stay six months.” I stayed three years. And I went back and revisited Port-au-Prince, Pétionville, Jérémie.

clip_image008Reading binges are like mirrors. It helps to be selective, to read the authors that exert a strong attraction. Choice may have little to do with it; when we are in need of a reading binge, writers hitherto unknown to us may be brought to our attention by the forces of synchronicity. Read long and read deep, and perhaps catch a glimpse of yourself.

While living in Haiti I read a lot–old issues of Time magazine, Dick Francis, a collection of Stephen King novellas, Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, whatever I could get my hands on. The fatter the book, the better. I wanted them to last. I didn’t have much choice; I read what was available. Many of the books I read were hand-me-downs from people who didn’t share my tastes. I read the gifts because I couldn’t afford to refuse them. There were no alternatives. Then there was the bookstore on John Brown Avenue in Port-au-Prince that sold used English language books. It was open hit-or-miss, then it closed for good. Something political. What matter, it wasn’t the time for me to come to an understanding.

Poverty is another metaphor. Perhaps the pain I had experienced was in seeing my own. It wasn’t mine alone, belonging as it did to characters in Naipaul’s novels. The reading binge helped and may well have contributed to our adjustment some years later to a much easier life in West Africa.

clip_image010Reading Tolstoy and the Purple Chair enabled me to recall an earlier stint of reading through perplexity and grief. The winter of 1969-70. I was in the US Army stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey. As they had been in Haiti, many of my experiences at Fort Dix were surreal, fit for the theater of the absurd. It was another time when things, particularly the rightness and wrongness of things like Lieutenant Calley and My Lai, like sending new troops into Vietnam during a time of withdrawal, didn’t make sense. I remember reading Eric Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, Camus’ The Stranger, The Fall. Then there were Dostoyevsky’s, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The problems of good and evil, freedom and moral boundaries, existentialism and other heady issues, the fatter the books the better. I wanted them to last. I enjoyed them, but unfortunately the reading didn’t give me the clarity I wanted. Nor did it give me true escape. The binge may not have worked, but at least, I recognized in it the mirror. How might it have been to have known, “It isn’t that there’s no right and wrong here. There’s no right.” Hindsight. It would be another ten years before those words saw print in A Bend in the River.

So, dear reader, was there ever a time in your life when you engulfed yourself in books “to come up whole again”? Tell me about it.


5 thoughts on “Reading Through Perplexity and Grief

  1. I have done it quite a lot actually. I used to spend my summers at my grandparent’s house reading anything I could get my hands on. Summers were a time of a book a day (even if that book was one of the trashy romance novels that we hidden under the bed), of not having a care in the world. They were my way to reset before what was inevitably going to be a difficult school year.

    I remember reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” when I was younger and was feeling outcast. 9 schools in 12 years leaves you with a perpetual “new girl” syndrome. That story made me feel like someone out there could identify with me, even if her situation was different and she was a fictional character. She still gave me hope.

    When my grandmother was spending her final few months in the hospital, I spent most of that time with her, reading in an attempt to bring back the memories of summers past when there was no illness taking her away from us.

    Anne of Green Gables was always a favourite summer read as well. That was the first series I actually owned. Again, someone else who did not fit in all the time. I would read it and aspire to becoming the type of woman she did. Use being headstrong and stubborn to build character.

    The advent of the e-books feeds my binges quite nicely. I will buy a book for 99 cents because it looks interesting, fall in love with the writing style, and buy a whole series, or anything else I can find by them.

    When life feels like it is getting to be too much, I will reach for my books. I have a choice of selecting something that will give me that feeling of inclusion and understanding, something that is complete fantasy and will whisk me away from everything, or something is a combination of both, like a biography of someone I admire.

    There are days (and weeks) when I wish I could just lock myself away with my books (and my knitting) and just let the world pass along outside without me while I try to just reboot myself. Alas, the most I can usually achieve is a few stolen hours over the course of the week.

    • Thanks for reading the post Lauriena, and thanks again for replying. I wish I could say the same for ebooks. I have them on devices, but “out of sight–out of mind” I forget that they’re there. Kinda like food in the back of my refrigerator that I notice when it’s too late.

  2. Ah,Paul.What can I say? Your writing touches a chord and resonates within me.Some of your experiences have been reflected in my own. Others, new to me, but now explained in a clear and full way. I come to know you better through these words, and that is a treat. Again I say, this is important work…how many pioneers, CIDA, and Peace Corps workers around the world could benefit from your thoughts put to paper? How about a book of thoughts and wonderful photos put together, perhaps re the pioneer experiences? Just grand!

    • Thanks Kathleen. There are bits and pieces that could comprise a book. Two of my “pioneer” stories have been published. “Waiting for Ziafo”, a story based on experiences in Togo, won a non-fiction prize from Grain magazine a number of years ago, and more recntly, “Smoked Herring and the Talking Dog,” was included in an issue of Caribbean Writer devoted to Haiti.

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