“A defiant testament” – Undying by Michel Faber
Two questions for you. First, are you loved? I hope you are. I hope you have someone who loves you and knows you, as well as a person can ever be known, and trusts you and turns to you and provides a measure of solace and has, in you, a person who offers solace in return. If we can expect anything from life, surely it’s love? But. Here comes the second question. What happens when that love is properly sundered? What happens then? It’s a question most of us try to avoid in our every day life. There’s a song by Iron and Wine called ‘Naked as we came’, from an album called Our Endless, Numbered Days, that opens:
“She says “wake up, it’s no use pretending”
I’ll keep stealing, breathing her.
Birds are leaving over autumn’s ending
One of us will die inside these arms
Eyes wide open, naked as we came
One will spread our ashes ’round the yard.”
It’s the kind of song that some people, many people probably, would say was massively gloomy but if you look at it, it’s a song that says you are the person I’ve found who I will stay with until one of us goes. Which in itself is a beautiful sentiment. I share it here by way of answer to that second question. We, all of us, continue with our loves and if asked probably say that we hope we go first.
Michel Faber wasn’t the one to go first. His wife Eva had multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer, and he nursed her and watched her die. The poems in Undying focus (for the most part), without blinking, on the last few weeks and months of Eva’s life and the first few weeks and months of Faber’s post-Eva life.
“In late ’88,” he writes in ‘Lucky’,
‘… not knowing how lucky I was,
I met a woman who would die of cancer.
I looked into her eyes, and did not see
The dark blood that would fill them when
the platelets were all spent.”
He investigates the disease as if he was a detective, exploring side-effects (‘Contraindications’), cancer words (‘Lucencies’), medications (‘Gifts From Exotic Places’) and desperate possibilities (‘Switzerland’) with a numb calm. Time casts a terrible shadow, from the watch Eva can no longer wear (‘Another Season’) to the threat of the future (‘The Second-Last Time’):
“We never knew
when it would be
the last time.
It was important
not to know.”
There is much here, particularly in the first half of the book, that is hard to read – not because the poems are obtuse and just because Faber is dealing with the hardest of truths, truths that are themselves cloaked in an ugly, demeaning and terrible illness. ‘Nipples’, for instance, concerns the “excited peaks of plasma”, the “predatory cells”, concentrating on:
“…the one on your foot.
Watch it lovingly
until it flattens
Or until you do.
Later, as he sees “the first of all the moons / we will not share” (‘F.W. Paine Ltd, Bryson House, Horace Road, Kingston’), as he negotiates, and tries to behave with grace, despite his fears that “it’s all been left too late” (‘Amateur’), we watch a person as they seek to understand the world afresh, remembering (‘You Were Ugly’, ‘You Loved To Dance’, ‘Dolmades’), even as every day reality asserts itself in the surprising weight of ashes (‘Your Ashes’) and the stubborn recalcitrance of necessary life-admin (‘Account Holder’, with its bitter and painful “The helpline man / refuses to help / because I am not you”, and “Proliferation”). But there is hope too, in the strangest of places, humour, resolution:
“I’m restoring order. I’m on the case.
Taking charge. Let me show you how.
I’m not impulsive, wasteful, not like you.
Nothing new will come into this place
until I’ve worked through all that is here now.”
Undying is to Michel Faber what Levels of Life is to Julian Barnes; in other words, what each writer did to make sense of the world after the person they loved the most was gone. It might be that this is a book that helps others as they undergo similar and different pains. In some ways, it recalls Kent Haruf’s last book, Our Souls at Night, which he wrote as he himself knew he was dying. Like that book, Undying is a postcard from an edge we all know we are likely to confront in one way or another one day. It may be beside the point in some ways to talk about the writing but know that here is a book of words by a writer who has already written other books of words that we have liked and which we are grateful for. We hope that the writing helped him, and that he is coping with the adjustment that has been made to his life and doing well. If he never wrote another book, we would hope that there is still happiness in his future.
Any Cop?: Beautiful, bitter and brittle, Undying is a defiant testament to the love Faber had, and has, for his wife.
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- July 6, 2016 / 9:00 am