first post in four months whoaaaa
Afterwards comes the madness. And then the loneliness: not the spectacular solitude you had anticipated, not the interesting martyrdom of widowhood, but just loneliness. You expect something almost geological—vertigo in a shelving canyon—but it’s not like that; it’s just misery as regular as a job. What do we doctors say? I’m deeply sorry, Mrs Blank; there will of course be a period of mourning but rest assured you will come out of it; two of these each evening, I would suggest; perhaps a new interest, Mrs Blank; car maintenance, formation dancing?; don’t worry, six months will see you back on the roundabout; come and see me again any time; oh nurse, when she calls, just give her this repeat will you, no I don’t need to see her, well it’s not her that’s dead is it, look on the bright side. What did she say her name was?
And then it happens to you. There’s no glory in it. Mourning is full of time; nothing but time. Bouvard and Pécuchet record in their ‘Copie’ a piece of advice on How to Forget Friends Who Have Died: Trotulas (of the Salerno school) says that you should eat stuffed sow’s heart. I might yet have to fall back on this remedy. I’ve tried drink, but what does that do? Drink makes you drunk, that’s all it’s ever been able to do. Work, they say, cures everything. It doesn’t; often, it doesn’t even induce tiredness: the nearest you get to it is a neurotic lethargy. And there is always time. Have some more time. Take your time. Extra time. Time on your hands.
Other people think you want to talk. ‘Do you want to talk about Ellen?’ they ask, hinting that they won’t be embarrassed if you break down. Sometimes you talk, sometimes you don’t; it makes little difference. The words aren’t the right ones; or rather, the right words don’t exist. ‘Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’ You talk, and you find the language of bereavement foolishly inadequate. You seem to be talking about other people’s griefs. I loved her; we were happy; I miss her. She didn’t love me; we were unhappy; I miss her. There is a limited choice of prayers on offer: gabble the syllables.
'It may seem bad, Geoffrey, but you'll come out of it. I'm not taking your grief lightly; it's just that I've seen enough of life to know that you'll come out of it.' The words you've said yourself while scribbling a prescription (No, Mrs Blank, you could take them all and they wouldn't kill you). And you do come out of it, that's true. After a year, after five. But you don't come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the Downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil-slick. You are tarred and feathered for life.
And still you think about her every day. Sometimes, weary of loving her dead, you imagine her back to life again, for conversation, for approval. After his mother’s death, Flaubert used to get his housekeeper to dress up in her old check dress and surprise him with an apocryphal reality. It worked, and it didn’t work: seven years after the funeral he would still burst into tears at the sight of that old dress moving about the house. Is this success or failure? Remembrance or self-indulgence? And will we know when we start hugging our grief and vainly enjoying it? ‘Sadness is a vice’ (1878).
Or else you try to sidestep her image. Nowadays, when I remember Ellen, I try to think of a hailstorm that berated Rouen in 1853. ‘A first-rate hailstorm,’ Gustave commented to Louise. At Croisset the espaliers were destroyed, the flowers cut to pieces, the kitchen garden turned upside down. Elsewhere, harvests were wrecked, and windows smashed. Only the glaziers were happy; the glaziers, and Gustave. The shambles delighted him: in five minutes Nature had reimposed the true order of things upon that brief, factitious order which man conceitedly imagines himself to be introducing. Is there anything stupider than a melon cloche, Gustave asks. He applauds the hailstones that shattered the glass. ‘People believe a little too easily that the function of the sun is to help the cabbages along.’
This letter always calms me. The function of the sun is not to help the cabbages along, and I am telling you a pure story. She was born in 1920, married in 1940, gave birth in 1942 and 1946, died in 1975