by John Bayley
W.W. Norton, 2001
Deep in his narrative, John Bayley confides: "The bereaved should maintain at all costs the privacy and, in their own eyes, the singularity of their status. A privilege not to be transgressed."
Following a section break, he continues: "I might have been feeling more and more desperate but I was also getting more and more pompous."
Pages later he writes: "Being a widower had turned me into a monster of egoism."
The back cover proclaims: "A book to be given to anyone dealing with the catastrophic loss of a loved one."
Having recently suffered the catastrophic loss of a loved one (my wife), I disagree.
I disagree with the subtitle. This is not a study in bereavement. It's a study in John Bayley's bereavement, and not really that either. It's well told, written by a highly intelligent and clever man, who is able to generate significant narrative frisson by taking a passive approach to his situation.
Forced to flee? Even Bayley knows that's not true. He ran away. Not a strategy he recommends, no, but not either a strategy outside his character.
But these be quibbles.
I started with the chosen quotations above, because they capture something essential about the experience of catastrophic loss. Nobody else has the slightest idea what you are experiencing. Each grief is unique. You are alone, and there is no vocabulary for your experience before you find it for yourself. The uniqueness of your experience can make you a bore. Time to move on, isn't it? Nice to have you back. Move along now. Not sure what happened to your over in your little wonderland, but, chip, chip, tally ho, and all that.
Yes, the risk is you become a "monster of egoism," kind of like Hamlet.
Bayley neatly escapes that fate, turning a passive aggressive retreat into a premeditated conquest. He escapes the tragic ending by seizing the day. Good for him. And good for the book. The ending comes wrapped in a bow.
Part of my problem, of course, is that I'm 43 and suffered my loss in mid-life, and Bayley is a retired Oxford professor. I won't say that he doesn't need to worry about what to do with the rest of his life, but it's of a different scale now, isn't it? He's also without children, so can suffer his egoism without incurring too much penalty. For himself and (non-existent) others.
I had the same problem with a book I read this past Spring, which was about caregiving. The book was loaned to me, and I can't remember the title now, but some of it was excellent, and some of it was shite.
The excellent part was about giving in to the ego of the person who needs care. Let go. Do what they want. Make them comfortable. That's all that matters. Resolve your conflicts in their favour.
Yes, yes, yes.
The shite part (for me) were examples of geriatric couples who were struggling with the fact that one of them couldn't do what s/he had used to be able to do before.
Once you've passed 70, I wanted to yell, what did you expect? This, to me, is unaccountable egoism. That you would think you could reach old age and not have to face death.
Perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect oldsters to be courageous. But, no, I don't believe so. I've known plenty of elderly with courage, and plenty of young without.
Perhaps this is what bothers me about Bayley's fleeing. He was heroic in caring for his dying wife, then he flees his house instead of informing a trespassing female that she needs to leave.
But it's the grief, of course. He's bereaved. He doesn't have the spine at the moment to do it.
Okay, I surrender. Life is hard. It's full of challenges. We can't surmount them all.
But existence precedes essence. You are what you do.