There are these occasional stabs in Mothering Sunday, by Graham Swift, that are just beautiful. They are why I decided to buy the book, not entirely sober and tilting through the stacks in the last few minutes before the bookshop closed.
“…because there was anyway such an intensity and strange gravity to their experimentation, such a consciousness at least that they were doing something wrong (the whole world was in mourning all around them), it had needed some compensating element of levity: giggling.”
And I bought it.
It is absolutely unforgivable and unpitiable, this ownership I feel for sorrow, national sorrow even; this dogged refusal to account for others’ lack of understanding of how it feels. (In the midwest and even more so on the west coast, they do not know, it was a show for them, not and never a loss or a real fear.) This attraction to books, songs, people who do know. I who am no veteran’s widow; who do not wake in the night wracked with PTSD dreams. I am the last person who should counsel anyone on loss; when I found myself in the necessary position of doing so, I panicked at how utterly unequipped I was in the face of a woman who’d lost her daughter, who desperately hoped I could make social media stop rubbing her daughter’s death in her face.
But that’s why I bought this book. All the empty rooms. The strange neighborliness that results, the boundaries that are erased, by such vast and shared understanding of a vicious, echoing absence.
And I bought it because they giggled.
“Yes, it was tragic,” she said, with a voice like flint. And didn’t say, as she might have done–at eighty she could be oracular: We are all fuel. We are born, and we burn, some of us more quickly than others. There are different kinds of combustion. But not to burn, never to catch fire at all, that would be the sad life, wouldn’t it?”
“And if you had yourself been comprehensively bereaved at birth–and that was her situation, wasn’t it?–how could you share in all that stuff, how could you have anything left over for it? The war wasn’t her fault, was it?”
You could hardly allow her to borrow books and then not allow her at least some time to read them. And the house was not any more, let’s face it, as in the old days, a firmly governed, a strictly regimented house. Look where regimentation had got the world.
This from the otherwise self-possessed and entirely unsentimental lord of a house. Seemingly on top of and in control of himself despite the loss of his sons (and everyone else’s sons) years, years ago, in the First World War. And from the mind of one presented to us as so contained, so in control, just that little unfurling of grief, that baring of a stark distrust, disillusionment in what he was in all likelihood brought up putting his faith in without question: order, command, the way of doing things. Regimentation. And it took his sons from him, and revealed itself not to be the keeper or restorer of anything. And he allows it to slacken and fall away.
That’s painful, but important. Agony to go through but important to see.