"We know that extreme physical pain drives out language," Julian Barneswrites in Nothing to be Frightened Of, but "it's dispiriting to learn that mental pain does the same." The "nothing" of Barnes's title is death, the thought of which produces an emotion, fear – fear so intense, so pervasive, as to be at times disabling. Death as an event, a fact rather than an emotion, is literally the Stünde Null, the zero hour, of our lives. None of us is excepted, death's hit rate is 100%. From the perspective of the defunct, we know very little. Dead men don't write books. (We do get the occasional insight. After suffering a major heart attack, the Australian billionaire Kerry Packer is said to have whispered to his sons, "I've been to the other side, and there's fuck all there.")
Those of us who are still standing after a death – what CS Lewis termed "the club of the left-over living" – experience an emotion, grief, which can be so stunning, so disorientating, as to feel like derangement. We are said to be "mad" with grief. Everything seems at an impossible angle, we feel like strangers in the world. More, we feel like strangers in our own midst. We are lost for words.
If grief drives out language, how can language be pressed into its service? How can the writer orient disorientation? In his award-winning poetry collection A Scattering, Christopher Reid anatomises the different stages of grief – anticipated grief, as his wife Lucinda is dying from a brain tumour, then the actual death and its long, varied aftermath. We see him as "he mazes the pages / of his notebook, in pursuit / of some safe way out". CS Lewis, after the death of his wife Joy, wrote as "a defence against total collapse, a safety-valve". Edmund Wilson, flying from New York to California on hearing of the death of his wife (from falling in high heels), was already writing on the plane, as if the chaos of his emotions could somehow be kettled by the literary act. Joyce Carol Oates, in A Widow's Story, published in March, arms herself with TS Eliot's image of "shoring these fragments against our ruin".
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, founder of the modern grief movement (she gave us the "Five Stages of Grief" theory), insisted that "Telling your story often and in detail is primal to the grieving process. You must get it out. Grief must be witnessed to be healed." This instruction comes straight out of the principle of catharsis, but there is little evidence to support its efficacy over other, possibly more reticent, ways of grieving. Barnes calls it the "therapeuto-autobiographical fallacy" – writing doesn't help, he testifies gloomily, your suffering is not alleviated.
So why do it? Is it, as Lorrie Moore has suggested rather pompously, "to alleviate the suffering of not writing"? Barnes confesses that wanting to see the body of his dead mother "came more … from writerly curiosity than filial feeling". This introduces the idea of the divided self: the self that does the grieving, and the self that composes a commentary on it, a state acknowledged by CS Lewis in the carefully calibrated title of his memoir,A Grief Observed. If this duality is a necessary contrivance for the writer using the first person, it is very much a precondition of the grief memoir. In literary terms, its success depends on the two selves somehow becoming integrated, as happens in Reid's poem sequence, rightly hailed as a landmark in the literature of grief, and of which he has said "it is strange that my best work came from the worst thing that's ever happened to me".
The same cannot be claimed for Oates, whose divided self manifests in A Widow's Story as an almost cosmic (not to say comic) exaggeration. She grieves, we are told, as Joyce Smith, widow of Raymond Smith to whom she was married for "forty seven years and twenty five days". Joyce Smith is not a writer but a wife. Yet the Joyce who authors the memoir is Oates, not a wife but a writer (even, at one point, "JCO", "an adjective", a kind of disembodied word-machine). She makes so much of this separation that the reader is left baffled as to who she is – as perhaps was her husband, from whom, she says, she "walled off" a great part of her life; could he, she wonders, have ever really known her, especially as he never read her fiction, or the "vicious reviews, opprobrium of all sorts"? Apparently, it's "JCO" who goes on tour to promote her bestselling account of Joyce Smith's grief, while Joyce Smith is left at home doing the vacuuming, feeding the cats, waiting for her glamorous doppelgänger to exit the limousine and sashay up the drive.
There's so much of these two Joyces and their relationship to each other – a kind of incestuous enlargement – that the man they're both meant to be grieving for and memorialising very nearly vanishes (which one suspects he would rather do). By contrast, Reid's wife Lucinda emerges in his poem as a three-dimensional person, the animating presence of the work. CS Lewis achieves the same for his wife, Joy. They are both modest observers of their own sorrow, rather than declaimers of it; their loss is secondary to the person they mourn, who remains the main object. In this way they avoid the great pitfall of the grief memoir: using the dead as "writing meat", Muriel Spark's sanguine expression for the cannibalising instincts of the writer. No sooner have the cadavers cooled (or before, in Iris Murdoch's case, as her husband John Bayley published his first book about her when she was still alive with Alzheimer's), than the grief memoirist begins consuming the identity they once enclosed. In The Long Goodbye, out this week, Meghan O'Rourke recounts how, when scattering the ashes of her mother, they blew back in the family's faces – an almost literal ingesting of the dead.
Clearly, there is an appetite for grief. Since the appearance of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005 (a major cultural event including a Broadway show), the grief memoir has featured as plat du jour on many a publisher's menu. It's an eat-all-you-can affair: since Didion we have had, to name a few, David Rieff's Swimming in a Sea of Death, (about his mother, Susan Sontag), Anne Roiphe's Epilogue, and Roland Barthes's posthumous Mourning Diary. In the past few months alone there is JCO's A Widow's Story, O'Rourke's The Long Goodbye and Francisco Goldman's just-published Say Her Name, an autobiographical novel about the death of his young wife Aura in a surfing accident.
These last three are all literary attempts at grief, all were excerpted in the New Yorker, all come packaged with stellar endorsements from fellow writers (and sometimes colleagues – JCO, a professor of creative writing at Princeton University, supplies a blurb for O'Rourke, visiting lecturer in creative writing at Princeton University). Thus buttressed by a professional support-group, the bereaved writer projects his or her mask of mourning into the public domain and can expect to be treated with a kind of 19th-century douceur.
O'Rourke was enjoying a successful career as a poet, editor and critic (Paris Review, Slate, The New Yorker) when death, like Porlock, brusquely intruded on her dream of Kubla Khan's pleasure dome. On Christmas Day 2008, her mother Barbara died of colorectal cancer at the family home in Rockville, New York. O'Rourke was plunged into the dark waters of grief, with all its attendant monsters – sensory confusion, guilt, insomnia. The bereaved will recognise the territory. Like JCO, who is menaced by "the threat of totally losing control", who wants to "comprehend" her experience of grief in a "coherent way", "categorise" it, O'Rourke tries to "ransack the moment for understanding", "to make sense" of it: "I gave up trying to sleep. Instead, I read, turning to books to understand what was happening to me … I googled 'grief.'"
The divided self: she feels "split in two, like a tree hit by lightning"; she agonises, thrashes about, unwashed dishes pile up in the sink, she lurches with the vertigo of grief, and at the same time she reads about it. Google returns the standard texts – Hamlet, Freud's Mourning and Melancholia, Philippe Ariès's The Hour of Our Death, endless sociological and "scientific" studies. She takes notes, she writes. She writes this: "We, like the snow, are always falling toward the ground"; "Holiday joy now comes with shards of pain." And this: "A bitter rain came down for days on end, as if the gods knew my sorrow". And this: "But life is out there in the world, in the hum of enterprise, flirtation, engagement, watching a sunrise, the sand under your feet, and the green in your eyes; life is in the moths fluttering up at dusk into the candle flames on a porch in summer."
Metaphysical platitude, repetition, obsession, incoherence, "a car crash of cliché" – all are permissible because this is how grief is, the thing itself. Or so Julian Barnes argues in a strangely neutered review of A Widow's Story. Since "autobiographical accounts of grief are unfalsifiable," he claims, they are "therefore unreviewable by any normal criteria". So it is from behind a critical cordon sanitaire that JCO can write "the mind floats free, a frail balloon drifting into the sky"; "my concentration [is] broken and scattered like a cheap mirror"; "Those days! – nights!" (Oh! those exclamation marks!). Or Didion can insist melodramatically that the dead are forewarned, "like Gawain in the Chanson de Roland" (her italics). Or Goldman can dramatise himself, metaphorically, as both the wave that killed his wife and as "Orpheus descending into memory" to haul her back.
Like most of us, these writers all indulge the hope of bringing the lost one back to life. This is Didion's "magical thinking" (from Freud), a kind of cognitive trick or illusion whereby we tell ourselves that the laws of the universe can be repealed, the past undone. Didion keeps her dead husband's shoes because "he might need them". Goldman continues to send his wife Aura emails. O'Rourke thinks that if she can locate a painting in a gallery that she had seen as a child with her mother, then her mother will be "resurrected" beside her "like a Star Wars hologram". This is a clumsy simile – resurrection is the restoration of life to the dead, not a virtual image projected by George Lucas – and it elbows out the deeper reflection, available to CS Lewis, of how terrible it is to want to drag the dead back to life, how unloving – then they'd have to go through the business of dying all over again. Here we are presented with the difference between thinking about something and thinking something.
It's not that writers feel grief in different ways to the rest of us (I think); it's that they enact it differently, often claiming through writing a privileged life of meaning, a superior value, what Philip Roth calls "fictional amplification". When JCO writes that her memoir is "steeped in the grittiest of details as the bed linens of poor Emma Bovary were steeped in her physical agony", the aggrandisement is embarrassingly explicit. In presenting Say Her Nameas an "autobiographical novel", Goldman authorises his own dramatic overreach. His dubious achievement is to reduce a real person – his wife Aura Estrada – to a narrative device, while he hides behind the unreliable narrator, "Francisco Goldman", unfalsifiable and beyond critical reach.
'Through language we are beseeching others who are strangers to us not merely to read what we have written but to absorb it, be moved by it, to feel," says JCO. When O'Rourke portrays herself "sitting here with my books and my words", she wants us to know that she is working on our behalf, trying to map "the complexity of loss today". Should we trust them? The promotion to the universal is a dangerous one. Writers can devote a lot of time to grief because they are working, this is what they do. The professional hazard, of which they seem only liminally conscious, is that it can be habit-forming, Hamlet's "stubborness" and "obstinate condolence". O'Rourke confides: "I count the hours until I can go be alone and get back to my secret preoccupation, my romance with my lost mother" … "Everything had become fodder for nostalgia." Grief-meat.
They risk falling into a category of grievers who, according to Ruth Davis Konigsberg, author of The Truth About Grief: The Myth of its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss, are in thrall to "unnecessarily lengthy – and agonising – models for coping with grief that have created more anxiety about the experience instead of alleviating it". JCO becomes furious when a colleague says, "Writing up a storm, eh, Joyce?", as if this isn't exactly what she's doing, scribbling hundreds of journal entries from the day her husband is admitted to hospital (the resulting book is a bloated 417 pages long). CS Lewis, alert to the greed of grief, confined his "jottings" to four notebooks, all that he could find in the house. His sorrow didn't end there, of course, but for him the question of self-restraint (held in such suspicion by modern psychiatry) encompassed a moral duty neither to trivialise nor aggrandise death.
Grief is awful, but books about it don't have to be. If the pain is inexpressible, its atmosphere and its effects can be described. When, inJacob's Room, the grieving widow Betty Flanders sits on the beach and writes a letter, Virginia Woolf gives us her tears thus: "The entire bay quivered; the lighthouse wobbled; and she had the illusion that the mast of Mr Connor's yacht was bending like a wax candle in the sun. She winked quickly. Accidents were awful things. She winked again. The mast was straight; the waves were regular, the lighthouse was upright."
Montaigne took a different tack: he wrote of grief by writing it off. "I am among those who are most free from this emotion," he declared in his essay "On Sadness". "I neither like it nor think well of it, even though the world, by common consent, has decided to honour it with special favour. Wisdom is decked out in it; so are Virtue and Conscience – a daft and monstrous adornment." Montaigne, who in the space of a few years lost his first-born daughter, his brother, his father and his dearest friend, experienced a grief so crushing he wished to die. But, after courageous and careful interrogation of his feelings, he embraced the position of the stoics, who placed grief in a category of negative passions or humours, forbidden to their sages, which included malice, envy, jealousy, pity, worry and melancholy (from melas, "black", and khole, "bile").
This is Charlotte Brontë (again, no stranger to death, having lost her siblings Branwell, Emily and Anne, all within 18 months), commenting on a bereaved acquaintance in a letter of 1852: "I am sorry for her: I believe she suffers; but I do not much like her style of expressing herself … and I doubt not she is sincere and in earnest when she talks of her 'precious, sainted father'; but I could wish she used simpler language." Brontë, like Woolf and Montaigne, was not amazed by grief, or offended by it. She recognised it for what it was, something (painfully) normal, the thing itself.
CS Lewis remembers vaguely "all sorts of ballads and folk-tales in which the dead tell us that our mourning does them some kind of wrong. They beg us to stop it." If the dead are right, he says, maybe our ancestors went very astray "with all that (sometimes lifelong) ritual of sorrow – visiting graves, keeping anniversaries, leaving the empty bedroom exactly as 'the departed' used to keep it … or even (like Queen Victoria) having the dead man's clothes put out for dinner every evening." Wasn't this like primitive forms of mummification, a way of making the dead "far more dead"? But perhaps, he continues, allowing them to "stay put" is not such a bad thing, for our sake and theirs. This is Reid's gift to his wife, his benediction. He is wounded – blessé – but finds the grace, the love, to allow her to die and stay dead with a "blessing".
Grief does not defeat language. It can be expressed, quietly or rowdily. JCO, O'Rourke, Goldman et al angle their memoirs as demonstrations of feelings. They protest, using slogans and placards. They complain that the good old ways of mourning are dead. All the ritual has gone, the religious props, the collective gathering in, and grief is now banished to some remote and frosty interior Scapa Flow where we just have to tough it out alone. "My pervasive loneliness was a result … of the privatisation of grief," O'Rourke discovers (as opposed to the result of pervasive loneliness?). This nostalgic reworking of the past is toxic for being unexamined and ahistorical. The ancients surrounded grief with vehement passions and rites (think of Achilles), but they didn't suffer less for it, as the stoics recognised.
Passionate, ritualised public grief has not disappeared, it has simply moved from one arena to another. Just like the Greek chorus, today's grief memoirists, the rowdy ones, do it for us (with surtitles). They are not so different from hired mourners, beating their breasts (JCO digs her fingernails into her arms and bleeds, as does O'Rourke), renting their garments and generally dishevelling (O'Rourke: "At one point I did not wash my hair for ten days"), waving talismans and amulets at us (photographs, shoes, friendship bracelets, answer-machine messages recorded by the dead). "If you want to write about yourself, you have to give them something," Didion has said. When the results are this bad, I'd rather have nothing. Don't give me grief.