The central question faced by every memoirist and essayist is only intensified for the writer who takes on the subject of the loss of a loved one. What is there to say about a ubiquitous event, one that is also so particular as to be defeatingly insular? The urge to assemble words about this passage, with its underlying desire to write the dead back into existence, can be seductive. But it is also perilous: the unhinging power of grief works against the establishment of the kind of control that is necessary to turn mourning into art.
That said, some of the finest nonfiction literature of any type can be classed as “grief memoir”: H Is for Hawk, Calvin Trillin’s About Alice, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and, of course, Joan Didion’s inimitable The Year of Magical Thinking. These succeed in their different ways because all confront the essential problem of personal loss to art-making: its exclusionary nature. In these books the impossibly private character of mourning is given a door through which all may enter, a portal crafted of recognition of this very problem. The best in the genre always admit a transformational paradox, that in its enclosed specificity the state of bereavement has the power to illuminate life itself. In a way, every genuine work of literature is fundamentally a grief memoir.
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An incontrovertible proof of the supposition is Katharine Smyth’s All the Lives We Ever Lived. It charts a metamorphosis: the death of the author’s father becomes a comprehension of all death through an act of close reading. Virignia Woolf’s field-changing novel of modernism To the Lighthouse—a work that—sought to embody nothing less than the passage of time itself–which is as much as to say loss. Woolf addressed the dual cataclysms of World War I and of losing her mother when she was a girl within a radical structure that to Eudora Welty represented “an instantaneous burst of coherence over chaos and the dark.” That structure is then borrowed by Smyth: the paradise lost marked by her father’s death and its recollection ten years later, connected by the “corridor” (Woolf’s term) that is the deep appreciation of a great novel. The latter becomes the fire that fuses the sand of Smyth’s personal memories into perfect glass.
Her father is to her “a minor god,” but Smyth’s project is not to present the fact. Rather, she demonstrates how gods are made. Geoffrey Smyth, trained as an architect but leaving his early promise unfulfilled, was witty and a loving parent of his only child. His life, as Smyth recounts, was as fascinating and as frail as innumerable others’; she knows this is unimportant to others in the same measure it is vitally important to her. Her mission is larger, a confrontation with the question that stalks through much of much of Woolf’s work: How do we know others? The seminal 1927 novel and now this memoir both answer, “in fragments and from angles.”
The raw materials of idea, sensation, and memory are commandingly collected and fluidly merged. For one, the reader experiences the pure delight of physical description done well, whether of Woolf’s inspirational Talland House in Cornwall today, the interiors of the Smyth family’s summer house in Rhode Island, or the peculiar light in a Boston hospital room. In All the Lives We Ever Lived the prose is buttery, performing culinary magic on difficult ingredients. Literary criticism has rarely been this pleasurable to read, or as imperative. “It was Woolf’s genius to express this richness [of the evanescence of human experience], to never gloss over intricacy or inconsistency, to communicate through her characters her ongoing struggle to find truth and meaning in a world where both are infinitely shifting.” It is Smyth’s genius too.
Smyth speaks of “the awful shapelessness of loss,” but her recognition of this very fact acts as the first step in gathering it into a shape that will become practically majestic. Smyth understands how deeply we need structures, and when one gets torn down it is up to us to build another as both monument and new home.
By chance I read this book the week after my mother died. It did not so much give solace—for its surpassing wisdom, subtitle notwithstanding, is that solace is made for oneself, never received—as offer the hope that solace is possible. Smyth finds Woolf’s account of the death of loved ones “eerily familiar.” In turn so did I find Smyth’s, down to almost every particular. Both of our parents lingered in dying, an unsettling consternation; believing, after many false alarms, the final moment was distant after all, we left—at which time it suddenly arrived; we photographed them on their deathbeds only to be shaken afterward by what Smyth calls the “obscenity” of such an image; experiencing the troubling sensation of a weird nothingness instead of the expected, morally superior, crushing grief.
Just as no one else is likely to undertake a memoir about loss as viewed through the prism of a passion for falconry, no future book on grief and reading fiction ought now to be contemplated. Because All the Lives We Ever Lived has definitively, and beautifully, consumed this particular scheme. I can imagine Woolf giving it her highest praise: it is enough.