…from Ivy Compton-Burnett:
People have no chance to grow up. A lifetime is not long enough.
…from Ivy Compton-Burnett:
People have no chance to grow up. A lifetime is not long enough.
Readers of this blog, or anyone who knows me, won’t be surprised that I am recommending a book called “The Inner Life of Cats.” It was written by Thomas McNamee and if you are an animal lover or a friend to the felines, you will enjoy it. I particularly appreciated that the author, like me, seems enamoured of Rome and her various cat colonies. (Some links here to my photographs of Rome’s cats, as well as other cats.)
But what I loved most about — or perhaps needed from — the book was McNamee’s opening up about the grief he felt when his beloved cat, Augusta, died. I sobbed reading some of it. Those of you who followed my old website might remember when my senior cats died (within six months of each other). What I appreciated about McNamee’s writing is that he was able to express what the loss did to him in a way I never could. I wrote a sort of detached piece here about trying to scatter Orloff’s and Pushkin’s ashes – I made sure it was written in a way that was almost a travelogue, with little snippets of humour, because I feared the waterfall of tears that would ensue if I were honest about the depths of my grief. (I still have their ashes, fyi.)
This passage from McNamee’s book reflects far more accurately my experience:
It will tear a hole in your life. Her love was unconditional. When you stayed away too long, she didn’t sulk when you came home, she welcomed you with gladness. She was so innocent. So naive. No human being ever loved you with the purity of her love. Did you tell her things you never told anyone else? Did she purr just because you were there — because you existed? His stuff is going to be all over your house. What are you going to do with his bed? His toys? You’re going to listen and listen for the bup-bup-bup of his paws on the floor as he comes trotting to greet you, and you won’t hear it. You’re not going to be able to sleep. You’re going to eat too much, or not enough. You’re going to wonder if there’s something wrong with you. A lot of people stay home just so they won’t have to hear people say, “Come on, it was only a cat.” Somebody’s going to tell you to get a kitten, and you’re going to think, No! No kitten could possibly replace her.
Oh Lord, how I remember the silly people who said that to me — it was only a cat. What idiots. Why didn’t I just tell them to f**k off?
This next passage also rings true:
Augusta’s death paralyzed me for two months at least, and I’m not ashamed of that. Excessiveness is in the eye of the judge, and in this matter only I can judge. I did find myself defending myself sometimes, sometimes against myself, more often against someone mystified, whose mystification as time passed shaded into annoyance, or just distance. You are as alone as you have ever been. You hoard your grief. You stay home. Friends ask you out to dinner, you find a lie for declining. Work? You can’t focus on anything, except this one thing. In the loss is the life you shared, Wiman says. Now you’re supposed to see the joy and the light in it, somehow to be in that life. How is that supposed to be possible? The fucking cat is dead.
And this – the hours of guilt I have experienced thinking about Orloff and Pushkin, the times I wasn’t patient with them, the times I left them with sitters, and above all, their deaths — did I wait too long? Did I not give them enough time – did they still want to live in spite of their illness or pain?:
“I could have loved you better,” I sang the Tom Paxton song back through time to Augusta. “Didn’t mean to be unkind/You know it was the last thing on my mind.” Maybe not the last thing, but bad enough. I wasn’t paying attention, Augusta. How did you feel when we went away? I didn’t even think. You were glad to see us when we returned, which was enough to fool ourselves into believing it must have been all right. You were only a cat. We didn’t mean to be unkind. She loved us anyway. What choice did she have? Who else was she going to love? Augusta had love inborn. She had to do something with it.
McNamee and his wife did eventually get another cat. I have yet to do so. I tell people that it is because we travel so much, et cetera, but in reality, I don’t know that I want to feel that kind of love — and therefore the inevitable loss that will follow down the line — again. Oh, I imagine that one day there will be another cat in my life, in my heart, but for now, I am sticking to working with the street ferals in Toronto and enjoying books about cats. So glad I found “The Inner Life of Cats.”
Before JFK was even a Congressman (or a war hero) and when Spencer Tracy was a top Hollywood star (a status that would last till the end of his life). Tracy was getting his copy of JFK’s book, Why England Slept, autographed. Very touching.
Currently reading Robert Caro’s books about Lyndon Johnson (link here to the first in the series). What a life; what a life force Johnson was. I’m laughing. I’m crying. I’m in awe of the good and the bad and the ugly and the beautiful of the man – the hate, the love, the pain, the whole damn thing.
Most of all, reading these books has confirmed to me something I’ve always thought: hippies are evil.
Update on my New Year’s Resolutions — yes, I am reading Finnegans Wake. And it ain’t no piece o’cake. Ulysses was rather easy to read, and not only by comparison. It was actually a linear story. Finnegans Wake is not and there is an awful lot of made-up language (puns, portmanteaux and the like) in it. Still, one can follow. Book One was easy. Book Two a good deal more opaque. Book Three I am finding readable and quite funny.
In fact, I would suggest the key to reading Finnegans Wake and not letting it intimidate or frustrate you is to simply realize it is comedy — dark, at times, slapstick, vulgar and, on occasion, deeply literary. It reads as if someone had written out their dreams upon waking.
It also helps to be half-Norwegian, or know something of Norway and its culture. References to Ibsen and Norwegian words are strewn throughout the book and the story features Norwegian characters, as well.
Finally, it helps to know the song (especially for Book One).
Many moons ago, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I went to Poland to visit a friend of mine. Her name was Eva (Ewa) and she had been a classmate of mine at the Sorbonne. We always got along well at school. But that all changed in Warsaw, when she asked me what I hoped to see in Poland. Well, I told her, Auschwitz, of course, and also the Warsaw Ghetto.
Her face fell. She informed me that the former Ghetto was now nothing more than a small plaque. Not interesting. Not worth it. She then said I should not go to Auschwitz. Why not, I asked. Because, she said, Poles died there too. By “Poles” she meant Catholics. She did not consider Polish Jews to be Poles. I was stunned. She went on to say that it was wrong to think it was mostly Jews who died in Auschwitz and that it was really all about the suffering of “real Poles” and so on. I was quite young and had never been exposed to this kind of revisionism and trivializing of the suffering of Jews. Now, sadly, it is old hat to me. But back then it was new and I was shocked.
I insisted, though, and I went to Auschwitz without Eva. She was mad. She was beyond mad. After I left Poland and went back to Paris our friendship was pretty much over. Once — when I had returned to Canada — she sent a Christmas card, but that was because she was trying to get information on how to immigrate to Canada. She had married a Lebanese man (another piece of the puzzle!), she wrote, and he spoke French so Canada would be perfect.
I could not help her and that was that. That trip to Poland was a disturbing experience for me. I was so naïve (now that I am less so, I hope I will be able to visit Auschwitz again). I regret that I did not call her out more. All I did was say, “Well, mostly Jews died there” and “I am going to visit, even if you don’t want to go with me.”
All of this has never left my memory (which is freakish) but it came back in even more vivid colours when I recently read these two books. The first is about a particularly odious Polish hate crime against Jews, the second is about the intense envy that feeds so much anti-Semitism.
Today we say “never forget” and “never again.” The problem is that so many who want it to happen again don’t care or will not admit that it happened in the first place.
Update: It occurs to me I should link here to one of my favourite novels, Peter Matthiessen’s In Paradise. It takes place in Auschwitz, though in the 1990s, and among its themes is Polish anti-Semitism.
Born on this day in 1449, Lorenzo de Medici, “Il Magnifico.” He wrote — among other things — the following words:
Quant’ e bella giovinezza,
Che si fugge tuttavia!
Chi vuol esser lieto, sia:
di doman non c’e certezza.
If you know any romance languages, you can probably figure that out, but just in case, it says (more or less), “How beautiful is youth (or how beautiful is it to be young)/which nevertheless disappears (runs away)/Be happy all who wish to be/of tomorrow there is no certainty.”
Basically, “enjoy life while you can.”
I am currently reading this book, from which I am learning a good deal. Tim Parks’ non-fiction are always terrific. (Not saying his novels aren’t terrific, I just haven’t read any of them — yet.)
Update: Ok, I just finished the afore-linked Tim Parks book and it includes his translation of the bit of poetry above. His translation is, obviously, better than mine. Here it is: How fine youth is/Though it flee away/Let he who wishes, enjoy/Nothing’s certain tomorrow.
I don’t usually do book recommendations on my site but today I will. I read insane amounts — mostly non-fiction but some fiction — and the fact that I am taking time to write about these two books tells you what they meant to me.
The books are Bettyville, by George Hodgman, and The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal. In a way, they are similar: both stories about family, about the past, about loss and love and about being grateful in the present. But they are different, of course.
The Hare with Amber Eyes is drawn against the painful backdrop of the relentless (and seemingly endless) persecution of Jews in Europe, the sickness of the Holocaust, and also has a strong art history focus (something I really appreciated).
De Waal is English, but a descendant of the (originally Russian) Ephrussi family, for a time on a par with the Rothschilds (even related by marriage to them) in terms of wealth and influence in parts of Europe. Proust’s Swann is said to have been based on Charles Ephrussi.
When de Waal inherits some “netsuke” from a favorite relative (he represents the fifth generation of his family to inherit them), he decides to trace their journey, which includes stops in Paris and Japan and Vienna. And it is truly something, particularly when you discover how the netsuke escaped being stolen by the Nazis, while pretty much all the rest of the Ephrussi art was taken.
In some ways, the book reminded me of the brilliant movie, “Woman in Gold”, though the former unfolds over a much longer period of time.
Bettyville is, on the surface, a memoir with less grandeur, but Hodgman’s portrait of his mother, Betty, is mighty grand. My own mom died, just short of her 93rd birthday, last year, and I saw so much of her in Betty. Same generation, same decency, work ethic, wit, and a similar stubborn dance with declining independence. The same good, strong people.
Hodgman is a successful editor and writer who, after growing up in Missouri in the ’60s and ’70s as a clever — though struggling and often bullied — gay kid, moved to New York. Along with an enviable career, he got into drugs, went into rehab, had some dysfunctional relationships, all of which he writes about with tremendous humor and no self-pity.
When his mother began fading, he moved back, initially to find someone else to care for her, but then decided to see her home, as he says, himself. In the process he finds “home”, in a manner. It is certainly touching to see him discover Missouri — fly-over country — as an adult, after having felt out of place so often as a kid and teenager. Honestly, I laughed, I laughed so hard I cried, and I just plain cried.
Read them both!
Very important. From last year but truly timeless.
I’ve often thought of my experience of adulthood thus far as one of incrementally discovering that there’s no institution, or walk of life, in which everybody isn’t just winging it. Growing up, I assumed that the newspaper on the breakfast table must be assembled by people who truly knew what they were doing; then I got a job at a newspaper. Unconsciously, I transferred my assumptions of competence to (among others) people who worked in government. Then I got to know a few people who did – and who’d admit, after a pint or two, that their jobs involved staggering from crisis to crisis, concocting credible-sounding policies in cars en route to press conferences, exactly as portrayed in The Thick of It.
By the way, the author of this column wrote this very helpful book — I read it shortly after my brother died and it did indeed allow me to do just as its title suggests.