A friend, a friend who lives a long way away, is locked in grief. It’s as if she is in another room that I can’t reach, but this marvellous novel, Abide with Me, helped me know something of that room. I can’t think of a book, fiction or non-fiction, that has said more to me about grief. It also taught me much more about myself and the world, and I read its clear prose and enjoyed the story with much pleasure. What more can anybody ask of a novel?
I’d never heard of Elizabeth Strout, and I read the book because somebody, I can’t remember who, had recommended it on Goodreads with great energy and conviction. I now learn that Strout, an American from Maine, has won the Pulitzer prize and written books that have sold over a million copies and be made into films.
Then I was shocked, even insulted, to learn that Abide With Me is her least popular book and that while many critics have praised it others have condemned it. What, I wonder, must her other books be like? I will soon know because I have downloaded Olive Kitteridge, her novel that won the Pulitzer Prize and has sold more than a million copies. I have the highest expectations, so high I’m perhaps bound to be disappointed.
It’s perhaps not surprising that a novel about grief is not popular. Do people want to read about grief and death? Plus Strout repeatedly quotes the Bible, such wonderful prose, and the writings of Dietrich Boenhoeffer, a German theologian who was executed after participating in a plot against Hitler. I liked the way that she wove both into the story, but some might be irritated.
The novel is set in Maine, up the river, far from big cities, and the repeated descriptions of the frozen but beautiful winter landscape fit exactly with the mood of the novel. Strout was born in Maine, and the state is clearly deep inside her—as Northumberland is deep inside Kathleen Raine. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2019/06/15/i-read-a-book-of-poems-i-loved-and-discover-that-i-read-it-two-years-ago-but-completely-forgot-it/ I can’t say that South London is deep inside me, although I suppose that it must be. Countryside, especially wild countryside, inspires more than cities.
The novel almost made me religious. I don’t know if Strout is religious, but God clearly knows something that Freud doesn’t. The main character—Tyler, the grieving priest—feels God, while Rhona, a ridiculous woman with a doctorate in psychology, tries to explain what is happening to Tyler’s grieving small daughter by resorting to Freud. She sounds absurd.
I took many quotes from the book, and some spoke to me very directly. Below are the comments with added thoughts from me in italic.
He liked to compliment people—he always had. Who, after all, wasn’t afraid, deep down, as Pascal had been, of those “spaces of nothing . . . which know nothing of me”? Who, in God’s world, he thought, wasn’t glad to hear that his presence really mattered?
He thought of Bonhoeffer writing that it was not love that sustained a marriage but the marriage that would sustain the love.
Life, what have you done to me? Why did you come? Why do you pass away?
“I like to help,” his mother answered. “When there’s no one left for me to help, I will just be a worthless old woman.”
This made me think of older women I have known who were bred to serve others and became lost when there was nobody left to serve.
“Trouble is,” George said, and cleared his throat, “for a man who needs an audience, the audience will never be enough. He’ll even come to dislike the audience. It’s a trap, you see.”
“A man who needs an audience” made me think of my brothers, one a stand-up and one who loves to act. I don’t see signs yet of them coming to dislike the audience, but perhaps that will come. I hope not.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee . . . O Lord, abide with me.
We should be there with the grieving. There is no magic but being there.
Long-ago terrors from childhood, disappointments from her years of marriage, more recent anxieties and confusions, were all tucked down inside her.
A summary of a human being.
He was glad he was not a woman; it seemed to him their job was immeasurably more difficult than a man’s.
“You get to be my age, Tyler, and you realize something. People hate to hear the truth. They hate it.”
People were comforted by writing things down.
I certainly am.
“Do you think,” Tyler wrote, “that because we have learned the sun does not go down, that in fact we are going around at a dizzying speed, that the sun is not the only star in the heavens—do you think this means we are any less important than we thought we were? Oh, we are far less important than we thought we were, and we are far, far more important than we think we are. Do you imagine that the scientist and the poet are not united? Do you assume you can answer the question of who we are and why we are here by rational thought alone? It is your job, your honor, your birthright, to bear the burden of this mystery. And it is your job to ask, in every thought, word, and deed: How can love best be served?
“It is your job, your honor, your birthright, to bear the burden of this mystery.” Marvellous.
He saw that he had broken a cardinal rule of homiletics; he had used the word “you” instead of “we.”
I’d never heard the word homilectics, but I could perhaps have guessed that it meant-the art of writing homilies; and the cardinal rule is right.
“Tyler,” said George, slowly stretching his legs out in front of him, “are you irritated with the man because he was human? Because he wrote about courage, but experienced fear? What was it you’d have liked him to do, Tyler? Stayed alive and faced the prison of domestic drudgery where no one would hail him as a hero? Lived long enough for the seventeen-year-old to become a middle-aged wife who was tired of attending to the laundry and meals, who no longer lit up like a Christmas tree every time he walked through the door? Would you prefer he not be marched out naked to be hanged in the woods, but live to face the horrors of old age, to have his wife die, his children move away?”
“Goodness,” Tyler said. He put down the teacup and loosened his tie. “Well, both scenarios require a great deal of courage, I think.”
George smiled with his mouth closed, but his old eyes were kind as they rested on Tyler. “Most scenarios do.”
George shrugged. “You just stood up to your mother, Tyler. I should think now you could take on the world.”
My mother was always a support rather than a burden to me. I was lucky, but I know people for whom their mother has been a curse. It’s hard to stand up to your mother, but sometimes it must be done.
ANYONE WHO HAS EVER GRIEVED knows that grieving carries with it a tremendous wear and tear to the body itself, never mind the soul. Loss is an assault; a certain exhaustion, as strong as the pull of the moon on the tides, needs to be allowed for eventually.
Over and over he played it out in his mind—the image of Lauren’s suffering those final days—and picturing this, he felt that if he’d had the wherewithal and means, he might have slipped a needle into her so that she need not wake up and learn all over again that she was sick and had to leave her babies. He would have ended her life, if he had dared. She had dared. He thought about this often. It even came to seem to him that it was their last act of intimacy, his leaving the bottle of pills for her. It was wrong, but he would do it again. For this reason he never spoke of it; it was their final, private deed.
A religious man supports assisted suicide.
“I suspect the most we can hope for, and it’s no small hope, is that we never give up, that we never stop giving ourselves permission to try to love and receive love.”
“Good,” said George. “Confusion will prevent you from being dogmatic. A dogmatic pastor is useless.”
Similarly a dogmatic doctor may be useless.
He thought of Kierkegaard writing that “No one is born devoid of spirit, and no matter how many may go to their death with this spiritlessness, it is not the fault of Life.”