Tag Archives: Pat Kavanagh

Because I mourn…

I read a Julian Barnes book for the first time this year. Despite being into literary fiction, I always thought Barnes was too highbrow for me. But I discovered Levels of Life, his latest work, while browsing at my favourite Kentish Town bookshop and came across a passage that so resonated with me, I decided to buy it just to be able to re-read it at home.

In the third and last part of the book, Barnes talks poignantly about how he still struggles with the grief over the loss of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who died in 2008. Thirty years ago, in one of his novels, Barnes had to imagine and describe the feelings of grief of a widowed character in his sixties; only to be surprised by the accuracy of his words, when his own turn came.

Here is an excerpt:

“…Afterwards comes the madness. And then the loneliness: not the spectacular solitude you had anticipated, not the interesting martyrdom of widowhood, but just loneliness.You expect something almost geological – vertigo in a shelving canyon – but it’s not like that ; it’s just misery as regular as a job… [People say] you’ll come out of it…And you do come out of it, that’s true. But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the Downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil slick; you are tarred and feathered for life.”

Often the loss of a loved one, even if they are alive, can also feel like death, and the dark times that follow like one long mourning you may or may not come out of. The loss of dreams can be another form of death, the letting go of something that could have been and now will never be.

I have lost many of both.

What if there is a yet unrevealed alternative path to happiness you had not envisaged? We all live in conviction that the happy ending we had foreseen for ourselves was the only ending possible. Once the script is changed, and we realise it cannot be achieved, we struggle to accept any other.

In Levels of Life, Barnes asks the “unanswerable question: what is ‘success’ in mourning? Does it lie in remembering or in forgetting? A staying still or a moving on? Or some combination or both?”

I reckon the intensity of one’s grief is always in direct proportion to the intensity of the love there once was. That is why while I feel for Barnes’ suffering, I also envy him for having known such a great love even death cannot obliterate.

The intensity of a love that transcends our earthy existence; to be able to love and be loved in this undying manner – does it exist, and, if it does, can there be anything more rewarding in life?

This reminds me of German singer Herbert Grönemeyer‘s Der Weg. Grönemeyer, a widower, wrote the song with his late wife in mind and the love they shared. The ending words always make me crumble:

Habe dich sicher / I have you safe
In meiner Seele / Inside my soul
Ich trag dich bei mir / I’ll carry you with me
Bis der Vorhang fällt / Until the curtain falls

Ich trag dich bei mir / I’ll carry you with me
Bis der Vorhang fällt / Until the curtain falls

Sometimes, Barnes says, “you want to go on loving the pain.”

Well, I say, sometimes you just need to go on loving. Until the curtain falls.