There are many ways to die, that much becomes clear as Judith Hermann's novel Alice unfolds and five separate but interconnected stories about five men in Alice's life who do so.
It sounds like a dreadful premise for a book and not one you would want to pick up any day soon, so I am not sure what tempted me in, but I'm not too proud to admit that it might have all been helped by the cover. Exquisite shades of teal and green, and there bobbing on the surface of the lake and looking out towards mountains and islands is a young woman, whilst gliding in her direction, towards the spine on the back cover is a swan. The pair of them seem to be creating the same ripples and it is hard not to think of the analogy of what lies beneath for both... for the swan doing all that work below the surface, and for the woman perhaps what lies beneath the surface of her life.
On the other hand perhaps I have just made that up and the book designer and the publishers might be guffawing into their coffee thinking 'Hell no, we just liked the picture...'
Whatever, I was seduced into Alice's life and the deaths various by the beguiling nature of the writing which most certainly demands that a reader searches for what lies beneath too. There is much that is unsayable about grief and the temptation would be for a writer to try and say it all, Judith Hermann doesn't which meant this reader had to work.
In which case perhaps the online day job helped.
I work with people's reactions to death and serious illness for fifteen hours a week (it may not sound like much, though it feels like many more for the concentration I need) and have done for the last three and a half years. I read what people write, I reply to them. I never see them so have to listen intently for all the nuances of distress and pain and anguish, and I only have words to work with as a response, one reply can sometimes take me an hour, so I think I might be particularly well tuned into the wavelength of the Valley of the Shadow of... and anyone else's words about death and dying.
First Misha, the ex-lover, and Alice has been invited by Misha's wife and child to bid her farewells as Misha lays dying in hospital.
The setting is not Berlin, which is home for Alice, the place is strange and the events seem dislocated and disorientating for both Alice and the reader trying to get a foothold in the book.
Then Conrad, an old friend who dies very unexpectedly in Italy while Alice is visiting with friends. The setting is warm whilst still distant and unknowable
Friend Richard's death is anticipated and discussed openly, funeral plans are made by him and everything is known and under control.
Malte's death, (Alice's uncle) has been by his own hand as a young man just a month before Alice's birth. Eventually Alice, feeling a desperate need to make a connection and know more, contacts Malte's lover Frederick, now an old man and this story highlights so clearly the legacy of suicide.... the territory in which it unwittingly places those left behind, and the unexpected courses that may have to be navigated as a direct consequence.
The first three are deaths that Alice can meet with a degree of detachment, the fourth feels much nearer to home, all offering small cumulative lessons in coping that may prepare her for the big one. With it will come enlightenment for Alice, about what death really means, and what grief truly feels like, this is far deeper than process and impact, legacy and aftermath... this is excruciating pain and the question is, with that pain, will the resilience that she has built up through life see her through.
When dealing with the memories..
'It occurred to Alice that she apparently couldn't choose the memories; they came of their own accord...'
and the possessions...
'There seemed to be a structure to these actions, time that had to pass. First find it, then comprehend, then throw it away. Achieve a certain distance. Take your time...'
Alice's vulnerability and loneliness after her loss understated but ever-present, and didn't Joni Mitchell find the very best lines to express that ...' the bed's too big, the frying pan's too wide', that line always flies unbidden into my mind.
Perhaps there can be no right and no wrong order for these things, but if there has to be one it seems infinitely preferable to build that resilience to loss, as Alice does, through lesser emotional connections than to have to take the big whammy on the chin first. It's why children have pet hamsters after all isn't it, to learn to love, to care for and to lose, and to discover an emotional language in order to deal with it. Oh the vale of tears chez dovegrey after Chippy the First and Chippy the Second shuffled off their respective mortal coils.
Judith Hermann's writing, in Margot Dembo's translation, felt graceful and compelling, quietly understated and frequently resembling those shortened thought patterns that accompany grief. It can be hard to string a sentence together when you are mourning and pre-occupied by loss, and I somehow felt that emanating from the characters as I read and was thus drawn deeper and deeper into the settings and the lives. In searching around for opinions on this book I came across Philip Hensher's here...one of the few (and don't miss the single very Guardianesque comment that follows it)
I like the thought of, and hadn't made the connection to the origins of the novel of the separate narrative, but of course now that Philip Hensher mentions it...
Over the last 40 years, novelists have begun to explore ways in which the old formal bonds may be shed, too. The old formal constraints, in which all the characters somehow know each other and in which their motives lead to some kind of mutual solution have started to seem unnecessary. After VS Naipaul's magisterial In a Free State , all sorts of parallel narratives, thematically collected stories, "linked collections" of short stories and other still more unexpected intermediate forms have emerged.
... well it's as plain as a pikestaff.
It is years since I read In a Free State but I remember being bowled over by it. Now I'm trying to think of more novels that are written in this way, those with very slight connections between each narrative and quite a few come to mind...Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell...would that count??
How well I recall a Cloud Atlas cynic suggesting to me that actually this was really a collection of short stories and all the author had to do was add in a tiny connection and hey presto a novel. That conversation took place at a book group, with a very astute reading man called Richard, long dead, and it has bemused and kept me thinking for years. Alice is quite different, one life many narratives and obvious threads of connection throughout. A book that I am very pleased to have read, and not only because that teal cover looks nice against the yellow ochre colour scheme in the kitchen.
I quite like the way they make books like this make me seek out the connections, so do any more separate narrative novels come to mind??
POSTSCRIPT :: Since writing these thoughts Alice by Judith Hermann has been short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It would seem I am not alone in my admiration.