On the Books We Read (and Write) to Get By
Death Shall Have No Dominion Over the Literature of Grief
Two years ago, a good friend of mine lost her adult son. He was a beautiful young man full of life, energy, and potential, and then in one sudden moment he was gone.
How is it possible to overcome the grief of such a monstrous loss? It was terrible to watch this friend try to figure out where to put all the agony and sadness brought on by the death of her son. I felt truly helpless; my efforts to help ease her pain were nothing more than little swats against a thousand-mile fortress. I understood that one does not recover from such things—this sort of grief seizes your life and changes you. It is with you till the end.
My friend is the Danish author Naja Marie Aidt, a very successful novelist, short story writer, and poet. Long a woman who has lived her life through language, Naja found that the death of her son dealt her a particularly vicious blow: she became incapable of reading or writing anything. This would be a disconcerting loss for anyone who values literature, but it was especially cruel for someone who has given so much to our literary community and who has lived her entire adult life from within it.
Well over a year into her grief, Naja was given a copy of Stéphane Mallarmé’s A Tomb for Anatole. In this lengthy, fragmented, and incomplete work wherein the great poet attempted to reconcile the death of his son, Naja at last found a way back to the language she had so long missed. As she told me over email, “That was the first time reading made any sense to me. I saw how Mallarmé, just like me, was not able to write ‘perfectly’ about the loss of his son. His texts are fragmented, not finished, imperfect, but they carry an enormous power anyway. The raw pain, the raw grief.”
Naja began to read other things, including Time Lived, Without Its Flow, Denise Riley’s examination of the drastic changes in her perception of time following her child’s death. Naja again felt a deep kinship. She could relate to Riley’s sense that, “when you lose a child you feel that you lose your future. You are stuck in a no-time, trying to reach your dead child in its ended time while you are still here, unable to feel time moving forward.”
As she read more and more books about loss, Naja started writing a longer narrative about the death of her son. Literature became her lifeline. Cut off from her normal sense of time and place, unable to do the things that had always brought her joy—unable even to think of what had occurred—Naja had found a way to contemplate her immense grief. “Since I was not able to listen to music or go to museums,” she said, “books that spoke to my heart became some sort of consolation for me. They helped me write. They helped me understand what I was going through.”
As Naja continued writing, her literary response to her son’s death became a full book. Indeed, the only reason I feel comfortable sharing Naja’s story in this column today is because Naja herself has already put it into the public eye: earlier this year she released to great acclaim as har døden taget noget fra dig så giv det tilbage (When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book).
Part of the book tracks the events leading up to Carl’s death, which Naja refers to as the “tree trunk.” Around this trunk grow branches and leaves: “poems, short essays, diary entries from before and after Carl passed away, his own writing, notes, lists, and prose, and other writers’ writing.” Unfortunately, this remarkable text currently only exists in Naja’s native Danish language, but I’m convinced it is a major work, one that will be of immense value to readers when it eventually reaches us in English translation.
Carl’s Book is part of a certain family of literature that we might call the “literature of grief.” These books deal with the most incomprehensible, unjust, and inexplicable episodes in our lives—they are when we, as humans, are working the hardest to answer the question of “Why?” and to reconcile the savage emotions that have taken control of our lives. They are records of burdens that define the very limits of our endurance and our understanding. As Naja explained to me, grief is incomprehensible. When facing a loss like hers, there is nothing so tidy as “five stages” of mourning; rather, life with such grief is wild and unpredictable, the sadness it brings is overpowering. The magnitude of this pain can be terrifying.
This is where great literature can play a unique role. As Naja noted when she read The Epic of Gilgamesh, commonly referred to as the oldest known narrative, “it struck me how humans even thousands of years ago had huge difficulties dealing with loss and death.” Grief has always been a major part of human life, and our literature has always attempted to reckon with it. Such bedrock emotions, borne of the most haunting burdens of the human condition, fundamentally unite us, whether we’re a 21st-century westerner or a Sumerian living 2,000 years before Christ. Through literature these bonds are most evident.
The truest books on grief do not tell the tale of overcoming a burden. Instead, they embrace the experiences one feels in this no-man’s-land. Their wisdom is in the constellation of thoughts and emotions inherent to the process of grieving. Their comfort is in identification with another’s struggles.
For those of us who have not suffered a life-changing loss, reading these books can be shocking. I think of, for instance, when I first read Roland Barthes’s almost unbearable Mourning Diary, about the death of his mother. Barthes was a true mama’s boy, having lived with his mother for virtually all his adult life, counting her his closest friend in the world. When she at last died, it was devastating. Barthes began to manifest this overpowering grief onto the small slips of paper that were later found and published as Mourning Diary. Although the book is little more than a series of thought fragments, these spare words have made a more powerful impression on me than most other books I have read. The vision of a mind attempting to find a place for its pain, and continually failing, is heartbreaking. “Listening to Souzay sing: ‘My heart is full of a terrible sadness,’ I burst into tears.” “I ask for nothing but to live in my suffering.” “Dreamed of maman again. She was telling me—O cruelty!—that I didn’t really love her. But I took it calmly, because I was so sure it wasn’t true.”
When I first read Mourning Diary as a perfectly happy, healthy young man of 32, I was overcome, for it made me see that with just one loss any of us could be thrown into such a pit. This was one of the first times I had ever confronted this possibility face-to-face, and I remember well what a somber realization it was. I began thinking about how I would respond to such a loss. I began to see how important it was to be fully present with those I loved and to be as honest and compassionate as I could in our relationships.
Not that anyone can ever prepare for the loss of someone we love. Of course we must try, but such intense grief reveals to us just how puny our will is in the face of the strongest emotions. It seems most unfair that we must work to build our lives, always under threat from overpowering grief, but this is purely a fact of our existence. It in inescapable, and I believe that one of literature’s tasks is to help us think through this condition of our lives. These books attempt to make meaning of this condition we all must simply accept.
To fail to take advantage of literature’s blessings is to willfully neglect the most powerful tool we have against the inherent uncertainty and fragility of this world. Words are the only way we will ever give full meaning to incomprehensible, unjustifiable events, and many of the world’s great books are a product of the struggle to find this meaning. I often return to the words Ernest Becker wrote in his study, Denial of Death, where he argues that we are constantly working to process the knowledge that death is a part of our world. In that book, Becker writes that, “Culture is in its most intimate intent a heroic denial of creatureliness.” I would agree: so much of our culture is an attempt to wrestle with the fact that we are creatures fated to live and die in a universe ruled by uncertainty, emotion, and our physical fragility. It is clear to me that books are at the forefront of this struggle.
As much as they frighten me and fill me with dark emotions, I am drawn to books like Naja’s and Barthes’. In part, I think it is important to try and understand these areas of the human condition, simply for our own sake. And I also feel that anyone who believes in the power of words should see what they can do when they are most truly needed. As Naja told me, “I had to write this book to survive. It is as simple as that. I am a writer who lost her language and had to reclaim it.” I want to see such writing—books that perhaps we should not only call the literature of grief, but also the literature of survival. They have saved the life of their author—who knows how many other lives the will save.
Literature Examining Grief and Why We Grieve
A Tomb for Anatole
Stéphane Mallarmé (tr. Paul Auster)
Time Lived, Without Its Flow
Roland Barthes (tr. Richard Howard)
Denial of Death
The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend
David Foster Wallace