The Age of Anxiety

Daniel Smith, author of Monkey Mind, writes that everyone has it, everyone must deal with it. “Anxiety compels a person to think, but it is the type of thinking that gives thinking a bad name; solipsistic, self-eviscerating, unremitting, vicious”.

WH Auden published the book-length poem, The Age of Anxiety, in 1947 and it immediately struck a cultural chord. The piece begins as a conversation among four strangers in a New York barroom on Third Avenue and is the poet’s method of analysing Western culture during the second World War. The Age of Anxiety won a Pulitzer Prize and also inspired a symphony by Leonard Bernstein. Auden’s title The Age of Anxiety has been ubiquitous for more than six decades. From the moment it appeared, the phrase has been used to characterise the consciousness of our era, the awareness of everything perilous about the modern world: environmental issues, global warming, nuclear energy, religious fundamentalism, violence, terrorism, economic calamity. Anaïs Nin wrote that “Anxiety… makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds onto you”. Kierkegaard compared anxiety to a type of spiritual dizziness, afflicting “he whose eyes happens to look down the yawning abyss.” In his poem No Worst, There is None, Gerard Manley Hopkins describes a mind jagged with anxiety:

“O the mind, mind has mountains;
cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.”

Danny, Withnail and I’s drug dealer and famous roller of the Camberwell Carrot joint, described postmodern and peri-hangover social anxiety thusly: “If you’re hanging onto a rising balloon, you’re presented with a difficult decision – let go before it’s too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope?”

Few people would dispute that anxiety is a hallmark of our times or that anxiety has become a kind of cultural condition of modernity. In Britain, 19 per cent of people suffer from depression and anxiety and up to 40 million Americans have an anxiety disorder, with the average age of onset only 11. There are no accurate figures detailing the prevalence of anxiety disorders in Ireland, but it is estimated that 1 in 9 individuals will suffer a primary anxiety disorder over their lifetime. Anxiety, according to Scott Stossel, the author of My Age of Anxiety, “has become part of the cultural furniture”.

As a clinical condition, anxiety has only become classified in the last 30 years. It can be seen through the work of writers that anxiety has been with us since humans first emerged, from Hippocrates to Freud. Ancient Epicurean and Stoic philosophers suggested techniques to reach an anxiety-free state of mind that are reminiscent of modern cognitive psychology. Typical cases of anxiety disorders kept being reported and in the 17th century. Robert Burton described anxiety in The Anatomy of Melancholy. Anxiety is a normal human emotion. From an evolutionary viewpoint it is adaptive, since it promotes survival by inciting people to steer clear of perilous places. Just because our anxiety is heavily diagnosed and medicated, however, doesn’t mean that we are more anxious than our forebears. Perhaps as a society we are more cognisant of the mind’s tendency to spin out of control.

Whether the anxiety is social or status, generalised or obsessive compulsive, the following books are an enlightening read.

My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel

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Scott Stossel is an American journalist and author, Harvard graduate and editor of The Atlantic. He is also a man who has suffered all his life from an acute anxiety disorder, beginning with separation anxiety as a child and culminating in a myriad of phobias including public speaking, flying, fainting, heights, germs, vomiting and cheese. Stossel has been in therapy since he was 10, and he has consumed pharmacopoeias of psychopharmaceuticals – Thorazine, Nardil, Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Valium, Librium, Xanax as well as copious amounts of alcohol to temper his symptoms – but the respite never lasted long.

His current therapist encouraged him to write this book, and he says he has taken the advice in the hope that “by tunnelling into my anxiety… I can also tunnel out the other side.”

This book is not a memoir. Stossel only reveals parts of his life that are relevant to what he calls “ the riddle of anxiety”. Most of the book is a scholarly exploration of the history of anxiety and a journalistic account of the present state of medical knowledge on the subject. Stossel’s description of his anxiety on his wedding day is evoked with humour despite the horror he endured at “one of the happiest, most significant moments of life”. He stood trembling with rivulets of sweat running into his eyes, his limbs trembling on the verge of convulsing at best or unconsciousness at worst. He felt that at the reception afterwards he was only pantomiming happiness, which induced a brutal, self-lacerating despair.

The Pursuit of Happiness: And Why It’s Making Us Anxious by Ruth Whippman

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When this British journalist moves to California, she realises that the American obsession with finding happiness is driving everyone crazy. Whippman feels that happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. As a cynical British woman, Ruth finds that in conversations with everyday people that the route to “happy ever after” is a constant concern. Techniques used to achieve this happy state range from the mundane (yoga and meditation) to mind-boggling seminars on how to Unleash the Power Within and, most bafflingly, the drinking of wolf colostrum. She struggles with the concept of mindfulness and cannot see “how greater happiness could be achieved by reining in that magical sense of scope and possibility to stare down some oatmeal”.

Whippman notes that her new happiness-seeking American acquaintances seem no happier than her cynical British ones and her instinct is that happiness should be serendipitous; the byproduct of a life well lived.

Anxiety for Beginners by Eleanor Morgan

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This fusion of memoir and scientific investigation is very accessible. It begins with a vivid description of a panic attack that Morgan suffered at 17 in the middle of biology class. “Within seconds I was convinced I was about to detonate there on my wooden stool” as the blackboard went blurry, her head started to prickle and her hands went numb. As well as speaking to fellow sufferers, Morgan consults psychiatrists, psychologists, OCD specialists and nutritionists. With a generous dollop of humanity Morgan analyses genetic and environmental influences on anxiety as well as hormones, fertility, trauma and medication, all the while interspersing science with her own stories and those of fellow sufferers.

Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon

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This is a funny, intimate, personal account of the author’s OCD, bulimia and drug habit. At the age of 12, Gordon woke up convinced she was going to die of Aids and began obsessively washing her hands. After she revealed her fear that she might murder someone, a doctor diagnosed OCD and prescribed antidepressants. When she landed her dream job in journalism she led a double life: to friends, colleagues and lovers she was the effervescent girl about town, while privately she fought her demons. Bryony chronicles all of this in a breathless, self-mocking tone, which helps when reading such dark material. Her story is a potential lifeline for others who may suffer in silence.

A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled by Ruby Wax

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The larger-than-life, seemingly confident Ruby Wax of our TV screens was also clinging on to sanity. She spent some time in the Priory Clinic, London to tackle her problems with anxiety and depression. Wax now has a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford University. Practical and pragmatic, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled talks in a funny way about depression and demonstrates how mindfulness exercises can help with everyday problems.

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

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Status anxiety is about who you are in contemporary society – whether you’ve got enough money, enough kudos, enough fabulosity to cut it in our judgemental world. De Botton’s bestselling book is concerned with just that: an exploration of this anxiety and a valuable insight into class and a meritocratic society.

The Marriage Plot

According to Anthony Trollope, “There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.” The marriage plot is considered one of the oldest narrative structures in literary history, originating with the troubadour poets and extending to contemporary novels and modern popular culture.

A line from Francois de La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t ever heard love talked about,” forms the epigraph of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. Similarly, Alain de Botton quotes the same epigraph from de La Rochefoucald in a recent New York Times article, using “that brilliant observer of human foibles” to strengthen his point: our style of loving is, to a significant extent, determined by what the prevailing environment dictates.

The complexities of marriage have provided ample fodder for novelists from Austen to Knausgaard. Here are some of them.

1: The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
The Course of Love is a very welcome return to the subject of amour. De Botton first put it under the philosophical microscope in the mid-1990s with Essays on Love, a delightful mixture of novel and non-fiction that forensically examines the nuances and subtexts of a date, from the initial delirium of infatuation to the lows of suicidal despair brought on by a relationship blip. In The Course of Love, Rabih and Kirsten are a very believable pairing for De Botton to subject to his philosophical and psychological microscope. Rabih is half-Lebanese, half-German, a little dreamy and insecure and through his job as an architect shakes hands on a construction site with the feisty Scottish Kirsten. Romanticism has influenced Rabih and over coffee with Kirsten, Rabih feels certain “that he has discovered someone endowed with the most extraordinary combination of inner and outer qualities… someone with whom he wants to spend the rest of his life.” Throughout the novel, de Botton explores what it means to stay together over time, the continual need to feel wanted in a marriage and the dangers of sharing the contents of our sexual imagination. He also examines all too common fraught emotions inadequacy, guilt and love encountered in parenthood, which reveals “another thing about love: how much power we have over people who depend on us and, therefore, what responsibilities we have to tread carefully around those who have been placed at our mercy.” In a recently published article in The New York Times titled ‘Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person’, he writes that romanticism has been unkind to us and this harsh philosophy has made a lot of what marriages entails seem appalling and wrong. De Botton preaches an accommodation to “wrongness,” striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective on its multiple examples in ourselves and in our partners. Interviewed recently by Richard E. Grant for a Penguin book podcast, de Botton makes the point that fiction usually concentrates on the obstacles to finding love and only explores long term love if something dramatic or tragic occurs in the marriage. The Course of Love is an attempt to redress this imbalance and look at a relationship over many decades – one that is a “good-enough ordinary” one, but no less colourful for being so.

2: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
“To start with, look at all the books.” From the opening line of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, it is clear that this novel is about other novels, the people who read them and seek life’s truth in them. The novel is as much about books as it is about marriage; as much about literary criticism as it is about coming of age.
The first paragraph introduces us to the female protagonist Madeleine Hanna by an omniscient narrator, bringing us on a forensic tour of her library: “There was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty first birthday; there were the dog eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot and the redoubtable Brontë sisters.”
It is clear that Eugenides is illuminating Madeleine’s character by showing us her reading material and setting her up as a devotee of the old traditional novel, as yet unscathed by the forces of twentieth century literary criticism. These traditional novels had their genesis in the 18th century novel Pamela or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, who avoided an episodic plot by basing his novels on a single action; that of a courtship. Ian Watt’s The Rise of The Novel attributes the growth of Pamela and similar novels to the demand for entertainment by women, who had been freed from the tyranny of domestic chores and had leisure time to fill with reading.
Madeleine is like an Austen heroine. She has spent her college years in pursuit of The One, engaging with marriageship: “the cautious investigation of a field of eligible males, the delicate maneuvering to meet them, the refined outpacing of rivals, the subtle circumventing of parental power (his and hers), and the careful management, which turns idle flirtation into a firm offer of marriage with a good settlement for life.
Madeleine’s relationship with biology major Leonard Bankhead has recently broken up, but she hasn’t given up hope of reconciliation as she had been planning on moving to Cape Cod with him where he has a fellowship to study. As befits a woman of Madeleine’s sensibility, she briefly contemplates giving up on the exhaustive plan of trying to win Leonard back and moving home to her parent’s house and becoming a ‘spinster, like Emily Dickinson, writing poems full of dashes and brilliance’. She has also alienated her male fan Mitchell Grammaticus, whose old-man attire, stability and obvious interest in her makes him a lot less alluring than the brooding, enigmatic Leonard.
Eugenides has set the stage for a romantic tussle between Leonard and Mitchell in a contemporary novel which has at its heart a marriage plot, in a world where Madeleine’s professor Saunders declared that ‘marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel.’ The character of Mitchell is imbued by the author with the values and mores of the Old World and is pitched by the author against the post-modern gothic figure of Leonard. A battle is begun between the old vanguard of traditional literature and the new forces of deconstruction theory.

3: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
In The Marriage Plot, Madeleine’s Professor Saunders complains that contemporary life has been a disaster for the novel. He argues that “in the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?” The Emma that he refers to is Emma Bovary from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. This novel sustains de Botton’s theory that love stories affect our relationships and colour our expectations of married life.
Emma Bovary spent her childhood in a convent immersed in heady Romantic fiction, which made her expect that her husband would be a transcendent soulmate, a source of constant intellectual and sexual presence. This sets her up for a fall when she marries the very human Charles, has her first child and finds herself bored senseless by the routines of married life and by the demands of domesticity. Emma is convinced that her life has gone profoundly wrong because of the huge gulf that exists between the actuality of her life and the romantic novels that she gorged on in adolescence.
In an effort to bridge this gulf Emma embarks on an affair with Rodolphe, a louche landowner who is her superior in terms of class and wealth. He is initially full of ardor, but, Flaubert tells us: “Eventually, sure of her love, he stopped making any special effort to please her, and little by little his manner changed. He no longer spoke to her in words so sweet they made her weep, and there were no more of those fiery caresses that threw her into a frenzy. Their great love, in which she lived totally immersed, seemed to be subsiding around her, like the water of a river sinking into its bed, and she could see the mud at the bottom. Refusing to believe it, she redoubled her tenderness; and Rodolphe hid his indifference less and less.”
After this affair ends, Emma again embarks on another misguided affair, neglects her child and eventually commits suicide. Flaubert’s wry wisdom lends the book a didactic air, that to be guided by the falsehoods of romanticism can only lead to unhappiness in a long term partnership.

4: Emma by Jane Austen
In a typical Austen marriage, the heroine must examine, study and know her suitor rather than trust her own feelings – or worse – give in to her passion. Among Jane Austen’s many artistic achievements is her adaption and development of the simple marriage plot into a more variable pattern, which allowed her to show the growth of her heroines. In Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility she used the marriage plot as a convenient structure to showcase her character studies and theme. By the time she wrote Emma she had the skill to subvert the marriage plot and add extra layers of nuance and depth. Emma, when compared with all the other heroines – Elizabeth Bennett, Fanny Price, Anne Elliot and Catherine Morland – is the most complex, subtle and best portrayed. She is “handsome, clever and rich” and at 21 will be enmeshed in Austen’s web of wrong-headedness, remorse and repentance until she emerges at the end of the novel enlightened with the wisdom of self knowledge and the prospect of “perfect happiness” with Mr. Knightley. Intelligence matters to Austen’s heroines because they crave, above almost everything else, conversation; the kind that requires mutual understanding.

5: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante is one of Italy’s best known contemporary novelists, who remains an enigma as she refuses the glare of publicity, preferring her fiction to represent her. In the first of her four Neapolitan novels, the heroine Elena Greco writes of Nino (her soon-to-be husband) that “he said things that I could never have thought, or at least said, with the same assurance, and he said them in strong, engaging Italian.” A reader of these novels will be able to study the changing landscape of the heroine’s marriage, the cooling of her ardour with time as she develops her own confidence and career. Ferrante explores the dilemma of marital crisis. “What could I do to keep my life and my children together?” asks Elena, a quandary faced by many women in the throes of a marital breakdown.

6: My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard
The beauty of Knausgaard’s fiction is its ability to imbue the ordinary with fascination as he recounts life’s minutiae and domestic drudge and as Jeffrey Eugenides said, “Knausgaard breaks the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel.” Knausgaard is heavily influenced by the romantics when he describes his first encounter with his current partner Linda, whom he met at a writer’s convention. “I looked at her, and there was something about her I wanted, the second I saw her, it was there. A kind of explosion.” For Knausgaard, the process of falling in love has nothing to do with being seduced by the woman’s mind , instead her sheer presence has a powerful and mysterious effect on him. In this regard his attitude to love has more in common with Emma Bovary than the more realistic entreaties of de Botton on the fallacy of the romantic ideals.

7: Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk
Professor Saunders from Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot felt that the availability of divorce and sexual equality was bad for the novel. He hadn’t predicted the rise of the divorce memoir, especially Rachel Cusk’s feminist take on the collapse of her marriage. Aftermath draws on references to Oedipus and Agamemnon as well as wry observations about having a toothache on the day her husband moved his possessions out of the marital home. In the course of the memoir Cusk writes that “marriage is civilization and now the barbarians are cavorting in the ruins” and that “people overthrow their governments and then they want them back,” which shows the difficulty for a woman of losing an old identity and moving into a new reality.

8: Gone Girl by Gillian Walsh
Gillian Walsh’s Gone Girl explodes the myth of perfect coupledom that central character Amy finds oppressive. “We’re so cute I want to punch us in the face.” Nick and Amy Dunne co-narrate this thriller and the novel opens on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, when Nick realises that Amy has disappeared. Walsh’s portrayal of a descent from a seemingly perfect marriage into chaos is emblematic of the simmering resentments and betrayals that are constitute the topography of betrayal, failure and revenge. What follows is a baffling, disturbing but ultimately delightful read with its terrifying conclusion.

The Literature of Death

Woody Allen famously quipped “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” This resonates with all of us who live in a culture that promotes eternal youth through scalpel or scientific miracle and cold shoulders the icy certainty of death. Kafka stated that “the meaning of life is that it stops” while Anais Nin, a daily diarist, wrote that “people living deeply have no fear of death.” Freud recognized that people sometimes did express fear of death, a condition referred to as thanatophobia. Freud felt that it was not actual death that people feared as our own death is quite unimaginable, and in our unconscious we are all convinced of our own immortality. Beckett wrote that “they give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” Joan Didion wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Lately there has been much written about death, narratives and stories that aim to help us negotiate the emotional landscape of grief and death. The novelist Julian Barnes is a self –confessed thanatophobe who sometimes is “roared awake” and “pitched from sleep into darkness, panic and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world.” In his memoir on the fear of non-existence Nothing to Be Frightened Of Barnes writes an elegant meditation on death and attempts to address his thanatophobia. As an agnostic Barnes doesn’t believe in an after-life and writes that “I don’t believe in God but I miss him.” He believes that the Christian religion has lasted because it is a “beautiful lie… a tragedy with a happy ending,” and yet he misses the sense of purpose and belief that he finds in a Mozart Requiem or the sculptures of Donatello.

There is a trend over the last few years for a new type of fiction, a genre that molds memoir with biography to form a literature that feels fresh and hyperreal, a type of reality fiction for the modern reader. David Shields presaged this new trend when in his 2010 publication called Reality Hunger he advocated a return to the “real” in literature and he railed against conventional plot-driven fiction in favour of the lyric essay and the memoir. A memoir of illness and dying is always an emotional read and the pages pulse with life, strife and the emotional intensity of the author’s feelings and predicament. None more so than the recently published In Gratitude by Jenni Diski, who died last week of inoperable lung cancer. Diski wrote a series of essays in The London Review of Books about life after her diagnosis with its frailties and sudden fragilities which have been published as this memoir. She writes that she feared the oncologist would find her response clichéd after he gave her the prognosis and she turned to her husband and suggested that they’d better get cooking the meth like Heisenberg in the television series Breaking Bad. Diski’s talon-sharp prose has never harboured a platitude and this memoir touches on her peripatetic early life, abandoned by neglectful parents and in and out of psychiatric hospitals, “rattling from bin to bin.” She was also adopted by the literary giant Doris Lessing for four years as a teenager and shared family dinners with Alan Sillitoe, R.D. Laing and Arnold Wesker and listened to late night intellectual discussions about philosophy and psychotherapy which she describes as “a dream come true, but I had to work out how to live it.” Diski with her unique sense of directness and humour writes that she makes an ideal candidate to play the role of a cancer patient as her lifelong favourite places are bed and sofa and she lives like one of those secondary characters in Victorian literature who constantly languish on the fainting couch. Jenni described herself as being “contrary-minded,” delighted in breaking taboos and pushing boundaries. Controversial to the end she likens having cancer to “an act in a pantomime in which my participation is guaranteed, I have been given this role ….I have no choice but to perform and to be embarrassed to death.”

Christopher Hitchens was on a book tour for Hitch 22 when he experienced the first health crisis that was the beginning of his demise. However this pugnacious and witty writer was able to channel his experiences into his end of life memoir Mortality which begins with the line “I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death.” When the emergency services arrive to collect him Hitchens feels a psychogeographical shift taking him “from the country of the well to the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” Hitchens concedes that he has become a finalist in the race of life and quotes from T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock:
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker / And I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat / and snicker / And in short / I was afraid.

Hitch decided to live dyingly and extolled the consolation of friends who came to eat, drink and converse with him even as these earthly delights become impossible for him as the cancer progressed. His memoir is life affirming, punchy and rich with morbid humour noting that when one falls ill that people tend to send Leonard Cohen CDs, he doesn’t experience rage at a terminal diagnosis as he feels that he has been taunting the Reaper into “taking a free scythe in my direction “and that he has now succumbed to “something so predictable and banal that it bores me.” His wife Carol Blue in the afterword to this memoir writes of the man she admired and loved and ends with the lines that Christopher has the last word, in death as in life Hitch still has the last word.

Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, begins with the death of her husband of forty-four years, the writer John Dunne, and brings the reader on a journey through the land of grief that she entered in the aftermath of his loss. In the opening lines of this poised but passionate memoir she writes that “life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” She writes on the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event and writes that when we are confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how “unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell.’’ Didion gives the reader an unflinching account of grief in the year when the shock of Dunne’s death “was obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.” Despite the unshakeable reality of her husband’s death Joan’s thinking enters the realm of the magical and she writes that “we do not expect to be crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.” Zadie Smith wrote that Didion is essential reading on the subject of death and I have bought many copies over the years for grieving friends who have found comfort in its reading, recognition of their suffering in its pages.

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke is an unstintingly honest memoir about the loss of her mother Barbara from colorectal cancer. Meghan is an award-winning poet and she writes about the consolation that she finds in reading Hamlet. Shakespeare’s hero holds up a mirror to O’Rourke’s own duality of emotion; emptiness and anger, despair and longing for relief. O’Rourke can understand why Hamlet who has just lost his father is angry and cagey. He is told that how he feels is unmanly and unseemly, his uncle greeting him with the worst question to ask a grieving person “How is it that that the cloud still hang on you?” O’Rourke felt a resonance with Hamlet in her grief state when she felt that to descend to the deepest fathom of it would be unseemly and was somehow taboo. She writes that nothing prepared her for the death of her mother, even knowing that she had terminal cancer did not prepare her. There is a stark unearthing of truths in this memoir. “A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky, unimaginable.”

Doctors face death daily and Doctor Paul Kalanithi became a neurosurgeon because with its unforgiving call to “perfection, it seemed to present the most challenging and direct confrontation with meaning, identity and death.” When Breath Becomes Air opens with a description by the author of a CT scan that he was examining where the lungs were matted with innumerable tumours, the spine deformed and a full lobe of the liver obliterated. This scan though similar to scores of others that he had examined over the previous six years was different, different because it was his own. Paul Kalanithi wrote his memoir in the aftermath of this discovery fusing his medical knowledge with his love of literature to produce a work that is more than a memoir, it is a philosophical reflection on life and purpose. Kalanithi and his wife have a baby Cady who was eight months old when her father died. His memoir will be his legacy to his little girl as “words,” he writes, “have a longevity I do not.”

The Iceberg: A Memoir written by Marion Coutts tells of Coutts’ partner Tom Lubbock’s death from a malignant brain tumour. This account of illness and decline is told with an artist’s eye and in poetic prose that is both razor sharp and suffused with emotion. Coutts writes that there is a filmic quality to their life, a friend suggests that the director is Bergman, “shot flat without affect but deeply charged, with a fondness for long shots, no cuts, ensemble scenes, dark comedy and the action geared always to the man in the bed even though he is frequently off camera.”

Death is the inevitable full stop in the essay of life. Christopher Hitchens quotes this poem by Kingsley Amis in his memoir Mortality: Death has this much to be said for it/ You don’t have to get out of bed for it/Wherever you happen to be/ They bring it to you-free. The writer Katie Roiphe wrote The Violet Hour; Great Writers at the End in part to sate her curiosity about death and dying. It is an account of how the writer found beauty and comfort in the stories of how her literary heroes faced up to dying. To Katie religion has never been consoling and feels like a foreign language. She, like many book lovers finds comfort in novels and poems. As a child recovering from serious illness Yeat’s Sailing to Byzantium resonated with her. She becomes ambushed by the beauty in the deaths of her literary heroes, Dylan Thomas, Susan Sontag, Freud and Sendak. Susan Sontag “fought her death to the end, believing on some deep irrational level she would be the one exception.” Roiphe feels that writers and artists are more attuned to death, that they can put the confrontation with mortality into words in a way that most of us can’t or won’t. The last taboo has been dealt with by memoirists, essayists and poets. If, according to F.R. Leavis, literature is the supreme means by which you renew your sensuous and emotional life and learn a new awareness, then these publications are a gateway to enlightenment.

Father’s Day: The green green grass of home

This piece originally appeared in the Irish Times Book Blog.

That Thursday in May had been sunny and warm and was redolent with summer’s hope after many months coloured by grey skies and lashed by persistent rains. I was sitting in the early evening at my kitchen table replying to an email that I’d just received from a male acquaintance. He had pursued me a few months previously after a fleeting encounter at a party, but for the past few weeks the missives had stopped arriving in my inbox and I assumed that he’d found another target for attention.

He had heard me on a radio show that morning and obviously thought my stock was rising. I was an occasional panelist on a lunchtime show and had been hauled on this time to discuss the new Sex and the City movie. I was deemed to be an expert on the subject due to my single status and my chance encounter in New York with Chris Noth, the actor who played Mister Big. I gladly rehashed the story on the air waves blissfully unaware that I had reignited the interest of a listener who was obviously impressed with my ability to discuss the importance of Manolo Blahniks in the plot. He was glaringly superficial.

On my afternoon flight back from Dublin I gazed out at cloudland and pondered the approach of my fortieth birthday. I resolved to have a great summer and to embrace life with the fervour and gusto of my younger self. I would attempt to suppress the melancholic inner voice which was constantly attuned to the transience and mutability of all earthly things. F Scott Fitzgerald had once declared that there were no second acts in American life. I was Irish and determined to have one.

I didn’t hear my father as he snuck up behind me and copped a quick look at my correspondence with Simon O’Neill. He had seen me in deep contemplation attempting a witty reply from the opened french window and took full advantage of the opportunity to surprise me.

“At least if this guy works out, you won’t have to change your name.”

“Jesus, Dad, you nearly gave me a heart attack. Don’t worry, this one’s another non-starter. I’m just being polite, he heard me on Newstalk today and sent me a complimentary email.”

“I hope he knows that you can’t boil an egg. You were very funny on the radio today, I have to give you credit. You really gave that obnoxious celebrity solicitor guy a run for his money. I’m tired of all this Mister Big stuff though. That fecker never mowed your lawn.”

I laughed in agreement and watched as my Dad rolled his lawnmower into my garden. He rolled up his sleeves and strode masterfully up and down, occasionally pausing to empty the clippings into a black plastic bag. When I caught his eye from my kitchen table perch he waved and winked through the confetti of grass, his old machine making as much noise as the helicopters in Apocalypse Now. When he finished he drank a glass of water at the sink and I walked around the side of the house behind him to lock the side gate. He smiled and stretched his arm over the top of the gate as he got ready for departure. His big hand grabbed mine in his customary farewell gesture, my small hand engulfed by his, like a bivalve in a protective shell.

I was at work the next morning in my pharmacy when I answered a call from a very distressed medical secretary from the local Bon Secours Hospital. I initially thought that it was a case of mistaken identity when she said that my father was in a critical condition as a routine operation had gone terribly wrong. I didn’t know that he was having an angiogram that day as he had kept it a secret from us in case we were unduly worried.

I stood clutching the phone in the middle of the dispensary for a few moments, paralysed by fear and shock. I blurted out the news to my technician and she urged me to leave immediately. I ran through the busy streets and flagged a taxi in the square. Unfortunately he was one of those overly chatty and officious drivers who was more suited to a visiting Yank longing to listen to the blarney. I bolted out the door when he encountered a traffic jam, thanking him profusely and leaving him a generous tip. I arrived panting and discombobulated at the hospital entrance. It was clear that the nun and secretary had been expecting me, their faces repellent with pity.

I was brought down a corridor to a small airless room where my mother sat, flanked by her best friend Deirdre. She was speechless with shock and kept muttering that the doctor would be out to talk to us. An angular man in scrubs appeared at the doorway. He told us that this had never happened him before, that he had done this procedure hundreds of times and had never seen someone flat-line as the dye was injected. He assured us that the crash team had worked really hard on my Dad and that they had got the heartbeat back but it was very weak. I demanded to see my father and he led me across the hall into the operating theatre where I saw my father lying on a table in his surgical garb. Orbiting around him like planets were a number of medical personnel and a profusion of wires and tubes. They seemed to glide away as I approached. I saw his strong arms reach up and grapple with the ventilator, I stroked his head and urged him to come back. A spherical tear rolled down his cheek and stained the sleeve of his gown.

Dad was airlifted to Dublin on the Saturday evening. I had kept a constant vigil at his bedside with my sisters. It was easy for an insomniac. I constantly held his hand and talked to him and when the silences were unbearable, I read him poetry from an anthology that I had grabbed before the dash to Dublin. It seemed to annoy the nurses in ICU, who spent most of Friday night imploring me to go to bed. My three sisters and my Mum were all around him when his vital signs dropped suddenly on Saturday night. We all took turns saying goodbye as the nurses pulled a curtain around the bed and afforded us some privacy. Papa, mon héros was gone.

The Irish do death well. In rural Ireland funerals are social occasions and it’s not uncommon for some to attend a funeral every day of the week. My father hated the sterility of funeral homes and had frequently expressed his disdain for their lack of warmth and humanity. It was decided that we would wake Dad at home. When my Mum and sisters flew back to Kerry on Sunday, my mother’s friends were in situ in our family home, cleaning and hoovering, brewing tea and making sandwiches. The show had begun.

I flew back on the last flight after spending the day in Dublin with my closest friend. We laughed and cried as we sat in her garden in the sunshine. I needed space from the mania that ensues when a funeral is being organised. My mother was in overdrive and my sisters were busy picking readings, outfits and all the minutiae that are involved with a wake. My ex-boyfriend collected me from the airport at midnight, he drove through the country roads to my house, all was quiet except for my shuddering sobs. My friend Karen had a key to my house and had set up a catering centre in my kitchen, food and drink laid out on the worktop. My kitchen was full of close friends who had waited outside all evening for my return. I was glad to see them and held my own private wake in the sanctity of my own four walls.

We stood in line by the coffin in the sitting room. People queued outside to shake hands with us and offer us their condolences. After a few hours my right hand was bruised from being crushed by the hands of big country men who must believe that their sincerity is directly proportional to the strength of the handshake. Some talked and told me some anecdote about my Dad, a sporting story or a work story, usually humorous. Others just muttered that funereal chant, I’m very sorry for your troubles, very sorry, very sorry. It was strangely comforting. Moments of levity were provided by surprise appearances of old boyfriends in the queue and lipstick was slashed across parched lips in futile attempts at makeovers. The kitchen was manned by my mother’s powerhouse friends. They were busy dispensing drinks, and lashing out sandwiches to those that had travelled a distance. By 11 o’clock they had cleared the house of all visitors and were busy washing up.

Karen drove me home. I would return in the morning to follow the hearse with my family. I needed to breathe and escape the suffocating control of the bottle washers in the kitchen and the general hysteria in my childhood home. We had a glass of wine and several cigarettes in my garden. Karen left around midnight and left me alone with my thoughts in the kitchen. I was drawn to my computer which held pride of place on my kitchen table. I clicked on my photo booth icon and searched for some photos that I’d taken a few weeks previously when my Dad was visiting. He had been amazed at the ability of the photo application to transform a picture into a myriad of finishes, from a soft-focused one to a sepia tinge and to my own favourite, the pop art à la Andy Warhol transformation. So there we were, Dad and I, heads together, grinning from the screen, our moment captured forever in the neon colours and psychedelic humour of computer wizardry.

I searched on iTunes for one of his favourite songs and clicked on The Mountains Of Mourne, a version by Don McClean and turned it up full blast and revelled in the memories. It was one of his party pieces, sometimes sung only after lots of cajoling and encouragement. Other times, when a sudden silence threatened the merriment of a wedding sing-song , he would stand up unannounced and belt out the lyrics in his unique baritone, conveying the tune with sincerity and pathos and bewitching all present with his talent and delivery.

The song is very beautiful, written by Percy French in 1896, the lyrics written in the form of a letter to his lover Mary. The writer is visiting cosmopolitan London and is writing to describe the energy and verve of the capital, the style of the ladies going to balls with “no tops to their dresses at all”, their complexions all peaches and cream and their lips the colour of roses. He realises the artifice behind their paint and powder and wishes that he could be with his beloved where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea.

There’s beautiful girls here, oh never you mind,

With beautiful shapes nature never designed,

And lovely complexions all roses and cream,

But let me remark with regard to the same:

That if of those roses you venture to sip,

The colours might all come away on your lip,

So I’ll wait for the wild rose that’s waiting for me

In the place where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea.

I couldn’t believe that I‘d never see my Dad again. The man who had always been unequivocally on my side was now lying inanimate in a coffin in our sitting room, his last night at home. My old pal was gone. When I was in primary school, I had the misfortune to be taught for a year by a sadistic nun. She was a thin, small woman with a face that to my seven-year-old mind had all the attributes of a witch from my fairy tale books. Her face was lined and haggard and her eyes were beady and mean like those of a malevolent vulture. She ruled the class with a reign of terror, threatening any misdemeanour with a slap from her gigantic ruler, its menace a constant source of anxiety as it hung over us like the Sword of Democles. At any moment a child could be plucked from her desk and made to stretch out her hand in supplication as the old nun lashed at it relentlessly, pausing only to steady her veil which was sometimes knocked askew with the force of her exertion.

I remembered the day of my encounter with her ruler as I sat that night thinking back on life in the warmth of my kitchen. She was a devotee of a straight margin, it had to be a half inch wide, and all letters had to edge up smoothly to its border, all letters symmetrical – an off-beam M was considered a heinous crime. I was having a bad letter day. My ability to draw the straight margin on the side of the page was being thwarted at every try by my ruler which had acquired chipped indentations on its length as a legacy of the wear and tear on its integrity by a lively seven-year-old girl. My two-toned grey and white rubber was kept busy erasing the wavering margins done in with a pale blue Faber-Castell pen.

To ensure the complete obliteration of my blunder I licked the rubber and saw pieces of the page form into tiny balls and tiny holes open like craters on the surface. Undeterred I finished the exercise and dutifully filled the page with both large and small Ms and sat back and waited for the Sister of Mercy to examine my work. Her approach was heralded by the stomp of her hard heeled brogues. My companion at my wooden desk had her page examined first and her copy book was returned with mutterings of approval.

When her eyes fell on my smudged and deconstructed page with a slanted margin and varying-sized capital Ms I could hear the growls begin in her throat. The book was snatched from the desk and displayed for all to see with its glaring imperfections and was then hurled back at me with ferocity. I was prodded to the front of the class and initially kept my hands behind my back as Sister approached wielding her weapon. She grabbed my right hand out from its hiding place and whacked it several times with the ruler. It became redder and more inflamed with each assault. My eyes smarted with tears but I held them in check until the bell rang to signal the end of the school day and I ran outside to wait with my sister for my Dad to collect us. When he pulled up in his car I could sense his concern when he saw my eyes swollen with tears and my dejected stance as I clutched my brown leather satchel.

I scrambled into the passenger seat and hurled myself on his lap and told him the story of my morning through the sobs and splutters. He soothed me with kind words and told me to wait in the car with my older sister Orla and that he’d be back soon. I’ll never know what he said to my assailant but I do recall that her ruler never appeared again that school year.

I was enjoying my reverie when I noticed that my kettle was boiling, even though neither of us had turned it on that night. The air around me was suddenly acrid and alive with the smell of freshly mown grass. I could almost taste the greenness of the chlorophyll in my mouth, metallic and sharp. I worried that the grief had caused a stroke and that I was experiencing synaesthesia. The kettle returned to the boil after switching off for a few seconds. I feared that I was finally succumbing to a madness from which I would never return. I have a very scientific nature and am always scornful of the paranormal and the magical. Even though I have grown up in a country renowned for tales of the fairies and the puccas, the banshees and the devil I always apply logic. The aroma of the cut grass still suffused the house as I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. I felt serene and calm as I lay in bed, feeling that my Dad had returned to bid me a final good night.