Life after Life is Kate Atkinson’s new novel – it’s long and gratifying. I have read a lot the last three weeks, mostly though not exclusively novels, the reading matter overseen and sat upon by Elvis. Reading is one of the things you can do while keeping your head very still so the world doesn’t spin, and if it’s engrossing you can be transported. You might think that the “second” life in the title is a replacement of the word and concept of “death.” Not really. On the most simple level the novel plays with the idea of the novel. The novel as a progression of seemingly inevitable events, of teleology, of the crocheting of character and description into the momentum of plot. But life too, as we live it day by day, entails plotting, dramatization and anticipation. Atkinson asks “what if”? What if, for instance, the baby had lived instead of dying, what if –that old chestnut—Hitler had been assassinated, what if the dog had a different name, what if the girl had kicked back? A writer can mess with events and this is what she does, giving us multiple versions or possibilities, or more accurately – unfoldings. But philosophically, she also spins a meditation – upon the eternal return. The idea that what exists after life is not death but more life, or more prosaically we could say people go on living, and the dead re-emerge in various incarnations according to different beliefs and modes of representation, and through the intricacies of memory. As always she is preoccupied with the concepts of déjà vu and amor fati, of history and the future, of memory and delusion. A minor but key character whose presence is woven through the book is a Buddhistic (come Nietzschean) psychoanalyst. In one of her incarnations, as a ten year old girl, Ursula is sent to see him.
He had trained in Vienna (“Where else?) but trod, he said, his own path. He was no one’s disciple, he said, although he had studied “at the feet of all the teachers. One must nose forward,” he said. “Nudge one’s way through the chaos of our thoughts. Unite the divided self.” Ursula had no idea what he was talking about.
Atkinson also plays with the idea of the novel as a bourgeois form. Life After Life begins with a long idyllic evocation of upper middle class English life. She has said that it was Forster always at her back, but to me the angel at her back is Virginia Woolf, particularly Mrs Dalloway. As the story begins again and again on that snowy night in 1910 so the Merchant and Ivory scenario disintegrates and nostalgia is untethered, teased out, floats like seaweed in a bloody sea. Not just the Virginia Woolf of the novels but also the essayist and the woman who kept a diary full of quotidian details. While it is surely a false dichotomy to pose quotidian detail against the sweep of history, the trick is surely to understand and craft scale, through writing to mobilize that precarious, never stable, relation between scale and perspective. What the most intriguing novels and biographies do is illuminate not just details within the large sweep of history, but the sweep of history in the details. The new biography of Marx by Jonathan Sperber does this. I dipped in and out of it while out-of-it. Jeffrey read it voraciously from cover to cover (when it could be pried away from Elvis) and would relay the revelations, day by day, in between making endless supplies of chicken soup, a ministering Scheherazade.
I always find myself (again, time after time, life after life) a better Buddhist when things are going well. “Better” of course is the wrong word, no I mean more inclined to be philosophically calm and accepting of fate, unperturbed by death. The last few days, before this awful smothering black blanket of nausea lifted I felt very despairing, as though I would never get better, even for a while. “This is it!” kind of a feeling. There is a simple line in Life After Life: “How sorry she felt for herself, as if she were someone else.” Somehow, as almost everyone must know, illness induces this as you see time falling through all the cracks in your life, never to be retrieved. Today, though, I feel grandiously like a besieged city that has been liberated. I woke up this morning feeling transformed, the nausea almost gone, euphoric. I hadn’t quite finished the Kate Atkinson and so got up, fed the cats (without experiencing that usual vomit-inducing odor as the tin of grain-free chicken-and-herring delight is prized open), let the chickens out in the dawn light, made a pot of tea and went back to bed and finished the novel – it felt so luxurious, reading not to allay sickness, but for pure pleasure. And of course I should know from the novel that after a besieged city is liberated (London and Berlin during the Second World War bombing) there isn’t immediate relief, what follows may be starvation, suicide, old age, mundanity. And yet …… and yet I loved the novel, it filled me with a peculiar happiness like Mrs Dalloway with her flowers. Atkinson has said you cannot write about happiness, that’s not what life is. It’s true the novel is not about finding happiness, I wept in parts and had to gloss over others that were too grim, and yet happiness is no less complex an emotion than say, despair, or misery, it’s just as implicated in the devious trajectories of desire. I’m glad I finished the novel on a high so I don’t always have it snuggled into bed, in a semi-illicit association with sickness.
Today I feel quite different, not sorry for my self at all, actually rather overwhelmed by the wonderful world I awoke into, but more convinced than ever that the self, though experienced materially, bodily, is a fiction. And what is it that constitutes feeling OK?
Being drug free is undoubtedly a big part of it. It surely must have been the combination of antibiotics with the chemo that made for such awfulness. Because of the initial searing gut pain and fever I diagnosed myself with a flare up of diverticulitis and my primary care Doctor agreed, urged antibiotics and since the fever and pain were subsiding, succumbed to my resistance to yet another Cat scan with contrast (time after time, too much radiation). I thought the antibiotics were working, but not really, the pain came and went. And the worst thing was the unrelenting nausea, dizziness, sensation of fainting even when lying still in bed. Kipps, my oncologist is inclined to think that this was clearly because of the piling up of chemicals (“we don’t know how the body will protest”) but also that the pain might not in fact have been provoked by an infection (and if this were the case, tho who’s to know, no need for antibiotics), but caused by tumor lysis. This refers to metabolic complications that can occur during cancer treatment, particularly in leukemia and lymphoma. Though the treatment is meant to reduce, say, the size and frequency of lymph nodes in fact it can do the opposite for a while. The lymph nodes in my gut area are increased in size and frequency and he guesses that this has put pressure on the colon. This makes sense but nevertheless I have a gut feeling (so apt a truism) that the chemicals are also ravaging my gut and so am drinking aloe vera juice an hour before eating, and also L-glutamin powder – both of which restore the mucous membrane of the colon stripped away by antibiotics as we know, but also by the other drugs. Acupuncture provided miraculous relief, but only for a short time (though it was amazing to see how color returned to my face during those sessions). However, my skin is so thin now. Thicker emotionally perhaps but in the end there is just that thin penumbra between you and the world.
Now I’m into the fourth round. Kipps decided not to up the dose because of the complications, though he is reluctant, and feels that it is only with an increased dose that some of the symptoms will abate and improvement register (white and red blood counts are miraculously in the normal zone, but others wonky). Still, it is underway and am feeling almost fine. Phew! With trepidation I have another immunoglobulin infusion this week, since an adverse reaction during the last one…
There are other things besides acupuncture that provided relief and forgetfulness. I thought I could drive myself to acupuncture one time but when I got out of bed realized that this wasn’t going to work. I called Tershia and she came and fetched me in her 1969 Porsche (a 912, 500,000 + miles, named “Lawrence” after T.E., as its first paint color was “Sand.”). Tershia turned it green. Just looking at it is a joy. It registers beauty—in its design, but also in that color, that delicious green that seems otherwise to have disappeared from the world, a green of mahjong pieces, of bathroom tiles and my grandmother’s kitchen. Nothing grandmotherly about that ride to the acupuncturist, however. Tershia drives her racing car as though it were a racing car. You might think that this would exacerbate nausea, but it was rather like entering into a dream. I loved being inside that greenness, whizzing through the city.
And then there was the poppy. Steve Ilott gave me, months ago, some white poppies he had started. We planted them out and waited and waited as they grew in a spindly fashion. Then one day as I lay languishing, feeling sorry for myself, Peggy—who was working in the garden, fighting the weeds which have gone beserk since people on the street started planting “low maintenance native” grasses—took a picture of the blooming poppy on her i-phone and sent it to me in the house. It was a totally unexpected apparition: a glorious white pom pom. I had been assuming that an old fashioned and elegant poppy would eventually bloom. Instead: the sheer exuberance and excess of that “Swansdown” startled me into delight. On the morning when I awoke feeling OK I opened the front door in the early morning and there were four white pompoms, gleaming in amongst the irises and salvia, roses and fennel, brash colors muted momentarily in the dawn, ceding glory to Swansdown.