Thursday, March 29, 2007

The sense of loss

I have quoted the Irish writer John Banville on here a couple of times before (the Wikipedia bio of him I've linked to includes an especially fine collection of short quotations from him). This is an extended quotation from early on in his novel 'Athena' - one of the great accounts of love gone wrong; though, as with everything of his I've read, the dense descriptive writing does tend to overwhelm whatever slight narrative there may be.

I happened to discover this book shortly after my traumatic breakup with my 'great lost love', The Evil One, so it was particularly affecting for me. There are several passages in this which I have transcribed, and returned to again and again (arguably in a somewhat unhealthy, scab-picking or revelling-in-my-own-pain kind of way). This is probably my favourite of them all. (Although I have always had reservations about that last line: I appreciate the image, and I feel there's a wonderful rhythm about the phrasing, but it still seems a little clunky to be comparing the rain with something else that comes in showers. Maybe I'm too nitpicky. The passage is still marvellous.)

I think this is the best description I've ever read of what it feels like to be utterly heartbroken (only 3 times in my life have I felt this bad). Much of it is, of course, applicable to other states of loss and dislocation as well; bereavement, for example. Much of it, indeed, even has a resonance with the disruption and frustration we feel over relatively trivial life adjustments we are forced to make (like trying to get by without blog commenting for 10 days!): I love the line about "mentally patting my pockets".


I feel as I have not felt since I was a lovelorn adolescent, at once bereft and lightened, giddy with relief at your going - you were too much for me - and yet assailed by a sorrow so weighty, of so much more consequence than I seem to myself to be, that I stand, no, I kneel before it, speechless in a kind of awe. Even at those times when, sated with its pain, my mind briefly relinquishes the thought of you, the sense of loss does not abate, and I go about mentally patting my pockets and peering absently into the shadowed corners of myself, trying to identify what it is that has been misplaced. This is what it must be like to have a wasting illness, this restlessness, this wearied excitation, this perpetual shiver in the blood. There are moments - well, I do not wish to melodramatise, but there are moments, at the twin poles of dusk and dawn especially, when I think I might die of the loss of you, might simply forget myself in my anguish and agitation and step blindly off the edge of the earth and be gone for good. And yet at the same time I feel I have never been so vividly alive, so quick with the sense of things, so exposed in the midst of the world's seething play of particles, as if I had been flayed of an exquisitely fine protective skin. The rain falls through me silently, like a shower of neutrinos.

'Athena', by John Banville


Anonymous said...

well, I do not wish to melodramatise


never read his work (i think), but based on what you say and on this piece, i find the comment above amusing...

but isn't it true that when a person says something like that, it really means they precisely intend to melodramatise.

Froog said...

I think JB's probably quite aware of this. He's "in character", after all.

Although the sumptuousness of the writing always make you think that the first-person narrator is closely identified with the author himself, with his sensibilities and preoccupations. A somewhat worrying reflection, given that his protagonists always seem to be losers, creeps, and criminals! Very, very sensitive and articulate ones, but losers, creeps, and criminals nonetheless.