Ullmann, Linn (2005), Grace, Picador
Translated by Barbara Haveland
Levé, Édouard (2009), Suicide, Folio
[English translation: Édouard Levé (2011), Suicide, Dalkey
Translated by Jan Steyn
This is the second part of a two part review of two short novels about dying. For the introduction and a review of the first book, Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, click here. As I pointed out, Garner’s novel is a moving and intense take on the ars moriendi, that leaves out the thoughts and emotions of the dying person, focusing instead on the friend giving her shelter. The opposite is true of Linn Ullmann’s Grace.
Linn Ullmann is a Norwegian novelist, critic and actress. Grace, her third novel, was published in 2002, to instant acclaim. In Norway, it won “The Readers’ Prize” and the translation was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. In a way, it seems fitting that this book won an audience award since it feels much less complicated and skilled than Helen Garner’s book did. For all the immediacy that Garner provided, she also offered a complex framework, buttressed by unusually controlled and clear writing. Ullmann’s prose, in stark contrast to this, seems much less controlled. The book spans the whole period between the day the doctors announce the impending death of Johan Sletten, Ullmann’s hapless and cancer-stricken protagonist, in “six months, maybe more, maybe less”, and his eventual death. Additionally, Johan uses that time to reflect on his past life. All of this happens in about 130 pages. Ullmann’s technique involves examining individual episodes, and there is a genuine attempt to find original, significant, new ways to talk about someone dying of cancer. Her attempt to squeeze new life from old situations is most visible in some of her metaphors:
Mai’s face was a sign. He caught himself searching Mai’s face with something like suspicion, much as a passenger on a plane will search the flight attendant’s face when the plane begins to shudder and the cabin lights go out. Is this it? Are we crashing now? Does she look worried? Will it be over soon?
On the other hand, it’s hard not to see other situations as mere wistful riffs on established tropes, such as the moment that Johan’s face grows a horribly disfiguring boil, signifying his illness and general descent into physical decrepitude. This is not necessarily negative, however. Using these tropes and situations, Ullmann aligns herself with a much older tradition, medieval and renaissance morality writing about death. Starting with the overtly religious title of the English book (I have no cultural context for the original Norwegian title, Nåde), and contining with set pieces like the boil. She is not the first writer to go down that road, and there’s no getting around that fact that other authors in the genre, even contemporary ones, have a much more nimble hand at this kind of writing. Philip Roth (click here for more of my reviews of his work) comes to mind, and even though I find his Everyman the sad nadir of his late uninspired spike in productivity, his use of tradition as a point of reference in discussing the life of a 20th century man is absolutely masterful, whether the text in question is Dickens or the titular morality play.
Everyman, however, is also a good example of a kind of writing that Ullmann actively distances herself from: the vaguely masturbatory, self-congratulatory summing up of male experience. Even when writers like Roth examine mediocrity, there’s always an element of pride, a swagger to it. Of course, with Roth, the source of that swagger more often than not is sexuality – and its enemy, physical decline. He has his protagonist say that “eluding death seemed to have become the central business of life and bodily decay his entire story.” An anxiety about bodies, combined with sexual narratives that are often boastful even in less than stellar moments. Reading Grace, one feels that Ullmann is very aware of these contexts (while I focused on Everyman, there is an endless multitude of books doing the same thing). Her portrayal of mediocrity is harsh and thorough: Johan Sletten’s life, as we learn quickly, has been one of failure and weakness. His first marriage was doomed, but while he wished to end it, he had not been capable of doing so, waiting until the situation resolved itself. His weakness shows in this assessment of his relief at his first wife’s death
Johan often thought that if Alice had not, after twenty years of marriage, been run over and silenced at last by a black station wagon in downtown Oslo, he would have had to run her over himself.
Clearly, Johan, is an unsympathetic character. There is really nothing likable about him, and Johan himself is highly aware of that. He had a falling out with his only child but makes no real effort to repair that relationship. And it’s not just his personal life: he was fired from his position at a newspaper after he plagiarized a review. There is no sense of this being an isolated, regrettable mistake. Instead, it is accepted as a consequence of the way Johan has been leading his life.
There seems to be more than a little of Iris Murdoch‘s George McCaffrey, one of the most masterfully realized literary mediocrities I can remember reading about, in the character of Johan. But the protagonist of The Philosopher’s Pupil (a book that anyone reading this should read as soon as possible) fights his mediocrity, without being interested in changing its substance. George McCaffrey is smart enough to see that he is profoundly lacking; much of his actions, however, serve the purpose of trying to keep others from noticing it. As a result, George develops a great deal of resentment and aggression, impotent as much of it turns out to be. But for Johan, there is clearly no wish or attempt to do something about it one way or the other. Johan just lives on by virtue of his body continuing to function. Until, indeed, it stops. Which, fittingly, is the moment he starts to resent his decay. He starts to get into the old man complaints we know from so many other books. This is quite clever of Ullmann, as it allows her to tie this common literary phenomenon into the context of this mostly unpleasant man’s cowardly musings, thus putting on a different coat of interpretative paint onto this/a well known surface. There is, however, something in his life that seems to somewhat redeem him: his second wife Mai. Mai is a physician, and she is considerably younger (17 years) than him, and more importantly: she loves him. Johan can’t quite comprehend this love, and we can’t quite, either. Given the small girth of the book, Ullman doesn’t really have room to make Mai’s love plausible, and so she doesn’t really attempt it. This, however, leads to an interesting wrinkle in the structure of the book. There are many ways in which the book appears to suggest (and sometimes outright say) that Mai is Johan’s redemption, a fresh breath, a new lease on life, but at the same time, she is presented as a bright, wonderful, empathetic character, and Johan, well he’s still Johan.
While he is appropriately overwhelmed by her love and rightfully thankful for it, it enters his life at a time when he doesn’t have the strength to really accommodate it. There is an odd sense of recriminations. Take this example: spurred by an almost-epiphany in the park, he decides he wants for them to adopt a dog, and, excited, puts this suggestion to Mai, but she declines. This, we are told, “ruined his breakfast.” He’s upset he’s not getting his way in this small aspect, and because he is incapable of contextualizing moments in his life with the larger ebb and flow of what happens (a skill he lacks but which might have helped him to reconsider the way he’s let his life fall apart in the first place). As we find out, he lives his life inside his own head, with his observations and his decisions only related to his personal brand of whiny, cowardly logic. To take up Helen Garner’s metaphor: he has no ‘spare room’ for Mai inside his head, he is too preoccupied with arranging the place for himself. The latter half of his life has consisted of letting himself go, and burdening others with the weight of his failing life. And as his cancer, the “beast”, gets worse, he imposes the ultimate burden on Mai: he asks her to assist him with dying, to euthanize him. In the intro to my review of The Spare Room, I said that Grace is a kind of ars moriendi: but in a way, it does this by showing us a bad example. Like Nicola, Johan doesn’t really want to face his death head on; as with everything else in his life, he evades dealing with things directly. Unlike Nicola, he doesn’t actually do something to fight death, he just moans and complains.
If that was all there was to the book, it would be quite the dour piece of writing, but it’s not. The book is called Grace, after all, and indeed we see Johan transformed by the process of dying. It’s not that he becomes a better man. He remains a petty and jealous and selfish mediocrity, but Linn Ullmann makes us see, from the outside, that the situation transforms him, as an object. So far, he’s only been part of a failing life, a burden on the woman who loves him, a bad father, and a failed journalist, but in the waning of his life, something spectacular happens. Reading the book, we realize that Johan has been put through a series of events that have structural and symbolic power, and while they don’t really have an effect on him, they make the book into a kind of place where changes happen. The moment when he eventually dies is one of the most powerful moments in the whole book. It is set up as a moment where the conventional imagery of a dying person waiting for the sun, waiting for the dawn is juxtaposed with the overpowering fact of the connection that two people can have, even two people as mismatched as Johan and Mai. When making a decision whether or not to help Johan with his death, Mai tells him: “I know you better than anybody else. […] And we have a language all our own, you and I.” It’s a nighttime moment, and Johan is waiting for the light. The novel, carefully, artfully, replaces that distant light with the luminous love that Mai has for her dying man, and his dithering with the sudden decisiveness of his loving, intelligent wife. As Johan passes away, Mai offers a prayer, not for religious reasons, but because “it seemed like the right thing to do.”
In many Christian theologies, there is an active element in receiving grace, but Johan squirms and resists. But maybe his acceptance of grace (or lack thereof) is not the point. After all, he is not the narrator of the book. The narrator is a personal friend of Johan’s, who tells the story in limited third person point of view, letting us see everything through Johan’s eyes, see Johan’s thoughts and memories, except for a tiny handful of moments where he pulls away and lets us in on the wider picture. The way this works reminded me a lot of Édouard Levé’s Suicide, a pretty flawless little book addressed to someone who killed themselves, narrated by a personal friend. Levé’s narrator, while drawing up a picture of the trajectory of his friend’s life, keeps framing it in the context of his death: “ta mort a écrit ta vie.” His friend’s death has changed how his life is perceived, but also how his friends relate to their own lives: “ton suicide rend plus intense la vie de ceux qui t’ont survécu.” Levé manages magnificently to zoom in and out of knowable and unknowable facts about the dead friend, imagining his thoughts on the one hand, presenting public statements on the other. The whole book is basically a skillful interrogation of what death means to those who choose it freely and to those around them, how meanings changes in different contexts, and how we construct meanings for lives that eminently resist that. When I reviewed The Spare Room, I said that there’s a difference between preparing a space for one’s own death and preparing a space for someone else’s. In a way, Suicide, which doubles as a suicide note by Levé, who chose his death a mere three days after delivering the manuscript of the book to his editor, is just that kind of space. The room carved out is one in cultural narratives of how biographies work, and a more specific space within very precise cultural and geographical contexts.
I think that Ullmann does implicitly (and with considerably less skill) what Levé does explicitly: her book is really focused around her unnamed narrator, who controls the presentation of events. Mai, Johan’s grace, is offered to us, and Johan’s dithering and small scale rejection of that grace is only underlining the significance of what is offered. Ullmann’s book is much more openly moral than Garner’s and fits the medieval mold more comfortably: in the shadow of Johan’s meager existence and pitiful death, we are told a much bigger story about how to die and how we hope for our lives to be graced by other people’s affections. Death, in Grace, is not a dark force. It is granted by the most generous person in the whole book.
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