Rebecca Solnit. The Faraway Nearby. Viking, 2013. “Pared back to its bare bones, this book is the history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company then…” The emergency was the onset of her mother’s Alzheimer’s, and, nestled within that emergency, came Solnit’s own brush with cancer. Solnit’s wonderfully digressive stories take us from the depths of the Grand Canyon to a lonely residency at the Library of Water on the coast of Iceland, through the world of myth and her own family history, weaving amongst the literature and lives of Hans Christian Anderson, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, and others. Solnit’s beautiful writing, her passion and compassion, her intense sense of place, and her firm moral compass always make her books a special event. This is a wonderful and wise piece of writing…
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we’ve been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or a supply drop. Not a few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing all around us.
To get a flavor for this book, I highly recommend listening to her conversation with KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt.
Marguerite Duras. The War. New Press, 1994.
Opposite the fireplace and beside me, the telephone. To the right the sitting room and the passage. At the end of the passage, the front door. He might come straight here and ring at the front door. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Or he might phone from a transit center as soon as he got there. “I’m back – I’m at the Lutetia to go through the formalities.” There wouldn’t be any warning. He’d phone. He’d arrive. Such things are possible.
In April 1944, Marguerite Duras waits anxiously in her Paris apartment for word about her husband, who had been arrested by the Gestapo and eventually deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Duras gives a riveting account of the roller coaster emotional ride that drags on for weeks. In spite of her personal horror and uncertainty, though, Duras also thinks anxiously about the future of a victorious Europe, a liberated France, and a defeated Germany. “Peace is visible already,” she writes, adding ominously: “It’s like a great darkness falling, it’s the beginning of forgetting.”
If you give a German and not a collective interpretation to the Nazi horror, you reduce the man in Belsen to regional dimensions. The only possible answer to this crime is to turn it into a crime committed by everyone. To share it. Just like the idea of equality and fraternity. In order to bear it, to tolerate the idea of it, we must share the crime.
Her husband Robert returns, unrecognizable and nearly dead. “If he had eaten when he got back from the camp his stomach would have been lacerated by the weight of the food, or else the weight would have pressed on the heart which had grown enormous in the cave of his emaciation.” She carefully nurses him back from death and then she drops this bombshell:
I told him we had to get a divorce, that I wanted a child by D., that it was because of the name the child would bear. He asked if one day we might get together again. I said no, that I hadn’t changed my mind since two years ago, since I’d met D. I said that even if D. hadn’t existed I wouldn’t have lived with him again. He didn’t ask me my reasons for living. I didn’t tell him what they were.
The War contains three separate memoir fragments and a pair of very brief stories, all relating to the end of World War II, all marked by her brutal form of in-the-moment honesty.