Wednesday, August 13, 2014

`The Privilege of Ordinary Heartbreaks'

The polymath Clive James was born in Kogorah, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, in 1939, a month after the start of World War II. His father, Sgt. Albert James, was taken prisoner by the Japanese and survived a POW camp and slave labor in Japan only to be killed when the plane returning him to Australia at war’s end hit a typhoon and crashed in Manila Bay. In Unreliable Memoirs (1980), one of James’ many autobiographical volumes, he recalls how his mother, after V-J Day, received a telegram saying that Albert had survived imprisonment, followed by letters from James’ father. Then another telegram arrived, confirming he had been killed. James writes: 

“Up until that day, all the grief and worry that I had ever seen my mother give away to had been tempered for my ears. But now she could not help herself. At the age of five I was seeing the full force of human despair. There were no sedatives to be had. It was several days before she could control herself. I understood nothing beyond the fact that I could not help. I think that I was marked for life.” 

James says the triple trauma – good news, terrible news, grief beyond measure – fated him to “a tiresomely protracted adolescence” that didn’t relent until he reached his thirties. He doesn’t presume to know what his mother felt, but is grateful his parents were able to exchange a few letters before the fatal crash. Then James makes a risky comparison, one that a clumsy writer might have permitted to descend into offensively vulgar bathos: 

“In one respect they were like Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam in the last chapters of Hope Against Hope – torn apart in mid-word without even a chance to say goodbye. But in another way they were not. My father had taken up arms out of his own free will. In Europe, millions of women and children had been killed for no better reason than some ideological fantasy. My father was a free human being. So was my mother. What happened, terrible though it was, belongs in the category of what Nadezhda Mandelstam, elsewhere in that same great book, calls the privilege of ordinary heartbreaks.” 

Here is the passage in Hope Against Hope (trans. Max Hayward, 1970) referred to by James, one I’ve retained since I first read the book forty-one years ago: “To think that we could have had an ordinary life with its bickering, broken hearts and divorce suits! There are people in the world so crazy as not to realize that this is normal human existence of the kind everybody should aim at. What wouldn’t we have given for such ordinary heartbreaks!” 

The human craving for immunity to life’s unpleasantness is blind and eternal, while the gratitude we owe for our “ordinary heartbreaks” is bottomless. James continues: “Slowly, in those years, the world was becoming aware that things had been happening which threw the whole value of human existence into doubt. But my father’s death was not one of them. It was just bad luck. I have disliked luck ever since – an aversion only increased by the fact that I have always been inordinately lucky.” 

Thirty years after writing that passage, James was diagnosed with B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Naturally, he has written about his illness. When a friend I met in 1970 wrote on Monday from the hospital to say he had been diagnosed with “advanced prostate cancer” three days earlier, James was the second person I thought of, having read his memoir on Sunday. James’s 2004 poem about his father, buried in the Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong, “My Father Before Me,” closes with these lines: “I have no time to waste, much less to kill. / My life is yours, my curse to be so blessed.”

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