There aren’t many poet-novelists today, though there were a good many in the 19th century: Scott and Stevenson, Meredith and Hardy, for example.
There were also poets who wrote novels in verse, Browning being the most successful. Then there was Kipling, our greatest short-story writer and a very fine poet, and Ford Madox Ford. In the 20th century, some novelists published a slim volume of poems when they were young, but none subsequently, Graham Greene and Aldous Huxley, for instance. Conversely Philip Larkin wrote two novels in his youth, thereafter only poems. His friend Kingsley Amis was a rare example who continued to write both poetry and novels, very well too.
In his preface to this book, Michel Faber, author of the fine and very successful novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, says; “I used to joke that at the rate I wrote poems, I’d need to live until I was in my nineties before I had enough for a collection.” That’s to say, he was an occasional poet, very occasional indeed.
What changed, so that he found the making of poetry necessary?
“In late ’88, not knowing how lucky I was,
I met a woman who would die of cancer.”
The woman, Eva, became his wife and 15 years later he was living in a London hospital where she was suffering from “multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer of the bone marrow, and was struggling not only with the illness but with the cumulative effects of six years of toxic treatment. Her second stem-cell transplant had failed and her body was a wreck.”
There was still hope that a new chemotherapy drug “would reverse the latest relapse” and “give her at least six months remission”. It failed, of course, and poetry came to him. Therapy? Consolation? Who can tell? Necessity anyway.
“Undying” is, as the sub-title says, a love story: tender, caring, sometimes angry and bitter, sometimes relieved by moments of the black humour that may enable you to accommodate grief and pain. It’s a story of courage, and the persistence of hope even in the darkest times. It comes in two books, the first tracing the terrible galloping course of Eva’s illness, the destruction of the body, and the narrowing of life; the second, Faber’s attempts after she has gone to adjust to his new bleak reality.
You have the horrors and hope of modern medicine: “Burrowed under Bulstrode Place,/ Alliance had the best machines / to slice you up with science./ Starved, and dosed with Valium, you’d descend / to the basement where they did the deed./ Kindly staff would lead you blindfolded / into airless realms of ultrasound. / You knew the ropes: the radioactive dye, / the New Age musak, the high-tech rack, / polystyrene pillows moulded to ensure / you did not bend the flesh laid ready for / the lurid robot eye.”
There is a day when they consider making an end of it, a short poem entitled Switzerland: “You tried to phone but/ Dignitas was busy. / You begged me, so I wrote instead. / My typing fingers made vibrations / on your bed. / But Switzerland gave no reply.”
Death comes, but there is always a survivor. How you come to terms with the need to go on living , enduring and trying slowly to resurface in a world that is less than it was, changed and unfamiliar, yet alive with memories: these are the themes of the later poems. He remembers them watching snow falling: “Now it’s you who’s bodiless./ So tentatively there, so insubstantial in the air? That the snowflakes fall right through you.”
When Thomas Hardy’s first wife died he wrote beautiful poems, remembering the days of their early love. Michel Faber’s book recalls them to me: there is the same sense of love regained or surviving death, the same sense of our fragility, of the malignity of Fate’s operation in the world we move blindly through. Undying defies death and is a remarkable and very moving work.