Grief and the consolation of poetry
The luminous new novel by the Belfast writer David Park contrasts three marriages, in stories told by the widows of great poets: Catherine Blake, wife of William Blake; Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of Osip Mandelstam; and Lydia, fictional widow of a fictional modern Irish poet
Poet and partner: Catherine and William Blake, from sketches by William Blake. Photograph: Hulton/Getty
The Poets' Wives
‘Mr Blake comes so quietly I don’t hear him entering the room but when I look up he is sitting in his familiar place and his face is full of light . . .
‘Do you no longer work?’ I ask, barely able to believe it might be so.
‘All my work is finished, Kate, and I am free and finally known.’ ”
The latest novel from the prize-winning David Park contrasts three marriages, one made in the heaven of mutual harmony of mind and heart, one in the hell of Stalinist Russia, and one in the land of contemporary dysfunctional families.
The stories are told by the widows of great poets: Catherine Blake, wife of William Blake, the 18th-century visionary; Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of the Russian Osip Mandelstam, who died in a Soviet prison camp in 1938; and Lydia, fictional widow of a fictional modern Irish poet who writes in a cottage somewhere near Portrush.
The novel deals with complex emotions: love, the grief of the bereaved, the role of religious belief, and the immortality of poetry.
Nadezhda Mandelstam, based closely on the historical woman, is presented as she who is most intently aware of the importance of poetry and of her husband’s work in particular. In Russia, it is obvious that poetry matters, as they are always killing poets, Nadezhda wrote in her own memoir, Hope Against Hope .
Her husband’s crime was to write a scurrilous poem about Stalin. Married to Osip for 18 years, she lived without him for more than 40. After his death she learned all his poems by heart, ensuring that while she lived they would survive. Julian Barnes, in his wonderful essay on the grief of the bereaved husband, Levels of Life , writes that his strongest motivation for living is that he is his wife’s best rememberer.
Nadezhda Mandelstam fulfilled this role for Osip literally: it is largely thanks to her unstinting devotion to preserving his poetry that he is now recognised as one of Russia’s greatest 20th-century writers. Park’s version of her story is shorter, gentler in style and more accessible than her own autobiographical work, which, although brilliant, is densely packed with facts, names and political references – more history than novel.
Testament to Park’s power as a storyteller is that he manages to convey better than she does herself the character of this tough and formidably intelligent woman, and to express her profound love, grief and devotion to her husband and his work.
His completely fictional creation in the novel is Lydia. Unlike Nadezhda, Lydia did not love her husband, although she was married to him for 41 years (somewhat unaccountably).
Moments of infidelity
All three poets in this novel are alleged to have had moments of infidelity. In the cases of Blake and of Mandelstam, these episodes were subsumed into the sturdy texture of their good marriages. But Don, the Irish poet, was persistently unfaithful, and not even his daughters have a good word to say for him. Lydia feels, as she prepares to scatter the ashes of her husband, that she is “lighter, freer, and at the same time a little frightened”.
Curiously, Lydia’s relative lack of pain at her bereavement feels sadder than the searing grief of the loving wives. Like them, however, Lydia recognises the greatness of her husband’s work. In spite of her resentment she determines to preserve his manuscripts: “What she had to do was owed not to him but to something greater.”
Nadezhda Mandelstam and Lydia have in common that they appear to have no strong belief in an afterlife. Catherine Blake, who was married to William for 45 years, and survived him for only four, has the comfort of trusting that on her death she and William will be reunited in heaven. And even in her widowhood he visits her on this earth, chats and gives advice, both spiritual and practical: “Take what’s left of my collection of prints to Colnaghi and Co and try to get the best price you can.”
Her faith does not shield her completely from the pain of bereavement, however: “I want him to hold me, to embrace my loneliness, for after 45 years of marriage it is a strange and difficult thing to be separated in body if not in soul, but he never comes closer than to hold my hand or fleetingly kiss my brow and I know I cannot press for more.”
Visions, memories and hopes of an afterlife are a comfort, but Park wisely suggests the truth: that they are a poor substitute for that most precious and ordinary of things: a loving partner who is alive.
In this, one of his very finest novels, Park captures sensitively one of the most painful of universal experiences: the death of a spouse or partner. He explores the phenomenon most sensitively, knowledgeably and in all its complexity. His final message, that poetry – all art – offers consolation and, sub specie aeternitatis, is more important than human events, is perhaps not open to dispute. The idea that behind every great man there is a great woman may be more problematic. Although Catherine Blake is an artist, she is the helpmate, not the master. Nadezhda Mandelstam and Lydia, both remarkable women and their husbands’ rememberers, are ultimately overshadowed by male genius.
That Park chose to write about great poets’ wives rather than great poets’ husbands may indicate an attitude that implies a certain gender bias. That caveat aside, this is an outstanding novel, written in luminous, accessible prose, thoroughly enjoyable and much deeper even than the sum of its excellent parts.