Biology, Chemistry and Physics.
More years ago than I care to divulge I was an ‘A’ level English student, doing battle with a number of compulsory texts (Othello, The Knight’s Tale, Nostromo and Paradise Lost) as well as a range of other literature which if memory serves was categorised as “Modern”, which included both Evelyn Waugh‘s 1934 novel A Handful of Dust, and the poetry which provided its title; T S Eliot‘s The Waste Land.
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Waugh’s tale of a society marriage break up, and the ultimate fate of the wronged and ineffectual husband was surely a poor choice for teenage scholars whose personal experience could never resonate with the story being told of Tony Last’s loss of his son through a riding accident, wife to a meaningless affair, and his liberty in a Brazilian jungle. What begins with the “bright young things” ends in corruption and decay.
With perhaps unfortunate timing, I’ve finished two other books this week which deal with loss, but meeting me later in life have had a far greater impact. Sebastian Faulks‘ A Possible Life comprises a handful of tales that revisit some of his favourite subject matter; France, war, the history of psychology and the workings of the brain. The last tale though is one of lost love, and the narrator, a fading rock star is forced to choose between his beautiful, yet relatively unexciting partner, and a shooting star with incredible talent (clearly based on Joni Mitchell). He chooses the latter, and the manner of his failure to acknowledge the end of the first relationship is agonising for the wronged partner, but his agony is all the greater, when his new all-consuming love is shattered as the star takes flight and disappears in reaction to a drug fuelled mental breakdown.
Had I encountered this story as a skinny 17-year-old, the emotional impact would have been just as alien as that of Tony Last’s downfall (though the music element would doubtless have appealed!), yet now I was moved to tears by the ways in which we manage to destroy each other.
Those tears, I learned from the other book, have a different chemical composition from the lubricants that keep our eyes healthy, emotional tears containing both hormones and painkillers. Recommended by fellow blogger Becky Kilsby, Peter Carey‘s The Chemistry of Tears was to continue the theme of grief. That snippet of biological information makes up no more than a couple of lines of this book which, in intertwined stories, contrasts the construction of an automaton swan (as in my recent posting The Things We Do For Love…) and the reaction of its conservator to the loss of the love of her life. Catherine’s trauma pervades every aspect of her life and once more produced an empathetic reaction.
The complexities of human emotion are incredible when you consider, as one of Faulks’ characters does, that we are no more than collections of atoms and on our death will decay away, leaving those immutable atoms to recombine into some different aspect of the world. There is so much that can be achieved by a handful of dust.