Michel Faber has created fictional universes out of the oddest of places – a Victorian brothel, a colonising mission at the far end of the galaxy – and made them disturbingly real. Such a capacious imagination has produced books that are wildly different to each other. Except in general terms, he has kept his own life out of the picture in all of them.
Until now. Undying, his first collection of poetry, written after the death of his wife Eva, could hardly be more personal. Screeds of poetry have been written on the theme of bereavement and trying to remember and honour a loved one, but few, if any, trace the panorama of grief with such visceral intimacy.
Eva was more than just Faber’s wife of 26 years. She was the person who persuaded him that writing should be more than a self-indulgent hobby, that he should push for publication and make a career of it.
As he wrote the books which made him famous, she was his first and best reader, sometimes (as with The Crimson Petal and the White) suggesting changes so radical that he had to rethink the whole ending of the novel, occasionally (as in The Courage Consort) inventing key characters. Always, she was his shield against the world, protecting him from media intrusion. She was his manager, editor, lover, wife, friend.
They lived in a converted railway station north of the Cromarty Firth, four miles from Tain. Isolation suited them. They were one of those couples who had enough in each other and didn’t seem to need anyone else. Though she was an artist and writer in her own right, she worked as a teacher so he could have the time to write.
The writing was a further bond between them; although the books were his creation, they only existed because of her. Either way, they reinforced their emotional self-sufficiency as a couple. “We are,” he once said, “like a little nation of two.”
When Eva found out that she had bone marrow cancer, friends feared how Michel would cope. At first, the news plunged him into depression that left him unable to write.
However, he says: “But in the later years of Eva’s cancer journey, when she became desperately ill, I ceased suffering from depression. A pragmatic calm settled over our relationship. I took care of her and finished The Book of Strange New Things, which had seemed inconceivable before. And after she died, I wasn’t depressed either, though I was distraught and anguished and bereft and disconsolate and somewhat mad.”
With a growing sense of purpose, he started writing poems about the slow spread of the multiple myeloma that had eaten away at his wife, moments of hope when chemotherapy blasted it into remission, then the remorseless, savage indignities it inflicted on her body as it finally, fatally, returned.
The second half of the book charts his first, uncertain steps into the world without Eva: regrets for things they used to share but now can’t, the attempted kindnesses of strangers, the sudden aches of solitariness, abruptly triggered tender memories.
Apart from three poems – one written in the first of the six years in which she had cancer, two written nine days before her death on
6 July, 2014 – all the rest in the collection were written when he was looking back, alone, at their last years together.
Faber’s work has always been clear-eyed and unsentimental, but there is a sometimes unnerving directness about some of the poems. In one, for example, he describes Eva’s late-cancer body: “Bald, bloated, piggy-eyed/your flaccid arms bruised black/your belly mildewed with malignancies.” Even though this then twists movingly into a love poem, the billowing veils of metaphor that surround so much poetry of bereavement could hardly be further away.
“I love and admire poems like Tennyson’s In Memoriam,” says Faber, “but I have neither the technical skill nor the desire to write about grief like that. Metaphor and stately language can be used as a way of defusing grief, wrapping it up safely so that both poet and reader are protected. That’s fine if you can’t bear to look at the reality of illness and death; some people just can’t and nobody should force them to.
“But there are other people who wish that a poet could express the raw, awkward, taboo feelings they have when they lose a loved one, and they feel huge relief when that experience is validated. Already, I’m getting letters from people thanking me for articulating things they’d felt were forbidden or inexpressible. The response has been extraordinary, even at this early stage. My work has been about helping people confront big issues and I have had some lovely, heartfelt responses throughout my career, but especially so now.”
So if his poems are cathartic for his readers, were they like that for him too? “No. I wouldn’t have put them out there if I thought they were just an attempt to make myself feel better. I think they’re strong poems which express things that people may not find expressed elsewhere. I do want to hold on to memories of Eva but the main way I’m doing that is by writing her biography, which is a private, family-only project.”
He has, he says, started work on it nearly two years ago and expects to be working on it for the rest of his life.
“It’s not for public consumption so the rate of progress doesn’t matter – it will be what it will be when I drop dead, and it will be better than nothing, which is what most descendants get from their forebears. Some parts are already quite detailed, like Eva’s childhood in Melbourne. Other parts, like the years on Tarrel Farm in Ross-shire, are little more than scanned photos and fragments of letters. We’ll see what I can get round to.”
His life after Eva hasn’t been what she was afraid it would be. “She feared that I would retreat into solitude, using my grief as an excuse for cutting myself off from other human beings. Eva had put so much love and effort into making me more functional, more trusting, more socialised, that she didn’t want me to crawl back in my burrow and brood. So, I felt I owed it to her to go out into the world, maintain my connections with other people. Otherwise, it would have been as though she was just a blip in my history, powerless to change me deep down.
“She really knew how to cherish life and have fun, despite being dealt some very rotten luck in various respects, not restricted to a vicious, incurable cancer. I was insufficiently grateful for the precious gift of life for too much of my time with her, and I want to live in a way that she would be proud of now.”
What does he think she’d have made of the poems? “I will never know. I expect she would have challenged me to make some of them better and given me hints how to achieve that. She probably would have smiled and said, ‘Too much cancer.’”
*Undying: A Love Story is published by Canongate, price £12.99