A Goldfinch This Morning




I borrowed an e-book version of Donna’s Tartt’s The Goldfinch from the library. (Still pretty amazed I figured out how to do that, but a rent crisis made it necessary.) This morning, I arrived at 870/1427. In this passage, the protagonist Theo Decker, who suffered a terrible loss when he was 14, as well as a remarkable, if dodgy, gain, is now 26. He decides to wean himself off his drugs of choice, Oxycontin 80s, et al. These enable him to carry on a successful life, whereas alcohol, his father’s drug, or heroin would not. So he says. (This does not reflect the views of the writer who has trouble with 100 mgs of Sertraline.) The physical withdrawal is bad enough, but after that comes the DEPRESSION.

“This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time.” (863/1427- on my iPad). Theo goes on to enumerate all the futile actions we indulge in -playing, working, having babies, redecorating, reading restaurant reviews…

Elsewhere I have confessed to a black sense of humour. I embrace Beckett’s advice to a young writer, “despair young and never look back.” except I tend to apply it to life in general. So these few pages cheered me up and made me laugh.

My 80 yr-old-body had hobbled out of bed this morning with full awareness that today more strangers would file through my apartment. Eventually, one of them would buy the triplex. Very likely, they would then evict me. My place is the only unit renovated. The only available apartments are $200-800 more than mine. (We’re having a really big real estate boom in Toronto.) I try to remember that “in my father’s house there are many mansions”, but getting into those seems too radical altogether.

So I’ve been ruminating on divorce, recession, illness, housing bubbles that burst, and those that haven’t yet. But this despondent passage in Donna Tartt’s book was so beautifully written that I didn’t care.

Goldfinches, especially painted ones, do not have voices like nightingales or mockingbirds. They twitter as they swoop, parentheses of bright flashing light.


Black Humour: Despair young and Never Look Back

We were laughing. I remember that. It was Mother’s Day, wedding day. The hotel room was suddenly full of people. We oldsters were waking up from our nap and the youngsters had descended on us, bearing greetings. The last to arrive was Leo, 17, my grandson. And we were laughing.

It had been a bad year really. Someone was very ill, awaiting  surgery. Some, still getting  hit hard by this recession. Someone was grieving the lost love of his life. Someone else, heartbroken. But here we were from both sides of the continent, together at last. We were laughing. Blackly!

And then I said to Leo, “Despair young and never look back.”

How could I? He was a fresh-faced seventeen year old. How could I lay Samuel Beckett’s bleak advice on him?

Leo laughed.

It’s hard to be fresh-faced and seventeen under the circumstances, but, more to the point, Leo shares that black sense of humour. He figured out as a much younger person what life can be and he, like the rest of us, in that room had decided to laugh.

I first came across Beckett’s advice in MIchael Ondatje’s The Cat’s Table, the story of a 10-year-old’s voyage from India to England on his own. He befriended two other children also on their own and ate with them at the lowest table, the one farthest from the captain’s table, the cat’s table.

I knew Samuel Beckett, having taught Waiting for Godot to puzzled teenagers for many years. (Why were the tramps waiting? Was Godot God? Why didn’t he come? etc.) It was impossible to say. Beckett had pared the language down to the point where the audience had to decide. But it was clear that, apparently abandoned and betrayed, they suffered in their waiting. Whether that suffering was comic or tragic was harder to say.

Beckett’s advice in response to a young fan’s letter was equally hard to decipher, but it came down to that: figure out early how bad life can be and accept it, then you’ll get along fine. Okay, I added that last bit, but Beckett must have agreed I figure: he kept on.

Why is it so comforting to find people who share this black sense of humour? Why does my sister find my post “Why I Will Never Sleep Again”, a useful indicator of whom she can relate to? (Those who think it’s funny – yes. Those who just look puzzled – not so much.)

Beckett’s advice will be interpreted as terribly bleak and totally inappropriate by some of us, and so absolutely true as to be mundane by others.

When I sit down to dinner, I enjoy the company of the second group. How comforting to know that they have been there too, that they know how absolutely awful life can be and they can find that funny. That doesn’t, by the way, necessarily mean that they are drunkards. Beckett was indeed Irish and they are famous for their black humour. They are also famous for drunkenness, although Beckett was not. It is possible to be drunk without alcohol. It is possible to be drunk on life, to rise up from whatever disaster is trying to put you down and laugh.

No, not in its face, not defiantly, cynically certainly, but not bitterly. “I see you for what you are, Life and I am not impressed.”

And so in that hotel room, on Mother’s Day, before the wedding, I added words from Beckett’s play, absurd in their resilience, in case Leo didn’t get it : “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

And there is barely a pause between the two thoughts.