Marcel Proust writes: ‘Ideas come to us as the successors to griefs, and griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some part of their power to injure the heart.’ This is a long process. In the six years I spent writing my debut novel Testament after my grandfather died, I became lost in the adaptation of my grief to ideas, my very self utterly and painfully taken over by it, until, slowly, the scaffolding of narrative came to protect my heart.
Testament is about the impact of the Holocaust on three generations of a family. After my grandfather died, my grandmother on my father’s side began to tell me for the first time about her childhood in Hungary during the Holocaust, hiding from Arrow Cross and Nazi persecution. Together, these two experiences laid the foundation for Testament. As I researched the Holocaust in Hungary, I took on a larger grief, for what happened to my grandmother, to her community, and to our wider communities. I began also to notice how art could articulate my feelings when I couldn’t, and, in that, provide comfort.
At first it was architecture. The concrete shafts that cut through Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, known as voids, both hollowed and held me. In Budapest, The Tower of Lost Communities by László Zsótér gave physical presence to the almost unfathomable scale of loss, listing the 1,441 settlements where Jewish communities entirely ceased to exist in Hungary, with one sliver of its stone face gently tattooed by the ghostly presence of a long-ago fern. The walls of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague that list the names of 77,297 victims of Nazi persecution, with a line from lamentations over the doors: ‘Let it not come unto you, all ye that pass by! Behold, and see if there be any pain like unto my pain.’ For me, the open vulnerability of this, the deliberate exposure of a wound to onlookers, combined with the invitation to step inside that wound, emblematised what art can do.
Grief is scattering. We become fragments, unmoored and unsure, trying to hold ourselves together. As a writer, I looked to narrative to order and contain me, but found solace in a narrative that was fragmentary, Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary. Writing after the death of his mother, Barthes feels himself falling apart: ‘I’m deeply hopeless, struggling to hide it, not to darken everything around me, but at certain moments not able to stand it any longer and collapsing.’ The diary is a matter of a few sentences per day, and after some months Barthes wonders, ‘Who knows? Maybe something valuable in these notes?’ This is something he wrestles with: ‘I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it – or without being sure of not doing so – although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths.’
What is this fear of making literature out of it? For me, it was how to combine the sensation of being paralysed by grief, with the structure, coherence and momentum that narrative almost inevitably supplies, even simply in the act of reading forward, as the past fattens itself to the left of our bookmark, and the future draws ever thinner to the right, collapsing into the now. If time moves on, will I lose my grief, my tether to the person who has been lost? Does time, as everyone will insist on telling me, heal all wounds – and, if so, is this a wound I want healed?
Writing about grief forces narrative to grapple with the inadequacies of language to represent something that goes beyond the known, and that feels uncontainable. I became transfixed by the way Deborah Levy uses ‘etc.’ in her novel Swimming Home to contain the death of the protagonist’s family in the Holocaust. Etcetera means ‘[a]nd the rest, and so forth, and so on’, ‘indicating that the statement refers not only to the things enumerated, but to others which may be inferred from analogy’ (OED). Levy’s ‘etc.’ contain all the rest and so forth, all the unsaid, unspoken, and unspeakable.
Until it becomes speakable. Giving language and narrative to my grief gave me a way to bring my grief into being, to acknowledge its irreconcilable nature, something which, in itself, comforts. Testament opens with a grandfather and Holocaust Survivor, Joseph Silk – who has gone on to become one of Britain’s foremost artists – dying. We follow his granddaughter, Eva, as she unravels the knotted truths and lies he left behind. Towards the end of the novel, Eva knows that her friends will say she has ‘come to terms’ with Silk’s death. I thought a lot about terms – how we come to terms with someone, reaching a deal, reconciliation, and how we search for terms, for words to convey our meaning. Eva knows she has ‘used up the terms of loss’, but still has ‘no words’ with which to say goodbye: ‘no words with which to tell you that missing you is a constant remainder, that your absence remains present, even today’.
This is how I felt at the end of writing Testament: there are no words that can help me recover what I’ve lost, but the remaining absence is a memorial, something I do not wish to lose. And there is something comforting in that.