Embarrassment and Loss

Marghanita Laski

  • A Way to Die by Rosemary Zorza
    Deutsch, 254 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 233 97355 9
  • Letter to a Younger Son by Christopher Leach
    Dent, 155 pp, £5.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 460 04496 6
  • Bereavement by Colin Murray Parkes
    Pelican, 267 pp, £1.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 14 021833 5

Both A Way to Die and Letter to a Younger son are embarrassing books, and embarrassment tends to induce unhelpful reactions in anyone who has, or sees it as their duty, to assess arts and entertainments. To one set of views, embarrassment is a response to shock, and what shocks should be suppressed. To the other, embarrassment is admitted only as their response to the shocking, and what is shocking should, for health’s sake, be brought into the open.

With sex, where the syndrome has been most clearly seen, these responses to embarrassment have not worked well, especially for the side on which reviewers usually stand, leaving them lumbered with such dreadful and socially damaging errors as the assertion that Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a great work of literature and a helpful guide to sex-life. There have been too many such mistakes, and a guess, now, is that embarrassment is a response that should be received respectfully – if not Nature’s Guide to Bad Art, then something very close to it.

Death, there is no doubt about it, is difficult, perhaps even more difficult for life to cope with than sex because it cannot be dodged, and death – death in general, death depersonalised, mythologised, distanced, transmuted – was a duty of art while sex was still being treated only as love. Now, in these two books under review, death is being served up nearly raw, and who can doubt they will be followed by others?

Both are about untimely death, the deaths of children before their parents. Jane Zorza died slowly of cancer in her mid-twenties. Jonathan Leach died suddenly of an asthmatic attack at the age of 11. The stated purpose of the Zorzas’ book is to show how dying in a good hospice can relieve pain and bring both the dying and the survivors to terms with death; and of Christopher Leach’s book, to come to terms with it himself. Both fathers are professional writers, both in agony turn to their pens. We readers can see that both books are what Colin Murray Parkes in Bereavement calls ‘grief-work’, a part of the way in which people struggle to make a life after crushing grief, and, for a writer, not an uncommon way. John Evelyn did the same thing when his daughter, Margaret Godolphin, died in 1678, but wiser, I think, than these, he did not publish.

Of these two books, the Zorzas’ is the worse, and for the sad reason that it is, in the literal sense, the more artless. Every wound is bared, all the pains of having to expect death soon for a daughter still in revolt against her parents, every detail of Victor Zorza’s hitherto suppressed guilts about the circumstances of his escape from the Nazis that he was at last enabled to release to the dying Jane. Because, at the last, the hospice allowed Jane to die in love and peace, the Zorzas are passionate converts to the hospice movement, and the book ends with a list of the hospices now in existence, including those with home-care units, and suggestions for helping to extend such Services.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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