The $25,000 RBC Taylor Prize, one of the country’s most prestigious literary honours, will be awarded on Monday. In advance of this year’s ceremony, we asked the five finalists to write on what they’ve learned about their book, and about themselves, since finishing. Here, Ian Brown reflects on his memoir, Sixty: A Diary of My Sixty-First Year.
A year has passed since I finished keeping a diary of my 61st year – a chronicle of my life between the day I turned 60, and the day I turned 61. I thought a diary might address my conflicting emotions on the subject of getting older, and my despair over the fact that I can no longer deny that I am – that I am headed into the last quarter of a game that might go into overtime, but which could just as easily be called prematurely due to unexpected inclement weather. No one knows.
Some mornings I woke up convinced Philip Larkin and John Keats and Julian Barnes were right, that death lurks everywhere, while other mornings I felt like pulling a Harold Pinter, i.e., rushing over to the bedroom window, flinging the sash open and shouting, “Fuck death!”, which was Pinter’s general approach to the ever-encroaching quietus. I was bouncing between these two states like a doubles squash ball. So I thought if I kept a diary and wrote down the details of my days as a 60-year-old, I might be able to slow their passing.
I realize I was delusional (we can shape time, but we can’t stop it) but the thing is this: If you pay attention to deeply absorbing details, you can blithely forget that, as a mortal, you’re on a superhighway to Doomsville. I turned 62 a few weeks ago. Not much has changed since I was 60 – if anything, I feel better, physically, because I have been practising (and I sound 175 just admitting this) daily calisthenics. Yes! Sit-ups! Stride jumps! Jesus wept! As a result, I will not be writing a memoir about this latest milestone. (I’m waiting until I turn 70 – he said, confidently and foolishly.) This will come as a relief to the people who are angry that I wrote a book about turning 60 in the first place.
They are mostly men, though not exclusively so. They take issue with my bringing up the subject of aging for one of two reasons: because they are older than I am but consider themselves to be in better shape (more hair, no creaking knees, no anxieties about the future or doubts about how meaningful their lives have been), and thus disdain my lamentations as the moanings of a wuss; or because they consider the entire subject of aging an abomination, the kind of subject a real man, and a proper human being, does not bring up. Speaking, as we were, of denial and delusion.
But two things have definitely changed. I feel regret even more keenly than I did before, and the smaller and more doable the thing was, the more I regret not having taken it on. I regret not having dropped more deeply down into the things that caught my passing interest in the past, but which I let slip by because I did not trust my passing interest, didn’t realize it had such deep and healthy roots. Now, there is insufficient time left to take up motorcycling, sailing and the cultivation of climbing roses. I still try to paint, but I wish I had painted more assiduously earlier. I wish I had taken that night course in carpentry at the local high school in my 20s, so that I could now renovate a room. I wish I knew more about Beethoven, and more about 20th-century drama, and more Italian, and more – a lot more – about the Middle Ages. I am pretty sure I never will, now, and that locked door shocks me. I sometimes wish I’d had more children, but that’s a different kind of regret, something that was not entirely in my hands, and therefore something I don’t regret as keenly. (I adore the ones I have, and don’t regret them at all.) I really wish I knew how to play the piano. I might still try that.
The other surprise is that reading has become the single most important activity in my life. I always read a lot, but it’s crystal meth to me now. I turn down dinner parties to read. I can’t wait to get back to the book I’m reading; I wish I didn’t have to sleep. I tend to read classics, because I don’t want to waste the shrinking reading time I have left. I recently chose Melville’s Moby Dick over David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, even though a) I am a long-time fan of Wallace’s work, and b) they’re not that dissimilar, in a lot of ways. And Melville – well, you know Melville. He was mad, or at least bipolar and manically discursive, and literally incapable of sticking to the plot of his story, which is why Moby Dick the novel is also a non-stop non-fiction record of his passing interests – sermons and church architecture, descriptions of hotels, the details of the whaling trade, tattoos, you name it. Tony Kushner, the playwright, once said, “Melville gives you permission to rejoice within the work of art in the infinite possibilities every work of art opens up to the artist.” That’s completely true.
The problem with reading Moby Dick is that once I fall down into it again, I don’t want to come out. I have chores to complete, people to meet, deadlines to climb and I just keep reading, regardless – because the day will come when I will no longer be able to read like this, to suck in the light of the world that runs through words and books and writing, fiction and non-fiction alike. I don’t think I am exaggerating in describing it that way.
And yet, even in the obsessive grip of Melville, I can be distracted by other books. The other day, just as I was settling again into life on the Pequod, a book arrived from Amazon, a birthday gift from a friend: Fredrik Sjoberg’s The Fly Trap, an alarmingly engrossing account of a Swedish entomologist’s complicated love/hate relationship with the hoverflies he studies. I’d never heard of it, but it’s fantastic: halfway through Melville, I am now halfway through The Fly Trap. “The hoverflies are only props,” Sjoberg writes. “Here and there, my story is about something else. Exactly what, I don’t know. Some days I tell myself that my mission is to say something about the art and sometimes the bliss of limitation. And the legibility of landscape. Other days are more dismal. As if I were queueing in the rain outside confessional literature’s nudist colony, mirrors everywhere, blue with cold.”
Perhaps you can understand why I wanted to keep reading that. It suspends your expectations, which is what you most want to happen after you turn 60, which is why reading feels so priceless now. It’s the internal freedom good writing offers that I value, the chance not to have an opinion or a set of convictions or even an expectation of where the story will go: a good book is a decoupling zone, where you leave what you believed behind in favour of what the author has unexpectedly noticed. And I won’t even mention Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, which contains Speaking in Tongues, her soul-shaking essay about losing her accent, or the first edition of John Updike’s Golf Dreams: Writing on Golf that I bought the other day, or the books of my co-nominees for the RBC Taylor Prize, all of which threaten to insert themselves into my reading of The Fly Trap and Moby Dick.
Now that I think of it, I have noticed a third change: I am more aware than I was at 60 of how unexpectedly all this ends. We tell ourselves there will be time to prepare, but that’s often not the case. The recent news of David Bowie’s death at mere 69 drove it home, as did the disintegration of Glenn Frey (of the Eagles) at 67. (Updike was 76 when he died in 2009: he produced so many books we assumed he had to be older.) I still think of them as relatively young men, though of course they were not.
I have no doubt I will be filled with regret when my end unexpectedly arrives: Regrets afflict us all, no matter what the cocky perfectionists pretend, and anyway, it would be a tragedy not to feel some – that would mean you never knew what longing meant. You don’t have to believe in an almighty bearded god to know that purgatory awaits everyone, and that it will be the purgatory of regret. But until it happens, I would like to read everything I can love, and follow a few more passing enthusiasms down beneath their surfaces. They may or may not work out. That’s not important. This is: One of the advantages of having lived a fairly conventional life is that you can, at the end, with luck and a little courage, finally tackle the risks you thought you had evaded.
The other four finalists for the RBC Taylor Prize weigh in on what they’ve learned since finishing their books:
After my book was published, it was tantalizing to discover a nugget of information that would have certainly merited an additional paragraph or two. A reader informed me that my father, Matthew Halton – the subject of my biography – had helped save the famous Jewish Expressionist painter, Oskar Kokoschka, from the Nazis. For more details, I was referred to the artist’s memoir, My Life. In it, Kokoschka recounts how he met the Canadian journalist in a café in Prague in October, 1938. It was a tense time just after the infamous Munich agreement had all but guaranteed that Czechoslovakia would soon be under Hitler’s control. Aware that Jews there would soon be rounded up, Kokoschka was in a desperate situation. He had a plane ticket to escape to London but no visa at a time when many Jewish refugees were being turned away by British immigration. As I discovered reading Kokoschka’s memoir, my father assured him that he could help get the visa. He told the artist that he had a long and cordial relationship with Lord Robert Cecil, the former Conservative cabinet minister and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as a founder of the League of Nations. My father immediately contacted Lord Cecil, and the visa was quickly available. Kokoschka would later recount in My Life that, without that plane ticket and without the visa that the Canadian journalist helped him obtain, “I would most probably not be alive today.” – David Halton, author of Dispatches from the Front: Matthew Halton, Canada’s Voice at War
The writing of this book was an extraordinary experience. I travelled to Russia, Georgia, England and the United States, and interviewed fascinating people. Svetlana Alliluyeva turned out to be a compelling woman. She survived tragedies that would have destroyed most of us. She faced the fact that her father had been responsible for the deaths of millions, though she insisted that he did not commit these crimes alone. She was capable of deep compassion. She fiercely resisted the projection “Stalin’s daughter” and remained very much her own person. Genetics are not deterministic. When I met Svetlana’s daughter, Chrese Evans, I found she was quintessentially American: progressive, individualistic and delightfully funky. She had turned away many who’d shown a prurient interest in her mother, and yet she decided to trust me. She spoke candidly about her mother’s life and her own. When I sent her the finished book, I worried about her response – I’d held nothing back about her mother’s complex personality. She assured me she was glad I’d written the biography: I was on her mother’s side. I received letters from many of the people I interviewed, including Joan Kennan, Priscilla Macmillan, Ramona Rayle and Lady Jane Renfrew, who said that I’d captured the woman they’d known. Looking back, I learned that we must resist generalizations such as “Stalin’s daughter”; reality is so much more nuanced. – Rosemary Sullivan, author of Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva
Good memoir uses personal material to illustrate and speak to bigger ideas. You tell yourself this along the way in order to justify what can be viewed as a highly narcissistic endeavour. The beautiful surprise that comes is when it is released into the world. At this point it is much less about you, the writer, than it is about the reader – the interpretation the reader brings, taking it in through the lens of their own experience, the silent conversation between reader and text, the emotional resonances the reader finds in pages that may well reflect a life very differently lived, but nevertheless echo one’s sense of being human, particularly in one’s most private moments. The stories that have come back to me from readers have been the most rewarding part of this experience. Stories of loss and resilience. – Camilla Gibb, author of This Is Happy
The Reason You Walk is a meditation on reconciliation – with my father Tobasonakwut’s traumatic residential school experience, between him and me after a tense relationship, and eventually with his death after we became best friends. My father’s template for raising a child was forged in an institution where people did not love him and, in some cases, did terrible things to him. He brought this model home when it came time to raise my siblings and me. I don’t equate my experience with the brutality he went through. I only point out that some bad habits were transmitted. While writing the book, I realized I repeat too many of those bad behaviours now that I am a dad. To be clear, I’m not abusive. I’m a hockey-coaching, homework-helping, bedtime-reading superdad. Yet, I can also be too quick to raise my voice or make a cutting remark that can damage my sons’ self-esteem. In these moments, I recognize my father in myself. Since that moment of clarity, I’ve focused on improving as a parent. When I lose my patience, I stop and ask myself, “Are my kids worth changing for? Do they deserve a safe, supportive and happy home? Can I do it for them?” I always answer, “Yes.” From there, I remind myself to use other strategies to discipline or convey my feelings to them. This is reconciliation today – at least for my family – working to ensure the legacy of residential schools ends with me. – Wab Kinew, author of The Reason You Walk
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