Death puts all other subjects in the shade: memoirs by Robert McCrum and Maggie O’Farrell

Every Third Thought and I Am, I Am, I Am tackle life’s most serious topic.

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The first person can be a tricky character. Readers tire of too much “I” and “me” – it can make us feel excluded and, like being stuck with someone at a party who only wants to talk about him or herself, just plain fed up. But it can also be majestic: “Call me Ishmael” comes immediately to mind, that essential announcement of intent at the beginning of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. What could be more compelling and urgent than a story told by a single person who, at all costs, must get it out into the world? The memoir form, too, comes freighted with this need to bear witness, to confess. The only difference is that the energy provided by the imagination in fiction must be supplanted by the quality of content that is real life. That party-goer who has trapped you in the corner of the room has to be really, really interesting to keep you there.

Two recent memoirs about death throw these issues into stark relief. Death puts all other subjects in the shade – it pitches its story to us all.

Robert McCrum places himself within the mindset of the medieval and early Renaissance thinker in his beautifully contemplative account of what it means to be dying, as we all are, in the midst of life. His title – from The Tempest’s “Every third thought shall be my grave” – and an excerpt from John Donne’s sermon – “No man is an island… / Any man’s death diminishes me, / because I am involved in mankind” – set the tone. McCrum’s opening reveals that he is on close terms with life’s most serious subject:

Ever since I fell dramatically ill one night in July 1995, I have found myself in the shadow of death. From the moment I woke on that distant summer morning, I have been an involuntary citizen of a world I have had to learn to live in, and be at peace with.

His book is a deep and engaged set of questions and ruminations. Though starting with his own story – his dramatic brush with death following a severe stroke, and a consideration of himself as a man in his sixties approaching the last portion of his life – his text goes beyond himself. In that way, Every Third Thought is not a memoir in the traditional sense at all. Yes, we have details about the writer’s life: we learn of his family, his divorce, his career. But at no point do these subjectivities crowd and overwhelm the central questions: what is death to us? How and can we ever come to terms with it? Why should we be so adamant in denying its inevitability?

McCrum pushes relentlessly towards his theme, taking it out into the world to ask those who are acquainted with death what they make of it. He talks to Clive James who, having been given a brutal prognosis of a swift death from cancer some years ago, makes jokes about how people keep getting ready to say goodbye to him but have to put it off. The writer and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips speaks about the time when his car careered out of contr0l and he thought he was going to die. The feeling, he says, was “fabulous” – a sense of release that felt “ecstatic”. McCrum has a detailed conversation with the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh whose own book, Do No Harm, addresses the terrible responsibility of the doctor who interferes with life and death. How often does Marsh, now 67, think about death? “About every third minute,” is the answer. “More often than sex.”

McCrum’s approach makes us realise how blindly turned away we are from the grim reality that faces us all, no matter how we may focus on brightening our smiles or erasing our worry lines or submitting ourselves to youth-enhancing programmes of health and fitness. “This book reminds anyone who has lived as if they were immortal that there are no privileges or exemptions,” McCrum writes. Why would we pretend otherwise?

Strangely, by pressing so hard into his subject, he has written a book that is lifted and lightened with affirmation of life. There is not a single story that he tells, no matter how grave, that is not made joyous by the fine attention of his writing and its judicious and intelligent use of quotation and literary and scientific material. So many memoirs use extraneous detail as a sort of ballast, to prove that the writer has done the research, that the book is about something more than “me, me, me”, that it might be more important somehow. In McCrum’s book, the quotations, poetry and information collated are part of the weave of its fabric. It’s why his story has such lift and reach. It is never just about Robert McCrum thinking about death. It becomes a continuation of a great discussion that has been taking place since the beginning of recorded culture.

Maggie O’Farrell’s I am, I am, I am is of a very different order. Again, the clue is in the title. This is memoir as we recognise the form: totally self-focused, with other stories included only to shed light on the one already well known to the writer, her own. Unlike McCrum’s subtle transformation and expansion of the form, here the eye is fixed very firmly on “me”.

That eye is a keen one, though – and O’Farrell has a compelling and arresting writing style that fills in a scene quickly and engagingly, to great dramatic and narrative effect. I am, I am, I am is made up of 17 near-misses with death, and each account courses with terror and colour and imagery – from the bloodletting of childbirth to the tug of dangerous swimming and the touch of a murderer’s hand, which placed a binocular strap around her neck. (She escaped, but the next victim did not.) It is heady, engaging stuff – a bristling, roller-coaster of a read, with a section on miscarriage that hums with the unspoken tragedy that attends a lost baby. O’Farrell is intent on revealing that loss: “Wouldn’t you want your close friends, your family to know?” she writes, reminding us of the privacy and sadness that still shrouds a subject that has so many of us not wanting anyone to speak of it. “Because this is a shock,” she writes, “like no other.”

It is, perhaps, the structure of I am, I am, I am – each chapter takes us lurchingly from outlining the moment of impending death to its bearing down and then narrow miss – that is a challenge, though. One story, written in this fashion – and even two or three – is exciting, but another after that, and then another, and another? The author acknowledges early versions of three chapters already published in newspapers and magazines and the reader can see how these would make stand-alone articles. They contain some magical descriptions of motherhood and the dramas of domestic life. “My daughter was born,” she writes of her severely allergic second child, “small, wide-eyed, otter-soft, with a nap of white-blonde hair…”

But to expect them to hold the weight of an entire project is too much.

The seriousness of O’Farrell’s intent is not in doubt. She nearly died when, at nine years old, a virus infected her brain; in a compelling scene she recalls overhearing a nurse say, to another child, outside her hospital door: “Hush… There’s a little girl dying in there.” But there is nevertheless something rather forced about some of the chapters that have to struggle to make their near-misses with the grim reaper as dramatic as the others.

Death has its highs and lows, of course, but in the end Maggie O’Farrell’s account leaves us feeling sated with its moments of darkness and no better off, as it were, for her facing up to them. There is something thin about the project, as if – like her publisher’s use of enlarged font and supplementary empty space and white pages and illustrations – it is stretching out content that, at the end, doesn’t really take up that much room. The book is a big, heavy hardback but actually could be a third of its size.

Every Third Thought, by contrast, deepens and slows as we read into it. Our thinking becomes more complicated, our reactions more mixed. Death stays with us, becomes a kind of companion – not a foe to be vanquished in every chapter. As Robert McCrum writes: “At some point, humanity’s instinct for self-assertion has to open a negotiation with the armies of the night.”

Though the book finishes with a new beginning for its author – the prospect of  new love following his divorce – his “I” overall has been dissipated. The power and consequence of his subject have made him disappear within it and we are left with his words, receding into “that good night”. 

Kirsty Gunn’s story collection “Infidelities” is published by Faber & Faber

Every Third Thought: On Life, Death and the Endgame
Robert McCrum
Picador, 244pp, £14.99

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death
Maggie O’Farrell
Tinder Press, 292pp, £18.99

This article appears in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia