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The Art of Dying in “Aurelia, Aurélia”

The Art of Dying in “Aurelia, Aurélia”

  • Our review of Kathryn Davis' new memoir, "Aurelia, Aurélia"

Maybe it’s odd to compare your husband’s cancer diagnosis to the plot of Lost. Maybe it’s odd to recognize the absurdity of death’s first partial hold on us in the structure of a television show. Yet this is precisely what Kathryn Davis does in her memoir: she sees that “the system governing [cancer’s] bestowal is as inscrutable as the system prevailing on the island.” In watching Lost, Davis accepts that there is no rational explanation for why one person, and not another, gets a deadly illness. This is the throughline of Aurelia, Aurélia: Davis uses her aesthetically talented memory to discover unexpected parallels between art and life as she makes sense of the aftermath of her husband’s death.

Davis’ memoir gives art equal weight to real-life events as she reflects on the work of Virginia Woolf, Ingmar Bergman, Beethoven, Peggy Lee, and Grace Paley to find deeper meaning in her experience. By grasping at art to give a sense of purpose to her life, Davis highlights the pain and absurdity of being newly widowed. I learned of death’s cruelty, too, when four of my family members lost their lives to cancer in 2020. That year—weeks spent inside, unable to mourn at funerals, endless time to reflect—was nothing more than absurd (though popular culture preferred “unprecedented”). And yet. I don’t imagine these deaths compare to losing a lifelong partner. As Davis says, it is the “most insufferable of the bardos.”

Aurelia, Aurélia opens with a meditation on To The Lighthouse. Woolf’s book is divided into three parts, the middle section—“Time Passes”—being where she abandons the novel’s established structure by opening it with “a series of disembodied utterances.” Davis connects this style of writing to her adolescence: 

“One minute you’re in the drawing room with Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, the next minute you don’t know where you are. One minute you’re a girl who thinks she’s an adult. The next thing you know, you’re on the threshold of a world that seems impossible to enter, even though you have no alternative. You’re in the dark, hearing voices.”

Everything of vital importance to our lives happens in our “Time Passes” period: “It’s amazing how you see the places you’re headed in life ahead of time and have no idea that’s what’s happening.” “Time Passes,” then, tells how you got from your point of departure to your point of arrival. And this transitionary period foretells everything to come. Davis’ memoir asks us to closely observe the past to see how it may offer guidance as we continue ever on. She suggests that life is more literary than we might think. That though illness is absurd and life is amorphously full of detail, close observers of art know that nothing is extraneous. In Aurelia, Aurélia, Davis makes art’s tutoring dialectical. Art has made her a better observer of life, practicing her close-reading on her own experience so as to find meaning where there once was none.

Davis then applies the bardo of “Time Passes” to the experience of reading books, calling it “a communion between psyches, the skull laid bare, the place of breath, the expulsion of souls, a space or time as vast and long or small and brief as our experience of space/time itself.” Davis reveals deep care for the artists she’s met “in that nonexistent place between words, images, notes.” She left her body behind as her mind explored pages, screens, and music, and used media to understand her third and final act. The time when she would travel to the lighthouse. Yet this attention to the life she lived in her brain at times falls flat. Perhaps this emphasis makes sense for an academic, as she’s dedicated her career to reading and writing. But I finished this book with a better sense of how she felt about artists and their work than people and events in her actual life. (Even the title Aurelia, Aurélia references a Gérard de Nerval novel and the ship on which Davis first watched The Seventh Seal.) For a memoir on her husband’s death, the focus on art gave the book a cool distance from its subject.

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It is in describing death head-on that Davis finally acknowledges the importance of the body. That is, she feels the absence of a loved one’s corporeal form as they live on in her memories. When her husband dies, Davis becomes aware of the “heft and substance” of his body and how strong he once was. And when she breaks her arm, all she can think is, “Eric doesn’t have feet.” Then there’s the final, involuntary gesture before someone dies: that a “dying person will lift an arm or arms immediately before death for no apparent reason other than to open the airways, to expand the rib cage—just before expelling the final breath.” The body’s farewell to the earth. In these moments, there’s a physicality to Aurelia, Aurélia. It recognizes that as much as life is processed in the brain, it is ultimately lived thanks to the body. 

In literature, as in life, death is often attended by apparent irrelevance. To The Lighthouse records the death of three main characters in parenthesis, as though as an aside, in “Time Passes.” Woolf’s husband, Leonard, kept a journal in which he recorded daily menus and car mileage. On the day Virginia Woolf walked into the River Ouse, Leonard recorded only the mileage for his car. Yet in all his years of record-keeping, this is also the only smudged entry. Proust implied that irrelevance will always attend death because we are never prepared for it. We never consider that death “may occur this very afternoon.” Eric’s diagnosis, four family deaths in one year, the parenthetical in “Time Passes,” the single smudge, the inexplicable plot of Lost: Aurelia, Aurélia tells us that, as in literature, it is only through our remarkable apparatus of association that we will find meaning in life.

Aurelia, Aurélia
by Kathryn Davis
Graywolf Press
Published March 1st, 2022

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