The dear departed

After writing the last sentence of George’s life in its strict earthly sense (I have two short chapters about his and Kittie’s afterlife still to write), I left the manuscript chapter for a day before coming back to revise it, as usual, thoroughly.

When I returned to it that day I felt a peculiar lightheadedness, almost a sense of freedom; but underneath that an almost sadness.

What were these feelings? I have been striving to define and explain them ever since. I can’t quite put my finger on them.

*               *               *

It is well known that some biographers experience emptiness and tristesse when their work is over. They have ‘lived with’ their subject for however many years, and now the subject has ‘gone’. This doesn’t apply to me, as my work isn’t over and I feel I shall continue my dialogue with George outside the biography, probably for the rest of my life. The latter certainly happened with my biography of Chekhov: he died in 1904, but he hasn’t died in my life or my mind’s discourse. He still speaks to me, and I to him.

I wouldn’t deny that part of the lightheadedness was sheer relief at completing the chapter, the life of George Calderon in the strict sense, the ‘main story’ of the book…

The sadness could not be caused by the fact that George was now dead, because I’ve known that for over forty years! He didn’t die, for goodness sake, in my writing, he died on 4 June 1915 at Gallipoli and I’ve ‘always’ known that. (I described other, quite different, definable emotions I felt about the ending in my post of 7 February.)

But something has changed since I wrote the last sentence, something has gone… And it is so deep down that I still am not sure what it is.

*               *               *

My present theory is that the deep, deep brain holds various ‘times’ in play without your being aware of that (the brain just does it). When one of these ‘times’ actually ends — when that pathway in the deep, deep brain sputters out — you sense something has happened there, but your conscious mind can’t say what.

In this case, perhaps, the ‘time’ is the (fictive) present of George’s life as I’ve been writing it. Of course, I’ve been writing it in the past tense, but for me it’s always been the present. As I’ve said before in this blog, I believe a subject’s life has to be apprehended in forward-moving ‘real time’ by the biographer, otherwise he/she is merely writing history.

There’s no doubt this fictive present has broken off in my brain with George’s death. Kittie’s hasn’t, as I still have to describe how she searched for George when he was reported missing, how she edited his works, how she survived the next thirty-five years.

*               *               *

Neither, of course, is George Calderon ‘dead’ in the wider sense. His afterlife took off in 1921 and is still with us. He is still read and, perhaps, will be increasingly read.

But that is what Mikhail Bakhtin called ‘greater time’. The time that has broken off in my brain is George’s ‘lesser’, and purely fictive, time… Yes, in a sense his ‘life’; but not his life on this earth 1868-1915.

I have always had difficulty understanding Eliot’s lines ‘If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable’, but this experience with ‘finishing’ the life of George Calderon seems to give me a glimmer of their meaning. George’s fictive past and fictive future were always contained in that fictive present from which I myself was writing. Perhaps the fact that that fictive present is now ‘unredeemable’ explains the unease, the sadness.

I can certainly see that revising the whole book will be to experience a different kind of fictive time: I shan’t be ‘living it’ for the first time, and ‘reliving it’ won’t be the same! That first ‘living it’ is now unredeemable.

Next entry: Mews, hues, and wonkers


About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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