Obsession can drive us; transformation can open new roads – how Max Porter's novel finds balance between the two.
Once upon a time there was a myth. This myth may have been the first of its kind, or perhaps it has always existed in a perpetual state of transformation. In either case, the myth adapts to new times and new places; it is transmuted in the minds and mouths of those who retell it. It began (if it began at all) like this:
A thing is what it is, until it is not what it is any longer, and it becomes what it was not.
This story became:
A blind visionary upset a goddess who changed him into a woman. Seven years later, she became he again, because change is constant.
The story also became:
The son of Love and Travellers was so beautiful that a nymph desired to be united with the young man forever. As a result, they were fused into one body, because obsession is all-consuming.
Another version has a young woman, pursued by lust, begging the gods, “Turn me into a tree,” and she is. In another telling, a young woman desires to outrun her pursuer. “Give me aid,” she cries out, and her arms grow downy feathers, wings appear at her shoulders, and she soars into the air as a crow. The girl who can fly is now free. “Hope,” we are told by a later poet, “is the thing with feathers.” An even later writer transmutes “Hope” in the title of a book to “Grief”.
Change is at the centre of these stories and in the fabric of their structures. It is in the nature of being human. Metamorphosis is at the heart of all that matters to us – Love, Religion, Ideologies, Obsession. In Max Porter’s novel, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, change is Crow.
The story goes something like this: Dad (no first names here, we are in the realm of the symbolic) is a Ted Hughes scholar whose wife suddenly dies. This “greatest tragedy of [his] life” occurs just as he is obsessing over Hughes’ collection of mythologies about the character Crow. Dad is left to raise and comfort his two sons, known collectively here as Boys. One night, Crow steals into the widower’s life to transform the cracked-with-a-piece-missing frieze of the lives of Dad and his Boys.
Crow is many things. He is Grief and he is Hope; he is multiple figures from many mythologies; he is the horned hunter haunting Berkshire and Windsor, he is the faithful bodyguard to St Vincent’s dead body; he is the “central bird ... at every extreme” that Hughes refers to in an interview with Paris Review; he is “a template ... A myth to be slipped in”. Crow is as large as Whitman and contains as many multitudes. He is all things to all men, that he might by all means help this family through this awful period in their lives.
In this way, in this role as a catalyst, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is to me what Crow is to Dad: It is a book that transforms its reader.
Here we see Dad, the scholar steeped in his subject, scouring the words of Ted Hughes and picking apart the lines of his compositions for whatever truth they contain. Here again we see Dad, sketching Mum “unpicked, ribs splayed stretched like a xylophone with the dead birds playing tunes on her bones”. He has opened her up as if to expose the secret of life, of death.
Here we see Crow, much like the academic poring over every integrant of the whole, literally picking Dad’s teeth clean and scraping his bones, feeding off every scrap of effluvia and detritus from his body. “I prised open his mouth,” Crow reveals, “and counted bones, snacked a little on his unbrushed teeth ...”
Here we see me, much like Crow and Dad, scrubbing every word of Grief Is The Thing With Feathers as if they are diamonds of deeper meaning encrusted with the everyday dirt of language, sifting through the many mythological and literary references like panning for gold.
Hyperbole is the lingua franca of the obsessed person. He will die without his love; she worships the artist’s work; he will not eat, will not sleep, until he has achieved his goal. This tendency towards hyperbole gives truth to the commonplace expression, “I am obsessed with [insert latest trend here].” As loathe as I am to join linguistic fads, I am forced to borrow this one for the relationship I once had with Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. I was obsessed with it.
Obsession is an urgent need to understand a thing – not to explain it away, not to have enough of an account of the subject that it can be dismissed as “known”, but understood to such an extent that it can be inhabited. Like the nymph who longs to be with the young god and ends up fused with his body, the distinctions between subject and observer, the obsession and the obsessed, melt away. Dad concedes that “there was very little division between my imaginary and real worlds”.
Obsession is often an empty promise. The reader is determined to read until total understanding is achieved, until the book opens up its ultimate secrets so that it may be closed once and for all. The scholar will not rest until he writes the final line on his subject, concludes his conclusive interpretation of the work. The widower will grieve until the intensity of his feeling gives life to death. Obsession is R S Thomas’ great absence “that is like a presence, that compels me to address it without hope of a reply”.
Obsession is like grief in the home of Dad and the Boys: It is everywhere. “The whole place was heavy mourning,” Crow says, “every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief.” It consumes everything.
When Crow first bursts into the mausoleum of mourning that is the dead Mum’s house, Dad is trapped in his grief and wonders whether this is his life from now on – an unchanging role as foreman to the factory line of days muddled through, a “list-making trader in clichés of gratitude, machine-like architect of routines for small children with no Mum”. He is stagnating within the sempiternity of his obsessive suffering.
Crow offers a reprieve from sadness: he gives Dad “something to think about”, which provides “a little break in the mourning”, distracting him from one obsession with another. But the reprieve Crow offers is more than a mere pause; it is a fracture in the otherwise unending continuity of stasis, a blip in the flatline of obsession, the change in note that turns a sustained sound into melody. This is the process of freeing oneself of obsession that has become noise rather than music, a cage around the observer instead of an iron-grip on the subject.
My early readings of Grief Is The Thing With Feathers and the attendant late-night book-and-bitch with friends over scotch, midday mid-shift debates at the day job, and internal discussions between the part of my mind that wants to understand and the part that thinks it already does – these all focused on a specific, narrow, (I’ll admit it) stupidinterpretation of Crow as merely and strictly representing grief. This straightjacket answer came out of an equally restrictive desire to “work out” what each thing in this book meant – as if it were a code to be cracked.
My exploration of the book stagnated as I wandered circles around the same interpretive geography. But change came and, like Crow, moved me on from where I was floundering. Obsession can only take the passenger so far; eventually, it runs out of gas, coasts to a stop, and the only option is to step out of the vehicle. Time for change, time for Crow.
I first read Grief Is The Thing With Feathers as a bookseller-by-day, writer-by-night. Bookselling was the Clark Kent suit concealing the Superman cape of my desire to write something important. I saw this endeavour as my great project, and when I read Grief for the first time it was as a reader who viscerally knew Dad’s agony at not being able to write. I knew what it was to commit oneself to a book, to a heartache, to suffering that felt colossally cosmic and yet had the opposite weight in the so-called real world. When the Boys in their infantile naivety believe that the whole world should be changed by the loss of Mum, expressing a simple, uncomprehending kind of obsession that takes them over, they also express the disbelief of every unknown writer at the world’s disinterest in their work. In obsession, we are all vain.
When I read Grief Is The Thing With Feathers after a loss of my own, the death of someone without whom the world makes less sense, the novel’s final transformations – of innocent Boys into knowing Boys, of Dad from hopeless to hopeful – had much more power than they had on previous readings. The book changed my lonely confusion (at a world in which I was supposed to continue living while this loved one no longer lived in it) into understanding that, of course, someone has to leave first, and whoever remains does so with everyone else who has not left yet.
When I read Grief Is The Thing With Feathers after my partner lost a loved one, it helped me become Crow; we who accompany the bereaved through their grief must change to accommodate their multiple, metamorphosing needs. We are protectors, guides, jesters, life lines to cling to and shoulders to sob on. And I provided my partner with the sort of disdainful irony that makes her laugh, the kind Crow shoots at Dad when he is waxing lyrical about the enormity of his grief:
“Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet.”
When we fall in love, we pine, yearn, lust after, pursue – we obsess. Obsession like this is also how we begin other massive, life-defining projects. We become interested in an issue or troubled by a problem, it won’t leave us alone, and we pursue the achievement of our goal (the solution to the problem, the vaccine for the sickness, the story that needs to be told) like a lover in the throes of early passion.
But try maintaining the intensity of young love over the course of a long-term relationship. Either it burns out or it burns you out. Attempt to continue writing a book or painting a landscape or designing that building to perfection, if you insist; perfection never arrives and the artist’s/inventor’s/designer’s obsession must burn out or burn them out. Paul Valéry, who knew about the enthusiasm of the artist, wrote:
“In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed ... but abandoned; and this abandonment, of the book to the fire or to the public, whether due to weariness or to a need to deliver it for publication, is a sort of accident, comparable to the letting-go of an idea that has become so tiring or annoying that one has lost all interest in it.”
Constant change is instability. Singular obsession is stasis. Transition, then, might be something like finding a sense of balance. In the end, this is what Dad discovers in his relationship with Crow:
“Perhaps if Crow had taught him anything it was a constant balancing.”
Perhaps if Grief Is The Thing With Feathers has taught me anything (it has, many things, here is just one of them) it is this balancing between devotion and adaptation. Life is not fully lived without both.
• Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, Max Porter (2015)
• The Absence, in “Frequencies”, R S Thomas (1978)
• Concerning the Cemetery by the Sea, in “The New French Review”, Paul Valéry (1933)