People are not always kind, writes David Malouf, but the kind thing to say of Jenny was that she was simple. These are the opening words of his novel The Great World. It's the story of Jenny, an intellectually disabled woman, and of her brother Digger, who becomes a prisoner of the Japanese on the Burmese railway. It is the story also of Digger's friend Vic, who loses his mother during the Great Depression and forms a lifelong bond with Digger forged in the struggles of World War II. To me this novel is essentially a meditation on loss, of how we respond to loss as a category in life. There is a thread of grieving which runs through our lives and shapes our surface emotions. We grieve what we have lost, what we will lose, and what we needed but never had. The novel explores that and how it shapes our lives.
Malouf moves back and forth through the secret inner lives of the various characters, from the relatively honest and straightforward Digger, to the complicated Vic, to the childlike mind of Jenny. He explores the deeper currents of their psyche, each in turn, as he tells the outward story of their lives. This story reaches a height toward the end of the novel, when Jenny finds Vic, whom she has always disliked and distrusted, sprawled on the ground and dying. She takes him awkwardly in her arms, and Malouf writes in a language that captures her sudden empathy for this man, and the way it becomes entangled with her own grief for the child who was taken away from her:
“He had his face down between her breasts. She could feel a wetness. She began to weep. She could feel his mouth down there and wished, if that's what he wanted, that she could feed him, but she had no milk. She had had no milk now for more than forty years. They had pumped it out of her with a machine. She had begged and begged them, those nuns, not to take it, and all that night had dreamt of mouths pulling at her, and she didn't care in the end what they were, babies or poddy calves or little lambs or what, that were feeding off the rich stuff her body had stored up, which had been meant to feed a creature, not to be squeezed out with a machine. And all the time, out there somewhere, her own little baby was going hungry; or if it wasn't, it was being fed some other milk, not the one that had been made for it special in all the world; and for the whole of its life, poor thing, it would know that and feel the loss – that the world had stolen something from it that it would never have. She had looked around wherever she went after that, believing she would recognise the face of that little kid she had had the milk for, and who might be looking for it still.”
The world steals things from us that we will never have. Malouf is referring to a very concrete loss here, but in doing so he captures something more universal. He captures the confusing, deep, half-felt and half-grasped nature of loss within us. It is a condition in which we exist. There's this sense of something important lost, which runs through all our lives. Who we become and how our life comes to be is in part our reaction to this existential grief.
Another person in the novel is Jenny's mother. She constantly fantasises about a heaven where her adult children are young again and sit around the table, healthy and happy. That image is in radical contrast to her actual children. Because of her own early losses, of her family first, and then of her brother in the orphanage, and her inability to grieve them, the mother will not see, nor accept, nor properly love her own children in their actual reality. She cannot stand reality itself, and retreats into fantasy. And so she loses contact with the one life she has and the real people in it. If we avoid our grief, we avoid our lives. If we don't work through our existential grief to make real contact with life in all its present, passing realities, then we suffer the tragedy of spending our lives grieving things we never had, while never taking in hand the reality we could have had.
There is a further danger in grief: that we defend ourselves from it by anger, and that that anger hardens in us and becomes our nature. Hence the bitterness, hardness, coldness, aloofness, or resentment that often accompanies a person who is frozen in such hurt. Mid-way through the novel Digger returns from the Second World War, where he was a prisoner on the Burmese Railway and tasked with burning the corpses of his fellow prisoners. Going home is too much for Digger at this moment, so he wanders about the restless parts of Sydney, at the edges of things. A policeman befriends him and over a beer in a King's Cross pub asks what he is doing, “hangin' about with this sorta rubbish?”
Digger is struck. “It was the word he had used, rubbish, that Digger wanted to go back to. What came back to him at times, and too clearly, was that break in the forest and the fires he had tended there. It had given him such an awareness of just what it is that life throws up, and when it has no more use for it, throws off again. Not just ashes and bones, but the immense pile of debris that any one life might make if you were to gather up and look at the whole of it: all that it had worn out, used up, mislaid, pawned, forgotten, and carried out each morning to be tipped into a bin. Think of it. Then think of it multiplied by millions.
“What he would have wanted, given the power, was to take it all back again, down to the last razor blade and button off a baby's bootee, and see it restored. Impossible, of course.
“He wanted nothing to be forgotten and cast into the flames. Not a soul. Not a pin.”
As Digger admits, this is impossible. Perhaps what Malouf is touching on here is that fundamental tragedy that creates bereavement: the contradiction between the unconditional value of certain people and things in our lives, and their impermanence, eaten away by the flames time, destroyed by the world. Through intimate objects Malouf turns our attention to the painful meaning of this continuous passing away: a razor blade for the husband's morning ritual, hinting to the bed close by; a button from a baby's bootee, a child who will grow up and a world that will pass. We want to grasp hold of these things and keep them, but we cannot, and it haunts our psyches. By expressing all of this in such intimate and loving imagery, Malouf invites us into a different relationship with our grief than the contempt displayed by Digger's friend. That friend refuses to accept his pain and so becomes lost in the contempt with which he protects himself. It becomes his way of being, and slowly hardens into an incapacity to feel. Digger accepts his pain and so maintains his ability to feel, and so his capacity to wonder and to love.
Perhaps the question the policeman and friend asks of Digger should not be taken at face value. It is not simply an expression of contempt. It is also a request. It comes from the part of him that lies beneath the bitterness. He is saying, I don't know how to hold this...stuff. This is how it is so often with many of us men: we too have the instinct is to reach out to others to help us find our way. But perhaps through our nature, and perhaps through the way that society, despite all the Beyond Blue ads, constantly shames us, we don't do it clearly, not even within ourselves, and even if we do, often it is not met. We stiffen and go numb from the neck down. Or we hide behind contempt. Or we simply pass over the moment in confusion and then distraction.
Grief is not a problem to be solved. It is a presence - you might say the presence of an absence - waiting to be witnessed. Such witnessing is active: listening, paying attention. The fruit of this is insight, but also it is an emotional and intellectual working-through of the problem. As the poet Jack Gilbert wrote after his wife's death:
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
This is a solitary journey that we must do alone, but for which we also need others. (Grief is full of contradictions.) Whether the loss is clear, or whether it is confusing, broader and deeper, grief is the human condition. By accepting it, but not grasping, we slowly become free to open our lives to the life around us, to bathe in the gifts of the present moment and what we do have. Even if it, too, is fleeting.