Here, out of a Jiffy bag sent on spec, is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I’m coming out and saying that at the top because I fear that otherwise, people might drift away from reading a long review of a book they don’t know by an author nobody’s heard of. I almost ignored it myself, this being one of those books that arrive unsolicited, few of which appeal and hardly any of which I finish. But something made me sample the preface, and once I did, I knew I was trapped until the end.
A Preparation for Death is a memoir of a few years in Greg Baxter’s life: let’s say the mid-2000s, though it’s hard to follow the chronology precisely, and anyway he swoops back into previous generations now and then. It’s an account of the years that led to and from the breakdown of his marriage and the breakdown of his ambition to be a novelist; when “no thought I had was quiet. Everything was a military march.”
Baxter, living in Ireland, came there from his US birthplace, and is of Austrian descent. The book doubles as a travelogue of his life and times: the ancestral homeland, the new hope:
No city in the world transforms in rain like Dublin. In the sunshine it is hard-edged and ugly and rank. In the rain it softens like a sponge, swelling, and all the open spaces narrow.
He teaches literature to make ends meet as an unpublished writer. “I come home and write for nobody, for an audience of zero.” He is deteriorating physically (“my face had turned a shade or two greyer – I looked like a jar of old rainwater”) and is self-lacerating about his own compromises.
But I am like anyone else – fear and apprehension rule many of my hours. And addiction to the dispensable. Because it is more agreeable to be in bondage to the superficial, and have a thing or two in common with the man sitting beside you on the bus – whose acts are repetitions, whose memories are souvenirs, whose entertainment is palatable – than to become incomprehensible.
So: Baxter takes himself seriously. But if he doesn’t, who will? He is not at pains to come across as affable, and as a result I liked him all the more. Or do I mean I liked his book all the more? This is a book with no About the Author page; the entire book is about the author. One might say that that is true of any book, and that Baxter is just more honest about it.
Honesty is one of the book’s selling points, according to the blurb, and it’s true that nobody would invent some of the things Baxter admits to thinking. But what impresses most is the concrete prose, the defining solidity of almost everything he says: no ambiguity here, no fine writing, just aesthetic delight throughout at what he says and how he says it, which borders on physical pleasure.
My former housemate Elísabet – who is something of a sensation in her country, and only dates men half her age – writes very beautifully about sex because she is not afraid of what people will think. She says an orgasm is like a hand that reaches up inside her, grasps her by the spine, and shakes her like a rattle, an inch away from the death of one self and the rebirth of another. I have no capacity to write beautifully about sex. Often I am battling through the swamp of a dozen pints, the smoke of twenty cigarettes, and no sleep for days. The exercise is nauseating, and I feel like the young Orwell working in a small, hot, Paris kitchen.
Well, he may not write beautifully about sex, but he writes a lot about it. “I often feel one drink away,” Baxter says, “from whatever makes a dog hump women’s legs.” More often still he seems to be no drinks away, and seems to have the knack of finding women who want to let him hump their legs, and plenty more besides. There is – you can view this as come-on or turn-off as you will – a good deal of explicit sex between these covers.
What really drives Baxter, however, is the self-love of language and literature. He has a novelist’s touch for the deft pen portrait (“She walked two miles a day with a fat dog that couldn’t keep up with her”) and has no qualms about splicing in other writers to no loss of effect. “I used to measure my writing by its charisma – such was the way in which at that time I loved my fellow-man; according to the standards of other men [Augustine] – but now I measure it by its character.” A Preparation for Death reports on Baxter’s struggles to match his own high ideals. “All the books I admire are ogres – flawed, imbalanced, savage. They enhance me. Everything else reduces me.” He names names – Maupassant, Kafka, Schulz, Cioran, Bunin, Mansfield, Kharms, and on, and on – and reminds us that “whatever society degrades, a genius ennobles; whatever society embraces, a genius obliterates. It makes my heart clamour now just to think of them.” What reader cannot identify with that? (As I was writing this post, flicking back through the book for relevant passages, my own heart swelled and thrilled plenty.)
Baxter’s conscience is tortured, but his prose is clear. “I spent many years trying to interpret existence, when I ought to have been squandering it.” Now he is trying to intepret it again, he runs up against the same wall as every writer who ever tried hard enough. How to reduce to writing those ineffable moments, the sharing of which in language is the writer’s simple, but impossible, ambition?
By the time you have named it, you have forgotten it. The imposition of a word is the act of forgetting. A man who wishes to transfer his experience to the page might as well try to throw a typewriter at the moon.
A Preparation for Death is an account of the frustrations and consolations of literature. In struggling to do it justice, or at least explain its seduction (how it had its easy way with me, as I blushed and giggled like a teenager), I am reduced to impersonating Martin Amis on Saul Bellow, and just quoting paragraph after paragraph.
There are too many days in the week. Too many weeks in the year. Too much space to fill. I would like to have lived for an afternoon only, born at the age of twenty, dead eight hours later, experienced life, all by myself, in a corner apartment with a high view of a busy junction, an ambulance route, a metro entrance, the back of a restaurant, warring neighbours in the corridors, a broken television, an empty bookshelf, and learned only sensitivity, because I would have missed nothing, gained the same experience of life, and would not have grown so addicted to existence that the thought of not existing gives me indigestion and bad dreams.
This passionate ambivalence is all through the book, yet we keep getting trills of warning toward the end that it all might be altering forever. Baxter, we learn, is to become a father. That is why, on the penultimate page, “I plan to separate the self that I shall leave here from the self that will return: to cast the author of this book into a condition of permanent aimlessness,” for fear that otherwise “he will forget the perfection of inexistence. He will grow out of the despair that he worships.” This is the only indication we get of the tsunamic changes parenthood painfully brings. This is not a book about redemption or epiphany. There is light at the end, but it is still around a corner. The book is not about a triumph from disaster; the book is the triumph.