Friday, January 23, 2015

Iceberg: An exceptional memoir of death, dying, life, art and great love

Stephanie Dowrick reviews below artist Marion Coutt's brilliant memoir of the last years in the life of her husband, British art critic and writer Tom Lubbock. Iceberg is also the story of her gift of a marriage, of her own inner passage through this devastating loss, and of the raising of their little son, Ev.

There is really only one thing I must say about Iceberg: read it. Marion Coutts is primarily a visual artist but her skills as a writer are formidable. I have rarely read a memoir of this kind that is so deeply and openly enquiring at a primary, elemental level - possible to pull off only when all intellectual wheels are firing. There is no note of sentimentality here, always a danger when death and dying dominate a narrative. That danger also exists when courage is to the fore - as it is here, especially on Tom's part.  His courage is awesome. But again, this is a work that neither defends against real feeling nor ever cheapens it. 

This is - we are assured - Marion Coutts' first book. She has clearly emerged fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus: a writer to her bones.

Bluntly: it is the story of Coutts' beloved, hugely (and widely) admired husband Tom Lubbock's dying. Brain tumour. Operations. Chemo. Radio. Drugs. Hospitals. Doctors. Social workers. Nursery school. Parks. Play. Baby-to-boy. Work. Writing. Art. Marriage. Tumour returning. Tumour re-returning. Love. Loss (but never a loss of humour, curiosity or insight and, miraculously, seldom a loss of patience). Death.

Both Coutts and Lubbock are vivid here. Writing in the Guardian after Lubbock's death, Laura Cumming shared her admiration of the man:

Tom was fearless, unstintingly candid and a stickler for saying only what could be claimed as true. His friendship was a liberation. … I see him now, rapidly casing the joint from first to last to check for surprises, before starting slowly again at the beginning of a show. His person matched his character: the fleet foot and blazing blue eyes, the invariable black cardie (upgraded to Nicole Farhi for his wedding day), the sceptical frown or rocketing eyebrows, occasionally intimidating, primarily comic. When he could no longer talk, towards the end, Tom still spoke with the corners of his eyes.

I loved getting to know Lubbock, and increasingly admired him not for his dazzling intellect only or his physical warmth and ebullient kindness, but also for his intense, focused and unwavering appreciation of life, Marion and Ev. Always Ev. Never failing Ev while there was breath and life in his body. But as I lost myself in these pages (not a word out of place), I also found myself, found myself equally engaged by Coutts: Marion of the raw, vast emotions, Marion who, in daring to love so much must also face the losses that only the bravely loving can even fathom. It was with Marion that I sank and rose through her constant resoration(s), through her terrifying knowledge that she would have to do something better than simply survive the unspeakable loss that hovers, imminent, throughout the book, while also living. Living. Now. Now. In the face of death, living.

Reading too fast, going back and reading again, I felt this keenly as the loss of a hugely loved partner and also of a rare marriage - in this case, a marriage that was authentically between minds as well as hearts. I also felt the loss of the shared parenting of a little boy, born when Marion was in her early 40s and Tom in his early 50s. In the fullness of the text, the losses were instructive. Now, now matters. Postponing does not do.

The losses for Ev, too, are vast, even in contemplation. How immense, then, that Marion has written this book, this wonderful book, so that, through his entire lifetime of "becoming", Ev will have this: not a simulacrum, and absolutely not a father, but a testimony to what they shared, and to what Marion allows us to glimpse and share. Her gift to Ev is beyond words...even while her gift for words created it, just as Tom's gifts for words and for deepest and most intelligent looking significantly created what they shared, and speaks of what they have lost. 

As he was losing his life, Lubbock increasingly lost words. Finally, he has none. For a man of his intellect, this might have been harrowing; instead, he and Coutts plundered their creativity. There was so much dazzle in that. As there is so much dazzle in this reclaiming of a life (otherwise "lost") through words. The paradox is brilliant here, perhaps giving us the tip of the iceberg only. But what a tip.

Should I add that there are no conversations in Iceberg about an afterlife, not even to dismiss it? That's their business, Marion and Tom's. There is perhaps surprisingly little also about the effect of all this on their families of origin, especially Tom's mother who outlives him. The book does not work for me less well because of these choices. On every page, it gives so much. In fact, I feel compelled to say that any book that really moves me after 60-plus years of intense reading must add something fresh to my knowledge of the human condition, as well as to my understanding of the particular "humans" in the spotlight. This does.

I am plainly honoured through the power of Coutts' writing to have participated in this intense, intimate story; to have learned more of what love is, and human spirit. So, I will end as I began: read it.

You can purchase this wonderful book postage free via this link: ICEBERG.
You can purchase Tom Lubbock's book postage free via this link: Until Further Notice, I Am Alive
Using our bookstore links above right, you return a small % to this Book Club.
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