Aiming or Hitting, Marion Coutts’s first exhibition in eight years, just opened at Tintype. The perfect occasion for us to revisit the artist, musician and writer’s Wellcome Prize-winning memoir The Iceberg, recently announced as a finalist of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Awards in the US.
If neither grief nor illness have ever been particularly rare subjects for artists, the last few years have, it seems, seen a recrudescence in fatal spurts of creativity. Joan Didion, Christopher Hitchens and Tom Lubbock paved the way with The Year of Magical Thinking, Mortality, and Until Further Notice, I Am Alive (Didion’s was published in 2005, the other two in 2012)—a trio of works concerned with opposing facets of the death process. The first analyzed its writer’s grief in the year that followed her husband’s passing; the others featured their respective authors’ musings on, and experiences with, terminal cancer. A literary development, it is worth pointing out, musically mirrored in Nick Cave and David Bowie’s latest (and, in Bowie’s case, final) efforts.
Plenty of books have followed the trend as well. The likes of Jenny Diski, Clive James, Antoine Leiris and Julian Barnes have all written death from either of those two points of view, though none with quite the same success as Tom Lubbock’s wife Marion Coutts. Her memoir, The Iceberg, was published in the UK to great acclaim in 2014, and came out last year in the US. It chronicles the 22 months from when her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor, in 2008, and his eventual death in 2011.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given Coutts’ own past as a front-woman for post-punk outfit Dog Faced Hermans, her book immediately brings to mind her closest musical counterparts. The twin projects Nick Cave unveiled last year, documentary One More Time with Feeling and album Skeleton Tree, were both artistic responses to the death of his son. Crucially, they explore two subjects that form the heart of The Iceberg; the immense shock of loss, and its effects on artistic creativity.
As trauma caused Cave to lose his habitual way with words, so it made Coutts turn her back on visual arts. She describes her once formidable ambition as having “gone private,” now solely concerned with “a single goal: to keep us as a family alive so that our formation can continue.” More than that, grief forms an emotional wave which submerges all customary outflows of creativity—Cave could no longer create scenes and write in the third person. As for Coutts:
“So not to have any ideas at all, not for object or images or films, seems to be the end of me. More singular still is not to care. But it is fantastical, wilful abandonment [sic]. Not to choose is incredible. It makes the end of me so beautifully slight. I have an imperative.”
This half-broken, staccato prose is likewise a staple of both artists’ post-grief writing. Yet whereas Cave never managed to reproduce his old virtuosity (except, of course, in the case of Magneto), Coutts brings all her intellectual vigor to bear in an attempt to make sense of the slow descent. Her relentless narrative is peppered with what one could call elevated realizations—beautiful, abstract moments of clarity, so to speak—too involved, perhaps, to be reproduced faithfully here, but which allow greater insight into the steady advance of death.
“But the surface of us appears to be very much the same and this is an early stage intimation of a radical marvel – the flicker between the steadiness of the quotidian and the crash-consciousness of its ending. To call it even a flicker is an overstatement. […] We are forever dropping our guard and picking it up. Dropping and picking up are indivisible. They are the same act. The two states are so fused that the switch is not apparent.
Everything living bears the fact of its own dissolution. This is a given. But for us it has become tangible. The universe as experienced is not universal. The universe as experienced is personal. It turns its face towards the individual. It presents an individual form. This individual form is ours. All that adheres will be lost.”
In parallel with Lubbock’s progressive dissolution, and his frightening loss of speech (“his language has the bones of speech but not much beyond,” Coutts writes somewhere in the middle of the book), is their child Ev’s own development. 18 months old at the start, his relationship with language is almost the exact opposite of his father’s: ever-bettering, hopeful, and naive. If not exactly redemptive—the book is too smart for that—his presence does hint at the idea that not all is ever lost. It is ultimately this depth which makes The Iceberg such a powerful read; Coutts has, like Yeats’ airman, “balanced all, brought all to mind,” and one can’t help but feel she’s arrived at a similar peaceful, if dreary, conclusion:
“The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.”