Sunday, September 8, 2013

Don't Rock A Wrecked Boat

"Suddenly there opened within her a chasm of infinite depth and from it flowed the paralyzing breath of eternal darkness.  I believe nothing.  Nothing whatever." from A Death in the Family

A Death in the Family by James Agee could have been a perfect work of art.  Had certain sections been omitted, it would have been a perfect work of poetic prose.  There are about 100 pages in the middle that disrupt the flow and feel of the rest of the book.  It's taken me many years to understand that it's acceptable for me to recognize greatness in a work, even if I don't love it myself.

Initially I was unsure about reading this book.  The sudden death of a family member is something I try to avoid thinking about / remembering.  But Agee describes perfectly, without being emotionally manipulative, the circumstances and emotions surrounding a loved one’s sudden death.  And because he says it all so much more eloquently and beautifully than could I, here are his words:

“You’ve got to bear in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice.” 

“You’ll bear it because there isn’t any choice -- except to go to pieces.”

“You start to really be alive, or you start to die.  That’s all.”
"That's what they're for, epitaphs...So you can feel you've got some control over the death, you own it, you choose a name for it.  The same with wanting to know all you can about how it happened."

“How can we bear to chatter along in normal tones of voice! she thought; how can we even use ordinary words, or say words at all!”


Thomas at My Porch said...

I've had this book on my shelf for ages but still haven't read it. The composer Samuel Barber used part of the text for his piece Knoxville Summer of 1915. Written for soprano and orchestra the piece is just wonderful. The feeling it evokes and the line from Agee "It has become the time of evening when people sit on their porches..." was the inspiration for my blog name.

Amy said...

I absolutely loved the Knoxville Summer section. Having grown up in the South when people still sat on their porches (I still do), it was very evocative of my childhood for me. It could stand alone as a narrative poem. I'll look for the music. Thanks!

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