A little passage in Albert Camus’ The Plague has always haunted me. It concerns the difficulty of conveying grief in the very personal way that loss is felt and mourned. In these circumstances, words fall short so that “the current coin of language”, the “commonplaces” and “set phrases of ordinary conversation” must suffice, and failing these, “grief that is traded on the market-place, mass produced”. Marion Coutts responds to two profound questions in her moving account of her husband’s death: how can one render the highly subjective and unique nature of loss, and why should one want to try? These, of course, beg a third question, why would – or should – one want to read such a memoir.
Tom Lubbock, Coutts’ husband, was the well-known art critic for The Independent . In 2008, he was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour which would rob him of the ability to write and speak before finally killing him in just over three years. Lubbock wrote a very moving account of his illness, “Words Fail Me” in 2010, reshaped and expanded as Under Further Notice, I am Alive. However, dying has repercussions not only for the departing; Coutt’s unflinching memoir is written from the perspective of the family who witnesses, supports and occasionally rages against those dying: “There is going to be destruction: the obliteration of a person, his intellect, his experience and his agency. I am to watch it. This is my part.”
The Iceberg is a raw account of a refusal to submit to the debilitating effects of illness – as a family and also as members of a circle of close friends. Lubbock’s tumour was discovered when his very young son (“Ev”) was only eighteen months old. The progression of his illness is charted against the growth of a young life whose expressive adventurousness is contrasted – and also aligned – with a father’s determination to live and to communicate; the comparison is heartbreaking: the former, “a junior workman with a Fisher-Price tool-box… fearless and jovial, learning to craft language even as he is not sure what it means”, the latter, fighting a losing battle to connect words and meaning. At one point, even the names begin to fade for Lubbock and Coutts writes, ” I have never heard my name like this, with so much mourning, and I will not hear it so again. I fold him to me. I understand it, its timbre…. He is losing my name. He is seeking it out as a word and feeling it on his tongue. How is it pronounced, this name?”, and still later, “My boy, he says. I cannot say the name of my boy“.
The Iceberg registers the difficulties of being wife, companion and carer, and also mother. While Coutts does not shy away expressions of bewilderment, frustration, guilt and anger, much of the strong emotion in the memoir is held in check, only occasionally flaring up – and also only briefly – as if personal trauma should be just what it is: personal and private. Written as if composed during the immediacy of Lubbock’s illness (this might have, of course, been the case), time in The Iceberg is measured out in fragments, little epiphanies, small joys, shared intimacies, even as it is pegged to the relentless progress of the disease, the brief emails sent to family and friends marking Lubbock’s progress, the medical familiars and the regimes of nursing. The memoir describes and observes acutely; its style is sparse, pared back and never sentimental.
Towards the end, Coutts’ question “who is this person? ” is a philosophical one which could be asked of all of us. Living under a sentence of death that is neither “obscure” nor abstract is unbearably distressing; yet The Iceberg is a transcendent affirmation of love and life precisely because there is “no down time and no off-gaze”. Addressing the reader directly, Coutts writes, “if I said to you now that we three are together and we are happy… Would you believe me? So it is.” Such mourning has much to say about life and being alive under the shadow of death.