The announcement of Bill and Melinda Gates’s divorce inevitably made headlines all over the world. The fact that the couple decided to end their marriage after 27 years does not mean that their marriage failed but simply that it ended. A separation does not invalidate a union for the time it lasted. Alliances can take all kinds of shapes. I’ve been divorced for many years but my ex-husband is still very important to me. So what are the most compelling, even if sometimes controversial, books on the topic?
Aftermath by Rachel Cusk is a personal narrative of the author’s uncoupling, the pain inflicted and endured when “the fine mesh of life is torn”. Cusk compares “the new reality” after her divorce to 17th-century Britain before the advent of nationhood: “I remember, at school, looking at a map of the early medieval heptarchy and feeling a kind of consternation at its diffusivity, its lack of centralised power, its absence of king and capital city and institution.”
When a way of life has been destroyed, Cusk explains, it is hard to remain attached to the world. You need a lot of strength to dismantle a marriage. Days become smashed as if by the aftermath of a violent event, nights are filled with grief and fear for the unknown, as there can be no foreknowledge of what lies ahead. Still, it is best to do everything on purpose in life, she concludes.
In Katie Kitamura’s novel A Separation, the unnamed narrator is ordered by her mother-in-law to go to the Peloponnese to look for her estranged husband, who has gone missing. But this is not a murder mystery set in Greece; rather it is an inner monologue reflecting the protagonist’s deep alienation, the place she ends up at, which is “the opposite of closure”.
The divorce theme is played out by our unreliable narrator, who is reticent and clearly suppressing emotion. It is no coincidence that the missing husband is writing a book on mourning rituals, focusing on the “wailers”, professional mourners who were compensated to ululate at funerals, as part of a deep-rooted local tradition. He delays both the book and the divorce for reasons left unexamined. The mood of the novel is overcast, infused with a sense of being at sea. Through the detached, metallic authorial voice, there is discomfort and the menace of absence.
And then of course, there is Anne Carson, the rock star of contemporary poetry, who bent genres and pulled out all the stops especially when writing about the marital connection becoming unsettled. In “The Glass Essay”, she reflects on loss (“It is stunning, it is a moment like no other,/ when one’s lover comes in and says I do not love you anymore”). If you live long enough, Carson seems to suggest, you will one day inhabit in some form this vestigial world of sorrow.
Marriage sometimes purports to satisfy the itch for neat solutions. It can resemble a musty living room smelling of Pledge, the furniture covered in dust-sheets, the piano lid closed. Leaving this behind can be the right thing to do, depending on who you are. One can thrive within the cocoon of a marriage but also out there, where the lack of a safety net can nourish a sense of growth. The spoils of war boil down to one word, freedom, which one can use to fail and still not regret rejecting the alternative. What if there is hope in that?
There are very few professional mourners left for hire in remote parts of Greece. In the 21st century, we’re left to our own devices when lamenting the dead. But, unlike in the recent past when divorce was a taboo, we’re now free to choose our own personal problems by making the mistakes we want, by staying or not staying in a marriage.
Few other writers than Carson have lingered with such precision on the ambiguities of life and on how much love drains from you, causing vital loss of self. Her bold, avant-garde book of prose poetry, The Beauty of the Husband, is narrated through the lens of a marital break-up examining the question “how do people/ get power over one another?” and suggesting an answer (“beauty makes sex possible. Beauty makes sex sex”).
People never stop asking me questions about my divorce but they are invariably the wrong questions. It all depends on where you stand on the road, on whether you’re willing to do what will cost you the most, on how much the possibility of hope means to you. Transitions will always contain emptiness.
This is the latest in a series of columns on where the arts meet the news. Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter for our latest stories first