I've already followed one of my favorite recommendations from the Millions' Year in Reading: I picked up Gillian Rose's Love's Work last week at Elliott Bay and, uncharacteristically, read it soon after. It's very short, which helped, as did its opening, which is both refreshingly declarative ("My first meeting with Edna was inauspicious") and intriguingly indirect. It is many chapters before she mentions the cancer she is dying of as she writes; it's even a few chapters before she tells you much about herself, except about how much others--friends more than family--have meant to her, which of course tells you a lot about her after all.
The way she finds her storyline in the stories of others reminded me of W.G. Sebald, and her clear-eyed insistence on the values of observation, recollection, and intellect in the face of death recall Tony Judt's Memory Chalet. The book does turn eventually to her own sickness, but it turns even more to her philosophy, to the idea of "love's work" she has been working toward through her love life and her scholarly life (for her the two are hardly separated). The words she uses for her ideal of love are "risk," "agon," "passion": a love that includes the possibility of its end, of its insufficiency, of its not being returned. Her loves are both ecstatic and finite, but not harmonious (the love of her own she gives the most attention to is an affair with a Catholic priest).
Rose herself becomes a vivid character, especially in her hungry, agonistic relations to reading that she traces to her dyslexia. Looking back on Belinda McKeon's Year in Reading tribute I realize a sentence she singled out is one I too just copied down:
Reading was never just reading: it became the repository of my inner self-relation: the discovery, simultaneous with the suddenly sculpted and composed words, of distance from and deviousness towards myself and others.
But the character you may best remember is one of Rose's friends, who also died of cancer: Yvette, the dowdy grandma whose unrepentant, unceasing lusts and loves made her an ideal confidante of the unruly desires of others. Here, at greater length, is one of my other favorite passages in the book:
The object of this serious passion was thirty years her junior, a colleague of my generation. Clever, charming, promiscuous and superficial, he enjoyed Yvette's friendship, but was genuinely disconcerted by her remorseless ardour. Yvette was monstrous: she pursued him with myriad love letters, phone calls, messages pinned to his door, unsolicited visitations. I taunted her, "Yvette, if you were a man, your actions would be seen as gross harassment." One a later occasion, her violent blandishments unabated, I asked her, archly, what she would do with him, were he, miraculously, to succumb? Yvette replied without a fraction of hesitation, "I would chew him up and spit him out."
A whole generation of young women and men were bereaved by Yvette's death. She made new friends up to the end, and she gave people, young and old, her courage to face the terrors of desire in themselves and to ease off the unstable alleviation of attributing to the Beloved our desire for those terrors. She could impart this wisdom because it grew out of the folly that she was still endlessly contesting in herself. And the cure for an unhappy love affair was always the pleasures of the ensuing one.