Michel Faber in conversation

Michel Faber in conversation

Event: Michel Faber in conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink 

Venue: Foyles Charing Cross 

Report by Julie Vuong 

It is perhaps ironic that the subject of loss is one of literature’s greatest givers. Grief gave us As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, A Grief Observed by CS Lewis and How Great My Grief by Thomas Hardy. Grief compels people to write. Grief Is The Thing With Feathers.

Now we have Undying: A Love Story by Michel Faber. To mark the Dutch-Australian author’s new release, the top floor of Foyle’s Charing Cross played host to a candid conversation about his new collection of quite visceral poems. It is a poignant dedication to his late wife, Eva Youren, who died in 2014 of bone cancer. To interview him was Cathy Rentzenbrink, whose memoir The Last Act of Love, is itself about the trauma visited upon her family following a car accident that left her brother, Matty, in a vegetative state. At Rentzenbrink’s request for the spotlight to remain on Faber, little was said about her work. But for the uninitiated, her bestselling book has been littered with accolades and has been shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize and the inaugural Books Are My Bag Awards.

But tonight was Faber’s night. It was a crowd drawn in by his impressive back catalogue of literary smashes including Under The Skin, The Crimson Petal And The White and The Book of Strange New Things, which was written during Eva’s treatment. Each work is skillfully distinct and varied from the last. This dexterous storytelling has cultivated a strong following. A growing group whose passion has been stoked further since Faber announced he will no longer publish novels now that Eva, who played a great part in the creation of his work, is gone. Short stories and poems, however, are still on the cards.

As a result, it’s no surprise that readers are keen to soak up any new Faber sentence. With his piercing stare and straight, unflinching manner, Faber read out a number of poems. Documenting decay, suffering, sex and loss, these poems are not for those seeking to soften the edges of losing a loved one. “The only good poetry I ever wrote was about loss,” Faber explained. “There are lovely poems about grieving by Thomas Hardy, beautiful collections, but the grief is managed. I wanted these to be direct. For me, that’s the way I needed it to be.”

Outlet for rage

“You Were Ugly” is unsparing and angry: “your bedbound body seventy five kilos / of spoiling meat” is what has become of his once “lovely” wife. “Nipples” is a vivid description of the welts that developed on Eva’s skin in hospital, and its disgusting and disfiguring effects. “I wrote this poem at her bedside, ten days before she died,” he recounted. “I couldn’t read it to her, plus she was too sick to take it all in.” He read “Your Plants”, a heart-breaking account about how Eva’s plants outlived her.

Faber admitted the poems served as an outlet for his rage against Eva’s disease. “I don’t know why but I needed to write it. I can’t deny writing can be therapeutic.” As expected, though, Faber never strayed into oversentimentality. “There is a limit to its therapeutic effects,” he said. “When I hear people say, ‘I was so cut up about my mum’s death I went on a Buddhist retreat and got over it’, I think it was more that time helped to move them on, not the act itself. Time is the healer.”

Faber was quite frank about other aspects of the creation of the collection. How his publisher (Canongate) responded, encouraging him to allow the real Eva, whom many at the company knew, to come through – through to his personal life and at having found love again with writer Louise Young. Questions came from the floor, and Rentzenbrink touched upon his decision to quit long form fiction. His response revealed a small nugget of hope for fans. “I would like to write a book for children, a YA novel.” And to wrap things up, he said with a wry smile: “To those who say it’s a shame I won’t write another book, my answer is always, ‘well, have you read all my existing work?’”

Report by Julie Vuong

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